Reviewed by Stephen Carter
The Cokeville Miracle and Freetown are fascinating glimpses into how Mormons approach faith-promoting stories, and how those stories interact with the core message of the gospel.
The Cokeville Miracle
If you haven’t heard about the Cokeville miracle: in 1986, David and Doris Young (played by Nathan Stevens and Kym Mellen, repectively) took the children of Cokeville Elementary hostage, gathering them all into a classroom where they had set up a homemade bomb. They demanded a $2 million ransom for each child. But after a few hours, the bomb accidentally went off, though no one was killed. Davis reportedly shot the badly injured Doris and then committed suicide in the school bathroom. Afterward, some children described people in white as being at the scene just before the explosion, directing them away from the blast area and protecting them.
I grew up hearing the collection of tales that turned into the Cokeville miracle story, and all the feelings I had about it during childhood came right back as I watched T.C. Christensen’s (17 Miracles, Ephriam’s Rescue) movie portraying it. It is a religiously satisfying narrative. The concrete way the angels are described (many being the children’s ancestors), the way they drop in through the ceiling (“like light bulbs”), the way they gather to direct the blast, connects many religious dots: God is not only watching over our children, but enlisting the help of ancestors who dramatically affirm a strong, loving connection with their descendants. The story makes the link between the mortal sphere and the divine feel almost tangible.
The fact that the high-production-value Cokeville Miracle is aimed at the family movie audience drives many of the choices this potentially frightening narrative makes.
For example, early on, the story establishes David’s meanness and mental instability, but also his buffoonery. A few friends find him in a hotel room feverishly pounding at the buttons of a calculator while Doris exclaims, “He’s mathematically proven how he can die and come back to life!” And many of David and Doris’s early scenes are accompanied by a crazy/goofy score.
A great many of the school standoff scenes are marked by humor that downplays David and Doris’s threat. For example, a boy sees David’s guns and asks him, “Why didn’t you bring an AK-47?” To which David retorts in all earnestness, “That would be illegal!” Another little girl constantly picks apart Doris’s sentences.
Apart from a moment where the principal returns just in time to stop David from threatening to shoot a boy, David spends the standoff glaring moodily into the distance as Doris tries to keep the kids occupied, telling them, “This will make a great story to tell your children someday!”
Mellen’s portrayal of Doris, who is always balancing precariously between her worship of David and a nagging fear that he might be nuts, is the most interesting performance in the movie.
Interestingly, the standoff ends at the two-thirds mark in the movie. The last third is dedicated to the story of Ron Hartley (Jasen Wade), a police officer who is struggling with his faith in God because of the awful things he has seen in the line of duty.
He interviews people close to the school incident, uncovering each miraculous part of the story, but hangs onto his doubts until the movie’s last few minutes when he overhears part of a sermon from an open church classroom door and listens to Primary children singing “A Child’s Prayer.” “Heavenly Father, are you really there? And do you hear and answer every child’s prayer?” The story’s overwhelming answer to the song’s question is yes. The officer smiles and sheds a tear, and his children rush from the Primary room to hug him.
However, a few seconds later, an epilogue acknowledges that not all desperate prayers for safety are answered. “We don’t know why,” it admits. “But we should recognize the hand of God when we see it.”
I agree. But the hand of God has done many things. For example, we are explicitly shown the hand of God in a very different story. The Book of Mormon tells about Alma and Amuleck being forced to watch the burning of women and children. Amuleck begs Alma to call down the power of heaven to save these innocents, but Alma tells him that he can’t, that he feels God is allowing the wicked to fully condemn themselves and that these screaming martyrs are being taken straight to the bosom of heaven.
I can only imagine how well The Cokeville Miracle’s target audience would receive a movie about two prophets who watch as a school full of children burns down (which is what would have happened had the bomb gone off properly). But the Book of Mormon’s horrifying story can also be considered miraculous evidence of the hand of God.
This makes me think that miracle stories are often a diversion. Yes, they can be emotionally satisfying; yes, they can give us a sense of safety, justice, and divine love; yes, they can motivate us to engage in healthy behavior. But miracle stories almost always involve the physical world: they involve the saving of those things which are precious to us but which will naturally pass away (our crops, our children, our own lives). But the gospel of Jesus Christ is explicitly not about miracles—unless you are talking about the miracle of atonement and spiritual transformation.
And this is one place where the movie seems to entirely miss the boat.
The officer’s doubts about the influence of God in such an ugly world prevent him from praying with his family and going to church, disappointing his wife and children. As far as the film shows, Hartley’s lack of faith is his single defining feature in their eyes. Not once does his family interact with anything about him but their wish that he would go back to being his old self and adhere to their spiritual practices. Not once is there a scene where his wife simply sits down to listen to him without judgment. He is a problem that needs to be fixed.
As Hartley uncovers the stories around the explosion, his wife keeps asking why he can’t see what’s so obviously in front of him. Toward the end of the movie, she delivers an ultimatum: “You’re the best man I know,” she says. “But if you refuse to see reality, you’re going to lose us.” His value to her is based not on his core goodness, but on his willingness to believe what she does.
Most stories of spiritual progress start in the borderlands. Mary becomes pregnant out of wedlock, thrusting her outside the pale of Judaism. Job loses his riches, his family, his reputation, and his health. He refuses to accept the religious answers his friends give him for his misfortunes. Joseph Smith fears that the truth cannot be found on earth, which keeps him from joining the church his family prefers. These spiritual giants started their journeys in frightening places that their communities didn’t approve of. But that is precisely the reason they made such great strides. Questions engender humility and fuel exploration.
And then there are normal people like you and me with our less-than-world-shaking lives, inevitably finding ourselves struggling with questions that threaten our worldview. We don’t ask for these questions, they find us themselves. We are as frightened about their implications as our loved ones are about us. We suddenly find ourselves outside the community, lonely and scared. The thing we need most is for someone to stay with us as we encounter these questions. Someone who values us—not our beliefs. This is what Jesus did. He sat with the prostitutes, the publicans, and other outcasts. He was rarely seen with the religiously respectable or the politically powerful.
Jesus’s question to us is not “Do you have family prayer?” or “Do you go to church?” or “Do you believe in miracles?” His question is simply, “Who are you?” A question whose answer is always changing, always invisible to the rest of the world, always a matter exclusively between us and God.
However, at the end of The Cokeville Miracle, the police officer gets spiritually fixed. He returns to the community and adheres to its beliefs and practices. The family comes back together, but misses an important opportunity to understand each other better.
If The Cokeville Miracle patrols the borders of what it means to be a believer, Freetown explodes them.
In some ways, Freetown (directed by Garrett Batty of The Saratov Approach) is a conventional faith-promoting, based-on-true-events story: a group of missionaries miraculously escapes war-torn Liberia into Sierre Leon. But the movie also breaks just about every rule in the faith-promoting-genre handbook.
First, this is a heavy, frightening film. It takes place in a political environment that seems to have no good guys. Members of the Krahn tribe have illegally retained control of the Liberian government after a lost election, motivating a group of rebels to strike back by sabotaging Liberia’s infrastructure and killing any Krahn tribespeople they find.
The film depicts the violence perpetrated during this time with startling directness. Some rebels leap from a truck in front of a man riding on a scooter, beating and then shooting him (off screen). Later, a missionary accompanies a husband who leaves his wife and daughter with some other refugees in a church house in order to find some food. The husband is shot on his way back as the missionary watches. The missionary trudges into the church house carrying a sack of food but unaccompanied; the wife looks up and begins to weep as her unsuspecting daughter sleeps in her lap.
But the most frightening scene is when two missionaries are captured with a few other people and shoved against a wall. The rebels go down the line, identifying some of their victims as Krahn. And then, as the camera abruptly shifts to obscure our view, the rebels shoot them.
Two freshly dead bodies on the ground, the rebels accost a Krahn missionary, but a nearby LDS Church member who is working with the rebels intervenes. “I know these guys,” he says. “They’re in my church. I’ll take them to the labor camp.” “But this one is Krahn,” says the leader. “And he will be treated as such,” the Church member replies as he drags them away.
At this point, we must stop to thoroughly understand what has just happened. In The Cokeville Miracle, the faith of a man who has a hard time praying and going to church is under suspicion, but in Freetown, a man who only a few seconds ago was complicit in the cold-blooded killing of two people, and doubtless in the killing of others on an almost daily basis, unabashedly describes himself as a member of the Church. And nobody questions his claim—not even the missionaries.
Can a man involved with genocide be a believer? Freetown seems to take the radical approach of defining a believer as any deeply imperfect soul: perhaps blind and destructive, but still on an unpredictable, eternal, and entirely personal journey of his or her own.
This widened view of belief also makes room for the movie’s main character, Phillip Abubakar (Henry Adofo), who is dispatched by the mission president at the beginning of the movie to keep the missionaries safe. Phillip is dedicated to the missionaries’ well being, but he is also a doubter. Indeed, he has adhered a Mark 9:24 decal to his rear window (“help thou mine unbelief”). He never relies on the unseen; rather, he works; he looks ahead; he bears the weight of the missionaries’ lives on his own shoulders.
Their journey (thirty hours of driving) is remarkable, the group evading danger many times—not to mention Phillip’s Toyota Corolla managing to carry eight grown men through hundreds of miles of bad roads and dirt trails without breaking down or even getting a flat tire. And all this time, Phillip is at the wheel, navigating the checkpoints, finding food, and organizing the missionaries.
The missionaries and Phillip complement each other well. When the car finally runs out of gas in the middle of nowhere, they keep Phillip’s spirits up until they find a gas station. Then, when they arrive at the bridge into Sierre Leon—closed to them as each of the missionaries has forgotten his passport—the missionaries give Phillip the heart he needs to continue his journey. Phillip has plenty of room in his pragmatic world for the sometimes naïve faith of the missionaries, and there is plenty of room in their faithful perspective for his hard-headedness.
This same kind of space is offered to the Mormon rebel, who goes on a soul journey of his own, not toward adherence to Mormon customs, but toward a difficult, possibly fatal choice.
So, though there are some physical miracles along the way, the story focuses on the miracles taking place inside people’s hearts. One particularly moving scene involves Phillip talking with a missionary about when they found out about the priesthood ban. Being African men, the discovery was especially painful. But the missionary doesn’t try to explain the issue away; he simply points out that we’re all changing, that we’re all trying to make ourselves better, and that our constant search for betterment is the crux of the gospel.
Later, the Krahn missionary says something to the effect of, “Many horrible things have happened that will affect us permanently. We can’t do anything about them. All we can do is try to make something good happen now.”
Freetown’s willingness to allow opposition to be potent and permanent gives these moments of grace an enduring power.