Justice and Patriotism in The Four Loves

One of the fundamental truths about the human condition is that justice is blind, but we are not. That is, murder, adultery, envy, and theft are wrong, regardless of who is committing them. On the other hand, the murder we wish to commit always seems justifiable, and our adultery is the product of a pure love and a marriage that should never have been, while our envy is grounded in what we really deserve, and what we steal is only that which is owed us. We have a habit of believing the facts are always on our side.

Now the examples I gave are all driven by self-interest, but we can also cheat justice out of love for others. We all know parents whose children can do no wrong. Their love for their children prevents them from clearly assessing the situation, and from doing what justice demands. Love may be blind, but they are not. They see their children.

There are many loves in the world—love of children or love of parents, love of spouse, and love of friends to name just a few. One love in particular is the cause of much bickering, especially between what we call the right and the left at the present moment: love of country.

In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis writes of two kinds of love of country, exemplified by two extremely patriotic Englishmen. In order to understand the stark contrast between them, he outlines several elements which go into love of country:

“First, there is love of home, of the place we grew up in or the places, perhaps many, which have been our homes; and of all places fairly near these and fairly like them; love of old acquaintances, of familiar sights, sounds and smells. Note that at its largest this is, for us, a love of England, Wales, Scotland, or Ulster. Only foreigners and politicians talk about ‘Britain.’”[1]

We might say the same about “America.” To be sure, we can have a certain allegiance to the whole thing, but for most of us the love of the familiar places and people is quite specific—Chicagoland is a very different place from the Five Boroughs or the Bay Area, and Deep East Texas is not Eastern Washington, and Northern Michigan is most assuredly not South Florida. This element of patriotism does not stretch especially far.

“With this love of place there goes a love for the way of life; for beer and tea and open fires, trains with compartments in them and an unarmed police force and all the rest of it; for the local dialect and (a shade less) for our native language. As Chesterton says, a man’s reasons for not wanting his country to be ruled by foreigners are very like his reasons for not wanting his house to be burned down; because ‘he could not even begin’ to enumerate all the things he would miss.

“It would be hard to find any legitimate point of view from which this feeling could be condemned. As the family offers the first step beyond self-love, so this offers us the first step beyond family selfishness. Of course it is not pure charity; it involves love our neighbours in the local, not of our Neighbour, in the Dominical, sense. But those who do not love the fellow-villagers or fellow-townsmen whom they have seen are not likely to have got very far towards loving “man” whom they have not.”[2]

I began this post by bringing up that crucial fact that justice is blind, but we are not. Here we begin to see the way in which love of country might color our vision. The way my friends and neighbors do things will seem quite normal and sensible and right, while the way someone from a distant community does things will seem odd and backwards and wrong. In the heads of most 21st-century Americans we have a notion that this may lead quickly and inevitably to war and foreign conquest—let’s make the whole world like ourselves. Lewis is not so hasty. We must remember that this is merely love of the familiar:

“Of course patriotism of this kind is not in the least aggressive. It asks only to be let alone. It becomes militant only to protect what it loves. In any mind which has a pennyworth of imagination it produces a good attitude towards foreigners. How can I love my home without coming to realize that other men, no less rightly, love theirs?”[3]

Both these statements are straightforward and sensible. We will protect our children if they are threatened, but not many people go out looking to kidnap other children and teach them to behave like their own. Similarly, we recognize that the affection we feel for our parents is something which most people who had a decent childhood are likely to share. No one is demanding that there be only one “World’s Best Dad” mug. Nor is someone else having different friends much of a threat to our own friendships. Indeed, the fact that we all have similar loves towards different objects is one point which unites us, rather than divides us. We know what it is like to have friends and family, and sympathize with those that do.

Lewis goes on to add a second element to love of country:

“The second ingredient is a particular attitude to our country’s past. I mean to the past as it lives in popular imagination; the great deeds of our ancestors. Remember Marathon. Remember Waterloo. ‘We must be free or die who speak the tongue Shakespeare spoke.’ This past is felt both to impose an obligation and to hold out an assurance; we must not fall below the standard our fathers set us, and because we are their sons there is good hope we shall not.”[4]

Living in the age we do, we are of course aware that the past is not all sunshine and daisies. Our ancestors may have done—and likely did—horrible deeds as well as great ones. But Lewis thinks “it is possible to be strengthened by the image of the past without being either deceived or puffed up.”[5] The key, he suggests, is to maintain the distinction between patriotic odes and real history. Let Mel Gibson do grand things on the big screen, but let us become familiar with every shade of gray in the actual classroom. We may enjoy the former, but not take it seriously. The latter we may or may not enjoy, but we must certainly take seriously.

But why does Lewis value the former at all? Why does he want to keep the rose-hued image of our nation’s heroes, rather than occupy our images of them entirely with the subtle shades of reality? His answer is brief, but pointed, “But who can condemn what clearly makes many people, at many important moments, behave so much better than they could have done without its help?”[6] The Founding Fathers of the United States fought against overwhelming odds and won. We too may one day find ourselves having to fight against overwhelming odds, and it is those tales of bygone glory, not the complicated reality, that will inspire us to real deeds of heroism. Our ancestors may not have actually achieved high standards of virtue, but those high standards, understood appropriately, are a force for good in the world.

But Lewis is quite explicit that this element of love of country, the love of great deeds done by her past heroes, is far more dangerous than simple love of the familiar. If we confuse our folktales for history, in may creep “the tacit assumption that other nations have not equally their heroes; perhaps even the belief—surely it is very bad biology—that we can literally ‘inherit’ a tradition. And these almost inevitably lead on to a third thing that is sometimes called patriotism.”[7] It is this third thing which most concerns us, and which can most easily lead to a miscarriage of justice.

“The third thing is not a sentiment but a belief: a firm, even prosaic belief that our own nation, in sober fact, has long been, and still is markedly superior to all others. I once ventured to say to an old clergyman who was voicing this sort of patriotism, ‘But sir, aren’t we told that every people thinks its own men the bravest and its own women the fairest in the world?’ He replied with total gravity—he could not have been graver if he had been saying the Creed at the altar—‘Yes, but in England it’s true.’ To be sure, this conviction had not made my friend (God rest his soul) a villain; only an extremely lovable old ass. It can however produce asses that kick and bite. On the lunatic fringe it may shade off into that popular Racialism which Christianity and science equally forbid.”[8]

This, to me, is more insidious than the flaws of the previous two shades of “love of country” combined. It is so insidious, because it understands itself not to be the biased affection of a son for his mother country, but objective assessment of reality. I once knew someone who roundly condemned patriotism in general, even perhaps the idea of nations, soberly explain that his part of the country was most morally, technologically, and politically advanced part of the world. Indeed, the major city in that region was the center from which all culture emanated. Simply listing Hollywood, New York, and Washington, D.C. next to each other is more than enough to debunk such nonsense, leaving actually foreign countries out of the equation.

But Lewis is quite right that this misguided love of country can “produce asses that kick and bite.” It is only when we genuinely believe that our own land is actually morally superior to all others that we begin to claim that justice and the good of our country are the same thing. In doing so, we confer upon our country a divine status:

“This brings us to the fourth ingredient. If our nation is really so much better than others it may be held to have either the duties or the rights of a superior being towards them. In the nineteenth century the English became very conscious of such duties: the ‘white man’s burden.’ What we called natives were our wards and we their self-appointed guardians. This was not all hypocrisy. We did do them some good. But our habit of talking as if England’s motives for acquiring an empire (or any youngster’s motives for seeking a job in the Indian Civil Service) had been mainly altruistic nauseated the world. And yet this showed the sense of superiority working at its best. Some nations who have also felt it have stressed the rights not the duties. To them, some foreigners were so bad that one had the right to exterminate them. Others, fitted only to be hewers of wood and drawers of water to the chosen people, had better be made to get on with their hewing and drawing. Dogs, know your betters!”[9]

Everybody today knows the joke about America bringing democracy to other nations, and “You’d better watch out, or we’ll bring democracy to your country next!” This sense that we are objectively superior justifies placing ourselves in charge of other nations. We did not conquer the Indians because we loved the East Coast too much. We spread west because we thought we had an objectively superior civilization, and we were therefore justified in either carrying it to the barbarians, or else destroying those barbarians who were beyond saving.

At last we come to the point where Lewis can contrast the patriotism of Kipling with the patriotism of Chesterton. Both men “love their country,” but what this means is very different from one man to the other:

“Chesterton picked on two lines from Kipling as the perfect example. It was unfair to Kipling, who knew—wonderfully, for so homeless a man—what the love of home can mean. But the lines, in isolation, can be taken to sum up the thing. They run:

If England was what England seems
‘Ow quick we’d drop ‘er. But she ain’t!

Love never spoke that way. It is like loving your children only ‘if they’re good,’ your wife only while she keeps her looks, your husband only so long as he is famous and successful. ‘No man,’ said one of the Greeks, ‘loves his city because it is great, but because it is his.’ A man who really loves his country will love her in her ruin and degradation—‘England, with all thy faults, I love thee still.’ She will be to him ‘a poor thing but mine own.’ He may think her good and great, when she is not, because he loves her; the delusion is up to a point pardonable. But Kipling’s soldier reverses it; he loves her because he thinks her good and great—loves her on her merits. She is a fine going concern and it gratifies his pride to be in it. How if she ceased to be such? The answer is plainly given: ‘’Ow quick we’d drop ‘er.’ When the ship begins to sink he will leave her.”[10]

This “patriotism” is nothing of the kind. There is no love in it, and no loyalty. It is the flip side of believing your country is objectively superior. On the one hand, you may perform horrible atrocities because whatever she does is by definition better. On the other, if you ever cease to believe she is better, she loses your loyalty and you will do nothing to improve her. The first is straightforwardly bad for other countries, and the second straightforwardly bad for your own. Nothing good comes out of it.

In today’s global society, and in a society which values individual freedom so highly, we are skeptical of anything that might place demands on the individual, any sort of love which might call for service or lasting loyalty. Having seen the pitfalls of so-called patriotism, it is only natural that many of us might question the value of patriotism at all. Justice is blind, but we are blinded to it by our love of country. So why not do away with love of country?

But this does not fix the problem. The very flaw in the false patriotism of the two lines from Kipling is that the soldier does not love his country. Instead, he believes it to be objectively superior. If we do away with love of country, true justice is not what steps into its place:

“For a long time yet, or perhaps forever, nations will live in danger. Rulers must somehow nerve their subjects to defend them or at least to prepare for their defence. Where the sentiment of patriotism has been destroyed this can be done only be presenting every international conflict in a purely ethical light. If people will spend neither sweat nor blood for ‘their country’ they must be made to feel that they are spending them for justice, or civilisation, or humanity.”[11]

It should be pointed out that though Lewis mentions “nations” living in danger, this is really shorthand for any group of people. The European Union, transnational though it is, will encounter internal and external threats, and must be defended. Progressive Westerners consider themselves members of a global community that transcends borders, but even this global community will have to confront reactionary or anti-globalist threats. Until the end of history, mankind is in conflict with itself, and if there is any good worth preserving anywhere in it, from time to time we will be called to fight in its defense. In patriotic countries, love of country could serve as this call to arms. In communities that reject patriotism, so higher ideal must step in. This, however, is not the path to justice:

“This is a step down, not up. Patriotic sentiment did not of course need to disregard ethics. Good men needed to be convinced that their country’s cause was just; but it was still their country’s cause, not the cause of justice as such. The difference seems to me important. I may without self-righteousness or hypocrisy think it just to defend my house by force against a burglar; but if I start pretending that I blacked his eye purely on moral grounds—wholly indifferent to the fact that the house in question was mine—I become insufferable. The pretence that when England’s cause is just we are on England’s side—as some neutral Don Quixote might be—for that reason alone is equally spurious. And nonsense draws evil after it. If our country’s cause is the cause of God, wars must be wars of annihilation. A false transcendence is given to things which are very much of this world.”[12]

We like to talk these days as if Adolf Hitler went about conquering and committing atrocities simply because of his love of country. This is false. Hitler was not overly loyal to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in which he was born, nor to the Germany to which he immigrated. He believed that the Aryan race was the most advanced portion of the human species, and that its success meant the continuation of humanity, and its failure meant the end of all humanity had ever stood for. His cause was a transcendent cause, not a local or parochial one. And for that reason, his was a war of annihilation.

Stalin did not conquer in the name of Russia, but in the name of humanity—he was liberating the international working class from its capitalist oppressors, not making Russia great again. It must be remembered that he was among the revolutionaries who, temporarily, had made Russia cease to be great. Likewise, the Great Khan thought he ruled all under heaven by divine right, and the early Islamic empire conquered because it was spreading the religion of the one true to God. And as Lewis said, the British Empire was spreading civilization to all mankind because the good things of Britain were not merely British goods—they were universal, and it was the white man’s burden to spread them. It is pretending our nation’s good is the same as some transcendent ideal that leads to blood and death and empire, not mere love of our locale.

“The glory of the old sentiment was that while it could steel men to the utmost endeavor, it still knew itself to be a sentiment. Wars could be heroic without pretending to be Holy Wars. The hero’s death was not confused with the martyr’s. And (delightfully) the same sentiment which could be so serious in a rear-guard action could also in peacetime take itself as lightly as all happy loves often do. It could laugh at itself. Our older patriotic songs cannot be sung without a twinkle in the eye; later ones sound more like hymns.”[13]

Justice is blind, but we are not. In a global age and an individualistic age, we think this means it is better to destroy all the sentiments which color our vision of the world. But this does not make us objective and non-partisan, it merely blinds us to our own partisan spirit. The way to prevent our sentiments from leading us to injustice is not to deny our sentiments, but to acknowledge that is all they are. They may lead us to loving our neighbors, or defending our dependents, or doing some heroic deed of self-sacrifice. They may just as easily lead to prejudice. The one thing they may not do is become themselves the standard of justice.

My friend who thought his region the center of the world was not liberated from prejudice because he thought it was objectively true. Instead, his prejudice was given all the shine of holiness and transcendence. If we learn to love the little neighborhood in which God has placed us, even if it is not a very good one, we will not become shackled to prejudices either. Instead, we may learn to sympathize with people whose ways of life are very different than our own, simply because their love for those ways is not.

 

 

I wrote this post after listening to the first episode in the Mere Fidelity podcast’s series on the The Four Loves. I highly recommender the podcast in general, and this episode in particular. These links are to the web page, but it can also be found on iTunes.


 

[1] Lewis, C. S. The Four Loves. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1991. Pg. 23.

[2] Lewis, pgs. 23-24.

[3] Lewis, pg. 24.

[4] Lewis, pgs. 24-25.

[5] Lewis, pg. 25.

[6] Lewis, pg. 25.

[7] Lewis, pg. 26.

[8] Lewis, pg. 26.

[9] Lewis, pg. 27.

[10] Lewis, pgs. 27-28.

[11] Lewis, pg. 29.

[12] Lewis, pg. 29.

[13] Lewis, pgs. 29-30.

True Grit

Last night I watched the old John Wayne version of True Grit. Living among people who do not much appreciate John Wayne, westerns, or the sort of culture that does appreciate such things, it was somewhat refreshing. I think westerns can sometimes get tagged as a form of storytelling that doesn’t have much to it, and isn’t worth paying a lot of attention to. I disagree with that point of view, and this movie reminded me why.

True Grit is, partly, a coming of age story. Before diving into the story itself, I want to dwell on that a minute. The basic idea of coming of age stories is that of taking a sheltered individual—a child—and introducing them to the world, and watching them learn to cope with it. As such, coming of age stories are a good way to make a statement about what the world is like and what it takes to get along in it. Harry Potter dealt with good and evil, life and death, love and hate, the structure of power and authority, the nature of celebrity, disillusionment with one’s heroes, self-reflection, and becoming a hero one’s self. A whole worldview. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials saga deals with many of the same themes, as well as religion and science, reason, childhood, and changing the world. True Grit lacks the range of either, but it’s in the same genre, and it may help to watch the movie in that context.

A second thing to keep in mind while watching True Grit is the theme of dignity. Lately I’ve had several opportunities to discuss the concepts of human dignity and the nature of honor and shame with quite a few people. American culture in general does not tend to set a lot of store by those ideals, but movies like True Grit, and the sort of people that spawn such a culture, cannot be understood without them.

Simply put, the idea is that people should be treated with respect. There is an inherent dignity in being human, something grounded—if you ask a Christian—in the image of God. And when people enter into society, that idea of dignity, of honor, takes on a new depth. A man who keeps his word, who gets the job done, who does not turn away in the face of danger, such a man is honorable. On the other hand, a man who lies, cheats, steals, betrays, and who shows no respect for others is not himself honorable. While simple humanity is worthy of a certain level respect, honor can most definitely be won or lost.

True Grit starts with Mattie Ross’s father going into town to trade horses. He brings with him a man named Tom Chaney, whom Mattie does not trust. Mattie’s father fed Tom Chaney when he was hungry, put a roof over his head, and, it seems, has also given him a job. But while in town, Tom gets drunk, accuses someone of cheating at cards, and when Mr. Ross takes him out into the street, shoots his benefactor. After killing him, Tom Chaney steals his money and his horse and takes off for Indian Territory. A traitor has killed a good man.

At this point in the movie we know that Mattie is a short-haired, outspoken bookkeeper at the family farm, whose opinion her father always valued. She comes into town to retrieve his body, with no visible signs of anguish. She finds that the whole town, including the coroner she came to see, has gathered at the town square to watch a hanging. She goes to watch it with another hired hand, and learns that the judge is up there on the scaffold, watching the hanging out of “a sense of duty.” Mattie comments that we cannot know what is in a man’s heart. The hangman, we also learn, is a Yankee, and will not hang a Union veteran.

Early on, we are introduced to this picture of human justice. The town delights in a hanging. The judge says one thing, but something very different may be in his heart—he may take joy in the macabre event, rather than appear there out of a sense of duty. Even the hangman’s justice is not even, applied to men he fought against, but not those he favors. Society, in short, may get it right from time to time, but is subject to flaws and a certain delight in the pain of others. Do not trust soceity’s justice.

This idea is doubled down on as Mattie goes to the sheriff and sees the nonchalant approach he has taken to finding her father’s killer. Then we are introduced to Rooster Cogburn, a deputy US Marshall known for bringing more outlaws in dead than alive. We meet him in a court of law, and it certainly looks like his quick trigger-finger takes out men with less than just cause. But the judge does not seem to care. As Cogburn comments later, he was a good hanging judge. That is, until the lawyers came in and messed things up for everybody.

But Cogburn is the man Mattie wants. She has heard that he has grit, and she wants a man with grit. This fact does not change when she discovers he is drunk, filthy, malodorous, and perhaps a little prone to gambling.

Into this picture comes the slick-haired, fine-speaking, good-looking Texas Ranger, La Boeuf. Mattie does not think much of him, and we quickly learn that he is after Tom Chaney as well, though by another name and for another offense. La Boeuf tries to hire Cogburn out from under Mattie, but she will not hear it. She wants Tom Chaney hanged in Arkansas for her father’s murder, not in Texas for a dog and a no-name Senator.

Mark that. Mattie wants justice done for her father. He was a good man, and she loved him, so his killer must hang. But she doesn’t just want the killer to die any old place. This isn’t mere angry vengeance. In fact, Mattie seems rather calm about it. No, she wants the murderer taken in and brought before a court of law, and then she wants him hanged, for the crime of killing her father. It’s important that it be clear what he is being hanged for. Again, look at this through the lens of dignity or respect. Her father’s death deserves recognition as an evil act, and deserves justice. So Tom Chaney cannot hang in Texas, for some other crime.

Another big theme playing out in this story is that Mattie is a girl in a man’s world. Her short hair, her outspoken demeanor, and her habit of getting things done, all these mark her out as unfeminine. She is a woman who does not know her place. But she will not be treated with the lack of respect the world gives her. In reacquiring her father’s things, she deals with a horse-trader, gives him more than a little trouble, and ends up getting the better part of the deal. In doing so, she establishes herself, despite her youth and sex, as a force to be reckoned with in this world.

When Cogburn and La Boeuf do team up and go riding towards Indian Country, they are unimpressed by the young girl, and try to leave her behind. But when they convince someone to take her back to town, she punches the man across the face, rides off on her horse, and fords the river upstream of the ferry the two lawmen are using. She meets them on the other side, insists that she is coming, and they race off, presumable to outrun her.

The next part I find interesting. When she catches up with them, La Boeuf ambushes her, pins her on the ground, and begins spanking her with a switch ripped from a nearby bush. Spanking, particularly of women, seems to crop up a lot in these old John Wayne westerns. I have a feeling a nice, juicy essay could be written on that, but it would take more watching and thinking than I’ve done.

But what’s important to note in this context is that spanking is something you do to bad children. La Boeuf is treating Mattie as a misbehaving child. But when he mocks her struggling, she is quick to point out that she is not hurt by the whuppin, only angry, and her actions when he lets her go do line up with this story. But while he has her down and is spanking her, she shouts to Cogburn, asking if he’s going to sit by and watch as this man treats her in this undignified manner. Cogburn says he won’t, and tells La Boeuf to stop. La Boeuf refuses, and Cogburn says La Boeuf enjoying it too much. (Again with enjoying others’ pain.) Anyways, Cogburn points a gun at La Boeuf, and convinces him to let the girl go. So, on they ride, deeper into Indian Territory, away from civilization.

“Civilization.” That’s another thing to factor in. Mattie has proven that she can deal with rough men, that she can maintain her dignity in a world that wants to cheat or spank her. But she is civilized, and these men do not live in civilization. Once they get going, she is quick to ask whether they are going to stop for dinner. Cogburn laughs, and tells her that many a dinner will pass unnoticed before this journey is over. Mattie must adapt, and on they go.

I want to set dignity and civilization side by side for a minute. Americans historically have set a lot of store by hygiene, as well as education, and other marks of civilization. To Mattie, Cogburn’s stench and filthy habitations are undignified, unworthy of a civilized person. On the other hand, a man who forgoes dinner to get the job done, a man who will rough it in a hundred other ways until the mission is complete, such a man is worthy of respect. Civilization has a certain dignity to it, but there are circumstances where it means a lot more to bypass the norms of civilization.

The trio reaches a cabin and smoke out two outlaws hiding inside. One is suffering from a leg wound. Cogburn uses this as leverage to uncover the whereabouts of Lucky Ned Pepper, the man Tom Chaney is riding with. (Lucky Ned Pepper is a young Robert Duvall. I did not know Robert Duvalls could be young.) But the wounded man’s companion takes a knife to his friend, whom Cogburn quickly avenges with a shot of his revolver.

As the informant lies dying, he makes two interesting comments. First, referring to his murderer, he says, “He never played me false til he killed me.” He defends the honor of the man who killed him to two complete strangers. This man was his friend, and rode with him a long time, dealing honestly, and therefore honorably, with him. Second, he tells the trio about his circuit-riding Methodist preacher brother down in Austin. He asks them, after he has died, first to bury him, and then to sell his things and send the money down to his brother. These are both questions of dignity. A human body should not be left to rot in the open, and a man should do right by his kin, even if they did not get along well. Pay close attention to the treatment of bodies in this movie.

Besides these two things, the dying man tells Cogburn that Ned Pepper and his gang will return to this very cabin later on that night. Knowing he is dying, he chooses to do the right thing, and help the lawmen in their pursuit of justice. There is nothing that can be gained from that action, at least not this side of the grave. It’s just what a man ought to do. Of course, the criminal he is helping track down is a man he rode with, so take that however you will. But the theme of a dying man doing what is right with no thought for himself, in his last living moments—that theme will return.

They set a trap for Ned Pepper. As they wait, Cogburn tells Mattie all about his earlier life. He fought for the South in the War, with Quantrill. (Quantrill, and everybody in that area, had a bad reputation during the Civil War. Because the border states did not divide cleanly, it was more like a feud between gangs of outlaws than ordinary warfare, and the men who fought there gained the reputation of outlaws.) He also stole money from a bank, which he insists was not stealing, since he didn’t harm anybody, just a cutthroat corporation. Mattie begs to differ. Again, the definition of stealing is framed as a question of interpersonal relationships and honor, not simply the law. At any rate, after the War, Cogburn married and settled down in southern Illinois, but his wife left him and took his son, who never liked him much anyways. And so Cogburn went and became a lawman.

Pay attention to the way Cogburn talks about his wife. He clearly has a distaste for her, and learns from her a general distrust of women. But he talks about her as a force to be reckoned with, someone with a mind of her own, more than capable of making the decision to leave him, as foolish as he might think her reasons were. The world of the western, and this western in particular, may seem to dwell on “manly” virtues, but there is often found here a degree of agency and respect towards women that I find lacking in less apparently male-oriented genres. But maybe my love for the Mattie Rosses of the genre just blind me to its faults in that department.

Now, this paints Cogburn as a little more aimless and world-weary, a man who has a reason to drink like he does, and not much reason to act like a civilized man. Whatever “grit” he has, he earned it through hard times. And so, as civilized people—like bankers and lawyers—would have it, he’s not a man worthy of much respect. We’ll see whether that’s a good assessment by the end of the movie.

The trap does not go off as planned. Ned Pepper escapes, but Tom Chaney almost does not. One of the other outlaws turns back to save him, but gets wounded. Chaney shoves him off the horse, rides after the other outlaws, and never looks back. When Mattie points out this despicable way of acting, Cogburn comments that, “Looking back is a bad habit.” Doing the right thing is all well and good, he seems to say, but he is aware of the world in a way she is not. This is the sort of place where life can end in the blink of an eye, at the pull of the trigger. If you want to live, you may have to do things you otherwise wouldn’t. Maybe this doesn’t excuse Chaney, but it’s something to keep in mind.

The trio rides with all the dead bodies and the newly acquired horses to a little trading post, McAlester’s. They leave the bodies to be buried, with dignity, and Mattie reminds Cogburn to do the right thing by their informant. After a little badgering, the worn-out old man keeps his word, sells the dead man’s things, and has the money sent to that Methodist preacher down in Austin. Then Cogburn tries to convince Mattie to stay behind while he corners Ned Pepper, but again she refuses. So off they ride once more.

This entire time Cogburn and La Boeuf have been bantering back and forth, mocking one another over this and that. Generally, Cogburn has the upper hand on this foppish, big-mouthed Texan riding his tiny horse. But finally Cogburn loses his dignity as he drinks himself to the point of falling off his own horse, and he declares that they will make camp there and attack Pepper the next day. Rebuked by La Boeuf and Mattie, he puts away his flask and sobers up.

The next morning Cogburn is ornery towards his companions, risking a fire La Boeuf would not, and berating Mattie for wanting to wash the sleep off. La Boeuf urges him to cool it, and tells Mattie there is a river downhill, through the trees. She heads that way, trips, and spills down the slope and onto the riverbank, where Tom Chaney is standing, alone, watering the horses.

Here there is a confrontation of wills. Chaney does not take the little “bookkeeper” seriously. Indeed, watching that little girl handle her father’s massive hand-cannon, it’s hard for the audience to, either. But he runs his big mouth too long, acts a little too stubborn, and she plugs him in the short ribs. At the sound of that shot, Cogburn and La Boeuf come running, but not before Ned Pepper and the gang show up and whisk Mattie and their wounded companion away.

Here is the low point of the story, where all seems lost. Ned Pepper shouts out a treaty with Cogburn, agreeing to let Mattie live, and leave her and Chaney behind, if Cogburn and La Boeuf ride off and mislead a band of marshalls that Cogburn claims are heading that way. When it appears Cogburn has agreed, Mattie loses her cool, insulting him and declaring that he has no grit. Over the course of the movie, his dignity before this civilized girl has been continually called into question, but she trusted his abilities on the frontier. And now, when it counted most, he failed her.

It is worth pausing for a moment to note how quickly Ned Pepper comes to respect Mattie. He is a ruthless outlaw, and not too intelligent, but when she speaks to him, he answers. He talks to her like an equal, not like a child. Earlier we saw Cogburn and La Boeuf treat her with this same level of respect, but she had to earn it. Keep in mind, this is the world of the western, the world of John Wayne and the man’s man. But Mattie Ross is worthy of respect, the movie wants us to believe, and this is a world that will treat her with respect, so long as she stands up and acts worthy of it.

Ned Pepper and the gang leave the hideout, which means Mattie is alone with an armed Tom Chaney. He has been left with orders not to harm her, but it quickly becomes apparent that he has no intention of following those orders. So once more she pretends to cooperate, then catches her captor off-guard, this time with a ladle full of boiling water. There is a brief scuffle, and it looks like Mattie is going to be overpowered, but La Boeuf returns just in time. He steers Chaney at gunpoint to safer spot, and creeps up with Mattie to the top of a nearby rock to watch Cogburn confront Ned Pepper’s gang in the valley below.

From this point forward, keep the themes of honor and grit in mind. Mattie doubts drunk, old Rooster Cogburn, but he returned to save her. And now he stares down four armed outlaws across a plain with no one at his back. He offers to let two of them go, and to let the other two, whom he does want, come quietly. They refuse, pointing out the odds. He waves off the odds. Then they make a bad mistake. They call Rooster Cogburn a one-eyed fat man.

“FILL YOUR HANDS YOU SONOFABITCH!” he shouts, and the battle is on. Rooster charges across that plain, and the four outlaws draw their guns and rush him. Fire is exchanged, Rooster comes out unscathed, several outlaws attempt to flee, and then Rooster’s horse is shot such that it pins his leg to the ground, trapping him. But just as Ned Pepper creeps up from behind to take him out while he’s still unarmed, La Boeuf take a long shot from the promontory and kills the outlaw. (The new version gave this one-on-four charge much more emphasis, even accentuating Cogburn’s mention of a previous such encounter in an earlier conversation with Mattie.)

Meanwhile, Tom Chaney has picked up a rock. He creeps up behind La Boeuf and cracks him on the head with it, knocking him out cold. Then Mattie shoots Chaney with her father’s hand cannon again, and the recoil sends her flying back into a deep, dark snake pit with bones at the bottom. Mattie finds her arm broken, and within easy reach of a rattlesnake. (This was the most spine-tingingly terrifying part of the movie.) Chaney crawls to the edge of the pit, bearing Mattie’s father’s gun, which she had dropped, and mocks her as she grows more and more terrified. Then a gunshot rings out, and Chaney drops dead. Cogburn has come to the rescue.

He rappels down into the snake pit, but on the way, Mattie provokes a rattlesnake into biting her. (I have no idea why she decided to hit the thing with a branch. There was no surer way to make it angry.) Cogburn blows its head off and prepares to help Mattie climb back out. Mattie makes him take her father’s gun from Tom Chaney’s corpse, which has fallen into the snake pit. After that, she tries to convince him to take back a gold piece that Chaney has, which also belonged to her father, and is filled with both worth and meaning. He has no patience for this. Her life is not worth this gold piece, even if there is some significance attached to it.

Looking up, he comments that it’s a pity La Boeuf was dead. His presence would make this climb a lot easier. La Boeuf pokes his bloody head over the mouth of the cave and announces that he is not dead yet. The wounded Texas Ranger mounts a horse and gives the rope a tug, pulling Mattie and Cogburn to freedom. But when they reach La Boeuf, they find him dead in the saddle. “Texican,” Rooster comments, “Saved my neck twice. Once after he was dead.” Once again, a dying man does the right thing with his last breath. He’s not long for this world, but he’ll do right by the people in it.

This seems to shatter Mattie. Cogburn puts her on her favorite horse, one that she had bought earlier after tormenting that poor horse-trader. She tells him they can’t leave, they need to bury La Boeuf. Cogburn insists that her snakebite is more important. Yes, the dead should be treated with dignity, but the life of the living is worth more. He mounts up behind her, and she says he can’t do that, her horse won’t take it. He replies that this is the only horse they have. Then they ride hard.

Eventually, the horse begins to flag. Mattie tells him to ride slower, he’s killing it. Instead, he rides harder, until the horse dies under them. That horse was not worth Mattie’s life. Then he picks the wounded girl up and carries her. He will exhaust himself to save that girl’s life. He goes until they reach Ned Pepper and his gang down by a riverside. He does not stop to collect them, and the reward that will follow, but holds them at gunpoint until he can steal their carriage and put Mattie in it. Their capture is not worth Mattie’s life. Then he drives off as fast as he can, back to McAlester’s.

Cogburn sees that Mattie is taken care of, then goes back to Arkansas, to the same old filthy back room he has been living in, to drink and play poker with Chen Lee and the cat. While there, Mattie’s lawyer comes to inform him that despite her grave illness, she still managed to conduct her affairs. She sends Cogburn payment for his services, with an additional sum as thanks for saving her life. Displaying her usual business acumen, she insists that he sign a receipt. Cogburn then asks the lawyer if he is a betting man, and bets all his money, and the cat, on Mattie’s recovery.

In the final scene, a restored Mattie and a sober Cogburn walk up a snow-laden hill to her father’s grave. She has done right by him at last. Now she points out to Cogburn the layout of this little family cemetery, where her mother will be buried, where her siblings and their families will buried, and where she will be buried. She tells Cogburn that she wants him to be buried next to her, where her husband and children should go. He does not have family, but over the course of the journey, he has become family to her. He accepts. Then she gives him her father’s gun, a touching gesture, honoring the old lawman. (That’s a lot of what honor/dignity/respect is about—who is in and who is out, who you associate with and who you don’t. And in the end, who’s family.)

Cogburn mounts his horse and prepares to leave, making a comment about how that horse could jump a high fence. Mattie quips that someone his age should not be riding fast, much less jumping fences. He laughs, tells her to visit this “fat old man,” and then spurs the horse downhill and over the fence.

True Grit paints a landscape where honor means something, but where the world is quick to rob you of your dignity and your life. The law is not as trustworthy as could be wished, and every scrap of justice has to be fought for. It’s a world of dark civilization and dangerous wilderness.

But in this world, a little girl is not confined by her age or sex to the margins of society. If she will behave worthy of respect, if she earns respect, then the world is forced to treat her with respect. The horse trader knows she is a force to be reckoned with, La Boeuf knows she has earned her spurs, Ned Pepper speaks to her in a way he does not speak to some of his fellow outlaws, and the grizzled old Rooster Cogburn would be honored to be laid to rest beside her. She starts out keeping the books, and ends keeping justice, and maintaining her own dignity in a world eager to take it from her.

But this is also a movie about grit, about that world that would rob things from you, and the sort of man it takes to confront it. Rooster Cogburn is an old, drunk has-been, quick to the trigger, and in imminent danger of prosecution. He’s fat, smelly, and one-eyed. But when the time comes for action, he’ll ride down four men on his own. He’ll do what’s right, and not what’s easy. He knows his priorities, and he’ll make the sacrifices necessary to get the job done, and to save his friend. In short, a man who endures hardship and indignity to do his duty, that’s a man with grit, and grit covers a multitude of faults.

This is the world painted by True Grit, the world Mattie Ross comes of age in. It’s not the same world, with the same concerns, as in Harry Potter or His Dark Materials. It’s older, rougher, more personal, and depending on where you call home, far more American, far more familiar. It does not display the range, and perhaps not the depth, of such long sagas, but in its short space, it communicates quite a lot. And that’s why I find it a world worth spending time in, a world worthy of study. It could certainly stand a lot more attention than I have given it here, and it’s far from the only western worth watching.

Aronofsky’s Noah

Last night I had the pleasure of watching Darren Aronofsky’s Noah on the big screen over in Pullman.

I entered the theater with the highest of hopes, and a great deal of trepidation. The past several months, and the past week in particular, has featured an unceasing onslaught of uncharitable pre-reviews, quotes taken out of context to damn the director, and pure, irrational, outrage and hatred. Christians who a few weeks before had gathered together to proclaim their loud support for L’oreal Jesus in a hastily re-cut movie salvaged from what was meant to be an entire season’s worth of Gospel retelling, spewed bile at a skilled director who was absolutely in love with the story he wanted to present, and who had spent decades working up to it. We neither knew this, nor cared to find out. The truth of the situation was not our concern next to the necessity of cheering on our team in the culture wars.

So I went in hoping Aronofsky would give us the movie he promised, and that the mudslinging that lead up to its release would be as unfounded as it appeared. I was not disappointed. The following is my reading of the movie, heavy on spoilers.

The Garden

A child of the Piney Woods, I have always loved the creation narrative and the image of an unspoiled garden paradise. Likewise, man’s sin and fall from grace, and the slow unraveling of the world around him as death spreads its hands over creation has always resonated with me. Aronofsky takes this vision and makes it come to life. The original garden world was green and beautiful, filled with plant and animal life, untouched by evil. Then man’s taking of the fruit changed everything.

One of the slanders running around the interwebs was that Aronofsky’s take on the fall was an environmentalist screed; that man’s original sin was abusing the earth. That is far from the truth. In Noah we have a picture of mankind disobeying the Creator, an ever-present figure, and being cast out as a result. The corruption of the environment occurs as a result of original sin, but is not the sin itself. Nor is it the only major thread windings its way through the narrative. Just as prominent, if not more so, is the story of Cain and Abel, of a man killing his brother. Yes, the post-Fall world is one where man exploits the earth, but it is also one where man kills man.

In the Bible, this is indeed how the story goes. Man is supposed to tend the garden, to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and take dominion over it. He fails at this, and his failure brings thorns and thistles on the ground, and death to animal and human life. His days become occupied with sweating to make a living, not with beautifying creation. And as man descends further into sin, he kills brothers and strangers, builds proto-Babels, and establishes a name for himself on the earth. When man sins, both mankind and the creation he was meant to tend are corrupted.

A Man of Vision

Our hero is Noah, the son of Lamech, the last of the good line of Seth in a world overwhelmed by the sons of Cain. He is troubled by visions and dreams, not explicit voices, but the tapestries of symbol Aronofsky is so good at weaving. Noah understands that these are communications from God, but struggles to interpret their meaning. Shaken, he travels on a long journey across the wasted earth to visit the green mountain of his grandfather, Methuselah. After a strange and wonderful trip, and a powerful encounter with the excellent Anthony Hopkins, he is sure of what is to come. God is sending a Flood to cleanse the earth of sinful man. Noah must build an ark to save the innocent—the animals.

Justice And Mercy

It is at this point the central themes of the movie come to the fore. Noah and his family believe that the animals are innocents brought down by man’s sin, and that the whole world of rebellious mankind, the sinful sons of Cain, deserves to be wiped off the earth. Early on in the movie, Noah’s view of the innocence of his own family is somewhat ambiguous. While they are penitent and faithful, the righteous in a world of the wicked, they too share in Adam’s curse. The assumption is that they will be saved, but Noah’s young sons have no wives, and the orphaned girl they rescued was wounded in the belly and will never bear children. Perhaps mankind will be saved, but the guarantee of that salvation lies uncomfortably in the future.

As the pace accelerates, the issues grow more serious. The young girl, now aged into Emma Watson, is madly in love with Shem, Noah’s eldest. It is clear, however, that her wound was serious, and they will have no children. Shem’s younger brother, Ham, is old enough now to feel the pangs of loneliness. He has no wife, and as a member of the last faithful family, he wonders whether God will provide one. Japheth is too young for such concerns, but Noah’s wife is clearly worried. Noah himself tells Ham not to worry, that God will provide.

As miracles accumulate and birds and beasts flock to the forest which sprang up overnight to provide Noah with lumber, the sons of Cain and their king, Tubal-Cain, make the journey over the wastes to see what is happening. Tubal-Cain, the grizzled old warrior who slew Noah’s father and stole a relic of the garden from him, discovers who this mad prophet is, and the nature of his mission, and demands admission into the ark for himself and the crowds who travel with them. Noah refuses. God has judged mankind, and they must die. There will be no escape for the sons of Cain. Tubal-Cain and his armies retreat into the forest and prepare for war.

It would be a shame if I went any farther without mentioning the Watchers. The Watchers are angels who saw mankind cast out of the garden and descended to the earth to help them. As punishment for leaving their posts and aiding the rebels, God encrusted these spirits of light in the molten rock of the earth. Nevertheless, the Watchers continued to help man. But soon the full extent of man’s corruption became obvious as their cities spread, they consumed the raw flesh of living animals, and went to war among each other. The Watchers retreated to the wastelands and rested until Noah came, building his ark. They see he was sent by the Creator to deliver the earth from wicked man, and immediately begin to help him. At this point they have repented of their own rebellion, recognize the sinfulness of man, and seek to do the will of the Creator. It is they who help build the ark, and scare Tubal-Cain away.*

As the time for the Flood draws near, Noah goes down into the enemy camp to rescue some starving girls and bring them back to the ark as wives for his sons. While there, he has a vision of himself among the starving, cannibalistic, murderous masses. The vision-Noah flees into a corner, tears into a miscellaneous chunk of flesh, and then looks up at the dreaming-Noah and snarls. Horrified, Noah returns to the ark, no women in tow. Ham is disappointed and Noah’s wife is confused. Later they have a conversation at the door of the ark. All men are sinful, even the apparently righteous sons of Seth. God may not destroy them in the Flood, but there will be no wives, and the barren Ila (Emma Watson) will have no children. The race of man must die out with this family.

This becomes a crucial turning-point in the narrative. On the one side is the army of Tubal-Cain stressing the autonomy, self-will, and supremacy of mankind in a universe where the Creator has abandoned them. On the other is faithful Noah, committed to obeying God whatever the cost to himself, or mankind. Torn between them is Noah’s family, acknowledging man’s sin and the necessity of the cleansing Flood, but horrified at the prospect of a long life alone ending in the death of mankind—a new Eden for animals and the earth, but not for man.

This, I believe, is the central theme of Aronofsky’s retelling: mankind is worthy of being obliterated, but will God follow through with it? Will he have mercy? Should he? Obviously, we know how the story ends. God delivers Noah, and delivers mankind. And that is a powerful statement. To Aronofsky, that is what the story is about: mercy and justice:

“So, why go through this? What is the reason for it? To me, that’s what’s powerful about it. It’s meant as a lesson. It’s poetry that paints images about the second chance we’ve been given, that even though we have original sin and even though God’s acts are justified, He found mercy. There is punishment for what you do, but we have just kind of inherited this second chance. What are we going to do with it?”

***

“We constructed an entire film around that decision. The moment that it “grieved Him in his heart to destroy creation,” is, for me, the high dramatic moment in the story. Because think about it: It’s the fourth story in the Bible. You go from creation to original sin to the first murder and then time jumps to when everything is messed up.”

***

“So what we decided to do was to align Noah with that character arc and give Noah that understanding: He understands what man has done, he wants justice, and, over the course of the film, learns mercy. What’s nice about that is that is how I think Thomas Aquinas defined righteousness: a balance of justice and mercy.”

The Scriptural story of man’s wickedness, his deserving to be wiped off the earth, and God’s salvation of the faithful through destruction is a big part of what Aronofsky is exploring here. Justice and mercy. Man is sinful, but God does not destroy man.

A Balanced Perspective

As I was reading a review the other night from an atheist perspective, the reviewer mentioned how weird it was watching a movie where the bad guys were secular humanists. That struck me as a complete mischaracterization of what was going on. In fact, I loved the fact that Aronofsky blew up those categories and refused to play the culture war game. He was exploring the themes of the Bible, not the themes of late 20th/early 21st century American politics.

On one side you have men obedient to God who govern creation with kindness and gentleness. They don’t eat meat, which is accurate to the Bible, as meat was not given to man to eat until after the Flood. They keep the heritage of the line of Seth, acknowledging that God was right to kick them out of the garden and that man is sinful.

On the other you have not a family, but cities and kingdoms. These men refuse to acknowledge God’s authority, setting up their own will in its place. They tear apart each other as much as the earth, and seek to trample down all remnants of the line of Seth. They are Man, and Man will rule supreme.

Seth’s line is filled with pious believers. The fact that having any environmental conscience shocks us says more about our politics than it does the Biblical story. The earth is, after all, our responsibility. The line of Cain is filled with godless humanists, yes, but they also embody the worst excesses of fascism and so-called capitalism. Neither side fits easily into our political boxes, and for that I am thankful. That is not what the Bible is about. Though it may have political applications, it is playing another game entirely—telling the story of God’s relationship to sinful man and the world man corrupted.

The Way God Talks to Us

The climax of the movie’s action comes when Noah refuses to kill the twin girls Ila miraculously bore while on the ark. He looks down at humanity, knows it deserves to be wiped from the face of the earth, but his heart is filled with nothing but love. He cannot kill his own granddaughters. Feeling that he has failed, when the ark finally runs aground and the new Eden is founded, he wanders into a self-imposed exile and spends his days drinking himself into a stupor. He has failed God.

It is then that Emma Watson’s Ila comes to visit Noah, and ask him why he drinks. Noah explains that he has failed God, and Ila replies that this is not the case. As Noah himself repeatedly said, God chose him. God chose him because he knew that Noah would get the job done. God chose him because he knew that man was sinful and deserved destruction. God chose him because he would have no mercy on the Cainites outside. God chose him because he knew that he would care for the animals and see that the new Eden was safely founded. And God chose him because he knew that looking at man’s sin and not flinching, he would also look into the eyes of his children, as God had done, and choose mercy.

This, to me, was the most interesting aspect of the movie. God does not speak directly to Noah. At first God gives him visions, but eventually these fade away. Noah does his best to discern God’s will, as we all must do, without clear explanations. And when he does, he is ruthlessly committed to obeying God. But here, in the end, God offers him a choice. God has given him no vision to say what the fate of Noah’s family is to be. He has no divine word on what must happen to these baby girls, the hope of the human race. That decision is left in Noah’s hands. And he does what God did. He spares them.

After speaking with Ila, time passes and Noah returns to his family. He passes on his blessing to his sons, and the new Eden is reborn, with a second chance for mankind. It is at this moment that God sets his bow in the sky—and it is a fantastic, spectacular rainbow, a supernatural promise of mercy that embraces the whole sky, and on which the movie quietly ends. God has preserved his children, and they have received his blessing.

What was Missing

Darren Aronofsky, despite his childhood love of the story and his devotion to its themes, could not capture everything. And perhaps, being immersed in Jewish rather than Christian culture, it is no surprise that he did not include the greatest factor in that interplay between justice and mercy. In casting mankind out of the garden, God promised a Seed that would crush the head of the serpent. Throughout Genesis, God is narrowing down his chosen line, building towards that Seed. From the beginning, the promise was that Christ would come and the world would be redeemed.

This meant that as the Flood approached, the historical Noah knew that mankind would survive, knew that a deliverer would come. In telling the version he did, Aronofsky played with powerful themes, Biblical themes, and illuminated a part of that story which needed illuminating. He did not, however, tell the full Gospel story. He paved the way, showing a God of justice and mercy, indicating a promise of future hope, but that lingering promise has no focus, no concrete Christ in which to trust. Not every story needs that explicitly, but I hope this fantastic rendering of the Biblical tale has prepared us for a future where that can indeed be the case. Noah tells a story that resonates, but the Gospel story has far more meaning.

A Bit of Hubris

It is quite apparent that Aronofsky took certainly liberties with the story of Noah, not only adding where the Bible is silent, but changing details where it is not. I will not provide a full-on dissertation defending this, but I do want to briefly set forth my view on retelling Bible stories.

The Bible is the inspired Word of God. It is filled to the brim with meaning, and every new reading is capable of teaching us more. You could preach a thousand sermons on the Noah story and not sound the bottom of the truths contained therein. So when Christians demand that a retelling of a Bible story be an exact audiovisual representation of what is in the text, capture the exact meaning and sense of that passage in every detail, what I see is not faithfulness to the Word, but hubris.

Who are we to think we can transfer the Word in all of its glory into a new medium and expect it to capture everything the original text was meant to capture? A sermon picks and chooses the lessons it will glean, and a retelling of a story must do the same thing. Aronofsky could not capture every possible meaning or connection of all the details of the Noah story, and we should not expect him to.

The Take-Away

We are not here to capture everything, and to think we can is arrogant, so let us instead strive to understand the story Aronofsky is telling. If we want to capture a different facet, let us go and retell it ourselves. But sadly, it appears Christians on the whole cannot. Why is it that we are unable to see the themes of the Bible and take them seriously, to recognize that they are relevant to all mankind and are not just part of the insider jargon of “our team?” Why do we have to knee-jerkingly hate on a serious retelling of Scriptures simply because it came from the wrong side? How can we do that and then complain about the dearth of skillfully made, serious Bible movies? Aronofsky, a pagan, takes our story seriously and retells it with a seriousness Christians rarely match. He shows us up, and because we have judged him already, we fix on whatever details we can find in order to condemn him.

This weekend I was not disappointed by Aronofsky’s failure to reach to the Scriptural heights. I was disappointed in our hostility at the attempt, and our consistent inability to match such an effort. I know there are thoughtful Christians in the background, who rose above the fray and considered what was actually happening. But right now, our loudest voices showed no courtesy, no Gospel grace, and no calm consideration. One day I hope that changes.

*I was kind of hoping for the Watchers to be Nephilim, since they are more Biblical than apocryphal, and would also make a killer story. But, despite not being Nephilim, these guys were quite the treat. Maybe in a future movie.

Free, Forgiven, and Adopted

A long time ago I heard a lecture by Francis Foucachon on how different cultures talk about sin and salvation. There are essentially three ways of doing this, all of which are found in the Bible. Understanding each of them individually gives us a better understanding of the whole picture. In expanding our understanding of these things, this also allows us to better to communicate the Gospel.

The first way of talking about sin is probably the most familiar in general American culture. In this paradigm, sin is about violating laws. You are guilty or innocent, having transgressed God’s rules, and are in need of a substitute to take the punishment for you. Since this is such an obvious and common way of talking about the Gospel in our culture, I won’t say anything more about it.

The second way is just as true, but not as commonly used around here. This is the language of fear and power. In this paradigm we are slaves to sin and the devil, and under the power of death. When Christ comes, he is the liberator. Instead of a substitute, he is talked about as the one who conquers evil, sets free the captives, and empowers his people. This is the story of the Harrowing of Hell and the inspiration for various movement towards freedom in newly Christianized cultures. Here most of all, Christ is conqueror.

The last sort of language that gets used is that of honor and shame. This was a little more complicated than the other two, or so it seems to me. It also is the one that fascinates me the most. To properly understand it, you can’t think of honor and shame as expressions of self-importance, but as one’s relationship to society. An honored man is one accepted, respected, and loved by society. A dishonored man is shunned and cast out. Sin is shameful, the sort of thing that causes God to disown us.

In an honor/shame paradigm, God our Father has become ashamed of us and disowned us for rebelling against him. But Christ has taken that shame on himself, been shunned in our place. At the same time, he lived righteously, endured every insult and injury given to him, and honored both God and the people he came to save. In taking on our shame, he became yet more honorable. And, crucially, he acted as our intermediary, being separated from the Father for our sake and asking the Father to accept us once more for his sake.

A lot more could be said about these, and I do want to do more delving, especially in that third category. But what’s necessary to realize is that all three are true, and they are more or less dependent on each other. You cannot be shamed unless you have violated some code, broken some law. You cannot be freed from the power of sin and death unless you are honored by the Free Man and accepted into his presence and that of our Father. You could not be under the power of the curse unless you had violated the law and become subject to the curse. You can’t have any of them without the other.

On the other hand, it makes perfect sense that some people and some cultures emphasize one aspect more than the others. We’re finite beings with a finite attention span and a finite amount of time in the day, so we pay attention to what we can. We also have unique stories and therefore things that draw us specifically. So long as we don’t lose sight of the truth of the other points, there is nothing wrong with emphasizing one over the others.

At any rate, there’s an interesting thought to think about. Peruse your Bible with this in mind. It’s fun.

Have a blessed weekend.

Lonesome Dove: An American Epic

This summer I made it a goal to watch Lonesome Dove.

(For those of you tuning in twenty years late, Lonesome Dove is an epic miniseries stretching from South Texas and western Arkansas up into the wilds of Montana. Its all-star cast includes Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover, Diane Lane, Anjelica Huston, and a half-dozen others more familiar for their faces than their names. Steve Buscemi of the crazy eyes is among them. This western, from an era when the western was thought to be dead, raked in the Emmys and Golden Globes. Back when Netflix still had that awesome “Local Favorites” feature, this was still number one in East Texas. If you haven’t seen it, you may want to take a six and a half hour break and come back when your situation has changed.)

Ahem. Back to “le point,” as the French have been known to not say. It was really good, the sort of thing that makes you feel and, if you’re a thinker, really makes you think. I’m reading the Iliad for class right now, and some of our discussions highlighted issues in Lonesome Dove. So while I’m not going to sit here and explain the intricacies of the worldview of that movie, which is beyond me anyways, I will point towards some interesting rabbit trails.

***spoiler alerts from here on out***

The main thread of the show is Captain Augustus “Gus” McCrae’s relationship with his buddy, Captain Woodrow F. Call. And, fittingly for a Texas story, the themes this thread brings out mostly have to do with pride. Gus is a playboy, decked out in his finery, smooth with words, pseudo-educated, quite the gambler, and a real chick magnet for someone his age. Call is a taciturn man, but stubborn as a mule when he wants something, such as a ranch in the unsettled wilds of Montana. He refuses to display any sort of emotion. As Gus says, he doesn’t want to admit he’s human like the rest of us. They’ve been friends since their younger days as rangers when they cleaned the Comanches out of South Texas. (I won’t quibble with that geographical oddity, we’ll just assume they have a good explanation I haven’t thought of).

As we watch their story develop, several interesting things happen. Gus dies of gangrene, refusing to let the doctor amputate his remaining leg. In a poignant moment, one of Call’s rare displays of emotion, at Gus’s bedside he cries out, “Damn your vanity!” Before he is left alone in this world, his friend makes him swear to take his body all the way back across the plains to a little grove where Gus was once happy with a woman. (Nobody ends up with their woman, and the women are all disappointed).

Call is no less prideful. He’s got walls a mile high and thicker than Chesterton’s gut. He won’t admit to loving any woman, especially the one who bore his child. And despite loving the boy in question, he can’t bring himself to say he’s the kid’s father. He ends up leaving his dream behind to take Gus’s body home, and we never do learn whether he returns to Montana.

Despite the destructiveness of pride in our heroes, and they are heroes, this universe is not entirely bleak. Every character is one we can love or hate with a passion, and every event is charged with the sort of emotion only a cowboy can take and not burst into laughter or tears.

And, interestingly, justice does prevail. Life’s not easy for the heroes, but no villain escapes this world alive. From the notorious outlaw Blue Duck to men who simply rode with the wrong crowd, sin ends in death. Tragedy may rule in Lonesome Dove, but so does justice.

Two more themes to note. Injuns. More than dispossessed natives or cruel barbarians, in Lonesome Dove Indians symbolize all the freedom, untamed wildness, and limitless expanse of the world before men like Gus and Call came to make it safe for soft city folk. In several places both men lament the passing away of that old world, the passing they helped to usher in. They don’t regret killing men that needed killing, and there were many, but they do regret the world it resulted in—a world without free land, and a world without buffalo.

Let me tack on that there is a (rather limited, but existent) amount of complexity with regards to said Native Americans. Blue Duck, the vile half-breed, is set in stark contrast to a poor, wandering band of Montanans who fear the encroaching white men. Still, we are left knowing that it is inevitable that both sides will eventually vanish.

Last rabbit trail I want to point to: womens. The women in this movie are treated, particularly by Gus, with a mixture of gallantry and carelessness. There is no doubt many of cowboys are just “looking for a poke,” but repeatedly we see that this cannot be separated from an emotional attachment. Men, of course, can ride off when they get scared, in a way that the women frequently won’t, but they don’t remain untouched by their decisions. And, outside of their friendship, nothing Gus and Call experience in this world is more important to them than specific women they once loved. The story ends in men that died sad but free, and women who are tough but lonely. And, strangely, few hold real grudges.

From start to stop, Lonesome Dove is an American epic. It explores many of the same themes of the Iliad, but in a context we are familiar with as a nation. Sadly, like the Iliad, we are left in an unredeemed world. This is a tragedy in which the only positive victories are those of justice to the lawless and simply having lived. Call is left alone and hopeless, his friend gone, his lover long gone, his son far away in Montana, and the town he began the story in left a dried-out husk of what it used to be. We are left asking the same question the Iliad begs—what can be done? Who can turn the hearts of the fathers to their sons, and husbands to their wives, and redeem a land grown corrupt? But that is a question for another day.