Today’s anniversary nearly slipped past me. But then a tweet from actor Richard Dreyfuss caught my eye…

I laughed, but there’s something to this. So here comes a mini-sermon… to myself.

Even Spielberg has said that he would change the ending to Close Encounters if he made the film today. Forgive me if this is a spoiler — you’ve had 35 years to see this movie — but when the film’s main character runs away from all of his responsibilities at the conclusion, it can be a little shocking.

This is a happy ending? This is the result of the aliens’ message of peace and hope? A husband and a father leaves behind his responsibilities for the thrill of cosmic discovery?

Even the best art can become that for any of us. Dreyfuss plays Roy Neary, a dreamer, a child at heart, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He encounters a mystery and makes something of it, as any true artist does.

You’ll remember that Roy begins to paint pictures, make sculptures, and obsess over images of a strange mountain It’s a mysterious behavior that ended up inspiring the story of a troubled prince who leads his fallen kingdom in pursuit of a mystery in my novel Raven’s Ladder.

But as Roy Neary follows his muse, he becomes a slave to it. So obsessed with its glow, he lets it take priority over all of his relationships, over all of the needs that are his to meet, over all of those who look up to him and need his friendship and love and leadership.

It might have been a more meaningful ending if he had been drawn up into the glow and then burst into flames like a moth at a lightbulb.

I’ve come to see this conclusion as an inadvertent part of the film’s importance. It shows us a filmmaker for whom the glory attainable through imagination and cinema has become a dangerous replacement for the holy mysteries that inspired him in the first place.

We hear this all the time at the movies. “The glory!” “The childlike wonder!” “The magic of the movies!” And, at Christmas time, “Believe!” But it’s all about the suspension of disbelief… which is different than faith. The suspension of disbelief is the willful embrace of a fiction. But that experience is only truly rewarding if we then take what we have experienced and learned and invest that wisdom in our own lives.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Art can ignite faith. It can, as Henry Miller once wrote, lead us to “the life more abundant.” But, he insisted, “It is not in itself the life more abundant. It merely points the way, something which is overlooked not only by the public, but very often by the artist himself. In becoming an end it defeats itself.”

That’s why I get uncomfortable when Martin Scorsese speaks with religious zeal about preserving classic movies. Sure, movies are important and we should be good stewards of what others have made. But the emphasis needs to be on more than the art, the painted windows through which we glimpse something transcendent. Stories like Close Encounters resonate with us because we know that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. We know that there is a grand manifestation of peace and hope in the universe. We can’t explain it, but when we catch glimpses of it through beauty and through art, we are moved. The problems begin when we turn those icons into idols.

It might be the natural world, or the glory of movies, or the pleasures of sex, or any number of good things. But when we make these things the center of our lives, instead of seeing them for what they are —— signposts, testimonies, and glorious reflections of the Real Subject, the Real Glory —— then we set ourselves up for spectacular disappointment. A mirror cannot keep us warm unless it is reflecting light and heat from elsewhere. What we really want is the source of that light and heat. Annie Dillard puts it this way: “[W]e have been as usual asking the wrong question. It does not matter a hoot what the mockingbird on the chimney is singing. The real and proper question is: Why is it beautiful?”

Close Encounters is one of my favorite films, and, by my lights, one of the only movies that fulfills, from beginning to end, the promise of Spielberg’s imagination. But it also stands as a testimony of an immature storyteller who would learn, later, that there is a greater mystery than the cosmos.

And that is why I’m increasingly intrigued with the Spielberg we have now. He seems to understand better, perhaps from experience, the importance of both freedom and responsibility.

And that is why I encourage you to go see Lincoln, which is now playing nationwide. Here’s my review, and here’s a review by Steven Greydanus. It will show you a wiser filmmaker, and a greater vision than anything a UFO could show us.

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