In the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the main character Joel Barish (played by Jim Carrey) meets a quirky, blue-haired woman named Clementine (Kate Winslet) on a train, and after a short period of mutual flirtation, they begin an emotionally intense relationship. Then one day Joel receives a crushing revelation about Clementine when he makes a surprise visit to the bookstore where she works—and she has no idea who he is. We later learn that Clementine had undergone a procedure to erase him completely from her memory. Everything else about her history is seemingly intact, but on the day he visits, he is a complete stranger to her. Understandably devastated, Joel undertakes the same procedure. He wants to erase the memories of their time together and the scars left by her decision to erase him. The procedure offers Joel the opportunity to start fresh, to end the pain of failure and rejection, and to get on with his life.
Lord knows that when I experienced difficult times in my life, I wished such a procedure existed. That is primarily why the film remains at the top of my all-time favorites—because it resonated so deeply with where I have been and the temptations I’ve wished I could forget and move on.
Then there is Night Driving by Chad Bird, which offers the exact opposite picture of how we should view our painful pasts. I’m not speaking hyperbolically when I say that in terms of impact, this book is Eternal Sunshine’s literary equal. What the reader gets in Night Driving is a raw, autobiographical trip through darkness, with a destination at the end of hope—hope in a God who “specializes in broken people,” who has “a long history of being intimately and graciously involved in the lives of people who screw up on a large scale,” and who is “in the thick of that disaster to begin the work of making us whole again” (15). The very existence of the book is a testament to that truth, especially when you learn about the long, dark, bourbon-stained path Bird has walked.
Mr. Bird was once a rising academic star during his time in seminary. After he graduated, it wasn’t long before he was ordained to the pastorate and his dream of becoming a seminary professor came true. Cheering him on were his faithful wife and two young children. Fast forward and we read of him sitting on the floor of his lonely one-bedroom apartment, having just waved goodbye to his crying kids as they were driven away by his soon-to-be ex-wife, and he is staring down the barrel of a .357 Magnum. Soon after, he’d be driving a Mac truck through the Texas oil fields with plenty of time to be alone with his thoughts—thoughts you can imagine he would be tempted to erase if the procedure depicted in Eternal Sunshine were a real possibility.
There were many times while reading Night Driving that I let out an audible “Yes! Exactly!” That is probably because like me, Bird is a little salty when he describes his emotional state at various parts of the book—using words one doesn’t typically say in polite Christian circles. While there is no profanity in the book, Bird’s descriptions are no less colorful. In one place, he likens his feeling that God has abandoned him to being the man in Jesus’ parable, lying half-dead on the road to Jericho, and either God just walks on by while whistling Dixie or stops only to give him a swift kick to the groin (37). Like Bird, there are surely many Christians who feel they have done too much harm to too many people and deserve to be alone. When that happens, as I have experienced, you begin to try to cobble together your own little self-justification project; and like the many failed New Year’s resolutions, you try and “recapture your old self” so the darkness doesn’t seem so dark. Bird poignantly captures this natural tendency in sharp and biting prose, reminding the reader of the vanity of such a facade.
I cannot recommend Night Driving enough. I found that while reading this book and living through a season when it seemed God was standing by silently, I read the words on the page that I had prayed to God just days before. Bird sets the reader in the context of the Psalms and reminds us that we have permission to cry out from the bottom of the pit, and that in using the words of the psalmists, we are “giving full vent to our woes,” praying his own words back to him (41).
He further likens the scars of our sins on the “long, crooked road to repentance” as the way in which God brings us to full acknowledgement of who we truly are, harming us so he may heal. Ultimately, we grow to be more like Christ because of the scars we collect in this life. Deep scars are “icons of divine love” in which God shows his strength in our weakness (140). When by grace we bear this in mind, we begin to see that the procedure in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the worst thing we could do to ourselves. We would forget where we came from and the redemption that God brings about from our own messes. Chad Bird gives us a compelling, moving, and hopeful reminder that what we mean for evil, God means for good.
Erik O’Dell holds an MA in theological studies from Westminster Seminary California and attends Christ Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Temecula, California.