As Campfire Stories Go...

As Campfire Stories Go...

In the original Netflix series  “Godless”  (2017), Jeff Daniels plays Frank Griffin, a thieving, vengeful, murdering outlaw who terrorizes New Mexico in the 1880s.

In the original Netflix series “Godless” (2017), Jeff Daniels plays Frank Griffin, a thieving, vengeful, murdering outlaw who terrorizes New Mexico in the 1880s.


How do particular Netflix shows arrive in our lives?

One moment, I’m sitting in an elementary school auditorium on a Sunday morning. The air is perfectly still. Christmas is near. Our faith-community gathers to anticipate, to celebrate.

I watch the children as they play-act the story of Advent. They light the slender candles symbolizing tall themes: hope, peace, joy, love. The energy is serene; the future appears clear and bright.

The next moment, the modern week has become existentially exhausting (again). It’s (only) Tuesday night, and it’s late. I’m trying to gather myself.

I watch “Godless,” a gorgeous and gory Western set in New Mexico in the 1880s. The notorious Frank Griffin, a thieving, vengeful, murderous man, terrorizes a small community of Norwegian settlers. The mood is tense; the future—if it’s anything like the past—seems dark and depressing.

Uninvited, Frank and his gang sit around the settlers’ campfire while he subjects them to scary (true) stories of religion and violence. When he was a kid, Mormons disguised as Native Americans killed his parents, emigrants from Arkansas, then adopted him and taught him that everything must receive its purification through blood.

This “mission” is what propelled Frank into the life he now knows all the while wearing a clerical collar and posing as an itinerant preacher. He embodies religion at its truly abusive worst: the viewer often sees him engendering the trust of people as he accomplishes his will on earth.

Back at the campfire in the wild of New Mexico, the tales have gone quiet. One of the Norwegian settlers breaks the terrifying silence: “You are no man of God!”

“God?” Frank quips. “What God? Mister, you clearly don’t know where you are. This here’s the paradise of the locust, the lizard, the snake. It’s the land of the blade and the rifle. It’s godless country. And the sooner you accept your inevitable demise, the longer you’re all gonna live.” It’s a chilling scene, with Frank playing the locust, lizard, and snake.

Upon viewing “Godless,” The Atlantic’s Sophie Gilbert observed: “Westerns have long played a part in building the lore of American history.”

Westerns celebrate the heroic individual rather than the well-ordered—but inevitably vulnerable—community. They glorify domination, whether over Native Americans or the treacherous terrain of the frontier. And they fetishize guns, which unfailingly allow heroes to safeguard democracy—never mind the collateral damage of bodies littered in the streets after each epic confrontation.
— Sophie Gilbert

“Godless” takes a different tack, in Gilbert’s assessment, because it leads viewers to interrogate the harsh, brutal realities of the “Wild West” instead of merely lionizing heroic individualism, the spirit of domination, and, well, guns.

Gilbert says, “Godless” reminds us that “the conquest of the wilderness…was built on blood and cruelty” and that “a good guy with a gun rarely bests a bad guy with a gun as simply as it looks in the movies.” On both accounts there might be a whole social-psyche worth of residual effect on the American mind.

All of which, in the end, makes for a more honest tale, to be quite honest. Not to mention—here is yet another story in the grand/not-so-grand human narrative for which we desperately need hope, peace, joy and love.


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