Ledger’s death, like his career, forces self-examination

Tuesday, about 3 p.m. I was walking out of the Wellness Center when I saw the report of actor Heath Ledger’s death on the lobby television. I nearly wept. He was one of the more talented young actors to come along in some time. Ledger didn’t court the kind of cheap celebrity that Hollywood often promotes. He was brooding, yes, but also a serious, committed artist.

Wednesday I was eating lunch in my car, listening to American Family Radio. The commentators did well denouncing a press release they’d received essentially mocking Ledger’s death. The release said something to the effect of “He lost his eternal soul promoting homosexuality,” referring to Ledger’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of a gay cowboy in the 2005 film “Brokeback Mountain.”

Where does the kind of hate, found in this press release, come from? How can anyone confuse that with the teachings of Jesus Christ?

How dare any person pronounce on the soul of another. What gives any of us the right or knowledge to make any statement about where another person will spend eternity – no matter how “sure” we are about our own reading of the Bible or God’s will?

The AFR commentators got it right, saying, to paraphrase, this is exactly the kind of thing that leads non-Christians to see Christians as mean, self-righteous people.

Well done AFR. I would take it one step further.

Oscar Wilde – a homosexual, also one of the most revered literary figures of the late nineteenth century – in the preface to his novel “The Portrait of Dorian Grey” said that art is neither moral nor immoral, a statement with which I wholeheartedly agree.

Putting aside the issue of whether or not homosexuality is intrinsically immoral, exactly how did Ledger “promote” it? In his portrayal of a homosexual? Did Johnny Depp’s performance in “Pirates of the Caribbean” promote piracy? What kind of reasoning is this?

Ledger was an artist, portraying, quite well, the human condition. His soulful performances, like all great art, met us at that place where our prejudices collide with our most primordial, unprotected feelings.

I thought Ledger was brilliant – tortured – in “Brokeback Mountain” as he was in “Monster’s Ball.” When I saw those movies I was challenged to examine who I am and what I stand for. That’s a process that all people of faith need to continue throughout their lives. What good is faith or convictions if they’re not challenged?

I take real exception with people equating an artist with his or her work. I take special exception when people go a step further and pronounce, based on that art, about a person’s spirituality – even their salvation!

Heath Ledger was a fine artist who died too young. We’ll never know how great he could have been. His performances pulled back the veneer of social convention and presented the troubling, darker side of human life. In my mind, Ledger was touched by God. God rest his soul.

Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or galen.holley@djournal.com.