"Are you rushing or are you dragging?" So asks the abusive band director in the Academy Award-nominated film Whiplash.
"Are you rushing or are you dragging???" he chides, as the gifted young drummer grows increasingly frightened and unsure.
"Are you RUSHING OR ARE YOU DRAGGING?!!" he demands mercilessly, resorting now to violence.
Whiplash is a brilliant character study that asks an important question about how we get the most out of gifted people. Is it through the unrelenting dissatisfaction of the band director, or the gentle, constant, unconditional love of the drummer's father?
It's an important question, but not as important as what the movie says to us about God.
For many, J.K. Simmons' ferocious performance mirrors the only kind of God they know -- an angry, judgmental bully who perpetually asks them to jump through hoops, forever dangling some carrot of forgiveness or blessings or Heaven, but never giving them a moment's peace. They hear the part about Jesus and grace and love but they don't believe it. Not really. And so they either run from this impossible-to-please God, or live out their lives in fear and doubt, hoping that if they just keep showing up on Sunday He'll give them a break.
If you watch the film with "the mind of Christ," you might see in the two father figures both the essential discipline and the infinite mercy of Law & Gospel theology. Although there is not a word about Jesus in the film -- nor is preaching the Good News in any way the film's purpose --Whiplash gives flesh to the truth that these polar opposite expressions of love are both needed in the bearing of good fruit.
But there is another way to consider the role of God in Whiplash, and that's in the vision we are given of what the world looks like when we cut Him out of the picture entirely. When we decide we need to be the best of the best. When we push aside everyone and everything that stands in our way, take our lives into our own determined hands, and set out to be our own God.
Consider this scene:
This is us in the world we've tried to create without God; our own living Hell. We are the bright young drummer who wants to be legendary. We are the angry middle-aged man who wants to coax greatness out of just one student. We are them, and whatever version of them we call our own, each of us following our sin down a path of some great thing we think we're destined for or entitled to, or at the very least, which feels really, really good. And we play that out till our hands are bloody and our wretched minds are an endless refrain: "Are you rushing or are you dragging?" Are you working hard enough to ever be good, great, rich, powerful, important, immortal, perfect? No, wait, are you pushing too hard, missing life, missing rest and joy and your kids' sloppy kisses? Slow down, breathe. Turn off your phone for a minute. Just be. Be present. And there it is again, that voice, reminding you that while you were lollygagging, five million other guys were scaling up, building out, hunkering down, coming up with the next big thing so that they can live life at their own 'take-that' tempo while you are stuck on the sidelines, trapped in a never ending cycle of trying to win your own approval and the world's.
"ARE YOU RUSHING OR ARE YOU DRAGGING?" the voice demands but the voice is not God or your teacher or your boss or your spouse--but you--you who wanted to be your own God. You wanted it so badly. Until one day you realize that it can't be done. Not by you. Not by any mortal. But only by the God who dared to enter the music of this life, play along side it, through it, riding it out to His climatic death, and then showing us that it was not the climax at all, but the horrible, necessary stage-setter for this new song called Grace.
We can shout our little noise over it, but we can never drown it out. Because no matter how hard we try to ignore it, the inescapable truth is this: the world was created and is sustained by His tempo. And in the end, the only way that we will ever be the best version of ourselves is by moving through this life in His time signature.
More days than not we'll forget that, getting ahead of ourselves, trying to get ahead of Him. No worries, he says, "let's go again..." calling us to join and rejoin Him in the music that begins with whatever beautiful notes you already have in you, the notes He gave you and longs to hear you play. "Come," Jesus says. "Put down your sticks and follow me. It'll be good. I'll be with you. I'll teach you things about yourself you'll never learn alone. I'll lead you to people and places you've never even considered, and will never be whole without."
"So you do know the difference." This is the last line of the scene and it's the most true of all: Deep down, we all know the difference. We all know the felt-truth that there's something not quite right about life without God. And despite all our petulance and rebellion and vainglory, we can't shake the whisper of that open invitation. "Come to me all who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28). These are the words the young drummer needed to hear most of all--Jesus' offer of the peace that passes all human understanding. This is the music we were born to play.