In The Black Phone’s third act, a little girl named Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) leaps out of bed and rushes toward her dollhouse. Opening it, she pulls out several pieces of Christian iconography, including a rosary, an ichthus with the word “Jesus” written inside, and a cross. Falling to her knees, she clutches the cross and looks up to the sky.
“Jesus, what the f***?” she begins.
Some Christians will be taken aback by Gwen’s profanity-laced prayer. But all of us have come to God with our anger, especially when we find ourselves in a dire situation, as Gwen does. Her prayer comes in response to the disappearance of her brother Finney (Mason Thames), one of many boys who have been kidnapped by a man known only as The Grabber (Ethan Hawke). During the summer of 1978, The Grabber has been tormenting the citizens of a North Denver neighborhood, as demonstrated by the trail of “Missing” posters littering the city’s walls. In her dreams, Gwen has visions of black balloons, providing the police with their only clues. But her foresight can’t seem to help her brother.
Unbeknownst to Gwen, Finney does receive supernatural help in the form of a broken black phone in his basement cell. Although The Grabber assures Finney that the phone does not work, that no one will ever hear his cries, it does occasionally ring. When Finney finally answers the phone, he hears the voices of dead boys—The Grabber's other victims, each of whom helps Finney by relating their experiences.
For viewers, the black phone and Gwen’s visions count as outrageous supernatural occurrences, examples of God breaking reality to come to Finney’s aid. But director Scott Derrickson, working from writer C. Robert Cargill’s adaptation of a Joe Hill short story, keeps things grounded. In sequences shot on period-appropriate, Super 8 film, the movie features images that you’d find in many American neighborhoods, even today—children riding their bikes and playing baseball, kids tending to their scraped knees and bloody noses.
The Black Phone takes place in a world we all recognize, complete with unexplainable violence. In our lives, many of us respond to bad things happening much like Gwen does. Earlier in the film, after one of his friends disappears, Finney asks Gwen to try to have visions to help them find the boy. As she will do later in the movie, Gwen goes to her dollhouse to retrieve her articles of faith—her cross, ichthus, and rosary—and say her prayer.
“I know you don’t get involved,” Gwen prays. “But if you send me some sort of vision to help, I promise I’ll follow you forever.” With this type of bargaining, it’s no surprise that Gwen is angry when she repeats the prayer later in the movie. At the end of her curse-filled prayer, Gwen says, “Don’t tell me that you don’t get involved because you’ve been giving me these dreams.” But as soon as the words come out of her mouth, the logic of her prayer comes together. “Unless,” she wonders with a long pause. “Unless you’re not even real.”
All of us have come to God with our anger, especially when we find ourselves in a dire situation.
Like Gwen’s cursing, this logic will be troubling to Christians, even as we can relate. We constantly come to God with our problems, heaping “thoughts and prayers” on the worst parts of the world, demanding that God fix the world through magic tricks. When no miracle occurs to make everything better, we doubt God—God’s power and perhaps even God’s existence.
In Matthew 12, we get a pretty good idea of what God thinks about our demands for direct intervention. When a group of Pharisees and teachers of the law demand, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you,” Jesus responds with a rebuke. “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign!” he tells them. For Jesus, focusing on signs and miracles misses the point of his works. It focuses on power, on an idea of a God that is similar to Gwen’s conclusion: a God who doesn’t get involved in the lives of human beings. This God simply shows up to dazzle followers with superpowers and then leaves humanity be. But this isn’t the way of Christ.
Had the teachers of the law paid closer attention, they would have seen the true sign of God’s presence: the way Jesus sits with a Samaritan woman, puts his hands in the mud to heal a blind man, and pays attention to others who are dejected. This God doesn't manifest in magic tricks, but in the work of people who love God and love each other.
German theologian Dorothee Sölle put it best when she described God not as one whose “power and domination” demand worship, but rather shares power with others. “Here our relationship to God is not one of obedience, but of union,” writes Sölle. “[I]t is not a matter of a distant God exacting sacrifice and self-denial, but rather a matter of agreement and consent, of being at one with what is alive.” In other words, the sign of God’s presence comes not through a miracle, but in the hard work of serving others.
While most examples of humans helping one another in The Black Phone involve the ghosts who share their knowledge with Finney, the movie subtly makes a more direct call to action. Each time that Gwen prays, she looks up to the sky. But the actor is really looking directly at the camera. In other words, when Gwen prays for God to do something about the evil in the world, she's also looking at us. The Black Phone reminds us viewers that, although God is capable of great miracles, it’s often our hands and feet that serve as God’s presence.