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Friday, December 2, 2011

Christians and Aliens: Making Movies in a Culture of Death

Here is irony.

One of the most perceptive cinematic portrayals of what Blessed Pope John Paul II referred to as our “culture of death,” as well as a compelling exemplar of moviemaking which points us beyond such a culture, come from two apparently secular Jewish filmmakers: Joel and Ethan Cohen.

Meanwhile, far too many professedly Christian films fall woefully below the bar the Cohens have set.

Why is this?

Last month at a conference of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, I offered some reasons for this sadly ironic cultural situation. My rather impressionistic set of notes is just below. It will help a lot to have seen the Cohen Brothers’ NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and TRUE GRIT, as well as the Sherwood Baptist Church production of FIREPROOF.

To help matters some, at the end of the post I'm attaching Father Robert Barron’s excellent analysis of TRUE GRIT, an analysis I depended heavily upon in the third part of the lecture.

Comments and questions welcome.


Daniel McInerny
Radical Emancipation: Confronting the Challenge of Secularism
12th Annual Fall Conference of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics & Culture
University of Notre Dame
November 11, 2011


1. Play the opening of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2:45)
a. Landscape...barren...
b. Sheriff Bell comparing himself against the “old timers”
c.  A killer abroad, killing for killing’s sake: “I don’t know what to make of that,” says Sheriff Bell. Can’t take its measure...irrational...he doesn’t want to go and meet something he doesn’t understand
2. Brief plot summary: Sheriff Bell, his soul at hazard, grappling with the meaning of evil, against the passing of an older moral & religious order
3. Sheriff Bell: “A man would have to put his soul at hazard.” (why? because he’s facing the Devil);
4. Script of “That’s vanity” scene: the devil’s territory, p. 110
5. Play the closing scene of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (3:00)
a. trying to catch up with his father, symbol of moral & religious clarity...but he can’t catch up.
6. Flannery O’Connor: “...the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil.” NO COUNTRY shows us that territory, but not the action of grace...
7. Walker Percy: before life can be affirmed in our culture, “death-in-life must be named.”

Transition: so how would a filmmaker, trying to learn not only from the Coen Brothers but even more importantly from O’Connor and Percy, make a film that would show death-in-life, as Percy puts it, but also go on to affirm life; that would show us the devil’s territory, as O’Connor puts it, but also go on to show the action of grace?

In short, how is a Christian to sing his songs in this alien land?

I want to consider two strategies:
A. The “Faith-Based” Project
B. The Approach Through Paradox

Caveat: These are not the only strategies for filmmakers to take. Barbara Nicolosi, for example, has said that a comedy (e.g. a Pixar cartoon) can be a grace. Or sometimes a period piece can be very effective in showing us what we have lost culturally. 

I.            The “Faith-Based” Project: FIREPROOF

1. Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004), made for 30m, worldwide gross to date is almost 612m, called Hollywood’s attention to the “faith-based” demographic. It also caught the attention of pastors: e.g. Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia.
2. FIREPROOF (2008): starring Kirk Cameron, was made for half a million dollars and has grossed over 33 million. The highest-grossing independent movie of 2008.
3. Barna poll showing that movies influenced Americans more than church: Alex Kendrick of Sherwood Baptist: “We read a study that said media is more influential in our culture than the church. We need to get Godly people involved in making good movies – that’s one way we can win wars and take ground back.”
4. Friends Church in Yorba Linda, California, a non-denominational evangelical megachurch, is now at work on its own film, NOT TODAY, about a spoiled young American on a trip to India who is drawn into a search for a little girl sold to human traffickers. In an interview with PBS, Pastor Matthew Cork had this to say about the purpose of NOT TODAY:

It wasn’t just to make a movie, because we’re not in the movie business. We’re a church. But as a church we do have an obligation and a responsibility to tell the message, and so we believe that this was the best way for us in what God had gifted us with.

5. Results: on the official site of FIREPROOF one finds a page with the title: “7,000+ Marriages Have Been Ignited by FIREPROOF,” followed by a long list of fan comments thanking the filmmakers for helping them with their marriages or with some other aspect of their lives.
6. BELLA statistics: March 2010, Eduardo Versategui’s website: BELLA has saved over 300 babies.
7. Why isn’t it churlish to criticize such films?

a.O’Connor: the fact that grace can work through a poorly-made church is God’s business, not ours. It’s not an argument for bad church architecture...analogy to poorly-made movies;
b. Christ told parables, but he did not “entertain”: movies are entertainment, and they have their own integrity as such
c. Even from an evangelical viewpoint: who knows what better impact might be had?

9. A big part of the issue here is the question of audience. Who is the movie for? A demographic that already has the eyes to see, or a demographic O’Connor describes in speaking of the “modern man who [like Sheriff Bell] can neither believe nor contain himself in unbelief and who searches desperately, feeling about in all experience for the loss of God” (“Novelist and Believer,” p. 159).
10.       Criticism of FIREPROOF: Play scene with father (Chapter 8) (3 minutes)

  Didacticism not conflict: the opposing value is not given sufficient play; the territory of the devil is never surveyed; (such as the value we place on Mattie’s quest for revenge); thus the conflict comes off as two-dimensional & sentimental; as pure good vs. pure evil. For this reason there is no irony, no lack of fit between what is said and what is intended (what screenwriters call subtext--it’s all text)
     Caleb’s vision of a good man (evil) with God’s vision (good)
 There is a wrestling with the devil, but our hands never get dirty; we are not      compelled by the evil in any way--either by seeing it as good, or seeing its horror, or  even facing significant obstacles (cost) to flee it.

Lack of a sacramental imagination. The “heart-to-heart talk” and “music video” over action, image, symbolic representation (the sacramental aspect of art); rooting us not so much in things but in words. The “kickback” of a gun vs. the Cross in the park that the character reads for us.

The moment of grace is ineffective because there is a lack of the significant, paradoxical action through which grace flows. The moment in which that which is mistaken for “life” must die--often violently. “The music video.” In FIREPROOF the death-in-life is simply not very compelling. Because we have not identified with Caleb’s misguided wish, we are not shocked when it brings him low. We know he has been wrong from the very beginning. The sense of paradox is missing, MYSTERY, that shakes us out of complacency. 

III.      The Kickback of Grace: TRUE GRIT

1. Play opening scene: “nothing is free, but the grace of God”
2. Brief synopsis
3. As Father Robert Barron has pointed out in his insightful analysis of the film, Mattie is driven by a single-minded desire for justice. The film opens with a quotation, white letters over black, from Proverbs 28:1: “The wicked man flees, when none pursueth.” The verse continues: “but the just, bold as a lion, shall be without dread.” Mattie is the lion who pursues Tom Chaney without dread. At the beginning, when she asks a sheriff for advice on where to find a man with “true grit” to help her pursue Chaney, the sheriff offers several possibilities.
4. Script of Mattie’s choice of Rooster Cogburn. Mattie opts for the “pitiless man,” not the man “straight as a string” who “believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake.” Mattie’s sense of justice is that of an eye for an eye. It is the justice of the Furies in Aeschylus’ The Eumenides. It is a justice driven more by blood-thirst than by respect for an impersonal order. Mattie’s father was killed, Chaney must die, and no pity or legal niceties must enter into it.
5. But as Father Barron points out, Mattie’s sense of justice leads to a string of brutal killings. Between Mattie, Cogburn and Leboeuf, eight corpses are on the ground by the time Mattie completes her quest. That is not to say that these killings are unjust—not, at least, in the moral territory in which these characters move. But the film has something to say about this brand of justice.
6. Until the end: Play the climactic scene: the Kickback of Grace...the pit, snakes, images of Hell, the devil. Mattie’s desire for a very severe form of justice leads her into the very “valley of death” that she tells her mother, in a letter, the Lord will lead her through.
7. The action of grace in the form of a paradox: in achieving her aim of revenge against Tom Chanay, Mattie is “kick-backed” into death. Pure revenge leads to death, but it is in that dying that grace is made possible.
8. We have to undergo the paradoxical realization, the epiphany, that what we thought was “life” was really death, and in dying to that “life” we come to realize what life really means. But we have to see the attraction in that former “life,” or else there is no conflict. It cannot be a straw man.
9. Cogburn’s mercy in racing her to her rescue: Cogburn cuts her hand and tries to suck out the poison. Then he takes Mattie on horseback to a doctor, many miles away. Cogburn runs the horse ragged until it collapses and he has to shoot it. He then carries Mattie the rest of the way, showing us, as Father Barron observes, that he is now moved by something other than cruel justice. He is moved by pity and affection for Mattie.
10.       Play: final envelope scene. True Grit’s structure takes the form of an envelope. We begin with a voiceover narrated by Mattie in 1908, twenty-five years after her pursuit of Chaney with Cogburn and LeBoeuf. At the end of the film, we again hear the older Mattie, and see her too, and learn that she has only one arm, the other cut off, in order to save her life, by the doctor Cogburn brought her to. As Father Barron astutely perceives, Mattie’s one arm images the lack of symmetry in the justice that drove her to pursue Tom Chaney. A justice without mercy, that disregards the claims of even the worst of men to a fair shake, is not the justice God intends for human beings. It is a justice, rather, for “misfits.”
11.       Song: Iris DeMent: “The Everlasting Arms”: The film closes beautifully with images of mercy: in Cogburn’s transformative act of devotion in getting Mattie to the doctor; but also in the lovely spiritual with which the film ends, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” a song in which Mattie’s single armed justice is perfectly balanced by the two loving arms of the Father (imaged by Rooster Cogburn).


1. Films need to depict the gesture that make contact with mystery and the invitation to grace
2. Such is a gesture we find in Mattie’s killing of Tom Chanay
3. Much like O’Connor in her fiction, the Coen brothers in TRUE GRIT have used dark comedy, violence, and a stark refusal of sentimentality to picture a territory held largely by the devil, but one still capable of surprising its inhabitants with the kickback of grace. Ironically, it is from these (apparently) secular Jewish filmmakers that we have films that show us one of the most compelling paths toward the future in Christian filmmaking.  


  1. Sadly, it's now a seven-hour drive to the E&C conference instead of a walk across campus, so I unfortunately missed this.

    The question I would have asked, though, is how you see older forms of artistic conflict fitting into this analytical structure. To take simply the first example to come to mind, what do we make of Chrétien de Troyes' Erec and Enide: is this good art because the reader is not sure whether the characters are doing right or wrong, or simply because it depicts a conflict with an uncertain resolution or engaging details? Please pardon the eight-century jump from your example to mine.

  2. Daniel - even in notes form, I can tell this was a wonderful lecture!

    My wife and I were very underwhelmed by Fireproof and Bella - however well-intentioned both were, neither film moved us in any profound way. The portrayal of God's grace is "cheap," hackneyed, and as you note two-dimensional - to say nothing of the poor acting. Such saccharine sentimentality probably did more harm than good for those "seekers" who came to the films with an open mind.

    In contrast, No Country for Old Men & True Grit, though dark and violent, is in many ways a more compelling portrayal of grace and goodness by submerging us into its negation, Percy's "death-in-life" (this reminds me of a book I'm reading on film noir you may enjoy, "Arts of Darkness" by Thomas Hibbs). True Grit, without a doubt, is an achievement - particularly the scene you reference, in which Haddie fires the gun and the "kickback" tosses her into the pit with snakes and corpses - the imagery is profound and clear without being preachy, because we too have been swept up in Haddie's desire for "eye-for-an-eye" justice, and are jostled by the unexpected turn of events which, in turn, illustrate the need for mercy and love.

    I'm wondering - are there any directors or films out there that you feel stand with the Coen Brothers in this regard? Where are our cinematic Flannery O'Connors?

  3. Thanks for the comment, Matthew. And by the way, in the live lecture--which should be available to stream pretty soon from the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture website--I did mention in passing Hibbs's excellent Arts of Darkness. I agree with Hibbs that noir and neo-noir present narrative strategies that can effectively challenge the reigning nihilism. I didn't focus on them in this talk, however, because I wanted to deal with films that explicitly took up the theme of Christian grace (as opposed to the all-purpose search for Transcendence). It is hard to find filmmakers on a par with the Cohen Brothers. I must say I was really captivated by Martin Scorsese's Hugo (see my post on that film from last week). I like Whit Stillman a lot (though I haven't seen his latest effort). Spielberg can be outstanding. Terence Malick, too. But even as our list grows, the question persists, where are the contemporary Catholic directors on a par with an O'Connor, Percy or Waugh?