Monday, June 1, 2020

The Key Moment in Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad (TV Series 2008–2013) - IMDb

The key moment in Breaking Bad is in Season 1 Episode 5, which I just finished watching. I know very generally how the story proceeds from here, from what I've seen on news articles, so if you're one of the other few people in the world who haven't seen the show in its entirety and you don't want to hear even very general spoilers, then stop here. But the very general info I know hasn't lessened my interest or appreciation for the episodes I've seen, so I think the important truth I will discuss will compensate for any mild spoiler effect. And if you've seen the whole series, or if you don't plan to watch it, what I'll say here is unquestionably worth a few minutes of your time, because it can effect your eternity.

I started watching Breaking Bad a couple years ago, but my conscience wouldn't let me continue past the first two episodes, for several reasons: 1) They were the only ones that were free to me at that time and I didn't think it was worth the money to watch a show that had so much evil behavior in it, and 2) The evil behavior. A conscience can be legitimately realigned, however, as I explain here, and mine has been, because 1) I can watch more of the show for free now and 2) all the things I've heard about it in the last couple years have convinced me that there may be some redeeming value in watching more of it.

What I've heard includes the widespread view that Breaking Bread is one of the best shows ever produced for television, at least according to secular artistic standards. That interests me as a writer and creator of fiction. But I've also heard (from a Christianity Today article, of all things) that creator Vince Gilligan's religious upbringing bleeds through in subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways. And so far, after seeing the first five episodes, I'd have to agree that both are true, and that at least those early episodes may be worth watching (for adults only, of course, and only if your conscience is clear:).

The reason I say that is similar to why Shakespeare's Hamlet is worthwhile art, despite its constant depiction of evil behavior and its tragic story arc. In fact, I saw a direct parallel to Hamlet in the key Breaking Bad moment I'll be talking about. Early in the classic play, Shakespeare tells us twice that Hamlet would have gone to Wittenberg to study if the ghost of his father had not appeared to him and called for revenge. I believe this was a hint of why Hamlet's life unravels so horribly and how it could have been avoided, because Wittenberg was where Martin Luther had championed the doctrine of Divine grace over human merit and "salvation by works." If Hamlet had learned that principle, he could have abandoned the pursuit of revenge that doomed him and just about everyone else in the play. (I wrote more about that here.)

In Episode 5 of Breaking Bad, Walter White makes a fateful choice to decline an offer from a rich ex-friend to pay for his cancer treatment, which leaves him with cooking meth as the only way he can make enough money to pay for it (and keep his family out of crippling debt). His motives for the choice are understandable to most of us, because our natures are hard-wired to view receiving "charity" from others negatively. We want to take care of ourselves and not be dependent on others. Plus we've all experienced the impetus to revenge, and that is present in Walter's motives too, because the rich ex-friend married the woman he loved.

I've always said that many non-Christian artists are very accomplished at understanding and depicting the problems with humanity--they just never present the complete solution (unless they borrow from the gospel story, of course). I can see already from five episodes that Breaking Bad (as its title promises) will paint a very accurate picture of how someone can go from good to worst and provide many powerful illustrations of human depravity (as well as many other human experiences, like family dynamics and dealing with cancer). Perhaps I'll write about some more of them if I continue to watch the show. But for now I wanted to say that whether Vince Gilligan and the other creators of the show know it or not, they tapped into a crucial spiritual truth by that development in Episode 5.

Not only does God offer us his "charity" (an old word for self-sacrificial love that comes from the Greek word for grace), but he tells us that we'll never get anywhere without it. We'll never get to have a relationship with him and we'll never get into heaven when the next life arrives. Look at what the apostle Paul says about his fellow Jews who were moral and religious but did not believe in Jesus Christ:

"My heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness." (Romans 10:1-3)

Paul had said earlier in Romans that the only way to be saved was to receive the gift of God's righteousness procured by Christ through his perfect life and substitutionary death on the cross (Rom. 3:21-26, 4:1-8). That is the ultimate "charity," because it's the opposite of what we deserve for our sins (Rom. 6:23). And to receive it, we must admit that to God and let him do for us what we could never do for ourselves. The principle of grace and the principle of "works" (human merit) are mutually exclusive:

"At the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace." (Romans 11:5-6)

Walter White's stubborn pride and skewed sense of justice kept him from receiving a gift from an ex-friend that could have preserved and renewed his life. Are you rejecting an even greater gift from the best-ever friend, one that could redeem your soul?

"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13, in Shakespeare's English:).

Monday, March 30, 2020

The Painted Veil - God brings good out of an epidemic

Beautifully filmed, skillfully acted, and powerfully meaningful in many ways...this is an overlooked gem of a movie that I highly recommend, especially in light of the current coronavirus crisis. Because of that crisis parts of the movie will not be pleasant to watch, and it may be undesirable altogether for some, but if you can brave the horrors of a deadly epidemic on screen for a couple hours, you will be rewarded with some great and hopeful examples of how good can and does come from such unfortunate circumstances.

I suggest that you watch the movie first and then come back to read my spoiler review below, but before you do let me say something about its content, especially related to children. Fortunately I was able to record it to a DVD several years ago when I had that capability, so I was able to make an edited version with the unnecessary sex and nudity cut out of it, and that's what I showed to my nine and eleven year-old daughters. I'm glad I could do that, because it provoked a lot of good discussion and taught them some important lessons about the nature of true love (as opposed to lust and infatuation), repentance and forgiveness, priorities in life, the path to happiness, self-sacrifice, how God can bring good out of tragedy and suffering (as I mentioned), and other issues. It's unlikely that you will be able to watch an edited version (the one company I know who sells them doesn't offer this movie), so I will tell you where the scenes are in case you want to watch it with children and fast forward those parts. The first one is not long after Kitty and Charlie talk at the theater and when you see their shoes on the floor--it lasts about 40 seconds. The second one occurs late in the movie after Walter and Kitty are drinking at the British man's house and return home--it lasts a little over two minutes. You can simply tell your kids what happens in those scenes, like I did--they don't have to witness it in order to know the significance of what's going on.

For most adults, I don't think what is depicted will be a problem, unless brief views of a women's slip or men's naked behinds are a temptation for you. So watch the movie, thinking about the issues that I just mentioned, and then come back here for some spoiler thoughts from me about it, because I have some interesting insights that you might not catch upon first viewing it--at least my wife and daughters didn't see them until I pointed them out.

The first and most important insight is about the spiritual and religious subtext in the movie. I say "subtext" because on the surface there is very little religion--in fact, Kitty tells the head nun at the orphanage that she doesn't believe much of anything and Walter says of the nuns, "They didn't convert you, did they?" But even those scenes, which seem initially to dismiss religious faith, contain subtle elements that affirm it. Walter's face expresses disappointment when Kitty says no to the question of being converted, for example--I think he was hoping against hope that something like that would happen to her, because after all revenge was not his only reason to bring her with him to a cholera zone. He clearly harbored hope that she would change and there would be a chance for them to love again; otherwise he would have simply divorced her as he had every right to do.

Other examples of subtle spiritual content can be found in the final lines of each main character. Walter's last words are a plea for forgiveness from Kitty, which implies that he had been seeking forgiveness first from God as he lay dying. Only by recognizing his sins of pride and bitterness before the Lord could he have seen his need for forgiveness from her. And one of Kitty's final lines in the movie is to affirm (contrary to one of her earliest lines, well before her repentance) that the beauty and fragrance of flowers is still worth it even though they live such short lives. Though I don't think the filmmakers meant this to happen, that line made me think of what Jesus said in John 12:25: "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." 

The second half of that verse is definitely illustrated well in both Walter's sacrifice on behalf of the Chinese people and Kitty's experiences in the orphanage and at Walter's deathbed: "Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life." They both learn that true "quality of life" lies in giving up your own desires and pleasures for the good of others, and I like to think that they also learned to do so for the glory of God. Like the filmmakers, the author of the source novel (W. Somerset Maugham) was not a Christian, but he lived in a largely Christian culture and unquestionably traded off on Christian themes. Therefore what is depicted about these characters fits well with the Christian doctrines of Divine love (agape), Fatherly discipline, repentance, forgiveness, and redemption. It is no crime against the art or artist to view the events of the film through those lenses, and it can be a wonderful blessing to do so.

Monday, December 30, 2019

A Christmas Carol is Really a Christianity Carol

As we do almost every year at Christmas, our family had the privilege of watching a beautiful movie--A Christmas Carol (the one with George C. Scott). I say it's beautiful because of the content, of course, which follows Dickens' classic novel closely--with the exception of one part that almost all adaptations skip (I'll get to that later). But it's also a beautiful movie visually...I was struck by that watching it again this time. Great performances, too--I wonder if maybe one of the main reasons Scott was put on this earth was to do this project. He was great in Patton, of course, but I'm not sure there's any redeeming value in that movie--I've never had a desire to watch it again after seeing it the first time. This movie, however, is the epitome of redeeming value, of course, and I never get tired of watching it.

So I highly recommend the movie (at any time of year), but I also wanted to tell you, if you didn't already know (like many don't), that the appreciation for Christmas encouraged in the story is really a metaphorical paean to Christianity itself (and especially the beneficent spirit at its core, of course).

Whatever his personal moral weaknesses may have been--and the modern-day claims about them are far from unquestionable--Dickens very clearly professed to be a Christian. For a thorough discussion of his faith, see God and Charles Dickens by Gary Colledge, but here are a few interesting examples of the overwhelming evidence:

The final paragraph of Dickens' last will and testament include these words: "I commit my soul to the mercy of God through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and I exhort my dear children humbly to try to guide themselves by the teaching of the New Testament."

The last letter he ever wrote contains this: "I have always striven in my writings to express veneration for the life and lessons of our Saviour; because I feel it; and because I re-wrote that history for my children—every one of whom knew it from having it repeated to them—long before they could read, and almost as soon as they could speak.”

The book about Christ that Dickens refers to is The Life of Our Lord, a manuscript that he wrote for his children and personally read to them every year at Christmas time. The book begins: “My Dear Children, I am very anxious that you should know something about the History of Jesus Christ. For everybody ought to know about Him. No one ever lived who was so good, so kind, so gentle, and so sorry for all people who did wrong, or were in any way ill or miserable, as He was.” One notable feature of the book is that Dickens recounted many of the miracle stories from the gospels and clearly believed they actually happened, which provides an important context for the visits to Unitarian churches that cause some to question his evangelical faith.

And in Christmas Carol itself, of course, Dickens puts these words into the mouth of his most admirable character, Tiny Tim ("faith like a child"): his father says after their trip to church, "Somehow he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas day who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see."

Speaking of church, that's the important part of Dickens' novel that is almost always left out of the adaptations, no matter how faithful they are otherwise. At the end, when Scrooge is converted, one of the first things he does is go to church! Check out the novel--it's there. The great author was not only using his powerful sentimentalist verbal armory to advocate a rediscovery of a holiday--he was saying we all should rejoice in the biblical truths that occasioned it in the first place.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Novella: A Great Idea Whose Time Has Come

In The New Yorker on October 29, 2012, the Booker Prize winning author Ian McEwan wrote, “I believe the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction.”

Even if that’s an overstatement, McEwan’s article makes a great case that the novella is an important and beneficial form of literature. So why are works of fiction with a length somewhere between short stories and novels almost never published, unless they’re by a famous author?

The main reason is that prior to modern publishing innovations like eBooks and on-demand production, thousands of copies of every book had to be printed, and novellas were too short and inexpensive for publishers to turn a profit on them (unless they were by a famous author and therefore guaranteed to sell enough copies). But those new publishing capabilities have made the printing cost a relatively moot issue, so the novella is now primed to become as prevalent and appreciated as its counterparts.

We may be at the dawn of a revolution in fiction publishing—the “Day of the Novella”—and Cruciform Press is hoping to be a pioneer in this new age like it has been with short, practical non-fiction books during the last decade. On July 25 we’ll be releasing the first three novellas in our new fiction line.

Perhaps you’ve thought of some other reasons why there aren’t many novellas in print. For example, an avid reader I know once complained that a short novel is a mere “snack” to her, because she likes to read long epics. But what’s wrong with a good snack? Krispy Kreme donuts are a snack, and so are ice cream and Doritos (or whatever kind of chips you prefer)—even Starbucks. So that shouldn’t be a criticism or reason to abstain from novellas, and they’re not even bad for your health!

We might assume that novellas are somehow inferior to novels because they’re shorter, but McEwan addresses that issue very well in the larger section surrounding the quote above:

Composers, including those of the highest rank, have never had such problems of scale. Who doubts the greatness of Beethoven’s piano sonatas and string quartets or of Schubert’s songs? Some, like me, prefer them to the symphonies of either man. Who could harden his heart against the intimate drama of Mozart’s G minor trio, or not lose himself in the Goldberg variations or not stand in awe of the D minor Chaconne played on a lonesome violin?

Strangely, the short story never arouses suspicion of short-changing, probably because the form is so fundamentally different from the novel.

I believe the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction. It is the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated, ill-shaven giant (but a giant who’s a genius on his best days). And this child is the means by which many first know our greatest writers. Readers come to Thomas Mann by way of “Death in Venice,” Henry James by “The Turn of the Screw,” Kafka by “Metamorphosis,” Joseph Conrad by “Heart of Darkness,” Albert Camus by “L’Etranger.” I could go on: Voltaire, Tolstoy, Joyce, Solzhenitsyn. And Orwell, Steinbeck, Pynchon. And Melville, Lawrence, Munro. The tradition is long and glorious. I could go even further: the demands of economy push writers to polish their sentences to precision and clarity, to bring off their effects with unusual intensity, to remain focused on the point of their creation and drive it forward with functional single-mindedness, and to end it with a mind to its unity. They don’t ramble or preach, they spare us their quintuple subplots and swollen midsections.

Novellas not only promote economy and unity in writing, but they are a perfect medium for a generation of readers who have shorter attention spans and love movies (a screenplay is around the same length as a novella).
I wonder why Ian McEwan omitted A Christmas Carol from his list of examples (perhaps because it’s too “Christian” for him?). That short book by Charles Dickens, in my opinion, is the greatest example of a classic work of art that has changed the world for good in many ways. For one of Cruciform’s first three titles coming out next month, I had the privilege of abridging and annotating Dickens’ novella Haunted Man, a forgotten classic that I hope will also be used by the Lord to bring his grace and truth into many lives.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Some good books (including one for fans of the Black Panther movie)

Here are a few examples of good books I've read recently. I'd like to have a site just devoted to book reviews from a Christian perspective, because there is a real scarcity of such sites out there. (Are there any at all, in fact? Let me know if you are aware of any.) But I'm too busy to start a new site, and "Voracious" and "VoraciousReader" are both taken as site names (bummer!). So I'll just put some recommendations on this blog from time to time, for movies and music as well as books, and hope somebody benefits from them.

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Hardware: The Man in the Machine, by McDuffie and Cowan

This is a really cool graphic novel, by African-American creators, collecting a comics series from years ago that only lasted about 10 issues. But it's got great art by Denys Cowan and beautiful coloring (a rather unique look), and the extra bonus that makes this book special is the theme of revenge vs. justice. The hero, who is more of an anti-hero at first, actually progresses in character development as the story goes, with the arc coming to a satisfying conclusion, especially for those who care about the truth. If you like the Black Panther movie and want to check out some more popular art by African Americans, or if you just like a good story with cool art, you can get Hardware here or here.

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Moby Dick Graphic Novel, by Chaboute

I asked for this book as a Christmas present, because the art looked cool and I've had difficulty getting through the whole original text of Moby Dick, so I thought a graphic novel version would be more doable for me. It was, and I found both my imagination and my soul stirred by this classic tale. It struck me that it's essentially an Old Testament story, complete with portentous prophecies, God's judgment on idolatry (in various forms), and, of course, a whale (but it's not the Book of Jonah). Melville's religious syncretism bleeds through at times, but so does the biblical truth he was steeped in, and there's much more of the latter in the story. French creator Chaboute doesn't bring out even close to all of the Christian elements of the original book, but he can't be faulted for that because of the abridgment. Some of it is there, though, and that along with the beautiful art--effective in black and white--makes this a worthwhile read. You can get it here.

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Monstrum, by Donald James

This is a "normal" book (not a graphic novel) that I bought at a thrift store because I thought the cover looked good and it sounded like an interesting premise...a future Moscow ravaged by civil war and a serial killer who may be more than he (or she) seems. The author is a historian who is an expert on Russia, so all that happens in the novel is probably possible. If you can stand the constant profanity (Russian style) from some of the characters and the anti-hero's often anti-heroic actions, an illustration of God's grace emerges eventually as He uses an unlikely and undeserving tool to save the country. Along the way, twists and turns keep you turning the pages. You can get it (for really cheap) here.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Mystery of Mystery Novels

The mystery of mystery novels is how to find a good one! I love Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe stories from the 1940s (The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, etc.), but I can only re-read them every couple years when I've forgotten the plots, and so in between I've been searching far and wide for other good ones (mostly in libraries and used book stores). As in most categories of art and entertainment, I've only found about one in a hundred that I like. I usually stop reading them shortly after I start, because they just don't draw me in enough, they're not my kind of thing, or they have too much offensive material. But once in a while I find a "keeper," so I thought I could save you some time searching yourself by telling you about a few that I liked...

Gone Tomorrow by Lee Childs is one of his many Jack Reacher novels.  I've read several others in the series, and they have pulled me in, but I was not pleased with the total product, partially because of uneven quality but also because Jack Reacher is so often amoral and immoral. Gone Tomorrow is consistently good and mostly unoffensive, except for the one brief but totally unnecessary episode of fornication toward the end. Fortunately it is not described graphically...but why do authors have to throw sex into every story?! Do they think that a relationship can't be good or complete without it? Anyway, the story is very interesting, the hero has some good qualities, and the cover is soooo cool-looking! (Yes, the way a book looks is important to me, and yes, I know I'm weird that way.)  [The next Reacher book, 61 Hours, is also very good, if you can stand the fact that it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger.]

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The Good Guy by Dean Koontz was a good read. I've tried several other books by Koontz and have only finished one (The Husband, which was underwhelming, especially at the end). But I thought The Good Guy kicked some derriere...probably largely because of my Christian sensibilities... the main character is actually a good guy, for goodness sake, and that was refreshing in this age of the anti-hero. I have to admit the end was a bit anticlimactic, but at least it was satisfying, and the ride to there was great. Check this one out.

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane kept me turning page after page to find out what in the world was going was certainly successful by that standard. But it also raised some interesting issues about mental health, psychiatry, and even psychopharmocology that I enjoy mulling over. I tried a couple of his older private eye novels (A Drink Before the War, Prayers for Rain) but can't recommend them because the protagonists are so depraved and the ultimate "lessons" are so nihilistic or hedonistic. But though Shutter Island definitely shared some of the nihilism, it is more well directed at the depravity of man and his hopeless attempts to cure "mental problems" without God.

The Good Fight, Henry V Style! (Plus...What if Hamlet had gone to Wittenberg?)

Shakespeare's work, as much as any other, embodies what I mean when I say "Truth is no stranger to fiction."  His plays are are filled with illustrations of biblical principles, two of which stood out for me recently as I revisited a few of my favorites.

First, Henry V provides a wealth of insight into how we can "fight the good fight," as Paul tells Timothy in 1 Timothy 1:18, and how we can motivate others to do so.  When I think about the spiritual warfare we face, Shakespeare's words in Henry V often come to mind... "Once more unto the breach!"  Here's that part of the play, with King Henry leading his troops at the battle of Harfleur:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger!

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Then later, at the battle of Agincourt, in the famous "St. Crispian's Day" speech, notice especially the different ways that Henry motivates his troops, and imagine that God is using these ideas to engage you in the real ongoing battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil...

O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!

What's he that wishes so? My cousin Westmoreland?
No, my fair cousin.
If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires;
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more, methinks, would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart. His passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse.
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say, "To-morrow is Saint Crispian."
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say, "These wounds I had on Crispian's day."
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words,
Harry the King, Bedford, and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered,
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

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As you read that, did you notice all the different ways that Henry motivated his men? (If not, go back and see if you can identify's fun!). He did so by the promise of reward, the shame of cowardice, personal satisfaction for the present and the future, leaving a legacy to the next generation, friendship and community with others, redemption from past sins, and a sense of great accomplishment. I love all those aspects of the speech because they all reflect biblical motivations that the Scriptures provide for us as well! That's why you should "fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience," as Paul told Timothy.

Secondly, revisiting Hamlet reminded me of a pet theory of mine, which is about how Shakespeare and the Reformation are more related to one another than a cursory observer might think. I would love to write a paper/article on this issue sometime, if I ever become disabled or otherwise end up with the time I would need to write everything I want to! But I'll give you a little taste here...

The Bard lived in a post-Reformation England, of course, and although he dabbled in Roman Catholicism (a "rebel heart" manifesting itself?), he no doubt was influenced by the brighter lights of the Protestant movement (and perhaps inspired to some of his biting satire by the darker parts). One of the most interesting examples of this, that almost no one is aware of, is in the beginning scenes of Hamlet, where he makes the point at least twice (it might be three times, I can't remember right now) that the young prince of Denmark was headed to school in Wittenberg--yes, the same German city where Luther had taught--before his evil uncle talked him into staying at the castle. The implication, to me at least, is that if Hamlet would have gone to Wittenberg, he would have learned about the grace of the cross and all the tragedies in this tragedy would have been avoided! In case you think that's too much of a stretch, I would add that Horatio, who represents the moral compass of the play (notice he's the only character who remains pure), was already enrolled in the school at Wittenberg and had spent the previous year there. It's all in the play...check it out some time if you don't believe me!

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