The Gospel according to Sling Blade

I am happy to report that Anthony Sacramone, once of  Luther at the Movies, is back from his blogging hiatus and is posting  again at Strange Herring.  Amidst his wry observations, humorous rants, and theological zingers, he will post thoughtful meditations and perceptive film criticism.  For example, here he discusses What Is a Christian Film? and puts forward an unlikely-seeming candidate:

To me, the most explicitly Christian film ever made is Billy Bob Thornton’s Sling Blade. Consider: the central figure is Karl, who in today’s parlance who be described as mentally challenged or autistic, played by an unrecognizable Thornton himself. We meet Karl as he sits in an institution to which he has been consigned for murdering his own mother. Yet this strange, dangerous man with this creepy affect is about to be let loose on an unsuspecting society. Unsuspecting because Karl is by far the most enlightened person in any room he walks into. And that is for one good reason: he has a keen appreciation for his own capacity for evil. He is not self-deluded. He has a grasp of reality such as would drive most other people to drink.

But this self-knowledge is not born of hubris but of humility. When Karl realizes that he must commit another crime, and thus forsake his hard-won freedom for the sake of another — a little boy who is being tormented by his mother’s boyfriend and their self-destructive lifestyle — the first thing he does is ask to be baptized. He is identifying himself with the crucified Christ because he is about to sacrifice his own “righteousness” (i.e., that fragile social acceptance that permits him to live in civil society) for the sake of another, to save another. Karl knows he is a sinner. He knows he must die for his sin. But he also knows that he has a redeemer, who can save him even as he is about to descend into hell.

And so we leave Karl just as we found him. Incarcerated, but strangely free.

Partly on Mr. Sacramone’s earlier recommendation–he listed Sling Blade among his “Lutheran movies”–I watched it, and he’s right.

Could we agree to this?:  A  movie that is  uplifting or moral or positive is not necessarily a Christian movie.  Rather, for a movie to be Christian, it must have something to do with sin, redemption, and Christ.

Can you think of other examples?

The King’s Speech

We finally saw the multiple-Oscar nominee The King’s Speech.  What a great movie!  I had expected in this account of King George VI and his speech therapist a light-hearted and humorous ‘enry ‘iggens My Fair Lady story in reverse.  But it was so much more than that, an in-depth character study of the king’s second son, so dominated by his royal father and tormented by his shallow elder brother that he suffers from a major speech impediment, a problem with stuttering that is deadly when, as a royal, you have to make speeches all the time.

But then his brother , now King Edward, abdicates the throne so that he can marry his floozy American girlfriend (something not allowed for the head of the Church of England since she had been divorced, and more than once).  Now Bertie is King George VI, just as World War II is breaking out.  (His eldest daughter is Princess and later-to-be Queen Elizabeth.)In a time of radio demagogues such as Hitler, the King of England must hold the nation and the Empire together, largely by means of radio broadcasts.  But he freezes and stammers when he has to speak in public.  His Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue, has to not only teach him to speak fluently, but, in doing so, he must help him get to the root of his royal neuroses.

The movie is absolutely compelling.  Not just for its speech therapy but as a political tale and a glimpse into the unique pressures and miseries of royalty.  No explosions, nobody got killed, no sex scenes, some therapeutic bad language, and lots of brilliant performances.  I saw a whole slew of Masterpiece Theater veterans, including an elderly and barely-recognizable Anthony Andrews (remember when he was the young rake on the good production of Brideshead Revisited?) and a Derek Jacobi, who, now that he is actually old, looks just like the cosmetically-produced old Emperor that he played in the final episodes of I, Claudius. But the performances of Colin Firth as King George VI and Geoffrey Rush as Logue just killed.

Ronald Reagan as actor

Yesterday would have been the 100th birthday of Ronald Reagan.  In the articles commemorating the day, it is evident that even liberal scholars have come to appreciate the man and his presidency.

The Washington Post published a feature on “Five Myths about Ronald Reagan” by his biographer Edmund Morris.  I got a kick out of this one:

1. He was a bad actor.

Well, yes and no. Most of the movies he made as a Warner Bros. contract player are unwatchable by persons of sound mind. When he was president, it was easy to laugh at them. The spectacle of the leader of the free world, a.k.a. Secret Service agent Brass Bancroft, deploying an enormous ray gun against an airborne armada was especially hilarious in 1983, the year he announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, that vaporizer of foreign nuclear missiles. “All right, Hayden – focus that inertia projector on ‘em and let ‘em have it!”

Even when Reagan believed he was acting well, as in “Kings Row,” he betrayed infallible signs of thespian mediocrity: an unwillingness to listen to other performers and an inability to communicate thoughts. Now that he is dead, however, one feels an odd tenderness for the effort he put into every role – particularly in early movies, when he struggled to control a tendency of his lips to writhe around his too-rapid speech.

Ironically, he was transformed into a superb actor when he took on the roles of governor of California, presidential candidate and president of the United States. Then, as never in his movies, he became authoritative, authentic, irresistible to eye and ear. His two greatest performances, in my opinion, were at the Republican National Convention in 1976, when he effortlessly stole Gerald Ford’s thunder as nominee and made the delegates regret their choice, and at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1985, when he delivered the supreme speech of his presidency.

I asked him once if he had any nostalgia for the years he was nuzzling up to Ann Sheridan and Doris Day on camera. He gestured around the Oval Office. “Why should I? I have the biggest stage in the world, right here!”

via Five myths about Ronald Reagan.

Post your Reagan tributes, critiques, and nuanced evaluations here.

Law & Gospel at the movies

Anthony Sacramone discusses the movie Black Swan, which is about a ballerina’s tormented pursuit of perfection.  He then draws out the Law/Gospel connections:

The film is not subtle and Nina’s inner life, her delusions and paranoid fantasies, trace the borderline of camp. But what is really missing is a way out of this false dilemma between “perfection” and “failure.” Perfection is in the eye of the beholder, and so in order to achieve it one must always subordinate the self to some other authority, which, in this realm, is always, always fallible. It is a self-defeating exercise, because even if you think you’ve achieved it, give it a minute, and the criteria by which that perfection is judged will shift, and you’ll find yourself having to place catch-up. To be perfect is, by definition, to fail. And the ultimate failure is death.

Which is why we Lutherans have placed such emphasis on law/Gospel dichotomies. Every time gospel implies “You must” or “You must not,” it becomes a word of condemnation, of failure, because, with all do apologies to Yoda, “you can’t,” try as you might. The good news is that someone already did, and you can rest in his success as if it were your own. You can put yourself under his authority without fear of collapsing under its weight, because his yoke is easy and his burden is light. The price of admission to perfection is faith alone, because the cost of that admission was paid 2,000 years ago. And faith is never a work. Only believe.

But Nina never hears that word, drowned out as it is by the disparate and competing demands of “You must.”

via Black Swan: Law vs. Gospel » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog.

Frodo & Vocation

The Lord of the Rings is another tale about vocation, as John Ortberg realizes:

My daughter and I were re-watching Lord of the Rings before Christmas. At one point, on the last part of the journey through Mordor, Frodo turns to Sam and tells him how badly he wishes he did not have to be the one to carry the Ring. Being the Ring-Bearer was a difficult and dangerous role. He took it up voluntarily; he knew it was a worthy task; he understood in some dim way that he was suited for it—even his weakness was part of his gifting, and yet the cost of it wore him down. . . .

“But you have been chosen,” Gandalf says to Frodo. “And you must therefore use such strength and hearts and wits as you have.”

You have been chosen. I don’t know if you (or I) am in exactly the perfect fitting job. But that’s not the issue.

You have been chosen.

And this sense of having been called—the worthiness of it, the glorious goodness of a life lived beyond an individual’s agenda—is a precious thing. It is sometimes subverted into grandiosity. It is perhaps more often lost in the ministry of the mundane. It needs to be guarded.

Sometimes, in the quest, we get to visit the House of Elrond; the Fellowship is united and strong, the plans are glorious, hope is fierce, and hearts beat fast.

But you don’t get to spend every day there.

All ministry involves slogging through Mordor.

via Guard Your Calling, Frodo | LeadershipJournal.net.

Rev. Ortberg is discussing specifically the pastoral ministry.  But doesn’t the example of Frodo apply to all vocations (marriage, parenthood, one’s job, citizenship, life in the church,etc.)?

True Grit

We saw True Grit over the weekend, the Coen brothers’ rendition of the  novel by Charles Portis, which had also been made into a movie that earned John Wayne an Oscar.  I’m a fan of the novel and both movies, including this one.

The John Wayne movie is an iconic Western, and I like icons.  This one is darker and, well, grittier, and I like that too.  The Coen version is especially good in bringing to the forefront the novel’s language.  The 19th century was a time of greater formality than our own, with an attention to codes of good manners and the use of a more flowery language than we usually do today, in our hyper-casual culture.  That was also the era of black and white morality, when the Bible was on everyone’s lips.  And yet, at the same time, on the American frontier,  the era was also wild, violent, barbaric, and squalid.  The Coen brothers capture both of those co-existing dimensions perfectly, and it’s a sight to see.

The performances by Jeff Bridges as the drunken U. S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn and Hailee Steinfeld as the formidable 14-year old Mattie Ross out to avenge her father’s murder are as good and as memorable as anything you will find in the movies.  I also loved the movie’s score, based on 19th century American hymns (e.g.,  “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”).

I urge you to read what Stanley Fish has to say about this movie in his blog post via Narrative and the Grace of God: The New ‘True Grit’ – NYTimes.com..  The postmodernist literary critic, who now seems to be going beyond postmodernism in a good way, got his start, like me, as a literary scholar specializing in applying Reformation theology to 17th century literature.  He says this about the movie:

The new “True Grit” is that rare thing — a truly religious movie. In the John Wayne version religiosity is just an occasional flourish not to be taken seriously. In this movie it is everything, not despite but because of its refusal to resolve or soften the dilemmas the narrative delivers up.

Fish takes a key line from the movie:  “You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free with the exception of God’s grace.” He then offers what I would call a Calvinist interpretation of the film.

A Lutheran interpretation might take the grace bit a little differently, agreeing that everyone is a sinner but showing God’s hand in the vocations being carried out in the story.

At any rate, True Grit is  great fun, and it will also stay with you.

If you’ve seen it, weigh in.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X