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A Sure Savior

A Sermon

Preached on Sunday, December 12, 2010, by

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.,

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

(click here to listen to the audio recording of this sermon)

Text for this sermon pending

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Preparing for the 2nd Advent

A Sermon

Preached on Sunday, November 28, 2010, by

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.,

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

(click here to listen to the audio recording of this sermon)

Text for this sermon pending

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A Hopeful Salvation

A Sermon

Preached on Sunday, November 21, 2010, by

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.,

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

(click here to listen to the audio recording of this sermon)

Text for this sermon pending

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God Bless It!:

A Review of Disney’s A Christmas Carol

By S. Randall Toms, Ph.D. 

Since its publication in 1843, there have been over 20 film adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, plus countless plays and television dramas based on this classic work.   From a silent version in 1901 to director Robert Zemeckis’ (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump)  most recent 3D version starring Jim Carrey, people have debated about which is the best film adaptation.  Some people are still devoted to the  famous 1951 version with Alistair Sim, while others enjoy Albert Finney, George C. Scott, or Patrick Stewart in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge.  Only time will tell whether Zemeckis’ version will become a Christmas classic as some of the earlier adaptations, or if people will feel it can only be appreciated by wearing 3D glasses while watching it on the big screen.   Cinematography’s use of computer technology for 3D effects continues to amaze audiences.  When the snow falls during the opening scenes, it seems as though you could reach out and catch the falling snowflakes.  The movie was made using an animation  process called “performance capture” in which the movements, but not the appearance of the actors is recorded and then transferred to computers to utilize 3D animation techniques where the likenesses of the actors are transposed to the models.  Zemeckis also used this technique in Polar Express (2004) and Beowulf (2007).  While the 3D human beings look almost real, there still seems to be certain “coldness” about the figures, especially in the eyes, that somehow prohibits our complete identification and immersion with the characters.  While we are impressed with the technical imagery of the film, this version may not grip our hearts and stir our emotions as much as some earlier adaptations.  Don’t get me wrong, I still cried when Tiny Tim said, “God bless us everyone,” but I don’t know if my tears were caused by this particular rendition of the story, or the ghost of Christmas Carol’s past.  I’m fighting back the tears even as I type Tim’s famous words.  After writing his classic, Dickens was often asked to read it publicly.  On one occasion, Dickens described the effect of his reading:

“They took it so tremendously last night that I had to stop every five minutes.  One poor young girl in mourning burst out into a passion of grief about Tiny Tim, and was taken out.” 

We might not be able to understand in our high-tech days that even a reading could move someone to tears, but such is the power of this great classic.

It may be that the failure of Zemeckis’ feature  to move us as much as some earlier versions is due to our focus being on the animation technique rather than the story itself.  Certainly, Zemeckis’ adaptation stays very close to Dickens, the dialogue being lifted almost word for word from the pages of the novella.  When I saw that Jim Carrey had been cast in the role of Scrooge, I was worried that we might see Scrooge as Ace Ventura.  In his role as The Riddler in Batman Forever, after he delivers one piece of dialogue, he asks if that was too “over the top.”  I would have to say that Carrey’s performance as Scrooge was almost understated.  There are only a few scenes that remind us that Jim Carrey is playing this role.  As a matter of fact, I can say that at points I wish Carrey had been a little more lively and emotional.

Though this version has some shortcomings, it is still a faithful adaptation of Dickens’ work and has the power to “do us good.”  A Christmas Carol, like the Christmas season itself, has the power to transform us in the way that Ebenezer Scrooge was changed from a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” (4), to a generous, warm-hearted celebrator of yuletide.  Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, explains the blessings of this special time of year: 

There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say…, Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless  it!”(7) 

Very often at this time of year, we complain about the Christmas season.  We grumble about the commercialization of Christmas.  We whine about the traffic and the crowds at the malls.  With the pressure of buying gifts and the ceaseless round of parties and school activities, it is easy to become an Ebenezer Scrooge and say, “Bah humbug,” whenever anybody mentions Christmas.  As Scrooge expressed his objections to Fred, we want to say:

Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, and not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will,…every idiot who goes about with ‘ Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!” (6)

Later on Scrooge complains that he had never derived any benefit from Christmas:  “What was Merry Christmas to Scrooge? Out upon merry Christmas! What good had it ever done to him?” (28).  As the story unfolds, we find that Christmas had never done Scrooge any good because he had never been open to all of the lessons that Christmas has to teach us.  Some people have complained that A Christmas Carol, for all its emphasis on Christmas, is rather Christless, noting that Dickens himself was not a particularly religious man.  But Scrooge’s nephew has already pointed out the obvious blessings associated with Christmas, noting that the origin of the holiday should be venerated.  Fred then goes on to delineate the benefits that have accrued to society and people that are derived from that initial blessing, just as even non-believers in America today should realize the blessings that have come to them as a result of living in a culture that was influenced by the coming of Christ.  The ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future arrive on this Christmas Eve night to show Scrooge all the things there are to be learned by a proper view of the Christmas season.  In the same manner, Dickens’ Christmas Carol comes to us as a staple tradition of the Christmas season in order to “do us good.” 

            A Christmas Carol does us good by frightening us.  While some of the earlier adaptations might be more moving, especially in its depiction of the Cratchit family, Zemeckis’ version is easily the scariest of the film versions.  The 3D animation techniques coupled with the dark, somber tone of almost the entire film, sets us up to be terrified.  A Christmas Carol should have a nightmarish quality, and the wonders of computed generated imagery and 3D animation are able to generate this effect in a way that was never possible in earlier adaptations.  We must remember that A Christmas Carol is a ghost story, and as such, meant to scare us.  Think twice about letting very young children see the Zemeckis film, because in many respects it is a horror film.  The images are intended to frighten us, in a good way, by showing us the consequences, both temporal and eternal, of our selfishness and greed.  The film does an amazing job of transforming Scrooge’s door knocker into the face of old Jacob Marley.  Marley’s ghost is sent to arouse Scrooge out of his miser’s complacency.  No doubt, if Zemeckis’ vision of Marley’s ghost had been sent to me, I would have been a terrified penitent.  But Scrooge is terrified not merely because he has seen ghosts.  He is alarmed by the sight of what his life has been and how it will end.  Marley’s ghost is a warning to Scrooge that the fate of the two men will be the same if Scrooge persists in his present course.  Marley says,  “I wear the chain I forged in life…I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?” (18).   Of course, Scrooge recognizes the pattern because he is also making a chain of the same one by his own avarice.  If he continues to live in this manner, like Marley, he will be doomed to wander sadly throughout all eternity for no “space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused” (19).  Then, Scrooge is frightened by the picture of the future, as he sees that after his death people will mock his memory, and then forget him.  Trading love and friendship for gold results in the terrifying experience of loneliness and eternal regret.  If being terrified by ghosts results in causing us to evaluate the results of our own materialistic idolatry, then Christmas ghosts are a blessing.

            A Christmas Carol can do us good by inspiring us to be charitable.  The primary thrust of Dickens’ novella was to generate compassion for the poor.  Scrooge is a greedy man who hoards all of his money and refuses to give to the poor.  Again, the ghosts show him images that not only frighten him, but also melt the iciness of his cold heart.  Marley’s ghost laments,

My spirit never walked beyond our countinghouse—mark me!—in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole… Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me? (19, 20). 

 The Ghost of Christmas Present warns Scrooge that if men such as himself continue to neglect the poor, the results could be catastrophic.  When the spirit pulls backs his skirts and reveals the two children at his feet, the boy named Ignorance and the girl named Want, they are depicted in horrifying terms:

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish, but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread. (65)

Again, this is one place where Zemeckis’ version excels the others in portraying the horrifying look of these children, for the 3D techniques have the ability to portray these children as starving monsters who may be capable of doing anything if  they reach adulthood.

            Dickens also has a scathing rebuke for religious leaders who use Scripture and the doctrines of the Church as justifications for the neglect and oppression of the poor.  When Scrooge suggests that the Ghost of Christmas Present is responsible for the repression of the poor through Victorian sabbath laws, the spirit replies:

There are some upon this earth of yours…who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us. (48) 

In other words, churches are often the perpetrators of man-made laws that are entirely out of accord with the spirit of the Gospel which places human need above religious ritual.

            Then, Scrooge is confronted with the prospect that Tiny Tim, the young son of Bob Cratchit will probably die before the next Christmas.  The novella hints that Tiny Tim will die as a result of Cratchit family’s poverty. At the end of the novel, we learn that Tiny Tim did not die, so it seems that Scrooge’s generosity, perhaps in getting Tiny Tim needed medical care or improvement in the living conditions of the Cratchit family resulted in saving Tiny Tim’s life.

            The visits of the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future, show Scrooge the horrible effects of miserliness and the blessings of generosity.  Miserliness cost Scrooge the love of a wonderful woman.  As they part ways, she says, “Another idol has displaced me…A golden one” (36).   We learn that Scrooge had no room for a relationship with a woman  because he feared poverty more than he valued love.  But he learns that nothing can comfort us like the warmth of family and friends.  He also learns that the people who are most generous with their money and their affections are happiest and loved in return.  Old Fezziwig, the Cratchit family, and his nephew, Fred, though they may not have Scrooge’s fortune, are far wealthier than he is in terms of comfort and joy.  Like Scrooge, we need to be confronted with the ways in which we have given up emotional wellbeing, love, and companionship, not only out of covetousness for gold, but covetousness for pleasures, power, fame and many other “idols.”  Sometimes, only deep regrets about the past, the loneliness of the present, and vision of the emptiness of the future can cause us to cast those idols away.

        Then, A Christmas Carol can do us good by showing us that it is not too late to change.  As Scrooge is confronted with the Ghost of Christmas Future, he asks the question, “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of the things that May be, only?” (80).  In other words, Scrooge wonders if everything has been predestined, and if there is any way to escape the future as it has been revealed.  In an effort to answer his own question, Scrooge pleads with the spirit,  “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,…But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!” (80).  The comfort offered in A Christmas Carol is that we can change the future if we change the present.  If we learn the Christmas lessons concerning love, generosity, and compassion, then future Christmases can be filled with warmth, light, and companionship.  Scrooge makes the commitment to the Ghost of Christmas Future, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach” (81).   Scrooge was as good as his word, so that the narrator can close the story by saying, “…and it was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One” (88).  A Christmas Carol does us good if we learn from it how to observe the Christmas season in the right spirit.  The tale brings our own versions of these ghosts in the form of conscience.  As we contemplate the Christmases lost, and the Christmases we may yet lose, we are compelled to change before it is too late.

            As the Ghost of Christmas Present is taking Scrooge around the city, they see some people who are starting to argue, just as we often begin to quarrel with one another due to the stress of the Christmas season.  But they decide that they shouldn’t quibble about such things since it is Christmas.  Dickens writes:  “For they said, it was a shame to quarrel upon Christmas Day. And so it was! God love it, so it was!” (47).  The American novelist, James Lane Allen (1849-1925)  said in 1914 that A Christmas Carol was the greatest English short story: 

I can also count in its behalf more elements of greatness, welded into a great, beautiful lasting effect upon the imagination, than in any other great story known to me.  It is not true gold, but it is immortal alloy.  Having made my decision, that afterthought comes to me that my choice unwittingly has fallen upon what is beyond doubt the most widely read and loved short story in the English language:  humanity’s verdict.  (122)

A Christmas Carol is part of our cultural heritage and Christmas tradition.  166 years after its publication, we are still fascinated by the story.  We modernize it, paraphrase it, recast it,  and modify it, but the words and images, like the ghosts of the story, continue to haunt us, and hopefully, transform us, just as they did Ebenezer Scrooge.  When I think of Dickens’ classic tale, I say, “God bless it,” “God love it,” and “God bless Us, Every One!” 

Works Cited 

Dickens, Charles.  A Christmas Carol.  1843.  New York:  Bantam Books, 1966.

Allen, James Lane.  “Humanity’s Verdict.”  A Christmas Carol.    New York:  Bantam Books, 1966, p. 122

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New Arks of Salvation:

A Review of 2012

By S. Randall Toms, Ph.D. 

            The director of 2012, Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Day after Tomorrow), said in a in an interview with David Jenkins, “I always wanted to do a biblical flood movie…”   While 2012 depicts a worldwide flood and mankind being saved by arks, there are not many other similarities to the Genesis account of Noah, though the main character’s little boy is actually named “Noah.”  2012 alludes to the Genesis account of the flood, legends about the lost continent of Atlantis, current fears that the Mayan calendar predicts the end of the world in 2012, and various scientific, apocalyptic scenarios.  While the Genesis account of the flood describes it as a judgment of God because “the imagination of man’s heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5), the destruction of the world as we know it in 2012, has nothing to with divine wrath. 

When I first heard of the movie 2012, I thought there might be a great deal of information about the Mayan calendar, which supposedly comes to an end that year.  Actually, the Mayan calendar is only mentioned in passing during this film.  If there is any connection between these disasters and the Mayan calendar, the movie doesn’t portray it as much more than a coincidence.  Though Biblical prophecies are also mentioned briefly in the film, there does not appear to be any connection between the catastrophes depicted and Biblical prophecies, though the Woody Harrelson character makes a wild, strained link between the Mayan calendar and the views of some Christian groups about the Rapture.  The film does not depict these calamities as any kind of divine judgment.   Though the tagline for the film is “We were warned,” perhaps a reference to the Mayan calendar, these ancient prophecies receive short shrift in the film.   Also, thankfully, the film does not blame exploitation of the environment.  In so many films that we have seen recently,  including Emmerich’s The Day after Tomorrow, human beings are blamed for global warming, pollution, and other environmental problems that cause the destruction of the planet.  In this film, the disasters are caused by a solar flare, something beyond human control or causation.  This is not a film about ancient prophecies, divine judgment, or human  neglect of the environment.  It is a disaster movie, with a few social, political, moral, and religious allusions.  With the help of computer generated imagery, Emmerich is able to take the great disaster films of the 70s and  80s, such as Earthquake, Airport, The Towering Inferno, and The Poseidon Adventure, and combine them for mass destruction on  a global scale. 

The primary reason to see 2012 is not for its discussion of ancient prophecies or how it deals with moral dilemmas, but rather to see the way modern movie-making technology can depict the spectacular nature of the end of the world.  I have read that the production cost of this film was over $200 million, and though some scenes are unrealistic and cheesy,  if you would like to get an idea of what California would look like after the San Andreas fault finally causes “the big one,” and the state falls into the ocean, 2012 is the movie for you.  When I attended this film, I was a little late, and there was a large crowd.  I had to sit near the front row, almost having to tilt my head backward to see the screen.  As it turned out, I couldn’t have had a better seat.  It felt like the world was falling in on top of me.  This is definitely one of those films that will not have anywhere close to the same effect if you wait to see it on DVD.   

As the film unfolds, we find that scientists and the leaders of governments know that the world is about to end because of a solar flare that has caused the earth’s core to overheat, which will result in a massive shifting of the earth’s surface, producing enormous tidal waves that will cover the entire globe.  When geologist Adrian Hemsley (Chiwetel  Ejiofor)  learns from a fellow scientist in India of the destructive solar flare and the neutrinos that increase the temperature of the earth’s core, he alerts White House Chief of Staff Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt) of the impending disaster.  After the President of the United States  (Danny Glover) is informed of the situation, politicians and scientists, fearing that the people of the earth would descend into anarchy if they become aware the world is going to come to an end in a few years, decide not to tell the people at large. People like Jackson Curtis, (John Cusack) are normal people, continuing to live without any knowledge of their apocalyptic future.   Curtis, much like the Tom Cruise character in the War of the Worlds, is a divorced man separated from his children, who goes to pick them up for a wonderful weekend in Yellowstone National Park.   Fortunately, Yellowstone has become a place of interest since the future destruction of the world will feel its first effects in this National Park which is basically a  volcano waiting to explode.  While in Yellowstone,  Curtis runs into Charlie Frost, played by Woody Harrelson who gives the best performance in the film.  Frost is  a kind of counter cultural hippie/conspiracy theorist  who is waiting for the apocalypse and knows that it is going to occur soon.  Frost tells Curtis that world governments are preparing spaceships to carry select individuals away from the planet before the end.  Actually, we learn later that the leaders have decided to prepare “arks,” far more sophisticated, of course, than Noah’s ark of gopher wood.  These leaders have selected people who will continue the human race once the waters have subsided.  How do the nations of the world decide who will survive and who will perish?   Governmental leaders, scientists, and of course, rich people who put up the money to build the arks are chosen to perpetuate the human race after the massive flood.  The rest of the film deals primarily with Curtis’ attempts outrun one disaster after another to save his family by getting them to one of the arks. 

            Though Jackson Curtis is one of the common people not chosen to board an ark, he is a science fiction writer who has penned a novel, Farewell Atlantis.   The film credits state that 2012 was partially inspired by  Graham Hancock’s 1995 book Fingerprints of the God’s.  Hancock’s book was influenced by Ignatius Donnely’s 1882 work, Atlantis:  The Antedeluvian World.    Both Hancock and Donnely posit that there was an ancient civilization, Atlantis, that was destroyed, but before its destruction, it  passed on some of its cultural and scientific knowledge.  In 2012, our modern Atlantis, with all its superior technological and scientific knowledge is about to be destroyed again.  But this new Atlantis is going to be able to survive.  In many recent movies, the apocalypse is brought about by the arrogance of science, or the unintended consequences of scientific achievement.  In this film, science and rich people are saviors of Atlantis.   The old saviors, governments and religions, especially, are incapable of helping to avert  the approaching cataclysm. 

As we watch the worldwide devastation of the planet, it is interesting to see what buildings, monuments, and artworks are focused on as they are destroyed.    Emmerich’s choice of particular objects to show being demolished was not random.  When explaining why he seems to enjoy destroying certain landmarks in his films, he replied, “Landmarks are always symbols, just symbols. … They stand for something.”    In 2012, the U. S. Bank building in Los Angeles is  demolished, indicating that banking and the world of finance cannot save us, although rich people did provide the funding for the arks.  The White House is destroyed as the USS John F. Kennedy  naval carrier crashes into it, implying that governments cannot save us, especially those who fail to live up to the ideals of the Kennedys.  For some reason, Emmerich seems to enjoy destroying the White House.  Remember Independence Day?    (The symbolism of such cinematic destructions is not lost on film-going audiences.  I remember when I first saw Independence Day that the theater erupted into cheers and applause when the aliens decimated the White House).  Las Vegas  is destroyed  indicating that escapist entertainment, obviously, can’t save us.   The Washington Monument topples, signifying that the principles of the Founding Fathers are powerless in the face of natural disasters. 

2012 seems to make it very plain that  gods, religion, especially Christianity, cannot avert the coming disaster. The Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro falls from the top  of the Corcovado mountain, suggesting that Christ cannot save us from this apocalypse.  Does the destruction of certain religious symbols have some significance for Emmerich?  When he was asked  by Patrick Lee why he chose to show the Redeemer statue tumbling from its great height, he replied, “Because I’m against organized religion.”  One of the movie posters is entirely this scene of the Redeemer statue falling to its destruction.   In the Sistine chapel, a fracture occurs between the finger of God and the finger of Adam, hinting that God cannot save his creation.   Just as the President of the United States is about to read the 23rd Psalm to give some kind of comfort to a world that is perishing, the transmission of his broadcast is cut off, implying that the people no longer have a divine shepherd who is capable of leading them to green pastures.   People are praying at the Vatican, but in the middle of their supplications, St. Peter’s crumbles and falls upon the people pleading for mercy, intimating that prayer can’t save us.   In the interview with David Jenkins, Emmerich said, “We decided that what people do in a crisis is that they start praying. Even the most religion-hating person would get down on their knees and ask God for salvation. Yes, it’s good to be spiritual, but praying in the face of disaster will not stop the disaster. Fate, luck and coincidence might help you survive, but not prayer.”  That explanation seems a little disingenuous since the film has made it clear that no one can survive except those who get on the arks.  What was left for them to do other than pray? Though Christianity doesn’t seem to offer much hope as an instrument of survival, Buddhism comes off pretty well.   Jackson and his family are ultimately led to the arks by a Tibetan monk.  

If  governments, gods,  and religions can’t save us in the time of ultimate disaster, what can?  The film appears to posit three saviors:  money, science, , and human kindness.  Without billionaires, the arks could not have been built.  Adrian  Helmsley, the geologist, has faith in Nature itself.  In a rather oddly Darwinian statement about who will survive, Adrian says, “I believe nature will choose for itself, from itself.”  Actually, it seems that the rich and powerful have chosen who will survive, unless we conclude that in a social Darwinist universe, wealth and power are Nature’s way of deciding the survival of the fittest.  But Adrian is not content to allow only the rich and powerful to survive.  He fights for the rights of the common folk, especially some of the poor people who assembled the arks .    He asks the leaders to approve a decision to let the people on board,  revealing his deep concerning for people by saying, “The moment we stop fighting for each other is the moment we lose our humanity.”    As a result of Adrian’s pleas, the leaders of the word gathered on the arks, decide to open the gates to admit as many people as possible.  In the end, human kindness saves the survivors from having made a decision to begin a new civilization with blood on their hands. 

 Though the President was prevented from reading the 23rd Psalm, 2012 permits the reading of an excerpt from Jackson Curtis’ book, Farewell Atlantis.  Hope is not gained  from the words of one of the old books of Holy Scripture, but rather from a work of science fiction.  At the end of the film, Africa becomes visible, which has shifted in its geographic location.    The arks head for the Cape of Good Hope to begin a new world.  Now that the old governments, businesses, institutions, and religions have been washed away, there is “good hope” for the future:  money, science, and  human kindness have prevailed.

Another  recent “ark” movie, Evan Almighty, also emphasizes the power of human kindness to change the world.  Toward the end of the film, God (Morgan Freeman), tells Evan’s wife that the story of the flood in the book of Genesis was not about the wrath of God.  Talking about the story of Noah’s flood, God says, “I love that story, Noah and the Ark. You know, a lot of people miss the point of that story. They think it’s about God’s wrath and anger. They love it when God gets angry….  I think it’s a love story about believing in each other. You know, the animals showed up in pairs. They stood by each other, side by side, just like Noah and his family. Everybody entered the ark side by side.”  At the end of the film, after Evan has saved some people and a host of animals, God tells Evan that he changed the world.  God writes the letters “a-r-k” in the dust and explains that “ark” is an acronym for “Acts of Random Kindness.”  In other words, the ark that will save human beings is human kindness.

The question that remains, of course, is whether people can really save themselves by human kindness.    Is  human kindness  really powerful enough to overcome human selfishness?    Though Adrian Helmsley in 2012 and Evan Baxter in Evan Almighty have saved some people, we know that there are still powerful people left in the world, in both films, who are far from displaying human kindness.  Even the flood of Genesis did not cure the evil that resides in the human heart.  If the simple command, “Be kind to one another,” were sufficient, humanity would be at peace by now.  All the great philosophers and teachers, even Jesus Christ himself, advocated kindness.    After Noah’s ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat, after Evan Almighty’s ark comes to rest at the steps of the Capitol, and after 2012’s arks come to rest on the shores of Africa, it is still true concerning man  that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart is only evil continually.   One of my seminary professors was fond of saying  that before the Flood man had a dry evil imagination; after the Flood he had a wet evil imagination.  Floods and arks don’t change the fact that although human beings are capable of acts of random kindness,  the history of mankind has been more about sustained acts of cruelty.  A “good hope” for the future does not rest in the people who get off the ark.   Not long after Noah and his family leave the ark, we see people committing the same acts of cruelty and injustice.   For a more realistic look at how people would behave in a post apocalyptic world, see the film version of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road2012 seems to have bright hopes for the future of a world without God and the principles and institutions that have been based upon the word of God.  In McCarthy’s The Road, you find an accurate picture of a godless world and the anarchy and barbarism that ensues when people have thrown off the morality of the past.   When people begin to leave the arks of 2012, do we have any reason to believe that they will use their money and science any differently than they have been used by generations of human beings before them?

 Works Cited

Jenkins, David.  “Roland Emmerich’s Guide to Disaster Movies.”   Time Out.  14 December 2009.

            http://www.timeout.com/film/features/show-feature/9039/roland-emmerichs-guide-to-disaster-movies.html

Lee, Patrick.  “What Even Roland Emmerich Won’t Destroy.”  Sci Fi Wire.  02 November 09.   14

            December 09.  http://scifiwire.com/2009/11/5-best-things-2012s-direc.php

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Existentialist Purgatory:

A Review of Richard Kelly’s The Box

by S. Randall Toms, Ph.D.

Warning:  This review contains spoilers. 

The Box is based on a 1970 short story, “Button, Button,” by Richard Matheson, a well-known writer of macabre stories.  Some of his works, such as,  I Am Legend, What Dreams May Come, and The Legend of Hell House have been made into major motion pictures.  He also wrote episodes for The Twilight Zone, including the famous “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” featuring William Shatner before his Star Trek days.  “Button, Button” was used as the basis for a 1986 episode of The Twilight Zone revival series on CBS. 

The  Twilight Zone episode, and the new movie version share the key elements of the original short story, but each varies the tale in significant ways.  In the original version, a mysterious stranger named Mr. Steward delivers a small box with a button on top to Norma and her husband, Arthur.    Steward informs the couple that if they will press the button, they will receive $50,000, but someone in the world whom they do not know will die.    While initially rejecting the idea, Norma later rationalizes that maybe there would be nothing wrong with pressing the button.  Perhaps the person who dies might be “some old Chinese peasant ten thousand miles away” or “some diseased native in the Congo” (21).  But Arthur reminds her that the person who dies could be a “baby boy in Pennsylvania” or a “beautiful little girl on the next block” (21).  The more Norma thinks about all the things she could buy with the $50,000, the more she entertains the idea of pushing the button.  Eventually, Norma succumbs to the temptation.  After pushing the button, she learns that her husband has been killed in a train accident.  Norma accuses Mr. Steward of lying because he had said that the person who would die would be someone she didn’t know.  Steward  counters that she   didn’t really know her husband.

In the Twilight Zone episode, the plot is the same, though Norma and Arthur appear to be in a much more difficult financial situation, and the offer is now $200,000.  Norma, played by Mare Winningham (St. Elmo’s Fire), is a bitter, nagging wife, constantly complaining about their lack of money.  We are not surprised when she passes the button.  When Mr. Steward returns for the box, he tells them the unit will be reset and given to someone whom they do not know,  implying that when the next person pushes the button, Norma or Arthur could be the victim.

Since The Box is a 113 minute feature-length film, we can expect that even more plot elements have been added by director and screenplay writer Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko, Southland Tales).  The movie is set in 1976 in a time of great excitement at NASA concerning the Viking Mars probe. In this version, Norma (Cameron Diaz) is a far more sympathetic character than in the other two versions.    A loving wife and mother, she teaches at a private school that her son is able to attend only because of a tuition discount for children of faculty members.  On the day she learns that the tuition discount is going to be discontinued, her  husband, Arthur, played by James Marsden (X-Men, Enchanted), working for NASA  in the field of optics, is informed that he has been denied a long awaited opportunity to enter the astronaut training program.   Though this edition of the Lewis family does not appear to be as in dire financial straits as the Twilight Zone couple, the recent disappointments and setbacks make Mr. Steward’s offer more tempting, especially considering that the offer is now $1,000,0000.    We also feel pity for Norma because she walks with a limp due to a mistake by a physician that resulted in a partial amputation of her foot.  Cameron Diaz portrays Norma as such a likeable character that we tend to be sympathetic toward her when pushes the button, though we know she has been willing to take the life of another person for the sake a million dollars.

The character that undergoes the most extensive revision in this version is Mr. Steward.   Kelly was intrigued by a statement in Matheson’s original short story.  When Norma asks Steward whom he represents, he replies, “I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to tell you that….  However, I assure you the organization is of international scope” (17).  While the short story and the Twilight Zone episode never divulge the nature of that organization, Kelly picks up where the other two versions of the story end and tries to explain who Steward is and the nature of his mission. 

At the beginning of the movie, an on-screen caption tells us that Arlington Steward has recovered from severe burns and is delivering units related to the Mars project.  When Steward arrives at the Lewis home with the button unit, we see that his face is terribly disfigured.    We learn that Steward was also a NASA employee, but he died after he had been struck by lightning.  Steward came back to life.  Ever since his resurrection, he has been making these button units and distributing them to people.  Eventually, we find that Steward is testing human beings to see if they will make a selfless choice.   The movie poster for this film has the caption:  “You are the experiment.”  Rather than a Biblical kind of God who is testing people, Steward seems to be an advanced form of alien who is running mystical/scientific   research to determine if our world is worthy of continued existence. We don’t know on whose behalf he is performing this test, but we learn that our planet will be destroyed unless a sufficient number of people will deny themselves their own selfish desires for the benefit of the species as a whole.    When people make the selfish choice of pushing the button, they must pay for this choice by being faced with an even tougher decision to act selflessly.

After Norma pushes the button, she and Arthur begin to realize that there are inescapable consequences for her actions.  They are trapped in a box, so to speak.  Steward explains that  the box is an extended metaphor for our entire lives.  We live in boxes, we drive in boxes, we sit in front of boxes to watch television programs, and when we die our bodies are placed in another box.  Now, Norma and Arthur are in another box of their own making, a box that may be a kind of hell.

One of the interesting allusions in the film is to the existentialist philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre.    In one of the opening scenes of the movie, Norma is teaching a class on Sartre’s play, No Exit.  Later, she and her husband attend a theater to see a staged version of the play.  In one scene, after they leave a party , the words “No Exit” are written on the windshield of their car.  Unless these allusions are a red herring, Kelly seems to be hitting us over the head with the idea that there is some kind of connection between No Exit and The Box.   Sartre’s play is about three people who die and go to hell.  The fourth character is a valet who ushers the people into hell and occasionally answers questions.  In The Box, there is a character with a huge nameplate reading “Valet.”  In No Exit, the three characters  sit around discussing the reasons why they have been damned.  Sartre’s play deals with the lies we tell ourselves and others, refusing to face up to what we really are and take responsibility for our actions.  They keep waiting for demonic torturers to arrive to inflict hellish suffering,, but they finally realize that their hell torment one another  for all eternity.   Sartre portrays hell as a drawing room,  another box, from which there is no escape, “no exit.”   At the end of the play, the doors to hell are open, but none of the three leave. 

Of course, Sartre didn’t believe in a hell after this life.  His play is an existentialist  parable about the hells we create for ourselves in the present.  In Sartre’s view, hell is allowing other people to define us.   Describing this key tenet of existentialist philosophy, Solomon and Higgins write, “Kierkegaard, as the first existentialist, insisted that the authentic self was the personally chosen self, as opposed to one’s public or ‘herd’ identity” (279).  The most famous line in No Exit is “Hell is other people.”  The line doesn’t mean that our relationships with other people are so bad it seems as though we are living in hell.  For Sartre, hell is living according to the standards of other people, rather than using our freedom to create our own lives.  The reason the three people in No Exit will not leave hell is that they need other people to define them.  There are no mirrors in this room so that they could see their own reflections.  They can only see themselves the way others see them.  They cannot leave hell, because they wouldn’t feel as though they were existing unless they knew that other people were looking at them.  Since they are totally dependent on the opinions of other people to give them any kind of sense of self-worth, they are eternally tormented when the good opinion of others is not forthcoming.    Describing these three people in hell, George Myerson points out that  they are people who have “no courage to face their own consciousness, to take responsibility for who they are or what they have become.  These are people for whom that responsibility is unbearable”(53). Myerson goes on to say, “They have chosen this suffering in preference to the only alternative, the authentic choice, the responsible choice of a life from one’s own supported perspective” (53).

Is Norma in a  from which there is no exit because she pushed the button?   Interestingly, Arthur suggests to Steward that  there situation is purgatory.  If it is purgatory, then there is an exit.    While hell is eternal, purgatory is not.    It would appear that Steward puts people to the test.  When they fail and push the button, they are placed in a situation like purgatory where they can be cleansed and then move on to a better form of existence.   The film is replete with references to  choices that lead to salvation or eternal damnation.  Norma and Arthur believe that Steward gives them a brief glimpse of the after-life, just a glimpse to give them hope that there is something better.  In the end, Norma is comforted by the idea that forgiveness is possible, and she can go to a better place after her death. 

While it may see that The Box explores the question of what makes us worthy of everlasting life, The Box could be an existentialist, science fiction morality tale that, like Sartre’s No Exit, merely illustrates, not a future purgatory, but a present kind of purgatory that permits us to change and escape the box.    Solomon and Higgins describe Sartre’s view that the human being can always change:  “We are always striving to define ourselves, but we are always an ‘open question,’ a self not yet made” (281).  In The Box, Norma is not in hell—she is in purgatory, still an ‘open question,” a person who has the possibility to change and create a better self.  The Box is probably not concerned with God, aliens, or literal heavens, hells, and purgatories.  In a true existentialist fashion, it is about the free choices we make, the seeming inescapable consequences of those choices, and the hope that there may yet be an exit from the hells or purgatories we have created for ourselves.  Satre’s view was that we don’t need a God to give us moral standards.  Likewise, he didn’t think we need a literal hell or demons to torture us.  We make our own hells and torture ourselves. We don’t need a Mr. Steward to present a moral test for us.  In many ways, we contemplate pushing the button every day by the selfish choices we make.

But the moral lesson taught by Steward is twisted an perverted at best.  In the end, Norma chooses to sacrifice her life for the well-being of her son.  Arthur must commit a truly selfless act by murdering his own wife  and facing life imprisonment so that his son may have a good life.  But it is just here that The Box falls apart as an existentialist morality tale.  At first we may think that Norma has truly learned to behave altruistically by sacrificing herself for the good of her son.  But how do we know that Norma is really motivated by altruism?  How do we know that she is not motivated by a self-pity caused by an overwhelming sense of guilt?  Perhaps her willingness to die is just a form of suicide caused by a selfish desire to escape more suffering.  After all, if she doesn’t choose to die, she will have to face her husband and her blind and deaf son, knowing that she was responsible for their unhappiness and suffering.   Like the three characters in No Exit, Norma would endure the hell of being defined by her husband and son as a selfish mother who not only was responsible for her son’s affliction, but also unwilling to do what was necessary to give him a normal life.  Does Steward really cause Norma to act altruistically?

Before Norma decides to sacrifice herself for the good of her son, she asks Steward if she can be forgiven for pushing the button which caused the death of another person.  Steward says that he doesn’t know, but reminds her of how important the concept of freedom was to Sartre, one of her favorites.  Steward implies that Norma can still act freely and do the right thing.  But is Norma acting freely, or has she been manipulated into a decision where she feels she has no other option.  Here is another place where the film seems to fail as an existential parable.  In existentialism, the “authentic” person is one who creates his/her own morality without the influence of outside, objective standards. Describing Sartre’s view of the freedom of the individual, Bryan Magee writes, “In a Godless world, he [Sartre] said, we have no alternative but to choose, and in that sense create, our own values…. Many people find this freedom and this responsibility too terrifying to face, so they run away from it by pretending that they are bound by already existing norms and rules” (217).  Yet, Norma allows Steward and his own standard of altruism to define not only her, but the rest of the human race as well.  Reminiscent of Klatu’s speech in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), earth faces extinction if its people do not exhibit his Steward’s definition of  altruism.  Steward, as an almost godlike figure, is imposing his values on the human race and manipulating the events of their lives to leave them “no exit” if they do not conform to his standards, which is more an existentialist hell than a solution to our problems.  

            The Box takes place during the Christmas season.  The button unit arrives almost like a Christmas gift.  As Norma and Arthur enter the theater to see the production of No Exit, a group of carolers is standing outside singing  “The First Nowell.”   One of the stanzas of this carol describes how the wise men followed the star to Bethlehem:

They looked up and saw a star

Shining in the east beyond them far,

And to the earth it gave great light,

And so it continued both day and night.

Steward seems to think that he has come to the earth with a mission to give great light to the earth, but his light appears to be another form of darkness.  In an  interview with Patrick Lee,  Richard Kelly said that pushing the button “is the key to the downfall of man.”  While selfishness causes a great deal of misery, Steward’s solution to the problem raises far more moral questions than it answers.  If the box is meant to be a gift to humanity to teach us the meaning of altruism, it should remain unopened.

Works Cited

Lee, Patrick.  Sci Fi Wire.  “Donnie Darko Director Richard Kelly Reveals Just What’s in The

            Box.” 19 June 2009.  22 November 2009.  http://scifiwire.come/2009/06/donnie-darko-

            director-ric.php

Magee, Bryan.  The History of Philosophy.  New York:  Dorling Kindersley, 2001.

Matheson, Richard.  “Button, Button.”  Button Button:  Uncanny Stories.  New York:  Tom

 Doherty, 2008.  15-25.

Myerson, George.  Sartre:  A Beginner’s Guide.  London:  Hodder and Stoughton, 2001.

Solomon, Robert C.  and Kathleen M. Higgins.  A Short History of Philosophy.  New York: 

            Oxford U P,    1996.

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Is It More Than a Feeling?:

A Review of The Men Who Stare at Goats

by S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.

The Men Who Stare at Goats begins with the onscreen caption, “More of this is true than you would believe.”  Having been fooled by “mockumentaries” of the past few years,  viewers may be worried that they are about to be deceived again by a film claiming to be factual,  only to find out later that it was not based on actual events.  This film really is an adaptation of Jon Ronson’s non-fiction book of the same title which alleges that the U. S. military engaged in experiments to ascertain if certain people had  paranormal powers, such as remote viewing abilities, or the capability to kill a goat simply by staring at it. 

            In order to give the claims of Ronson’s book a plot for a film, the screenplay by Peter Straughan (How to Lose Friends and Alienate People) invents a story about Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), a reporter who goes to Iraq to prove himself to his wife who has recently left him for another man.  While waiting in Kuwait to get into Iraq during the 2003 Iraq War, he meets Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) who tells Wilton that the U. S. military trained him to be a Jedi warrior by developing his paranormal powers.   Clooney, trying to explain his Jedi powers to Ewan McGregor, who, of course, played one the greatest of the Jedi, Obi-Wan Kenobi, is one of the many ironic jokes of the film.   There are many references to Star Wars sprinkled throughout the movie, such as Cassady saying, “We’re Jedi.  We don’t fight with guns; we fight with our minds.”  While taking Wilton across the Iraqi desert,  In a series of flashbacks, Cassady explains  how he had become a psychic soldier under the tutelage of Bill Django (Jeff Bridges).    During the Viet Nam War, Django, after having been shot,  experienced a moment of enlightenment, and convinced the military to allow him to develop  a band of New Age-type warriors  called the New Earth Army, soldiers who would be able to bring peace to the world by being less violent.   The United States would become “the first superpower to have superpowers.”   While handing out flowers to his trainees, Django tells them, “We must create warrior monks who can pass through walls and see into the future.”    Though they profess to be peaceful soldiers, they actually inflict pain on their opponents like any other kind of military force, even inventing new tactics for fighting with knives.    They developed their powers of ESP, sometimes with the aid of drugs and rock music.  Cassady’s powers seem to be especially enhanced by listening to Boston (One of the pleasures of this film is listening to “More Than a Feeling” in the surround sound of a theater).   

 Cassady becomes Django’s star pupil, having the ability to locate kidnapped subjects through the powers of remote viewing—a clairvoyant ability to see what is happening at another location a great distance away, sometimes on the other side of the world.  Remote viewing can be thought of as long distance spying, utilizing only the powers of the mind.   

            Django and Cassady are pleased with the progress of the New Earth Army, but when Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) enters the program, his jealousy of Cassady’s abilities leads him to undermine the project.  Django is discharged and disappears, while Hooper tries to continue the psychic training, but with more violent and evil purposes in mind.  Believing that Cassady has the ability to kill living things with the power of his mind, Hooper arranges an experiment in which Cassady is challenged to stop the heart of a goat using only his powers of concentration.  When he succeeds, Cassady believes that he and the program are under a curse because he used his powers to harm an innocent animal.  The rest of the film shows how Cassady tries to achieve some kind of redemption for having killed the goat.   Though Cassady left the army years before, he explains to Wilton that he has been reactivated and is on a secret mission.  In reality, he has learned that Hooper  has continued the psychic soldier program and  its experiments in Iraq, but with far different purposes than those intended by Django.   The real intent of Cassady’s visit to Iraq is to deal with the abuses to the program that have been developed by Hooper.   Toward the end of the film we learn that Cassady is on a crusade, not just to liberate goats who are being used in cruel experiments, but also prisoners of war who are tortured by being forced to listen to Barney the Dinosaur sing “I Love You, You Love Me,” a technique Cassady describes as coming from “the dark side.”  On one level, this film could be seen as a critique of the treatment of soldiers in Abu-Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, but the force of the criticism is blunted by the ridiculous beliefs and practices of the New Earth Army.  Even the deliverance of the mistreated captives seems to be only another part of the general absurdity.

Clooney and McGregor give good performances, but the true star of the film is Jeff Bridges in an incredibly funny role as a New Age hippie, reminiscent of his role as “The Dude” in The Big Lebowski.   Bridge’s Django character is said to be based, somewhat, on Lt. Col. Jim Channon, who actually did convince the U. S. military in the 1970s to allow him to investigate ways to create a new kind of soldier.   Channon was heavily influenced by the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, an organization that advocated a blending of Eastern and Western philosophies, encouraging   practices such as meditation, yoga, and massage therapy.   After investigating these ideas, Channon wrote a manual for the Army entitled The First Earth Battalion.  This manual  advocated that soldiers should walk into enemy territory bearing in their arms animals that are symbolic of peace, such as lambs.  These new soldiers would use their “sparkly eyes” to dazzle the enemy. (George Clooney shows off his comedic skills while demonstrating this technique).  They would wear radio devices playing peaceful sounds and music.  If the enemy would not become compliant, the soldiers would transmit acid rock or unpleasant sounds to confuse the enemy.  These new soldiers would love everyone and have out of body experiences.

 If the military took any of these ideas seriously, as Ronson’s book maintains, it is astounding, and certainly worthy of being satire.  Some have seen this film as a spoof  in the same vein as  Mash or Catch-22.  If the military was actually involved in this kind of experimentation, the satire is well-aimed, but The Men Who Stare at Goats does not have the lasting impact of earlier anti-war films such as Dr. Strangelove.

Viewing the film, it is difficult to determine what is being satirized:  the military, the New Age beliefs, or both.  Even if the film is not based on fact, it illustrates how attempts to introduce such concepts into the military would be foolish and impractical.  The movie also shows how difficult it is to blend Eastern and Western philosophies of spirituality.  The outcome of such attempts is usually to transform the participants into ridiculous caricatures, such as those portrayed by Clooney and Bridges.    The prayer of the First Earth Battalion, recited, in part, by Django’s trainees,  is almost a silly parody of the prayers recited in the liturgy of some Christian denominations for the service of Holy Communion:  “Mother Earth… my life support system… as a soldier… I must drink your blue water… live inside your red clay and eat your green skin. I pray… my boots will always kiss your face and my footsteps match your heartbeat. Carry my body through space and time… you are my connection to the Universe… and all that comes after. I am yours and you are mine. I salute you.”  Such a prayer demonstrates the absurd result of combining Eastern and Western spiritual traditions into an Americanized, eco-friendly, form of spirituality that still retains echoes of Christian worship. 

Some critics have suggested that the point of the film is to show how the peaceful teachings of the East are corrupted by power-hungry men like Hooper.   When Hooper’s character is introduced, Wilton’s narration says that a serpent had entered the garden.  The implication seems to be that things were going well in this new kind of army that would lead us back to the Garden, but a Satanic soldier, who wanted to use these peaceful teachings for evil, corrupted the program. 

On the other hand, the Django and Cassady characters are not presented in a way that we can ever take seriously them or their beliefs.  Cassady tries to convince Wilton of his psychic abilities, but his proofs can usually be explained in terms of chance and coincidence.  In one scene, Cassady stares at a cloud and tells Wilton that he can cause it to disappear—a technique called “cloud-bursting.”  Sure enough, the cloud disintegrates, but just as it does, Cassady drives their car into a huge boulder.  He has the power to dissipate a cloud, but his ESP cannot alert him that he is about to hit the only visible rock  in a sea of sand.   The choice of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” indicates how much those involved in such research want to believe that their psychic power is “more than a feeling.”   Another appropriate song introduced into one scene, Billy Idol’s “Dancing with Myself,” implies that when all these claims of paranormal abilities have been investigated, we will find that these so-called powers existed only  in the mind and never influenced anything outside of the self.

            Whether or not it was intended, the film points out what harebrained characters we become when want to believe in something that has no basis in fact.  The film opens with Brigadier General Dean Hopgood (Stephen Lang),  someone who really wants to believe that these powers exist, trying to run through a wall.  The last scene (I won’t spoil it for you) shows how much we want to hold on to the idea that such things are possible.  McGregor portrays Wilton as someone who knows deep down inside that what Cassady believes he can do is a delusion, but at the same time he wants to believe it is true.  While Cassady is on a mission to find redemption, Wilton is on a mission to find some kind of meaning to his life, a quest that often results in believing the absurd.   The director of this film, Grant Heslov, said that he was “fascinated by people who believe something strongly enough that it becomes true for them” (Williams).     At the end of this motion picture, we don’t know which is more absurd—the ideas themselves, or our desire to believe in them.  We want to convince ourselves that these powers are more than a feeling.  People may want to believe they have psychic abilities when they “close their eyes and drift away,” but the true name for such  an experience is called  “dreaming.”

Works Cited

 Williams, Joe.   “The Man Who Steered ‘Goats’.”   stltoday.com  8 Nov. 2009.  10 Nov. 2009.

http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/entertainment/stories.nsf.story/9911BEA1EA352B89286257666007ABDBA?OpenDocument

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