Whiplash: God, grace and the pursuit of perfection

Scene from Damien Chazelle's Whiplash“But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” — Matthew 5:48, NLT

Terence Fletcher is a sadistic, Machiavellian jazz instructor who believes the only way to create the next generation of musical greats is to push young musicians to the breaking point, and beyond. Andrew Neiman is a drummer who believes he has what it takes to become great. Wanting to learn from the best, he joins Fletcher’s jazz studio, where he discovers that the pursuit of musical perfection will cost him more than he ever imagined.

In Damien Chazelle’s beautiful and disturbing film Whiplash, we are asked to consider the cost of reaching for greatness. Greatness must begin with talent, but talent must be refined and forged by hard work until it has become something rare, something approaching perfection. Is it possible that the pursuit of artistic perfection is so intrinsically righteous that it’s worth any price to get there?

Yes, says Fletcher. He justifies his harsh teaching methods this way: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.'” In Fletcher’s view, music is being ruined by mediocrity. Greatness can only be achieved when someone demands absolute perfection from us, and is unwilling to accept anything less.

Whiplash certainly raises interesting questions, but while watching this battle unfold, something else became apparent: to his students, Terence Fletcher is God. Not merely god-like — God incarnate.

Like God, Fletcher gives and Fletcher takes away. At a word, he lifts a student out of obscurity and places him among the elect; at another word, he casts that same student into the outermost hell where he is utterly forgotten.

Like God, Fletcher knows all. When he enters the studio for rehearsal, no one dares make eye contact. Every musician in the room feels naked and ashamed before this frightening man. They are each perfectly aware of their shortcomings, and they know too well that Fletcher knows them even better than they know themselves.

Like God, Fletcher will accept nothing short of musical perfection from his students, and his furious wrath is quick to consume those who rush or drag or simply can’t perform to his expectations.

Isn’t that exactly how we imagine God?

God is holy, perfect, just, infallible — everything we are not. We are his errant children who constantly fail to live up to his standards. We don’t play in God’s key, we can’t seem to keep up with his tempo, we can barely sight-read his music. We aspire to goodness and love, even greatness, but we always end up dropping our eyes in shame, painfully aware that no matter how hard we try, our Teacher is grievously disappointed with our performance.

And like young Andrew Neiman, when we are faced with the horrific prospect of living under God’s terrible judgment and always falling short, we respond by pushing ourselves even harder to try to earn his approval.

If that’s how you see God, and many people do, you’ve misplaced the most important pages of the musical score. You’ve missed out on Jesus, you haven’t heard the music of the cross, of redemption — you’ve lost measure upon measure of grace, and grace is where the music really begins to soar. Grace is where the Composer lifts us away from the formulaic and predictable to something truly new, something we’ve never heard before.

As Brennan Manning says in The Ragamuffin Gospel:

“Through no merit of ours, but by His mercy, we have been restored to a right relationship with God through the life, death and resurrection of His beloved Son. This is the Good News, the gospel of grace. … Repentance is not what we do in order to earn forgiveness; it is what we do because we have been forgiven. It serves as an expression of gratitude rather than an effort to earn forgiveness.”

God is love. He is perfect, yes. He is holy, yes. But before the world was made, Paul says that God loved us, chose us to be holy like himself, and adopted us as his children. (Ephesians 1:4,5). We were not chosen because of our talents, we were not chosen because of our hard work or because we have achieved perfection. We were chosen even though we can’t carry a tune in a bucket, because God loves, and his love overflows to us in the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ.

God as Terence Fletcher has no love in his heart for imperfection; he has no tolerance for failure. He chased after a musical ideal, a human ideal so rare that it might well be said to be non-existent. If Terence Fletcher was a god, he was a god too good for people, a god too good for anyone but himself.

The God of Christianity is holy and perfect, it’s true. But the foundation of everything that makes him who he is is first of all, love. And because of love, driven by love, God stooped down to us in all of our tone-deaf imperfections, and in grace, through his son Jesus, he lifted us up into perfection.

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  1. Thanks for sending on the warning in Whiplash. I’m glad that God isn’t like Terence Fletcher. Most of us would have given up a long time ago. But I hang tight to the beatitude that says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” Like other beatitudes, this one helps us to know what to want and comes with a wonderful promise of fulfillment. It doesn’t tell us what we have to do to achieve this ideal. It just tells us that we will. Someday. How God is going to bring this about, I have no idea. But I do know that nothing else will be acceptable, since I don’t want to live forever in the presence of God or my believing brothers and sisters apart from righteousness in all of us, and love and humility and grace and all of the other beautiful qualities we have been assured of. Right now I can’t imagine what this will look like, but I am ever more eager to see it.

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