I’m a sucker for an old film noir, and so I couldn’t help myself the other day when I stumbled across Double Indemnity,

the great 1944 adaptation of the James M. Cain novel. If you haven’t seen it, you should, if only for the cast, which includes Fred MacMurray as an insurance salesman sucked into a murder plot, Barbara Stanwyck as the sexy dame who ropes him in, and Edward G. Robinson playing not a gangster but the insurance company claims adjuster who sorts it all out.

I love the look of films noir, for one thing, all that moody black-and-white. The shadows are their own supporting character!

But beyond the visuals, I think fans of the genre are drawn to the payoff: the bad guy always gets what he’s got coming, and deservedly so. In these days of hoodlums looting retail stores and running off without any sort of challenge, that’s deeply satisfying.

There’s a reason for that resolution: the Motion Picture Production Code, an industry standard that applied to most every movie released from 1934 to 1968. Under the banner of maintaining public morality, it spelled out what moviemakers couldn’t put into their pictures. No profanity, no “licentious or suggestive” nudity, no drug trafficking, no interracial relationships. Interestingly, “ridicule of the clergy” was also forbidden.

And the Code specified that all criminal action had to be punished; you’d never have a movie in which the bad guy just entirely got away with it. Even poor Fred MacMurray, who never wanted to murder Barbara Stanwyck’s husband in the first place but just couldn’t say no.

And because I’m clergy and thus beyond ridicule (he says, smiling), I can’t help but make a connection to many people’s experience of church. I think a lot of us would love a faith that laid out all the answers to life’s challenges in, well, black and white. There are denominations like that.

But that’s not the United Church of Christ, and it’s not Church of the Nativity. Because I hope we realize that nobody grows in faith, grows closer to God, gets better at following in Christ’s path, by memorizing some set of pat answers. We grow when we wrestle with the hard questions, ones that theologians and good-hearted people have struggled with for centuries.

Rainer Maria Rilke, the great Austrian poet, said it this way: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Live the questions. Ambiguity is good for the soul.

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