Hoosiers: An American Classic for a Reason

hoosiers

There is much to love for everyone in the triumphant American classic, Hoosiers.   It contains elements of many things that are on the public mind these days like diversity, the meaning of work, prejudice, and what it means to “believe in yourself.”  There’s a lot of redemption, fortitude, and humble pride in this sports biopic that takes place in rural Indiana in 1951.  There’s refreshing honesty on what it takes to be a strong person in America and life itself.

Gene Hackman’s character Norman Dale is the new coach of boys’ basketball at the local high school. We gather from learning about him, that he’s  also a teacher, divorced, and had had some recent, possibly self-induced, tough circumstances.  His fresh start is met by the fresh mouthed Myra, a fellow teacher played by Barbara Hershey.  She comes off as a shrew from her first sentence.  They immediately clash which means as most movie clichés go, they eventually get involved.

Another cliché we encounter is the “small town people are dumb” idea, where at first the townspeople are portrayed as staid yet close minded, and wholesome in a way that might offend some city folks. This cliché does eventually lessen and we see something currently lacking in today’s Hollywood culture; diversity of thought.  A person freshly graduated from a liberal arts degree program may ignore a film like this at their peril.  Indeed most of the characters in this film are young white males who are unapologetically not facing an existential crisis about their “privilege.”

What we see depicted in the film instead is a demonstration of good old fashioned individuality combined with willfully choosing team work and hard work. Initially Hackman’s Coach is encountered by yet another unfriendly staff member in the school who attempts to undermine his authority.  Coach Dale gives the guy the what for and some whiney boys leave the team in protest.

Like other sports films, there are members of the basketball team who are happy to stay and try to work with the new coach. This includes a short player who in spite of teasing, has courage enough to play a game typically dominated by tall people. This underdog character, as well as the coach’s later dealings with townspeople, exhibit an ability to keep from being overtly judgmental towards one’s self or others.  They show it’s not necessary to be like other people or take them down either.

There is this lovely wide shot scene where Coach Dale visits the would-be star basketball player who is skipping class to avoid being persuaded to rejoin the team. We learn later why the boy is off the team, but it turns out the coach isn’t there for persuasion.  Amongst the open fields at the homemade Podunk basketball hoop, Hackman abruptly says to the kid “I don’t care if you play on the team or not” turns, and walks away.  The coach is in essence saying “this is bigger than you so get over yourself.”

This scene highlights the difference between believing in or trusting your innate morality vs. thinking you have to be a God or part of some deity regardless of how vague, in order to be worthy. Hackman’s character is there to do a job.  A job he probably would rather not do, but is doing regardless of whether he, his coworkers or his potential team members like it.  This is the essence of the American ethic and a true citizen of the West.  Someone who no matter how much flack they get stays true to working hard and believing in their sense of moral intrepidity.

This leads us to Dennis Hopper’s character of the town drunkard who happens to be the father to one of the ballplayers. Hopper it turns out is a basketball savant who has a preacher like accuracy of understanding the game.  He’s so accurate, the coach asks Hopper to be assistant coach.  Hopper though struggles greatly under the weight of what is essentially his own weakness.  After improving then failing a couple times he finally goes to a hospital to dry out.  The longer he put off his need to change, the harder it was to do so.  His courage finally came, but at a self-inflicted steeper price.

All people go through such a personal transformation, but many of us, don’t feel a need to talk about it all the time after it happens. Later in the film Hershey’s character finally warms up to the coach, and she asks him about a violent episode he experienced when he hit a player as a coach years prior.  He explains without self-pity or exaggerated responsibility that he’s still trying to understand what exactly came over him.  I think we’ve all been there.  Some psychoanalyze such an event and build a character around it, while others pick up and eventually, move on.

Eventually the wayward star player joins the team while confidence in the coach grows after he displays humility yet forgoes apologizing after losing some games. The star saves the coach’s job and the coach returns the favor by doing it.  Both the boy and the coach refused to cower to popular opinion, and in doing so they were able to work together and likely trust each other in a way that would have been grossly changed if group-think had been adhered to.

Right before the Regional Finals the coach makes a speech saying:

“Forget about the crowds, the size of the school, their fancy uniforms, and remember what got you here. Focus on the fundamentals that we’ve gone over time and time again.  Most important, don’t get caught up thinking about winning or losing this game.  If you put your effort and your concentration into playing to your potential, to be the best that you can; I don’t care what the scoreboard says at the end of the game, in my book we’re gonna be winners.”

Do your best. Get over yourself.  Trust in the inner mechanism we have in our souls to not go too far for too long.  Work hard, quit complaining, think for yourself, don’t give up, and don’t be a jerk.  Movies like this display the kind of pioneering ethic this country was founded on.  Regular folks, also known as the dreaded bourgeoisie, don’t need to let so-called experts tell them how to think.  They utilize common knowledge that works per given situation but they don’t feel forced to adhere to such knowledge when the time is not right.  The coach at one point pretended to be a jerk to help the drunken dad, and at another time his actual jerkiness led to ruin.  Free choice isn’t always fun or easy.

Doing our best, as Hoosiers depicts, is only for the adventurous. Towards the end of the movie, a boy gets hurt and Hackman’s character eventually decides to pull him out of the game.  Coach Dale was free to keep the boy in, which was familiar and easier for a game win.  Taking the injured player out was more challenging but better for the player and the coaches moral conscious.  At that moment, the coach had to choose the unstoppable unknown and risk the game, his reputation, and the players shame.  No one was going to give him a better answer than the one in his own moral center.  Being a winner is about doing one’s best in the midst of fear, rather than robbing fear of its rightful place in our hearts.  Who needs to watch Halloween part XVII.  Just listen to your moral compass to have the adventure of a lifetime!

I won’t tell you who won at the finals or what happened to the coach. Instead I’ll tell you what happened to the most marginalized character in the film, the smallest player.  Amongst boos from the crowds our underdog did his best.  He didn’t get a moment of earthly glory because someone else made things easier for him.  He retained his confidence by daring to make his best effort.  That best effort or moment when we focus all of what we are into that second, minute, hour, or lifetime, and let ourselves live our choices, is when we are free.  Sometimes it means we win the game, other times it means we keep our souls for another day or moment.  From small towns to big cities, Hoosiers is a perfect reminder to embrace tenacity, exemplify freedom, and endure fear.  It’s never too late to simply, humbly, freely, do our best.

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Don’t Go There or There or There

love saves

Within the span of three weeks there were four different encounters I had where my faith was involved and there was either rejection or mercy. Actually 3 out of the 4 instances involved less than good fruit yet one was the epitome of James 3:13-18.

The first encounter occurred after a preliminary search to join a Bible study in town. Because my spouse and I are not members of a church community yet (because we have either been not welcomed or have been not able to abide by a particular churches theology) a friend, after hearing of my desire to find others to worship with, suggested I join a Bible study.  Many if not most churches have them, but again, this would involve trying to find a church that makes sense.  Instead of searching church by church to find such a study I went onto my favorite search engine and looked up Portland-Oregon-Bible-Study.  It turned out the website Meet Up had groups holding Bible study’s so I joined the site (though I hate joining anything online) and inquired with some groups about their study.

A group suggested to me was a Portland LGBT Christian group that showed that they have Bible studies and other activities like book clubs, dinners together, etc. Though I don’t identify as gay per se, the sex of my spouse sort of puts me in that category by default, and so there you go. I was allowed to join the group and was informed about an upcoming book group where Marcus Borg’s “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time” would be discussed.  Having worked with religious books for years I knew that Borg had very liberal and to us, heretical beliefs that we feel contradict basic tenants of Christianity.  Because of this book pick, which sadly didn’t surprise me in some ways, it seemed time to ask the group leader if this was a group that would be beneficial to us and us to them.

My questions included how we may fit into such a group since we believe the Bible is the Word of God and infallible. I asked if books along the lines of theology that Borg and those of his ilk (including Matthew Fox, Henri Nouwen, Harry Emerson Fosdick) espouse were the norm for book picks.  Finally I asked if a more “conservative” couple that seeks to live out 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 in all we do, would be accepted into the group and find other kindred Christians like us there.  All this I asked respectfully with a willingness to answer any questions or clarify any statements.  My wife checked over my email and felt it was direct yet gentle, reasonable, and without negativity.

The response? I received an email 2 days later from Meet Up explaining that I had been removed from the group.  In addition I was blocked from being able to contact the organizer with any further communication.

The second encounter involved a cashier I’ve been acquainted with for years at our local co-op. After casually asking her if she had any Easter plans, she went on to tell me about an article she read recently about the poet Nikki Giovanni.  She noted that the poet was raised Baptist and now rejects the faith because of its obsession with death.  The cashier went on to note that wearing a cross was a further symbol of a culture of death and that those who wear them probably celebrate the electric chair or gallows.  That day I just happened to be wearing my largest and most ornate cross due to Easter week.  I pulled it out as she shared and asked without malice “you mean like this one?”  The cashier went on to literally make a gag sound, say yuck, and continue her comments.

Since we are hoping to find a church community to join, the third encounter involved calling a Lutheran church a few miles from our home to inquire about their overall theology and if we, as a same sex couple, would be tolerated and/or accepted. Though neither of us know much about Lutherans other than that some family members are, we thought “why not?” so when I got the pastor on the phone I prayed and asked him if their theology was influenced by New Ageism or Christian authors who were influenced by types of spirituality that deviates from the Bible.  My second question was about my wife & me attending, with the clarification that we have no interest in changing the church as is, and respect their right to religious freedom.

The pastor answered my questions honestly and respectfully. Though he made no effort to get to know me or what my spouse and I were about, and assumed that which he cannot see. I appreciated him being upfront in letting me know that, no, they do not preach another gospel, and no, we would not be allowed to become members (only visitors) of his church.

In three weeks I experienced 3 kinds of rejection. In the first, apparently we were “too” Christian.  In the second, I was apparently too obsessed with the death of Jesus.  And in the third I was too gay.  How can one be both too Christian and too gay?  I have no idea! Thank the Lord that the above mentioned scenarios have taught me the road is indeed narrow and to follow it, it means the road looking very different from how we might have imagined.

Interestingly this week I had two dreams involving narrow roads. In one I had to walk upon a narrow dirt path in the woods carrying an ill pit bull mix to find it some help.  In the other, my wife and I were in a car on a skinny one lane road in the middle of the ocean, being driven by a confident and bubbly young lady.  In both dreams I had to leave fear behind and trust I’d get to where I needed to go.  I’m reminded of Matthew 14:22-33 where Peter trusted Jesus and walked on the water.  Since I have given my life over the Jesus I’m continually amazed by where being His follower has taken me.  After the three above encounters I felt moments of rejection.  Rejection is a really great way to take away one’s hope and plant disturbing seeds of hypocrisy that have to power to wither bodies and souls.

But this is when we Christians faithful to God’s Word are blessed! Luke tells us in chapter six that it is when we’re reproached, rejected, and hated for being believers that we can rejoice for our reward is great in heaven.

One could argue that in the third situation I was not rejected for being too Christian but not Christian enough!  That I refuse to repent for my marriage and get legally divorced from my wife so I may enter the kingdom.  This reminds me of the seven Woes’ in Matthew 23.  We sometimes attempt say certain people, based on the potentially poor judgment of going by what we cannot really see, cannot enter the kingdom and shut doors (physical & metaphorical) to them without having taken any time to know them.  We try to make believers into our own image rather than God’s.  We tell people they must follow the rules of this church or that sect or some other theology that is not in the Bible or misinterpreted.  We trade legalism for the heart of the law.  We all do it not only as the faithful but as humans in whatever set of beliefs we follow.

When we persecute other Christians (or anyone) regardless of what their sin or perceived sin is, we sin. Yes we can separate ourselves, but we first learn who someone is and attempt to meet them & hear them.  No matter what our final decision is about their place in our lives, churches, or organizations, we love them, pray for them, and remain peaceable and without hypocrisy (let me know if you’ve perfected that).

So girding my emotional loins I called a church a friend’s friend had recommended on our behalf. Having just had those dreams previously mentioned, I felt it was time to change my approach.  Just as I want people to meet with and get to know us beyond whatever labels others define us by, I also want to meet and get to know them.  I called this church and spoke with one of the pastors explaining that we’d like to meet with the appropriate clergy to discuss potentially going there.  My situation was briefly explained and I told him that more than anything, we just want to worship the Lord with others who are devoted to Him, without deviation from the Bible.  His response?  Excitement!  The main pastor is currently out of town so he suggested we set up a time to meet with both pastors.  He was everything written in James 3:17.  Pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, merciful, impartial, and without hypocrisy.  Our conversation bore good fruit because we both communicated in the vein of James 3:13.  I could even tell we may have some disagreement on points, but that we respected each other as believers growing in Christ.

To be true to our faith doesn’t mean we sign off on what isn’t acceptable to us. It also doesn’t mean we blindly reject others either.  This was not the narrow road I expected, but God continues to give me the strength to walk it.  We are blessed indeed!