Sin and the Birds

On Sunday at church I preached on the concept of Sin, using Alfred Hitchcocks’ The Birds as a tool. I first saw the film as a kid and was fascinated with the concept of birds attacking people (which does happen here in Australia when magpies get a bit overprotective during spring.)

On Sunday I spoke about the way in which sin has become quite an unfashionable topic both inside and outside of the church. In The Age newspaper the religious affairs reporter Barney Zwartz noted the following regarding the concept of sin in the modern world

” “Sin” has been disappearing for a while. American psychiatrist Karl Menninger (a non-believer) wrote in 1973 in Whatever Happened to Sin? that the word was rarely heard. “Does that mean that no sin is involved in all our troubles – sin with an ‘I’ in the middle? Is no one any longer guilty of anything? Guilty perhaps of a sin that could be repented and repaired or atoned for? Is it only that someone may be stupid or sick or criminal – or asleep?

This trend has accelerated. Look at celebrities who get into trouble and have to apologise. Perish the thought that they were callous, brutal, treacherous, selfish, insensitive, self-indulgent or greedy – they “made a mistake”. It is a phrase emptied of moral content by comparison with the alternatives. A mistake is when you take the wrong turn while driving; keeping on until you have overrun Poland is not a “mistake”.

No one is guilty any more, they are all victims. Modern psychology has reached the paradoxical conclusion that society can be collectively guilty (as with the recent stolen generations apology), even though it is comprised of individuals who are all innocent.”

Barney Zwartz.  The Resurrection of Sin  The Age Mar 21 2008

Zwartz’s accurate observations make Hitchcock’s study of sin in the Birds all the more relevant. To understand The Birds you have to realize that the Bird attacks that occur throughout the film are simply symbolic of the chaos and confusion caused by human sin and brokenness. The movie is set in the sleepy Northern Californian town of Bodega bay. An innocent romance begins between Mitch (played by Rod Taylor) a handsome bachelor and Melanie (played by Tippi Hedren) a beautiful socialite. However the movie explores in depth the interpersonal chaos that this relationship brings into the town and the family of Mitch. Every bird attack is preceded by a conversation in which one of the characters expresses pain that another has caused them. The film critic Donald Spoto says of the theological significance of the symbolism of the bird attacks,

“It would be…accurate to say that the attacks are the emblematic of original sin, the basic selfishness and weakness to which everyone is susceptible, to which every generation contributes and which causes even the innocent to suffer by virtue of their mere presence in the world…The birds are, then, humans forces of deception and abuse, representing all the unacknowledged frailties and imperceptions with which, however unwillingly, we hurt each other. The culprits of the story are not psychotics or people who murder or steal; they’re folks just like us, people who hold one another with less honor than they deserve, who without commitments tease and play and act selfishly, refusing to go deeper than the shallows.” 

Donald Spoto. The Art of Alfred Hitchcock  pg 336

Thus The Birds has a counter cultural message which speaks clearly to our society which is obsessed with rights over responsibility and victim-hood over moral accountability. The brokenness and hurt within us causes us to in turn hurt others. In one scene in the film, Hitchcock has a group of children playing blind-man’s bluff, this was deliberately inserted by the director as a metaphor for how we humans blindly injure others with our own dysfunctions. We are all responsible for our actions, if modern science has taught us anything, it is that we live in a symbiotic universe, in which every action affects our environment.

The end shot of the birds is of Melanie and Mitch’s family slowly driving away from their home which is now overrun with Birds. Hitchcock deliberately had no “The End’ appear at the conclusion of his film, it is a frighteningly shocking message, that left unchecked the unredeemed human will has the potential to overrun creation. Hitchcock’s creatively retells the message of Genesis and the fall. We cannot simply divide the world into good and bad camps, we are all responsible for wrong in the world.

The ending of the BIrds is quite nhillistic, however the end of history as told by the Bible paints a world freed from the destruction caused by human sin and brokeness.


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