Sabrina: In the World and of the World

by Glenn on September 17, 2017

I like to think of old movies as a kind of refuge for the Christian. When they were produced, there were standards of decency which, in comparison to what is commonplace today, are not overtly inconsistent with the life of faith.


Still, it’s remarkable how you cannot always accept the tenets even of older films. Though they may not indulge in the coarse language, nudity, and overt sexuality that have been culturally normalized in my lifetime, they are not presentations of the gospel and in subtle ways are not consistent with a Christian life.

A few weeks ago, we watched Sabrina, the original, classic one with Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, and William Holden. I’ve watched this a number of times over the years.

In the film, Sabrina (Hepburn) sends a letter to her father, Thomas Fairchild (John Williams). She writes (and is heard in an overdub),

“I have learned how to live, how to be IN the world and OF the world, and not just to stand aside and watch.”

I know I’ve heard the line in the film before, but this time I was struck by the character’s proud announcement that she had learned to live in exactly the opposite way that the New Testament describes, commonly formulated as “Be IN the world but not OF the world.

I’m not trashing Sabrina. It’s a delightful Cinderalla story.

And I still will be a fan of old movies for the simple fact that you can watch them without thinking too hard about whether you should be watching. So many of our current movies have to be dismissed out of hand.

Aside: In my life I’ve seen a noticeable shift in the attitudes of Christians toward movies. As a child I knew people for whom movies—all of them, it didn’t matter which—were taboo. It was a legalistic time. Today, most Christians I know have no trouble watching movies. They have embraced their freedom. And because this is the age of “Thou Shalt Not Judge,” many of them don’t make a distinction between the latest Pixar animation and, say, HBO’s Game of Thrones. We’ve gone from “We watch no movies,” to “We watch any movie.” I have to remind myself that freedom is not an absolute and has to reconciled with Paul’s admonition in Philippians 4:8 to think about things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy.

But I’m reminded that it’s perilous to look to artistic expressions for the formation of a life. Films provide cultural clues; they don’t always show us the way to live and certainly don’t explain the way to life. In fact, movies that do show the way to live and to life usually aren’t that enjoyable to watch.

Additionally, films are pleasurable experiences. But I think there is a difference between a life that knows pleasure and a life that seeks pleasure. There’s a great quote by Ravi Zacharias that I like:

“I am absolutely convinced that meaninglessness does not come from being weary of pain; meaninglessness comes from being weary of pleasure. And that is why we find ourselves emptied of meaning with our pantries still full.”

Note: It’s been a long time since I watched it, but the Harrison Ford, Julia Ormond, and Greg Kinnear remake of Sabrina is notable for more dimension to more characters and rendered, as I recall, somehow both more plausible and less believable.