American Beauty or Christian Beauty?
Theological Aesthetics in
directed by Sam Mendes and written by Allen Ball, premiered on October 1, 1999.
The film, set in a typical modern American suburb, focuses in on the life of Lester Burnham (Kevin
Spacey) who narrates posthumously: “My name is Lester Burnham, I’m 42 years old and in less than a
year I’ll be dead. But in a way I’m dead already.” At the beginning of the film Lester is depressed and
cynical. He is trapped in a loveless marriage with his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening); estranged from
his daughter Jane (Thora Birch), who considers her father “too embarrassing to live”; and ensnared in a
job he despises. Lester’s passion for life is rekindled when he meets Jane’s friend Angela. His sexual
desire for Angela inspires him to transform his mundane life. Lester tries to affirm his existence by
smoking marijuana, working-out, and asserting himself against his domineering wife. The other
Burnham family members are simultaneously experiencing life altering changes. Carolyn has an affair
and Jane falls in love with neighbor Ricky Fitts, whose reaction to his militaristic upbringing has
propelled his search for beauty in every facet of life. The film culminates in Lester’s murder.
viewed through the lens of theological aesthetics, offers insights into notions of
Such aesthetics has three primary elements: first, a theological investigation into how one
comes to know religious truths through sense experience; second, a theology of beauty; and third, a
theology of art.
engages the viewer in an exploration of a theology of beauty by
asking: Where can we see beauty amid the pain, suffering, and alienation of life? The film offers two
related answers to this question. First, the film suggests that true beauty cannot be found in that which
traditionally has been considered beautiful. Second, that there is a deeper reality associated with
Several scenes in the film emphasize the importance of looking beyond the superficial in order to see
true beauty. The tag line of the film is “look closer…” .” The film illustrates this theme by associating
traditional indicators of beauty-- symmetry, nature, and physical beauty-- with the negative rather than
the positive. For example, when the Burnham’s are eating a family dinner, the camera pushes in slowly
on a scene that is starkly symmetrical. Each family member is positioned around a large table
equidistant from the other. Carolyn and Lester are positioned at opposite ends of the table, while and
their daughter Jane sits in the middle. While the scene appears to be perfect, in reality the family is
miserable, evidenced by the fact that during the dinner an argument between Lester and Carolyn takes
place and Lester throws a platter across the room in his rage. In this scene it is clear that Each member
is alienated from the other. The three characters are spread out around a large table. This isolation