The Unexpected Lesson of Secretariat

SecretariatIt’s no secret: my girls love horses.

And along with that love comes another love: for horse movies. One family-friendly movie we came across a while back—and one we’ve probably seen a half-dozen times—is Secretariat. Now, this movie isn’t perfect; there is some brief, mild language. But as for sports movie about beating impossible odds, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more powerful one.

Nope, this article is no review of the movie (Focus on the Family has a good review here) but rather a critique of its message. But to understand the takeaway value of this article requires at least an elementary understanding of what the movie is about. Here’s a brief synopsis:

[Spoiler alert] Penny Tweedy goes against all odds and even risks her financial stability and family relationships to save the family horse-breeding business by winning the Triple Crown  in 1973 (that’s three of the biggest US horse races) with her horse Secretariat, who becomes the greatest thoroughbred racehorse of all time.

As I mentioned, the stakes for Penny are high. After her father dies, the logical move would be to sell the family farm, since it’s already going into debt. But Penny decides to save the farm by taking a big gamble on her horse. According to Focus on the Family,

For [Penny], “winning” means saving and keeping her father’s farm to preserve his legacy. To do so means making some serious sacrifices: She leaves her home and family in Denver for sometimes weeks at a time. And while she tries to be as supportive and motherly as she can, as you watch the movie, you can tell she feels the loss. One night, Penny listens to her daughter perform in a pageant by phone. And as she hears her daughter sing “Silent Night,” connected only by a receiver more than 1,000 miles away, she breaks down in tears…

For Penny, the “right” thing is to save the family breeding operation. To do that, she needs Secretariat to be a world-class success. And to make that happen, she must sacrifice something. She must sacrifice time with her family.

Now, every parent knows that sometimes he or she must sacrifice time with the family for another cause. But this absence should be an exception rather than the rule. That’s why Penny’s example bothers me. I think she goes too far in the movie, and her choices reveal her misplaced priorities. The author of the article quoted above echoes some of the uneasiness I feel each time I watch the movie.

Penny’s marriage isn’t so good, and she hardly even sees her kids. She’s driven to succeed—but at what price? Is saving the farm more important than nurturing her marriage or spending adequate time with her children? Why not just sell the farm and move on with her life? Her husband is a lawyer, and judging by the family home, they are doing quite well as it is. She could do that, but she doesn’t.

Why not? Because ultimately she’s driven to win. “My father’s legacy is the will to win,” Penny says. But is winning at all costs really a noble goal, given her priorities as a wife and mother? Penny’s problem is that she’s willing to sacrifice what’s nearest and dearest to her to win and keep the family farm. She puts things before people. She also pursues her own goals at the exclusion of the advice and authority of her husband.

Please understand me. I love this movie. I enjoy seeing Penny succeed and watching Secretariat fly over the finish line. I love to see her win in the end, save the farm, and—I might add—end up being a very wealthy woman. And the movie teaches some good lessons too. “You never know how far you can go unless you run,” Penny says. Memorable quotes from the book of Job also appear in the movie in several scenes.

But does the fact that Penny won justify her bad priorities?

Ultimately, the message I question is a pragmatic one. That’s judging whether something is right or wrong based on its results (the end justifies the means). According to pragmatism, because Penny won in the end, her misplaced priorities are forgivable. But what’s the Christian’s response?

The longer I’m alive, the more convinced I am that pragmatism is a curse, and unfortunately this thinking has permeated our lives—and even our churches—more than we realize. So I’m not surprised to see it in a Disney movie.

God has given us priorities for home and church. God willing, I put my family before my dreams, not the other way around. (This is why my focus is on providing for my family before finishing the next novel.) I don’t judge the rightness or wrongness of my actions based on my desire for a good outcome. Based on the Bible, I should do what’s right. Period. Bob Jones Sr. said this truth another way: “It is never right to do wrong in order to get a chance to do right.”

Lest I end this article on a sour note, let me conclude by saying that Secretariat is a terrific movie about beating incredible odds. Certainly check it out. This a feel-good movie you won’t want to miss. But as you watch it, be sure to see its message for what it is and remind yourself of what the Bible teaches about godly priorities.

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2 thoughts on “The Unexpected Lesson of Secretariat

  1. Heather Day Gilbert

    I agree and I thought the same thing as I watched her spin out more and more from her family. Bottom line–family has to be first, because God gave us that spouse and those children for a reason, and if we neglect that responsibility, it will catch up with us. I’m all for following dreams, going for them with all you have…but if that interferes with your responsibilities, I don’t think that is God’s will and I do think He will let us know that.

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