In evaluating which character in Magnolia represents the “poor in spirit”, we must first find a satisfactory understanding of the phrase.
Humility is one interpretation. Chrysostom believed the blessing to be for those who were intentionally “humble and contrite in mind.” Robert Schuller writes we are to “humble our attitude … ask for help.” By this definition, I don’t think any characters in Magnolia can be viewed as poor in spirit.. The closest would be Phil, the nurse, humble enough to order Hustler and spend hours begging with strangers on the phone in order to help his dying patient make amends with his son. However, not much personal humility is required in order to ask on the behalf of another; it costs more to receive than to give.
Let’s try again. Brown proposes that the phrase means “those who are oppressed by the rich and powerful.” In which case, I turn to the Exodus allegory of Magnolia, set up most obviously by the falling frogs, the most prominent of the many references to Exodus 8:2, “I will smite thy borders with frogs.” Throughout the film it is thethe children, both young and grown (Claudia, Frank, Dixon, Donnie, and Stanley), who are enslaved and exploited for the benefit of their fathers, who represent the Egyptians. The children are “poor in spirit”, used and exploited for sexual gratification or financial gain, and ignored by those in a position to help. This is satisfying as a reenacting of the oppression in Exodus, and yet as I watch the film I cannot help but be empathetic toward the pain of the adults. Earl abandoned his son, yes, but I feel for him in his remorse. Jimmy might have molested his daughter, and yet he’s not an entirely unlikable character, no matter how much I want him to be. Why would PT Anderson construct these characters in such a way if they are meant to be hated?
There is yet another definition of what it means to be poor in spirit. In this understanding, “poor in spirit” is not a virtue to attain nor a socioeconomic circumstance. It is a negative term, depicting the losers, the outsiders, the people who don’t deserve to be blessed. Dallas Willard re-writes the verse, “Blessed are the spiritual zeros—the spiritually bankrupt, deprived and deficient, the spiritual beggars, those without a wisp of ‘religion’,” theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. When “poor in spirit” stops being one more requirement for entry, it is freed to truly be a blessing upon those have no reason to be blessed. This is an understanding to which every character in Magnolia can say: well, that’s good news.
The Kingdom of Heaven is for the divorcees, the uncared for children, the lonely, the child molesters, promiscuous seducers, adulterers, greedy exploiters, thieves, and coke addicts.
Who is poor in spirit in this film? I ask back: who isn’t?
This piece was written as an assignment for Reading Practices with Jo-Ann Badley, responding to the question “Who, if anyone, represents the poor in spirit in the film Magnolia?”