“God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth.’ God also said, ‘Look, I have given you every seed-bearing plant on the surface of the entire earth and every tree whose fruit contains seed. This will be food for you, for all the wildlife of the earth, for every bird of the sky, and for every creature that crawls on the earth – everything having the breath of life in it – I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so. God saw all that he had made, and it was very good indeed. Evening came and then morning: the sixth day.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
When you start watching a particular television series, it sometimes takes a few episodes for the worldview of the writers to come out. In the first few episodes they are spending all their time introducing and establishing the main characters. They are revealing which characters are the protagonists and which are the antagonists. They are clarifying the various problems the characters are going to be facing together. And while you might get glimpses of the writers’ worldview in the midst of all of that, it is often difficult to tell which is the worldview they are promoting, and which are the worldviews they are simply presenting. This is all especially true for a traditional series that will run for 23 episodes. But as our television culture continues to shift in the direction of limited series of 8-13 episodes with higher production values (consider, for example, every single Disney+ original series), questions of worldview are being clarified much earlier. And so, as I recently watched the third episode of 1883, a major piece of its worldview was revealed, and I can’t help but to comment on it. I know we talked about the series earlier this week, but let’s come back to the series again this morning in more detail.
Now, if you are also watching the series and are caught up, you may be rolling your eyes at how much I don’t know. I can live with that. I’ll catch up eventually. For everyone else who hasn’t yet given it the time of day, allow me to offer a qualified endorsement. From what I’ve watched so far, the language is pretty awful, and the level of violence makes it decidedly not family-friendly viewing. There is a limited amount of nudity, but not in a sexualized context. That all may change in subsequent episodes, but that’s what has happened so far. If you are comfortable watching something with those points against it, you are in for a treat. The writing and acting and storyline so far have all been outstanding. The production values are fantastic, and the filming locations have been stunning. I read that they filmed each episode in various locations from Texas to Wyoming as the group made their way from one location to the other. So, when the group is making their way through the wilderness of one part of the country or another, they are really in that part of the country. That level of attention to detail is a treat for viewers that is increasingly rare in a world in which digital technology has made it such that you can’t often easily tell what’s real and what’s not anymore.
As I mentioned earlier this week, the series is about how the Dutton family from the Yellowstone series, came to live on the land that plays such a critical role in that series. While perhaps watching the Yellowstone series, now in its fourth season, would give more depth and meaning to the story, it is not at all necessary to enjoy this series. Case in point: I have only watched part of the pilot for Yellowstone. The story here is being told through the eyes of James Dutton’s daughter, Elsa, played by Isabel May (Young Sheldon and Alexa and Katie – which I reviewed here). Each episode opens and closes with what is supposed to be a reading from her diary, written sometime after the journey. The writing for these journal entries is stunning. There is an almost poetic cadence to them as she reflects on both the hopes but also the challenges of their journey. Occasionally the narration picks up in the middle of the story as a means of advancing the development of one character or another.
It is this narration at the end of the third episode that so caught my attention. One of the things the series has done really well so far is to paint the world of the wild west with as realistic a brush as it can manage. While there are certainly scenes of wonder – mostly those viewed through Elsa’s young and idealistic eyes – it is unapologetically honest about the trials and tribulations, the setbacks and struggles of frontier life in the American West. Life was hard then. Death was everywhere and readily claimed victims. The third episode opened with just such a reflection combined with scenes of members of the party being killed in a number of different ways. None of these are sensationalized. They are simply depictions of the tragic nature of life then.
The worldview of at least the characters that is gradually developing in the series is a kind of grim fatalism tinged with hope. They are doing the things they are doing because of their hopefulness that they are laying the foundation for a better life for the generations coming after them. In this there is a bit of an echo of Hebrews 11: “These all died in faith, although they had not received the things that were promised. But they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth. Now those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they were thinking about where they came from, they would have had an opportunity to return. But they now desire a better place – a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”
The odds are fairly good that, given where the culture with respect to the Christian faith was in the real 1883, that not a few settlers headed West like the Duttons are doing in the series went with that kind of thinking at the forefront of their minds and hearts. Many were clear-eyed about the dangers of the trip, but made it so that their descendants could have a better life than they were able to obtain for themselves. But while the series has not been devoid of references to God, the characters’ relationship with Him is something more akin to a mistrustful, cynical indifference that is entirely more reflective of the modern writers than their characters’ historical counterparts.
This is put on display rather clearly in one scene in the third episode. James goes hunting with his 5-year-old son, John (wonderfully played by Audie Rick who was actually 5 years old when the series was filmed). The interaction between the father trying to stay quiet in order to have a successful hunt and his very inquisitive and perceptive little boy is outstanding. But in spite of the myriad of questions from John, and a bit of crying when James finally snaps at him to be quiet, they successfully kill a dear. When James takes John to retrieve the kill, he tells him that they should say thank you for the kill. John, perceptive as always, asks who they should thank. It was a golden opportunity to write a deep-seated, if quiet heart of faith in James by having him say they should thank God for providing the deer for them. But instead, he tells John they should thank the deer. John’s question in response is perfect and accidentally reveals the bankrupt nature of James’ worldview. He asks how they are supposed to thank the deer when it’s already dead. Indeed.
This, however, brings me back to the episode’s closing narrative from Elsa. This is worth quoting at length for you:
Looking back, there were two journeys. One was filled with danger and death and despair. The other adventure and wonder. I was on the latter, and I loved it. I didn’t know enough to know they would collide. I didn’t know enough to know how cruel and uncaring this world could be. The world doesn’t care if you die. It won’t listen to your screams. If you bleed on the ground, the ground will drink it. It doesn’t care that you’re cut. I told myself, when I meet God, it will be the first thing I ask him: Why make a world with such wonder, and fill it with monsters? Why make flowers and then snakes to hide beneath them? What purpose does the tornado serve? Then it hit me: He didn’t make it for us.Elsa Dutton, 1883
That’s really good writing. It is even more striking hearing Isabel May read it in context. The contrast of hopefulness and fatalism is stark. There is the hopefulness of the young girl who began the journey, and the fatalism of the not-nearly-as-young girl of the same age on the other side of it. Indeed, the series opens with a scene of the wagon party being attacked by Indians and Elsa herself being shot by an arrow. What most caught my attention, though, is that last line. “He didn’t make it for us.”
She describes a world that is completely indifferent to the suffering of the creatures that are in it. This leads her to ask the entirely natural question of why God would make a world of such wonder and beauty, but which is also so terrible. That last line is her conclusion. He didn’t make it for us.
It doesn’t take much effort to see why Elsa – or anyone else – would come to such a conclusion. Trying to wrestle with the problem of evil on your own is no small task. It’s hard enough sometimes to do with within the context of a deep-rooted faith that is well-grounded in the Scriptures and alongside a community of believers who are mature in their thinking and can help you along in the process. Without that, there’s not much chance in the world you are going to find answers rooted in any kind of meaningful hope for the future. Elsa clearly doesn’t.
And yet, if He didn’t make it for us, then who did He make it for? I will be curious to see if she offers any other insight into her thinking as the series develops. It is a statement that needs more unpacking, though. Treating such a statement as a throwaway line, or worse, as merely the conclusion of the matter simply won’t do. If God didn’t make the world for us, for whom was it made? Himself? Yet how could we possibly conclude a good God would create a world of such pitiless suffering simply for Himself? There is not a response to that question that leaves us with an intact view of God’s character. Did He make it for the animals? The flowers? Was there no particular object in mind when He was creating? The writers may or may not have realized it, but the implications of that statement are many and none of them are any good. They lead to all kinds of bad ideas that will invariably have some victims.
Now, from the perspective of a worldview that is secular in its basic outlook, this kind of thinking makes sense. If there is no God, or if someone is operating under an essentially deistic view of God, it’s hard to conceive of a situation in which you don’t eventually wind up where Elsa Dutton lands at the end of the third episode. There may be hope and beauty to the world, but they will be swallowed up by the fatalism that inevitably arises out of our being bruised by it enough times. This kind of grim outlook on life may make for the kind of gritty series the writers were trying to create, but it doesn’t ultimately commend anything to us that is worth embracing. Perhaps we can be thankful that our lives are not so difficult as theirs were, but is that the best we can manage?
And, when you look at where our culture is today, it would seem that, as a people, we haven’t moved on all that far from where the writers imagined our ancestors in the 1880s were themselves. The number of so-called “deaths from despair” in this country are skyrocketing. These are folks who have given up on life and made a series of choices, usually involving some sort of a drug addiction, that result in their lives ending prematurely. And they walk this path because they have embraced a worldview that finds no meaning or hope for the future in this life. Instead, there is only this grim, deterministic, fatalism we see on display in this series. This is no way to live…literally.
From the standpoint of the Christian worldview, though, we know this is not the world God created. We know this because of what we see in these verses right here. God created and He made it all good. He made us and called it very good. And He gave creation to us to manage and enjoy. Perhaps He created for His own glory, but a part of that glory is reflected in us through His image; it is achieved in our being in relationship with Him. And creation itself was so that we had a place to become fully who He created us to be. It was perfect in the beginning. The brokenness of the world and of creation itself that are so painfully on display in the 1883 series is real. There’s no use denying that. Sin is the one Christian doctrine that we don’t have to try to defend or prove. People simply need to open their eyes and look around. But that brokenness is because of sin. It is not the way it is supposed to be.
To answer Elsa’s questions, God didn’t create a world of wonder and fill it with monsters. We are the monsters. We became the monsters when we refused to live life His way and instead gave in to low desires planted in our hearts and minds by the enemy. God didn’t create flowers for the purpose of hiding snakes below them. He’s not vindictive like that. He is good. The war between the serpent and the woman is one that was started by the serpent. That was never the plan of God.
Interestingly, one of the scenes of death early in the episode was of a woman relieving herself and getting bit by a snake on the rear end while she did it. I wonder if the writers understood the symbolism of the scene. The suggestion, intentional or not, is that the serpent and its forces are winning the war. There are days it certainly feels like that’s the case. When all we see everywhere we look are death and despair and evil regimes carrying out grotesque abuses of human rights being awarded with hosting the Olympic games along with all the prestige and glamor that accompanies such a thing, it is easy to convince ourselves that the fatalism of 1883 is the best way to understand the world. If we expect the worst (and prepare for it), it’ll never surprise us when it rears its ugly head.
But that’s not the world God created. And His plans for making it all right once again are already in motion. When the serpent’s first victory was settling, and God was announcing the consequences of it, He did not only hand out curses. He also gave a word of hope: One day the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent. His victory would be eternally short-lived and God’s victory in Christ would one day be complete. It would be complete and available in full to all those willing to trust their lives to Him. 1883 is a terrific series so far, but if the writers understood the deeper truths of the world they were trying to create, it could have been even better. It could have been transformational. Instead, it’ll just have to settle for being enjoyable. A transformational life, however, is available. We only need to know where to look.