The gangster, the cardinal, and us

the gangster the cardinal and us
Cardinal Lamberto. Image from 'The Godfather: Part III'
In You’ve got Mail, Tom Hanks’s character says that all of life’s questions can be answered by reference to The Godfather. Not quite, but close. For instance, just ask yourself why in a supposedly Christian nation things are so decidedly unchristian. There is a scene in The Godfather: Part III which provides an answer.

The saga’s main character, Michael Corleone, is speaking with Cardinal Lamberto, who would soon become pope. They are in a courtyard standing by a small bird bath or fountain. The cardinal retrieves a pebble from under the water. “Look at this stone,” he says, holding it out for Michael to see. “It has been lying in the water for a very long time, but the water has not penetrated it.” He then whacks the rock on the side of the fountain, breaking it open to expose the inside. “Look,” he says, “perfectly dry.” The glistening water on the outside had not seeped in.

Lamberto continues: “The same thing has happened to men in Europe. For centuries they have been surrounded by Christianity, but Christ has not penetrated. Christ doesn’t live within them.”

Just as Lamberto finishes his observation, Michael suffers a diabetic attack and requires sugar before it worsens. Lamberto perceptively notes that Michael’s heart is causing his real torment. Indeed, Michael is Exhibit B in the lesson. Raised in the church, Michael is nonetheless a murderer. Christ has not penetrated.

And so with us I sometimes think. Christ is everywhere around us. But is he in us too?

Three quarters of American adults identify as Christian. We like to say that we are a Christian nation. It’s a loaded phrase with historical problems, but it makes for a powerful self-identifier. We should ask if it’s true. There are some 335,000 Christian congregations in this country. In some locales a seemingly endless number of steeples jab the sky, while other congregations cram into storefronts and still others occupy massive spaces like big-box retailers, hulking islands rising amid acres of blacktop parking.

All of this is good, but it doesn’t really answer the question: Has Christ penetrated? Despite the overwhelming number of self-professed Christians, only 12 percent of American adults claim faith as their top priority, according to research by the Barna Group. Family, health, leisure, success, career, and wealth all rank higher.

And it’s not just self-professed priorities that gauge our adherence. Acceptance of traditional Christian morality has declined, as well, according to Barna. For one recent example — this one from the family research firm Child Trends — births outside marriage account for more than half of all births to women under thirty.

Enough with the dire news. There is hope and a way out.

No one can look at the culture and just fix it. No on can cause Christ to penetrate deeper into our nation. That’s delusional. In another context, C.S. Lewis denounced the idea of national repentance as a way to skirt personal repentance. But personal repentance is the only way. I can lament the statistics while also contributing to them (and in fact I have). What good is that except securing my own judgement? All we can do is open up and allow Christ to penetrate our own hearts of stone and transform them into hearts of flesh. It just so happens that is a sufficient and efficacious beginning.

Back to the courtyard: Lamberto asks Michael about making confession. It’s been thirty years since he’s last opened his heart. But Michael knows confessing isn’t all. He must repent, which he won’t do. Will we, each of us? We must. We can. Our Christianity glistens brilliantly on the outside. But the question is, when God breaks us open, will he find that Christ has truly seeped inside, or will he discover us to be merely dry and dead?

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  • Very well said. Time for some serious self-examination. Thank you. Also, I loved the distinction between national repentance and personal repentance. The first is clearly dependent upon the second.

    • With Lent starting for many this week, it’s a great time to contemplating repentance. I think that C.S. Lewis distinction is important — you can only work on your own heart, not your neighbor’s.

  • Leslie

    Wow! A timely(less) observation. I think that it comes back right back to us to be the change and hopefully hope that it will somehow influence others…

  • Ah, I’ve often said that apart from the Bible all truth is to be found in the Godfather films. Well done, Joel. You really should consider writing another book- “The Gospel According to the Godfather.”

  • Lee

    Wonderful thoughts, Joel. There’s a Buddhist folk tale about a monk who set out to change the world, but failed. He then decided he would change his country, but failed again. He tried to change his city, but again failed. He thought then he might change his family, and still failed. Finally, in old age, he decided to change himself, and realized, “If I had done this sooner, I could have changed the world.” Love your thoughts on national vs. personal repentance.

    • Lee

      Can’t wait for the book, by the way…

  • John

    One of my favorite scenes from the Godfather III! We are blessed to have the great gift of Great Lent each year to penetrate our rocky exteriors.

    • Amen. Before I observed Lent I could not understand that point. Now that I do, I cannot imagine how I survived without it (hint: I barely made it).