Updated: Feb 12
Facing the Tragedies of Life With No Reference to God
February 6, 2023 - By Richard Allen
The TV Drama 1883 is a prequel to the very successful series, Yellowstone. Set in 1883, the Dutton family leaves Fort Worth, Texas with a Wagon Train of European Immigrants, heading for Oregon. Let me say from the start, that the show is expertly filmed and accurately depicts the trials and dangers of the Dutton family as they follow the “Oregon Trail” west, hoping for a better life. As a life-long fan of Westerns, I was predisposed to like it – and I did. The acting by all four of the lead characters: Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Sam Elliot and Isabel May is excellent, showing that Hollywood can still portray human drama without special effects and a deluge of sex scenes. My praise doesn’t stop there, but along with, it I need to offer honest critique of the scripted characters and their total absence of Christian perspectives I would think important for historical accuracy. 1883 is Exhibit #1 of how even a well-made show can rewrite history, all to conform to the “woke standards” of today. And to be totally honest, I think Hollywood has always gotten history wrong, usually tailoring their stories to the current national sentiment. As one reviewer (Mama of 5) commented – and I think she is basically right:
“This show is not accurate to late 19th century. Concerning are the teenagers’ reviews that say this show is educational and accurate to history. Anachronism weaves throughout the whole show. This is today’s culture wearing a western costume. A common “theme” being woven throughout this and Yellowstone is repeated verbatim: “there is no right and wrong”.https://www.commonsensemedia.org/tv-reviews/1883/user-reviews/adult
I’m not accusing the producers / writers of overtly pushing an “extreme godless” perspective of life, but the saddest events in life are all met by this cast with absolutely no mention of God, Christ, faith, or even right and wrong. My Subtitle says it all: “Facing the Tragedies of Life With No Reference to God.” My critique actually has three parts to it - 1): Inserting an almost nihilistic view into a period piece where it’s mostly out-of-place. Nihilism is a view of life that rejects all religious and moral principles, believing that life is meaningless. 2): Casting all of the characters with an underlying “self-reliance” that never, never mentions the cultural-Biblical sentiments of the time, and 3): The only pseudo-Christian character is portrayed as a “self-righteous hypocrite” who ends up committing suicide.
I’d like to start with a verse, twice used in almost identical Psalms in the Old Testament. Psalm 14 and Psalm 53. In both of these Psalms, the writer starts with almost the exact wording:
“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good. The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:1-3).
As to point 1): Inserting an almost nihilistic view into a period piece where it’s mostly out-of-place, what intrigues me about both Psalm 14 and the show 1883 is that the Fool’s rejection of God is not based on arguments or reason for God’s existence, but rather a practical atheism that is really saying: “I want to live my life MY WAY, and I won’t submit, to, or be ACCOUNTABLE to God.” I think that is the sense in which these Psalms are to be read. As you continue to read them it’s easy to grasp the Fool’s motivation by his rebellious actions: “The Lord looks down . . to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. There are nonewho do good, not even one.” There is in modern men and women a strong spirit of rebellion. The godless poem “Invictus,” a Latin word meaning unconquerable or undefeated written by William Ernest Henley in 1875, well represents this spirit of “defiant self-will.” This blasphemous poem is the cry not of the Atheist, but a hateful cry of a Devil who hates God and resents His claims on us as our Sovereign.
It’s these types of themes that the TV Show 1883 portrays whenever possible. Spoiler Alert: The show starts Episode #1 with Elsa Dutton being shot at close range with an arrow by a Dakota Indian. It's her voice that we hear narrate the show through all ten episodes, with her dying in Episode #10, having no mention of God or the afterlife. Everything is about the here and now, including Elsa’s final actions, picking out her burial site in a beautiful Montana setting. Singer Peggy Lee couldn’t have said it any better: “Is that all there is?” Elsa’s character is portrayed as a rebellious young lady, challenging the norms of her day – a kind of Women’s-Libber living in1883. We watch her fall in love with several men, taking on a traditional man’s role, working as a Cowboy and making decisions about her life, with little concern for her parents’ feelings. To be fair, there were people who lived in that era who were disenchanted with Religion and who were openly angry with God. Two of the lead characters were faithless and disenchanted after witnessing the horrors of the Civil War: Elsa’s father, James Dutton (Tim McGraw) and the Wagon Train boss, Shea Brennan (Sam Elliot). But I ask: “Was everyone like that back in 1883?” Why would an 18 year old woman already be a faithless cynic?
In contrast: General Lew Wallace was a Union General who fought in the Civil War, including bloody battles at Fort Donelson and Shiloh. He too saw the horrors of war, but coming back after the war he spent a productive life, writing a Classic Christian novel, “Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” which, some say, mirrored his own struggles - or - Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who after service in the Union Army as the hero of “Little Round Top” (the pivotal battle at Gettysburg), lived a life of valuable public service. He too suffered the horrors of war, but was driven not to despair, but to a deeper faith, compassion and understanding. Again, the irony of 1883 is, that absolutely no one even brought up God or Christ in ten Episodes of otherwise excellent drama. It would be like writing a biography on the 911 Hijackers who flew three planes into the World Trade Center, Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania – and not once mentioning that they were all devout Muslims, who sacrificed their lives for what they believed their faith commanded. The irony is: The trials and tragedies of life will either drive you to faith or to despair. In 1883, the characters only appear to be driven to despair and materialism.
Which brings me to point 2): Casting all the characters with an underlying “self-reliance” that never, never mentions the cultural-Biblicalsentiments of the time. In fact, even the Indians encountered along the way, seem to be more spiritual than any of the white folk. The 45 or so Immigrants on the Wagon Train are all of European descent, even some Gypsies. Yet not one displayed any faith in the Christian God – not even in the face of the continuous tragedy and death that they incurred in each episode: Thieves robbing and killing some, Snakebites killing a young girl, Getting sick from brackish water, Drownings as they tried to cross a swollen river, Tornados ripping through their Wagon Train, destroying their property and killing several others. Indian Raids that finished off those left of the 45 souls that set out for Oregon. And even after all this, not one soul in the Wagon Train turned to God or asked for Journey Mercies. What was so obvious was the “complete and total absence of any mention of, or turning to God.” None! The Immigrants from Europe were a very religious people. But the only heaven they wanted was “the Oregon Territory.”
While we don’t really hear much of her faith, point number 3): The only pseudo-Christian character is portrayed as a “self-righteous hypocrite” who ends up committing suicide. Turns out Claire is a disgruntled widow, the sister and sister-in-law of the lead actors – James and Margaret Dutton. What we do see of her is that she is intolerant, judgmental, and Pharisaic in nature. Her only daughter who accompanies her, is no less a Religious, JudgmentalPharisee than her mother. After the daughter is killed by thieves shooting up their camp, the mother is despondent and refuses to go on. In her final act of despair, she sits by a river and shoots herself in the head. The writers mercifully let us know that she not only lost her husband in the Civil War, but has seen seven of her eight children die. So, after the eighth one is killed in the camp raid, whatever was left of her faith was impotent to get her through – then she took her own life. It’s a given that it’s the logical thing to do – from a purely human standpoint. I hope you don’t misunderstand me; it wasn’t presented as anything other than a serious drama, and according to the critics, was very well received.
The real damage that this mini-series will do is reinforcing “how meaningless life is,” apart from having fun and pursuing pleasure. Most of the young adults and teens watching, might think they are seeing history, when in fact it’s another means of “woke indoctrination.” The series has someone in Episode one and Episode ten commit suicide, since they had no reason to live. This will not teach us a hopeful way of wrestling with the trials in life. No faith, no hope or promise from a faithful God to care for us, just a sad realization that “If that’s all there is,” I may as well end it.
Let me end on a happier note. There are some themes that are positive coming from 1883. Love and devotion to family, courage in the face of adversity and an appreciation of the beautiful creation that we all enjoy, are redeeming themes. My only hope is that God will raise up faithful men and women to be salt and light – even in Hollywood. We desperately need more stories of faith and hope, not more grizzly realism and cutting edge drama. In truth, their realism is just “woke history revisionism” masquerading as a semi-historical event. I also pray for the day they would include some men and women of faith in their scripts, who would give accurate portrayals of the world before “woke politics” swallowed everyone whole. One thing they did accomplish with 1883, was to accurately portray where the godless characters in the later series, Yellowstone, came from: A whole line of faithless people who by hook or by crook, built an empire in Montana. That entire show is based on the same faithless Dutton family, still beset with greed, lust, deception, betrayal, hunger for power, revenge and death. I guess the main character, John Dutton (played by Kevin Costner) is true to his family heritage, scratching and clawing to get what he wants in life.
Hollywood - please tell us some stories about sacrifice, true love, devotion, perseverance and above all, faith in an all-powerful and loving God! Now, that would be a daring and bold drama – challenging the status quo!