My wife and I had the privilege of going to the movie theatre yesterday. I say it was a privilege because we have a baby daughter who is almost a year old, and rarely get to attend the picture show these days for fear of being caught in an uncomfortable scenario filled with crying and soiled diapers in the darkness.
We got the chance to see The Lone Ranger, a summer blockbuster featuring an all star cast; including Armie Hammer, Johhny Depp, William Fichtner, Tom Wilkinson, and Helena Bonham Carter to name a few.
The setting of and characters in the story describe well what I believe to be the philosophical quandary we find ourselves in today.
The bulk of the story is set in Colby, Texas during post-Civil War America in 1869. So we have an era of America set forth that is displayed as traditional. Early on in the story we are shown a group of Presbyterians heading towards the wild west on a railway train to “convert the heathens”, and they are portrayed as paranoid, pious holy rollers who have an obvious inward mentality. On the same train we are introduced to our first protagonist, the lawyer John Reid who will later become the Lone Ranger. Influenced by the writings of John Locke, John Reid could be described as a rationalistic humanist. He has an acute moral compass that is based on reason, and even idealistically believes that society can perform and uphold pure justice and goodness. This is an ideal that he is proven drastically wrong as he encounters tragedy, isolation, and corruption veiled by hypocritical pretense throughout the story. Thus, John Reid is transformed into what many virtuous baby boomers became as the idealistic sixties cascaded into the hedonistic seventies and the materialistic eighties. He becomes a self-made man, a pioneer, an entrepreneur outside of the laws of society and religion. He becomes the Lone Ranger.
On the train we also encounter our second protagonist, Tonto, an American Indian mystic played by the hilarious and engaging crowd favorite, Johnny Depp. In addition to being eccentric, Tonto is deeply spiritual in the tradition of ancient Native American beliefs. He carries around a dead crow on his head that he constantly feeds bird-seed to, and believes in many ancient Native American traditions, though not all of them are necessarily indicative of Comanche belief. Yet this amalgamation of mysticism that is present within Johnny Depp’s Tonto is a perfect representation of post-modern mysticism. Tonto doesn’t fit into any sort of ancient, traditional paradigm. He himself is just as much, or more of a maverick than the Lone Ranger. He may be the sole reason in the story why the Lone Ranger becomes “Lone”. To our present culture, Tonto represents the wild spiritual mystic who mostly rejects rationality in favor of the unseen, unexplainable, and superstitious. For Friends fans, He’s the Phoebe Buffet of the story. In the current non-fiction arena, he’s like Russell Brand. He’s someone who follows the spiritual, and isn’t afraid to be eccentric or go against what everyone else thinks.
So there we have our current philosophical quandary between the Lone Ranger and Tonto. The tension between rationalism and mysticism. Their squabbles in the movie represent society’s inability to see a connection between the two. Can one be both a rationalist and a mystic? A mystical rationalist? A scientifically sound spiritualist? Though the film doesn’t solve this tension, but rather leaves it at the end with the Lone Ranger and Tonto arguing about what is real and true, it does offer a solution to us. The solution is to abandon traditionalism and materialism, and head down the maverick path of existentialism.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto have to reject the Christianity of their era, which unfortunately is assumed to be Christianity proper. Christianity is displayed in the movie as either a bunch of pious separatists trying to force conversions onto “heathens” (via the Presbyterians on the train in the beginning). It’s also represented in the ultimate hypocrite in the story- Latham Cole.
Latham Cole is a railroad tycoon and a politician. He displays a facade of caring for the community, country and nation, while secretly his real motivations are greed and power. Of course it’s revealed later in the movie that he is a Christian. A Christian who is even in cahoots with the evil villain of the movie Butch Cavendish- a cannibalistic, sadistic psychopath nihilist. Their common threads? Greed and power. The tension in the movie is between these antagonists and the protagonists of the Lone Ranger and Tonto.
Yet once again, no beautiful portrayal of true moral purity and love is displayed in any one character in this film. The Lone Ranger and Tonto are heroes because they go against the hypocrisy of traditional society and stand up for what is right to some extent. But they, like any human being, have plenty of flaws and selfish motivations. Yet like in all works of literature, art and film, the true perfect protagonist doesn’t exist. Why would a perfect ideal hero exist in the minds of those that couldn’t possibly fathom such a One?
Yet Jesus, as He was accurately depicted in the scriptures, fulfills all the perfection of a perfect mystical rationalist. He was completely sane and made claims about reality that came true with historical accuracy, like the Jerusalem Temple being destroyed (Mark 13:1-2). He also said amazing spiritual things that people of His time didn’t understand, yet understood later. When a few of His apprentices asked Him when the Jerusalem temple would be destroyed, likely hoping that Jesus would take over the world as an earthly King and protect Jerusalem from corruptive Roman authority, Jesus answered with an entire discourse that would encapsulate both the immediate and long-term events to come (Mark 13:3-37). Obviously, His apprentices had no idea what He was saying at the time, but it would make sense as time went on!
The line between mysticism and rationalism is what Francis Schaeffer called “the line of despair” in his great work “The God Who is There”. He postulated that our culture views this line as one of desperation and sadness, because in their view, there is no logic in spirituality, and no spirituality in logic. He offered the same solution that I believe Jesus and the Word of God present in the scriptures reveals to us. There is logic in spirituality and spirituality in logic. This is revealed in the God man Jesus Christ who was both fully human and fully divine, and presented the intersection between history and the unseen, observable fact and the supernatural, time and the space beyond time, as well as perception and the hidden doors behind the perceivable.
- The problem with The Lone Ranger’s Tonto (cbc.ca)
- Esquire:The Lone Ranger Has No Idea What It Is (esquire.com)
- Native actor commends Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Tonto (rapidcityjournal.com)
- Right Wing Christians upset Tonto’s Character in the ‘Lone Ranger’ isn’t a Christian (freakoutnation.com)
- Johnny Depp as Tonto: Is The Lone Ranger Racist? (entertainment.time.com)