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    Indiana Jones and the Weight of Glory

    The film hero experiences the fear of the Lord many times across his cinematic career, yet each “beginning of wisdom” is a false start.

    By Hannah Long

    October 17, 2023

    Perhaps no cinematic frame better encapsulates the insight that “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom” – certainly not in the tomb-raiding adventure genre – than one near the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

    Harrison Ford – wiry, handsome, unarmed for once – and Karen Allen – girlish, lovely, clad in a white silk dress – hold hands in the gloom. They appear like a couple on their wedding day – frightened, humbled, oddly innocent.

    But they’re not looking at each other. They’re staring away across a shadowy clearing to the glowing footstool of the Lord, the deity who has just massacred the enemy of his chosen people and left Ford and Allen unscathed.

    It’s a moment of revelation, but it proves short lived for the characters. Ford’s Indiana Jones experiences the fear of the Lord many times across his cinematic career, yet each “beginning of wisdom” is a false start. He has seen but not understood.

    Indiana Jones, perpetual cynic, is always grabbing vines that give way. In subsequent adventures his first reaction is still to scoff at the supernatural. He’s like a man who sees his face in the mirror and turns, forgetting what he looks like. Partly that’s a problem created by the series’ roots in serials: a format requiring a reversion to the status quo at the beginning of each adventure. I doubt Steven Spielberg and George Lucas spent too much time pondering Indy’s sanctification in constructing their low budget homage to 1930s adventures and studio romances.

    Rather, the air of boys-own-adventure hijinks permeated the production. But it’s possible for profundity to creep in unintended, as it does, through the creators’ wonder.

    “Life without wonder is not worth living,” Rabbi Abraham Heschel observed. “Awareness of the divine begins with wonder. It is the result of what man does with his higher incomprehension. The greatest hindrance to such awareness is our adjustment to conventional notions, to mental clichès. Wonder or radical amazement, the state of maladjustment to words and notions, is therefore a prerequisite for an authentic awareness of that which is.”

    Thus, Spielberg and Lucas are at their most profound when they’re at their least sophisticated: searching for the wondrous. When Paul Freeman, who plays villain René Belloq, arrived for his audition, he walked into the room to find two bearded men in baseball caps lying on the floor, listening in awe to the first prototype Walkman from Tokyo. George Lucas beckoned Freeman over and put the earmuffs on his head. It was “Stairway to Heaven.” Freeman said, “We all lay on the floor like children just listening … looking at each other and giggling.” Steven Spielberg asked, “Would you like to read the script?” That was the audition.

    The scene foreshadowed how his character would describe the Ark: “a radio for speaking to God.” To the villainous Belloq, the Ark was like a Walkman – cutting-edge ancient technology – pure information freed from the sands of time, and a source of wonder.

    Most of the characters understand that there’s something special, powerful, and mysterious about the Ark. Indy’s agnostic friend Marcus Brody warns that it’s “like nothing you’ve gone after before,” and the (presumably Muslim or Coptic) Sallah tells him that “it is something that man was not meant to disturb. Death has always surrounded it. It is not of this earth.”

    Indy rejects their warnings. A scientist who doesn’t believe in magic, Jones is pitted against occultists who do. “A lot of superstitious hocus-pocus,” he tells Marcus as they talk about the Ark. “I’m going after a find of incredible historical significance. You’re talking about the boogie man. Besides,” he adds, tossing a gun into his suitcase, “you know what a cautious fellow I am.”

    Harrison Ford in the Raiders of the Lost Ark

    Harrison Ford in the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo.

    George Lucas has described the Ark as what Alfred Hitchcock called a MacGuffin, a meaningless item which functions only to keep the plot in motion (though Lucas’s definition emphasized that it should be something the audience cares about). A MacGuffin could be anything – a suitcase with unknown contents; a rabbit’s foot; a falcon statue; microfilm in a sculpture. Critic Steven Greydanus’s take on Raiders argues persuasively that the Ark is no MacGuffin, because it could not be anything else. He writes:

    The Ark blends the numinous awe Lucas strove for with the Force in his Star Wars films with the quest for Jewish identity and imagination pervading Spielberg’s work…. What this story offers is the ultimate antisemitic villains getting blown up by the Jewish God, for daring to desecrate a Hebrew sacred artifact. The twentieth-century persecutors of the Jews are undone by the same numinous power that destroyed the firstborn of the Hebrews’ Egyptian slave-masters, that smote the Philistines when they captured the Ark in 1 Samuel 4–6.

    By contrast, the other artifacts in the original trilogy are far more culturally vague. The Sankara stones in Temple of Doom are too “esoteric” to work for a largely Western audience, Lucas said, and the Holy Grail wasn’t much better. The product of contradictory medieval legends, the Grail’s grounding in history is nowhere near as concrete as the Ark of the Covenant.

    There’s one more reason why the Ark is special, though. C. S. Lewis was fond of noting that we moderns tend to consider science and magic as opposed notions – even our metaphors draw a strong distinction between them. We think of magic as fear of the dark, and of science as understanding which brings light.

    Nothing could be further from the truth, he explained in The Abolition of Man:

    For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious – such as digging up and mutilating the dead.

    In Raiders, both the heroes and the villains approach the Ark like it’s magic or science. They discover it’s neither. It’s reality. The Ark is more than a radio. Its presence defines a physical place where the holiness of God descends and encounters the unclean stuff of earth.

    Holiness is a confounding discovery for someone looking for a weapon or a tool – or a passive artifact. In later films, the story removes the concept of holiness and turns the dilemma into whether a scientist can stomach the truth of that Arthur C. Clarke law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In Dial of Destiny, Jones is the scientific skeptic asking for proof, while the neo-Nazi villain notes correctly that science and magic are truly two sides of the same coin – in the end, he says, it’s all math. Science “has conquered space,” he says, referring to the recent moon landing. “Now it will conquer time.” He is determined to use an ancient Greek artifact, the Archimedes-crafted antikythera mechanism, to detect fissures allowing him to travel to the past and “correct” history so that the Third Reich doesn’t lose the war. (He’s sort of like those YouTubers who think one mistake changed everything, boiling the vast sweep of history down to single decisions and pivot points.) Indy is opposed to using the antikythera mechanism to reshape history, but he can’t give any philosophical reasons why.

    The same logic applies in other Indy films. In Temple of Doom, a grimdark prequel to Raiders, Indy finds a devilish cult worshiping sacred stones, using their power to enslave local village children. Problematically, the bad guys turn out to be right … you really can use these stones as weapons. That Indy can invoke the name of Shiva in order to defeat the wicked Kali gives a sense not of the Ground of Being, the Holy One, blessed be he, but of battling powers. Maybe success really is a technique – an effort of will. These relics are deity-neutral, and exist mostly to grant the user power instead of insight.

    Of course, if information is power, then even alien skeletons could be potential weapons. In Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, George Lucas decided to swap out religious artifacts for ancient aliens. In the end, knowledge proves deadly. Human beings can’t interface with interdimensional beings without blowing our minds. Literally. You could mistake this effect as the same as the opening of the Ark, but a surge of knowledge is not the same as an unfiltered encounter with holiness. Transcendence isn’t the problem; size is. Sophistication is measured in processing power, not in moral weight.

    The Judeo-Christian relics in the series demonstrate a dramatically dissimilar representation of supernatural power. In Last Crusade – which was a script largely rewritten by an uncredited Sir Tom Stoppard – the characters’ will to power is foiled by the nature of the puzzles leading to the Grail. While there’s no thematic inevitability to manmade booby traps, they’re built in such a way that comprehending them demonstrates knowledge of reality. This is not technical knowledge that might be divorced from the posture of the heart, but rather humble assent. In Hebrew, the word for wisdom means something more like applied knowledge. When Indy stands on the edge of the chasm, hesitant, he has knowledge. When he jumps, he shows wisdom.

    And this wisdom Indy has learned because, following the fifth commandment, he has begun to honor his father. Understanding why “only the penitent man shall pass” is the result of years of patient study and faith – more the effort of Henry Jones Sr., than of Indy himself, and (the camerawork implies) communicated between them through an almost supernatural father-son connection. Indy proves himself the sort of person who perceives what manner of cup a humble carpenter would possess, largely because he has reconciled with the father who can teach him that lesson.

    Spielberg communicates a deep truth: the unholy cannot safely interact with the holy. Humankind cannot bear very much reality.

    Still, what’s to prevent an unworthy person from drinking from the Grail, and gaining its powers? There’s little sense that the relic itself contains the ability or agency to discern the hearts of men.  It is rather the whole of the mousetrap, the whole of the providential situation, which discerns. And it’s finally in the renunciation of the Grail – again, Indy’s father’s renunciation comes first – that the film finds its moral center. Henry had neglected his son for the search, and in giving up the object of his search, he gains his son. This only works because the Grail as an artifact is inherently humble. As the archdeacon in Charles Williams’s Grail novel War in Heaven notes, “In one sense, of course, [the Grail] is unimportant – it is a symbol less near reality now than any chalice of consecrated wine.”

    The Ark is different. Even though the representation of the Ark in Raiders is highly fanciful, it gets the broad outlines right. In scripture, it was only licit for the Ark to be carried by Levites who were ritually clean, on long poles. One man was struck dead when he reached out to steady the Ark as it trundled along on a wagon. In Raiders, the Ark acts in a vitally different manner than the treasures at the center of the later films. Because it acts.

    Every character in Raiders is looking to find the Ark so they can control it or bend it to their will. What they discover is that God will not be used. And they all have to learn this lesson. While the Nazis’ desires are transparently wicked – they would employ the Ark to vanquish the enemies of the Third Reich, to destroy the Jews and to dominate all life – Indy’s relatively more honorable motives are nonetheless corrupt. He’s driven by a desire to possess history, to hold it in his hand, to sell it to his museum – “as usual. No questions asked.”

    As Jeffrey Overstreet has observed, Jones is a hero with feet of clay. He’s a disreputable “raider” himself. His catchphrase, the civically minded “that belongs in a museum,” isn’t actually expressed until the third film, leaving us to conclude that younger Jones only wants the “fortune and glory” he alludes to in Temple of Doom and that Belloq is right in Raiders when he tells Indy that “it would have taken only a nudge to make you the same as me, to push you out of the light.”

    Indy’s dark side hasn’t aged well in the light of modern mores – especially the implication in the film that he had an affair with Marion, possibly when she was too young to consent (the script puts her age at the time fifteen, and his at twenty-seven, but it’s not confirmed onscreen). But all – or some – of this is intentional. It’s meant to establish Jones as mercenary and noncommittal. He didn’t just leave Marion all those years ago – he leaves her again when freeing her from the villains’ clutches would interfere with his plans to obtain the Ark.

    He never seems intent on keeping it out of Nazi hands – that goal is incidental to his own ambitions to gain knowledge. Often in early Spielberg, the hero is the audience. Possessing a childlike wonder at spectacle is a virtue in most of his protagonists. But the same quality can be fatal. Chasing after what dazzles proves the downfall of antagonists from Jurassic Park’s John Hammond to Belloq to Crystal Skull’s Colonel Spalko. (The need to know cuts both ways for his most recent protagonist, Sammy Fabelman).

    It would be instinctive, then, for Spielberg to represent deliverance as closing your eyes. Some knowledge must be left buried, the director of Jurassic Park probably thought. But he also instinctively communicates a deeper truth: the unholy cannot safely interact with the holy. Humankind cannot bear very much reality.

    Indy’s recognition that God requires more than simply “not being a Nazi” could seem like an unforeseen revelation. But there are hints that his disdain is never as sincere as he pretends. Gesturing at illustrations of lightning shooting out of the Ark early in the film, he explains that this represents the “power of God … or something.” When he’s met with blank stares from shortsighted American officials, he moodily asks, “Didn’t any of you guys ever go to Sunday school?” They look embarrassed.

    What we can infer is that Indy did go to Sunday school, even if he pretends he’s too sophisticated to believe anything he learned there. This is why it is such a betrayal that in Dial of Destiny he declares his new insight to be: “It’s not so much what you believe, it’s how hard you believe it.” This shrugging pragmatism is pathetic. How could a World War II veteran end up ideology-neutral? The 2023 film’s motto turns Indy back into the calculating treasure hunter he was at the beginning of the series, but even worse: one who truly believes effort of will is the only thing that matters.

    By contrast, Raiders ends with Indy rejecting the heroism of will for the heroism of wisdom. He suddenly remembers, in the final moments, lessons he half-ignored in Sunday school and tells Marion to close her eyes. His new posture in the final scenes of the story is illustrative. He’s quiet, chastened, though annoyed with the bureaucratic dismissals he receives. But the story doesn’t end with him sneaking into a government warehouse to recover the Ark for a museum.

    He doesn’t get the Ark in the end not just because he’s a Charlie-Brownish hero, constantly failing, but because the Ark will not be kept. To be lost in a warehouse is as effective as to be lost in ancient sands. Beneath this is the chilling implication that America doesn’t understand God any more than the Nazis do. Indifference is as deadly as malice. We should all be humble, for no nation is guaranteed a safe and consistent relationship to God’s holiness. The beginning of wisdom starts with fear of the Lord, and that starts in the heart of each man and woman.

    Which is why the love story is so important. God’s testimony lies in the changed posture of Indy and Marion, united truly for the first time, humbled and penitent, looking upon the handiwork of the Holy One of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

    The power of God, or “something.”

    Contributed By portrait of Hannah Long Hannah Long

    Hannah Long grew up in Appalachian Virginia, where her family has lived for nigh-on 250 years. She freelanced for The Weekly Standard during college, and after graduation moved to New York City, where she now lives.

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