In July of 2015, researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology released a preview of the results of a study wherein participants’ brains were monitored during showings of scenes from suspense movies.
You know the scenes I’m talking about: Cary Grant being chased down by a low-flying airplane in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest is a classic, and it was one of those viewed by study participants. For those of you too young for Hitchcock, think of Clarice confronting the killer in Silence of the Lambs, the moment we realize HAL can read lips in Space Odyssey 2001, the bus is hurtling against traffic in Speed, the velociraptors searching for the children in the kitchen in Jurassic Park, or when the hero lands the plane on the Hudson in Sully.
That last example seems like it shouldn’t be a part of this list. Since the real event happened in 2009, we know the outcome of the Miracle on the Hudson: a disabled commercial aircraft is safely put down despite harrowing circumstances. And, yet, our hearts race and our palms get sweaty during the intense scene when the pilot holds the lives of passengers and countless hundreds of residents on the ground in his hands and must maintain a demeanor of calm, control confidence. We all love to re-watch our favorite movie scenes, including the suspenseful ones, and we experience all the nervousness and anxiety all over again as if it’s the first time. It’s almost irrational because we are behaving as if we are in the dark about something we actually know quite a bit about.
In part, that’s because it doesn’t have anything to do with what we don’t know, but how we are perceiving in the moment what we generally know. It’s also because we know all too well that death is ultimately inescapable, no matter how many times the hero thwarts it in repeat showings.
Plot Twists and Reversals
What the researchers at Georgia Tech discovered is that our brain perceives information differently depending upon how we are processing what the information means. If we empathize with a stressful situation, feel uncertain about how a scenario will turn out, or ponder possible solutions, the calcarine sulcus in our brain—a shallow groove on the surface—reacts by adjusting our cognitive field of vision. During suspenseful experiences, our periphery decreases; when calm is restored, our field of vision broadens, so that even though the real outcome of the story is registered in our brain, because of the limited focus of our perspective we exclude that information as we process the scene before us. Reality drifts into the periphery while our perception remains in the groove . . . until the moment passes and our brains turn off the warning signs. Matt Bezdek, the Georgia Tech postdoctoral psychology researcher who led the study, observes, “Many people have a feeling that we get lost in the story while watching a good movie and that theater disappears around us. Now we have brain evidence to support the idea that people are figuratively transported into the narrative.”
One of the elements to a good suspenseful tale—perhaps the most important element—is an effective plot twist. The moment our brains begin to question whether the expected negative outcome in a series of events in a story can be circumvented, or calculates the options for a protagonist’s escape, the calcarine sulcus launches into action. As each conceivably viable solution to the protagonist’s dilemma is eliminated, the brain’s focus narrows even more tightly on the unfolding of the plot. As the story twists and turns, we are thrown off balance, our brains grasping for a return to equilibrium, desperately searching for clues as to whether this is a good sign or a bad sign for our protagonist.
For most humans, this isn’t unlike what happens in our psyche when we wrestle with anxiety about our own futures, especially if we tend to let our lives be ruled by emotional reactions to external circumstances rather than confidence in the transcendent role that God’s sovereignty plays in the course of the world’s events—both big and small. We worry. We ponder different outcomes—both negative and positive. We bemoan our hopeless condition. We tease doubtful thoughts about God’s goodness, power, and majesty.
In one of the Bible’s accounts of the nation of Israel during its dispersion throughout the ancient middle eastern region, this was the mood of the land. A villain had risen to a place of power in the court of the Persian King Xerxes. Haman was a blackguard so heinous that if contrived by a scriptwriter it would have been considered over the top, a malefactor so consumed with hatred that his actions bordered on the absurd—if they were not so evil. Because he had been shown disrespect by Mordecai, a Jewish exile, this brute Haman talked the king into issuing a decree that called for the extermination of all of the Jewish people.
“Then the king’s scribes were summoned on the thirteenth day of the first month, and an edict, according to all that Haman commanded, was written to the king’s satraps and to the governors over all the provinces and to the officials of all the peoples, to every province in its own script and every people in its own language. It was written in the name of King Ahasuerus and sealed with the king’s signet ring. Letters were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces with instruction to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods.” (Esther 3:12-13) and “. . . the city of Susa was thrown into confusion” (v. 15). Understandably so!
When Mordecai informed his niece Esther, who happened to be the Queen of Xerxes, she reminded him that for her to assume the role of advocate by approaching the king, she would be putting her life on the line. Mordecai ominously warned her, “Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish.” (Esther 4:13-14) And then, faithful to the formula, Mordecai plants this query in her mind, and in the minds of all the readers speculating on how the outcome might be resolved positively: “And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
Yes! That’s what we need! Hope that a hero (or heroine) will arise and deliver the people!
We follow Esther’s agonizing preparation to enter the presence of the king, an act that by his decree is punished by death unless he decides to grant special permission by extending his golden scepter to the interloper. When she puts off telling him of the sword hanging over her head and instead requests his and Haman’s attendance at a special private banquet, we die a little inside and mentally urge her to have the courage to reveal the betrayal. Delaying again the next night plunges us into barely controlled panic. Surely she isn’t going to keep postponing the inevitable?
But what good will her revelation do anyway? A king’s edict is a king’s edict and cannot be reversed. What, will Xerxes undermine his own authority by casting doubt on his proclamations? This seems as hopeless as it was in the beginning, but tortuously so as we follow these vain efforts to patch together some sort of deliverance for Esther and her people.
And yet, the tables begin to turn ever so slowly. First, the king’s insomnia compels him to do some sleep-inducing reading of the chronicles of the deeds of the kingdom, and he discovers Mordecai had prevented an assassination attempt without reward. Haman is humiliated, commanded by Xerxes to escort Mordecai through the streets to receive his honor, is outed by Esther, presumed to be assaulting the queen in the king’s absence, and meets his death on the very gallows he had built for Mordecai. In time, the edict is countered by a second edict written by Esther and Mordecai that urges the Jews to defend themselves to the death, and Mordecai succeeds Haman in power.
By now, our calcarine sulcus ought to be sending sweet nothings to our periphery visual sensors and whispering calming promises that it’s okay now to relax, to breathe. The expectations have been met, the antagonist has been rebuffed, good has been restored. Hope swells in the breast that in the struggles and trials and encounters with evil that we face in this world, our great Deliverer will arrive to rescue us from persecution, we will see a great reversal of events and our enemies will be vanquished, just like Haman was, just like each and every one of the opponents God’s people faced throughout the Old Testament.
Reversal and Redemption
Are you waiting for your reversal of fortune, for your Deliverer to arrive and devise your escape? The world gives us plenty of reasons to crave rescue, even when there’s not a pandemic wreaking havoc with lives of loved ones, routines, and the economy. The disregard for the lives of others has driven up abortion, abuse, torture, trafficking, and murder rates; the stability of the world is crazy off-kilter. Everywhere we see malice and hatred and oppression—and a general decline in civility and humanity in expressing opinions. There is rebellion against God, blasphemy, irreverence, dissimulators taking the Word of God and twisting it to match their own interpretations. And we experience an uncomfortable apprehension that advances in technology have actually been eternally perilous for the church—or for civilization, for that matter. Lord, we plead, when will you step in and bring about the big reversal, when will the tension subside in the story, when will you turn around the snowballing evil? When will we be saved?
New Covenant believers, the greatest evil of history has been faced and defeated already. You were once the enemy of God but you were captured by his electing love. You have been delivered.
The doom that hung in suspense over me has dissipated. It didn’t disappear, however; it settled on a single man, a man of sorrows, a man who committed no crime. He was the only man who ever lived who wasn’t an enemy of God, and yet, he was the man who bore the weight of the wrath of God. You have been delivered. It happened at the cross and it was at the expense of the perfect Son of God. Our rescue comes from his death. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) (Now there’s an account of suspense and intrigue I can never get enough of reading!)
You are free from every anxiety. You may not know the outcome of the scenarios you encounter in this life, but the greatest danger you’ve ever been in has been resolved. Though you face enemies now, they are also the enemies of God and are going to be vanquished (Acts 10:38, John 17:13-14). The question has been answered: You are a citizen of heaven. The uncertainty has been removed: His work is fully sufficient.
How’s that for a plot twist! How’s that for a reversal! God, the author of the Scriptures, created the template and breaks the mold for perfect narratives. Go tell that story to your sisters and brothers in Christ and encourage them to celebrate their freedom, to shake off their fear and expand their vision, broaden their periphery, and see the wondrous things God has done for them.
Redemption and Renewal
Things are not as they seem. “We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:18) As hopeless as the world’s dilemmas and circumstances appear, only a gospel-minded view reveals the majesty of God’s plans. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Corinthians 1:25) He has skillfully and lovingly determined the plotline, the setting, the characters and all the supporting details for our story. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) And though it’s tempting to peek at the narratives of others’ lives, or the way the world reframes the story, we are called to align our wills with his purposes. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)
But, look around. How many of your family, friends, coworkers, fellow laborers are still caught up in the tunnel vision of worry, experiencing the crushing weight of sin and the guilt of rebellion? Perhaps we are meant to experience suspense so that we can empathize with our lost neighbors. Perhaps, for the sake of those who need to witness reversal worked out in front of them, we are called to put to death the self-serving Hamanesque attitudes in our hearts and lift up the broken outcasts who haven’t yet met the Deliverer. Perhaps that’s why the word of God contains more than the revelation of who God is in the psalms, the doctrinally air-tight sermons of Paul, or the warnings of Revelation, but also the narratives of Joseph and Esther, the good news unfolding in story in the gospels, the harrowing accounts of the apostles as they spread the message of salvation.
The whole of God’s dealings with man have been reversals, redemption and renewal. Unlike today’s dystopic narratives, which reflect a fallen myopic view of the world, the Lord gives us a perspective of hope and redemption. “Take away the cross of Christ,” said J.C. Ryle, “ and the Bible is a dark book.”
- A small insignificant nation chosen to be the people of God, birthed out of the loins of an old man and an old woman.
- An Israelite baby born under a death sentence raised to be an Egyptian prince and then called out to lead the exodus of God’s people out of that land.
- A harlot who holds the victory of Israel over her own people in her hands.
- A shepherd boy, the youngest son, selected to be a king.
- A Jewish orphan girl who becomes queen and faces a decision that could end her life.
- A Servant-Redeemer who washes his disciples’ feet.
- An innocent man who is murdered, yet forgives his killers.
Now, I have died with Christ (Romans 6:8), yet my life is hidden with him, and I am raised in him. (Colossians 3:1-4) The least deserving, most unexpected, completely incomprehensible reversal, redemption and renewal of all.
This is the gospel message that intersects with every part of our lives, intersects every life no matter where you are. Whether you are the single 30-something forseeing many years alone, or the childless sister feeling incomplete as a Christian and as a woman, or the wife whose identity has been demolished along with her marriage, or the new wave feminist who still senses this is not her sisterhood, or the brown-skinned student or employee or entrepreneur who struggles against despair over the mountains placed in her path, or the anguished sister fighting demons of depression, the gospel is deliverance for you. It transcends every single moment of every single day. It rewrites the story of fear and doom and suspense into a new revelation of rest and identity in Jesus. No more tunnel vision. No more heart palpitations or sweaty palms. Just new eyes to see the wonder of his goodness and glory.
As one of my sisters in Christ said, “Our biggest problem has already been taken care of!”
* Acknowledgment to Mark Dever for sparking the thought processes about reversal and deliverance for the believer, in this sermon on the book of Esther: http://www.chbcaudio.org/audio/2002/12-01-02.mp3