Woody Allen and the Terror of the Void

Woody Allen, the famous Jewish comedian and film-maker, was featured in a recent issue of Newsweek (August 18/25, 2008). Allen has always been fall-down funny, but this article reveals a hidden and more intimate side of this celebrity. We discover that he is haunted by the terror of the void, and the apparently meaninglessness and futility of life. You might not pick it up from a lot of our church programming, but this is where Christianity really has something significant to celebrate.

Allen is quintessentially not the macho type—not particularly handsome, definitely not athletic, a hapless little bespectacled fellow whose hormonally-driven aspirations are usually thwarted, and whose dreams invariably exceed his grasp. His soul-searching existential angst has always been an endearing part of his shtick. Compared to what Allen explores in his work, the manifold dysfunctions of the Seinfeld TV series’ cast members (Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer, and their parents) are quite light-hearted and innocent. Still, we are strangely comforted by Allen’s ability to name our own milder neuroses and then mock them by taking them to ridiculous excess.

If you’re paying attention, of course, there is more than initially meets the eye in his films. In his well-known film Crimes and Misdemeanors, for example, Allen openly ponders whether there is any moral accountability in our universe, and thus whether crime is really wrong if you can get away with it. There is a deeper “ponder” level to much of what Allen has done in the name of entertainment.

Still, we don’t know a lot about the real Woody Allen—the now 72-year old man behind the Hollywood persona. Some of us recall the story of how he ran off years ago with the scandalously-youthful Korean girl Soon-Yi, who was the adopted daughter of his live-in partner and film star Mia Farrow. It turns out that that relationship, against all odds, has actually lasted. But that’s about it.

So this recent Newsweek profile of Allen, by Jennie Yabroff, is particularly interesting . . . and, as it turns out, insightful. It reveals that Allen the comedian is haunted by the prospect of death—as indeed he has been all his life. But as he gets older, and sees more and more close friends and associates deteriorate physically and die, he has become, in his own words, “terrified of the void.”

He does not make movies for the money, or even to communicate truth or important lessons. Rather, they “simply take his mind off the existential horror of being alive.” His hectic production schedule (he continues to produce a movie every year on average) functions as a helpful distraction for him—a kind of short-term therapy.

Woody Allen is not afraid to meet his maker—he is an atheist. He is not afraid of hell or anxious about whether he’ll make it into heaven on the basis of some generous amnesty program. This is all just balderdash to him. The thing that haunts Woody Allen is the brevity and apparent meaninglessness of life. In his words, it’s all “a meaningless little flicker.” One thinks of a similarly gloomy assessment of life in the despondent soliloquy of Shakespeare’s Macbeth: Life is merely “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” And yet for all of this, Allen remains superstitious. Out there on the periphery of his consciousness is the nagging thought that he might be wrong.

Do those of us whose hearts still beat, and whose lungs still in-take oxygen, hang on the edge of a terrifying void? Is every human life a meaningless little flicker?

At moments like this I am very grateful to be a Christian, because by this faith we can stare down our most terrifying demons. Christianity does a lot more than provide Bible stories and prizes for bored kids during the summer months, or fun activities for impressionable teenagers who might otherwise be led astray by the toxic influences of a decadent culture. The church offers more (though not less, hopefully) than a sea of friendly faces to those who are new to the neighborhood, more than tutoring for recent immigrants and hot meals to shut-ins. It is more than a vaguely-positive moral influence on society, or local congregations signing up to keep stretches of highway litter-free. Please don’t misunderstand—I’m not trivializing such good deeds or others like them. But the reason I am most grateful to be a follower of Jesus Christ is that we don’t have to buy into Woody Allen’s horrifying, but otherwise plausible, worldview.

I also believe that if this hope of ours is going to be compelling again in the West, it will require a re-commitment by the church to serious, rigorous, culture-engaging apologetics, supplemented on God’s part by more confirming, convincing manifestations of the supernatural realities on which we rest our hope.

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