During the recent film awards season, The Farewell has garnered a lot of attention.
A comedy-drama written and directed by Lulu Wang, the film centers around Chinese American Billi, who learns her grandmother in China has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. To her consternation, Billi discovers her family has decided to keep the diagnosis a secret from her grandmother. Instead, they decide to fake a wedding for Billi’s cousin as an excuse to gather the family around the matriarch for what they think is the last time.
The film is a mix of funny and moving moments, with themes on the immigrant experience and family dynamics.
“There is one thing that you should understand,” her uncle explains about why the family believes it’s their duty to bear the emotional burden of the diagnosis for her grandmother. “You moved to the West a long time ago. To you, someone’s life belongs to only him. But that’s the difference between East and West. One’s life in the East is part of a whole. Family. Society.”
A similar tension exists between the way modern Western Christians and early New Testament believers conceive of and practice church.
Pastor and Biola University professor Joseph Hellerman explores this tension in When the Church Was a Family. In an individualistic society, autonomy, self-reliance and freedom to make choices are highly valued. As Billi’s uncle puts it, an individual’s life ultimately belongs to them. But New Testament people lived in a collective society, where people gave priority to the welfare of the group over their lives as individuals.
It’s important to understand this group-first concept, says Hellerman, because Jesus adopts a collective model for the group he was gathering — specifically, an alternative “family” for his followers, which “was to become the primary sphere of group loyalty and relational solidarity.”
In this “surrogate family,” says Hellerman, “individual Christians placed the good of the church family above their own personal goals, desires and aspirations” and “could count on support from [that] community to meet the material and emotional challenges that often came with a commitment to Jesus.”
But for many Western believers, “Christianity is no longer a community endeavor,” he says. “Instead, many choose to focus on experiencing God at the individual level.”
This isn’t surprising in an individualistic society, observes Hellerman, where institutions are seen as a way to facilitate personal goals. The purpose of the church for many is simply to help grow in individual relationships with Jesus — and “the way we do church only reinforces and perpetuates this lone-ranger spirituality.”
Hellerman encourages us to examine how our individualistic society limits the way we view church. He invites us to recapture the early believers’ group-first, family-focused vision. This can lead to the kind of church “that is not an institution, but the kind of supporting, encouraging surrogate family that people in our broken world intuitively long for, but which many have never experienced . . . a community that not only loves and cares for its own, but also extends its arms beyond the boundaries of the church to offer compassionate help to a broken world.”
In The Farewell, Billi comes to realize how much she values being part of her larger family — tensions and all. It changes and strengthens her in ways she didn’t know she needed. How much more could a family with Jesus at the center change not only us but the world around us?
Carmen Andres, a former editor of the Mennonite Brethren magazine Christian Leader, lives in Alexandria, Va.