Ranking Every Episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot

poirot11“Agatha Christie’s Poirot” ran on ITV in the UK from 1988 to 2013. After an inauspicious beginning it grew to become one of the most consistent shows on TV, anchored by David Suchet’s definitive portrayal of the Belgian detective. Hugh Fraser’s bumbling friend Hastings and Philip Jackson’s no-nonsense police inspector Japp became equally iconic, and after viewing each of the 70 episodes filmed over 25 years the viewer is left with a deep sense of pathos. It’s similar to the feeling we get watching the Harry Potter films (both series darkened considerably as their protagonists aged), but with the added specters of old age and mortality.

Which is not to say the series isn’t fun! Even the weakest episodes are a treat to watch because of the fine clothing, period detail, and evocative music by Christopher Gunning. Christie’s mysteries are famously clever, but even when specific plot points elude you, you can easily turn off your brain and revel in the rich atmosphere. Perpetually underrated, it was one of the best shows on television throughout its run. It is my personal favorite.


The Worst

  1. The Labors of Hercules (Season 13)

The original book was cobbled together from a series of short stories Christie wrote. This episode retains elements of all those stories, plus one other story that was never adapted (“The Lemesurier Inheritance”). The result is an ungainly and at times incomprehensible mess.

  1. Taken at the Flood (Season 10)

The changes made in adapting “Taken at the Flood” for the screen exemplify the problems with latter-day Poirot adaptations. Whereas in the original novel, the villain’s only crime is murder, this episode makes him a kidnapper and church-bomber who performs forced abortions and kills 13 people. Still, a great performance by the lead actor, Elliot Cowan.

  1. Appointment with Death (Season 11)

The highlight of this episode is Tim Curry wandering around Mesopotamia searching for the head of John the Baptist. Whether you like that sort of thing will largely determine your feelings towards the rest of the episode, which teeters precariously on the line between inspired and absurd.

  1. The Clocks (Season 12)

Like The Big Four (see below), this is a rare Christie foray into the world of international espionage and intrigue. And, like that other adaptation of a spy novel, this one is convoluted, overly plotted and frequently difficult to follow.

  1. The Hollow (Season 9)

A woman is found holding a gun and standing over her husband’s dead body. At the risk of spoiling the ending, there’s not much of a mystery here. The original novel was highly praised for its psychological realism, but that sense of character failed to translate into a compelling 90 minutes of television.

  1. The Big Four (Season 13)

poirot12Atmospherics and one of the best-ever Poirot openings elevate this one slightly; sadly, the rest of the episode is largely forgettable.

  1. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Season 7)

By removing the central conceit, this adaptation of Christie’s most-celebrated Poirot novel robs it of what made it great in the first place. What’s left is a conventional and disappointingly bland episode.

            *           *           *

The Mediocre

  1. Four and Twenty Blackbirds (Season 1)

Poirot took almost an entire season to find its feet, but “Four and Twenty Blackbirds” is the first season’s only true stinker, with a premise so convoluted that even after multiple viewings I still haven’t entirely worked out what happened.

  1. The Lost Mine (Season 2)

Agatha Christie stories with an Oriental flavor tend to be cliché-ridden or cringeworthy, and this one, featuring a seedy opium den and an American man disguised as a Chinese man, is a little of both. The worst episode of Poirot’s best season.

  1. Elephants Can Remember (Season 13)

Christie’s novel (one of her last) centers on a mysterious husband-and-wife murder-suicide and Poirot’s attempt to answer the question, “Which was the murderer?” The adaptation tries to spice the story up by adding a second murder and largely consigning the whole plot of the original novel to the background. The attempt is only partially successful, as this remains one of the sleepiest episodes of the show.

  1. Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (Season 11)

An old charlady is found dead in her home, struck down by a blunt instrument, and all signs point to her lodger being the murderer. After interviewing the man, Poirot is inclined to accept the jury’s verdict of “guilty,” until an unexpected discovery forces him to reevaluate. This episode is perfectly okay. The appearance of Ariadne Oliver livens things up a little, but otherwise it fails to distinguish itself.

  1. One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (Season 4)

One of the few Poirot novels that might have worked better as a short story, “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe” finds Poirot investigating the death of a dentist who appears to have been murdered by one of his last patients. The solution is characteristically, perhaps overly, ingenious, but the episode itself is otherwise unmemorable.

  1. The Third Floor Flat (Season 1)

Another overly convoluted first season episode, this one involves four friends who accidentally stumble across a dead body while wandering the wrong floor of an apartment building.

  1. The Adventure of the Western Star (Season 2)

Not particularly noteworthy—how many times have we seen a robbery staged in part by the person who was robbed?—but it’s always fun to see Hastings acting bashful in the presence of a beautiful actress.

  1. The Incredible Theft (Season 1)

No murder is committed in this early episode in which Poirot must discover the culprit behind the theft of some important naval documents. While not a terrible episode, per se, it suffers from the cardinal sin of being dull.

  1. The Underdog (Season 5)

A fast-moving, if forgettable, mystery involving synthetic rubber and a murder victim who gave everyone he ever met a reason to murder him. There’s some great business involving Miss Lemon trying to hypnotize Poirot and Hastings.

  1. The Plymouth Express (Season 3)

Many of the hour-long episodes suffer from having to introduce a number of characters and solve a complicated mystery within a limited time frame. The difference between the short story and feature-length adaptations becomes apparent when watching The Plymouth Express, which was later expanded into the novel The Mystery of the Blue Train. The two plots are nearly identical, but Blue Train, simply by virtue of being longer and less compressed, is easier to follow.

  1. The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (Season 5)

Season 5 saw expanded roles for Miss Lemon in a couple of stories, and in this one she falls briefly in love, much as Hastings would do in Season 6. Meanwhile, Hastings and Poirot investigate a mystery involving a fast car, a sheaf of stolen documents and a Siamese cat.

  1. The Adventure of the Clapham Cook (Season 1)

In the first episode of the series, Poirot reluctantly takes up the case of a woman whose cook disappeared suddenly. A cursory investigation reveals a criminal conspiracy involving 50,000 pounds in securities and an obvious disguise, a motif that will be encountered again.

  1. Murder in the Mews (Season 1)

Poirot and Hastings investigate the death of a woman by gunfire on Guy Fawkes’ night. Although this initially appears to be a straightforward case of murder made to look like suicide, Poirot’s sleuthing soon reveals it to be something much more interesting and diabolical.

  1. How Does Your Garden Grow? (Season 3)

Poirot begins his third season by solving the case of an old woman who was apparently poisoned, in the process demonstrating (like the Count of Monte Cristo before him) that attempted suicide is no way to evade justice when your crimes have been exposed by Poirot.

  1. The Million-Dollar Bond Robbery (Season 3)

The Poirot series always excelled at boat voyages, and while the details of this episode’s mystery are unmemorable, it gives us two great moments: Poirot boasting of his own stamina, just before being struck down by seasickness, and the addition of a new character (not present in the short story) who briefly attracts Hastings’ fancy.

  1. Triangle at Rhodes (Season 1)

“Don’t you think human beings seem to reproduce certain patterns?” a woman asks Poirot in this episode, which in many ways serves as a precursor to the superior Evil Under the Sun with its exotic location and murder-y conspiracy involving two constrained lovers.

  1. Problem at Sea (Season 1)

This boat-set episode elevates itself above other first season episodes by employing the nifty trick (which would be recycled several times in the series) of having Poirot suss out a murderer using a ventriloquist pretending to be the ghost of the victim. Suppress your inner doubts about how anyone could fall for this and what remains is a fitfully entertaining nautical romp.

  1. The Double Clue (Season 3)

“In my experience I have known of five cases of women murdered by their devoted husbands,” says Poirot early in this episode. “And 22 cases of husbands murdered by their devoted wives.” Yet the unromantic Belgian is not wholly immune to the charms of women, as this episode demonstrates. In the figure of the Russian emigré Countress Vera Rossakoff, Poirot meets his Irene Adler. poirot13

  1. The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (Season 5)

At first this feels like an episode of “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries,” with its excavations of a foreign tomb and ancient curses that Lemon and Hastings try to dispel through tarot cards and Ouija boards. But ultimately the show eschews the wild flights of fancy and campy Gothic melodrama of “Miss Fisher.” This is a competently made, if not particularly memorable episode about the frightening power of superstition.

  1. The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge (Season 3)

A great wintry morning episode, though one that struggles more than usual to justify Poirot’s presence, and another where one character is obviously in disguise.

  1. The Dream (Season 1)

This is one of the better Season 1 efforts, and an early indication of the show’s potential. Poirot is extended a secret invitation to meet a wealthy industrialist, who is subsequently murdered. There’s the usual business with fake beards and imposters, though this episode offers a logistical angle that is lacking in many of the other stories.

  1. Wasps’ Nest (Season 3)

Poirot must talk a man out of committing suicide and murder in this surprisingly moving hour-long episode.

  1. Double Sin (Season 2)

There’s a whole subcategory of Poirot stories in which someone who comes to Poirot seeking the recovery of a stolen item turns out to have stolen it himself. It’s always more surprising when this trope doesn’t come into play. That said, hour-long episodes are often more memorable for their atmosphere than their mystery, and this one excels on that front.

  1. The Mystery of the Spanish Chest (Season 3)

Although Poirot regularly faces off against murderers and robbers, seldom is he placed in any personal danger. That changes in this episode, which sees his life threatened by a man with a mastery of swordplay.

  1. Dumb Witness (Season 6)

A classic manor house mystery, complete with a phony séance, an altered will, and two balmy old women who believe they can contact the world beyond. Elevated slightly by one of the most eerie and memorable deaths in the series.

  1. Murder in Mesopotamia (Season 8)

A celebrated archeologist’s wife is found dead, and each of the suspects has an airtight alibi. This episode telegraphs the identity of the murderer early on, but the central twist is so absurd and contrived that it strains credulity.

            *           *           *

Bon

  1. The Chocolate Box (Season 5)

This episode amounts to an hour-long flashback in which Poirot revisits one of his earliest cases, the mystery of a Belgian official who died of apparent heart failure. In the process, he ends up solving two murders.

  1. Sad Cypress (Season 9)

An intimate character study of an ill-fated love triangle, Sad Cypress has a cast of only four main characters (excluding Poirot himself). The law of economy of characters makes the murderer somewhat obvious, but the central love story between Mary Gerrard, Elinor Carlisle and Roddy Welman is still affecting.

  1. The Mystery of the Blue Train (Season 10)

Christie expanded “The Plymouth Express” into a novel with mixed success. The Poirot adaptation of Blue Train follows the original pretty faithfully, for better or worse. The most striking change is the elevation of Lenox, only a minor character in the book, into a close friend of Katherine Grey’s. Actress Alice Eve sinks her teeth into her expanded role. poirot14

  1. The Adventure of Johnny Waverly (Season 1)

Possibly the most lighthearted and inconsequential of all Poirot episodes—no one is even murdered—this one centers on the kidnapping of a young boy. You could probably guess the culprit by the end of this sentence, but that doesn’t make the ensuing adventure, or Poirot’s eventual exposure of a wicked scheme, any less fun.

  1. Yellow Iris (Season 5)

A man’s wife is murdered at a public dinner. Two years later, he hosts a second dinner in her honor and her sister suffers the same fate. This episode leans too heavily on a trick Poirot has used in the past to flush out a murderer, but does it in a stylish and clever way.

  1. The Kidnapped Prime Minister (Season 2)

From beginning to end, an exciting short story adaptation that sees Poirot teaming up with England’s leading politicians and detectives to locate the eponymous prime minister on the eve of an international conference. Features an unusually brutal ending for an early Poirot episode.

  1. Lord Edgware Dies (Season 7)

This adaptation suffers from a couple of problems that beset other Poirot adaptations: namely, that it’s hard to show one character disguised as another in a way that isn’t totally obvious (though it does better on this count than some others), and that the prominent inclusion of a seemingly random character in the first act sometimes gives too much away. On the other hand, even Christie’s original novel doesn’t try particularly hard to conceal the identity of Lord Edgware’s murderer.

  1. The King of Clubs (Season 1)

A movie producer is found dead in his home following an argument with a young actress. Poirot’s investigation uncovers long-buried family secrets and raises the question of when is a murder not really a murder.

  1. The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor (Season 3)

Christie had a habit of working fictional detective novelists into her stories, but rarely more ingeniously than in this spooky mystery in which Poirot must rely on the help of a mystery writer to solve the case of a man who appears to have been frightened to death.

  1. Dead Man’s Folly (Season 13)

This episode has a solid premise, a Devonshire “murder party” hosted by Ariadne Oliver, who fears that some of her guests are planning a real murder. Inevitably, her fears are vindicated. The cast of characters, expansive even by the standards of a Christie novel, includes two families (one that owned the estate before, one that owns it now), an architect, and a 92-year-old boatman who knows secrets. It also has one of Christie’s more ingenious plots, the cleverness of which becomes apparent on repeated viewings. Too bad Poirot’s twisted and out-of-character final line leaves a sour aftertaste.

  1. The Case of the Missing Will (Season 5)

About two-thirds of the way through this episode, after a woman has been pushed down an escalator and long-suppressed children are coming to light, Poirot turns to Miss Lemon and says, “I have a task for you.” What follows is a montage of Poirot’s longsuffering secretary browsing through libraries and generally being a detective and it is the greatest thing.

  1. After the Funeral (Season 10)

Try to keep your heart from breaking when the murderer reveals why he or she committed the murder at the end of this episode. A profoundly moving meditation on poverty and envy featuring a before-he-was-famous Michael Fassbender.

  1. The Theft of the Royal Ruby (or, The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, Season 3)

The lesser of the two Poirot Christmas episodes is still memorable thanks to its setting (an English country estate during the Christmas holidays) and one of Poirot’s more ingenious schemes for entrapping a murderer.

  1. The Affair at the Victory Ball (Season 3)

The short story is artfully constructed but this episode manages to improve on it, with a denouement taking place live on the air during a BBC radio production and a nifty murderer-catching trick involving a tossed statue.

  1. Hickory Dickory Dock (Season 6)

One of two Poirot novels centered on a boarding school or youth hostel, “Hickory Dickory Dock” has an impressively forbidding sense of menace and one particularly gruesome twist. However, the adaptation is marred somewhat by the music, which can’t help reminding one of the “Rita” story arc in Arrested Development.

  1. Dead Man’s Mirror (Season 5)

A man to whom Poirot lost an antique mirror at auction is found dead in his study. Meanwhile, his wife believes she’s hearing the voice of an ancient Egyptian spirit. This episode has a genuinely spooky finale and some of the best lighting and set design in the series, while Hastings takes his catchphrase-slinging to new heights.hastings

  1. Murder on the Links (Season 6)

A morbidly funny mystery centering around a man found dead in an open grave on a golf course, a grave he had apparently dug himself, “Murder on the Links” features a tense altercation between Poirot and a French detective who resembles G. K. Chesterton, and, memorably, Hastings’ first encounter with the love of his life.

  1. Cards on the Table (Season 10)

Poirot and Madame Oliver are invited to the home of a wealthy and elegant Syrian art collector. Halfway through dinner their host keels over fatally. As it happens, four of the guests are detectives, and together they set about investigating the other guests, each of whom is revealed to have been involved in a long-ago crime. It’s a clever premise that illuminates one of the major themes of Christie’s later works, how “old sins cast long shadows.”

  1. Three-Act Tragedy (Season 12)

poirot15Poirot attends a party at which the host dies while drinking a cocktail. A month later, at another party attended by most of the same people, a second host is killed in a similar manner. This stylish adaptation has one of the more ingenious methods of concealing murder in the Poirot canon. Poirot’s method of confronting the killer and explaining the murders is particularly satisfying, and Martin Shaw is luminous as the multilayered Sir Charles Cartwright.

  1. Third Girl (Season 11)

When a young woman comes to Poirot seeking help for a murder she “might have” committed, the aging detective calls on his old friend Ariadne Oliver. Plotwise this adaptation considerably improves on the novel, a soporific late-period Christie with little discernible action. It also features the great character Sir Roderick Horsfield, memorably played by Peter Bowles. poirot16

  1. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (Season 6)

When the rich and despicable estate owner Simeon Lee is found dead in a locked room on Christmas Eve, his entire family comes under suspicion. Poirot and a local detective uncover a tortuous family history fraught with malice and revenge.

  1. The Mysterious Affair at Styles (Season 3)

It took three seasons for the show to adapt Christie’s first novel, which reveals how Hastings and Poirot met and became friends while investigating the death of an old matriarch who had recently married a much younger man. This adaptation closely follows the novel, which bears some striking structural similarities to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

  1. Cat among the Pigeons (Season 11)

A late-period Christie in which Poirot investigates the theft of jewels belonging to a crown prince and a series of murders at a girl’s boarding school. The change of murder weapon gives this adaptation one of the series’ most memorable deaths. It also features a surprise appearance by Anton Lesser, my favorite reader of audio books, in a prominent role.

  1. The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim (Season 2)

A middle-aged banker disappears and Poirot makes a bet with Japp that he can solve the case within a week without leaving his apartment. Memorably features a parrot and one of the show’s best-ever exchanges (between Poirot and the man who delivers the parrot). poirot17

  1. The Adventure of the Cheap Flat (Season 2)

The first episode of Poirot I ever saw, this episode works as a terrific introduction to the world of the show with its elegant ladies, debonair men, foggy London parks, slender champagne glasses, sultry torch singers and Art Deco-inspired apartment buildings. Plus, there’s an intransigent police detective with a preposterously flat American accent and an exciting gun battle. I’d recommend starting here, or with any of the other excellent Season 2 episodes, before attempting the uneven first season.

poirot10poirot9

 

  1. The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (Season 5)

While Poirot and Hastings are vacationing in Brighton, they encounter a theatrical couple who have proudly cast a string of rare pearls in their next production. Inevitably the jewels go missing. In one of the show’s funnier subplots, Poirot is constantly mistaken for a newspaper personality known as “Lucky Len.”

  1. Death in the Clouds (Season 4)

poirot18An old woman is murdered on a commercial flight; a search of the plane turns up a dead wasp and a blowpipe. This airy confection of an episode, which volleys between London and Paris, gains strength from its conclusion in which Christie uses our knowledge of the Christie formula to trick us. The moment we think the case has been solved, it opens up anew in brutal fashion.

*           *           *

 

Parfait

  1. Hallowe’en Party (Season 12)

Mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver attends a Hallowe’en party where a young girl is murdered while bobbing for apples. This spookily gorgeous adaptation follows Christie’s original with only minor alterations and features one of the best twists in the series, one that would later be used to good effect in Veronica Mars.

  1. The ABC Murders (Season 4)

A serial killer is on the loose, moving from town to town murdering people according to an alphabetical system. Meanwhile, a nervous, friendless, and socially awkward man keeps blacking out, and begins to fear that he might be a murderer. It all builds to a single one-on-one conversation in a jail cell, and one of the most affecting scenes in any Poirot adaptation.

  1. The Cornish Mystery (Season 2)

When a middle-aged woman tells Poirot that she fears her husband is trying to poison her, Poirot and Hastings set out for Cornwall. The first episode in the series to perfectly nail the Poirot formula, “The Cornish Mystery,” with its trains, carriages and quaint seaside villages, is a richly atmospheric thriller and terrific rainy-day viewing.

  1. The Veiled Lady (Season 2)

This 50-minute episode is iconic thanks to a plot that sees Poirot and Hastings breaking into a house in order to obtain evidence, and a denouement involving two murderers hidden in a museum trying to fend off a cat.

  1. Five Little Pigs (Season 9)

The first episode of the “new” Poirot series also has the distinction of being the most beautiful, with a flashback structure that avoids being overly complicated and a tragic history that picks up emotional weight as we see the sins and mistakes of the past casting their shadows into the present. An initially disturbing but ultimately very moving story of deceit, betrayal, violence and a single redemptive act of unbelievable courage.

  1. Murder on the Orient Express (Season 12)

A suitably atmospheric adaptation of the celebrated snowy train mystery in which every passenger (Jessica Chastain among them) has an apparent motive for the murder. Poirot is pushed to his limits, morally and emotionally, in a case that anticipates the temptations and dark ethical compromises of the final season.

  1. Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case (Season 13)

Elderly Poirot and Hastings return to Styles, the scene of their first mystery, for one last adventure. This exquisitely scored and directed finale lands its punches by calling into question everything we’ve learned about Poirot in the previous thirteen seasons: is he mortal? Is he good? Is his mustache even real? Like death itself, it is a cleansing fire, leaving us steeped in melancholy and a profound nostalgia. “They were good days,” indeed. poirot

  1. Death on the Nile (Season 9)

A newly married couple taking a river-voyage through Egypt learns that they’re being stalked by a jealous woman nursing a broken heart. But not everything is what it seems and the final scenes, in which Poirot reveals a conspiracy most intricate, are both intellectually thrilling and emotionally poignant. Also features Emily Blunt in one of her first roles.

  1. Evil under the Sun (Season 8)

Evil under the Sun isn’t the most perfectly plotted Poirot story Agatha Christie ever wrote, but it’s close. There are so many twists and surprises in the last half-hour of this adaptation that to say anymore would risk spoiling it. Like Death on the Nile, this story of tangled love in an exotic locale begins with a seemingly ordinary premise (a woman who has numerous enemies is found lying dead on a beach) that becomes more layered and disturbing with each new revelation.

  1. Peril at End House (Season 2)

poirot6The first novel to be adapted into a feature-length film is also one of the definitive Poirot adaptations, featuring an old estate in the country, a wealthy but vulnerable heiress and a series of disturbing murders. This episode is everything that makes Poirot great distilled into 90 minutes, including an ingenious method for catching forgers, one of the all-time great line readings—“You’re all so… STUPID!”—and a conclusion that sees Poirot, Hastings, Inspector Japp, and Miss Lemon eating ice cream on the beach. The way all mysteries should end.

 

What Frozen Taught Me About How to Read the Bible

Elsa          Frozen is one of those movies that stay with you. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I watched it again last week. Like most people I could empathize with Elsa’s longing to disappear into the mountains, away from friends and family, free of their rules and expectations, free to quit pretending, to be me. It’s a universal feeling, one that I think we’ve all felt.

 

            I love the second verse especially:

 

            It’s funny how some distance

            Makes everything seem small

            And the fears that once controlled me

            Can’t get to me at all

           

            It’s time to see what I can do

            To test the limits and break through

            No right, no wrong, no rules for me

            I’m free!

 

            There’s something so stirring about seeing a heroine growing in confidence, casting off the constraints that have bound her and soaring through wind and sky. Haven’t you ever felt that calling, that longing to forget what everyone else tells you you have to be and just be what you have to be?

 

            And yet I don’t for a moment think the writers fully endorse Elsa’s perspective. I got to wondering how they made Frozen and was surprised to learn that initially Elsa was supposed to be the villain. But when Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez sat down and started writing “Let It Go,” they began trying to imagine what it would be like to be her, to carry her emotional burdens: “this concept of letting out who she is, that she’s kept to herself for so long, and she’s alone and free, but then the sadness of the fact that the last moment is she’s alone. It’s not a perfect thing, but it’s powerful.”

 

            Elsa’s self-imposed isolation is hurtful to her sister and ruinous to the kingdom. The writers aren’t encouraging this, as is clear by the end of the movie. “Let It Go” comes at a place in the movie where the heroine is just beginning her emotional journey, hurt and confused but filled with a longing to transcend her meager surroundings and be confident and powerful. But to understand what the movie thinks about all this, we have to follow that emotional journey all the way to the end.

 

            It’s a precarious balance, but I think the writers got it mostly right. Because we could so easily say, “Elsa was wrong to feel that way!” But the truth is, while her feelings may not always be what we’d want them to be, what they “should”be, they’re a part of the human experience, and that’s beautiful.

 

            We have grace for Elsa because she’s so human. And I wish we could read the Bible in the same way we watch Frozen.

 

            So many people have tried to argue with me about the meaning of the Scriptures. You see, they don’t think I take the Bible seriously enough because I have reservations about some of the scarier passages in the Old Testament, the ones about killing children (Ps. 137:9) or stoning women who are raped (Deut. 22:23-25) or slaughtering whole nations. These are the ones they demand I believe in. “If you don’t believe the whole Word of God,” they insist, “you’re a false teacher!”

 

            And it raises some interesting questions, like: Why these passages? Why does no one ever demand a “literal reading” of, “Love your enemies,” or, “If you forgive others, you will be forgiven”? Why are you making, “Destroy all that they have, and do not spare them” the hill that you die on? What does that say about you?

 

            The truth is, like Frozen, the Bible has some very human elements. Human writers and human heroes expressed things that are often not appropriate. They did not always hear God correctly, and their image of God was not always accurate. Because the Bible is a story, and in order to grasp its full meaning you have to read it all the way to the end. There’s a twist at the end of the story, and the twist is Jesus.

 

            The Psalmist said, “Happy is the one who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks.”

 

            Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.”

 

            Moses said, “You shall conquer them and utterly destroy them.”

 

            Jesus said, “Put away your sword.”

 

            David prayed, “Let there be none to extend mercy.”

 

            Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them.”

 

            In the same way our knowledge of Hans, Anna’s fiancé, is dramatically altered by his self-revelation at the end of Frozen, the Israelites’ perception of God is dramatically altered by the self-revelation of Jesus.

 

           In the first case, the one we had trusted turned out to be a villain and deceiver.

 

           In the second, the one we had feared turned out to be gentle and good.

 

           And that’s really the message of the whole Bible: we thought God was like this; but all along, he was really like this.

 

           We thought God was proud and lofty. But he was meek and lowly.

 

           We thought he would execute vengeance. But he himself was executed.

 

           We thought he would take up the sword and kill. But he took up the cross and died.

 

          It’s the greatest of all surprises—a twist like no other.

 

            But we’ll never grasp what it means unless we read to the end. You can cut up the Bible into pieces and make it say whatever you want, just as you can take “Let It Go” out of Frozen and make a compelling argument for isolation and selfishness. But the true heart of the story is found in its closing scenes, in sacrifices made and love rekindled.

Story Structure in Harry Potter

Harry_Potter_wandI read this great series of articles on the Write like Rowling website.

 

It’s based on the concepts presented in Larry Brooks’ book, Story Engineering.

 

In the section on story structure, Brooks says that in order to be successful, a story needs to have each of these five pivots:

 

  1. The first plot point, when the hero receives her marching orders and sets out on her journey

 

  1. The first pinch point, when the hero is given a reminder of the nature and power of the antagonistic forces arrayed against her

 

  1. The mid-point, when a crucial piece of information is discovered

 

  1. The second pinch point, which again reminds the hero of the antagonistic forces

 

  1. and the second plot point, the final injection of new information into the story that gives the book a kind of forward momentum as it speeds towards the end.

 

Brooks even tells us at what percentage of the way through the book each of these pivots needs to make its appearance.

 

The first plot point occurs 25 percent of the way through the story;

 

the first pinch point occurs 3/8ths of the way through the story;

 

the midpoint occurs at the midpoint;

 

the second pinch point occurs 5/8ths of the way through the story;

 

and the second plot point occurs 75 percent of the way through the story.

 

Interestingly, in Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone, Rowling lands four of these five pivots on the exact page they need to be on according to Brooks’ model of story structure (he excludes the prologue as not being part of the main plot). C. S. Plocher on the Write like Rowling website gives us a rundown:

 

Harry boards the Hogwarts Express on page 90 of the 259-page plot;

 

He gets his first glimpse of Snape (and, even more crucially, Quirrell’s turban) on page 126;

 

He realizes who has the Philosopher’s Stone at the end of chapter 9, exactly halfway through the book;

 

He catches Snape with a bloody leg 5/8ths of the way through the book.

 

The only exception is the final plot point (Harry realizing that Dumbledore has departed for London and the stone is going to be stolen), which is 25 pages later than it would normally be because Rowling is setting up a seven-volume fantasy series and has a lot of world-building to do. (Moreover, I would argue that the true second pinch point in the first novel is the scene with the unicorn in the Forbidden Forest).

 

So if I made it my goal to write a 300-page book:

 

the first plot point would occur on or around page 60;

 

the first pinch point would occur on page 113;

 

the mid-point would occur on page 150;

 

the second pinch point would occur on page 188;

 

and the final plot point would occur on page 225 (or perhaps a bit later in a story of this scope).

 

I have this crazy dream to write a novel according to a strict formula. In the past I always thought I could free-wheel it; but I’m realizing, I really love formulaic writing. It’s so structured. I love following the rules. I love learning the science and craft of storytelling.

 

Why You Should Stop Freaking Out about “NOAH”

Here’s what’s fascinating about all the controversy surrounding the NOAH movie:

In Jewish tradition, Noah is *not* considered one of the heroes of the faith. The Scriptures tell us that he was “righteous in his generation.” It’s a measure of how bad the world had gotten that Noah was the best of the lot.

When God revealed to Noah that he was going to destroy the whole earth in a flood, Noah showed no compassion for his fellow human beings. His only concern was to save himself and his own family.

He’s not a role model of our faith.

You know who is a role model? Someone like Abraham. Who when God said he was going to destroy Sodom, raised his voice in protest and said, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” A man who flagrantly questioned the decisions of the Lord, who challenged his idea of justice.

A man like Moses who, when God offered to wipe out the whole Israelite line and make him the father of a great nation, begged him with tears to spare the people.

The word “Israel” means “he who wrestles with God.” Abraham and Moses are Jewish heroes because they loved others, listened to the voice of reason, and fought with God. That ought to make them Christian heroes, too.

I Read the Bible as an English Major (and That’s Okay)

4426269085_8b16eeda09Read this great article last week by Morgan Guyton on why English majors make lousy fundamentalists.

Growing up I know we were encouraged to take everything we read in the Scriptures at face value. But it’s been fascinating, as I’ve gotten older, to look at the Bible from a more literary perspective. Continue reading

Song Friday: “Alaska” (The Silver Seas)

Silver-Seas_Alaska_coverI ran across these guys after one of their songs was used as the final song of the first season of Breaking Bad. I was inspired to listen to their whole discography, and I have to say, of all the songs I’ve heard this year, this one is probably my favorite. It’s gorgeous, sad, nostalgic, hopeful, and swooningly romantic.

And I have no idea what it’s about. Maybe someone can enlighten me.

How Reading C. S. Lewis Changed My Mind About Hell

FrankcoronationI’ve been thinking about the dangerous group I was once a part of and trying to understand how so many innocent Christian people could be tricked into following a predator.

And the truth is, we were pre-disposed to trust him because of the spiritual culture we were raised in.

Growing up, I was taught to make a clear distinction between people of the world and other believers. A Christian was someone who believed in Jesus, prayed, read his Bible, didn’t drink or smoke or sleep around. It was easy to tell when you met a true believer. You could *trust* those people.

But you couldn’t trust unbelievers. They were all depraved and damned and on their way to hell.

And of course, I thought this was all scriptural. Because once I got an idea in my head, I could find it throughout the Bible.

*          *          *

But everything began to change for me when I read the Chronicles of Narnia. In The Last Battle, a character who had served the evil god Tash his entire life is welcomed by Aslan into the new Narnia. To his own surprise, he realizes that he had really been pursuing Aslan this whole time, although he didn’t know it.

“If any man do a cruelty in my name,” says the Great Lion, “then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted.” And, “Beloved, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”

And it makes me wonder. Because the Bible doesn’t actually have a lot to say about people being saved on the basis of their “profession of faith.”

But it has an awful lot to say about how we treat the poor, showing mercy to others, forgiving our enemies, resisting injustice, standing up for the abused and oppressed.

Jesus says that the ones who do these things are the true sons and daughters of his father.

But in our churches, we don’t evaluate people based on the quality of their love. We evaluate them based on whether they conform to our idea of what a Christian should look like. Do they have all the “correct” beliefs? Do they listen to Christian radio? In short, do they look like us?

And the sad truth is that this way of evaluating people makes the church painfully vulnerable to predators and abusers like Tyler who can so easily adopt the language and rhythms of the Evangelical culture. Anyone who speaks against them becomes an “outsider” and carries a taint of distrust.

We should never allow tribalism to replace our moral judgment. There are *bad* people who profess the name of Jesus and *good* people who don’t. Rather than judging everyone based on the group they belong to, get to know them. There are atheists who are nearer to the kingdom of God than many Christians because what they’ve really rejected is a false Jesus. There are undoubtedly thousands of zealous, radical, “Bible-believing” Christians who are creating a hell for themselves by the god they worship, a proud god, a god who despises learning and beauty and exalts violence and hatred.

On the day we stand at the judgment, there will be some surprises. I suppose where we all end up is measured by what we loved truly, even if we didn’t know its name.