Taxi Driver (1976)—Scenes from the Last Transition

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

If I could travel back in time, visiting any period of time, one period I would want to visit, walk in, and try to experience is the 1970s.

I was there, sort of. I was a young child, with no awareness of the extent to which American society was suffering through turmoil then. Thus it would be personally meaningful to understand what I barely missed, or what barely missed me. It would be interesting to relive that time as an adult instead of a child, to know what the particular color and chaos of that time felt like while it was happening.

As David Frum described in his book, How We Got Here: The 70’s: The Decade that Brought You Modern Life (For Better or Worse), this was the decade in which many of the building blocks of the experience of the decades that followed all appeared. Computers as commonplace elements of the workplace started here. ATMs began training consumers to make transactions directly with automation. Wage stagnation began then, though no one knew it at the time. One generation after the end of World War II, its combatant nations recovered to become global business competitors. None of these things were features of the landscape in 1969, but they were present by 1979. No one would argue that the years from 1980 forward were stable, but for better or worse (as Frum says), a different status quo took hold during the 1970s and it prevailed through the decades to follow. This decade was thus a time of transition. But of course, while it was happening, the decade must have felt like a time of unraveling.

The 1976 film Taxi Driver is a reaction to the unraveling. Of all the movies I have watched so far as part of my 20th Century Film Project, this one is the most embedded into its period. For a 21st-century viewer, the plot touches so many of our own modern pain points that just to summarize the plot is to induce wincing (a reaction that became more pronounced for me when I just recently learned—I hadn’t known this—that the film held a fascination for attempted presidential assassin John Hinckley). Here is a synopsis:

An emotionally troubled man who deals with his insomnia by working as a taxi driver, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) becomes romantically drawn to Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a woman who works for the campaign of a senator running for president. Bickle also experiences a moment when a juvenile prostitute (Jodie Foster) flees into his cab to try to escape her pimp (Harvey Keitel), but the pimp captures her and lures her back. Betsy rebuffs Bickle, and in his distress and loneliness combined with his conviction that crime has become rampant, he purchases various firearms from a black market dealer, and works to become proficient not only at using them but at concealing them. The viewer assumes he might be plotting against the presidential candidate. But ultimately he makes a solo raid on the hotel serving as the pimp’s headquarters, killing various people in a bloody gauntlet that ultimately results in his being able to liberate the child prostitute. Letters from this girl’s parents later tell us she has been restored to them and has returned to a stable, safe and healthy life. Hearing about the taxi driver’s victory, Betsy comes to visit him as a passenger in his cab, clearly now favoring him over the candidate as one able to respond to the problems she has been working to address. In some sense, though, Bickle has found peace, a peace independent of her, and he lets her out of the cab and drives away without pursuing a relationship.

From our perspective four decades later, a number of objections to this plot seem obvious, related to problems with the story’s premises that apparently were not noticeable to the moviemakers or the audience at the time. All of the following statements are so obvious (it seems to me) that it feels absurd to present them in the way that I am about to, in a numbered list. For us, this movie disagrees with what the sad tragedies of commonplace news events have taught us in all of the following ways:

1. Dealing with depression by obtaining firearms and pursuing a violent plan is the work of a dangerous man, not a potential hero.

2. For lone individuals to unilaterally choose the enemies of society and act to dispense with them is the way of horror, not justice.

3. The runaway trapped in the life she had come to (no doubt trapped in drug abuse as well) would have faced a fight to resist being drawn back into the world that had captured her the first time. The people who love her would face this fight, too. A letter in essence saying, “Everything is OK,” seems too pat as an ending to the problems of this tragic character.

4. A man known to have carried out multiple killings could not simply return to his life without consequences, as Bickle did in the movie. Hopefully the justice system would haunt him to establish whether the killing was justified. Presumably emotional consequences would haunt him even if it was.

Perhaps the most disagreeable point of all is Bickle’s peace and contentment within that resumed life. The implication is that an episode of righteous mass killing was the therapy this troubled soul needed to end his pain.

Yet this illogical movie apparently made perfect sense against its illogical time. The escalating crime rate then seemed as though it would continue escalating. Extreme solutions must have seemed a sane response to the prospect of society-wide insanity.

That escalation did not indefinitely continue. Certain types of violent crime would go on to crest in frequency and now have been in decline. But then again, the level to which the national violent crime rate has now fallen is not that much lower than the level to which it had risen in Bickle’s time. It might be argued that we have acclimated to that crime rate now, accepted it as another element of what is normal, and moved on to other concerns. If so, then the kind of street crime portrayed in this movie (making parts of the city “an open sewer,” says Bickle) is another element appearing between 1969 and 1980 that became an established feature of the world to come.

We have our own society-wide problems to loom before us now. Indeed, what this movie makes clear with its very datedness is that we ourselves, right now, are living through another time of transition. If the 1970s were the period in America bringing social turmoil and instability on a level that had not been seen since the 1930s, then the period we are in right now is the next great time of turmoil after this. The movie is dated because it deals exclusively and entirely with the social issues of the previous transition.

Today, it is not the safety of the streets but the effectiveness or relevance of institutions that has come undone. The abilities of the public and private sectors to carry out their most basic expected roles related to preparing citizens and providing for them seem in question. In fact, we see a measure of what has changed in the very first scene of the movie. Bickle does something in the movie’s opening scene that the movie takes for granted as a possibility not in question. That is, Bickle walks into a place of employment seeking a job—a full-time job able to comfortably provide for his needs—and the employer has this to offer, and chooses to give Bickle the opportunity he is prepared for and the one he seeks.

The society down whose streets I walk seems to have lost the trick of this matchmaking. Stores, restaurants, and other businesses show help-wanted signs in abundance, while the ranks of unemployed swell with the uncounted many who are unemployed chronically or long-term, and somehow one is not a match for the other. The citizen with no job and the job with no prospective hire somehow do not see what they need in one another.

To be sure, Bickle had to prove himself to the employer. He had to reassure him he is available to work as needed. “Anytime, anywhere,” he accommodatingly says. But the employer in this scene was readily looking to employ, and on terms they both understood and agreed upon. Perhaps the streets of the 1970s were as miserable as the movie’s main character claims, but the scripting of this opening scene seems to assume that people were walking in off those streets seeking jobs and finding jobs—jobs they could do, jobs that followed the logic they expected, jobs they had been prepared for, jobs that paid their way. Is that assumption still valid?

We are going through a time of change, and the nature of jobs and work is a part of what is changing. The basic elements of what will be the new status quo are appearing now, and likely have already appeared, whether we yet recognize them or not. New people are among us who don’t fit the old roles. New roles have appeared even though we are not yet the people to fill them. Could Travis Bickle’s story make sense in this world that is coming into being; could it make sense from the very opening scene? That is, in a world of Uber, could he have found work as a taxi driver?

Patton (1970)—And Yet Also Joy

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

“There’s one big difference between you and me, George. I do this job because I’ve been trained to do it. You do it because you love it.” —Karl Malden as General Omar Bradley to George C. Scott as General George Patton

Joy and happiness are two different things. I’ve written about this. The film Patton portrays the difference vividly in one particular passage of the movie. Relieved from active command of combat troops in the midst of World War II, sidelined from the events leading up to the D-Day invasion, General Patton (George C. Scott) is left to drift in luxury through the mansion in Sicily his staff is using as his headquarters. He looks awkward in a robe. Denied the chance to pursue or follow in his calling, he is without joy. So his men try to give him happiness instead. They try to console him, offering, “I thought you might like a sip of wine,” “I thought you might like some milk or a hot bath.” But luxury is a consolation for others. What he needs is fulfillment of purpose. He regains joy in that moment—we see the moment later in the movie—when he is leading soldiers who are cold and without a hot meal as they move quickly out of one battle toward another where they have been sent. The 19th century general William Tecumseh Sherman famously said, “War is hell” (or “War is all hell”—accounts vary). The General Patton of this movie would not have disagreed. Yet for him war is also the context his purpose needs, the one context in which he might fully and truly find joy. In the midst of the march, we see him fall in among the glumly advancing men he is leading, talking to them freely in a way he was unable to talk to his staff members earlier who were trying to comfort him.

The pain of unfulfilled purpose is a part of life in this world. The book Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, is partly about this. The “outliers” his title refers to are the ones who, largely by accident, have actually found their way into doing what they were seemingly born to do. They are outliers because there are far more people in our world who do not find their way into a full expression of their gifts. For example, just consider the ordinary misfortune of gifted people born into poverty whom our society has no way to identify or to channel into their gifts’ fulfillment. Lives such as theirs are lived against a backdrop of unfulfilled purpose, which is an altogether commonplace pain.

Jesus said his joy will be in us and our joy will be complete (John 15:11). I think it must be that the provision for the fulfillment of our purpose is part of what is bound up in this promise. Each of us was made unique and each of us was made for a purpose, if not various purposes. This broken and incomplete world keeps us from finding the fulfillment of those purposes, but now God has begun remaking the world. Those who are called by him, called into faith, have purposes within his plan for this remaking. We frequently do not recognize these purposes, because none of us can claim to know God’s plan well enough to see our own small place within it. Yet by means of the Spirit that fills them and the circumstances created around them, God is now moving people into places of purpose, places of joy.

Is it okay that I just used a war general as the illustration by which to convey this point about Jesus’ promise of joy? It is okay. Generals are part of creation, even an intended part. At present, we know there is an insurrection even in heaven—a war. In some fashion, there must be generals in this conflict as well. God is bringing not just a new earth but a new heaven along with it (Revelation 21:1), and presumably strife will be brought to an end in both. But still, everything we see here on earth is a veiled hint at the form God intends, the true form waiting beyond. If there are generals here and arguably generals also in heaven, there must be something comparable in the world to come, even after the wars on earth and the war in heaven are over. Somehow, there will be figures who organize and lead others through endeavors of great cost and striving, even if the outcome of those endeavors is no longer to be the worldly hell that General Sherman knew.

I don’t know if the moviemakers responsible for Patton were mocking General Patton in the opening scene of the film, that famous scene in which he is standing alone before a big American flag. This movie would have been filmed during the Vietnam War; perhaps there was an undercurrent flowing through this film’s creation, a mood of questioning or recoiling from admiration for generalship. In that famous opening scene, a huge flag surrounds a man who is small by comparison. But then in the movie’s final scene, we see something different. We see Patton walking out of the story by walking across a battlefield now empty because the war is over. The purpose he was given to pursue by his Creator is ultimately bigger than the tiny war in which this calling was given expression. 

Tiny? You might object; it was a world war, the biggest in history. Of course that’s true. However, it was a world war limited to just this world, which is finite and finished. We will have work to do and victories to win within the world that is to come.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)—The Religion of I Don’t Know

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

In the story of the Joads, unlike the story of Job, the whirlwind comes at the beginning.

The Grapes of Wrath (the film based on the John Steinbeck novel) tells the story of a poor Oklahoma family whose way of life is literally blown away by the winds of the Dust Bowl. The combination natural/manmade disaster of the plains in the 1930s resulted from unsustainable farming practices that left the soil no longer able to withstand wind erosion during drought. Dust storms left farms no longer productive in the Oklahoma panhandle and elsewhere, forcing sharecropper “Okies” to flee the land they knew in search of better prospects somewhere else in Depression America. The name Joad is a barely veiled allusion that the suddenness and totality of the losses befalling this family find their comparison in the losses inflicted upon the character from the Bible.

Except that this film also echoes another ancient work, because Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) is Job on an Odyssey. Holding together a nearly destitute family that includes elderly, children, and his pregnant sister, he drives them all across country by jalopy in a quest not toward home or even a new home, but toward the hope (a hope that decreases as they proceed toward it and learn more along the way) of wage-paying manual labor in California. But this story does indeed involve Job on the Odyssey-like quest, not Odysseus, because in this quest there is no sense of adventure or valor, just the desperation of declining options. Answering a remark about his bravery in setting out with failing truck across the southwestern desert, Tom says: “Takes no nerve to do something, ain’t nothin’ else you can do.”

The spiritual guide for this journey is Jim Casy (John Carradine), a former preacher who “lost the spirit,” by which he means he lost the feeling of conviction that what he was preaching has any worth. We first encounter Casy contentedly singing a song with the refrain, “He’s my savior.” It’s just that Casy no longer considers himself knowledgeable about that savior, nor about the Creator’s desire for him or others in this world. Late in the film, he says, “Tom, you gotta learn like I’m learnin’. I don’t know it right yet myself. That’s why I can’t ever be a preacher again. Preachers gotta know. I don’t know. I gotta ask.” I loved this character. I loved him because the soft-spoken Carradine plays him gracefully, but also because “I gotta ask” is where I find myself. In matters related to my Christian faith, I gotta ask, and in the face of those possessed of a feeling of conviction, the questions can come off as impertinent.

Carradine and Fonda as Casy and Joad
The Joads ultimately go the way of Jim Casy in regard to their hope about their own destiny. This is the victory the story gives them—freedom from the investment of desire and expectation in a particular outcome, meaning freedom from fear about that outcome, and freedom from despair if the hoped-for outcome doesn’t come. Ma Joad (Jane Darwell) proves to be the strength of the family after Tom has gone. She sees him off when he must flee because he has become a fugitive after killing a man in self-defense. On their way without Tom to another job opportunity, reacting to other family members’ excitement over the promise of 20 days of work picking cotton, she says: “Maybe 20 days’ work and maybe no days work. We aint got it ’til we get it.” But there is no despair in this, only acceptance. She goes on:

“Pa, a woman can change better’n a man. A man lives sorta—well, in jerks. Baby’s born or somebody dies, and that’s a jerk. He gets a farm or loses it, and that’s a jerk. With a woman, it’s all in one flow, like a stream—little eddies and waterfalls—but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it thata way.” 

She is contrasting a man and a woman, but she is describing just as much the arrival at a faith like Casy’s, a faith of “I don’t know.”

This, too, is reminiscent of the biblical book of Job. I’ve been writing about Job in previous posts. The book of Job is most significantly a book about a change in religion—a change in human understanding and expectations regarding God. The friends of Job in this book view God through the lens of earthly reward and retribution. God rewards those who are faithful to him, and God brings loss and hardship to those who displease him—that is their view. But the problem is: Job has been faithful to God, and Job is suffering. The religion of Job’s friends ultimately fails.

God appearing in a whirlwind at the end of the book of Job reveals a different religion to them. He asks 66 questions about the nature of the world and the means of its creation, to not one of which is Job or anyone present able to give an answer.

In the whirlwind, there is God. The religion of “I don’t know” has mystery at its heart, but not absence. Casy still sang of his savior. The religion of “I don’t know” finds its solace in the faith that God does know.

Job Has a Christian Message

Job was rich and healthy when he was obedient to God. God then allowed his health and his riches to be taken away.

Later, in the gospels, Jesus would make clear, “In this world, you will have trouble.” He said this to his disciples, the ones following him. In short, following Jesus does nothing to take trouble away.

Many who doubt God bring attention to the problem of suffering. They are missing the bigger problem: prosperity. If God allows someone who believes in him to do well, then what is the basis for belief?

God himself ought to be the motive for obeying God. God himself ought to be the reward for seeking God.

Job’s life was pruned down to get to this very point, to show this. We do not live within a rewards system. We live within a cosmos at the heart of which is our Creator.

Does Satan Appear in the Story of Job?

In his commentary on the book of Job, Hebrew Union College professor John Walton argues that Satan does not appear in the book. Or at least he does not necessarily appear. Walton says we have mistranslated the term hassatan in Job chapters 1 and 2 into the well-known proper name. A more fitting translation would be “challenger.” In other words, rather than Satan visiting the court of the Lord, what we see instead in Job 1-2 is simply an unnamed heavenly figure who is given license to address and question the Lord. This figure might be Satan, but the text offers no confirmation of this. Thus, there is not necessarily any component of evil or malice in the suffering that befalls Job.

Does this change to the set-up of the story change our sense of Job’s meaning?

Answer: This change actually serves to highlight the meaning that the set-up itself offers.

Because we are human beings fearful of suffering, we get caught up in this aspect of the story of Job and assume that this is what the story is about. In fact, the “challenge” that the challenger offers in Job 1-2 is not literally concerned with suffering. That is not the issue at stake. The issue at stake is instead the more problematic matter of pleasure, of comfort. Job is faithful, the challenger points out, but isn’t he simply faithful because he enjoys his comforts and his pleasures? If so, then the reason for Job’s faithfulness is Job himself, not God.

This point is frequently lost. The book of Job is frequently misrepresented and misconstrued as a work offering explanation and solace to those who suffer. But sufferers searching its text for that explanation or solace will not find it. Most of the text of the long work consists of assertions that are wrong, as the various characters assert their faulty explanations for Job’s predicament. Then, when God himself appears at the end, he has much to say, but he does not give Job any explanation for what has happened to him.

The book of Job is instead a work that argues against something far more than it argues for something.

The book argues against the position that we ought to see our misfortunes as punishment by God and our riches as favor by God. Neither is true. That is not what God is about; that is not how he runs his universe. The challenger was pointing out that, by making Job happy and rich, God was leaving room for Job to assume that this principle of reward-for-faithfulness really is the way the world works. The challenger was pointing out that God had left this false idea unaddressed in the way he ordered events. Thus, though Job faced trials within the book of Job, he was not the one being put on trial.

Job: A Dialog


THE SCENE:

Job was a prosperous and happy man, and he was obedient to God. Satan said: If I make him suffer, he will turn from you.

God said: I give you permission. 

Satan took Job’s wealth and family from him, replaced his health with disease, and reduced him to utter misery until he was filthy and sitting in a heap, scratching his sores with pottery shards.

Three friends came to find him in his state: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. A young man was with them, too. They all came and sat with him for seven silent days until the silence was broken.

Job
It would have been better for me if I had never been born.

Eliphaz
God is just. To lament is to forget this. He is just disciplining you, but in the end he will take care of you because you are faithful.

Job
I don't have infinite capacity to keep hoping; this is so much more that I can bear that I wish to die. If this is discipline, what have I done to bring it?

Bildad
If you earnestly seek God, if you are pure, he will fix this.

Job
God and I are not in an argument, as if this was man to man. He has made a judgment out of a context only he understands. There is no appeal I could make that he doesn't already know I’m able to do. Whatever capacity I have to make an appeal is because he gave it to me! And right now I have no such capacity. I am beset by what God has done to me, and there is nothing I can do.

Zophar
You are refusing to see what God has for you in this. Open your heart and surrender to him, instead of judging this experience as undeserved, and you will be at peace and no longer know the suffering of this.

Job
It is easy for those who are not suffering to say there is a meaning in suffering. And anyway, here I am asking: God, what have I done to deserve all of this?

Eliphaz
Who are you to say these things? What we are saying is what the elders and those before us have always believed.

Job
You are turning against me because you do not want to admit what I now know about God.

Bildad
The unrighteous man does indeed come to suffering.

Job
I stand on the knowledge that I have done nothing to merit this. In the midst of all this, still I will recognize God when I see him in the flesh. Beware: You are calling me unrighteous in my suffering because it flatters you and saves you from having to wade into my suffering with me.

Zophar
No, this is the way the world has always been. God sees that the wicked men suffer.

Job
Never mind me—look at the world. Are the wicked really suffering? Is what you are saying observably true? (No, it is not. The wicked are untroubled.)

Eliphaz
God does not owe you an answer for your suffering; it doesn’t help him if you are corrected. I will answer: Your wickedness is as great as your wealth once was, because this is the wealth you withheld from others. Admit this, turn to God, and you will know peace.

Job
How do I turn to him? Where is he? I thought I was following in his ways and I still think this. Suddenly I am suffering. Where is God’s teaching to us even in the ways he does deal with the wicked? They go down to the peace of death and are forgotten just as everyone else.

Bildad
What could you even say to make the claim you are justified before one such as God?

Job
I know only this: I am innocent. I will not repudiate that knowledge just because I am suffering, and I have been given the fate suited to wicked men. God, if I have done something against you or your ways, show me.

Elihu
I am young. I’ve been sitting here listening to you older men, but I can’t keep my silence anymore. Job, you say God is unjust in letting you suffer? God is gracious in all the transgressions he overlooks and all the comfort he provides. You say God is not answering you? You are not listening to the ways in which God speaks.

God (to Job)
You say you have a question for me. Here are my questions to you....

Job
“I had heard rumors about you, but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I take back my words and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6).

God (to Eliphaz)
I am angry with you and your friends. Job spoke the truth about me as best he knew it. You falsely claimed understanding of me you do not possess.

FADE OUT.

The ending of life defines the quality of life. The worst suffering Satan can inflict comes to an end, and Job saw God within it.

The Answer is 66 Questions

The most obvious objection to belief in God has apparently always been an obvious objection. I can say this because one of the very earliest books in the Bible is dedicated to addressing that argument.

The objection is this: If God is good, then why does he allow bad to happen?  If God is just, then why does he allow innocent people to suffer?

The book of the Bible addressing this question is Job. Dating the book is impossible, because there is not enough historical context within its writings to confidently anchor it in time. It was written something like 3,000 years ago, and quite possibly it was written before the books attributed to Moses were written, including Genesis. The questions the Book of Job addresses are that fundamental and that old.

Summarizing the book is difficult. It is an epic involving no physical passage, but instead a journey through arguments and ideas. A group of friends surrounds a suffering man, Job, and in their conversation they seek to both console him and guide him by exploring different explanations for his suffering.

Many of the explanations rely upon or swerve near to this premise: Job is suffering because he has sinned against God in some way of which he is not aware.

Job rejects this premise. His response repeatedly insists on this point: He has not sinned; he has been as obedient to God as he could be. If God is just, where is his justice?

God joins the conversation at the very end of Job, in one of the most dramatic scenes in scripture.

God’s answer refutes the friends’ premise along with the very foundation of their spiritual assumptions. In essence, God’s answer refutes their religion. The Creator is NOT authoring the events of this world as a means of reward or punishment for those who please or displease him. Such is not the nature of this world and such is not the nature of God.

God does not connect to retribution. That is not the means of knowing him.

Rather, God connects to wisdom. The workings of his plans, and what he understands about his plans, are vastly greater than we are able to know or even define with our questioning.

God appears to Job and his arguing friends as a whirlwind. In entering the conversation, how can he communicate the understanding that is missing to humans who can’t even understand the understanding?  How can he communicate the vastness of the unknown unknowns?

He does this by asking questions. In the climactic passage of Job, God says, essentially: “You are trying to analyze and critique my choices with your questioning? Well then, I have some questions for you....”

There are about 66 questions in all. The tally actually depends on which questions the reader includes in this line of argument and also depends on where the punctuation is placed. There is no science in the questions, as that was not their purpose. That is, there is no meteorology (hail is not kept in a storehouse) and there is no zoology (Behemoth and Leviathan do not exist). Instead, God was speaking to a group of ancient men by coming down to the level of what these men knew or thought they knew. If he spoke to us, he would step down into our flawed understanding in just the same way.

In the biblical text depicting the scene, the questions all flow together. I have not previously seen the questions anywhere listed out, as though to itemize all that God cared to mention regarding what he knows that human beings do not. To appreciate the size of God’s answer to the idea that he ought to conform to our expectations, consider that any one of the 66 questions would be a reasonable retort.

Adapted from Job 38-41, here is what God asked.

Something Else About “The African Queen”

As part of my 20th Century Film Project, I just posted an article about The African Queen.

One other point to observe about this movie: Nowhere does the film see any conflict between Rose Sayer’s (Katharine Hepburn’s) calling as a missionary and her desire to attack a German gunboat during World War I after the Germans invaded and cleared the African village where she and her brother had ministered.

I believe the expectation today would be that a character presented as a missionary ought to be entirely a person of peace, without any thought to attack, even as a counter-offensive. That would be my expectation. If this movie had been made today, it would have required at least a line of dialogue to explain or at least highlight the seeming contradiction between Sayer’s faith and her violent aim.

But no such line of dialog exists in The African Queen. The audience at the time apparently did not need or expect this.

The time of the film’s release was 1951. Even though it was a movie about World War I, it was shown to people just several years past World War II. Presumably, everyone in the theater therefore had squarely confronted war and its various moral choices, in many cases because they held someone dear who had gone to war. And presumably, everyone in the theater also knew or was aware of a religious man or clergy member who had joined the war alongside other citizens.

I realize that this will be an ongoing theme as I continue to watch these movies. Watching the films of the 20th century will consist in no small part of seeing stories that are shaded to various degrees by the long shadow cast by World War II. Just four movies into the project, the shadow of this war can already be seen across two of them.

The African Queen (1951)—Hope Aims Downriver

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

Charlie Allnut was doing all right. The character portrayed by Humphrey Bogart owned the boat after which the movie takes its name, The African Queen. We find him at the beginning of the film contentedly making a life for himself by delivering mail and supplies up and down the Ulanga River in German East Africa (now Tanzania). He was always sweaty, his clothes were always dirty, but life was good. Then along came a woman: Methodist missionary Rose Sayer, portrayed by Katharine Hepburn. She watched as German soldiers destroyed the village and drove away the villagers to whom she and her brother had ministered. She watched later as this act led to her brother dying in despair. Whereas Allnut wanted to flee on his boat and hide from the German soldiers now moving aggressively among them (that is, he wanted to wait out World War I), Miss Sayer had a different idea. She aimed to strike a blow against this enemy. And she lured Allnut into this aim, first playing on his politeness, then winning his full commitment to her and to her costly and perilous plan.

In that plot synopsis that filled the preceding paragraph, we can readily see the turning point. “Along came a woman.” How many stories go this way? In the Bible, in Genesis, the very first story involving human beings seemed to go this way. How many lives of would-be Charlie Allnuts go this way as well? Or, more accurately, seem to do so? Because in fact there is something more than this going on.

Sayer’s plan was to use Allnut’s boat to liberate a downriver lake from German control, by ramming the gunboat patrolling the lake with explosive charges mounted on The African Queen’s hull. In short, her plan involved taking the very means and context of Allnut’s comfort and consuming it to achieve her ends. The story becomes even more familiar still! Allnut/Bogart went along with the plan at first only because it was a direction in which to head, a way to placate her. He thought the apparent impossibility of navigating the river and its rapids to reach the gunboat-patrolled lake would dissuade her. Significantly, though, it did not. So as they progressed, as they survived and made it through rapids, he began to be moved by the power of what they were able to do together. And just as significantly, he knew something about that former life of contentment. He was aware of something about that life, even if he didn’t admit it to himself.

Hepburn and Bogart as Sayer and Allnut
What he knew was this: That life he formerly enjoyed was going to be lost anyway. Eventually, the rickety boat would fail. Eventually, he would become too old to keep on doing battle with its steam engine to keep it moving. The engine might explode. And before all of that, the Germans might discover him and seize him. As he made clear in his argument for hiding, the soldiers coveted his boat for what it contained, the supplies and hardware that their commanders far away would be slow in sending them. In short, what we have is not ours indefinitely—and frequently, it is not even ours for very long.

Meanwhile, Sayer/Hepburn began to show Allnut the way to overcome seemingly insurmountable failures. That is, she began to show him his capacity to overcome them. The boat’s shaft and propeller were damaged in a collision. Deep in the jungle, with no access to a forge or machine tools, repair of these items seemed impossible. But was it? She helped him challenge his doubts and fear, bringing him to the realization that, for forging, all he really needed was a bellows. He could combine this with local fire-making methods he had seen. And after forging—heating the shaft and straightening it—he was able to passably weld the blade. All of this took time given the poor resources in the wilds, but through encouragement, she kept him patiently at it, a bellows for the flame of his own flickering courage.

It is striking that she is presented to us a missionary, as one led by faith. Her hope makes no sense otherwise. Allnut/Bogart is of this world, and thus caught in the world’s futility. Since this world is entirely finite, it is no wonder that he, or any of us, succumb to expecting that its successes will prove too scant and our aims will fail us. But Sayer/Hepburn is aware of something larger. Her outlook reminds me of a quote I once copied into my notebook out of a far different story, the science fiction novel Count to a Trillion by John C. Wright. In this book, the character Raina speaking to her love Montrose says:

“Our options are to act as if the unknown will bring us evil, which is the response called fear; or to act as if the unknown will bring us good, which is the response called hope. The first response is certainly self-fulfilling; the second may be.”

We all know the real-life vessel for which The African Queen is a symbol. In a million different real-life stories, the quest two people have been caught up in, the rickety boat they are steering together, is a shared life, a life of mutual devotion, possibly with children and most certainly with unexpected problems, the aim and the challenge being to see it all through into the children’s adulthood and into the trials of old age.

Hepburn and Bogart’s plan fails in the end, sort of. Their boat doesn’t make it all the way. The veiled analogy of the film has its veil torn off at the end of the story when the two, now lovers, appeal to the German ship captain to pronounce them husband and wife just before he places the nooses on their neck to execute them.

They do not die. The movie gives us an improbable happy ending. I am OK with that. The story arc of the Bible delivers an improbable happy ending as well.

And these two characters deserve to have their story vindicated. After all, the story began so simply, so unassumingly. The story began with the heroine asking her hero, essentially, “Can’t we just go downriver and do the impossible?”

[PS. It didn’t make it into the post you just read, but I also thought of something else about The African Queen.]

Where I Am At With My Faith

Someone close to me asked me this question recently: “Where are you at with your faith?” It’s a good question, the right question to ask from time to time.

In recent years, nearly all of the change in my experience of Christian faith has arisen out of a seemingly small change in my understanding of how that faith began. Namely: I no longer think I had any choice in the matter.

In the past, a premise I might have agreed with is that it is important for every person to make a decision whether to believe in Jesus Christ. I no longer believe that. Within my own understanding, I have come to appreciate that such a decision is not humanly possible to make.

That is, it is not possible for human beings entirely created by God and fallen from God to overcome their predicament of their own accord in order to see the divine and choose him. God must make the choice instead, illuminating the human being. Once he does, the choice is made. I no longer see any role for my own will in coming to faith. Rather, I am someone who (like other believers in this world) was awakened at a particular point in his life into perceiving and accepting the lordship of Jesus Christ. I have belief because God chose for me to have belief.

He has decided who will have faith (Ephesians 1:5). He awakens that faith according to his own choice and timing (John 3:8). He renews a person’s mind, and transformation flows out of that renewal (Romans 12:2). Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16).

The preceding paragraph includes scriptural citations the way Christian writing does. Yet that little glut of citations actually underrepresents one of the richest treasures I have found in this shift: an increase in the personal nearness and even clarity of scripture. All of a sudden, Romans makes a different kind of sense than it did before. John’s gospel makes sense. In large part, that is what the latest book I am working on is all about.

And how I am supposed to live my life now also makes sense. While we cannot choose our belief, we have all manner of choices to make once God has awakened belief. He is renewing minds and calling out believers because there is a purpose he is working through the world. The book I’m working on is about that as well.

(An aside: Some who are reading right now know of terms including “Calvinist” and “Reformed” that connect to the idea of our faith being chosen. Since those two terms connect to other ideas as well, I am leaving those terms alone for now.)

I still need people, even if people do not will or choose who has faith. I needed to be given the gospel. It’s just that the gospel was meaningless before I had ears to hear, and God provides and opens those ears. On the surface, therefore, the appearance of how I came to faith is unchanged. I might no longer say that anyone “led me to faith,” but I would gladly and gratefully say that there were people who led me to the gospel.

Yet this recognition of God’s choosing and awakening those who believe is not a technical or a harmless position to come to. To the contrary, it is a lonely one. The change affects other points of belief. It affects one’s understanding of heaven and hell. It affects my understanding of my call, because the point is no longer to make a choice and then urge others to choose the same way. The point instead is to make this life a living sacrifice (Paul’s words), finding and realizing the value for the Lord out of the choice he has made where my small life is concerned. I thus find myself often now in positions of quiet estrangement, aware that the person before me is assuming that I hold a particular view because I am a Christian, when in fact I don’t hold that belief at all.

This is why the book I am working on now is difficult, and why it is taking so long. I want to be careful not to be flip or take shortcuts in the ideas I am exploring. I want to make sure I am being fair with the counterarguments to the positions I am advancing. All of this leads to a lot of rewriting. In a way, even though I have published two books previously, it is as though this coming book is my first one. The themes of the two previous books—that the Ten Commandments are worth our attention, that the existence of God is logically apparent—are both non-controversial ideas to Christian readers. This next book will be much different from that. I will be laying out various ideas that many believing Christians do not hold.