Whiplash: the Maniacal Dictator and the Good Shepherd

I watched the Academy Award nominated film Whiplash the other night. Other than some (okay, A LOT) language that I could have done without (it’s rated-R for a reason), I was captured by the brilliance of this film. I find myself continuing to think about it; pulling back the layers like an onion.

In the movie, Andrew Neiman (played by Miles Teller), the main character is enrolled at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory of Music, the top music school in the nation. He gets moved into the studio ensemble; the band that represents the school at competitive jazz competitions. The instructor of the ensemble, Professor Terence Fletcher (played by J. K. Simmons), is a maniacal, tedious, narcissistic, dictator. He runs a tight ship; and that is quite the understatement! He plays mind games with the students and is verbally and physically abusive. Terrance Fletcher is feared by his students, but they don’t love him.

There are a number of poignant and transformational scenes in the film, but one stood far above the rest. While sitting in a coffee shop, the obsessive instructor makes the statement, “The two most dangerous words in the English language are, ‘good job.’” If you go back and watch the entire film, you’ll see this conviction shape the way Fletcher instructs his band. Never once does he give them a nod of approval, at no time does he give positive affirmation or feedback, and he never allows his students to celebrate a job well done. In fact, he does just the opposite. He intimidates his students by flaunting his ear for perfect pitch, demanding that they keep ‘his time’, and wielding flying objects when they don’t perform up to his standards. He is quite successful at his goal of pushing his students beyond what they think is possible, but throughout the film his motivation seems at least on the surface to be having a great ensemble, but in the end it becomes quite clear that he was far more motivated by his own pride and self worth; willing to crush anyone that he perceived stood in his way.

I’m not sure what the writer and director’s intent was with the film, but it struck me that for many, Terrance Fletcher (the professor) represents a common caricature of God. Many religious people, and many who have only heard the loud clanging symbol that is much of modern evangelicalism, have mistakenly and erroneously embraced this view of God that the movie shapes through Professor Fletcher. In the view put forward through the film Whiplash, God resembles the obsessed cattle driver far more than he does the Good Shepherd.

In the following paragraphs, I’d like to draw out and address some of the caricatures of God that Whiplash speaks to.

We need to be perpetually in performance mode: After being beat down and belittled, the students in the class quickly learned that they were always to be in performance mode whether they were on stage or not. Being just a tad off-key was enough to get one kicked out of the band altogether. What’s communicated clearly to everyone in the band is, “you are useful and wanted so long as you hit every right note, at the right time, in the correct tempo.” Is performance what God is after? Is this what becoming a follower of Jesus is all about? Performance was the modus operandi of the Pharisees. They were convinced God was up in heaven keeping track and tallying a score. While Jesus invites them to abandon this notion, many modern day followers of Christ have missed the same invitation. Jesus, the Good Shepherd invites his followers to live under the easy yoke learning to be his disciples (Matthew 11:28-30). Keeping score is not the easy yoke; knowing that Jesus’ work on Calvary has cleared the scorecard altogether allows Jesus followers to enter into his design and desire; not in performance mode, but free to love and to be loved. While the message of Professor Fletcher was, “you are as good as your performance,” the message of the Good Shepherd is, “you are as good as MY performance!”

He is never satisfied: Andrew is obsessed with improving as a drummer and proving himself to his professor. He works so hard that he quite literally sheds blood training to become the best musician he could be. However, regardless of how well Andrew played, it always fell short of what Fletcher wanted. In the film, even the ‘perfect performance’ was not to be celebrated; it was to be improved upon. There was always room for improvement and therefore, there was never a time for celebration. So many people have the same perception of God. If there is room for advance, there is no time for a party. To stop and rejoice at progress would be wasted time when the more important accomplishments wait to be hailed (or simply pushed to the side for bigger endeavors on the horizon). The caricature of God that the church often propagates is that God is the maniacal professor up in the sky shaking his head with his arms crossed across his chest; never quite satisfied, and never willing to celebrate an accomplishment, improvement, or a job well done. The reality the scriptures teach is that God’s Kingdom is described like a banquet (Matthew 22:2). Jesus is described as eating with sinners and prostitutes enjoying life and inviting others to do the same. He is the Good Shepherd, not the accomplished cattle driver.

We need to live in fear of flying objects: Throughout the movie, both Andrew and Fletcher recite and refer a story about how Charlie Parker became one of the top musicians in the world. He was at rehearsal, got off time, and the director flung a cymbal at his head. Both Fletcher and (eventually) Andrew celebrate this act as both a good and formative thing. They embrace and embody the belief that it is noble to push oneself and others further than they thought possible. One of the ways to accomplish this is to use fear and punishment as beneficial and necessary means of accomplishing the goal. If you listen to some followers of Jesus who’ve been handed a microphone, you’d think that God acts in the same way – using punishment and fear to curb behavior to be more in line with his liking. For Professor Fletcher, the end product is the most important goal; the people involved in the process are unimportant enough to be used, abused, and generally overlooked. While some will affirm this caricature of God, they do so overlooking the love that God has for his creation (John 3:16, Ephesians 2:4-7, and too many others to list) and his longing for his creation to enter his joy. God is the most joy-filled being in the universe… he’s not mad like the caricature would often lead us to believe. Indeed, his wrath was poured out on Christ, but that means that there is none left for us (Romans 3:24-26).

We should be paranoid of making a mistake rather than free to create: Music and life have a number of similarities. There are objective aspects and subjective aspects to the meaning, artistry, and beauty of both. There are a number of scenes in the movie where the musicians in the studio ensemble execute the sheet music to perfection, but lack the joy that comes from creating something beautiful. Fletcher’s goal was to create, but he took away his students’ ability to be creative. Is this God’s desire for his people? Does he want his creation to simply follow the script, cease any critical thinking, suppress feelings, and lack personalization… focusing solely on execution? The scriptures describe God creating each person “fearfully and wonderfully” and uniquely by His very hand (Psalm 139:13-16). The great creator creates us in his own image with a desire and longing to create, not just to execute. There is a big difference! We find our ability to be creative expressions of the manifold beauty as God only in the freedom that he has purchased for us. We find our creative voice as we make our home in his love, knowing that the cross has spoken a better word over us. We find our creative voice as we are freed from the paranoia of being crushed by our mistakes.

He is simply using us to fund his own plans: As previously mentioned, it became clear throughout the movie that Professor Fletcher was a narcissist using his band to feed his need to achieve and fill the bottomless hole that was his ego. He claims to drive people to improve and achieve for their own good, but anyone watching the film clearly sees through the motives expressed on the surface and understands the band is all about Professor Fletcher. His students are funding his self-definition project; hearing his stocks rise in his own eyes and others as the band hits all the right notes. Are people simply called to fund God’s plans for God’s exclusive good? Some have suggested this, but I would argue that we are called to follow Jesus in obedience and in doing so we do not find our souls drying up under the oppressive yoke of an abusive rabbi, but rather we find ourselves flourishing under the care of the Good Shepherd (John 10, John 15:10-11). Living in the Kingdom with the King is the most joy filled possible. God is not simply using his people to fund his pet projects, rather he is inviting us to partner with him as He builds his Kingdom; inviting us to live in that Kingdom as he builds it. It is both His and ours.

And, most of all, he never… ever…. ever even whispers “good job”: Professor Fletcher lived by those words he uttered in the coffee shop, never even suggesting to his students that they had done a good job. He preserved a stern disposition, a demeanor that reflected his inner character. He had a critical spirit and a critical mind, and it was impossible for his students to do anything that would cause the professor to applaud their achievements. Is this the way of Jesus? I know many who would affirm this caricature, arguing that we are just sinners and that there is nothing we can do that would make God happy. Albeit, you can proof text a verse and make that claim, but you’d also have to ignore the reality that the scriptures clearly state that it IS possible to please God. The scripture tell us how in Hebrews 11:6. The writer of Hebrews states, “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Without faith it is impossible to please God… and living a life of faith is what pleases God. It’s what allows us to enter into and live in his kingdom; and he is quite pleased with that because it leads to our joy and his glory.

I love films like Whiplash that encourage thoughtful introspection. Whiplash caused me to evaluate the way I see God, the way I perceive that he sees me, and the invitation at the heart of the scriptures to find my life in the life of the Father. I have to admit, all too often I find myself believing the caricature rather than the real thing… in fact, I find myself drifting toward the notion of “fairly-tale,” imagining that the real thing is too good to be true. Whiplash, in a very unexpected way, drove me back into the arms of the Good Shepherd causing me to remember that He really is THAT GOOD.