As a child, my first exposure to Indiana Jones was in the franchise’s third installment, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. To say that the film left an impression on me would be an understatement: To this day, I still find myself captivated by bullwhips, zeppelins, and morally-ambiguous, blonde German Frau Doktors [sic]. I could literally write at length about all three of these topics, but today I want to focus on the film’s third act which takes place largely in the fictional(?) Temple of the Sun, which houses that most quintessential of MacGuffins, the Holy Grail.
Setting the Stage
The temple is first introduced as Indiana Jones & company ride up on horseback in pursuit of the Nazi scum who are also in pursuit of the grail, and the viewer is treated to a beautiful panoramic shot of the facade of the Al Khazneh in Petra, Jordan. Al Khazneh, which translates to The Treasury, is believed to have been the mausoleum of the Nabatean king, Aretas IV, and to this day people travel from all over the world to see this marvel, hewn into the face of a sandstone cliff. There is something undeniably captivating about this vista and even as a child I remember thinking that there was no way something like this actually existed. As with a great many of my childhood assumptions, I was wrong.
With my sense of wonder and enchantment piqued by this exterior shot, I was primed to be blown away by one of the most impressive -and frightening- film sequences I witnessed as a child.
Answering the Riddles Three -But First!
When I alluded to the quintessentiality [sic] of the grail earlier, I wasn’t being hyperbolic; we colloquially refer to the ideal in any domain as a/the holy grail, and while the term has largely been secularized, its religious under-pinnings can not be stomped out completely….nor should they. After all, in the Platonic sense, the ideal is an unattainable abstraction, and, if one endeavoured to find a universally acceptable definition for that most undefinable of concepts, God, one amenable to both theists and secularists alike, I suspect they could do a lot worse than unattainable abstraction. Therefore to me, God(liness) and grail seem inextricably linked and perhaps even synonymous; two things we can strive mightily upward toward without ever reaching, but whose pursuit redeems the suffering of life.
And Now, The Riddles Three
The God/grail connection is decisively, even exhaustively reiterated by the final three riddles/challenges Indy faces on his path to the ideal/grail, the riddles three (3):
The Breath of God: “Only the penitent man will pass.”
The Word of God: “Only in the footsteps of God will he proceed.”
The Path of God: “Only in the leap from the lion’s head will he prove his worth.”
In the most tangible sense, Indiana Jones has to 1) Duck under blades or lose his head, 2) “Hop-scotch” IEHOVAH on lettered tiles or fall to his death, and 3) Walk off a cliff to his ostensible death to reveal an invisible bridge -Awesome adventure movie fodder and super suspenseful execution.
A little more subtly however, he is embodying a Godliness which, on the back end, would equate to achieving the ideal even in the absence of a physical grail to be won. How is this? Well, there is a Christian idea of keeping the word of God on your mind, lips and heart, and this idea correlates to thinking the word, speaking the word and living the word. Let us examine how these ideas align with the film’s riddles:
The Breath of God riddle involves getting low -kneeling- like a penitent man would. Kneeling involves action, and certainly Indiana Jones has to take some quick dynamic action to avoid the blades which threaten to decapitate him,
but kneeling in a broader sense has a lot to do with praying, or at least meditation for the secular types. Being meditative, contemplating existence and ideals, whether you call them God or not, is certainly part of the path to Godliness; the jury is out on whether spinning blades above you head will expedite metaphysical transcendence, but they do make a poetic little statement in the film to the effect of, keep the word on your mind in order to keep your ‘mind’ on your body.
The Word of God riddle is a little more on the nose, and didn’t throw me for an initial loop as did the connection between breath and mind. I like this puzzle because, while not as suspenseful as the Breath or as visually sublime as the Path, the spoken word, as the mediator between thought and action, carries some special weight in this trinity. Two ideas come to mind when discussing the word and I think both must be considered to understand the greater import of this riddle:
“Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21) – We move toward what we speak toward-so speak toward God.
“Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain” (Exodus 20:7) – Do not speak the highest word frivolously, nor by association, any word.
In short, insofar as words precede actions, we should speak the highest and best, but the higher and better we go, the more important it is to use words carefully.
This to me is the nuanced meaning of speaking the word.
The Path of God is perhaps the hardest sell for a secularist because it has to do with faith, and secularists are wont to pride themselves on reason and logic; and rightly so, as logic and reason must guide us. However, if we take the most logical and reasonable approach and we still fail or otherwise come up as incorrect, do we then stop acting logically and reasonably? I say no, and so would any secularist worth their salt because they must, by definition profess an unwavering faith in their reason, in their logic, in the rules of the universe and in the structure of being (perhaps the most insidious way to define God to someone who “doesn’t believe in God”).
Indiana Jones stepping off the ledge…
…is symbolic of faith in that structure of being; faith in doing the right thing in pursuit of the highest ideal and being okay with the outcome knowing that it is what is/was meant to happen -in itself another act of faith. The grand, subversive realization is that anyone pursuing their highest ideal -their grail- is a man or woman of faith.
The Temple of the Sun is a metaphor for life; as soon as we enter we are playing the game. We can exit (suicide) or wait in the antechamber (not pursue the highest ideal) but neither of those seem like viable long-term solutions to the problem of life. But, if we move forward, the way is fraught with peril, and the only salvation is to keep our grail (synonymous with God, as already established) on our thoughts, lips and hearts. Using the allegory of the temple, the film shows us how to navigate life by being contemplative, truthful, and resolute respectively, in the pursuit of our goals, and perhaps that’s why it struck such a sublime chord with me as a child. A couple decades and several adventures later, I am still pursuing my own grail. When pursuing my ideals in the past, there were times where I to, like the film’s antagonist, chose poorly…
…but I think I got it right this time.