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In the Valley of Elah

Hello bloggers,

Went out with my small group Friday night and saw the movie, “In the Valley of Elah,” starring Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon. This is a great movie, mainly because of the incredible acting of these three stars. All three pull you into their characters in a way only great actors and actresses can.

Based on a true story, the plot revolves around a young Marine who returned home from Iraq, went missing from his military base and then turned up dead — grotesquely dismembered and charred. So on one level, the movie is a “who done it?” detective story. And on this level it’s good. From a series of badly damaged phone videos that are only gradually decoded throughout the movie to a mysterious package sent by the Marine to his parents before he arrived home and not opened until the last scene of the movie, this flick creates that level of intrigue that is necessary for gripping detective stories.

But the detective plot, as good as it is, is really only the occasion to drive home the real point of the movie. This is ultimately a story about what war does to people. In the process of trying to discover who murdered the young Marine, the players in this drama each discover something of how war can ruin the souls of soldiers (as well as something about how their own souls have been dulled by war as well as the pervasive violence in our own society).

I left this movie reflecting on how each act of violence we engage in, however small, dulls our capacity to experience and appreciate the sacredness of life, while each act of self-sacrificial love, however small, increases our capacity to experience and appreciate this sacredness. This, I believe, is the true meaning of ethics. It’s not that we are tallying up an account of good deeds verses bad deeds, as though God were some sort of ethical ledger-keeper. Rather, the importance of ethics is that each one of our behaviors (which, remember, includes each of our thoughts) moves us forward in becoming a certain kind of person. God wants us to experience abundant life, and each act we engage in either increases, or diminishes, our capacity to do this.

And now for a left turn (but it’s really not).

This morning I found a spider in my sink. Now, I happen to not like spiders very much. It would have been easy — some would say “natural” — to just wash this bug down the drain. But instead I got out my handy dandy bug-suction gun (a toy for kids to collect bugs alive), sucked it up, then released it outside.

Now, I know this may sound like a perfectly silly thing to do. But think about it. Why should this bug die just to spare me the 25 seconds it would take to allow it to live? Consider that GOD made that little spider — and in doing this, he made something humans with all of our ingenious technology can never replicate. Doesn’t that give the spider some worth — at least a worth that warrants 25 seconds of inconvenience?

The reason I don’t kill bugs or anything else unless I have to is that four years ago I took a vow to always try to place life — all life — above convenience. I have over time discovered that this vow has increased my capacity to experience and appreciate the sacredness of life. Because I chose not to kill the spider this morning, I enlarged my capacity to appreciate the element of the sacred in the life of the spider — and ultimately, of all things.

You may think I’ve gotten a bit off track from my movie review, but I actually haven’t. For “In the Valley of Elah” is all about the sacredness of life and how violence dulls our capacity to see it, experience it and appreciate it. This detective story makes the point as powerfully as I think I’ve ever seen it made.

One warning: The movie is very realistic about military life. So there’s A LOT of vulgarity and a bit of nudity, made all the more offensive because it’s in strip bars that dehumanize both the women who dance and the base men who watch them like cattle at a meat market. But in its own way, even this element of dehumanization contributes to the profound point the movie is making.

As to why the movie is entitled “In the Valley of Elah”…well, it’s not obvious. But it too is, I think, profound.

But you’ll just have to check the movie out for yourself to find the answer.


and consider not taking life simply because its convenient for you to do so. You might find this does something beautiful in you.



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