MARGARET (2011): Life without Law

Margaret isn’t a character in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret (2011).

Lisa is the name of the main character in this film.

Margaret characterizes Lisa by contrasting the Margaret of Gerald Manley Hopkins’ poem “Spring and Fall” (1880) to the film’s Lisa.

Lisa is a student at a posh New York private school. In her English class she studies the Hopkins’ poem:


To a young child

Margaret, are you grieving

Over Goldengrove unleaving?

Leaves, like the things of man, you

With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

Ah! as the heart grows older

It will come to such sights colder

By and by, nor spare a sigh

Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;

And yet you will weep know why.

Now no matter, child, the name:

Sorrow’s springs are the same.

Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed

What heart heard of, ghost guessed:

It is the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.

The poem tells of Margaret’s coming to maturity through an unnamed encounter with death. Hopkins reflects that age will end Margaret’s innocent way of responding to life, death, and dying. Maturity will allow Margaret to mourn for others. Maturity will break the narcissism of her youth.

By contrast, Lisa fails to mature, even after a stark and personal encounter with death, a death her narcissism caused. Maturity does not come to Lisa. Lisa remains as committed to her narcissism at the end of the film as she was at the beginning.

Sadly, Margaret represents the maturation process of the past. Lisa demonstrates the situation for too many adolescents in twenty-first century America.

Lisa is seen cheating on a school examination, lying about the cheating, and dismissing the seriousness of cheating. When she flirtatiously distracts a bus driver, he runs a red light and kills a pedestrian. Lisa lies about what she saw, thinking she is protecting the bus driver’s budding affection for her.

After tracking the bus driver to his home, and encountering his suspicious wife, Lisa changes her witness account. She believes the bus driver needs to pay for what he did.

The bus driver must “confess” and pay for his “sin.”

However, at no time does Lisa ever consider that perhaps she is guilty and in need of confession and punishment.

Why? Why are others always at fault in Lisa’s world? Why must her innocence be protected at all cost?

In the same English class which introduced Lisa to Hopkins’ poem, Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman (1903) is quoted. In the play, Jack Tanner, the twentieth century revolutionary, says to the conservative Octavius:

My dear Tavy, your pious English habit of regarding the world as a moral gymnasium built expressly to strengthen your character in, occasionally leads you to think about your own confounded principles when you should be thinking about other people’s necessities.

But Shaw’s world is as alien to Lisa as that of Hopkins.

Lisa has neither a moral gymnasium nor principles to exercise. She lives only for her own necessities.

The contemporary philosopher Richard Rorty summarizes Lisa’s philosophy. For Lisa, truth is “what our peers will let us get away with.”[i] And Lisa actively pursues the truth she shares with her generation.

The Christian, however, has a different truth. The truth is Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of God’s law. And Christ and His law are strangers in Lisa’s world.

(Ironically, the only reminder of Christ and the law is a crucifix hanging in foyer of the bus driver’s home.)

For the Christian, the law teaches us of our sinfulness, so that we might confess to God, seeking forgiveness, and righteousness in Christ.

Lisa and her generation  know neither of any divine law in force not of the gracious sacrifice of Christ on their behalf. Consequently, Lisa and her peers assume, not a sinful nature, but a good nature. And, being essentially good, Lisa and her generation see no need for either confession or forgiveness.

They are their own righteousness.

As theologian Michael Horton explains,

According to a biblical worldview, confession of sin is about right and wrong. Real sins are really forgiven by a God who is intimately involved in our everyday lives. In a therapeutic worldview, there is no sin and guilt to be forgiven by God but only burdens and feelings of guilt for failing to live up to the expectations of oneself or other human beings”[ii]

Margaret ends with an archetypal “good” therapeutic ending. At the opera, The Tales of Hoffman, Lisa and her mother, melt into each other’s arms, sobbing. Their estrangement and mutual disappointments have been temporarily put aside in a wave of love.

St Paul’s description of the person who seeks a blessed life apart from God remains true for this mother and daughter, despite the tears, good intentions, and glorious Barcarolle – the ode to love in the night air that opens the third act of Offenbach’s work- as background music. Everyone is not “okay” – the modern equivalent of the ancient word “blessed” – apart from Christ:

Rampant evil, grabbing and grasping, vicious backstabbing. They made life hell on earth with their envy, wanton killing, bickering, and cheating. Look at them: mean-spirited, venomous, fork-tongued God-bashers. Bullies, swaggerers, insufferable windbags! They keep inventing new ways of wrecking lives. They ditch their parents when they get in the way. Stupid, slimy, cruel, cold-blooded. And it’s not as if they don’t know better. They know perfectly well they’re spitting in God’s face. And they don’t care – worse, they hand out prizes to those who do the worst things best![iii]

Why does the Margaret of the poem mature, while the Lisa of the film does not?

The Margaret of Hopkins’ poem lived in a world under the laws of God. The law taught the truth of her nature and forced her to accept responsibility for her character. The Lisa of the film lives in a lawless world. Truth is “whatever” she can get away with.

Maturity comes through life in a world of law. And maturity brings a freedom, Lisa will never know:

The freedom we gain through the gospel is a freedom to obey for the first time, from our hearts, not to be left to ourselves.”[iv]

Lisa will never be free because her truth is a lie:

Some bedrock of honesty is fundamental to society; people cannot live together if no one is able to believe what anyone else is saying.[v] The transcendent beliefs out of which the Christian life grows and matures, however feebly, give purpose, direction, and meaning to life that cannot be matched by mere sentiment and secular whim. Nor can it be matched by platitudes.”[vi]

Thousands of years ago, a young, sinful man found maturity in God’s law. Listen to David’s advice:

Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be – you get a fresh start, your slate’s wiped clean. Count yourself lucky – God holds nothing against you and you’re holding nothing back from him. When I kept it all inside, my bones turned to powder, my words became daylong groans. The pressure never let up; all the juices of my life dried up. Then I let it all out; I said, “I’ll make a clean breast of my failures to God.” Suddenly the pressure was gone – my guilt dissolved, my sin disappeared. These things add up. Every one of us needs to pray; when all hell breaks loose and the dam bursts we’ll be on high ground, untouched. God’s my island hideaway, keeps danger far from the shore, throws garlands of hosannas around my neck. Let me give you some good advice; I’m looking you in the eye and giving it to you straight: “Don’t be ornery like a horse or mule that needs bit and bridle to stay on track.” God-defiers are always in trouble; God-affirmers find themselves loved every time they turn around. Celebrate God. Sing together – everyone! All you honest hearts, raise the roof![vii]

[i] .” Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, quoted by Alvin Plantinga in “How to be an Anti-Realist”, Presidential Address to APA, 1982, p. 50.

[ii] Horton, Michael. Christless Christianity. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2008. p. 43

[iii] Romans 1:29-32, The Message.

[iv] Horton, Michael. The Law of Perfect Freedom. Chicago: Moody Books, 1993,

[v] Horton, The Law of Perfect Freedom,

[vi] Horton, The Law of Perfect Freedom,

[vii] Psalm 32, The Message.

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