As I’m perpetually behind the times, I just saw this 2013 film last night, and I feel impelled to share my thoughts. We live in an age of hyper-materialism. I.e. our concept of the life, the universe, and everything begins with stuff, revolves around stuff, and ends with stuff. The god of this universe is Almighty Naturalism, and at the core of his doctrine is the belief that as the the first proteins of the first cell formed by chance, everything that’s followed, from the formation of humans, to the invention of the spaceship have also been by chance. There is no guiding force, no unseen curtains, no ultimate meaning or purpose beyond our perceptions. Decay, death, and entropy are the final states of all living things. Spirituality, therefore, as it is neither material nor natural, is nonsense.
Ironically, I think this mentality often speaks the loudest in fiction. While there’s no shortage of books and movies about fantastic worlds, these usually come with clear contracts of being fiction and nothing more. When dramatizing real events or events that could be real, I think writers feel a burden to censor their work in order to make it conform to the doctrine of naturalism. That is, if I put my characters in a bind, as tempting as it may be to solve their problems by lowering a god on a trapeze, this would violate of my contract with the audience. I would be feeding them melodrama when they signed up for realism (or so-called realism anyway). If a prophecy is fulfilled or a miracle occurs, there must at least be hints of natural explanations.
But what’s a writer to do when his source material suggests supernatural activity? Say, as was the case with Ephraim’s Rescue, we’re doing a treatment of Mormon pioneers in 1856. We have many journals and publications to reference. There’s an overwhelming harmony of facts. But we know our audience simply won’t believe that someone was raised from the dead.
We could try to play it safe and imply that the person wasn’t really dead in the first place, because, of course, in virtue of our superior education and word view, we know better than some nineteenth century crackpots who had no problems stretching the truth in order to further their religious objectives. But what if a large volume of journals report hundreds of supernatural healings? Was everyone a crackpot? In order to stay naturalistic, we would literally have to start censoring the material, arbitrarily deciding what was true and what was not. I say arbitrarily, because it wouldn’t be through any rules of historicity, as the exact historical sources and methods are used to establish facts. The sole-determining factor would be our twenty-first centuries views of what’s possible and what’s not.
Only, what do you do when incredible events are … credible? As the story goes, Ephraim Hanks, standing in the middle of snowy wasteland, prayed for a buffalo so that he can feed the starving pioneers, and when he opened his eyes, he saw a lone buffalo standing in the snow. This is definitely unnatural, as buffalo migrate in herds before winter hits. But we can’t just dismiss it, as there were too many eye-witnesses of the fact that Hanks showed up to camp with a wagon full of buffalo meat.
I see three possibilities: (1) this really was a miracle, (2) the full truth has been obscured, or (3) it was a grand coincidence. Of course, we’re not allowed to accept possibility one, so let’s consider number two. Maybe Ephraim really did feed the people meat, but maybe he was lying about the implausible means through which he procured it. Maybe the meat was really beef that he picked up from a farmer in Salt Lake City.
But if this were the case, there are other factors to investigate, such as the testimonies of those who accompanied Hanks. And it would follow that Hanks was either delusional or deceitful. If delusional, influenced by wishful thinking, we would be left to wonder how such a confused person could successfully navigate the arduous Mormon trail some fifty times, inspiring the confidence of his leaders, and rescuing so many people. If we’re to believe he was deceitful, we would have to explain a motive and compare this incident to his other actions to check for consistency.
Moving on to possibility number three, if the so-called miracle was really a coincidence, how many coincidences do we allow before the sheer number of coincidences seems too much to be … coincidental? With the story of Ephraim Hanks and the many stories that intersected with his, we would have to conclude that these larger-than-life events represent extreme statistical anomalies.
After omitting any nonsense about raising the dead and such, some of the events in this film could be explained by the afore-mentioned theories (whether or not such explanations are correct). Most, however, don’t bear the marks of delusion, charlatans, or some cooperative hoax, but the direct opposite: earnest people with nothing to gain acting in faith and sacrifice to positively affect other people. Any comprehensive explanation of the events save trusting the testimonies of those who experienced them becomes so convoluted and divorced from verification that it’s simply improbable. In other words, when all things are considered, it becomes illogical to deny the existence of miracles.
Surrounded by comfort, distanced by centuries, and with only shreds of information to draw from, are we really going to say to those who gave their all as they died in the snow, “I know you think you experienced miracles, but we know better”? Perhaps, in turn, they would say to us, “If you don’t believe in miracles, you should spend more time in the snow.”
In summary, how do writers treat anomalies like these? In short, they usually don’t. There’s a plethora of historical treatments of Cleopatra and Abraham Lincoln, and there’s no end of far-fetched fantasies, but as for something that looks like the former but smells like the latter, no matter how great the story, well there’s no place for it other than on the special interest shelf for religious wackos.
For those who are more interested in truth than entertainment (not that the two are mutually exclusive), who are open to considering all logical possibilities, even those that aren’t prescribed by the state religion, I’m glad there’s films like Ephraim’s Rescue. Wonderful script, wonderful message, great acting, great cinematography, overall an inspiration. T.C. Christensen’s films are the best, the fresh air thoughtful audiences have been yearning for. I also highly recommend Christensen’s companion film, 17 Miracles. His film the Cokeville Miracle was incredible. Why these films never rise above a 5 or a 6 on IMDB, to me, can only described by prejudice.
Though I confess that I, myself, wasn’t excited to see Ephraim’s Rescue, as, you know, I automatically assumed it belonged on the special interest shelf for religious wackos. I was short-sided. In my arrogant opinion, films like this remind us of why it’s so glorious to be a Christian: because miracles really do happen. Jesus really did come back, and that changes everything. It’s not that such assertions can’t be disproved; that alone wouldn’t constitute proof, nor be compelling. It’s that, for those who choose the path of faith, miracles not only become real, they become clear evidences of the glorious, transcendent realities we’re a part of. They help us see that there’s so much more to this universe than traffic jams, Facebook feeds, pain, and fiction. They remind us that when we look to the stars and do good, wonderful things are possible.