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The Presence of God in World Trade Center
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by Marc T. Newman, Ph.D.

When Steven Spielberg remade War of the Worlds, my biggest complaint was that, amid all of this mayhem, the audience never once sees Ray Ferrier, the frantic father, pray. Unlike the 1953 original, in which everyone across the country was huddled in churches petitioning God for deliverance from the Martian spacecrafts, by 2005, I guess, no one had an inclination to call out to the Almighty as heat rays were vaporizing everything in sight. I just didn't buy it. But where family-friendly Spielberg, who made The Prince of Egypt, could not find a place for God in his remake, in steps Oliver Stone – an equally accomplished, if often subversive, filmmaker -- and surprises everyone. His God-infused World Trade Center is the most spiritually honest film of the year. Stone uncovers every Christian aspect of this true story and gives it full voice. The results linger long after the lights come up.

World Trade Center tells the real-life story of Sergeant John McLoughlin and Officer Will Jimeno, both from the Port Authority Police Department in New York City. Answering the call on September 11, 2001, men from the Port Authority rushed to the scene. But nothing could have prepared them for this nightmare scenario in broad daylight. The twin towers of the World Trade Center were blazing, people threw themselves to their deaths from the upper floors to escape immolation, and more were trapped inside trying to find a way out. Five brave volunteers from the Port Authority stepped forward to do what they vowed – to protect and serve. They entered the tower to get others out and found themselves in the middle of the most horrific building collapse in history. After helping others to freedom, three of the five died, and McLoughlin and Jimeno were trapped. And deep in the twisted rubble they did what most people would do: they talked, they pored over their lives, and they prayed. From prayer comes comfort, and, out in the world, sacrificial action; action that moves from death to life.

A Prayer in the Darkness

When people pray, things happen. As Jimeno and McLoughlin lay trapped beneath crushing debris, barely able to move, each calls out to God. Jimeno first begins to pray, but is distracted as explosions rip through the other buildings that continue to fall about them. McLoughlin, pinned down as the deafening roar of new debris threatens to extinguish what little hope he has, screams The Lord's Prayer. Imminent death has a way of removing pretense and revealing the heart. Viewers who have come to see The Lord's Prayer as a rote exercise will not think so again -- ever.

Certainly others prayed on 9/11, and perished nonetheless. We cannot know how God dealt with each one of their souls. Was God speaking to them, comforting them in their final moment? We have no way to know. There are secrets that belong only to God. But Stone does not shrink from the spiritual experiences of these two men who lived. And theirs is a story of a God who answers prayer, comes to them in their need, and calls others to their aid.

Religious Vision

As McLoughlin and Jimeno lie entombed, Jimeno is given a vision. But rather than another one of those impersonal long white tunnels that the nearly departed swear come for them, Jimeno sees something else; or rather, Someone. Looking down upon him, Jimeno sees the image of The Sacred Heart of Jesus. He is not calling Jimeno to heaven. Jimeno says, "I saw Jesus and he held a bottle of water. He's telling us something, Sarge. He's telling us to come home." It is this hope of making it out alive that gives Jimeno the strength to keep tapping on a pipe in case a rescue unit should come by. It encourages Jimeno and McLoughlin to talk so that death will not take them in their sleep.

Skeptics will call Jimeno's vision "wishful thinking" or hallucination. But as C.S. Lewis explained, "If a skeptic has already decided that miracles do not and cannot occur, then even if one should take place right in front of his nose, he would simply dismiss it as a coincidence, a natural anomaly, or, like Scrooge, as the result of 'an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato.'" Stone does not look away, or try to dismiss the vision with a wink, or give a "rational" explanation for this non-rational event. He lets the story speak for itself and allows the audience to experience the comfort that Jimeno sensed as God spoke to him in the darkness. And He was speaking to others as well.

Calling and Sacrifice

All the way over in Connecticut, retired United States Marine Corps Staff Sergeant-turned-accountant David Karnes sees the impact of the airplanes on the towers, and goes to church to pray. God speaks to him there. Karnes tells his pastor, "I've got to go down there. God gave me a gift. I feel Him calling on me for this mission." As he walks on the rubble he is mysteriously joined by another Marine, Sergeant Thomas, and together they call out, searching for survivors. Ultimately they discover McLoughlin and Jimeno. Quickly, a team is assembled and the rescue begins in earnest. All the men involved risk their lives in the perilous debris for the faint hope of pulling these two men out alive.

How is a viewer to react to Karnes' claim in the film that he was gifted and called by God to locate and help rescue victims at the World Trade Center? Stone simply presents the facts, and lets the viewer decide. In doing so, Stone has done about as much to redeem soldiering as a vocation as Spielberg did with Saving Private Ryan's Christian sniper, Private Daniel Jackson, with one crucial difference: Staff Sergeant Karnes is no fictional character – he is the real deal. Maintaining Karnes' Christian witness was integral to the telling of his story, and Stone did not hesitate.

Throughout the film, viewers are also confronted with scenes of unimaginable sacrifice. The debris pile on which the rescue workers labor is unstable, threatening to engulf them at any moment. They continue without flinching. Even each of the buried men, whom one would suppose would do anything to get out, is willing to literally sacrifice himself for the other. If a film more beautifully depicting greater self-sacrifice has been released this year, I haven't seen it. Virtue upon virtue, it is stunning to behold.

Out of Darkness, Light

Implications abound. If someone has a calling, there must be a Caller. If someone has a gift, there must be One who gives. The prayers, the visions, the calling, the sacrifice, the sheer risk of it all to save two men who certainly should have died is an overwhelming experience, made all the more so because it actually happened. All of it.

McLoughlin says, "9/11 showed us what people were capable of." He is right, of course, in every sense of those words. The destruction and terror demonstrated the great evil of which people are capable. Stone chose not to focus on that darker, yet in some ways easier and more visceral, path. Instead, in the depth of the abyss, we see portrayed on the screen, images of the redemption that can arise when people choose faith, courage, and self-denial. World Trade Center is a film that should challenge Christians to pray with expectation, seek to serve, and never be surprised when God chooses to move in miraculous ways.


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