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Christian Themes in "Bonanza" 1

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"The Dark Past"

Writer: William Bruckner

Director: Murray Golden

Lorne Greene (Ben Cartwright), Michael Landon (Joe Cartwright), Dan Blocker (Hoss Cartwright), Pernell Roberts (Adam Cartwright)

Guest Stars
Dennis Hopper (Dev Farnum), Susan Seaforth (Holly Burnside), Ron Starr (Jamey Boy Briggs), Lewis Charles (Wetzell), Jim Boles (Pete Burnside)

Air Date: 3 May 1964

"The Dark Past" episode of "Bonanza."

"The Dark Past" episode of "Bonanza."

A Cool Customer

This episode begins with Dev Farnum (played by guest star, Dennis Hopper) turning up at the Ponderosa Ranch with a lame horse. While waiting for Hoss to examine the horse, Ben finds out that Dev is the son of a well-respected preacher.

Dev informs Ben that his father has died with an attitude that seems to indicate that he doesn't care. Hoss tells Dev that the horse can't be saved and offers to put down the animal, as it may be hard for him. After rejecting Hoss' offer, Dev remarks that it won't affect him and does the deed himself. The way he talked about his father's death and the way he calmly leads his horse away leads Adam to the conclusion that he is one cool customer. Throughout, the course of the episode the viewer finds out that Dev is a bounty hunter and that he blames God for the deaths of his father, mother, and siblings. The bitterness and hate towards God lead Dev to distance himself from other people, refusing to make friends and only looking out for himself.

The subplot of this story deals with Holly Burnside, who is hiding out from someone, whom it is later revealed to be a man that Dev is very interested in.

Dennis Hopper (left) guest-starred in this episode of "Bonanza."

Dennis Hopper (left) guest-starred in this episode of "Bonanza."

Give and Take Away

The first theme to be explored in this episode is the notion of God giving and taking away. When Ben offers his condolences upon hearing about the death of Dev's father, Dev replies with a common saying "the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away," which is based on the following verse from the Bible:

And said, Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. - Job 1:21 (KJV)

This saying is usually expressed by those who have experienced some sort of disappointment or trauma in their lives. They accept the fact that there is nothing they can do about their situation as they had no power over what happened and that God was the only one who did.

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In Dev Farnum's case, it goes even further than just acceptance that there was nothing he could do to prevent the tragedy that struck his family. He has come to the conclusion that God could and should have done something to prevent it. Instead of saving the lives of his family, God took them away.

Unto thee will I cry, O Lord my rock; be not silent to me: lest, if thou be silent to me, I become like them that go down into the pit.

— Psalm 28:1 (KJV)

God Doesn't Listen

As part of his job on the Ponderosa, Dev is asked to keep an eye on Holly Burnside while the Cartwrights are at church. Holly is in hiding at the Ponderosa and Dev feels that it isn't part of his job to look after her. When Joe offers him extra money to do it, he accepts.

Holly asks Dev to read her a passage from the Bible, which he reluctantly does. After reading the first two verses of Psalm 23, he stops abruptly. Not happy with the way he was reading it, Holly tells him that it sounds like he doesn't believe in the Bible and Dev agrees with her. She further questions him and he reveals to her that his father was a minister.

Confused and wondering why Holly asks what happened and Dev responds with Psalm 28:1. He tells that he called upon God, who in this case was stone deaf and that he fell into the pit. This shows that after the death of his family, Dev questioned God and received no answer.

The perceived silence from God caused Dev to fall into a pit (of despair), blame God, and eventually lose faith and stop believing altogether.

Dennis Hopper's character in the episode is experiencing a crisis of faith.

Dennis Hopper's character in the episode is experiencing a crisis of faith.

Believing in God

After getting knocked out while pursuing Jamey Boy Briggs, Dev makes his way back to the Ponderosa in an effort to help Holly (the reason for this is revealed in the episode). As he is recovering, he explains to Joe and Ben what happened. The conversation leads up to Ben remarking that he finds it hard to believe that Dev is his father's son.

Dev tells Ben about how his father had always helped people and ends with the statement "and what did he get for it". Ben asks and Dev tells the story of what happened to his family. The way he sarcastically speaks about his father's belief indicates what he currently feels about believing in God.

Ben tells Dev that he is sorry but Dev wants none of it and doesn't blame the world—he blames God. Then Dev asks Ben "you would still worship a God that would allow that kind of thing to happen?", to which Ben responds that it is not up to any one of us to judge. Dev then goes into a tirade about God's mysterious ways and how the only wondrous signs he has seen are from the devil. At the end of the scene, Ben leaves the room and gives Dev something to ponder...

Dev. If you find it so easy to believe in the devil, how come it's so hard to believe in God?

— Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene)

Dennis Hopper and Lorne Greene in "Bonanza."

Dennis Hopper and Lorne Greene in "Bonanza."

The Dark Past explores many Christian themes throughout the episode. The main ones of God giving and taking away, God not listening, and believing in God in a way reflect Dev Farnum's journey from the time he arrives on the Ponderosa until he takes the stage out Virginia City.

In this story, we see the struggle of a man who once believed in God but when tragedy struck, it caused him to fall away and he became bitter and self-focused. Dev's actions and unbelief reflect this, but when circumstances cause him to help others, his whole attitude is turned around. He realises he does need friends and that he is father's son which in turn leads him back to believing in God.

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