Life Lessons from ‘The Bishop’s Wife’

My favorite Christmas movie is The Bishop’s Wife. Never heard of it? You’re not alone; I’ve met very few people who have heard of it, let alone seen it.

My family first came across The Bishop’s Wife on TV one Christmas and we loved it. Starring our favorite actor Cary Grant (whom my brother writes about religiously), it follows the story of a bishop (David Niven) who has focused so much of his attention on building a cathedral that he loses sight of the meaning of Christmas and neglects his family. That’s when Grant comes in as an angel to help Niven repair his relationships and focus on what’s important. There’s a bit of magic and some laughs with Grant’s antics; overall it’s a beautiful and meaningful Christmas film.

So why haven’t many people heard of The Bishop’s Wife? It’s not an obscure movie; it features big name actors and there was even a remake in 1996 called The Preacher’s Wife. But The Bishop’s Wife is a black-and-white movie made in 1947, and people seem to be turning away from classic Christmas movies. Among the many people I’ve heard talking about their favorite Christmas movies on social media, most of them have been recommending movies like Elf, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and Love Actually. I might have come across one person who said their favorite movie is White Christmas, but I have yet to see movies like It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street listed as favorites.

I do enjoy watching some of the more recent Christmas movies, but they just don’t compare to the classics. Not only are many of the more recent movies crude or corny, but most of them don’t embrace the heart-warming values and virtues of many of the classics. Some of the classics even include *gasp* religious themes (many people seem to have forgotten that Christmas is a religious holiday; even the history of the original Santa Claus is religious). Both It’s a Wonderful Life and The Bishop’s Wife feature guardian angels that help repair a character’s life, and It’s a Wonderful Life even begins with people praying.

But the most compelling things about The Bishop’s Wife is the values it promotes. It was made right after World War II during a time of increasing prosperity; the movie points out, however, that too many people were forgetting the importance of family. As a taxi driver in the movie says, “The main trouble is there are too many people who don’t know where they’re going and they want to get there too fast!” Niven has been neglecting his wife and daughter while he focuses on fundraising for his cathedral, and Grant comes in to help change his unilateral focus. In the end, Niven comes to understand that the money he originally wanted for his cathedral would be better used elsewhere, and he begins to repair his relationship with his family.

While our economy may not be as booming as it was after World War II, I think the lessons of The Bishop’s Wife may be even more valuable now than they were then. With technology and social media providing so many distractions, and with a work culture that values climbing the career ladder more than creating work-life balance (claims of being overwhelmingly busy are now held up as a kind of status symbol), our family relationships and friendships are suffering. Sure, apps like Tinder can offer endless one night stands, but should we really be celebrating a culture where people spend more time online than with their loved ones? Where convenience has replaced conviviality, even during the holidays? Spending time together as a family is valuable, especially for children; children with healthy family relationships are well-adjusted, are less likely to be obese, are less likely to be violent, perform better academically, have fewer behavioral problems, and the list goes on and on.

So this Christmas season, don’t neglect classic movies like The Bishop’s Wife because they’re old or because you think they’re outdated. The lessons about family and the meaning of Christmas that these movies promote are timeless and worth remembering and celebrating this holiday season.

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  • Thaddeus Wert

    Thank you for sharing how special this movie is. My wife and daughters love it, and we watch it every year. My favorite scene is when Cary Grant’s character tells the little girl how David was inspired to compose the 23rd Psalm. Also, the bottomless bottle of sherry is hilarious.

    We also enjoy the original Christmas in Connecticut with Barbara Stanwyck, and Miracle on 34th St. Even though these old classics are all in black and white, movies like Elf pale in comparison.

    • thomasjax

      Everything that is important about “The Bishop’s Wife” is embodied in the story of the 23rd Psalm. Everything the movie is about is embraced in the moment Dudley breaks off the story: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. … You can take it from here, Henry.” This was a jolting reminder the bishop had forgotten who was the shepherd, and who the flock, and his role in the divine arrangement.

      • Thaddeus Wert

        Exactly right! No wonder that’s my favorite scene.

  • RWA

    It’s A Wonderful Life is one of my favorite movies of all time and any time.

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