What 'Whiplash' can teach us Print
Word on Fire
Thursday, Apr. 02, 2015 -- 12:00 AM

Over the years, there have been numerous films that feature the character of the "monster-mentor," by which I mean an elder who forms a young apprentice through the toughest kind of tough love.

Think of Lou Gossett, Jr.'s character in An Officer and a Gentleman who puts Richard Gere's young Navy recruit brutally through his paces; or of the awful drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket who ruthlessly prepares one young man to be a soldier, even as he leads another to commit suicide; or of Pai-Mei in Kill Bill, Vol. 2, the Kung-Fu master who brow-beats one recruit until she is able to put her fist through a four-inch thick piece of wood.

Fostering talent

The latest and in many ways the most arresting instantiation of this character is Terrence Fletcher, the frightening and fascinating jazz band conductor in Damien Chazelle's Whiplash.

Played by the always compelling J.K. Simmons, Fletcher is a lean, mean, musical fighting machine, who has committed himself to bringing out the best in his talented students through a program of verbal abuse, intimidation, constant competition, and mental cruelty.

He has his eye on a young drum prodigy named Andrew Neiman, who has ambitions of becoming the next Buddy Rich. In their time together, Fletcher calls Andrew every demeaning name in the book, slaps him across the face, berates his parents, hurls a cymbal at him, kicks over his drum kit, and drives the teenager so hard that Andrew's blood covers his drums.

In his frenzy to get to a crucial performance on time, Andrew is involved in a serious auto accident, but so determined is he to live up to his mentor's expectations that, bloodied and with broken bones, he staggers to his kit, only to be informed by Fletcher that he has been dismissed from his position with the band.

Relentless pressure

In time, Fletcher lays out his philosophy to his young charge. Charlie Parker, arguably the greatest saxophonist in history, became a master of his instrument only because his teacher did not allow him to settle for mediocrity but pushed him relentlessly.

Without this intense pressure, Fletcher explains, the world would never have received the gift that Parker was uniquely qualified to give. So he, Fletcher, is now using any means necessary in order to foster a comparable talent.

I don't want to give away more of the plot, but after a spectacular act of cruelty, the master coaxes from his disciple a transcendently beautiful performance.

This thought-provoking film raises all sorts of questions about teaching, fatherhood, the moral cost of aesthetic excellence, the legitimacy of psychological manipulation, etc., and one of its virtues is that it doesn't pretend neatly to resolve any of these complexities.

Spiritual mentoring

What interests me is the light it sheds on the issue of spiritual mentoring.

In the period after Vatican II, when I was coming of age in the Catholic Church, great stress was placed on self-acceptance and self-esteem. Spiritual direction was largely a matter of "walking with" a directee, helping him find his own way on his own terms.

With Whiplash in mind, I wonder whether we paid too high a price for spiritual mediocrity, failing to call a generation of seekers to real excellence.

If we reach back into the great tradition, we find examples of spiritual masters who, though not exactly monsters, certainly shared some of the toughness of Pai-Mei or Terrence Fletcher.

There is a story in the Benedictine tradition of a postulate and his mentor. The older monk took the aspirant to a lake deep in the woods and told the young man to get in the water. Then he held the boy's head under water. Finally, he released him and the young man gasped for air. "When you need God as desperately as you need that air," the teacher explained, "come back to the monastery."

Tough direction

In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola laid out a program designed to encourage detachment from worldly goods that we tend to value more than God. He told his charges agere contra (to act against) whatever lures them away from God.

I recall that when I first did an eight-day Jesuit retreat, under the guidance of a tough director, I was exhilarated by the demands placed on me. I wasn't being told that I was fine; on the contrary, I was reminded of my sin and told to do very definite things to get my act together.

Please don't misunderstand me: I don’t think that Terrence Fletcher is an impeccable model of spiritual leadership, nor do I support violence as a means of personal development.

But I do think that we can learn something important from him, namely that lack of toughness on the part of the mentor can indeed conduce toward mediocrity in the student. If we see the truth of this in regard to Kung-Fu fighting or drumming, shouldn't we see it in regard to what matters most?


Fr. Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and is the rector/president of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. Learn more at www.WordOnFire.org