Spoiler alert, I will talk about some relevant scenes in the film.
By the Rev. Cariño Casas
I had wanted to see The Fabelmans since I learned it was about how Steven Spielberg became a filmmaker. I love origin stories, and the man who gave us Jaws, the Indiana Jones films, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, and more decided to bare himself and tell us part of his story. Spoiler alert, I will talk about some relevant scenes in the film.
In The Fabelmans, Spielberg depicts two forms of Christian antisemitism. The first is obvious and violent. The second is more subtle as it comes from a place of imperfect love. I see in this film an opportunity for self-reflection for the followers of Jesus.
Spielberg’s semiautobiographical story is as much about the brokenness that plagues each of us, our families, and our society as about what sparked his art. A movie’s graphic depiction of a train crash sowed fear in young Steven, but the act of filmmaking brought him comfort and joy. Later, moviemaking brought pain and sorrow when the camera revealed to him what his bare eye had missed, the brokenness of his parent’s relationship.
We meet the Fabelman family in New Jersey, but soon a career opportunity prompts patriarch Burt to move the family to Phoenix, Arizona. The stresses on Sammy Fabelman – the fictional version of Spielberg – are all internal up to this point. The external pressures begin when Burt moves the family again for a better job in California’s Silicon Valley.
For what may be the first time, teenage Sammy suffers antisemitic abuse at the high school. It begins with the bully jocks calling out Sammy’s Jewishness in the locker room. They mock his name and call him Bagelman. They hang a bagel labeled “Jew Hole” in his locker. The abuse escalates when one boy calls him “Christ killer” and demands Sammy apologize for “killing our Lord.” Sammy explains that he wasn’t alive 2,000 years ago and has never been to Rome. Yes, Rome. Sammy reveals he knows as much about Christianity as the bullies know about Judaism. The bullies are offended by Sammy’s defense and begin to beat their Jewish classmate until he’s curled up on the concrete with a bloody nose.
This beatdown reveals Sammy’s Jewishness to one of the bullies’ girlfriends. We soon learn that her friend Monica is into Jewish boys. Sammy’s happy to have some positive attention, so he agrees to meet her. When Monica takes Sammy home to make out in her bedroom, we learn why Monica is into Jewish guys. It’s because she’s into Jesus. She has posters of Christ on her wall alongside posters of the pop heartthrobs of the time. She has a crucifix over her bed framed by a heart made of red lights.
“Run, Sammy!” I yelled at the screen. Sammy does not run. He’s there for the make out session. Monica wants to pray first. When Sammy hesitates, she prays for him.
Sammy and Monica date for the rest of the year. He even buys her a crucifix necklace for prom. Sammy accepts her misguided love and tries to love her. Eventually, Monica reveals that it was just a fling for her. At graduation, they will go their separate ways.
After the realistic antisemitic attack by the bully jocks, Sammy’s experience with Monica looks like a caricature. Even if Spielberg and co-writer Tony Kushner have exaggerated the encounter for the sake of storytelling, Spielberg is sharing with us some of his discomfort with Monica.
The abusive and violent antisemitism of the bullies is easy to call out and condemn. They are regurgitating hateful rhetoric passed down for centuries.1
Let us consider Monica. She LOVES Jesus. She knows Jesus is Jewish. As a result, she loves Jewish people. She wants Sammy to know Jesus. She prays for him to know Jesus. Yet, Monica shows us at least two things NOT to do.
“Run, Sammy!” I yelled at the screen.
First, she forces Jesus on Sammy. She has him pray some form of the sinner’s prayer and he does it cause he’s a teenage boy looking for some action. She takes his hand and makes him cross himself! I hope that makes you cringe. It certainly did me.
Second, Monica walks away. At prom, Sammy invites Monica to join him in Los Angeles for college. He awkwardly (and prematurely) asks her to marry him. She balks, saying they’ve dated for a short time and she’s going to Texas A&M University. Already I was embarrassed by the portrayal of this well-meaning but insensitive Christian and now she’s going to my alma mater. Lord, have mercy! Monica has had her Jewish fling. She’s tried to convert Sammy. Now she’s moving on.
On the one hand, these are mere teenagers finding their way in the world. On the other hand, Monica does what some (many?) Christians do when Jewish friends and neighbors say, “Jesus is not for me.” She ends the relationship.
The Christian’s job is to proclaim Jesus, point him out in the Scriptures, and love our neighbors, humbly remembering that the revelation of Jesus’ identity to the soul comes only from God. When Simon Peter, in Matthew 16, professes that Jesus is “the Mashiach, the Son of the living God,” Jesus says to him that “no human being revealed this to you, no, it was my Father in heaven.” (Matt 16:16-18 CJB). Anything more than proclamation and guidance from us is a sort of spiritual abuse distantly related to the forced baptisms and forced conversions from the darker chapters of church history. Ending a relationship after someone says “no” to our Gospel message reveals that we didn’t love that person, not really.
When we see Christian antisemitism played out, we may feel ashamed of the Gospel and be tempted to overcorrect. We’ll say the Jewish people don’t need to know Jesus or that we don’t have to say anything because God will take care of it directly.
Jesus is clear: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me” (John 14:6) and “Go and make people from all nations into talmidim (disciples, Matt 28:19 CJB).” Like Paul, we should “not [be] ashamed of the Good News, since it is God’s powerful means of bringing salvation to everyone who keeps on trusting, to the Jew especially, but equally to the Gentile” (Rom 1:16 CJB).
What is the Good News? What God promised “in advance through his prophets in the Tanakh. It concerns his Son — he is descended from David physically; he was powerfully demonstrated to be Son of God spiritually, set apart by his having been resurrected from the dead; he is Yeshua the Messiah, our Lord” (Rom 1:2-4 CJB).
Steven Spielberg, thank you for sharing your story with us. In interviews, I see how your heart is tender and self-aware, attributes that have made you a chief storyteller of our time. I’m sorry for the antisemitism you’ve suffered. Thank you for giving this Jewish-loving Christian something to think about.
The Rev. Cariño Casas is the Executive Director of CMJ USA. She joined the CMJ family in 2014 as the media coordinator of Christ Church Jerusalem. She has a Master of Arts in Biblical Studies from Trinity School for Ministry and a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from Texas A&M University. She is the deacon at Grace Anglican Church in Edgeworth, Pennsylvania.
 For a quick primer on the antisemitic theology that has plagued Christianity, see Dr. Theresa Newell’s paper “Jesus Masked: Anti-Jewish Theologies.” To go deeper, we recommend Our Hands Are Stained with Blood: The Tragic Story of the "Church" and the Jewish People by Michael L. Brown.
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