“Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
We are moving into the summer season and that means one thing more than any other: movies. Summer is the season for blockbusters. All the biggest, most fun, most exciting films seem to come out in the summer. The Top Gun sequel started things off this past weekend to great acclaim. The third installment in the Jurassic World franchise (which is really just a continuation of the Jurassic Park franchise) is next week. The fourth addition to Marvel’s Thor storyline is next month. Lots and lots to see. Perhaps the only thing you can’t see during the summer anymore are big budget original stories. That’s a criticism for another time. In addition to all of this, though, with the rise of digital streaming, the small screen is being treated to more and more must-see fare as well. Disney+ has just started its Obi-Wan series and will premier its Ms. Marvel series next week. But what is perhaps the summer’s number one show to stream is Netflix’s fourth season of Stranger Things. With Part 1 out now (which I haven’t quite watched in its totality), and Part 2 coming in July, let’s take a few minutes today and reflect on a powerful theme that has already made itself clear in the series.
Stranger Things is one of Netflix’s most successful and popular series of all time. It is surpassed only by both seasons of Bridgerton, Money Heist, and, of course (and unfortunately), Squid Games. The series originally premiered in 2016 to great acclaim. For starters, the story was completely original. There had never been anything like it released before. The production values were fantastic, and the young child actors they signed for all of the leading rolls were absolutely terrific. All of them will likely go on to have very successful and long careers because of this series. Even more than all of that, what perhaps made Stranger Things such a hit when it first released is that it was set in 1980 and embraced 80s nostalgia with passion. Every season since has been really on point in terms of keeping the series firmly grounded in the year-by-year culture of the 1980s in small town, middle America.
The original story involves a group of friends who get sucked into a mystery when one of them goes missing and a strange girl appears out of seemingly nowhere. As things develop, this girl, Eleven (because she was test subject number Eleven of a secret government program working to develop covert, long-range, child assassins), is revealed to have telepathic abilities as well as the ability to see into and interact with a parallel dimension they call the Underground. Each season has found the kids (who, by season four, are all freshmen in high school), now joined by a collection of older teenagers and a smattering of adults) battling another monstrous villain from out of this evil dimension.
The series has been heavy on the element of suspense, with the horror dial being gradually cranked up with each successive season. The fourth season so far has kept all the suspense (wonderfully aided by a fantastic soundtrack that is heavy on the synthesizer) but has dialed the horror element up to eleven. It has been much scarier than the previous seasons and definitely not appropriate for kids or even teenagers who are even remotely sensitive souls. In fact, given some of the more violent, graphic, and gory scenes featuring the gruesome deaths of teenagers, this may not even be one that should be on the radar of some adults. Personally, although I haven’t always been a big fan of the horror genre in general, I’m sufficiently invested in the series storyline that I’ve kept watching.
Stranger Things season 3, which released during the first summer of the pandemic, introduced a new character, Max, and her stepbrother, Billy. Over the course of that season, while Max becomes a part of the core group of friends who are the heroes of the show, Billy gets possessed by the Mind Flayer, the big bad of the season. (Because of the kids’ interest in the adventure role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons, all of the villains of the series have been named after one Dungeons and Dragons character or another.) He becomes the conduit by which the Mind Flayer possesses various other residents of Hawkins, IN, whose bodies he uses to create a physical form for himself in our dimension. At the end of the season, though, Billy takes a last-second heroic turn and sacrifices himself to save Eleven’s life along with the rest of the kids, a sacrifice Max sees unfold graphically before her eyes. Needless to say, she, more than the rest of them, is beset by the trauma of the event.
As this fourth season opens, we are introduced to Chrissy, a popular high school cheerleader who is secretly struggling with her own trauma stemming from a verbally and emotionally abusive mother who body-shamed her into an eating disorder. Somehow, the new villain of this season, Vecna, about whom by at least episode five of the seven-episode Part 1 we know very little, uses her trauma to gruesomely murder her for some yet unknown nefarious purpose (and if you’re rolling your eyes because I’m soooo behind, I hope to catch up over the weekend). Soon thereafter, we meet another young man, Fred, who works for the school newspaper with Nancy Wheeler, one of the main characters. He is secretly struggling with the trauma of his role in a hit-and-run accident that left multiple other people dead. Like Chrissy, Vecna uses his trauma to kill him. By the fourth episode of the series, Vecna has zeroed in on Max as his next victim.
The thing that each of these and one other victim has in common is secret trauma of the past. Now, yes, Max’s trauma isn’t a secret to the other characters, but the extent to which she is struggling with it is because rather than talking about it, she has been trying to hide it. They have all been trying to stuff it down in some dark corner of their mind where they can escape its grip on their lives. But it isn’t working. The pain doesn’t go away. Instead, it magnifies, growing stronger the longer it goes unaddressed.
Throughout episode four, the young heroes are racing in different directions trying to rescue Max from Vecna’s terrible curse. Some of the group stays with her, while two of them chase down the lead of a man who supposedly murdered his wife and two young children several decades earlier, but whose testimony seems to reflect the current string of mysterious deaths around town. At the risk of spoiling the episode for you, Max is saved. The secret they uncover is to play the potential victim’s favorite song which draws them out of Vecna’s realm and his terrible grasp. But while the song may be the secret, the real key for Max that the other victims never had is her friends. Their commitment to helping her bear her heavy load is what really enables her to escape the fate the others faced.
This is where I’ve been struck by a lesson we could all stand to learn. While not very many folks carry around trauma like what Max experienced in witnessing the death of her stepbrother, we do all have our wounds and scars from the past. No one’s upbringing was completely perfect, and sometimes even the happiest childhoods can hide unknown problems that don’t manifest themselves until much later in life. This is all part of living in a world that is broken by sin. It’s not a good thing, but it is a thing and we can’t avoid it.
The challenge here is that we live in a culture (terribly aided by social media) in which everyone is expected to put their best face forward all the time. No one wants to be seen as weak or otherwise not having it all together. And even though there are occasionally celebrities or ad campaigns either celebrating weakness or else encouraging people to get help (and there are a whole lot more ads to that effect of late than I ever remember seeing before), the truth is that the pain of the past is something most people nonetheless try to carry all by themselves.
The trouble is that we weren’t made to carry those kinds of burdens on our own. And if we try, not only will things not improve over time, they will get worse. Unaddressed pain and trauma do not go away on their own. They fester and become mental, emotional, psychological, and spiritual infections that can make us very sick indeed. Yet even when we are sick from all of this, we too often still don’t seek help, but rather try to medicate ourselves with something intended to numb us to the pain.
In Stranger Things, Chrissy’s death came when she was trying to buy drugs for that very purpose. Part of the opioid crisis we are facing as a nation today stems from the efforts of untold millions who are trying to deal with some kind of pain that is rarely only physical. What do you think lies at the heart of our avalanche of “deaths of despair”? Yet in a culture that has turned away from a worldview with the necessary resources to make sense of and redeem our pain, and which is rejecting the church as a meaningful institution for support (a rejection which, unfortunately, has been well-earned in far too many cases), what help is there? Clearly not enough. And even as the number of counselors is increasing, when too many of them don’t have the necessary worldview to adequately address the real root of the problems themselves, what help can they provide?
This is why the church matters so much. In writing to believers in the region of Galatia, while Paul counseled them to not become undue burdens on the people around them by not carrying their own weight, he also commanded them to carry one another’s burdens. While there are some things we need to take care of ourselves (things like working hard to provide food and clothing and shelter for ourselves), these kinds of pain-of-the-past burdens are not one of them. Being connected to and engaged with a community of faithful believers who are together pursuing the advance of the kingdom of Christ in their own lives, in their communities, and around the world, is a powerful antidote to so many of the interpersonal and intrapersonal challenges we face as a people.
In the church working properly we are reminded that we are never alone. God is with us, but so is our community. When challenges do come or pain of the past rears its ugly head, when we are connected to a church community, there is a good chance there is someone who has walked a similar path before and can offer us care, wise counsel, and support. There is someone who can walk with us. When we run into life’s big questions, the church is a place we can safely ask them and wrestle with what the answers are in ways that bring life instead of taking it. Now, yes, there are times when we need to go beyond a church community to meeting with a skilled counselor who is well-trained to help us process emotions in ways we can’t on our own, and I’m not shy about recommending people take that route, but a church community can help us bear a lot of the daily pressures we face so they don’t become big problems.
Max’s friends saved her life in Stranger Things when they made sure she wouldn’t have to bear her pain by herself any longer. A strong community like the church can help us do the same thing in our own lives. Without that, while we probably aren’t going to mystically levitate into the air and be broken and twisted into pieces like a pretzel, the internal turmoil won’t always seem so different from that. Friends and a strong community like the church can save your life too. If you aren’t connected to one, now is a great time to consider how you can fix that.