“…To act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humblywith your God.”
-That’s from the Book of Micah, chapter 6, verse 8.
And the man in the picture here is Mr. Daniel Shaver. Daniel was an ordinary, working class citizen of the United States of America. He was married, with two daughters, and lived in Granbury, Texas. He was 26 years old at the time of his death about four and a half years ago. Daniel was employed as a pest control specialist. In January of 2016, he traveled to Mesa, Arizona on a business trip. One night, while relaxing in his hotel room, he was ordered into the hallway by the local police. He had been spotted earlier that evening with a rifle, and the authorities had been called to investigate. The rifle in question — which he did not have on him when he exited his hotel room — upon later inspection, turned out to be a pellet gun that he was authorized to use in cases where he had to remove birds from the inside of homes and businesses as part of his job. Arizona has open carry laws in place, so this shouldn’t have been an issue anyway, as no one was being threatened and no crimes had been committed – but I digress.
I won’t tell you everything that happened as the events unfolded that night in the La Quinta Inn. There’s video footage of how Daniel Shaver met his demise, quite clearly, at the hands of police Sergeant Charles Langley (now retired and living abroad) and officer Philip Brailsford (whereabouts unknown). I will post the video below. For context – Langley is the man yelling in the video, and Brailsford is the man pointing his AR-15 at Daniel Shaver. I encourage you to watch this video in its entirety, even if your first instinct is to not watch it. I know it’s disturbing. But it’s reality. Look at it. Think about it. Consider what it means in the context of what’s playing out in our society today.
Now… after you’ve watched it, consider that there were no convictions for what happened to Mr. Daniel Shaver. Consider also that he complied with every command he was given, and showed zero signs of resistance. He died crawling on the floor, while sobbing for the police to not shoot him while they barked contradictory commands at him like an animal. These police officers murdered this man. And they got away with it. There are foreign combatants and terrorists against our military service men and women who have been treated with more humanity and mercy than Daniel Shaver. Even Saddam Hussein was granted something called due process before his execution.
The officer who shot Daniel Shaver five times in a split second was granted a retirement pension of $30,000 a year at the age of 29, due to the “mental trauma” he experienced from the murder he committed, and the trial that followed – whereby he was fully acquitted of all charges. This was a white police officer murdering a white citizen, and despite there being video that leaves ZERO room for doubt or ambiguity, the officer faced no repercussions at all.
Is there a racial problem in our country? Yes. There is. This kind of murder happens MORE OFTEN to black citizens. Their anger is justified. Watch this very rare footage of it happening to a white person, and then think about how there are hundreds of videos of it happening to black people. There is a racial problem in our country. But there is also an authority problem.
The racial problem can be fixed by individual people who choose compassion, understanding, empathy, mercy, and love – instead of tribalism, arrogance, pride, anger, and hatred. No government or political system is capable of legislating away the evil that happens in someone’s heart and mind. When that evil becomes external action, laws can be applied against it, but it still won’t change a person’s heart. The authority problem, on the other hand, can be fixed much easier by something that most of us learned about in high school; it’s called “checks and balances.” Police officers all across this country wear a badge and take an oath called “The Law Enforcement Oath of Honor.” Here’s what it says:
“On my honor, I will never betray my badge, my integrity, my character or the public trust. I will always have the courage to hold myself and others accountable for our actions. I will always uphold the constitution, my community, and the agency I serve.”
This means something. Police officers are given a sacred trust, solidified by a communal pact, that carries with it a responsibility of immense power and authority over the lives of other human beings. This demands oversight and accountability according to the laws of our nation. When officers violate this sacred trust, and they are not held accountable, the rule of law begins to break down. This creates more chaos, and allows more opportunities for corruption to occur, and power to go unchecked. If you’re looking at all the chaos in the streets of bigger cities and wondering why – that’s why. The United States of America was founded by people who were rebelling against unbridled power. Remember? We celebrate that rebellion every July 4th. It’s an old sentiment – a part of our heritage – that runs through the blood of almost every American. And now, there is unbridled power in our country, (it’s been there all along, but now everyone has a camera on them at all times so we can all see it), and this unchecked power needs to be challenged and contained. And the people who are most capable of containing it through law and order, (not just police departments, but courts and politicians as well) have not done their jobs sufficiently enough. Thus we have chaos and uprising. Is the answer to disband police departments and assume that all cops are corrupt, etc…? No. Of course not. That’s obviously ridiculous. But there is a problem with power that is not being properly checked, and it needs to be FIXED.
In addition… while I’m on the subject…
If we aren’t sure why people are saying, or chanting, or writing, “Black Lives Matter,” then we need to educate ourselves before we say something about it, or automatically take a different posture of “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter.” Philosophically speaking, as simple phrases (without all the politics and spin that’s been attached to them) these statements are all true, and when MOST PEOPLE say them, they are expressing the simple truth of these statements, which doesn’t automatically mean they are trying to indoctrinate the populace with a political manifesto. The act of saying one phrase does not negate the validity of the other. Nevertheless, these are still all just words… phrases that don’t even mean the same things to different people. We don’t have to say any of them. But we do have to think about why the phrases themselves matter so much to people. There’s a cry for justice that’s happening. And there is nothing wrong with that at all.
Now, lastly, because I’m a Pastor, and this is what I do… to the Christians reading this — my fellow brothers and sisters:
We follow a King who was unjustly arrested, tortured, convicted of high treason, and publicly slain by the authorities. Thankfully, it didn’t take. But he could have chosen any number of ways to accomplish his mission of salvation. He chose this way for a reason. Moreover, an unknown number of our fellow Christians throughout history, and in other parts of the world today have suffered similar fates as our Lord and Savior. How can we turn away from this kind of thing happening in our country? It’s our duty, as the followers of an oppressed King, to value the lives of those who are oppressed – whoever they are.
“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” -1st John 3:16-18
If you’d like to hear more of my thoughts on this subject – here’s the sermon I preached this past Sunday:
Adam J. Coffman · June 7 2020 – The Good Samaritan
Greetings from Echo Base, my fellow Earth people. In honor of Star Wars Day, I’m posting Chapter 41 of my new book – SACRED FILMS – for your reading consumption. May the 4th be with you.
The Empire Strikes Back
I was about a year and a half out from making my entrance into this world when the original Star Wars film was making its entrance into theaters during the Spring of 1977. As such, I was first introduced to the legendary saga through its second film The Empire Strikes Back that landed on the scene in 1980. Because the sequel was such a massive success it was re-released a few more times, and during one of these subsequent theater runs in November of 1982 my dad—through what can only be described in retrospect as divine inspiration—drove me to one of the small movie theaters in his home neighborhood on the south side of Indy. It was a crucial parenting move on his part, and it insured that my fledgling four-year-old brain would henceforth have all the creative fuel it would ever need to see me through the rest of my childhood and beyond. The film had a monumental impact on my development as a human being. I know that sounds quite dramatic, and maybe even a little disturbing, but there’s simply no denying it. I don’t have many clear memories left from when I was four, but I remember, most vividly, the experience of sitting in that theater and witnessing a green, two-foot-tall puppet raise a man’s spaceship out of a swamp using nothing but its mind. I had seen puppet shows at Vacation Bible School, to be sure, but all they did was talk about things I was too young to understand. Yoda, on the other hand, showed me something awesome, something powerful, something I would never forget. Even though he was only a puppet, he became real to me on that day.
That was only the very beginning of my own personal Star Wars adventure. A week or so later, I received my first action figure—a 4-inch imperial snowtrooper—as a gift from my parents. That was only a preview of the influx of Star Wars toys I was to receive a month later on Christmas morning. What followed in the next few years, with the release of the original film on television and VHS, the release of the third film Return of the Jedi in 1983, and the wave of merchandise that accompanied all of it, was a cornucopia of psychological building materials for my imagination. By the time I was ten I had the original trilogy memorized line by line. Every Christmas, birthday, and trip to the Greenwood Park Mall, saw my collection of Star Wars toys continue to grow. Mr. Rogers had taught me the basics about how to conjure up the “land of make-believe.” My Star Wars toys gave me the raw materials to actually do it. My imagination was constantly running free with new adventures that I made up in my mind, given life through massive toy battles that spread across the house, often spilling out into the backyard. Even in deep snow I would haul my figures out into the yard and re-create the Battle of Hoth in front of the whole neighborhood (who were nestled warmly in their homes and didn’t care of course). By the time I was a teenager the mythological bedrock of Star Wars, and the story that unfolds through The Empire Strikes Back in particular, had helped to shape a great deal of my view of the world. The only influences that rivaled anything close to the profound effect it had on me were the love of my parents, and their devotion to Christ, the Church, and the Bible. My parents were never the type of people to be overly critical of things, and they definitely didn’t analyze and scrutinize movies the way I do—but still, their intuition concerning what was truly good or bad was always spot on. They could sense whether something would have a positive or negative effect on us kids, and whether or not the messages we were absorbing through the movies and the shows we watched, as well as the books we read, would conflict with the truth they were instilling within us through God’s word. And they did adjust what we were exposed to according to their perceptions. They were much stricter in this way when we were really young, but as we grew older they allowed us the freedom to discern these kinds of things for ourselves. I’m grateful for their parenting skills in this regard. Many of the other kids in our church had parents who tried to teach them that anything that wasn’t produced by Christians was inherently evil and should be avoided and shunned. My parents never bought into this unfortunate fallacy. Instead, they taught me to look deeper when it came to movies, shows, books, and music. They taught me to dig for the meaning inside these things, and then to judge for myself whether something was beneficial, uplifting, and had redeeming qualities to it—or not. Instead of teaching me only what to think, they taught me how to think. And I’m continually grateful for this, especially in regards to Star Wars, and the messages it contains within its depths. Because the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized how much of the Star Wars story is timeless, how much of it reflects the deeper truths of humanity, and how it depicts a spiritual realm that, through fantasy, provides a symbolic abstraction of the reality we actually live in. More on that in a bit…
When George Lucas brought the original film to life in the late 70s, no one knew it was going to be the massive success that it very quickly became. When it was clear that the film was well received and profitable, the corporate tycoons came for their piece of the action. But Lucas had the foresight to side-step their attempts to own him, and to control his decision making for the next two movies. He broke from the Hollywood machine, established his own production company, and proceeded to make The Empire Strikes Back with his own money. His deft maneuvering paid off, and the result has gone down in history as the most successful independent film ever made. We can’t fault the man for building one of the most successful brands ever, and then cashing it in for 4 billion dollars a few decades later. But, for those fans like myself noticing the differences between the Star Wars that was, and the Star Wars that is—this is the reason. Individual creativity, ingenuity, and hard work produces different results from corporate greed, political agendas, and lazy writing. If the Star Wars fan base is truly as divided now as the internet would have us believe, this is why.
Alright then… enough about all that. On to the important stuff.
The Empire Strikes Back is a powerful story. It’s not just the greatest of all the Star Wars films that have been made, and it’s not just one of the greatest epic fantasy movies ever made, but it’s one of the greatest films ever made. It takes the viewer through a vicarious journey with its heroes that has been described by psychologists, philosophers, historians, and sociologists as a “monomyth.” Many of the films I’ve written about in this book, and countless others that I haven’t written about, make use of this formula to some extent. The Empire Strikes Back is a nearly flawless depiction of it. This formula, sometimes referred to as “The Hero’s Journey,” was popularized by the late literature professor Joseph Campbell through the publications of his research. His ideas were studied, surveyed, and adapted by Lucas when he began constructing the backbone of the Star Wars myth. The main theory underlying the existence of the monomyth, or the Hero’s Journey, is that the human race, since its earliest beginnings has been telling and re-telling the same general story throughout time. This general story takes on new characteristics, produces tributaries that spin off of the main tale, and is clothed in different guises depending on what era it’s being told in, what culture is telling it, what the religious beliefs of that culture are, and where, geographically speaking, these cultures reside—but it’s still all the same story underneath its external trappings and layers. If understood correctly, that same general story (or the things about that story that are always the same across time, culture, belief, and geography) can be extrapolated and clothed in an infinite number of ways to produce “new” stories on top of the original monomyth. The result is that we end up with The Lion King, The Matrix, Robin Hood, and of course Star Wars (to name some recognizable examples). All of these stories tell the same general tale with different outward appearances. Christian writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien made use of this formula in their writings as well, but they also believed, as do I, that the common general story, or source of the one great monomyth at the heart of all stories, is the one that God has been telling since the beginning. In other words, the main story that the human race cannot help but keep trying to tell comes from the one original story that’s shared by all—the true story that has been given voice and form and finality in the word of God.
Think for a moment, about the journey that Luke Skywalker takes through A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. Luke’s main goal is to answer one simple question—who am I? His search for the answer to this question leads him to discover many other things about himself, about his family, and about his environment. He learns the nature of good and evil, he learns how to cope with loss, how to recover from being wounded physically, how to recover from being wounded emotionally, what it means to sacrifice your own needs and desires for the needs and desires of those you love, how to deal with power, how to stand against injustice, and how to speak the truth. The main lessons that Luke learns in The Empire Strikes Back revolve around how to overcome temptation, and how to connect with the invisible, unseen “force” behind the creation, cohesiveness, and sustenance of the entire universe. The Force is a nebulous, undefined, impersonal deity of sorts, but it’s this vagueness that allows it to be appreciated and understood by many different kinds of people who believe in very different deities—including the Christian God that we recognize through the person of Jesus Christ. After all, we’re talking about a fictional movie narrative. It’s not meant to communicate truth to us directly, but only to provide us with a backdrop upon which we can shine our own beliefs in a neutral way. All art does this to some extent.
When Luke goes about connecting himself to the power of the Force, it requires him to develop faith and discipline. He has to learn how to see past the physical realm, and into a spiritual world that is invisible, yet ever present. This is something that Christians should be able to understand and relate to in some way. Overcoming temptation is another thing that Christians can find resonance with. For Luke Skywalker, overcoming the “dark side” requires him to face temptation in the most visceral way possible. When we catch up to him in the climax of the film he’s a broken man. He has nothing. He stands completely alone, backed onto the edge of an abyss, beaten down, maimed, and compelled to accept a truth about himself that cuts through him more painfully than Vader’s lightsaber. And the only way out is to accept Vader’s offer of power and authority and become evil in the process, or to plunge to his death and remain good. Luke’s choice to fall to his death rather than betray his conscience opens the doorway to redemption. He experiences grace in an immediate way, being rescued by his sister Leia, which enables him to extend grace and rescue his father in the next film. It’s a brilliant story of redemption.
And while I’m mentioning Leia, I should also point out that her character is proof that strong female leads can be portrayed in movies with grace, dignity, power, and intelligence—without resorting to militant feminism—and while still sharing equal screen time with the male leads. Just look at what Leia does in this movie: At the beginning, she’s running the entire Rebel base, bossing orders to the squadrons of pilots, organizing the defenses, planning the retreat, and putting herself in danger by not leaving until everyone else has gotten out of harm’s way. At the end, she’s engaged in a direct firefight with imperial troops, piloting the Millennium Falcon and rescuing Luke from certain death. Throughout the movie the Rebels are getting their rear ends handed to them the entire way, and Leia is the one holding them all together. And, just to top it all off and make my point—she does all this without sacrificing an ounce of her femininity, and while falling in love in the process. Leia’s strength and leadership are natural to the flow of the story. Everything she does makes complete sense, because her character is still serving the story that undergirds all of the characters. This is how to write a strong female character. In today’s over-politicized, movie making climate, this is becoming a lost art form. These days, it seems that people don’t know how to write strong female leads that fit within a good story. Crafting female heroes to fit the monomyth and serve a good story is entirely possible, as George Lucas and James Cameron showed us back in the 80s through the characters they wrote for Carrie Fisher and Sigourney Weaver. There are too many writers in Hollywood today that don’t understand this, and they instead alter the story to serve the female characters, functionally turn the females into men (so to speak), and then turn the men into complete morons. The male characters in the new Star Wars films are all one of four things: They’re either incompetent, evil, angry, or immature, and they all need women to show them the right way to be men. Anyway, I guess I just yearn for simpler times.
Most of these motifs, symbols, story structure, and underlying themes sailed completely over my four-year-old head that day in the theater back in 1982. I was too young to comprehend all these things. But the images and the story stuck with me. And in time, I began to understand why this movie was so important to me. It taught me truths about life; that good and evil are real, that they actually exist, that they are constantly at war, that our decisions are important, that the choices we make every day cause us to land in real places on the battlefield of life, that pride in our own abilities and knowledge can send us down a path that will corrupt even the purest of hearts, and that conversely, those who are enslaved to the darkest evils are never beyond redemption.
I was born late at night, on November 11, 1978, and it has taken me the entire 41 years since to learn these 12 things. I wish I had learned them all sooner, but at least I learned them.
1. Do something kind for someone who can’t do anything for you—as often as possible. That’s the best way to keep yourself from turning into a jerk over the long haul.
2. Drink more water. It’s what you’re made of, God made it for you, and where there’s water there’s life.
3. Don’t be stingy when tipping your waiters and waitresses. They handle your food, they listen to your complaining, they’re on their feet all day, and they get paid crap. Five extra bucks is a small price to pay for letting a complete stranger know that you appreciate them.
4. Spend more time with your parents. Talk to them, listen to them, make their lives easier if you can. They’re going to be gone one day, and you’ll wish you had done more with them.
5. Get a dog. Keep it close to you. Their loyalty, their love, and their unwavering devotion cannot be adequately replicated by human beings, and they are remarkable testimonies of what we’re supposed to have for God.
6. In the words of Brandon Flowers, “Smile like you mean it.” You only have so many smiles available to you. Don’t waste them.
7. When you’re meeting someone for dinner, leave your phone in the car. You’ll survive without it for an hour or two, and nothing says, “You’re important to me,” like putting the rest of the world on hold.
8. Take Monday Morning by the gonads. If you have 6:30 AM Monday by the short and curlys, you’ve got the rest of the week too.
9. The right girl (or guy) for you, is the person you can tell all your deepest secrets to without reservation. If you can’t be completely honest with that person, then they’re not the right person for you. If you can’t see yourself being completely honest with anyone, then you’re not the right person yet.
10. Read or listen to the Bible from cover to cover at least once. There’s a reason why Jesus said that, “Man does not live on bread alone.” There really is nothing else like it in all the world. Also, there is more of them in print than any other book in existence, so they should never be hard to find.
11. Be yourself, even if it’s painful, even if no one cares, and even if the whole world gets mad at you for it. There’s only one of you. God made you. He loves you EXACTLY the way you are. And no one else can do anything about that.
Few things throughout human history (as far as I can tell from my limited vantage point) have been the focal point of as much writing, painting, singing, acting, and philosophizing as the twin subjects of Love and Death—and the perilous relationship that exists between the two. The ancient Greeks, for example, once told the story of a man named Orpheus, so grief-stricken by the tragic and sudden death of his wife Eurydice, that he journeyed into the underworld to confront Hades and rescue his beloved from death. Spoiler alert… It didn’t end too well for him… or her. The lesson that the Greeks were apparently attempting to convey was that, no matter how strong the love between two people may be, death is stronger.
In any case, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice has given birth to many other legends and tales that have re-told this Greek tragedy in various ways across time and in many cultures; at times even lightening the load for children’s consumption. Sleeping Beauty, for instance, is a medieval riff on the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, as are other fairytales that involve a prince or warrior facing dragons and other forms of certain doom to rescue a princess from captivity. Many video games use this same fairytale pattern as well—think The Legend of Zelda as a prime example. There are numerous versions of the myth, told in many art forms—some with happy endings (these are usually the ones with Judeo-Christian influence), and some with conclusions that are more faithful to the original Greek myth that concludes with the despondency of Orpheus who spends the rest of his miserable life doing nothing but singing poetically about the love he has lost—that is, of course, until he dies violently at the claws of demon possessed witches who tear him limb from limb… those Greeks didn’t mess around with their tragic stories.
Witches, demons, and claws aside… the 2007 film Reign Over Me is an exploration into these themes of love, death, connection, and separation.
Reign Over Me slowly introduces us to the character of Charlie Fineman as played by Adam Sandler. It is, by no means, a typical Adam Sandler movie. This is one of the few very serious roles that Sandler has played throughout his extensive filmography—and he does a great job at it—aside from the couple of times he raises his voice to shouting level and Happy Gilmore accidentally slips out. But we can let that slide because there’s nothing funny about the man he’s portraying—an utterly broken soul who is caught in the grip of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of losing his wife, three young daughters, and the family dog in one of the airplanes that was flown into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The film doesn’t hit us over the head with this fact. We find it out very slowly throughout the course of the film as we are invited into the world of pain and sorrow that Fineman inhabits–a world that he navigates very carefully via motor scooter, headphones, video games, Chinese food, Mel Brooks marathons, alcohol, comic books, and habitual kitchen remodeling–all ways in which he creates interference to dampen the pain of reality. We meet Fineman and experience his life through the lens of Don Cheadle’s character Alan Johnson who knew him in college when the two were roommates. When they first run into each other at the beginning of the film, Fineman is, mentally speaking, so far removed from reality that he initially doesn’t even recognize that Johnson is the old friend he once shared a room with. Much of the meat of the film involves the two friends re-connecting with each other. Alan, through many hazardous missteps, is eventually able to do what no one else has been able to—that is, to breach the walls of noise, isolation, fantasy, distraction, and guilt that Charlie has built around himself for protection. If you can watch the scene where Charlie breaks down and tells Johnson all about his family, and how he lost them, and you don’t shed a few tears (or over-exert your facial muscles from attempting to hold them back) then you are most likely a diagnosable sociopath without a soul.
Charlie Fineman is, to a reasonable degree, the embodiment of Orpheus in this movie. That which he loved the most was stolen from him tragically and unexpectedly by hatred and death. And each day, he enters into the Forbidden Land atop his black mustang Agro in an attempt to slay the sixteen giants who guard the soul of his lost love. As the viewer, we only witness this quest by seeing him play an old PS2 video game called Shadow of the Colossus—one of the most beautifully rendered and unique games ever produced. For Charlie, however, it’s not just a video game, but a temporary catharsis and escape from the pain of the real world that he can hardly bear.
Whatever forms the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice may have taken over the centuries of human history, including this one told in Reign Over Me, they all find their orbit around that common theme—that love and death are related to each other, that they cannot be separated from one another, and that they are locked together in a perpetual conflict that is so enormous and so powerful that it has touched the lives of every human being who has ever lived. This is what makes the story archetypal; the idea that it’s an abstraction of a truth that all humans in all cultures of every age have had to face in some way. That’s why the story has been retold so many times, and how it continues to endure, regardless of whatever disguise it happens to be wearing. Love is the ultimate binding force in the universe—it’s how we connect to each other. Death, on the other hand, is the ultimate force of separation in the universe—it’s the one thing that has the definitive power to rip us away from those we love the most. The Apostles of the early Church, well acquainted with Greek culture, religion, language, and philosophy understood this connection—though they didn’t share the conclusion that death was the end of love, but rather that love was the end of death.
One of my favorite authors, J.R.R. Tolkien was a master at taking the myths from the old world and ‘baptizing’ them in the waters of Christianity to give them new meaning, and to infuse them with hope. In The Fellowship of the Ring, for instance, one of the characters in the book, pontificating on the evil and destruction that is overtaking the realm, laments poetically that, “the world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places. But still there is much that is fair. And though in all lands, love is now mingled with grief, it still grows, perhaps, the greater.”
Reign Over Me, in spite of the melancholy it immerses us in, reflects this same small ray of light and hope. At the end of the film, we see the very fragile first indications that Charlie’s broken heart has been truly seen and recognized by someone else, that empathy is the response to his pain, and that love may, perhaps, find its way back from death once more. The title of the movie, and the song at the end—Pete Townshend’s epic track from Quadrophenia (as sung by Pearl Jam)—provide the necessary bookends for this new telling of a very old story. They echo the desperate howling cry for love to be victorious over all else. May love, indeed, reign o’er all of us.
Well, it has been awhile since I’ve felt the appropriate amount of brain propulsion to take some time and write out my thoughts concerning my movie watching activities. But, I’ve found some thinking space to do so today, and here we are. Professor Lunsford lent me his copy of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre a couple of months ago, so it’s been slowly percolating in my neurons for quite long enough I suppose.
When the Professor first mentioned this movie I was immediately interested, as I had first heard about it many years ago. I can’t remember the exact context of how I became aware of the film, but I know it had something to do with either Spielberg or Lucas sharing their various inspirations for Indiana Jones. Since that day, whenever it was, I’ve had some existential space reserved for actually finding it, watching it, and ascertaining how it made such an impact on the two notorious directors.
However… while in the midst of my two-months of pondering the themes in this classic film, a friend from church gathered a handful of us together for a Saturday night viewing of Beowulf. Just to avoid confusion, this was the 2007 version of Beowulf directed by Robert Zemeckis. More on that in a bit. At any rate, after watching the modern cinematic “re-telling” of this ancient Old English poem, I realized that I had waited too long to gather my thoughts concerning The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, because the two films share some similar themes, and writing about both of them separately would have me mining too much gold from the same excavation site as it were. So… in my own way, and in the style of the Starship Enterprise, I have decided to boldly go where none of my reviews have thus gone before, and combine these two reviews into one. Some might call this laziness, but I prefer to think of it as cleverness.
Now, the average connoisseur of the Arts and Humanities would most likely scoff at the thought of these two stories having anything to do with one another, and I myself would have scoffed as well had I not accidentally found myself in this unlikely, circumstantial confluence of the two films which served to blend them together in my mind. But the similarities are none-the-less real, and they can be modestly distilled into an essence defined as simply as “the danger of human greed.” The two stories have many differences as well, to be sure, but even though they are separated by a thousand years of cultural context, they share this parable about greed in the core of their bones.
At this point I should probably back up a little. I need to clarify something. The two stories aren’t, technically speaking, separated by a thousand years, because this version of the Beowulf myth bares very little resemblance to the original epic. This Beowulf was released in 2007, and it is not the Beowulf that we had to read about in high school English class. Actually, to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t totally sure how much of the film borrowed from the original poem of Beowulf and how much was created by Neil Gaiman for the screenplay… I guess I should have read the old story more carefully in English class. As it turns out, Gaiman and Zemeckis infused the epic poem with quite a bit of additional material. In this version of the story, the hero accomplishes the same general “feats of strength,”—killing the monstrosity known as Grendel and so forth— but instead of killing Grendel’s mother, he is seduced by her. As it turns out, the former King Hrothgar (as portrayed by Anthony Hopkins) had also slept with Grendel’s mother when he was a young warrior, which is where Grendel came from. Beowulf’s lust gives birth to a son that can take the form of a golden dragon—a distorted version of the dragon that Beowulf sacrifices his life to defeat in the original story. This is quite a departure from the epic of Beowulf that J.R.R. Tolkien translated in 1926 from Old English. I give Zemeckis and Gaiman props for creating a much more interesting story that uses the names and locations of the original poem, but at the same time, I lament the fact that they’ve robbed the old story of its intended meaning. It takes a tremendous amount of hubris to do that with a piece of ancient literature, but where there’s a dollar to be made, nothing is sacred I suppose. The main difference is that they’ve reduced the hero, who originally stood as an early example of Christianity infusing its way into the Germanic traditions of Scandinavia, into an anti-hero driven by his own selfishness, greed, and lust rather than by a desire to protect the community entrusted to him at all costs. This version of Beowulf wants more, and he wants it all to himself.
Don’t get me wrong, this modern re-telling of Beowulf, with its unique visual style, superb voice acting, and additional layers of meaning are still worthy of examination and analysis. It just needs to be absorbed and digested on its own merit, with the understanding that this shouldn’t be confused with the classic literary version of the story. Ironically, however, it is this severe alteration of the original source material that has allowed me to make the connection between this film and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Don’t worry, I’m getting to the point…
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was released in 1948. It’s the adaptation of a book that was written by the enigmatic novelist B. Traven in 1927. It tells the story of two hard-working Americans (or two losers depending on your point of view) following an aging and well-seasoned prospector into the Mexican desert in order to find gold. Once they find the right spot, they set up camp, dig a mine, and gradually accumulate more gold than they will ever need. At this point, one of the men begins to suffer from a gradual and increasingly hostile paranoia –not unlike the kind that Scrooge McDuck used to suffer from back during his days as the Kingpin of Duckburg. He believes the other two men are plotting against him, and that the gold he has is simply not enough. He wants more, and he wants it all to himself. The aforementioned old prospector named Howard (portrayed by Walter Huston) was the most interesting character, in my opinion, even though Humphrey Bogart gives an absolutely mesmerizing performance as Fred Dobbs – the guy losing his mind to greed. But Howard is the moral compass of the story, infusing wisdom into the impending madness at hand by uttering lines such as, “I know what gold does to men’s souls.” Indeed sir, you did know.
There’s lots of moral quandaries flying around throughout both of these movies, but when we examine the characters of Fred Dobbs and Beowulf under the same magnifying lens, the similarities between these two stories begin to emerge. Both characters show us what happens when greed poisons a man into believing that, no matter how much wealth he has attained, it’s not enough. I suppose they do manifest their greed sickness in different forms – Dobbs allows his greed to rob him of his sanity, while Beowulf allows it to rob him of his Kingdom, but both men lose their humanity, both men lose their integrity, and both men lose their lives as a consequence of giving themselves over to their desire for MORE. Dobbs, in his greed, produces a confrontation that results in his death, while Beowulf in his greed, produces a dragon that results in his. Beowulf’s shortcomings are portrayed to a much greater extreme than Dobbs, being swept away by lust and power as well, but that’s because, in the context of his story, he exemplifies what happens to a greedy man that has the ability to seek out greater vices. Unlike Dobbs, he has the agency to give himself over more completely to his debauchery. Dobbs is a poor man without an entire kingdom at his disposal, and simply has no way to do as much damage to others. But if he had the ability to do as Beowulf does, he mostly definitely would. Their disease is the same.
I’m tempted to give away the endings of the stories, which are different, but I will refrain, in case anyone wants to see for themselves. But, in brief, I will say that Beowulf leaves us, the viewers, with ambiguity—Beowulf himself does reach some measure of personal atonement, realizing his past mistakes, and owning up to the consequences… but we are left to wonder how the story will progress. Will the next King Wiglaf fall prey to the same sins as the two kings who came before him? Will he resist and establish a kingdom that is secure and virtuous? We don’t know. We don’t know enough about Wiglaf’s character to ascertain whether or not he has learned from the men he has served and gone into battle with. If he has learned the right lessons, we don’t know if they are powerful enough to keep him from falling. The ending of the film is intended to make us think about this.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, on the other hand, leaves us with a rather poignant reality to ponder in regards to the wealth of this world, and seeking after riches. Dobbs does not find redemption or atonement for his sins. He is tragically consumed and destroyed by them in a way that should make us all shudder.
The moral of these two films remains stunningly similar, however. Simply put, by a wise king long ago, who knew the full excesses of wealth, power, and lust that human beings can achieve on this earth, and who, in the twilight of his own life brought disaster on his kingdom: “I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces… I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure… yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind…” –from Ecclesiastes 2:8, 10-11
Somewhere back in the early part of the 20th century, three Jewish brothers from Rhode Island put their heads together and opened a textile company. The Hassenfeld brothers had no idea what their entrepreneurial endeavors would produce, nor would they live to see the global, multi-billion dollar behemoth that their baby company would grow up to become nearly 100 years later. Unbeknownst to them, they had set in motion a chain of events that would re-shape the childhoods of millions of kids in the distant future of 1984. For it was in that year, that the Hassenfeld Brothers’ company, now known by its more popular moniker – Hasbro – would cut a deal with a Japanese toy company known as Takara, and a comic book company in the U.S. known as Marvel, to produce exactly three things aimed directly at the still developing hearts and minds of boys like little Adam Coffman. These three things were a comic book, a cartoon, and a toy line. The purpose of the comic book was to create a mythology, and the purpose of the cartoon was to spin that mythology into 30-minute advertising spots that could be used to market the toy line – a toy line that was comprised of the main characters in the mythology. The result of this inspirational stroke of genius (or diabolical scheme depending on your perspective) was something that the entire globe now knows simply as The Transformers.
What Hasbro hadn’t counted on, was how deeply the mythology of the transforming robots from outer space would burrow into the hearts of its intended target audience. The toys themselves were quite expensive by early 80s standards, and there were many families (like mine) that just couldn’t afford them. But the cartoon, on the other hand, was accessible to everyone, and the stories and characters it introduced into our young lives were so captivating that it ensured a seemingly perpetual longevity to The Transformers mythos, a limitless recycling of products based on them, and a legacy that has now spilled over into the lives of every generation of kids since then.
In the late summer of 1986, just two years after the launch of the brand, The Transformers made their feature film debut in theaters all across America. And within weeks of the film’s premiere, the cries and lamentations of young boys could be heard from sea to shining sea. Hasbro, in an attempt to refresh its line of toy products had introduced plenty of new characters in the $6 million dollar animated film – and it doubled down on its commitment to these new characters by subjecting us all to the on-screen violent murders of the most beloved characters in the franchise, including our hero Optimus Prime. This was the right move from a marketing perspective, I suppose… but for all the 9 and 10 year olds clamoring out of bed extra early on school mornings, and sacrificing our personal hygiene in order to catch a few more glimpses of the Autobots going toe to toe with the Decepticons before the school bus arrived – it was devastating. And we’ve never fully recovered. It left us all with a hollow feeling in the pit of our souls that we’re still trying to fill to this very day.
In 2007, for a brief moment, we gasped a collective sigh of relief as the first live action Transformers movie hit theaters. Nearing our 30s at the time, and sufficiently ready to curate the two decades worth of Transformers material that had sprouted a dense forest of sequels, reboots, and restructured characters – we entered movie theaters with all our hopes and dreams in tow alongside us. And when Peter Cullen, the original voice of our beloved Optimus Prime spoke again after decades of silence… we shed tears. I did anyway. Hearing Prime speak again, after thinking him dead for so long, after hearing only rumors that he had survived the assault on our childhoods, and after having grown into adults with our own battles to fight—it was all too much emotional overload to contain. As Jesus had wept at the tomb of Lazarus before calling him forth into resurrection, so we had wept at the tomb of Optimus Prime before seeing him called back to life by Michael Bay.
Sorry for the crude analogy. I know it’s not as dramatic as all that. And I’m not comparing Michael Bay to Jesus mind you… I’m only calling attention to the sentiment of death and resurrection portrayed for us, even in fictional stories. For our western society which is built on Judeo-Christian ethics and archetypes, this story-telling device is a good way to find traction with our heart-strings.
If we want to get literal, then Michael Bay would be more like the antichrist. Because he brought Prime back, along with the other original generation of Transformers, only to twist them into monstrous parodies of themselves in a series of four sequels that stripped them of any dignity they once held and shackled them within the chains of box office viability for the masses of teenagers today who have no idea what The Transformers are supposed to be.
While the first of Bay’s movies wasn’t too bad (because Steven Spielberg had his hands on the reigns as Executive Producer), and hit pretty close to the mark in terms of conjuring the original mythology, the sequels he made became progressively worse as he was let off the leash by Spielberg and quadrupled down on multi-million dollar special effects, slow motion explosions that last for hours, poop jokes, sex jokes, and close-up shots of boobs, butts, and guns – all at the expense of the only thing that truly matters; the only thing that ever mattered to those of us caught up in this spectacle to begin with: STORY.
Thankfully, and quite unexpectedly, the powers that be – Paramount Pictures, Dreamworks, and Hasbro – came to their collective senses last year, actually listened to all the 40 year olds still looking for our old friends to be given their proper due on the big screen, and pulled Bay out of the Director’s chair – effectively ending his ability to continue dropping steaming piles of manure on the remnants of our childhood imaginations.
In his place, Travis Knight and Christina Hodson have written and directed a sixth Transformers film called Bumblebee, completely rebooting the entire series. And they’ve done a masterful job of it.
This new film is a much smaller, much more humble endeavor. It takes us back to the roots. It’s set in the 1980s, as it should be, and it tells the story of one character – B 127 – the small, loveable, loyal sidekick of Optimus Prime as he crashes on Earth. Pursued by two evil Decepticon lieutenants, alone on an alien world, injured from battle, unable to speak, and without any memory of who he is and where he’s come from, he is forced to go into hiding by taking on the appearance of a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle. Eventually, B-127 is found by a teenage girl named Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) who befriends the beleaguered outcast, renames him Bumblebee, teaches him about human culture, and helps him to recover his memories as their adventures unfold in a way that is unique to the Transformers mythology, and yet also pleasantly reminiscent of something like E.T. the Extraterrestrial.
The story of Bumblebee manages to capture the elements of the original stories that struck so deeply into our hearts as kids in a way that the previous films never have. To us, these stories were never about fast cars, supersonic jets, and sexy paint jobs… they were about heroes; heroes who were the underdogs, driven into exile by unjust oppressors, forced to adapt to a new way of life in a foreign land, befriended by those who saw the good in them, and consumed with a desire to protect, encourage, and inspire their friends.
For a generation of young kids growing up in the 1980s, at the dawn of the digital age, we were the first generation to have a personal relationship with the microchips that were consuming the world around us. Our imaginations were shaped by this, and our minds were mesmerized by it. And they still are. This is the root of our fascination with The Transformers. It’s why they’ve been able to continue appealing to kids (and adults) today. We place so much of our lives into the hands of our technology – we rely on it, and we care for our phones, computers, gaming systems, and cars like they are our friends. At the same time, we’re not naïve about the dangers of technology as well; we know how the things we use for good can also be used to bring about great evil. We’ve walked in both worlds, and The Transformers reflect this same duality.
Fictional stories about technology that can reciprocate our desire for connection and friendship have always made sense to us. Bumblebee succeeds as a film because relationship between human and machine is at the heart of its story – as is the choice between whether we use our connection with technology for good, or for evil.
One of the good things about getting older is being able to look back and see things from the past with a little more clarity than I did the first time around. I think this is often how we learn things in life. I suppose it’s similar to the difference between walking around in the middle of a city, and then driving away from it and being able to see the whole place from a distance, even as it fades into the rearview. That’s one of the reasons I like to re-watch movies I’ve seen several times before—especially those that I first saw a long time ago. The passage of time seems to create enough distance for me to see the same films with a completely different perspective.
In regards to the movies that I’ve enjoyed the most over the years, this change in my perspective is most notable in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 classic, Pulp Fiction. It won an Oscar for best screenplay the following year, launched Tarantino out of relative obscurity, and made him one of the best-known directors in Hollywood. I didn’t know any of this at the time, nor did I care in the least bit. I’ve made mention before of all the great movies that came out of 1994—The Shawshank Redemption, Forrest Gump, Speed, Reality Bites, Dumb and Dumber, and many others—but Pulp Fiction didn’t ping my radar that year. I saw it for the first time a few years later, just around the time I graduated from high school, and even then, I can’t say that I was particularly blown away by it.
That’s not to say it wasn’t mesmerizing in a strange sort of way. The dialogue between the characters in Pulp Fiction was without parallel when it came out. I had never heard anything like it in a movie before, and I don’t believe I have heard conversations done that way in any other film since. Tarantino himself, though landing closer to the mark than any other screenwriter, still hasn’t managed to completely reproduce the same kind of discourse to the same degree in his subsequent films (this is only my opinion of course). It’s the kind of language that is extremely mundane, disgustingly appalling at times, intentionally offensive, and still a masterful work of unparalleled artistic genius—all at the same time. I picked up on this a little bit as a teenager, but I lacked the perspective needed at the time to really appreciate it for what it was.
Along with the aforementioned dialogue, I should probably say something as well about the unusual sequencing of the film. Pulp Fiction has four separate stories that are interwoven with one another, and yet it’s cut and edited in a way that presents these stories to the viewer out of chronological order. What’s more, is that there is nothing overtly obvious within the film itself to let us know that the chronology has been doctored in such a way. Each section of the movie presents a title card before it commences, but there is nothing on any of them to denote what order we’re watching them in. You have to pick up on this entirely from the context of the story itself. The first time I saw it I wasn’t even aware of this cinematic jigsaw puzzle until halfway through the movie, and even then, it took a few more viewings until I was able to piece all of it together properly.
Anyway, I suppose I’m not writing about Pulp Fiction now because of the intriguing dialogue and unusual sequencing… those were obvious innovations in filmmaking that I noticed back in the day. Even then, I appreciated the conversations about the serious nature of foot massages, McDonalds restaurants in Europe, and captured American pilots in Vietnamese prison camps hiding precious family heirlooms inside their anal cavities to avoid confiscation. Nope… I’m writing about Pulp Fiction now, because somehow, in the middle of all that other stuff, I managed to miss the central message of the film entirely.
Pulp Fiction is one of the most theologically engaging spectacles I have ever seen. It took me 20 years (and a MA degree in Theology) to realize this, mostly because it’s not anywhere near the type of movie in which you might remotely expect to find an intense examination of theological concepts—but there it is: a glaring discourse about God—sitting squarely at its center, amidst a maze of vignettes, characters, and language that would turn away anyone who might naturally be looking for this type of thing in a Hollywood film. I’ve been in the Church my whole life, and I can say with an unrestrained amount of certainty, that most of the Church folks I’ve known would never watch this film all the way through. Which is perfectly ok… it’s just a movie after all and I completely understand that sentiment. I think many Christians, even after making it past the R-rating, would be immediately turned off by the first exchange of dialogue and the dozen or so F-bombs that would be waiting eagerly to greet them within the first 10 minutes. But this is the great paradox of Pulp Fiction—that in the middle of all the nastiness and human depravity on full, unapologetic display—it has something to say about God, forgiveness, redemption, and divine judgment, that is profoundly Christian to its very core.
Among the four separate stories being portrayed in Pulp Fiction, there is one situated at the theological center of the movie—this is the story about the two hitmen—Vincent played by John Travolta, and Jules played by Samuel L. Jackson. These two guys are brutal, violent, loathsome individuals. It’s obvious from the opening sequence of the movie that they have been murdering people for a living long enough to be completely numb to what they’re doing, and that they perhaps even enjoy it. None-the-less, these guys are professionals through and through. They have business to conduct, and they do it ruthlessly, without the slightest bit of hesitation or remorse.
Near the beginning of the film Jules and Vincent experience something that sets up the theological debate that we see them engaging in as the story progresses. We’re not supposed to like these kinds of people at all, and yet, this experience they share, and their conflicting interpretations of what it means, makes us extremely interested in what happens to them afterwards.
The dialogue between Jules and Vincent, from that point forward, is a debate about the significance of what they’ve experienced together. Jules interprets the experience as a miraculous, direct intervention from God himself. Vincent, on the other hand, interprets it as a random freak occurrence. The two of them eventually part ways over the incident, because Jules decides that he has experienced God’s grace so thoroughly that it demands a response from him. And his response is to leave behind his life as a vile hitman and follow a different path. At the end of the film we see actual proof that Jules has decided to lead a different kind of life—that his encounter with God is genuine. He knows that God has given him a way out of the path of destruction he’s been on for so long. And he proves that he has accepted God’s grace by, in turn, extending grace to the couple in the diner who try to rob him. After successfully disarming the man and getting the woman to surrender, he gives them all the money he has anyway. Then he lets them go in peace. This is the beginning of his life lived in a state of redemption. His story goes on to places and people we don’t see. We don’t know what exactly happens to him after that.
Vincent, however, is a completely different story. We know exactly what happens to Vincent, because the film, in its out-of-sequence order has already shown us his fate. He concludes that nothing about his life needs to change. He sees no evidence of God, and thus, no need to repent of his life of murder and drug addiction. He goes right on living the same life as if nothing happened. Moreover, and in perfect harmony with the overall theme of grace, after he makes this decision he goes on to witness a similar thing happen to someone else in the character of Mia Wallace (played by Uma Thurman)—who is miraculously delivered from the jaws of certain death when Vincent plunges a syringe full of adrenaline into her heart to save her from a drug overdose. Yet even this second experience is not enough to wake him up. He will go on being a hitman, and this fateful decision will eventually lead him directly to his own death. Sorry for the spoilers.
I don’t really feel like going into as much detail concerning Bruce Willis’s character Butch, but the vignette involving him is an additional example of how grace is a powerful antidote to hatred and contempt, even among bitter enemies. When faced with the opportunity to leave the man trying to kill him in the midst of torture and death, he instead chooses to go back and save him. This act of grace provides him with the chance at a completely new life, just as it did with Jules.
Anyway, those are my thoughts on this old classic from Tarantino. The director has never, to my knowledge, made mention of any personal faith that he may or may not have, and in the 25 years since its release, I’ve never heard anyone else talk about this aspect of Pulp Fiction, but it’s obvious that this was the intended message of the film. Grace, when experienced, demands a response, and our choice of response, whether to extend grace to others, or to recoil further into our natural state of moral filthiness, determines the kind of life we will live, and what we leave behind us as we go.
This, my friends, is an echo of the message that Jesus left us. Christ has provided and demonstrated a stunning act of divine forgiveness and grace for all human beings. The only question is how we respond to it.
Hammering this theme home is the final (chronologically last) shot of the film which literally spells it out for us:
This past December wasn’t a very good month for me. I’ll spare you the details, and just say that, generally speaking, I spent the Christmas season cultivating a pretty good forest of melancholy, depression, and uncertainty about the future. However, I’ve learned over the years that it’s normal to feel these things sometimes; it’s a natural part of life. You can’t feel the ups of life, if you don’t feel the downs. It’s not natural to always be walking around in a perpetual state of bliss and contentment. And it’s so easy to forget this when you plug into the matrix every day and are greeted by hundreds of smiling happy faces that are always on vacation, or falling in love, or having babies, or eating in the best restaurants on earth. I’m all for those things, and maybe these are, after all, the best things to share with each other in the public square type of environment that we have online. But, we all know of course, that in reality there’s just as many moments full of sadness and loss and failure and heartbreak. And sometimes the only real medicine is just feeling the pain, letting it wash over you, and giving it some time to pass. Anyway that’s what my December was like. It seems like ages ago now, but somewhere, back in the middle of it, I watched A Star Is Born.
I didn’t feel like writing about it at the time. It’s pretty heavy subject matter. And of course I’ve seen a handful of other movies since then, but this one has stuck to my insides in a way the others have not. I didn’t know what this movie was about beforehand. I was drawn to it mainly because I think Bradley Cooper is a great actor and I wanted to see how he did with his directorial debut. If I had read a plot synopsis ahead of time I might have avoided it. I’m not sure it’s the best kind of movie to watch if you’re feeling down.
It’s good storytelling though — dramatic, intense, cathartic, tragic — all the stuff you need for a film to be entertaining, emotionally engaging, and still relatable to those of us who aren’t out saving the world with Steve Rogers, Peter Parker, and Will Smith. I like those kinds of movies too, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that this film made me FEEL something in the midst of its realness and grittiness.
I think stories that portray self sacrifice (even in such a brutally heartbreaking way as this one) tend to generally have this effect. But when the sacrifice is unexpected, painfully explored, and woven together with love, it hits the heart strings with a hammer. That’s what this movie did to me anyway. That’s why I’m still thinking about it three months later. Correction: That’s why I’m still feeling it.
A Star Is Born is not a new story. It’s been done before. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga have retold a story that Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson retold back in ‘76, which was a story that Judy Garland and James Mason starred in before them in ‘54, which was one that was previously portrayed by Fredric March and Janet Gaynor in 1937… I haven’t seen any of those, and I don’t know how well they all line up with each other, or how much they reflect this most recent iteration. But none of these are the original story anyway. There’s a much older one…
The one where God descends from Heaven to mingle among the common folks here on Earth. Then he claims a Church for himself, gives her a new life, makes her his Bride, shows her that she is loved, tells her to speak the truth, tells her to be real, and then gives himself up for her—because it was the only way—the only way for her to shine as brightly as possible.
A Star Is Born is proof that the best stories are still the oldest ones – even when they’re wrapped inside new garments.
Even when they reveal themselves inside the unlikely framework of a Hollywood film in 2019.
It was dark in the city of Indianapolis. Not in the whole city, of course… But in the sanctuary of West Park Christian Church – All the lights were out. We were nearing the end of our annual candlelight service, and the forty of us who were in attendance were struggling to make a circle that went around the entire room—A room, that at one time, had held almost a thousand people.
But that was a hundred years ago. All the people who had built the church were asleep now – awaiting the final Great Awakening at the end of the age. In the meantime, they had left us this building.
It was a magnificent place, even now – despite the fact that parts of it were slowly crumbling into dust, and the ground underneath was making every effort to swallow it back into the earth.
The steeple still towered boldly over the tops of the houses—a beacon of light and hope that reflected nothing of the city around it. For the neighborhood where it was nestled had long since fallen into decay and ruin and this GREAT HALL which had once shined brightly for the people of the West Side was now being slowly digested and absorbed by the darkness around it. The darkness was relentless, persistent, it never slept, it only ever kept moving… it only ever kept growing… Only ever kept plotting the demise of the old church.
I suppose that was why we NEEDED these candlelight services each year. We needed to turn all the actual lights out—-for just a moment—-We needed to be immersed in tangible darkness. And we needed to watch the darkness slowly give way to the illumination of tiny flames popping up, one by one, until we could see who we were again… so we could remember who we are… We needed this visual reminder of the responsibility that we had to, “Let our light shine..,” – As Jesus once said. I mean… after all… This is what we were taught – even as small children:
“THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE… I’M GONNA LET IT SHINE…”
As we stood there in the candlelight of the sanctuary, someone said a prayer. Then we sang, “Silent Night, Holy Night, All is calm, all is bright…” Then we blew our candles out, gathered ourselves at the door, turned the lights off, and shuffled out into the silent night.
There were three teenage boys following me to the car – the oldest in my youth group –Resident hoodlums who had grown up across the street from the church. On their better days they were the Three Wise Men… But on most days – they were more like Huey, Dewey, and Louie.
The four of us piled into the Mitsubishi.
First Stop: The Valero Gas station just a block away. It was Christmas Eve after all, and I wanted to make sure the boys had the proper amount of snacks before the long night of video game playing that was ahead of them. I had been at the church for just over year, and in that time, I had learned that an abundance of SNACKS was the KEY to Youth Ministry.
As we pulled into the station, the boys ran into the store to gather provisions while I fed and watered the mule for my long ride back to Hendricks County.
I was still thinking about the Candlelight service we had just left. Or maybe I wasn’t so much thinking about it, as much as I was feeling the effects of it. It had hit me in the gut just enough to get my attention—To let me know that there was still a purpose… Still a reason to keep these old rituals… Still a reason to gather, to remember, to sing, to pray, and to celebrate.
I needed the reminder too–
I sort of felt like I had been on auto-pilot this entire Christmas Season. It felt like Christmas was just happening on TV, and I was barely tuning in. My mom had died several months earlier, and this was our first Christmas without her. I hadn’t realized how much of my experience of Christmas had been the direct result of my mother’s unquenchable enthusiasm for the Holiday.
But I knew it now.
I was still lost in my thoughts when the boys reappeared from their treasure hunt inside the convenience store – each of them already munching away on cans of Pringles and gulping down that insidious, poisonous, diabolical, and glorious elixir – Mountain Dew.
As I finished gassing up the ride, we all piled back in so I could take them back to their homes…
And that’s when it happened.
We heard it before we saw what it was. And it took us a few seconds to realize that the horrible sound emanating from the other side of the parking lot was the sound of a woman screaming. She was screaming loudly—the kind of screaming that didn’t just indicate distress—but pain.
Then we saw her. She was running directly at us, and having covered the distance of the parking lot before we were able to comprehend what we were hearing and seeing… There she was.
She slammed her hands onto the hood of my car, begging and screaming for help. My immediate reaction was FEAR. I thought to myself – No way, lady – no way – I’m outta here—Whatever her deal was, I didn’t want to get involved. I wanted to pretend this wasn’t happening. I wanted to leave.
But I couldn’t do that
My entire job as a youth minister would be completely pointless if I did that. There were three teenage boys—Boys who saw me as a mentor—who looked to me as an example—waiting to see what I would do.
So I froze.
I was looking at the woman who was standing in front of my car, trying to decide what to do. She wasn’t that much older than me. But whatever she had been through – the world hadn’t been kind to her. It was obvious from her appearance that whatever trauma was happening to her that night had started years ago – and this was just one more stop along the train tracks of despair.
It was a very cold night, but she had no coat on, no gloves, no hat—But the worse thing was all the blood. Her entire mouth and chin were covered in it, and there was so much that it had run down her neck and soaked the front of her shirt. It was all over her hands, her arms, and the side of her face where she had been wiping away tears. She was obviously hurt, and she was desperate for help.
I was terrified.
But I put the window down and asked her what I could do? She was sobbing, and she wasn’t speaking clearly, but I was able to understand that she wanted me to drive her to her dad’s house a few miles away. I almost said no. I almost told her that I would call someone for her, or call an ambulance. But she was crying uncontrollably, and all she could say was that she wanted to go home to her dad.
So I told the boy riding shotgun to move to the back…. And I told the woman to get in.
As she climbed into the passenger seat, I offered to take her to the hospital. But she said it wasn’t that bad—that it looked worse than it felt—that she had been hit harder than this before.
So I followed her directions…pulled up to the house she had pointed out, and waited a few moments until someone answered the door and she disappeared inside.
The boys in the back were silent for a few minutes after we drove away. And then one of them asked: “Why did you do that?”
I gave him the proper “YOUTH MINISTER” answer at the time… Something along the lines of, “that’s what Jesus would have done.” But the truth is, at the time, I didn’t really have a good answer. If those boys hadn’t been with me, I probably would not have helped that woman. I probably would have left her there. Who wants some strange person bleeding all over their nice clean car?
So I dropped the boys off at their homes, and then I began driving back out of the city—driving back to the safety and comfort of a home that was far away from this madness. But I couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened that night.
And I’m still thinking about it five years later.
What was it that night, those five years ago?
What was it that filled me with so many fears?
-from a poor woman who had nothing but helplessness and tears.
These were the people that Jesus had helped.
These were the ones he pulled from the dust.
These were the ones who gave Him their trust.
That woman had scared me because her life and brokenness were all out in the open.
And the helplessness she showed on the outside
reflected something in me…
…something I didn’t want others to see.
That I was helpless too–
That my own heart was broken–
That even though my pain was much better hid–
I still needed a Savior just as much as she did.
But I had a place.
A place to run away.
A place with a wall to keep the darkness at bay.
Something to hide behind.
Something to protect.
Something that allowed me the freedom to deflect
the pain of lost people, out in the cold…
…the cries of a woman whose body had been sold.
It’s easy, so easy… to turn a blind eye,
or to judge these people with an indignant sigh.
Believe me, I know, I’ve done it many times.
I’ve acted like no one has paid for my crimes.
But someone has…
And we sing to Him here…
We sing without hunger, or coldness, or fear.
We sing for the Day when all things will be NEW.
When this darkness will pass and His light remain true.
The Light of the World
That’s the Savior we know.
The one we remember as we stand in the glow
of the candles we light, and the hope we profess,
in front of a world that knows only distress.
His name is Jesus,
and He is the same–
Yesterday, today, and forever He reigns.
And if we fail to follow His path,
To love and to serve the hurting people we find
Then it’s only because we too have grown blind.
* “For the world is sleeping in the dark…
which the Church cannot fight, if it’s asleep in the light.” *
It was dark in the city that night. Not in the whole city, of course…
In the sanctuary of the Christian Church – All the lights were on.
*I stole this line from the late great saint–Keith Green.
At the beginning of this year I received an ominous text message from my friend and former housemate Pastor Keith Doyle over in Ohio. I’m bringing this up first and foremost to underscore the fact that what happened after said text message can be directly traced back to him – which should absolve me of at least some of the guilt I now harbor within my soul for falling victim to the current scourge of humanity: the video game known as FORTNITEBattle Royale.
If you’ve never heard of Fortnite, then I humbly suggest that you now fall to your knees and praise the Lord God Almighty for delivering you out of the hands of the devil – you are truly blessed. And may I go so far as to add that you might be wise to stop reading now lest you wish to flirt with the danger inherently encapsulated within the knowledge I’m about to share here.
If you’re unfamiliar with my writing or sense of humor, rest assured, I’m only half joking, and this really isn’t as serious as all that. In truth, I just felt like writing about this because it seems to be coming up more often in conversations as of late. I’ve been hearing more and more about peoples’ kids or grandkids playing Fortnite and I’ve seen friends who are my age posting on Facebook about their kids’ obsession with Fortnite. I also have friends who are teachers that have mentioned the kids in their classes talking about it. It is not unusual for me to hear people around my age or older puzzled, flabbergasted, or generally surmising with grimaced faces over various phenomena that the youngsters are into these days… this is, after all, part of life as they say… what is unusual, is that, having delved into the uttermost depths of one such phenomena for nearly a year, I now find myself in a unique position to educate my fellow Adulticans on this topic. And more importantly, this is all I can now do to hopefully give some meaning to the countless, nay, unholy, amount of late night hours I have spent “researching” this subject. And by research I’m referring to the knowledge and experience I’ve been able to successfully mine before stumbling into bed at midnight (on numerous occasions) after an hour or two of a video game session that mostly consisted of me failing miserably while being cussed out by 6 year olds and having my manhood called into question by 12 year olds.
When I started playing Fortnite it was just another video game, but it has since become something much larger. The last time something this huge happened in the video game industry was in 1985 with the North American release of the original Nintendo Entertainment System. Obviously, many technological advancements have occurred since then, but the explosion of Fortnite popularity across the entire globe in such a relatively short amount of time has nothing to do with technological advancement – the game’s graphics actually take a few steps backward (in the example of Minecraft) and look very cartoonish rather than following the traditional trajectory of attempting to make games look as realistic as possible. What has made this game so popular to millions, across so many countries, isn’t a massive advancement in graphics or microchip speed technology, but rather a tremendous breakthrough in the psychological dimension of video games.
Now, I just want to say before going any further, that I’ve grown up with video games – they’ve been there in the background of my existence ever since I saw my parents playing Space Invaders on the Atari 2600 when I was four. I grew up watching games continually develop and progress into more mesmerizing and complex forms with each passing year. I remember politicians in the early 90s arguing over the effects of video game violence and imposing a rating system. I remember preachers on TV railing against them as abominations of a society that had lost its collective moral anchors. I’ve heard all the rhetoric. So, the last thing I want to do is call a video game evil, or tell parents that they shouldn’t let their kids play it. What I do want to do, on the other hand, is offer some insight into how this particular video game has changed the industry as a whole, and comment on why I think it’s important that parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles know why.
I need to start by backing up just a bit…
Over the last 10 years or so the video game industry has been slowly becoming something that is increasingly non-tactile and more digital. Actually, the transformation is pretty much complete for the most part. Digital gaming, if you’re not sure what I’m talking about, means you don’t have to actually own a physical copy of a game in order to play it. The same thing has been happening with movies and books as well over the past decade. You can download and watch a movie or read a book (after paying a full or sometimes discounted price) without ever touching anything but a keyboard, mouse, screen, or controller. In regards to gaming, this mainly started with the mobile app games that you can download on your smartphones. Most of these games are free or only cost a buck or two to download. The people who created and own these games don’t make much money from the initial act of you “getting” the game. They make money off allowing you to buy additional items, abilities, characters, and new levels inside the games themselves. So back in the day, you went to Wal-Mart with $50 after selling all your He-Men in Mom’s garage sale and bought one Nintendo game that you could own for the rest of your life. Nowadays, you get the game for free, but if you want to use the sword of Conan the Barbarian to defeat the Zombies on Planet Mordor, instead of using Grandma’s old broken shotgun that everyone can use for free, you “buy” the sword inside the game with REAL MONEY and then you “own” it digitally.
World of Warcraft pioneered this idea many years ago, but at that time you still had to buy a physical copy of the game as well. This is the type of game that Fortnite is, and even though it’s not the first game to do this, it is by far the most successful at it. Owning Fortnite is free, it is available on every major gaming console, mobile device, and PC. All you have to do is download it, and you can play the same exact game that everyone else is playing. You never have to spend a single dime to do this. This is very important for parents to understand, so I’ll say it again: Your kid can play the same game that every other person in the world is playing, without any disadvantage to gameplay, and with the same abilities and skills required of every other player.
If this is the case, how did the creators of Fortnite gross $318 million in the month of May alone?
The answer: V-Bucks. V-Bucks (virtual bucks) are the currency used within the game, and you can earn miniscule amounts of this “money” by completing certain tasks in the game. But in order to get enough virtual bucks to actually buy anything significant, you have to spend REAL bucks. I’m no mathematician by any stretch of the imagination, so I’ll make this simple – 1,000 V-Bucks costs $9.99 USD. So, let’s say your kid, or grandkid, niece or nephew, talks you into entering your credit card number into the game and getting them some V-Bucks to spend… no big deal. They can then use the virtual currency to make their character have different outfits, costumes, masks, backpacks, etc. It doesn’t give them any advantage in the game – they just get to choose how they want their character to look. They call these various aesthetic choices “Skins.” These Skins cost different amounts, and there are several ways to get them, but they all cost money. The most desired Skins are typically around 2,000 V-Bucks, which is $20 dollars. Terms such as common, uncommon, rare, epic, and legendary are used to denote how much a skin is worth.
But the real genius of the Fortnite creators (Epic Games) is that they consistently update the game, and the amount of Skins available on a weekly basis, with major updates occurring every few months. They call these major changes to the game “Seasons.” When I began playing Fortnite at the beginning of this year it was in Season 2, and now it is in Season 6 already, with Season 7 scheduled for the Holidays. What this means from a business perspective is that there is an increasingly endless amount of “digital products” available to buy.
In simple terms, it’s like buying the same FREE video game over and over again – you don’t have to buy it at all – but if you want to be cool, you’ll buy it as many times as you can. I personally don’t pay for it, but this is the way that the game inherently teaches kids to think, and subsequently bug the hell out of their parents.
There’s nothing too terribly shady going on here – it’s not hidden, and it’s not tricking anyone. Most kids are smart enough to understand it. In fact, one of the reasons I’m writing this review is that most kids probably understand it way better than most adults.
Just in case you’re having trouble, allow me to explain it like this: Let’s say you walk into a fast food joint, walk up to the counter, and they give you a cheeseburger, large fries, and a large coke – for free. Everyone else in the place has the same exact thing. No one can ever get anything different, no one can ever get more than ayone else, no one can ever get less… HOWEVER, if you choose, you can pay $20 to have the same exact cheeseburger wrapped in a different color paper, the same exact number of fries put into a different color of fry box, and the same large coke poured into a different color cup with a fancy design on it. You might be reading this thinking, hmmm… that can’t be right, or hmmm… that sounds ridiculous, or hmmm… who would pay $20 for the same food to be put in different colored containers, that’ll never work. Well, it’s true. It’s happening. This is the Fortnite business model. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent every month so video game characters can be dressed in new outfits.
Never before in the history of humanity have people been able to make so much money from selling thin air in such an honest manner, without tricking or deceiving anyone. I don’t want to jump to any conclusions yet, but my own opinion is that this is a psychological phenomenon we’re witnessing on a scale that’s never been seen – and it indicates a significant, collectively driven departure from reality. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it all to be honest. I just see what’s happening.
With all that said, I’ll make a few comments on the actual gameplay itself. There’s not much to it actually – you drop onto an island with 99 other players (you can play a solo game where it’s everyone for themselves, or you can play as part of a two-person or four-person team), and then you just run around really fast, build things and shoot people… and dance. You win the game by being the last person (or team) alive at the end. The island itself is extremely large, but the playable area slowly shrinks down which forces all the players into a smaller and smaller area – this makes a typical game last around 15-20 minutes. If you get killed in the game, you’re done. You have to go back into the “game lobby” and then queue up a completely new match to try again. The sudden death aspect of the game provides a pretty significant adrenaline rush. I noticed it the first time I played it. The brain sensation feels a lot like gambling (I don’t gamble, but I’ve visited a few casinos before, and I’ve played my fair share of Texas hold ‘em in the past). You definitely get some kind of dopamine spike from playing the game, and encountering other players that are trying to kill you. Take that for what you will. My own personal opinion on this matter is that it has the effect of making the game highly addictive in the same way that gambling can be addictive. And I should mention as well that you are always playing against real people. There are no computer players in this game. Behind every “Skin” is an actual human being sitting in front of a TV screen, computer monitor, or smartphone – some of them with tiny black dogs named Jazz looking at them like they are insane.
When I play Fortnite, I typically play as part of a random team. This means that I don’t typically know the people who are on my team from one game to the next. My friend Keith abandoned the game many months ago… a much wiser man than I. But I do have a headset which allows me to talk to other players, and I’ve met people playing the game from all over the place. There’s plenty of older people, and lots of college students, but most of them have been younger kids. My most memorable experience along these lines was the day I was thrown onto a team with three very young British lads. The youngest one sounded like he was four or five. Their leader was probably closer to 9 or 10 and he greatly enjoyed calling me a “bloody yank” and bossing me around and shouting military commands at me like he was Winston Churchill. At any rate, I just mention this so that parents out there are aware of the fact that your kids could be interacting with absolutely anyone. That’s just something to keep in mind.
Fortnite definitely has its own language as well, and I’ve defined a few of the terms already, but I’ll provide a list below of the ones that I think will be most helpful for people to know. Aside from that, I’ll just re-iterate that this Fortnite craze is pretty significant for younger generations. In my estimation, we haven’t yet seen its full magnitude, and the ability to buy additional merchandise like toys and clothes is only just beginning. But make no mistake, for kids these days, this is every bit as crazy as the Summer of 1977 when Star Wars first landed on planet Earth. Fads come and go more quickly these days I think, but this one’s a juggernaut – it’s breaking through all cultural and socio-economic barriers, and kids and young adults are flocking to it by the millions. Fortnite has everything from professional players that compete in high stakes tournaments, to people broadcasting live video of their games, to entire YouTube channels devoted to commentary on gameplay. There are parents that even hire coaches to teach their kids how to play and win. Last month the top Fortnite player in the world – Tyler Blevins a.k.a. Ninja – was the first video gamer to ever be featured on the cover of ESPN Magazine.
I hope this helps any adults out there who feel left in the dust. At the end of the day, it’s only a video game—and this too shall pass.
Seasons = Term used to define major changes to the game and game map that occur about every two to three months.
Battle Pass = This is a purchasable reward system that allows players to unlock various skins and other items by completing certain tasks within the game. It typically costs about $10 and expires at the end of every season. Which means you have to buy it again at the start of a new season.
V-Bucks = Virtual Bucks. You pay $9.99 USD in real world currency for a thousand of them.
Skins = Term used for the clothing and general way a player’s in-game character looks. Most of the money that is spent on Fortnite is spent on skins. Kids collect skins the way us older people once collected trading cards.
Default Skins = Skins that are free and used by anyone who refuses to pay actual money to play Fortnite.
Streamers = These are people who connect their gaming monitors or consoles to internet sites (like YouTube or Twitch) so people can watch them play. This allows them to generate revenue based on the number of people watching them. Streamers with massive numbers of viewers can make millions of dollars from allowing advertisers to monetize their channels.
Noobs = This term is not confined to the Fortnite community, but it refers to people who are just beginning to play the game and have no idea what’s going on. It is typically used by many young Fortnite gamers as a derogatory term accompanied by some kind of expletive. Sometimes used in conjunction with the term “Default Skin” to bolster the intended insult.
Squeakers = Refers to very young males that play Fortnite while constantly talking and bragging about their accomplishments, singing rap songs, and generally trying to annoy anyone else that can hear them. When I get put into a game with one or more Squeakers I just back out of the match and restart into a different lobby. They do not understand things like logic, reason, or common courtesy, there are legions of them, and they will be running the country one day. Lord, have mercy on us.
Pros = Typically refers to people who make money by playing Fortnite, but most younger gamers use the term for anyone who has a discontinued Skin from an early Season that they will never be able to own.
GG = Means “Good Game,” and is a common way to bid a fond farewell to teammates when the game is over.
Harry Pottering = This is a term used in-game (usually with accompanying expletive) to inform your teammates that you have accidently trapped yourself underneath a ramp which is vaguely reminiscent of the way Harry Potter was forced to live underneath the Dursley’s staircase.
1v1 = One player versus one other player, when no one else is around, or no one else is left alive, and the entire game is on the line.
Mats = Materials. Refers to material resources in the form of Wood, Brick, or Metal that are collected from the gaming environment and used to build things.
Loot = This is a blanket term used to refer to guns, ammo, materials, armor, bandages, med kits, and other items that must be scavenged from the gaming environment, discovered in hidden treasure chests, or taken from fallen players. When a player dies in the game, all their “loot” is dropped onto the ground for other players to collect.