The only reason I’m still a Christian, let alone a pastor, is because of Hoss, Ben, Adam and Little Joe Cartwright.
I’ll share why that’s the case in a moment, but first let me tell you how this whole Bonanza thing came about.
Halfway through graduate school I jettisoned my belief in God, the trustworthiness of Scripture, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, hell, the Virgin birth, the fact that Pepsi is better than Coke, everything – you name it, I kicked it to the curb.
Looking back, I lay blame on a few agnostic professors dressed in sheep’s clothing and radical historical criticism of the Bible, topped off with an espresso shot of existential philosophy.
Yet, if I’m being completely transparent, I think I abandoned my faith mostly because I felt lonely.
I’ll never forget the sensation of what Soren Kierkegaard so eloquently calls dread, the terror within when one has lost the very ground of their being. It was as if I had been cast adrift with no oars or rudder, not sure whether I was going to make it back alive.
I tell people that I clawed my way back into Christian Orthodoxy by first asking what I knew to be true, about anything – not just about God but literally, anything – and from there I worked that backwards to the possibility that there might be a God. From that point I compared religions, and on and on. Back to Jesus. Back to the Bible. To where I am today.
But that’s not the whole story.
What first pointed me back to faith during that tumultuous time was what I discovered on channel four.
I remember coming home one day for lunch between classes and flipping on our old television set. Lo and behold the old western Bonanza was on.
So I watched it.
And I felt oddly comforted.
I watched it again the next day. Same time. Same place. And felt the same thing.
By the end of the third day, I was hooked. Hoss and Little Joe were so reassuring, and strangely exuded a feeling of being home.
The experience was so inviting that I consciously made a commitment to myself to come home at lunchtime every day and catch up on the comings and goings of the Cartwright clan.
For one full year, five days a week, I left classes at 11:50am and rushed home in time to flip on the television and get lost inside of the world of the Ponderosa homestead.
And it literally saved me.
Kierkegaard talks about the man who saves himself, not by finding new ideas, but by finding order:
“Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look around for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance , absolutely sincere because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life.
And that was me – shipwrecked, flailing about in the waves, looking for something, anything, to grab a hold of to bring stability to my chaotic world.
And I found it through the reruns of an old television show.
Here’s how Bonanza saved my faith in God:
- Bonanza got me outside of my own head.
One of the scariest things about my experience is how alone I felt. Not in the sense that other people weren’t around me – my wife was wonderfully close and supportive at the time. It was that I was stuck inside my own head, the way a boxer gets pushed by his opponent into a corner, unable to escape.
When I started my slow descent of despair, it was as if I leaned over to my wife and quoted those first few majestic lines from The Head and Heart‘s song Lost In My Mind…
Put your dreams away for now
I won’t see you for some time
I am lost in my mind
I get lost in my mind
Watching Bonanza allowed me to break free from the constant loop running in my head by inadvertently causing me to focus on something else – anything else – besides the haunting questions that were consuming me.
- Bonanza brought order to my chaotic world.
I was sleeping very little, reading constantly, and spending way too much time with brilliant agnostic New Testament scholars. When I stumbled upon Bonanza I started eating a bologna sandwich like clockwork every day at 12 noon and relaxing for one complete hour. Soon after, not coincidently, I decided to start playing basketball at 4pm every afternoon with my friends in my apartment complex. I started going to bed at the same time each night too.
Watching Bonanza one hour a day, five days a week, was the first step towards creating a new sense of order in my life.
- Bonanza sparked interests in things other than God.
I’m convinced that if all you do is think about God you’ll become bored, and as Kierkegaard observed, “Boredom is the root of all evil.” I experienced that first hand.
It wasn’t until I started watching Bonanza that I developed an interest in Native American history, traveling out West, cowboys, and mid-20th-century film-making.
The problem with my faith wasn’t my faith per se, or even the stringent academic study of it. My problem was it was all I thought about 24/7. I had no other intellectual interests at the time.
I ate, slept and breathed New Testament studies, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, German and French. That was it. I slept 5 hours a night. I spent 2 hours with my wife in the evening. And I studied the remaining 17 hours.
Hoss made me laugh. Adam reminded me of myself, with a dash of Little Joe thrown in. And the Cartwright’s made me want to go to Lake Tahoe, which we did. And go to Yellowstone, which we did. And to the Tetons. And Salt Lake City. And Cody, Wyoming. And a host of other places out West.
So what’s your “Bonanza?”
As I write this, I’m wondering about you.
You might be going through something right now that has ripped the foundation right out from under you.
- results from a test that came back from the doctor
- you found out your spouse was cheating on you
- a divorce
- a soul crushing job
- children causing unspeakable pain
- or you’re struggling intellectually with your faith like I was
Whatever it is, if you’re struggling and doubting God, my recommendation is that you not watch Bonanza (because honestly, that would be weird). But find something which will force you to get out of your head, help create new routines in your life, and spark a passion to explore new interests.
Sometimes the most God honoring, Biblical, and deeply spiritual thing you can do is throw yourself into things that have absolutely nothing to do with your faith.
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