True to Fonda form, the film expresses feminismbut this time in a context that is biblical

Christians have not recognized Jane Fonda as “one of us.” Indeed, there are those who still think of her as “Hanoi Jane.” But her performance as Gertie Nevels in the recent ABC television movie The Dollmaker may soften some opinions. She has rendered a realistic portrayal of a Christian working out her salvation.

The excellence comes in Fonda’s characterization of Proverbs 31:10–31. This passage has often been considered idealistic, a state of perfection unattainable short of glory. Not so, and Fonda’s portrait proves it. Gertie Nevels is as believable as the sunrise, and she should finally shed a lot of light on the traditional confusion over what makes a lady. As the Proverbs passage indicates, the term does not orient on title, wealth, or education. Gertie demonstrates, in terms as down-to-earth as Kentucky clay and Detroit dirt, that even an Appalachian hillbilly can be a noblewoman.

“She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness.” Gertie not only cooks, washes, and sews, she tends a farm and educates her children in the ways of the land and of Scripture.

“She extends her hand to the poor.” At home among neighbors in Kentucky or in uncertainty among strangers in Detroit, she makes it a practice to help those in need. Even when standing in a Detroit winter dressed for an Appalachian fall, she gives her scarf to a mother with a freezing baby.

“She considers a field and buys it; from her earnings she plants a vineyard.” Gertie’s dream was to escape sharecropping and obtain a place the family could call home, someplace that would give a sense of place. She saved money a penny at a time and eventually was able to purchase an old farm. When her husband, who had gone to Detroit seeking better employment, called for her to move, she relinquished the homestead and moved. When it became certain that the move was destroying each of the family members, she again managed to find a place on the land.

“She works with her hands in delight.” Gertie is not afraid to sink her hands into either soil or blood, but, moreover, she is a woodcarver, an artist. She recognizes God’s creative image glowing within her, and she gives vent to that light. She makes toys for children, a crucifix for an old woman, and a sculpture of Christ for herself.

She works on the Christ sculpture for months, trying to find the face that is Christ’s. It is in the process of her caring for those around her that she comes to recognize that Face. His is one that looks upon those of all men and women in empathy and grace. His is one to be seen in those of all men and women.

In a beautifully wrought development of theme, Gertie finds herself in a jam. She must get the family back home. To do so requires money. A store in Detroit will pay good money for a number of carvings, but she has spent their down payment to pay a bill. She needs wood. She cannot buy any, so she decides to cut her image of Christ into pieces. Striking the work of art with an axe and a sledge is a virtual crucifixion, a criminal act. Yet it is the death of the Christ that brings salvation. The Christ is resurrected in the new works Gertie makes, bringing new life to her and her family.

Fonda’s portrait is far from romantic. Gertie gets tired. She gets anxious. She suffers extreme depression when a daughter is killed by a train. But faith is present, and Fonda makes it shine through. Her portrait is a sermon on Paul’s words: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed … struck down, but not destroyed … always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested …” (2 Cor. 4:8–10).

True to Fonda form, the film expresses feminism, but even that is biblical. Gertie’s mother misquotes the Bible when she says, “Be ye in subjugation to your husband.…” Gertie responds by leaving her newly purchased homestead to join her husband in Detroit. She learns, painfully, that submission cannot be equated with abject surrender. There is a spirit within every human that cannot be repressed without suffering torment. Two of Gertie’s neighbors discover that and respond in unbiblical ways: one becomes an alcoholic, the other deserts her husband.

Gertie, on the other hand, responds with what can be called creative intervention. She contests her husband’s foolishness much the way the Bible’s Abigail contested that of her spouse. Both worked to save lives as well as marriages. Abigail’s husband refused to submit to his wife’s wisdom; he died a fool’s death. Mr. Nevels practices the biblical concept of mutual submission, and enhanced love and joy result.

The Dollmaker is a story of Christian faith put to work. Unlike many films that have come out of Parachurch production companies, this secular work shares a gospel that is elegant and cogent. Early in the film, Gertie’s mother essentially asks her daughter, “Don’t you want to be saved?” Gertie does not answer. Instead, she goes on to demonstrate a lifestyle that is truly evangelistic, one filled to overflowing with grace.

Since the film apparently came from outside the church, Christians may well ask, “How could this movie treat the Christian faith with such integrity and speak with such fluency?” Filmmakers within the church ought to ask such a question and let The Dollmaker serve as a model.

Mr. Wright is director of church communications at the Terrace Shores Evangelical Free Church in Green Lake, Wisconsin.

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