On a rare wet day this summer, my husband and I were staying in an Airbnb in Ironbridge. To while away the evening we picked up a DVD for 49p in a charity shop. The film was Mr Skeffington starring Bette Davis and Claude Rains, who were both nominated for Oscars for their roles.
Betty Davis’ character Fanny is in desperate need. Her brother has squandered the family money and defrauded his employer, Job Skeffington, who is an unassuming and gentlemanly Jewish stockbroker. Fanny, who has many devoted suitors, sees that attracting and marrying Mr Skeffington will solve these problems, and that is what she does. She finds him somewhat irritating, and after a time, they live separately, their daughter, also named Fanny, choosing to live with her Father and ultimately follow him to Europe, while her mother continues her high society life in New York. It’s the 1930s, and we, like the film’s original audience in 1944, are all too aware of what lies ahead.
For the past few months I have read the Bible with a question in the back of my mind. I was taught to sing ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so’ from the age of 3. But does it? Where does it say it, and when did its writers first dare to make that claim? I was beginning to come to the conclusion that although God’s love for each one of us oozes from every story, law, poem, and prophecy, the humans who wrote them down mostly didn’t think to make this explicit. The writer of John’s gospel began to find words to do this, and following him, the early church began to proclaim this truth.
In a similar way, it takes Bette Davis’ character a long time to realise that behind the presenting fact that Mr. Skeffington is her provider and her saviour, lies a deeper truth – that he loved her long before she became aware of what he could do to help her situation, and that this love continues beyond rejection. It has continued, in fact, through time in a Nazi concentration camp where, for reasons that are not explained, he has lost his sight. This plot twist is convenient because a bout of diptheria has caused Fanny Skeffington to lose her famed beauty, but this weakens the analogy I’m building – I wish they’d let Mr Skeffington continue to love her despite her changed looks.
Into this situation comes Fanny Skeffington Junior, Job and Fanny’s serious and demure daughter, who escapes Germany before the war and returns to her mother. She says very little, but she acts as a witness to Mr. Skeffington’s long distance love. Her mother ignores this for a while, but Fanny’s quiet presence does prepare the way for Mr. Skeffington’s eventual return after he is liberated. The stage is set for him to enter not only her home, but also her heart.
I woke up early in the Airbnb, with one of those moments of clarity that can come to you in a strange bed. Those of us who would like to take part in the mission of God are witnesses not to a saviour who can get people out of trouble or provide a ticket to heaven. We are witnesses to one whose great and enduring love for each individual is invisible to so many and only glimpsed by a few. So often we aim to explain to people what benefits they might receive, or what dangers they might avoid, if they accept Jesus as their saviour. We are appealing to the younger Bette Davis who is determined to hold on to the good things she has. But perhaps our chief role in God’s mission is to be present as his daughter or son, bearing his likeness, witnessing to a great love that has always and will always encompass each human person we meet.