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42: A film of faith and baseball

May 3, 2013 One Comment

42-movie

by Ted Giese

The movie 42 (The Jackie Robinson 2013 Bio-Pic) is about the life of two Christians—Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson—and how they lived their Christian faith in their vocations. Rickey was the General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Robinson was a player on the team. On the surface it looks like it’s simply a bio-pic about the first African American Major League baseball player and the events surrounding his first season with the Dodgers (1945-46). But if you dig deeper, the film presents the Christian faith in a frank and open way that is inseparable from the central characters’ story. You know this will be a different film early on when Branch Rickey—while looking through possible players from the Negro League—settles on Robinson, saying, “He’s a Methodist, and I’m a Methodist, God’s a Methodist, we can’t go wrong.”

At the core of the film is an interesting question about vocation. That year in baseball history there were many African American ball players playing in the Negro League, but only one set to play in the Major League. Rickey was ready for the flack he’d receive for bringing a black player into the white world of Major League baseball but he wasn’t sure if Robinson was ready to be that player. He needed to know, so Rickey interviewed Robinson. He knew Robinson’s temper could be a problem and that Robinson would have to keep it under wraps to succeed. Rickey says to Robinson, “We win if the world is convinced of two things: that you’re a fine gentleman and a great baseball player … like our Saviour you’ve gotta have the guts to turn the other cheek. Can you do it?”

Like our Saviour, you’ve gotta have the guts to turn the other cheek.

Robinson replies, “You give me a uniform, you give me a number on my back, I’ll give you the guts.” Unlike the other African American ball players that year, Robinson had an additional task in his vocation: he had to win the hearts and minds of a nation struggling with racism and segregation, and he had to do it by denying himself, denying his temper, his pride, and his will. He had to not fight back when spit upon, when persecuted, and when called the worst racial slurs.

His vocation was more than just playing hard and fair baseball to win as a team player; he had to play ball under the microscope. At one point, Rickey says to Robinson in a moment of deep need, “You’re living the sermon, 40 days in the wilderness.” Robinson isn’t a Christ figure in 42 but he is an example of what Jesus talks about in Luke Chapter 9. As followers of Christ, Christians are called to “deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow Christ.” Robinson was called to do this publicly every time he stepped onto the field; to be a gentleman, to play good ball and to take whatever the world threw at him. He had to let God be the one who would take vengeance.

The real Jackie Robinson

The real Jackie Robinson

If you’re looking for a movie this year that deals with America’s history of overcoming racism then 42 is your movie. The only caution is that while the film is rated PG-13, it is rated that way for thematic elements including language; the language gets very racist in parts and is intend to make you feel uncomfortable, which it does. If you are sensitive to this or if you have a hard time with this particular theme you’ll want to take that into consideration before watching the film.

The beauty of 42 is its character study of a man living out his faith in Jesus in the midst of daily trials and tribulations while living out his vocation as husband, father, and baseball player. It shows vividly how the choices made day in and day out make a difference in life, and how denying ourselves and following Christ Jesus takes guts and isn’t easy.

Viewers who are only vaguely aware of Scripture, or who are only just beginning to learn about the Christian faith, may not at first see the connection between some of the Scripture references made in the film and the events the film portrays. But the mature Christian watching this film, the Christian who has lived faith out in the world will know all about picking up the cross and following Jesus. In this way, 42 is film that invites personal reflection. Robinson was able to make giant strides in the areas of racism and racial discrimination as he carried his cross with the help of Branch Rickey and many of his team mates on the Dodgers. 42 shows this story in an inspiring way, and is an encouragement to anyone struggling with the challenges of living out faith in daily life.

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Rev. Ted Giese is associate pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church in Regina, Saskatchewan.