From Here to Eternity (1953)—Our Principles Fall

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

I neither believe in nor expect a coming apocalypse, an ending of the world by God. Our faith does not require this. The prophecies of the New Testament, whether spoken by Jesus or written by John, do not have to be understood this way. When Jesus hanging on the cross said, “It is finished,” it was truly so. God and humanity would be reconciled, and the new creation was underway from that point forward. We are living—just as the title of the famous movie would have it—from here to eternity.

In the movie From Here to Eternity, two men are stuck in the “here.” They are stuck in the positions in which they find themselves in the Army, at their posting at a not-yet-famous location in the Hawaiian islands just before the United States has entered World War II. Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift), who has recently transferred to this base, finds that his reputation has transferred ahead of him. A talented middleweight boxer, he refuses to join the company boxing team—the pride and passion of the commander, Captain Holmes (Philip Ober)—because of Prewitt’s determination not to risk repeating a tragedy, his once blinding a man by injuring him in the boxing ring. The private’s refusal to add his talents to the company team brings the ire of Holmes and his boxers, who inflict punishments on him including forced marches and menial duty.

Lancaster and Clift
Prewitt’s commitment to his principles and his endurance in the face of suffering draw the attention of First Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster), who competently runs the Army base on Oahu in the vacuum left by the neglect of the boxing-obsessed (and philandering-obsessed) commander. Warden falls in love with the commander’s neglected wife Karen (Deborah Kerr), who promises to divorce her husband and marry Warden if he will become an officer. But in this she has come to the point of Warden’s principles. Whatever his gifts, whatever his leadership, the sergeant is determined that he is an enlisted man. Remaining true to himself and his dignity requires this. He refuses to repudiate his status for the sake of becoming an officer and obtaining authority over other men.

The wonderful thing about this movie, and the profound truth it expresses that gives the viewer pause, is found in the way the story has no care for the principles of either man. Our principles do not necessarily matter, in part because our principles do not necessarily express a commitment to morality or truth, even when we find high-sounding ideals to attach to them. Our principles can express our pride even when they are wearing morality or truth as raiment. The conceit of both of these men in the movie who are standing on their principles is that they are making a claim to know the future. They insist they know exactly what effect their decisions will have and where their choices might take them.

The most brilliant scene in this movie is not the iconic scene of Lancaster and Kerr kissing on the beach as the tide comes in. That scene was just a special effect, a trick of timing. The most brilliant scene in the movie is when Lancaster’s Sergeant Warden walks out from behind his desk, the desk at which we have seen him sitting from the viewpoint of only one camera angle throughout the movie so far. As he leaves his desk, the camera pivots for the first time to follow him, and thus we learn something about the office we have never seen before. The office has a calendar on the wall facing the desk. Perhaps illogically (the detail only bothered me when I thought about it later), it is a daily calendar like one that might be used in a bank. A single large number announces the day’s date. Lancaster’s character walks over to this calendar as he is speaking on the phone and, still talking into the receiver, he happens to lean on the wall beside it. Though he is naturally oblivious to the date, we see it and cannot help but take note. We learn that the day’s date, for these two men who are stuck, for everyone else at this base on Oahu, is December 6, 1941.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor comes the next day. Warden is surprised, Prewitt is surprised, the entire base is surprised and thrown into confusion, until the soldiers begin to understand, begin to rally, and even begin to fight back, thanks in no small part to the leadership of Warden.

The base’s new commander (Captain Holmes’ abuses having been found out by this point) is not to be found at the moment of the attack. Events therefore give no regard to Warden’s principles; he is thrust into the role of an officer even if he does not formally hold the rank. It is he to whom the men look, it is Warden who hastily organizes resistance against the Japanese, and it is even he who has the ammunition storage shed torn open when he is told that an officer’s key is needed to unlock it.

The events are equally callous toward Prewitt’s principles. He could have joined the boxing team anyway. Because of this attack and because of the war it will bring, there would never have been any intracompany boxing championship for him, or even a single match to fight. All of that would have been abandoned.

It is a surprising moral, but one the story invites us to contemplate. Our principles are our pride, or they might as well be. Our principles—the codes we write for ourselves—are not necessarily the codes to which we are called.

An error we make in choosing these principles, or choosing these boxes that we dignify to be principles, is that events are not constant. The time and the season are not constant. Things change, as you know. The circumstances around us will shift or dissolve, and the next instance of this dissolution could happen any moment. It could happen tomorrow. (What is today’s date?)

I neither believe in nor expect a coming apocalypse, but that doesn’t mean much. It might come anyway. At the very least, God has all manner of small apocalypses in store. They are terrible and total while they are happening, and the pain and loss are consequences of the fact that Death still has its way. Yet the work of Jesus is finished, and one consequence of this is that Death has been routed and its rule has been deposed. Thus, life awakens past every such apocalypse. The new creation brings freedom, including shedding the shackles of what we thought would happen, and dropping the burden of that person we had thought ourselves to be.


The Wild Bunch (1969)—Tactics Alone Provide Nothing

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

“Let the dead bury their own dead,” said Jesus.

A scene from the 1969 western The Wild Bunch portrayed a perverse caricature of this very principle. Fleeing on horseback after their attempted railroad office robbery had turned into a gun battle, a group of outlaws led by Pike Bishop (William Holden) are slowed by the members of their band who had been wounded in the fight. One rider falls and can no longer continue. Bishop shoots him dead. Another senior member of the outlaw gang, Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine) looks on. When two others in the band want to pause to bury their fallen companion, Engstrom objects to the risky and unnecessary delay, saying:

“I think the boys are right. I’d like to say a few words for the dear, dead departed. And maybe a few hymns’d be in order. Followed by a church supper. With a choir!”

Engstrom’s mocking rejection advocates the same action and logic as the call from Jesus, though of course the parallels end there. Jesus’ command had to do with letting go of the burdens of obedience to this world for the sake of the kingdom already moving and transforming the world. “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and spread the news of the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60). By contrast, the bandits wanted to get away with their loot. (And fitting to the comparison I am making here, that loot in this story proved illusory. The thieves stole a decoy cash box full of steel washers rather than coins.)

The point I am offering in describing the scene this way is this: The tactics contained within the commands of Christ have power and efficacy apart from the way of Christ. That way—the way of “Take up your cross and follow me,” the way of “If you love me, obey my commands”—consists of something other than effective tactics or wise strategies. Improvements to tactics can come to anyone over time. Wisdom will also come over time, and a clarifying of values or purpose might come as well. But a life or a mind that sees changes such as these, that becomes more mature and effective, might still be a life or a mind that is directed toward futility. The tactics of Jesus’ teachings about living for him can also be applied to aims that are pointless and deathly, so without him, we might resemble Jesus now and again as we are heading all the more effectively toward oblivion.

The Wild Bunch is the story of a group of characters who are appealing to us in their fellowship to one another, and in the fact that the story offers them as protagonists, but who otherwise do not merit our sympathy. The robbery in the opening scene was confounded by an ambush by bounty hunters, leading to a shootout in which not only robbers and bounty hunters were lost, but also innocents caught in the crossfire. We see no remorse; the movie is about the aging Holden and Borgnine’s desperate attempt to pull off one more daring and lucrative robbery to overcome the failure of this attempt before the end of their luck or abilities brings an end to their career.

I said fellowship. There is a certain code this group of bandits lives by. Or, at the very least, they believe there is such a code. Confronting a warlord general who brutally rules a small community in Mexico, Borgnine declares, “We’re not like him.... We don't hang people!” But as the viewer of this scene, I don’t know whether I am being asked to take his word for this. Borgnine’s character had never been in a position of autocratic power. Given the distance he had already gone in his chosen work to rationalize violent death, wouldn’t he be able to go farther still to rationalize hanging as well? (Indeed, how much of any of our success at adhering to a code is the result of simply the opportunities we have been given? Not for nothing does the prayer say, “Lead us not into temptation.”) We then see the same murkiness around the men’s seeming loyalty to a companion—their seeming fellowship—in their attempt to assuage the general’s anger over a murder this companion committed. The men end up not rescuing their companion from this enemy, but accepting a job in the general’s service.

The one clear aspect of the men’s code to which they remain committed is what drives the story of the movie: determination toward the goal. Bishop, Engstrom, and the remaining survivors of their wild bunch will not relent in their pursuit of gold. “These are men,” says Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), a former member of their crew who pursues them throughout the movie, having been caught and turned by the authorities. These are men, he says, meaning they have the strength that comes from mature self-knowledge, even character. Yet all of that power is directed toward an elusive aim that can only come to nothing.

At the start of the movie, we see children watching a scene on the earth at their feet: a swarm of ants overwhelming and devouring a pair of scorpions. The scorpions are more powerful, but the ants are ravenous, and in the end numerous enough to destroy them. The children watching this scene from above are watching with—God’s viewpoint? The children choose no winners in this particular contest, they just watch the event unfold. And at the end of the movie, we are given something like the same view. The general kills the member of the gang who has angered him, and the gang kills the general. Mexicans authorities who had been under the command of the fallen general overwhelm the gang. It becomes clear in this fight that there is no outcome for the Wild Bunch except for their lives to end. Which, it needs to be said, was their predicament all along.

Stones

I sometimes experience remembered joy as a source of pain.

The memory of the joy provokes an indictment in my mind. There is a wincing self-infliction. Its source is an irrational fear. Its source is the fear of scarcity. Upon remembering joy, I feel the fear that joy is finite, that joy is scarce. I suffer under the false belief that as my life advances, more of the share of joy allotted to me is being lost into the past. The pain comes from the sense that I somehow ought to have been wiser about experiencing the joy better or holding onto it more tightly so that I could drag it a little farther with me into the future.

Example: One Saturday morning I ended up skipping stones with my younger daughter at the river not far from our house. This moment was, I now realize without much difficulty, one of joy. The moment was soulfully nourishing in a way that happiness is not. (More on that distinction in a bit.) The stone-skipping interlude is still so recent that I do not yet encounter my memory of it as pain, but I know from long experience that the memory has the potential to come to that. Right now, accurately or not, I still feel as though the exact magic of that moment could be recaptured. But this daughter of mine will grow, she will become more complex, she will no longer be as open to visiting the river with her dad, and I will naturally be tempted to look back on that moment as something lost. I will miss having the chance to go skip stones with a 10-year-old. I will feel this memory as an avenue no longer open. Yet the falseness of that feeling is found here: It fails to account for other avenues of joy that will have opened within that future time when I will feel this. Changes over time are not always losses, even though we are biased toward thinking this way. We have this bias simply because we know what has been, but we do not know what is coming. In my ignorance over what is to come, I pine over the known joys of the past rather than anticipating the joys before me that as yet are only known by God.

Joy and happiness are different. I’ve written about this, most recently here. What is joy, and how does it differ? The bible gives clues to a definition. According to Galatians 5:22-23, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, self-control.” The significant detail within this passage is “fruit,” the word being singular rather than plural. That is, these qualities are not “fruits” of the outflow of the Spirit, like a basket of varied and different fruits. There is one “fruit” and it is all these things. Joy, whatever it is, is the state that is also marked by the presence of rising and outflowing love, peace, patience, and the rest, all at the same time. What is joy? Joy is that thing that has love, peace, and patience in the mix as inherent parts of the very same thing.

Happiness does not have this quality. Happiness is more the state of a void being filled with the activity or attainment that can temporarily fill it. I may feel happy while cliff diving or eating ice cream. I may feel happy watching a particular TV show. I may feel happy if people are saying nice things about me because I have just done something they like. But none of these experiences comes with peace, patience, or love. Happiness is a pursuit, an activity positively performed or an object positively achieved. Joy, by contrast, is found in the negative space or the passive space, the air around and among these pursuits. Where happiness is an attainment, joy is that which is allowed to come when the obstacles to joy clear away.

Obstacles such as fear. As in my fear of scarcity. Let me make a vow, then: I will refuse to engage with such fear. (Can I make that refusal stick?)

Or obstacles such as hurt. A commitment, then: I will refuse to accept this hurt. (Is that choice available to me?)

Or obstacles such as isolation, which is often self-imposed. Or obstacles such as plans, which multiply with my ego’s assertion of all that I can or must do.

The time spent throwing stones happened because it was allowed to happen, and because it was the right thing to happen in the moment when it was allowed. The time spent throwing stones happened because I was blessed enough that all those obstacles fell away.

Let me not be mystical, however. In all this discussion of joy as a spiritual state, there is a real physical component. Right now, as I draft these words, I am strong enough not to engage with the fear that might find me, strong enough to avoid this obstacle to joy, largely for the simple reason that I slept well last night. I do not often do this. And the reasons I don’t sleep well often have to do with feeding fears or overfilling plans. Thus, the lack of joy actually follows a feedback loop bigger than just the quality of my attention or spirituality in a given moment or a decision I make right now. If I feed fear enough, or feed pride enough regarding all that I imagine I should do, then I can make my very brain and body too restless for joy to take root in my mind. I might be joyless simply because I have cultivated that state. That is, I might be helpless in my joylessness, because the obstacles to joy have already been raised against it.

Discovering this, there is nothing to do. There is nothing to do when this has happened, except the Spirit will find the way back. Or no.

No, that’s not quite the right way to express it. The Spirit will not find the way back, because the Spirit has no way back to find. The Spirit is not the party that became lost.

And here we come to an important point: Joy is fixed within the world. Joy is constant. Again, joy is altogether different from happiness in this regard. As we have seen, joy is an outflow of the Creator. Joy is the sun at the center of world’s system, and like the sun it relentlessly exerts its gravity.

It is we who lose our way. Defining the universe as being no bigger than our selves, we find no joy within it and despair. We then muscle through, doing without joy, perceiving that joy seemingly has spilled entirely away from what this universe contains.

But if we admit that joy is constant and it is bigger than us, if we accept this, then we can stop. We can stop as best we are able.

We stop, and we wait for the gravity of the sun to overcome the inertia of our failed attempt to throw ourselves into some other orbit that, instead of being higher up, is actually just farther out into the dark. We stop and we wait—we wait perhaps quite a while—until that inertia plays itself out and the arc of our trajectory brings us dropping like a stone back into joy’s orbit again. There is no sin in waiting for joy in this way.

I mentioned scarcity, my fear that joy is limited and I am spending my share.  The scarcity mentality is actually a particularly painful fallacy because it not only turns memories to pain, but also makes the prospect of the future painful. According to this fear, the future is a place that will have less and less joy in it.

However, if God is love (I John 4:8) and if love is joy (Galatians 5:22, as explained above), then by the nature of equivalency, God is joy.

God is joy. Which means that joy is not scarce at all, but is as infinite as God is.

There will always be joy. There will always be plenty. There will always be more joy to come. And when it comes to joy—not the case with happiness, but when it comes to joy—it is we who will always be too scarce to contain it all.

The Third Man (1949)—Fewer Words

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

The Third Man tells the story of Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), an American writer visiting Vienna just after World War II when it is carved among the occupying Americans, British, French and Soviets. Though he is there at the invitation of his friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles), he arrives in the city to discover that this friend has just died—or so it would seem.

The movie is eerie, capturing the out-of-sorts feeling of being an outsider who is trying to move against the wearying riptide of a culture that doesn’t accept you. The moviemakers employ this distant historical context to produce a feeling that is enervating and familiar.

The movie is also modern. I’ve just recently watched other 1940s movies. This one has discovered a trick those other films don’t know. Namely, the actors in a film—where we can see the speaker’s face and thereby pick up nonverbal cues—need not speak in the overfull statements and completed sentences of the live stage. Back then, people were not really so verbal or prosaic as they were presented in the era’s films. It is simply that in the first couple of decades of audible film, we had not yet figured out how to use this medium to accurately depict our world.

The breakthroughs are obvious only in retrospect. Perhaps there is some medium today—I think of e-books—that we are still employing according to dated conventions, no longer valid, so that the medium’s full potential for authenticity and impact have not yet been found.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)—The Laughter Bought with Failure

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

Reflecting upon The Treasure of the Sierra Madre brought my thoughts to another movie I had seen, Ocean’s Eleven. The first version, not the remake.

Originally, both films explored a similar theme. Both told stories of men bound together in a scheme to pursue material riches, only to have those riches evaporate in the end, with the men (those who survived) instead enriched in the less sought-after way of being shaped by an experience. I say “originally,” because Ocean’s Eleven changed. In the 2001 remake of the 1960 movie, the grand scheme to obtain wealth grandly succeeds. The sadness in this is the moviemakers’ apparent decision that the original story no longer provided a satisfying ending. The testing and forging of a man’s soul are no longer adequate to resolve a story. Spectacular riches are needed in order to do that.

Thus, I fear a remake of Sierra Madre. I fear the falseness of the ending it would have. In the modern retelling I imagine, the man overcome by avarice is not done in by it, but rather manages to emotionally bootstrap his way into a greater strength of character at the last minute. Wretched bandits do not kill him in the remake, but instead he overpowers those bandits, rushes back to find the companions he betrayed, and redeems himself to them by saving them from peril and saving everyone’s gold. (But all of this is only my imagining. I googled “treasure of the sierra madre remake” and it looks like we are safe.)

Huston, Holt, and Bogart
In the real movie, Humphrey Bogart gives a gripping performance as Dobbs, a man who descends ever deeper into greed, eventually consumed by it. Dobbs and Curtin (Tim Holt) are two impoverished Americans living in Mexico. Meeting an old prospector named Howard (Walter Huston), they persuade him to lead them into the mountains looking for gold. Unfortunately for Dobbs, they find it. He ultimately betrays his two companions and takes all the gold they had worked to obtain. Then, on his solo flight from them, he is found and overpowered by trio of bandits, a weakened and desperate group that the original three companions could have fended off if they had still been together. The bandits do not even know the dust in the bags on Dobbs’ burros is gold, so they discard it. Much later, Curtin and Howard find these bags torn open in the desert, the strong winds already having blown their contents away.

Howard, the old man, laughs at this. His laugh is joy squeezed through pain, as it dawns on him that the winds are taking the gold back to the very mountains from which the men had worked so hard to extract it. Laughing ever stronger, he says it was worth the ten months of hard labor they spent in the mountains to see this happen and have that experience.

His reaction is shocking, and yet his reaction is the one that this existence calls upon each of us to have, this existence in which nothing is ours to keep. It is the response the new version of Ocean’s Eleven and the remade Sierra Madre of my imagination both do not have the courage to offer, or do not expect their audiences to have the courage to embrace.

With that remade film I keep mentioning, what did happen? Why was there one ending for Ocean’s Eleven at first, then the concession to a less challenging ending when the story was told later? The reason might be something small, such as the changing demographics of moviegoers. Maybe movies today are written for younger people.

Or maybe society today is more infantile than it was, with all of us more dependent on the comforts we enjoy. As our American society has become wealthier, have we undergone the very same transformation as Bogart’s character? A story that acknowledges the value to be found on the other side of the loss of wealth no longer connects with us, because the very thing that this story would have us imagine losing is something to which we now cling with greater fervor.

Then again, the message of the movie may have been just as shocking and powerful back then as it is now. Maybe that’s why it lasted. Indeed, the message of Sierra Madre is about even more than avarice. It is about that only for Dobbs, who is lost and ultimately slain because of the enslavement to his hoard. For the other two men, this story is about failure.

Thankfully, Curtin was not alone when he discovered the empty bags. He had the old prospector there with him in that instant of their comprehension of the loss. The prospector was a guide for him then after all, guiding him by means of laughter through this moment of confusion and pain.

The gold dust blew away. But here is the thing: What if it hadn’t? What if they had kept the gold, brought it home, and spent the money on a sheltered, luxurious life? There still would have been sadness in that life, there still would have been discontentment, and the gold would have blown away simply by a slower means.

This way, Curtin and the prospector would always have the impact of the loss, would always have souls shaped by the intensity of the experience of seeing the riches blown away all at once. As the prospector said, this was worth ten months.

Our great aims and pursuits have value whether or not they bring riches, whether or not they end in the success we sought. Those aims and pursuits might even deliver a greater value if riches or success are not the result. They deliver a greater valueand they deliver a scarier valueif they can somehow bring us to the foot of a realization well beyond what our timid imagination had originally set out to grasp.

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.

The Deer Hunter (1978)—We Don’t Get to Keep the Trees

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

The Deer Hunter was, in a small way, disappointing. I discovered with this movie one of the challenges I am going to confront with this project. One of the movie’s storytelling devices—the Vietnam War as a context for an experience so psychologically devastating that it costs a character his sanity—has now been so overused as to have become cliché. Indeed, this device is an unfortunate cliché to the extent that it falsely colors the impression of this war or its veterans. Seeing this plot element play out, I had to renew my commitment to stick with this movie and give it my attention, remembering as I did that perhaps this was the very first serious movie to use and explore this device.

The most gripping part of the movie is its POW scene. Vietnamese captors use their American and Vietnamese prisoners for amusement by forcing them to compete in rounds of Russian roulette. Two prisoners at a time are forced to pass back and forth a revolver containing one bullet, each prisoner placing the gun against his temple and pulling the trigger. Prisoners who don’t play are dropped into a cage nearly submerged in a rat-infested river to die a slow death rather than a quick one. This is the threat that keeps the deadly game going. When it is his turn to play, the plan employed by prisoner Mike Vronsky (Robert De Niro) is to seem to play along enthusiastically, insisting on three bullets in the revolver instead of just one. With him is fellow prisoner and friend from his Russian-American-populated hometown in western Pennsylvania, Nick Chevotarevich (Christopher Walken). When the two of them are pitted against one another in the match with three bullets in the gun, each survives a pull of the trigger by discovering an empty chamber. Vronsky, who then receives the gun, knows that three of the four remaining chambers are loaded. Attacking abruptly, he shoots three guards while Chevotarevich assists in overpowering and killing those that remain.

There is nothing to be learned from this. A “what would you do” conversation posing this predicament has little value. The fallacy in any discussion of the choice available to the prisoners in this predicament (play along? refuse? keep repeatedly pulling the trigger?) is that extreme situations do not translate to useful principles outside of the extreme. Vronsky and Chevotarevich were in a no-win situation engineered by sadistic captors. Almost any response could have been defended. (The course chosen, trusting in two consecutive empty pulls on a revolver with three bullets, had only a 20-percent probability of success.) The moral choices that almost all of us are actually faced with are inherently different from this. They involve our work, family, integrity, purpose and purity, and they play out across days or decades rather than in an exigent moment.

The POW scene is so gripping—easily the most memorable part of the movie—that it threatens to distract us from the moral choice Vronsky makes that is instructive. It is the choice in the movie’s title. It is the choice we see briefly in the scene back in Pennsylvania, before departing for the war, in which Vronsky (hereafter Mike), on a hunting trip with a group of friends including Chevotarevich (hereafter Nick), refuses to lend a pair of boots to one of their number, Stan (John Cazale). To Mike, Stan should have been serious enough about the hunting to remember to bring boots. To Mike, there is something here at stake that is bigger than the boots. Holding a rifle shell before him, Mike declares, “See this Stanley? This is this. This aint something else. This ... is this.”

Mike, Nick and another hometown friend, Steve Pushkov (John Savage), all went to Vietnam soon after this last night hunting deer together, and Nick and Steve were both, in some sense, lost. Steve lost limbs to the war and had to pulled back into accepting some semblance of the life he use to have. Nick went insane and, after remaining in the country to continue playing the Russian roulette game for sport, for the amusement of gamblers there, committed suicide. But what would have happened to these men if they had never gone to war? The answer, of course, is that they would have been spared this damage and pain. But the answer is also that there still would have been loss.

Christopher Walken gave this signature line from the film:

“I like the trees, you know? I like the way that the trees are on mountains, all the different... the way the trees are.”

Spoken in the still-innocent time before leaving for war, his character, Nick, can’t quite find the words for what he is aware of, what he is trying to express, which is that he loves the life he has. He loves the place where he is, in this moment of early adulthood, of first becoming autonomous, independent and free to make his own way. The war pulled him out of this and he never found his way back. (Literally as well as figuratively, since Vietnam is where this character died.)

But again, what if there had been no war for Nick? Answer: Something would have swept over him. Something would have swept him away. Look at the life he has, as we see it in his hometown. It includes labor in the steel mill alongside hundreds of other men, then drinking, carousing and occasionally deer hunting in the company of a corps of these friends and coworkers. If Nick had remained, surely this would not have continued. Likely he would not have remained content with this. A wife might have come, a family, drawing him to them. He might have become discontented with this job and acted to end it. Misfortune might have befallen him—an accident or a loss of health. Some combination of any of these things might have occurred in the lives of his friends, taking them away. Or the 1980s might have come, closing the steel plant.

All of us go through something in our lives in this world, maybe many somethings. All of us get swept up, overwhelmed, and perhaps swept away. Jesus made clear that this would be the case even for those who trust and follow him. He promised, “In this world, you will have trouble.” Rather than offering release, he actually promised it would happen. Instead of providing release, he said, “I have overcome the world.” We are to choose life therefore, choose to come out the other side. And part of the way to choose life is to choose our purpose in this life, choose the way that the Overcomer made us.

I am not saying that the trials of a life free of mortal danger are comparable to the trials of a real POW. But the fictional POW experience we are given here is a storytelling device, a stand-in for something else. It is a symbol for any of the personal trials we face that have the power to overcome us, since for a time at least, perhaps every one of us finds ourselves overcome.

DeNiro’s character’s purpose was to hunt deer. This is how God made him—a deer hunter is apparently what God made. Killing became too fraught for the character after the killing he had seen in the war. We see him change his hunting so that he no longer fires a fatal shot. This is a change in the way he follows his purpose, but the purpose remains. A hunter he remains. The deer hunter is the one who survived the events of The Deer Hunter because he found, and because he held fast to, the simple purpose he had been given to pursue in this world.

Dr. Strangelove (1964)—The Absurdity of Agenda

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

Watched from the perspective of the twenty-first century, one of the most interesting details in Dr. Strangelove is the date within the opening credits: MCMLXIII. That is just 18 years after nuclear weapons were used for the very first time, and here is a comedy—a successful comedy, one of funniest satires put to film—premised on the threat of nuclear annihilation.

As I write these words, we are not far from the 18-year anniversary of another history-making moment of mass violence. Yet when the 18-year anniversary of the September 11th attacks comes, it is hard to imagine we will have a comedy in the theaters premised on the threat of a massive terrorist attack.

There are differences. America was the attacker with the atom bomb and the attacked on 9/11. America sought to end a war with one and was drawn into war with the other. Do these differences point to a reason why we apparently found our way into humor over the aftereffects of one, but would not imagine finding humor in the wake of other?

In at least one important way, both events were alike. After both, a previously held sense of safety was lost.

Indeed, given one difference in particular—the vastly greater scale of death and loss in the nuclear attacks—it seems as though our resort to humor should have been even farther away in 1963. Unless.

Unless incomprehensible destruction actually makes humor more accessible.

In fact, herein might be another key to the lasting effect of the 9/11 attacks, to the “success” of these attacks in terms of the impact they have had on the American sense of calm and security. These attacks, large as they were, were also small enough to be comprehensible, small enough that each of us could personally understand them and envision them well enough to fear them.

In Dr. Strangelove, the viewer does comprehend, to an extent, the scope of the threatened violence within the story. We are aware that the actions being taken by one comically deranged general (Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper played by Sterling Hayden) are careening the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. toward mutual annihilation.

The characters understand this, too, including the President (Peter Sellers), General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), and the Soviet Premier “Dimitri” whom we know only from hearing the President’s side of the phone conversation with him. But in the case even of each of these characters, they somehow do not feel the scope of what is to happen, or they do not rise to it. Instead, their self-interest, their various personal agendas, invariably come to rule each moment.

This is a movie about agendas. In the story, a giant system is moving in the background of each of the little lives we see. Planes are moving toward bombing the U.S.S.R. on a mistaken mission, and the U.S.S.R. can be expected to retaliate. It is a system threatening to destroy all involved, yet it is still the self-interests of all these little people that fill the screen.

One of the more captivating such characters appears in only one scene. Tracy Reed plays Miss Scott, General Turgidson’s secretary and mistress. While the general is off-camera, she takes a telephone call from another officer, and the audience quickly comes to understand she is the lover of this man as well. The system in her background is somehow the military, its culture, the chain of command—and it all doesn’t matter. In alternating speaking tenderly to one lover into the receiver while relaying news to the other just out of the frame, we see her pursuing her own agenda against this backdrop.

Hayden as General Ripper
Agendas built the system across which the entire movie plays out. Self-interest fed two countries’ mutual pursuit of a superior ability to annihilate each other, leading (in the movie) to the U.S.S.R. developing a weapon that would destroy all life automatically if the country was ever significantly attacked. This is the outcome the characters are aiming—against the distractions of their own still-active self-interests—to avoid.

The movie’s subtitle is “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Seeing the characters in this film, we do love the bomb somewhat. Not because we hate these characters, but because the knot of human machination portrayed here is so impossible to disentangle that utterly ending it all feels as though it is, if not the best answer, an option to seriously weigh.

That world, tied by that knot of human machination, is not the world we live in. It could be. But the world we live in is hopeful. The inconceivable solution to that machination has been given to us: In Christ, human beings are remade. By faith, human beings have been lifted—are being lifted—out of agenda. “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” wrote the apostle Paul. People are being transformed in just this way, and the world is being transformed with them.

Dr. Strangelove is a Christian story in this way: It brilliantly portrays the inevitable logic by which the world would be doomed if it knew only human will and nothing else.

Our world is not the world of this story. Our world knows grace; our world is being remade. To be sure, our world is still far fallen. It includes elements scary enough that we do not bring ourselves to humor about them.

The darkly humorous development that sets off the story in Dr. Strangelove is General Ripper’s sending a bomber off to attack because of his blaming the Soviets for, of all things, fluoridated water. His crazy agenda was not anticipated by the larger system, and so his move sends the system careening off-course. Before this, the existence of that system and its seeming stability were—in their way—a comfort.

And therein lies another difference between then and now, between the time period that produced this movie and the times today. There is the sense now that systems have gone awry, or gone away. We are more exposed now, more fully and directly aware of our plight, because in the dangers and in the problems that face us today, it increasingly seems as though there is no system to meet them. Even when the danger is smaller now, it is nearer to us when the agendas are all there are.

Forgiveness is Choosing Life

If I hurt you, and you forgive me, that forgiveness can’t undo the damage and doesn’t erase the hurt. Intellectually, we know this much. Emotionally, we get confused on this point.

If I see evidence in your actions or in your eyes that you are still hurt, and seeing this causes me to experience again the pain of remorse for what I have done, then this can leave me feeling (falsely) that I am unforgiven.

What, then, should I receive as the one forgiven? Granting that the forgiveness can’t remove reminders or remorse, what is my due?

Answer: Nothing. I am due nothing. As the one forgiven, I have no entitlement.

I certainly receive a benefit. You won’t be retaliating or nursing resentment against me if your forgiveness is true. If you care for me, you might want me to have that benefit. However, this benefit is not the point. Ultimately, forgiveness is a step the forgiver takes for the forgiver’s own reason, which has nothing to do with the benefit that might extend to me. Forgiveness is about life.

Forgiveness has to do with the forgiver’s understanding of his or her own life. It has to do with one’s expectations about life. It therefore has to do with the giver of this life, God.

As the one who has been hurt, what can you expect of him and what should you hope for?

Answer: Only one thing—the continued presence of this life-giver himself.

In this world, life inevitably entails and consists of loss. Assume now that I am the one who has been hurt. That means I have suffered a loss. Depending on the offense, I no longer have the peace, trust, health, property or possibilities I used to have.

To forgive is to choose life regardless. To forgive is to find the way to choose life even in this subtracted state. One chooses life in spite of the loss of this thing, accepting that the life now led includes that absence. I still feel what is missing—I still face and carry the consequences. But I choose to proceed with a new life, a life that is now different to some great or small extent, because it no longer contains or offers all that the previous life did.

God will change us. God will change you. Because you are a unique being with a unique destiny, his shaping of you might make use of the loss of something that everyone around you continues to possess as though by unspoken right. The loss of that thing might come as a result of injustice. It might come by means of another’s selfishness.

Framing the matter that way lets no one off the hook. God does not will the damage humans choose; he provides that it can be redeemed. It was evil of me to hurt you. It was vile of you to hurt me. In either case, I hope we can get past it. But “getting past” is not the forgiveness, since just enduring and powering through can accomplish that much. Forgiveness is more.

Hear the words of Joseph when he forgave the brothers who had sold him into slavery. He said, “You meant evil for me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). Joseph saw the good; he saw the people whose lives had been saved because of the turns his life took and the position he found himself in as a result of having been brought as a slave into Egypt. The latter chapters of Genesis tell this elaborate story. Yet now here before him were the ones who had subjected him to that slavery. Seeing the good did nothing to change the evil of what they had done. In forgiving, we do not redefine evil, but instead we refuse to be defined by it.

We say to God, I accept that the life you have for me has now changed in this way. We cease fighting against the loss by means of a bitter heart or plans for vengeance. We say, I choose this life.

Thus, those of us who feel we have been humbled by being forgiven probably aren’t sufficiently humble at all. The offender looms large in the mind of the one who has not forgiven. When it comes to the actual act of forgiving, the offender does not figure in. Forgiveness is the outcome of a conversation between the forgiver and God.

[PS. Then what does it mean when God forgives us? Answer: It means the same thing! God has given his creatures free will. We use it in detrimental ways. God says, I accept that the life I have given them has now been changed in this way. God says, I choose that they should live.]

Goodfellas (1990)—The Beginning of an Even Better Movie

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

The problem with sin is that it feels so good.

That truly is the problem. No one would follow in it otherwise. Sin, as a concept, has nothing to recommend it. But in practice, sin is exhilarating. It feels like life (which it is not). The sinner feels like one’s most natural self when experiencing the indulgence that has him or her in its grip. And it’s not just the sensual indulgences to which this applies. Anger, too—it feels great to unleash rage. The unleashing leaves costly aftereffects, a clue to the true nature of the choice, but the trap of sin is that we often choose the same indulgence again as a way to respond to the effects that come.

Sin always leaves wreckage in its wake. That is its nature. Sin is death that feels like life during the brief moment while it’s happening. 

We see this in Goodfellas. A gangster in the 1960s and 70s, main character Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) led a life of barely restrained indulgence, including stolen wealth and domineering others. Hill’s words describe how that life felt to him at the time:

“For us to live any other way was nuts. To us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day and worried about their bills were dead. I mean they were suckers. They had no balls. If we wanted something, we just took it. If anyone complained twice they got hit so bad, believe me, they never complained again.”

But even by that point in the movie, we know it didn’t last. We know the wreckage had come. The entire movie is narrated looking back, by someone who no longer had access to what he was remembering. We see why at the end: Hill has testified against his closest friend and his most admired mentor in court, and he has gone into witness protection under the observation of the state.

The movie also offers a realistic picture of how sin begins. Hill as a child was looking for the way to live, as we all are. He looked out his window and saw what he thought was life, in the form of the mobsters hanging out across the street from his childhood home.

The realism ends there. As gangster movies do, this one gives us unrealistic crimes. To enjoy the movie, we need to sympathize with the gangster’s exploits. So a truck full of cargo is stolen. We never see the small business owner spiraling toward ruin because of the income lost in that theft. We see a young man working as a waiter who is killed in a moment of rage. We never see the parent or the young bride whose heart is shattered by this loss. Gangster movies give us crimes without impact, crimes without consequence. Which never happens in actual life.

What is the message of Goodfellas? It doesn’t really have one. That crime doesn’t pay? I am not sure it didn’t in this case. I’m not sure Hill didn’t come out ahead, because of the memories he now seemingly still enjoys. We don’t see repentance on Hill’s part, let alone sorrow or a sense of achieved meaning. And why repent, since those crimes had no consequence? He is looking back and marveling upon a moment he got to experience, and that is what this movie is: a painting of that moment.

The way of life is fruitful. Life bears fruit—good fruit that lifts or sustains others, fruit that lasts. That is why, strangely, the way of life often does not feel like life when it is happening. It involves building, striving against obstacles, humility, devotion, duty, self-denial, and often humdrum routine. For a great many, it involves taking the subway to work every day.

There is a better Goodfellas to be told. What is the fruit Henry Hill is now bearing within this new life after being a mobster? This is what the movie is missing. He looked out his window looking for life and he found its twisted imposter. This part is true. (Parents, what windows are your children looking through?) We frequently do not have a moment in which we knowingly and gravely choose sin. Rather, we find it or it finds us; we find ourselves in the midst of it without knowing quite how we got there. We don’t get lost—we realize we are lost. What then?

That moment is the beginning of life. And that moment for Hill, which is the ending of the moment we see, can only be the beginning of a story even better than the one we have been given in this film. Was Hill’s mind ever changed? Did he find something new; was he broken into beginning again? Did he ever become a good fellow?