Musings on the collision between the Bible and life
A note to readers from Pastor Elise Pokel: Spoiler Alert! This article will spoil plot points and details for season three of Fargo, which aired in 2017 on FX. Enter at your own risk, but please do enter!
I’m a huge Coen brothers fan.
When the movie Fargo came out, I was so enthralled I forgot to be offended by the accents. Now, Fargo has taken the form of a thriller anthology series that I can’t get enough of. There are three seasons so far. Each season is a self-contained story. The story-telling is incredible, the plots are exciting, and the characters are unforgettable. (Billy Bob Thornton is in season 1 and he’s never been scarier.)
You can’t ask for better TV! Some of the scariest parts or most awkward encounters end with a well-placed, “Well, okay then.” That sort of reaction sums up all of the Midwestern, long-suffering folks I know and love best.
I’ve always got an ear open for how movies, public figures, and television shows utilize the Bible. Often, the Bible is used less to teach us something. It’s used more to evoke something in us; to make us feel things we’re nervous to feel or think things we’d rather not.
There’s a scene in the third season of Fargo between Nikki Swango (an ex-con who gets engaged with her parole officer, Ray, who has a long-standing feud with his more successful twin brother, Emmitt) and a man that the audience assumes to be an angel. They’re seated in a bowling alley. Nikki is covered in blood as she’s just escaped a prison bus crash and a brawl with assassins. (It’s great television, I’m tellin’ ya. Ultra violent and sometimes gross, but great.) The angel is enjoying a whisky, neat.
In the biblical book of Isaiah (and in other prophetic books) there’s a marvelous call story where God is in his throne room, asking who would go on God’s behalf to speak a word of peace and justice to the world. Isaiah claims he’s not worthy. God directs some seraphim (flying, burning snake angels) to put a little piece of hot coal on his mouth. Tada! Worthy.
In the scene between Nikki and the angel, the angel quotes from Psalm 94: “Who rises up for me against the wicked? Who stands for me against evildoers?” The angel is quoting a lament psalm; a psalm used to have a heart-wrenching conversation with God about things that aren’t going particularly well. Then, the angel quotes from the prophetic book of Obadiah, and the hair on my arms stood on end.
“Though you soar aloft like the eagle, though your nest is set among the stars, from there I will bring you down, says the Lord.” The angel tells Nikki to deliver this message to evildoers – in her life, this would be her fiancée’s twin brother; a man who thinks himself too good and powerful and untouchable because he has allied himself with assassins and powerful businessmen. What could she do to stand against injustice and evil? People look at her and don’t think she amounts to much. This is a very human thing. We look at one another and do quick calculations about worth based on people’s appearances, assets, and power. We strive to have it all, without thinking of the cost to our brothers and sisters around the world who struggle for just the necessities.
The book of Obadiah in the Bible is a heated monologue directed at the nation of Edom. Do you remember hearing about two twins in the book of Genesis, Jacob and Esau, when you were growing up?
How they struggled and fought?
How Jacob stole Esau’s birthright, that scrappy, second-born, wily son?
How Esau raised an army and Jacob raised a bunch of sheep for a father-in-law that would trick him just as Jacob had always tricked others?
How Jacob wrestled in the night with an angel, limping away with a blessing and the new name of Israel? Edom (represented by Esau) and Israel had a long history of strife. Finally, when Nebuchadnezzar (or Nebby) destroyed Jerusalem in 587 BC, the long-standing feud came to a head when the Edomites mocked the Jewish people as everything they loved was destroyed and razed to the ground.
Instead of remembering that they were meant to live in brotherhood, they treated one another as enemies. Do we ever behave this way? The beauty of the Bible (and really good television) is that it leads us to think deeply about how we are in the world. Do we treat our neighbors as though we are related to them, as God longs for? Or do we lock ourselves in needless conflict and violence? Do we delight in the suffering of others or do we stand against those who seek to take advantage of the small and vulnerable, as Jesus requires?
First Presbyterian Church and Trinity Lutheran Church Pastor Elise Pokel (or P.E.P. for short) loves studying the Bible, with all of its mystery and history. She also loves pop culture, from prestigious dramas to lowbrow comedies. In this column, she officiates the marriage of these two passions.