Through Another Dimension: Considering “Twilight Zone 2019” (Part 4) – Season 2, Episodes 1-5

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Finally! I’m back with some thoughts on the first five episodes of The Twilight Zone (2019), Season 2. As noted previously, the premise descriptions will be spoiler-free but my thoughts/response will not be. So, be forewarned. Also, unlike the posts covering Season 1, I (mostly) haven’t listened to or read anyone else’s analysis, so…well, hopefully my takes aren’t too terrible–okay, let’s go!

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Episode 2.01 – “Meet in the Middle”

The Premise: A lonely man suddenly discovers a psychic connection to an intriguing woman he’s never laid eyes on, and the two strangers begin a long-distance telepathic relationship. Once things start becoming more “real” and the couple decides to meet, their rom-com story takes a sinister turn.

The Pay-off: After the ups and downs of Season 1, ending with the fantastic “Blurryman,” I was bracing against a let-down to start Season 2. Instead, we got a pretty solid season opener. We are presented with Phil, a bachelor on a blind date who suddenly hears the voice of a woman named Annie in his head. While the script plays a bit with the idea that perhaps Phil was just imagining this voice, I never doubted that she was a real person (man, if they had “Tyler Durden”-ed this episode…). Part of that confidence may have been that I didn’t think they would pull in Gillian Jacobs as Annie and not have her show up on screen at some point.

The first half of the episode played like a strange but sweet romantic comedy, as the two characters fall in love via long-distance (kind of like a telepathic “You’ve Got Mail”). Then the story turns sinister about halfway through, and you remember, oh yeah, I’m watching “The Twilight Zone.” Once it’s revealed that Annie is married, I wondered if this would become a Double Indemnity situation. Add in Phil’s frightening outburst of anger as his obsession with Annie gets the better of him, and it had all the makings of a real creepfest. The entire time Phil was on the train heading toward Annie and they talked of running away together, I kept waiting for the bottom to drop out–which it did, in a big, bad way.

As Phil searched for her at the train stop after listening helplessly to her screams that she was being followed about an hour before, I half-expected him to come across her body and then be somehow discovered and accused of her murder. But when he gets to the house in the woods, I immediately realized how it was about to go down. As he went inside, I kept waiting for the camera to pan up and show a picture on the mantle of Annie and her husband. Instead, we are left with the chilling image of Phil covered in blood after bludgeoning the poor man to death, with Annie and her horrified daughter looking on. The scene of Phil sitting in the police car as the weight of what just happened fully lands on him was really well-delivered but tough to watch, and then Annie’s voice cuts in and reveals that it was all a set-up. Oh man, what a nightmare. This was a chilling tale about obsession and unmet expectations, and it kicked off the season in a satisfying way.

Episode 2.02 – “Downtime”

The Premise: After landing a much-deserved promotion, it looks like Michelle Weaver’s perfect life has finally come together…until everyone around her stands up, eyes transfixed on the giant orb in the sky.

The Pay-off: This was an episode with a great premise and a couple of really great performances that still left me a little cold in the end. First of all, the acting: Morena Baccarin is fantastic as always, and even given just a few pages of dialogue, Tony Hale is a delight on-screen. The visuals of this episode were top-shelf: the shot of everyone standing around looking up at the orb is one of the most vivid images in this new TZ run, and it captures the vibe so well. The central conceit of the episode–a person learns that her life is actually an avatar in a simulation–is pure sci-fi, and the idea of an avatar becoming sentient when the user dies while connected to the system is a concept worth exploring. I even loved how Michelle’s interactions with the “customer service reps” of the simulation company reflect her own interactions earlier in the episode. The writing was pretty crisp, and the episode didn’t overstay its welcome. If anything, the first act could have been extended a little to ramp up the creepiness.

Where the episode started losing me was the introduction of the “user’s” wife, which I thought that was a bit clunky (the whole “I know you’re still in there” thing has been done). In the end, Michelle stays in the simulation (because what else was she going to do?), but her user’s wife comes back to the hotel to stay for a while (implying they would carry on a relationship)–WHICH DOESN’T MAKE SENSE because while there may be some traces of the man’s psyche or personality extant in Michelle’s programming, she’s still not the same guy, and his wife (who had no prior relationship with Michelle inside the simulation) is going to seek to spark some sort of romantic relationship with a woman who is only tangentially like her husband? It just seems unlikely. This just felt like a lazy way for the writers to throw in a same-sex relationship just to say they could. In the end, cool set-up, good performances, but they stumbled at the landing.

Episode 2.03 – “The Who of You”

The Premise: When Harry Pine discovers he can switch bodies with people at will, the struggling actor makes one desperate and foolish decision after another in the hopes of saving his relationship.

The Pay-off: First of all, ETHAN EMBRY. Totally didn’t realize it was him, though I knew the lead was familiar to me somehow. He and his impressive beard deliver a great performance as a struggling, selfish, slightly-conceited actor who decides to rob a bank in a fit of desperation and ends up switching bodies with the teller. I really like that there is no explanation given for this–true to the show’s central conceit, it just *is* because he’s in the Twilight Zone. I also liked the way the body-switching was handled, with people being returned to their bodies once Harry “hands off” to the next person. This allowed the police detective to “follow” Harry in what would have been an otherwise impossible pursuit. Instead, it provided a clean narrative device for moving the plot along.

In many ways, this episode reminded me of “The Four of Us are Dying” and “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross” from the classic series–stories of desperate and selfish men who abuse their abilities in order to get out of jams or improve their situations. In the case of “The Who of You,” however, you don’t get the same kind of tragic, morality-play ending–at least not the one that you expect. I definitely assumed the stand-off in the psychic’s storefront would have ended with Harry dying, but instead, he comes away from it unharmed, yet now without another body to go back to. The twist is when, having accepted his permanent “role” as the detective, he goes to his now-former apartment in the guise of the detective to inform Harry’s girlfriend of his demise, only to realize that she’s been cheating on Harry with the detective the whole time. (Unfortunately, this was pretty obvious when the episode kept lampshading his phone calls to an unknown woman.)

The strength of an episode of like “The Who of You” resides in its performances, and I think, for the most part, the various character actors were pretty solid (I was most impressed by the kid, because child actors don’t usually have that kind of control). Billy Porter was a bit of stunt casting that doesn’t distract from the story, because they had him play essentially himself but as a fake psychic. Embry steals the show, however, as he portrays not just Harry but every person he “inhabits,” and there are subtle differences in each character that make his performance very effective. All in all, a good entry in this season’s list, and a nice throwback to past episodes in the classic run.

Episode 2.04 – “Ovation”

The Premise: Jasmine struggles to get her music career off the ground, until she’s given a gift that brings her the adulation she’s dreamed of. Soon, the dream becomes a nightmare.

The Pay-off: From the first scene, I basically had this episode pegged, but I still enjoyed the execution, for the most part. The “be careful what you wish for” story is staple in The Twilight Zone, so when the pop star asks Jasmine, “What do you want?”, the audience knows what’s coming. What made this one work was how much the episode leans into the weirdness of the “cursed” coin. It’s not just that Jasmine suddenly has a meteoric rise to stardom; it’s that the rise was immediate and uncanny. Even though she starts buying into her own fame and begins alienating her sister, she quickly realizes that there’s something off about how popular she’s becoming. Suddenly, people seemed to be enchanted by her every move and sound, to the point where her nervous fumbling in the talent show finals receives thunderous applause. Even the heart-surgery patient on the operating table suddenly starts applauding despite being under anesthesia! (I kept thinking of the scene from the Josie and the Pussycats movie, after a montage showing the band’s rise to fame, when Tara Reid’s character says, “Does anyone else think it’s weird that all that happened in a day?”) In the first half of the episode, as the public’s growing obsession with Jasmine becomes more frantic and frightening, the viewer is pretty familiar with how the beats are playing out.

(One brief side-note: I loved the cornyness of the “Ovation” talent show. While such televised talent shows are commonplace, the whole vibe was straight out of the 1950’s, all the way down to the physical “applause board.” What a wild choice. I love it, because it fits with the whole bizarre tone of the episode.)

Then the episode throws us a narrative curveball: Jasmine throws the coin away, escapes to her family’s cabin, and waits out the publicity “storm.” During this sequence, as she stops taking care of her self and just coasts, subsisting on ramen, she learns that another pop idol has supplanted her. Suddenly, her relief at returning to normal life evaporates, and she becomes obsessed with this new unknown star called Mynx (we conveniently never see more of her face than a glimpse of her made-up eyes in an advertisement). She finally goes to confront the celebrity at an in-person appearance before an adoring crowd, pulling a knife as she walks up and stabs her, only to realize that Mynx (DUM DUM DUMMMM!) is actually her sister, who retrieved the enchanted coin from the lake and became a pop star herself. (As soon as they refused to show Mynx’s face, this seemed like the obvious twist ending.)

The very best part of this episode, honestly, was the final shot. As Mynx is bleeding out on the ground, the sound of the tumultuous crowd around her, her hand opens and the coin rolls out. Two shoes come into frame, as we see Jordan Peele bend down, pick up the coin, stick it in his interior breast pocket with a wry look to the camera, and walk out of frame. No ending monologue, just that little visual button–because what else is needed with this story? We all know the lesson.

The weakness of this episode was that the second half felt too rushed, so the ending didn’t feel earned. Jasmine’s “descent into madness” was portrayed more through edits than acting, and it felt very clipped and quick. If the idea was to portray an addict going through withdrawals, that needed to be a bit drawn out. And then there’s the idea of her sister, a successful surgeon, who decides to fish the coin out of the lake so she can become a pop-star…why? The motivation for that seems completely absent because there’s nothing up to that point that would lead you to believe the character would do that. She had been set up as almost dismissive of show business, choosing instead her “real” (and important) job. So this “twist” was both predictable and a bit hollow.

On the whole, decent but predictable, with a few nice moments but a rushed ending.

Episode 2.05 – “Among the Untrodden”

The Premise: A new student at a girls’ boarding school enlists the help of the queen-bee of a mean-girls clique in studying the existence of psychic abilities. What they learn is that the the darkest influences come from the most common of places.

The Pay-off: Of the first 5 episodes of this season, I think “Among the Untrodden” surprised me the most, and I really didn’t expect it to. Once the set-up of the episode was laid out–outsider-Irene helps Mean-Girl-Madison learn to develop her powers–I saw this going one of two ways: either Irene was going to be the villain, manipulating Madison (or perhaps having more terrifying powers of her own) toward some terrible, “be-careful-what-you-wish-for” end; or Madison, having developed these psychic powers, is either driven crazy by knowing too much about other people (echoes of “A Penny for Your Thoughts” from the classic series?) or abuses the powers and makes the people around her suffer (“It’s A Good Life”). What we got instead was something a bit more thoughtful, if a bit muddled: an exploration of the loneliness of popularity (interesting that this episode comes right after “Ovation”).

Rather than leading us to sympathize with Irene as the outsider, the episode leads us to start seeing Madison in a new light; instead of being a cliche, she becomes a more fully-formed character (her posse does not). Madison’s position in the clique is tenuous at best, and as she reaches out for a more authentic friendship with Irene (and begins to be protective of her, sensing the other girls’ motives), she begins to lose her position within the group. Once the science-fair set-up is revealed (buckets of pig’s blood replaced with a monitor bank of embarrassing video playback), Madison’s suspicions are confirmed and the villains are punished, swiftly and horrifically. No need for gore here; the dead-eyed stare of each girl as they are trolleyed into the back of the ambulance was chilling. The final scene between Irene and Madison really worked me over, as I started guessing and then second-guessing what was really going on. Even when the truth was revealed, I was still confused–it took Peele’s closing narration for the last piece to click into place for me.

And that was one of my two issues with the episode: while the story was both familiar and unpredictable, and the way it played out effectively undercut my expectations and kept me guessing, the script and direction could have been a bit tighter, clarifying thematic elements like Madison’s subconscious loneliness. For example, the shot of the pencil disintegrating at the very beginning was visually effective but a bit unclear in retrospect, given what is revealed in the narrative (did she manifest the pencil because she wanted exactly that object to throw at the new girl?). It felt like one more editing pass could have refined the storytelling even more.

The other problem I had with this episode, perhaps unsurprisingly, was the coarseness of the dialogue. I haven’t talked a lot about the “mature content” in this series, because it’s an adult-rated show that clearly indicates in its advertisements and parental warnings that you’ll get strong, profane language and “adult” dialogue in certain episodes. (As with anything I review or discuss in this blog, I ask and expect you to use your judgment when choosing what media to consume.) With this episode, the dialogue felt especially coarse and crude, as these (ostensibly) teenaged girls were discussing sexuality wtih a frankness that I didn’t think was necessary. Others may argue this is “realistic” for teenaged girls (Lord help us), but it still felt gross to listen in on that kind of conversation, especially coming out of underaged girls.

All of that said, this was definitely one of the best episodes from the first half of Season 2, even despite the writing/direction issues.

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Half-way through Season 2! So what are my thoughts thusfar?

I’m reminded of the Season 1 finale, in which the main character argues that The Twilight Zone should be about the message and not the scares, and she then learns from the Blurryman that the scares are important, too–as in-universe Jordan Peele says, there’s no reason it can’t be both.

Even though Win Rosenfeld, one of the series’ producers, said in an interview with Tom Elliott right before Season 2 aired that he definitely wanted it to be a message show, it honestly feels like these first five episodes of Season 2 have played it relatively safe–almost too safe. And I realize that I could be accused of wanting to have it both ways, because I critiqued the first season’s preachiness, but in my defense, I said how much I enjoyed the well-done “message” episodes. I’m not against social issues in art–just the ham-fisted presentation of them.

This season, the writing is more focused on the narrative hook, which is a nice change of pace. While some of the twists seem to be telegraphed (e.g. the ending of “Meet in the Middle” or the identity of Mynx in “Ovation”), it’s still been enjoyable to watch these twists play out. I’m hoping that the second half of the season has even greater surprises. The showrunners still have to be willing to take some chances, even if they don’t all land. So far, they’ve done solid work, and are set-up to finish the season strong.

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I’ll be back with the back-half of Season 2 in a few weeks. Until then, I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments below!

(S)Monday Sermon: “God’s Provision in a Time of Pandemic” (Psalm 91)

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[The following sermon was preached in August 2020 at Central Baptist Church in Livingston, TX. You can find the video of this sermon here. There are some variations between the two, as happens when you preach, but this is more or less my transcript. Thanks for reading!]

When I first began thinking through which passage I wanted to preach on this morning, I heard about a sister in Christ who had drawn comfort from this passage in particular recently, and I decided to look it over. To be honest, it’s a psalm I’ve read more times than I can even remember, and I felt that I was fairly familiar with it. Well, as you may know, the Bible has a way of catching us off-guard, and some passages seem to be cast in a new light, depending on the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The subject matter of this psalm in particular sounds a lot different to my ear in 2020 than it did in 2019! As I began to dig in and study, I came to realize that many pastors and commentators over the centuries have been drawn to Psalm 91 in particular during seasons of plague and pestilence. One German doctor wrote in the 1800’s that this psalm was the best preservative during a time of cholera. So it is my sincere hope that it will be an encouragement to us as well, in this particular season of pandemic.

Now, I recognize that some of you may have seen the title of the sermon in your order of worship and thought, “Oh boy, here we go.” If your church family is anything like mine, there are folks who are particularly concerned about the coronavirus, and others who are particularly unconcerned. Some of you may be very adamant about wearing masks and social distancing, while others of you may hate every bit of it and avoid doing so whenever possible. I’m going to ask you all to do me a favor: take all of those feelings, all of those disagreements, and put them away for the next hour. I’m not going to bother with litigating those issues of the moment, because the word of God is inspired, inerrant, trustworthy, true, and timeless. What we will look at this morning will apply just as much in the year 2020 as it did in the year 1020 or as it will in the year 3020, if the Lord gives us that long. The truth of God stands the test of time, and as such is just as timely today as it has ever been.

Here’s the big idea for us to consider today: In the day of trouble, God always provides exactly what His people need.

Our outline for this passage is broken down into 4 sections: God gives us his PRESENCE (v. 1-2, His PEACE (v. 3-8), His PROTECTION (v.9-13), and His PROMISES (v. 14-16). To be honest, these are somewhat blurry lines, because the whole psalm is a meditation on these repeated themes. I’ve just broken it down this way for the sake of those who like outlines.

Psalm 91 has no specified author—the previous psalm (Psalm 90) is attributed to Moses. Some past theologians suggest that Psalm 91 was penned by Moses also, citing both this immediate context as well as the similarities this psalm have with Moses’ language in Deuteronomy. Others argue that we should assume this unattributed psalm was written by David, inspired by the sad outcome of the census he made late in his reign. I think the context clues point more strongly to Moses, but it doesn’t affect our reading of this chapter either way. There is no doubt, however, that this psalm seems to allude to the events of the Exodus and journey to the Promised Land, as we will see shortly.

Let’s look at the first provision of God in this psalm: His Presence.

1 – God’s Presence (v. 1-2)

1 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
    will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
2 I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress,
    my God, in whom I trust.”

  • What should stand out right away in Verses 1-2 is a sense of intimacy—God is not a far-off deity like Zeus on Mount Olympus, nor is He the Cosmic Watchmaker of the Deists who stands back and refuses to interfere. No, here we see right away the active involvement of God in the lives of His children. The psalmist says those who dwell in God’s shelter will rest in His shadow –you can’t be in someone’s shadow if you’re not close to him, especially in the heat of the day when the sun is at its highest. The shelter of the Most High God is a place of direct divine protection.
  • The “shadow” is a place of protection, proximity, and care. Psalm 121:5 calls the Lord “the shade on your right hand.” Isaiah 25:4 calls God our “shelter from the storm and shade from the heat.”
  • Matthew Henry writes that “a sincere believer takes comfort in closeness with God and can rest easy in that closeness. It is a sign of true religion and growing faith when we desire to spend time in God’s presence.”
  • Charles Spurgeon wrote that the promises of this psalm are particularly held by those who are walking in close communion with the Lord. While all of God’s children draw near from time to time, Spurgeon suggests that those who dwell close to the Lord experience His daily grace and comfort in a richer, more particular way.
  • In Verse 2, the Psalmist makes this promise personal: “I will say…” “my…” These statements are not abstract or academic observations; they are the confession of personal experience!
  • Notice, the Psalmist uses God’s covenant name here—YHWH – the name God revealed to Moses and the people of Israel, the name associated with His faithfulness and deliverance. It is He alone who is the Psalmist’s hope. We dare not turn to another god for protection or provision!
  • Again, from Spurgeon: “Some men love to broadcast their doubts and suspicions… hence, it becomes the duty of all true believers to speak out and testify with calm courage to their own well-grounded reliance upon their God.” I love that phrase, “testify with calm courage.” I grew up in the church and can remember the rise of the “Emerging/Emergent” church movement about 25 or so years ago, a movement influenced heavily by post-modernism that seemed at times to revel in its doubts. This reflected the growth of post-modern thought in our culture as a whole, in which certainty and conviction are seen as arrogant or presumptuous. Yet what do we see in the Bible? We see this calm courage in the mouths and hearts of God’s people, as we say together that we know whom we have believed.
  • In these first 2 verses, we see God as a rest and residence for His people, and it is a privilege to be able to draw near to Him. As believers in Jesus Christ, we now have the assurance that we can draw near boldly, approaching the throne of grace by the blood of Jesus! (Heb. 4:16)

In a season of pandemic and civil strife in our nation, it is good for us to remember that God has provided us with His very presence—a closeness that we as Christians can partake of through our union with Christ Jesus and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Paul writes in Col. 3:3 that we have died, and our lives are hidden with Christ in God. Jesus said that no one can snatch His sheep out of His hand. There is no greater security for the Christian than the fact that we are held by Christ, united with Him, eternally secure, with the presence of the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of our future inheritance and hope!

See next that God not only gives us His presence, but He also gives us His peace.

2 – God’s Peace (v. 3-8)

3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
    and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his pinions,
    and under his wings you will find refuge;
    his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
    nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
    nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.

A thousand may fall at your side,
    ten thousand at your right hand,
    but it will not come near you.
You will only look with your eyes
    and see the recompense of the wicked.

In Verses 3-8, the Psalmist lists a series of threats and dangers that God’s people face. I would encourage you to notice in this section not only God’s continued presence with His people, but also how He delivers us from fear as well as from danger.

Isaiah 26:3-4 – “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD GOD is an everlasting rock.”

Let’s consider the many dangers, toils, and snares that God’s people face in this passage:

The Snare of the Fowler (v.3): This points to the traps and deceitful schemes intended to catch the righteous. In Psalm 124, David writes that it is only because the Lord was on their side that they “escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers.” In Psalm 140 and 141, snares are the traps that the wicked and arrogant set to capture the righteous and pious, to destroy them.

The Deadly Pestilence (v.3): In the Old Testament, pestilence is often used by God as a judgment against His enemies and a tool of discipline and chastening His rebellious and idolatrous people. Here, God encourages His faithful ones by saying He will deliver them from this deadly threat. Spurgeon writes that “Faith, by cheering the heart, keeps it free from the fear which, in times of pestilence, kills more than the plague itself.”

Look now to verse 4: “He will cover you with His pinions, and under His wings you will find refuge.” Like a hen covering her chicks, providing protection and warmth by her closeness, the Lord Himself covers His people with his feathers. Notice the contrast here—God delivers His little chicks from the fowler’s snare by covering them with His mighty wing!

The metaphor of God as a protective parent bird is used throughout Scripture. In Deuteronomy 32, Moses likens YHWH to an eagle, not only protecting Israel but catching her and bearing her up with his wings. In Ruth 2, Boaz describes Ruth as taking shelter under the wings of the God of Israel. In Psalm 17, David asks the Lord to “hide me in the shadow of your wings from the wicked men who do me violence.” In Psalm 57, David asks to take refuge in the shadow of His wings till the storms of destruction pass by. Jesus Himself laments over wayward Jerusalem in Matthew 23, because they refused to come to Him when he sought to gather them under His wings.

Verse 4 continues by describing God’s protection over His people, not just as a tender parent but also as a fierce man of war. The faithfulness of God is called a shield and a buckler—armor that a warrior uses when he engages in hand-to-hand combat. God’s covenant faithfulness is a shield to His people against the attacks of the enemy, and He stands ready in their defense.

Verses 5-6 list 4 fearsome threats common to man: the terror of night, the arrow in daylight, the pestilence in darkness, and the destruction that wastes at noonday.

Sometimes we face the terror of night—the unknown fears that stalk in darkness as we try to sleep. Spurgeon writes, “Our fears turn the sweet season of repose into one of dread… Blessed is that communion with God which renders us impervious to midnight frights and horrors born of darkness.” Matthew Henry writes that even in our homes on our beds, we can be plagued by the fear of unknown or unseen threats. I’ll confess that I tend toward an anxious heart, and have spent too many nighttime hours fretting over imagined noises and invisible attackers. In the last week or two, I’ve prayed through portions of this very psalm to help calm my jangled nerves.

There are also threats that may surprise us in the noonday sun; this is described as the arrow in daylight: Perhaps, like me, you are burdened when you hear stories of brazen, daylight violence. Even in broad daylight, we are not able to fully secure ourselves. The arrow in daylight describes the indiscriminate and unpredictable violence of men. In the day of danger, however, God can certainly deliver us from fear. Matthew Henry: “Wisdom shall keep you from being causelessly afraid, and faith shall keep you from being inordinately afraid. You shall not be afraid of the arrow, knowing that though it may hit you, it cannot hurt you. If it take away the natural life, yet it shall be so far away from doing any prejudice to the spiritual life that it shall [instead] be its perfection… It is also under divine direction, and will hit where God appoints and not otherwise. Every bullet has its commission. Whatever is done, our Heavenly Father’s will is done; and we have no reason to be afraid of that.”

To be clear, thinking about God’s sovereignty should in no way create in us a numb sort of fatalism. That’s not what Matthew Henry is describing here. But we can only be helped when we meditate on the fact that the God who determines the end from the beginning has numbered our days in his book, as it says in Psalm 139. There is nothing in all of creation that can thwart the plans of God for his people, so we can live prudently but confidently in that reality.

The pestilence in darkness and the destruction that wastes at noonday together describe the full spectrum of diseases and plagues known in the ancient world—those that lurk in both cold and heat. It’s amazing how simple and yet profound these descriptions are: we still face diseases that seem to survive better in either cold and damp climates or hot and humid ones. God’s people have always lived in a world stricken by disease, from leprosy to the Black Plague to cholera and typhoid and influenza. There have been countless illnesses in the world before COVID-19 ever showed up, and if the Lord tarries, there will be countless more after it. Spurgeon writes that “those choice souls who dwell in God shall live above fear in the most plague-stricken places—they shall not be afraid of the plagues which in the darkness walk.”

This doesn’t mean that we as God’s people should be careless or flippant about real threats of illness. The Westminster Assembly of the mid-17th century noted that we must not assume or presume the righteous are always exempted from times of plague or pestilence—that would be a “rash judgment” in the context of this passage. Martin Luther, when asked by a friend to provide recommendations regarding how to conduct oneself during a time of plague, basically said to take appropriate precautions (wash your clothes, air out your house, minimize your interactions with others to that which is needful, and stay at home if you get sick) and then trust the Lord’s will without fear. The German theologian Andreas Muesel said that those who dismiss concerns about the threat of plague are neither kind nor pious, and that doing so dishonors the blessings of divine protection from illness.

Nor should we interpret this passage as implying that illness is no big deal, even if we are faced with it. It’s appropriate and natural to be saddened by a debilitating illness or a cancer diagnosis. Jesus Himself was moved with compassion for the suffering of others. The key here is to see all of these things in light of God’s sovereign will for our lives as His children. I don’t say that flippantly, but hopefully. In the midst of our tears, we can have that “calm courage” that all things do actually work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose.

It would be tempting to take some of these verses out of context and claim them as a promise of divine immunity against all disease, and there are those in the world who might seek to deceive people with that kind of promise. We should be careful not to follow the footsteps of Job’s foolish advisors who argued that nothing bad should ever befall the righteous!

Instead, I think there are two keys to help us understand this section rightly: the first key is the first phrase of verse 5: “You will not fear.” This is the deliverance that the people of God are promised in this passage: not just from evil, but from the fear of evil. Paul Carter writes that verses 3-6 don’t say we won’t have to face trouble—Jesus Himself tells us otherwise in John 16—but rather we don’t have to fear trouble, because the faithfulness of God means we won’t be abandoned to trouble.

I think the second key to understanding this passage is found in the next 2 verses, verses 7-8. Even if there is destruction all around us, it will not come near us. Joseph Caryl writes that “the power of God can bring us near to danger yet keep us from harm.” Matthew Henry writes that “if people around us die in a plague, we can prepare ourselves for death but the fear of it need not come over us.”

In Hebrews 2:15, the author of Hebrews says that Jesus came to “destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” In times of unrest, in times of plague, in times of war, the greatest fear of natural man is the fear of death. You can see it all over our culture today.

Perhaps you’re here this morning or watching online and you’re not a follower of Jesus–you’ve never turned from your sin and trusted in Him for salvation. If that’s you, I’ve very glad you’re listening, because I need you to understand something really, really important: the greatest threat to you is not the threat of disease or violence. It’s not even physical death. The greatest threat you face is what comes after death. The Bible says that it’s appointed for man once to die and then to face judgment. On that day of judgment, you will have to stand before God the Righteous Judge and account for your sin against His holy Law. Standing on your own meager merits, you will fall shamefully short of His righteous standard, and you will have to face the just and holy wrath of God. BUT there is hope for you. Jesus, the Son of God, stepped out of eternity and humbled Himself to be born as a man, lived a perfect life of complete obedience to God’s Law, and then died as a sacrifice to pay the penalty for sin—taking our guilt and punishment upon Himself and satisfying the debt we owe for our sin. Then on the third day, Jesus was raised from the dead, demonstrating that His sacrifice was sufficient to rescue us from God’s wrath. Now, for all who turn from their sin and in faith put their full trust on the work of Jesus to rescue them, His perfect standing before God is credited to our bankrupt account. We no longer have to fear the condemnation of God for our sin, for there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, for the law of the Spirit of Life has set us free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.

So now we can look to verse 8 and see that the judgment of the wicked does not touch those who have been redeemed by God. David writes in Psalm 37: “Wait for the LORD and keep his way, and He will exalt you to inherit the land; you will look on when the wicked are cut off.” Each one of us deserves that judgment, and outside of the grace of God in Christ Jesus, that would be our fate. But, for those of use who have been rescued by Him, we will only look on at a destruction that can never touch us. When we read in this section about snares and terrors, arrows and plagues, we will not be afraid, because our greatest enemies have already been defeated, and all that happens in our life now flows through the hand of our Father in Heaven.

Let’s look now at the protection that God provides His people in verses 9-13.

3 – God’s Protection (v. 9-13)

Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place—
    the Most High, who is my refuge—
10 no evil shall be allowed to befall you,
    no plague come near your tent.

11 For he will command his angels concerning you
    to guard you in all your ways.
12 On their hands they will bear you up,
    lest you strike your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the adder;
    the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.

See the assurance that the believer has in verses 9-10: Those who make their home and refuge in God are protected from evil befalling them, from the plague coming near their tent.

  • All this discussion of plagues and judgment recalls to mind the plagues God visited upon Egypt in the book of Exodus—and no verse seems to indicate this more clearly than verse 10. Just as the people of God in the land of Goshen in Egypt were spared the affects of the judgment upon the Egyptians, including the final plague of the Death Angel killing the firstborn of Egypt, so here the psalmist says that those who call the Most High God their refuge will be protected from the destroyer. Christian, no matter what happens in your life, no evil will befall you.
  • The Puritan writer Thomas Watson clarified, “God does not say no afflictions shall befall us, but no evil.”
  • The early church father John Chrysostom: “Faith is endangered by security, but secure in the midst of danger.”
  • Matthew Henry: “Trouble and affliction may come as part of God’s will for us, and they are not ‘evil’ to us; though in the moment, it may be grievous, in the end it will bear fruit.”
  • Spurgeon puts it beautifully: “It is impossible that any ill should happen to the man who is beloved of the Lord; the most crushing calamities can only shorten his journey and hasten him to his reward. Ill to him is no ill, but only good in mysterious form. Losses enrich him, sickness is his medicine, reproach is his honor, death is his gain. No evil—in the strictest sense of the word—can happen to him, for everything is overruled for good. Happy is he who is in such a case. He is secure where others are in peril; he lives where others die.”
  • It’s in this context that we can know that even the “calamities” of this life are blessings. As the hymn writer William Cowper wrote, “Behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face.”

Verses 11-13 may be particularly familiar to us, as they are partially quoted by Satan during his temptation of Jesus in the desert in Matthew 4 and Luke 4. Let’s look at them in detail here and then consider how they are used in the New Testament.

  • First, we see here plainly that God commands his angels to watch over His people. We’re not told in Scripture that we are each assigned one particular angel to watch out for us. This isn’t the charming and childlike Clarence of “It’s A Wonderful Life” or the cherry-cheeked cherubs depicted in popular culture. These spiritual guardians are His warriors, His servants, and like all faithful servants they desire to shift the focus back to their master’s work. They are emissaries of God’s presence, ministering spirits who protect and watch over His children in His name.
  • In writing about the ministry of angels, William Bridge says God’s angels never fail to obey their master. They do not consider our care to be “beneath” them, and they likely protect us from more threats than we even realize.
  • Verse 11 says they are tasked with guarding us “in all [our] ways.” The implication here is that we are walking in the way of faithfulness, as has been described thusfar in the chapter. Again, William Bridge writes: “Your ways are to be God’s ways, the way commanded by God. If you be out of God’s ways, you are out of your own way; if you be in ‘your way,’ the angels shall keep you, even in time of plague, and bear you up in their hands that you dash not your foot against a stone. But if you be out of your way, I shall not insure your safety… You may expect the Lord’s protection and the angel’s attendance if you be in your way, but not else.”
  • Indeed, we hear echoes of these promises in Proverbs 3:19-26 – that the way of wisdom (which begins with the Fear of the Lord!) will give us boldness and sure footing.
  • Verse 12 says the angels will “bear us up” on their hands—the image here might be of a nursemaid or governess, guarding the wellbeing of the little ones entrusted to her. We see that angelic care is in all circumstances, even down to the smallest details—care that we may not stumble against a stone.
  • In a sermon on this section of Psalm 91, Spurgeon argued that “all our ways” does not include a path of presumption, sin, worldliness, pride, doctrinal error, or the like—that we may find ourselves stumbling along those wicked ways (and often that is a gracious thing, to call us back to obedience). Rather, we can walk in security when we have humble faith in Jesus, obedience to His commands, childlike trust in the Father, and a life devoted to holiness and watchfulness. All things are thus on our side because God has commanded our protection. We travel as with a royal guard, the servants of the Most High King surrounding us. As such, we should also gladly do the “angelic” work of watching over and caring for our fellow believers.
  • Verse 13 contains an unusual promise—that God’s people will tread upon the lion and the adder unharmed. This could be taken a few different ways. Some point to times of literal physical protection from these creatures (such as Daniel in the lion’s den, or Paul on the island of Malta). Others point to passages like Psalm 58, which describe the wicked as lions and serpents. Still others point to Luke 10:19, arguing that these creatures are actually symbolic of demonic spiritual forces. To be honest, I think all of these interpretations have merit. As John MacArthur notes, the lion and the adder are a metaphor for all sorts of deadly attacks from which the Lord can shield His people.

Now, I had mentioned this passage in relation to the Temptation of Jesus—let’s take a quick look over at that before moving on. Here’s what we see in Matthew 4:5-7:

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,’

and

“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
    lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

I want you to notice 3 things here:

  • First, notice that Satan leaves out a key phrase: “in all your ways.” As we’ve noted previously, there is a clear implication that the promise of angelic overwatch is given to those who are walking in the way of the Lord—it’s not a blanket “Get-Out-of-Gravity-Free” card for anyone who wants to claim it. To treat it as such is to misapply the verse and pull it out of context.
  • Second, notice that Satan stops at verse 12. Why? Because verse 13 may also contain within it a promise of his eventual downfall. Satan is described in the New Testament both as a lion and as a serpent—and the promise of God from way back in Genesis 3 is that the seed of the woman (the promised Messiah, whom we know now is Jesus) would crush the head of the serpent! Not only that, but because we as Christians are in Christ, we share in His inheritance (Romans 8:17), including His victory over the enemy! In Romans 16:20, Paul writes that “the God of Peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.”
  • Third, notice how Jesus responds to Satan’s temptation—not by correcting his mangling of the Scriptural text but by recognizing the real root of that temptation: putting God to the test. This is instructive to us as we read and apply Psalm 91. These comforting promises of God are not given so that we can abuse them as His people, making foolish decisions and living reckless lives. Rather, they are given as an encouragement to us so that, as we seek to live in the world “not as unwise, but as wise,” we can rest in the assurance that the Lord’s care for His people extends to the ministry of His holy angels.

Finally, we see in Psalm 91 that God not only provides His presence, His peace, and His protection, but also His promises for our future.

4 – God’s Promises (v.14-16)

14 “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
    I will protect him, because he knows my name.
15 When he calls to me, I will answer him;
    I will be with him in trouble;
    I will rescue him and honor him.
16 With long life I will satisfy him
    and show him my salvation.”

The psalm closes with a series of promises God makes to His faithful people. If nothing else so far has been an encouragement to you, this surely will be.

God pronounces blessing upon those who know His name, set their love upon Him (or cling to Him), and call upon Him. But even here, we see the matchless grace of God: we don’t do those things on our own. In Deuteronomy 7, God describes how He chose Israel, and then in chapter 10, He says that He set His heart on Israel to be His covenant people. In the New Testament, in John 15, Jesus tells His disciples that they didn’t choose Him, but He chose them and appointed them to bear much fruit. In I John 4:19, John writes we love God because He first loved us! So when we see these precious promises of God, given to those who know and love Him, we can rest assured that the only reason we know God’s name and call upon Him in faith is because He Himself is drawing us, redeeming us, keeping us.

So what does He promise His children in these last 3 verses? Six things:

  • He will deliver us and protect us: As we’ve already noted, that doesn’t mean a trouble-free life—in His providence, God may carry us through some challenging and even devastating experiences. But He promises that He will rescue us, and that He will preserve us.
  • He will answer us: Spurgeon reminds us that we should marvel at the fact that the very God of the universe not only listens to us, but responds at all! As Matthew Henry notes, God responds to our prayers and requests with promises to hold onto, providences to meet our needs, and graces to help us endure.
  • He will be with us in trouble: Pointing back to the first section, we are reminded that God gives us His own dear presence “to shield and to guide.”
  • He will rescue and honor us: He not only delivers us from danger, but will honor us. The way of this world is to chase after your own honor, to elevate your own name. Jesus said in John 12:26 that those who serve Him will be honored by the Father.
  • He will satisfy us with long life: Long life was a specific promise to OT saints for obedience to the Law, and the prophets describe it as a blessing of the Future Millenial or Messianic Kingdom (Isaiah 65:20). This phrase may also be translated “fullness of life” or “fullness of days.” This speaks to a satisfaction at the end of one’s life. One more Spurgeon quote: “The man described in this psalm fills out the measure of his days, and whether he dies young or old, he is quite satisfied with life and is content to leave it. He shall rise from life’s banquet as a man who has had enough and is content.” Or, as Paul put it, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
  • Finally, he will show us His salvation: To see God’s salvation in the Old Testament was to look toward the resolution of all things, when God finally and fully delivers His people from all their enemies. That deliverance would come in the person of the promised Messiah. Remember Simeon in Luke 2, who took up the baby Jesus in his arms and praised God for letting him live long enough to see “His salvation.” Now, we who live under the New Covenant and have placed our hope in the death and resurrection of Jesus also look forward to His Second Coming, the restoration of all things, and our final home in that new city, the one not made with human hands, where God will dwell among His people.

All of these other promises point us to that final, beautiful day, because all of these promises flow through and are ministered by Jesus our savior.

These now are the great and glorious provisions that our God has made for us in this time of pandemic. He has provided us with His presence, His peace, His protection, and His promises.

And my prayer for us as we face whatever comes next in this crazy year is that we will rest on the sure and settled declaration of our God that He will show us His salvation. Until that day, let us walk in faith, hope, and love as we anticipate His coming.

Amen! Come Lord Jesus. Let’s pray.

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Thanks for reading. I hope this sermon encourages you and challenges you. If you have questions about anything you’ve read here, please feel free to comment below!

Personal Updates, Coming Attractions, and Remembrance (9/11/2020)

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Good morning, friends and readers! It’s been a month since I’ve posted last, but rest assured that, as the song says, you were always on my mind. I wanted to jump in here to give you some updates on what’s going on with me, drop a few recommended links for your weekend, and tell you a little bit about what I’m working on.

Personal Updates!

Things have been busy here at Chez 4thDave. Working from home is still a joy in a lot of ways, but lately it’s been a little more challenging with a very mischevious toddler and a baby who’s now able to crawl with sneaky quickness. As such, the interruption frequency has been pretty high, making workdays more frustrating.

I also have been given more opportunities to serve in my church and to serve other churches in the area. I’ve had 2 opportunities so far to preach at another church as part of a team providing “pulpit supply” until they can find a new lead pastor, so that has meant more time in study and sermon prep. This looks like it will continue through the fall, so I’m looking forward to getting more opportunities to preach the Gospel, something I really love doing!

My Monk Manual reviews continue to be my highest-traffic posts ever. It’s cool that a blog post just talking about something I really like and use personally is connecting with so many readers. And thanks to an affiliate-link agreement with the company, I’ve been able to make some unexpected but much-appreciated extra income that is helping my family out as we pay off debt and look to the future! What a blessing that is. (By the way, if you are in the market for a new journal/planner, check out those links–my code gets you 10% off your purchase! …Okay, shameless plug over.)

There are a few other big things on the horizon for my family, but I’ll save that discussion for later. All that to say, lots of important things happening to me personally, so the “fun” things (like blogging) have slid to the back burner for a bit.

Blog Updates!

I have a few posts I need to polish up and publish, including some sermon-text / Bible-study posts, some #FridayFeed content, and maybe a few other opinion pieces, depending on how salty I feel like getting. (Considering how tired I am all the time, you can probably count on my blogging for the next few weeks to be pretty low-sodium.)

Something else I’m thinking about doing is trying to post daily micro-blogs in October, featuring 31 books that I enjoy or that have made an impact on my life. And of course, there will be a corny hashtag: #Booktober. What do you think: should I go for it? Let me know in the comments.

I’m also planning on continuing my Twilight Zone (2019) commentary (I’m a few episodes into Season 2 so far!), so you should see a couple posts on that in the next few weeks.

Finally, I’ve been thinking about going back and finishing my #52Stories project from 2019, so I can close the loop on that challenge. Better late than never, right? Let me know in the comments if you think that would be worth doing. If so, maybe I can round out November with some of those posts.

That should set me up for the next 2 months of blogging. My problem is always making big plans and then not following through. But you know what? If y’all are willing to come along for the ride, I’ll figure out a way to make it work. In the words of DJ Khaled:

Friday Links

Finally, we should acknowledge the somber remembrance of the day.

  • Right now as I’m getting ready to post this, the reading of the names of the 9/11 has been going on for over an hour. I would encourage you to watch at least some of the video of this year’s remembrance and take some time to think about and pray for the victim’s families.
  • If you haven’t read it yet, my “where were you when” story is posted here.
  • If you’ve never read through Ari Fleischer’s Twitter recap, every year he provides a minute-by-minute account of the events of that day from his perspective inside the inner circle of the White House. A fascinating insider look at how the United States responded to that terrible attack.
  • The ESPN 30 for 30 film “First Pitch” is an outstanding look at the place of sports in the aftermath of 9/11. I don’t know where you can find the whole thing online for free (legally anyway), but here’s a great clip that sums it up.

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That’s all I have for today. Go hug your kids, tell your parents you appreciate them, call your grandma (because it’s been too long!), and do the kind of things that you’ll look back on and wish you had “gotten around to” more often.

Have a good weekend, friends.

Through Another Dimension: Considering “Twilight Zone 2019” (Part 3) – Season 1, Episodes 6-10

silhouette person s hand
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Welcome back, friends!

Assume the same caveats from my last post, and let’s get into it, shall we?

Episode 1.06 – “Six Degrees of Freedom”

The Premise: During the final countdown before a manned mission to Mars, the 6-member crew of the Bradbury learns that nuclear war has begun. Facing certain death if they abort the launch, they decide to complete the mission without hope of support–only to begin questioning later what really happened. 

The Payoff: Finally, a space travel episode! Not to say that The Twilight Zone is limited to science fiction, but it’s nice for them finally to touch base with the genre that was so associated with the original series. The opening of this episode was killer—the playful elation of the crew as they finish up pre-launch checks, abruptly undercut by the dread and horror of the announced missile strike and the awful implications of their next vital decision: complete the mission, knowing they likely won’t have any support from home, or accept their fate and perish with the rest of the city?

The episode unfolds as a series of snapshots or vignettes, each tagged with the number of days left until the team expects to arrive on Mars. You get to see little pieces of most of the crew’s backstory, though the focus is mainly on the captain. The crew tries their best to keep things going as they should, even under these circumstances. One of the concepts bandied about during these sequences is the idea of a “great filter”–that a species’ level of advancement depends on whether or not they develop the technology (and wherewithal) to explore other worlds, before they destroy themselves.

During these sequences, it’s clear that something’s just a bit off with Jerry, one of the crew members. He finally snaps during a potentially life-threatening solar flare, and tells his panicked crewmates that they have nothing to worry about–he’s convinced this is all a simulation. When he goes out into the unshielded air lock to prove it, he disappears, apparently consumed by the heat, and the rest of the team resigns itself to completing the mission–but always with a question in the back of their minds: “What if Jerry was right?”

Well, here’s the spoiler: he was…and he wasn’t. The crew makes it to Mars (presumably) but the final scene reveals that some unseen higher beings have been observing their efforts. The “great filter” idea pays off here, as the aliens comment on the perseverance of the humans, as well as the actions of the one who figured out they were watching (whom they saved from the solar flare). This opens up the idea of aliens within this TZ2019 universe (and it is a shared universe, as there are references to this space mission back in “Nightmare”), but it seems that this thread will not be picked up again, at least in Season 1.

This episode was strange but fun, and I probably could use another viewing to really “get” it. In some ways, this felt like a set-up episode for a future storyline (which is weird, since this is an anthology show–right? Maybe, maybe not…)

Also, I had no idea what the title refers to, so I looked it up. Per IMDB, this refers to directional movement within a simulation: up/down, left/right, forward/backward, pitch, roll, and yaw. So that’s fun; thanks, IMDB!

Episode 1.07 – “Not All Men”

The Premise: A meteor storm in a small town affects the behavior of about half of the residents, in increasingly terrifying ways.

The Pay-off: This episode…oof. The thing is, I suspect any negative comments I have about this episode might be written off as “male fragility” or “mansplaining” or somesuch, so it makes me slightly hesitant to bother laying out the problems I had with it. Truth be told, there were a lot of things I thought this episode did rather well. The way the main character Annie was depicted enduring instances of everyday sexism was a thought-provoking way to address the real misogyny that exists in our society. The quiet admission of her sister Martha that she had been (presumably) assaulted during her dating years was heart-breaking. The cinematography of the birthday cake scene was terrifying and effective. The acting was pretty solid across the board. And though I sometimes struggle with the phrase “toxic masculinity” (especially since it is often attached to any traditionally masculine ideals/tropes, rather than just negative ones), there are legitimate conversations to be had about the way some men treat women in our culture, and art is often a great way to instigate those conversations.

That said, the big problem with this episode, as with “The Wunderkind,” is that the writer/director took the central conceit of a meteor rock bringing out the worst traits of the men in the town, and used it like a sledgehammer. Once the chaos ramped up and the episode shifted to almost a zombie-horror tale (which, again, I thought was a cool choice, honestly), all subtlety from the first part of the episode was destroyed, to the point that the end narration of the episode basically argues, “yes, basically all men.” (Get it? The episode title was ironic.)

This is an episode I wish I could hash out in friendly coversation, because it’s worth discussing and my feelings on it are truly mixed. The two biggest issues I have with the writing of this episode are 1) the story’s thematic inconsistency, and 2) the inadequate worldview expressed. In brief:

1) Annie and her sister Martha seek to escape the deranged men of the town, and they hope that police or military responders will help to defend/rescue them from the threat–even though these organizations also employ *gasp!* men. So, is it that all men are capable of these evils, except for those in uniform? (We know the answer to that.) Despite the best efforts of the progressive writing, this common theme still peeks through: Annie and Martha are hoping for a defender who will protect them by displaying courage and sacrifice (two traits classically associated with noble or honorable men [though not exclusively men]). What felt so broken about this plot was that there were no noble men. (Or at least, noble straight men, as the only example shown of a man resisting the meteor madness was a gay teenager. It almost seems as if acknowledging a need for noble heterosexual men would undercut the whole point of the episode. Maybe it would.)

And I want to be very clear: I’m not saying that these characteristics of nobility are exclusive to men–not at all. But the episode seems to imply that such men do not exist in the real world, that all men can be seen as potential threats, and that rings false, at least to me. But I’m not a woman, so perhaps the point is that this is true from a woman’s perspective (though that seems to categorize the female experience as monolithic).

2) The story seems to present toxic masculinity as a product of masculinity and not a product of sin. For this, I’d point to the gas station scene, in which Martha tries to gin up some reaction to the meteor rock but can’t do so because she doesn’t have the…testosterone, I guess? (Frankly, if they somehow linked the meteor rock to reactions with testosterone, that would have made more sense, but whatever.) The clear implication is that she isn’t reacting because she isn’t a man. As a Christian, I believe that instances of (actual) toxic masculinity are the product of a sinful nature–which is not limited to only one gender. The more interesting writing choice, I think, would have been for the meteor rock to affect both men AND women, if in different ways. This would have opened up an interesting exploration of the darkness of human nature as a whole, in a sci-fi/horror context, in which you could still address male sexual aggression and random acts of violence. But then again, that doesn’t seem to be the goal of the writers.

Like “The Wunderkind,” “Not All Men” was an episode I didn’t really enjoy–not because the subject matter bothered me, but because I thought the simplistic execution wasted the storytelling opportunity in order to score political/cultural points.

Episode 1.08 – “Point of Origin”

The Premise: Eve, an upper-class housewife in a picture-perfect suburb, suspects that something is not quite right with her idyllic life. After she is taken into custody by mysterious agents, this suspicion is proven correct as Eve’s entire reality is turned upside-down.

The Pay-off: This episode was another mixed-bag for me. The overarching theme of immigration is pretty on-the-nose, but I still liked several elements of this episode. Perhaps my issue is that I was hoping for a bit more to it. Granted, it’s an anthology show, so we can’t expect deep lore when there’s only a single episode to work with, but when you drop parallel-dimension travel on me, along with an agency that’s tasked with capturing the people who don’t belong in this world, I’m going to want to see how this progresses. Of course, these are all analogs for real-world groups and organizations, but this episode does just enough to make this scenario feel different and fresh. Ginnifer Goodwin gives a fantastic turn as Eve and drew my sympathy almost immediately. The actor playing her main nemesis brought the appropriate amount of cold, bureaucratic creepiness, and that beautiful machine they used with the “Eye of the Beholder” facemask was a glorious Easter egg.

The immigration commentary was laid on a little thick at parts (the “ladies who lunch” were basically all right-wing stereotypes in fancy outfits), and the part when Anna calls out Eve’s shallow interest in her life was a little heavy-handed but still worked for me. And then there was Jordan Peele’s tsk-tsking closing narration about how we’re “all immigrants.” Okay, y’all. We get it. Now let me get back to the science fiction, please.

I agree with Mark Ramsey’s comments on The Twilight Zone Podcast‘s discussion of this episode: part of the problem was that the people the showrunners wanted to zing with this social commentary probably won’t relate to the upper-crust, fancy-home-with-a-housekeeper type (though I would also suggest that those who fit the main character’s social set may also harbor such views, at least subconsciously, but would see themselves as champions of social causes).

I guess I don’t have much else to say about this one. As I said, it felt like an interesting teaser but left me wanting more.

Episode 1.09 – “The Blue Scorpion”

The Premise: An anthropology professor comes into possession of an allegedly cursed pistol when his father commits suicide with it. This strange and beautiful object begins to control the man’s life, with possibly deadly results.

The Pay-off: I loved this episode…right up until the closing narration.  Chris O’Dowd (of “IT Crowd” fame) plays the lead character’s descent into obsession in this episode as a slow boil, and it really makes for a captivating performance. The episode is beautifully shot, and the set decorations and props are top notch. The eponymous gun is a beautiful piece, and it makes sense that it is such a point of fascination for so many. I thought the “JEFF” bullet was a nice touch and added a sense of dread as more and more Jeff’s enter the story. While the episode didn’t resolve the way I expected and was a bit anti-climactic after the growing tension of the episode, it wasn’t bad. Just a little underwhelming.

But then you get the closing narration, in which Peele talks about how…we love guns more than people? I mean, I guess you can make that connection (see the statement, “I love him more than I ever loved you” throughout), but it reeeeeeally feels like a stretch. Aside from the shooting-range scene, this whole episode could have centered around another “cursed object” and it still might have worked with a few narrative tweaks. After enjoying the episode as a well-done “cursed object” story, Peele’s moralizing at the end confused me. I thought, “Wait a minute–was that really what this was all about?”

I don’t know, Mr. Peele. Sometimes a pistol is just a pistol.

Episode 1.10 – “Blurryman”

The Premise: Sophie, a writer for the 2019 reboot of The Twilight Zone (!!!), finds herself in a strange and terrifying situation, as the wall between reality and fiction dissolves and she is stalked by a mysterious, shadowy figure.

The Pay-off: In a season of up-and-down episodes, the first series ends with one of the very best outings, both in terms of writing and execution. I absolutely loved the meta-references, and the reveal of the “Blurryman” having been present in earlier episodes of the season blew me away.

There were so many things to applaud in this episode. The acting was on-point. Zazie Beetz killed it as the writer Sophie, Jordan Peele played a slightly more arch version of himself, and the cameos were all delightful. (Truth be told, I’d love to see an actual TZ episode with Seth Rogen playing a lead role, but I think that’s ruined now!) The set design and use of previous locations and props were delightful (for example, including the bar from “The Wunderkind” was a great call-back). The creepiness of the Blurryman’s slow approach was pitch-perfect, even if the chase was perhaps a bit over-long. The only production weakness was a wonky bit of CGI on the Blurryman reveal, but I can forgive that. It’s high-end TV, but it’s still TV.

[SPOILER] And in the end, what’s chasing Sophie is the “ghost” of Rod Serling himself, because of course it is. This was pretty obvious early on (though that may be because Tom Elliot and Luke Own actually pointed out the Serling-like blurry figure in the background of the climax to “Replay,” so I was already a bit primed for it! But from a metaphorical standpoint, it’s just so perfect. This iteration of the show has been trying to both honor and differentiate itself from its legendary godfather. Reportedly, Serling’s widow was involved in the production of this episode as well, so there was a real care taken to honor the legacy with which they have been entrusted.

This episode, like “Replay,” had me literally sitting up at the edge of my seat, mouth agape and slightly smiling, muttering responses back to the TV throughout the episode. I was fully and thoroughly engaged and delighted. And in the end, when “Rod” takes Sophie through the doorway to another dimension, I just shook my head and smiled. Perfect ending. (Plus, I loved the fact that young Sophie’s touchpoint for The Twilight Zone was one of my all-time favorite episodes, “Time Enough at Last”!)

“Blurryman” was nearly perfect as a Twilight Zone episode and helped to successfully cap off a generally-good first season of the 2019 update.

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So what did I think of the season as a whole?

One of the most important exchanges of the season finale was early on, when Sophie and “Jordan” discuss what The Twilight Zone *should* be: is it just scary campfire stories, or a vehicle for social commentary? “Jordan” suggests it can be both. Sophie struggles with this idea until the Blurryman shows her that there is room for both: you shouldn’t lose the childlike wonder and delight of a scary campfire story, even as you are trying to point to larger issues. 

This right here is the crux of the season, the series, and my sometimes-frustration with the 2019 version of the show. There were times throughout this first season when the balance of story and social commentary felt really off. A recent interview on The Twilight Zone Podcast with the show’s executive producer Win Rosenfeld indicated that he very intentionally wants to make political statements with the show–which is fine, in my view. However, political statements don’t guarantee good or even effective art.

There were episodes in Season 1 that handled social commentary in a way that felt natural to the story, such that the use of tropes and cliches were minimized and the narrative worked very well. There were other episodes that felt like the writer was assigned a message or moral, and tried to slap a story around that like papier-mache. Frankly, the stories that felt the least political seemed the most successful as Twilight Zone episodes, even if they didn’t move me particularly as a viewer.

I find myself going back to a word I’ve used repeatedly so far in these reviews: subtlety. When the message is surface-level and the characterizations are cliched, the show feels clunky like every other politically-driven scripted show on television. But when the story comes first, when the characters feel authentic, then even a plainly-moralizing episode still works, because that’s what the original series did, in my opinion. The most overtly-political episodes still worked because the writers/showrunners were storytellers first and pundits second. My favorite episode of the season was clearly a “message” episode, but it had enough layers and complexity that it rewarded more contemplation after viewing.

My hope is that Season 2 continues that trend, with strong narratives and characterization, so that the thematic takeaway isn’t front-and-center in each episode.

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Here’s my personal ranking of worst-to-best for this first season of the 2019 Twilight Zone reboot series:

10. “The Wunderkind”
9. “Not All Men”
8. “A. Traveller”
7. “Point of Origin”
6. “The Comedian”
5. “Six Degrees of Freedom”
4. “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet”
3. “The Blue Scorpion”
2. “Blurryman”
1. “Replay”

That’s all I’ve got for Season 1 of The Twilight Zone (2019)!

What did you think of the first season? What were your favorite epispodes? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Coming soon: I’ll review the first 5 episodes of Season 2! See you there!

The Life-changing Magic of Deleting 200 Emails

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On the way home from an out-of-state roadtrip (family obligations, stop glaring at me, I’m quarantining now), I listened to a discussion Brett McKay of the Art of Manliness podcast had with Scott Soneshein about his book Joy at Work, which he cowrote with the Queen of Sparked Joy herself, Marie Kondo.

One of Soneshein’s suggestions for decluttering your digital life is to clean out your email inbox of things you keep around but don’t need. I don’t know about you, but this is an area where my pack-rat tendencies flare up.

I have a few different email accounts for personal use, including one just for advertisements, mailing lists, and newsletters–non-vital email, in other words. I subscribed to several newsletters, which may arrive every day to every month or so. They range from political analysis to creative advice to theology. I think they’re all pretty neat, and I’ve enjoyed reading them from time to time in the past. However, several months ago, I started collecting a backlog of emails I promised myself I’d get around to reading. The news-commentary emails are easier to delete in a more timely manner, but some of the other less-time-locked material was just sitting there in my inbox, like it was a little digital to-be-read shelf full of bite-sized goodness. If only I had the time!

Well, I took the time today–but used it to clear the deck. I pulled up the 250-300 emails, and went screen by screen, highlighted all 50 emails on each screen and selectively saving only the ones I decided I could read TODAY. And then hit “delete” at the bottom of each page, removing all the rest.

That inbox now has 36 emails in it. And I’m about to go through, read or skim each of the survivors, and file or delete as needed. The crazy thing is: I don’t even miss the 200+ other emails, because I have no idea what was in them. I’m sure they included good and useful content (I’m pretty selective about newsletter mailing lists), but that doesn’t matter.

Sometimes the hardest thing for me is to accept that I don’t have the time or ability to read everything or learn everything. I am finite. And that’s okay.

So here’s my suggestion, reader: if you’re collecting hundreds of emails that would be nice to go through if you had the time, but just aren’t vital to your life, perhaps consider flipping the script. Rather than asking whether or not you should delete each of those emails, assume you are going to, click that “select all” box, and then make each of those emails justify why they deserve your attention.

Be merciless. Be demanding. Don’t linger. Hit delete.

You probably* won’t miss them.

(*And if you do realize you just deleted something valuable, dig that one thing out of your “Trash” folder–but don’t go email dumpster diving!)

 

Friday Feed (7/23/2020)

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Happy Friday, readers! Here are some interesting finds from the last week:

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Happy weekend, friends. Do me a favor, if you will: take a moment over the next few days, and tell your loved ones how much they mean to you. They need to hear it more often, and it’s good for us to say it more often.

Also: remember that every day is a gift from God; remind yourself to receive it with thanksgiving and put it to good use.

I’ll be back next week with another Twilight Zone commentary (because I enjoy them, even if none of y’all read them!) and a few other fun things. See you then!

Through Another Dimension: Considering “Twilight Zone 2019” (Part 2) – Season 1, Episodes 1-5

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Hello again, readers! I’m back with a commentary/analysis of Episodes 1-5 of The Twilight Zone (2019) Season 1!

Rather than giving a deep-dive review of each episode, I’m just going to provide some initial thoughts and observations. Frankly, there are better blogs and podcasts out there who can give you deeper analysis, especially since I’ve only watched each of these episodes 1 time. What you’ll find below are my thoughts and observations, with some influence and insight from Tom Elliot and friends on The Twilight Zone Podcast. (Quick caveat: I’ve tried to note where an idea came from them and not originally from me, but if I miss any, let me know. Sometimes it’s hard to remember if I’m coming up with an observation or repeating it!)

Be forewarned: While each “premise” synopsis below will be spoiler-free, my subsequent comments on each episode will not be. Scroll accordingly!

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Episode 1.01 – “The Comedian”

The Premise: A struggling comedian meets a stranger in a bar who gives him some career-altering advice. But the comic finds out that success comes at a price–and there are some things you can’t get back once you give them away.

The Payoff: Okay, starting with one more disclaimer–I watched this episode when it was offered as a sneak preview for the series, over a year ago, so my recollection of finer details will be a bit fuzzy. But overall I thought this story was a good start to the season. Samir, the struggling comic (played by Kumail Nanjiani), is offered a kind of Faustian bargain by a mysterious stranger (played by Tracy Morgan) and begins to find fame after years with little success. Thematically, the story examines what you give up when you put increasingly more of yourself out there for public consumption, as Samir literally begins to lose people and relationships once they become fodder for his stand-up routine. Looking back over this season, I have to admit this episode is one that feels more like classic Twilight Zone in terms of style: a main character with a fatal flaw receives his comeuppance. The foul language felt a bit heavy-handed, but I assumed at the time that was due to the setting (turns out, that’s just the norm for the new show). All in all, a nice creepy tale to kick things off.

Episode 1.02 – “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet”

The Premise: A journalist battleing PTSD boards a plane from Washington D.C. to Tel Aviv for an assignment, when he finds a strange mp3 player in the seat-back pocket. On it, he hears a podcast detailing the mysterious disappearance of his very own flight.

The Pay-off: This is the only episode of the season that is blatantly presented as a re-imagining of a classic episode (and one of the most famous) from the original series. Adam Scott plays Justin Sanderson with a slow-burn panic that keeps the tension high and makes his increasingly-erratic actions seem almost reasonable, at least at first. While we as the viewers can recognize how his actions appear more erratic and crazy over time, we’re allowed into his world enough to see the logic of his decisions. Throughout the episode, Adam tries to determine who will be responsible for the potential crash, with interludes from the podcast (read by the great Dan Carlin) providing a sort of real-time narration. As Tom and his guests noted in the TZP commentary, there is also a sort of Fight Club element with the character of “Joe,” whom Justin meets in the airport and talks to throughout the flight. I too found myself wondering if Joe was real or a figment of Justin’s stressed imagination. (Maybe because “Jack” first meets Tyler Durden on a plane in Fight Club?) This episode provided a fresh take on a familiar scenario for fans of the franchise and kept the tension high throughout. The coda at the end was unnecessary, but included a fun (and obvious) callback to the original episode and took is in a different direction (literally) than the previous iterations. All in all, great work.

Episode 1.03 – “Replay”

The Premise: On their way to freshman orientation, a mother and her son are menaced by a racist state trooper, just as she discovers her father’s old camcorder can reverse time. But can it prevent what feels inevitable?

The Payoff: This was the first episode of the season that wore its message squarely on its sleeve, but that didn’t prevent it from being a compelling story.

Nina Harrison is driving her son Dorian to school to study filmmaking, when they are harrassed by a shark-like state trooper, Officer Lasky. Thanks to the “magic” camcorder, Nina is able to rewind time and undo the escalating confrontation. However, no matter how Nina tries to change the timeline to avoid this threat, Lasky keeps finding them, with increasingly dangerous results. Ultimately, Nina realizes that the only way to alter the timeline is to take a detour and return to her childhood home to visit her estranged brother. He shepherds them through sewer tunnels and back alleys until they reach the university campus, but they can’t escape without one more encounter with Lasky and his men.

While it’s certainly possible for viewers to assume the message is “all cops are dangerous,” I think the theme is a bit more nuanced than that. While the presentation of the ever-present Lasky felt (to me) like something more fitting to the 60’s, setting it in the present emphasizes the idea that people of color still sometimes deal with discrimination and injustice from police. The inevitable encounters with Lasky represent racism as an ever-present threat that must be navigated but perhaps cannot be avoided. In the third act, Nina’s brother Neil acts as a sort of modern-day Harriet Tubman, at one point taking his family literally underground in their quest for Dorian to find “freedom” (via education). In the finale, they had to stand up to Lasky and his men, and they did so with a crowd of families at the university who all produced cellphones to record his behavior. While this episode premiered over a year ago, I watched it just weeks after George Floyd’s murder, and this moment felt particularly powerful and timely. All in all, this episode felt like the *right* way to lean hard into an issue in this format. (Later entries would not be so successful, in my mind.)

Episode 1.04 – “A. Traveller”

The Premise: Every Christmas Eve, the chief of police in a small Alaskan village “pardons” someone being held in their often-empty jail. This year, a mysterious stranger suddenly appears in one of the cells and asks to be the lucky recipient of the sheriff’s gesture.

The Pay-off: I gotta be honest–this was the first episode for me that didn’t quite “work”–at least on a script or story level. The technical elements and performances were excellent. The cinematography and editing were moody and ethereal, contrasting the dark, shadowy “underworld” of the cellblock with the tinny, red-lit Christmas party and the cool blue-black of the outside night sky. The acting was on-point, as it is throughout the entire first season, and the characters were interesting. It just felt like the story and theme were a bit muddy, as if the writers tried to pull together too many disparate threads. It was a story about hidden secrets being revealed, a fable about getting the thing you want and finding out it’s a trap, an allegory about manifest destiny and the erasure of indigenous culture (?). Honestly, the part that works best is the premise itself: a charming stranger in a suit and fedora appears suddenly in an underground prison cell of a snowy village on Christmas Eve, during the police station Christmas party. It had the intial markings of one of the sweeter episodes from the original series, like “Night of the Meek,” and could have taken a turn and become an interesting and heartwarming tale about “welcoming the stranger.” But rather than resolving with lessons learned amid the “magic of Christmas,” it devolves into a tale of people being awful to each other at the brink of an alien invasion. Throw in some cheap “hypocritical Christians” commentary, and it just turns a bit too bitter for my taste. I hear that this one improves with rewatches. Perhaps I’ll give it another try.

Episode 1.05 – “The Wunderkind”

The Premise: In the aftermath of an embarrassing campaign defeat, a young up-and-coming campaign manager finds a new candidate to champion in the next election cycle: a 10-year-old Youtube celebrity.

The Pay-off:  I thought this was one of the worst episodes of the season, and not for the obvious reasons. Let’s just get this out of the way: it’s about Trump. The boy-president is an avatar for Trump. That alone wouldn’t be enough to turn me off or irritate me (I’m certainly not a fan of the man). But the reason why I think this episode roundly fails is because the premise strained credulity so painfully that the satire turned into farce–and the worst kind of all, a boring farce. While some of the performances were solid (John Cho was a perfect lead), and there were some insights about the mercenary nature of presidential politics that they could have played with a bit more, the idea of everyone kowtowing to a 10-year-old boy (including his parents?!?) was just too much to work with. Obviously, they want to recall “It’s a Good Life” from the original series, but that’s one of the most fantastical episodes of the classic run. Taking the exaggerated dynamic of that episode and wedging it into a realistic setting just doesn’t work. I get it–you’re using a petulant child to represent the fickle and capricious nature of the current administration. Good for you. Now show me something interesting.

If they had instead aged up the candidate, made him (or her?) a Youtube influencer more like the Paul brothers or a similar personality, it might have been more effective, because you can bring in other ideas like the manipulation of an audience or office for financial gain (also a pertinent critique). You even could have made the child-president concept work better if you didn’t have his parents on board at some point (and perhaps having the president “disappear” them ominously, which would have been a better allusion to the previous iteration). All in all, this episode sunk into a bog of “huh-huh baby Trump” caricature, and it could have been so much better. (To quote an old meme: “I’m not mad, I’m just…disappointed.”)

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Five Season 1 episodes down, five to go! Do you agree with my takes? Disagree? Did I miss something? Comment below!

Next up: Episodes 6-10 of The Twilight Zone (2019) Season 1!

Through Another Dimension: Considering “Twilight Zone 2019” (Part 1)

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The After-Hours

My earliest memory of The Twilight Zone was from 7th or 8th grade, at my friend Adam’s house, staying up late watching an all-night marathon on a local TV station (aired on New Year’s Eve, as I recall). Much of my early exposure to The Twilight Zone was in that format: holiday marathons of the “top” 10 or 20 most popular episodes on late-night local TV or cable channels.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized that I really hadn’t seen very many episodes of the classic series–certainly fewer than 50 out of the 120+ half-hour episodes. With the advent of Netflix streaming (and discovering online resources like Tom Elliot’s fantastic Twilight Zone Podcast–definitely check that out!), I not only started filling in the gaps of my Twilight Zone viewing, but I also became aware of an entire season I had missed because those episodes were made for an hour-long format and most stations never air those longer episodes as reruns.

Over the last 2 years, I have almost completely caught up on what has become one of my favorite television shows of all time. While not every episode is a masterpiece, each season was packed with inventive ideas and challenging storylines. Serling and his team didn’t shy away from tackling social issues and political viewpoints, but they often did so under the cover of allegory and genre storytelling so that the message became a little more palatable. Serling himself became a modern-day Aesop, often underlining the moral of the story in his closing narration.

When I heard in 2018 that CBS was developing an updated version of the series, with Jordan Peele producing and starring in the “narrator” role, I was cautiously optimistic. I had just recently watched Get Out and was struck by how deftly (even Serling-like) Peele had been able to weave social commentary into an otherwise straightforward horror story. Like so many other TZ fans, I kept thinking, Don’t mess it up. Please don’t mess it up.

So did the new Twilight Zone live up to the legend of the classic? It took me more than a year to find out, as it happens. Life got busy, as it so often does, and it wasn’t until I heard that Season 2 would be released in its entirety in late June that I decided to “step through the door.” The question remained, however: what exactly would I find on the other side?

In Praise of Peele (and the Production Team)

So far, I’ve watched all of the first season. I’ll provide a brief analysis of each episode in the next few posts in this series, but I wanted to give my initial (spoiler-free) impressions here.

Let’s start with Peele himself. Stepping into the black suit (sans cigarette, naturally) would be a daunting task for anyone, but Peele brings the requisite mystery and cool restraint to the role (except…when he doesn’t–we’ll get there). He isn’t trying to recreate Rod Serling (except…well, we’ll get there), but instead to honor his legacy by taking up the mantle of the enigmatic, omniscient Narrator. He’s the one taking us on this journey (except…you know), and he does a bang-up job helping this show really feel like The Twilight Zone.

The show is cinematic and gorgeous to look at. The music evokes the appropriate off-kilter vibe, even reusing the end credits music from the original series. The production design and cinematography are spot-on, even down to small details like the fonts and layout of the title screen and end credits text. While a little bit of the CGI is limited by a TV-show budget, the practical effects are on point. Almost every episode includes very subtle easter eggs and callbacks to the original series that will make longtime fans positively giddy but will rarely distract a casual fan who’s only interested in the current story.

As an anthology show, The Twilight Zone runs the gamut in tone and tension, with some episodes being strange and intriguing and others being downright squirm-eliciting and bone-chilling. The production elements are employed well to create the mood of each episode, helping to draw the viewer into the story effectively.

All of that being said, production values aren’t (often) what made the original series stand out. It was always first and foremost the story and themes that captured our imagination. Does the current iteration have the same magic?

A World of Difference

My best answer to that question is: sometimes? The writing is solid from a technical perspective. The dialogue pops, and the characters generally work. The issue I had at certain points during the season was with how this iteration of the show handled the themes and messaging of each episode.

The Twilight Zone has always been a political show. This is a fact I never really appreciated until I started listen to Tom Elliot’s Twilight Zone podcast (again, recommended if you’re a fan of the series!). Elliot often discusses how Serling and the original show’s writers would sometimes use the genres of sci-fi and horror to make serious and pointed social commentary. When done well, this approach to genre storytelling elevates the form to something timeless and resonant.

In other episodes, the original series would present a type of morality play. Characters with a fatal flaw (hubris, vanity, greed) would receive their comeuppance via a type of karmic justice–as if the Twilight Zone itself was balancing the scales. Down-on-their-luck innocents would finally (usually, fantastically) get their big break. Then there were the episodes that were just strange for their own sake–creepy campfire stories to tell in the dark, strange tales of unimaginable situations and dark ironies. The original series seemed to balance these storytelling approaches fairly well, but I think the first season of the 2019 version struggled in this regard.

Several of the episodes in Season 1 of the 2019 series keyed in on a particular social issue, almost to the point where you could reduce the descriptions of the episodes to “the gun one,” “the racism one,” “the immigration one,” “the toxic masculinity one.” In some cases, the episode was still masterfully written, so that the clear allegory didn’t detract from a compelling story. Other times, it felt like the message was driving the narrative beats, instead of vice versa. The political bent of the show is predictably to the left, but as an ideological conservative I can still find pleasure in an interesting story well-told, even if I disagree with the worldview being expressed. Unfortunately, there were a few times this season where the cliches were a bit too much to overcome.

The other problem I have with this series thusfar is the “mature-rating” content that is employed throughout. Because this new series is written in 2019, it carries with it 2019’s social mores, in terms of sexuality, profanity, and morality. The show is only available on CBS’s premium streaming platform, so they are not constrained by broadcast standards (even 2019’s comparatively relaxed rules). For example, while it wasn’t enough to stop me from finishing the first season, I found the level of profanity in every episode (especially “R-rated” profanity) to be tiresome and entirely unnecessary. There are also a few instances of sexual content sprinkled throughout that, while tame by streaming-TV standards, still didn’t add to the stories and could have been alluded to instead of shown. I recognize that this show is competing in the same market as Black Mirror, Stranger Things, and Dark, but my hope was that The Twilight Zone could find a way to be provocative without being salacious. Some may find that corny; I prefer the term “classic.”

All that to say, I would strongly advise my readers and friends to look into the specifics of what would warrant “parental advisory” or a “mature” rating for this show, and then use their discernment on whether or not to watch (and I definitely wouldn’t recommend any of it for the kiddos).

The New Exhibit

All of that said, I did enjoy the first season of the 2019 series and look forward to checking out Season 2 very soon. (Obviously I did, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered writing almost 1500 words about it!) I’ll follow up this post with some brief episode-by-episode analysis of both Seasons 1 and 2. (If you’ve made it this far, I assume that might interest you! If not, then thanks for scrolling!)

In summary, if you enjoyed the original Twilight Zone series and aren’t put off by the content issues I’ve addressed, the 2019 TZ might be worth checking out. If you do so (or if you have done so already), I’d be interested to hear your feedback in the comments below and the upcoming episode summary posts!

On the other hand, if the “modern” tone and tenor are enough to keep you away, I’d still recommend going back to the original series and giving it a(nother) watch. Even though some episodes definitely don’t hold up anymore, it’s still a fun ride to take (by yourself or even with the whole family) through a door to another dimension.

Coming Next Week: My thoughts on Twilight Zone 2019 Season 1, Episodes 1-5!

Friday Feed (7/10/2020)

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Hey y’all! Here are a few things I’ve found fun or interesting in recent weeks. Enjoy, and I’ll be back next week with actual posts! Seriously!

 

“I don’t need your civil war…”

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How do you think about the people around you? How do you see them? How do you speak about them?

There’s been so much that’s gone on in the last month that has burdened and overwhelmed me. So much that I wanted to say but didn’t know how to–or whether or not my words would contribute anything useful or new. I’ve tried to stay out of the online hot-take business (with mixed success), but I think a lot of my thoughts lately are boiled down to this key issue:

When you stop seeing your ideological opponents as human beings worthy of dignity, it makes it a lot easier to justify treating them as sub-human in your speech and actions, both directly and indirectly.

People from my ideological/theological camp talk about the dignity of human life a lot, specifically when it comes to the life of the unborn. But I worry that much of that language is shown to be mere rhetoric when the way we speak to and about our enemies (either political or theological) is degrading, demeaning, and dismissive. (Depending on whom you ask, that makes me a squishy, raised-pinky, “nuance”-obsessed liberal, which is HILARIOUS.)

Labels and categories can sometimes provide a helpful shorthand in conversation, but I wonder if we lean so heavily on those that they start to become personas or avatars to absorb our attacks. It’s easy to make fun of “leftists” or “Trumpists” when you’re thinking about a generic stereotype instead of your parents or siblings. You can take shots, make jokes, dismiss their concerns. But when you start putting names and faces to the labels, it should become a bit harder to be so calloused and contemptuous.

“Should.” But we both know that with practice, we can become very comfortable labelling and smearing even the ones we purport to love with such invective.

“You’re just a…”

“Well of course you disagree, you….”

“Well, if you’d quit listen to all those…”

When Jesus said that in the end times, a person’s enemies would be the members of his or her own household, I don’t think the reason for this was supposed to be who’s on the national ballot or where we stand on cultural hot-button issues.

…I don’t have some great epiphany coming here. I hope you’re not expecting one.

Instead, can I just encourage you to take a few moments and run a mental audit of how you have spoken about people lately, including/especially those you disagree with? Ask yourself, “Am I able to disagree with this person/group while still treating them with dignity, as image-bearers?”

And don’t answer too quickly in the affirmative. I know that my knee-jerk reaction to this is, “Of course I do!” If it’s the same for you, maybe take a second and think carefully about it. If you’re feeling especially bold, ask someone close to you if you tend to speak of those you disagree with in minimizing or dismissive terms.

Perhaps one good step toward addressing some of the bitter divisiveness and tension in our homes and communities is by recognizing that we’re more than our political team-jersey–and the same is true of those on “the other side.”

Look, I’m not calling for some kind of kumbayah, let’s-all-hold-hands-and-sing-Imagine sort of utopian dream, because that won’t ever happen, nor should it. There are serious issues than need to be discussed. There are divides and differences of belief that can’t be ignored or patched over. It’s right and good to disagree, even disagree strongly, about issues of first importance. But if we can’t at least look each other in the eye and say, “you matter,” I think it says a lot about our own hearts. And for those of us who seek to follow Jesus, it may say something mortally serious that we just can’t ignore.