I’ve been thinking about No Country for Old Men (2007); a great film with an ending that, like most Coen brother films, is rather odd.
A couple years ago, I was struck by it’s similarities to the Seventh Seal, a 1957 film about the silence of God. After years spent in crusade, a knight returns to his homeland. The figure of death comes for the knight on the beach whereupon the knight challenges him to a game of chess. They make a deal. As long as the knight holds out, death will not take him and if the knight wins, death will let him live. For the rest of the film, the knight uses his reprieve to search for meaning and certainty. He wants to know, not just to believe, God exists. He fears the silence of God means God isn’t there and his life (mostly lived in crusade) was therefore meaningless.
No Country for Old Men also has a figure of death offering reprieve through contest. As with the classic depictions of death, No Country’s villain, Anton Chigurh, wears contrasting black attire with a kind of hood (his strange haircut covering his forehead and ears) and employs the use of a harvester (a cattle gun in place of a scythe). Chigurh is a clinical automaton of destruction. He casually stalks his prey, killing anyone else who takes note of him. He’s clean and principled. Not at all, as someone says in the film, like a man. And as with death, he operates by the invisible hand of chance. This is symbolized in the one reprieve he offers some victims – a coin toss. If they “call it.” he lets them live. And if they get it wrong… Well, you know. But one thing they cannot do is refuse to play. A refusal to play is an instant loss.
These life and death stakes along with the uncertainty in the coin toss is No Country’s defining metaphor. Just as in the Seventh Seal, No Country wrestles with the problem of knowledge and faith. Here’s why the film, with its shots of arid landscapes, men on horseback, wearing cowboy hats and boots etc., feels like a western; No Country in its depictions of amoral violence disabuses us of the classic westerns moral guarantee. The virtuous-man in the white hat does not necessarily defeat the corrupt man in black. In essence, No Country for Old Men calls to mind the good old days of the Hollywood western (good guy defeats bad guy) and in doing so offers our modern era as those days very own dystopia (good guy isn’t guaranteed to win and often doesn’t). Now it’s just the flip of a coin. Nothing in life is certain.
This loss of his youthful certainty and meaning weighs on the aged Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, the film’s main character. Bell remembers the good-old days and is himself an embodiment of the good old days. His occupation, southern accident, small town location, goofy deputy, and his clear reluctance to use a gun, point to Sheriff Andy from the Andy Griffith Show who likewise typified classic Hollywood’s moral guarantee. Like an aged Andy Griffith, confronting the heinous crimes committed in our world, Sheriff Bell finds himself an exile from those simpler black and white days.
In this chaotic new world, Bell becomes increasingly averse to risk. His opening monologue says it all.
“The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But, I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say, “O.K., I’ll be part of this world.”
In the end, Bell quits, undone by fear of losing his life for nothing. His last straw comes when he is forced to “call it.” In returning to the scene of a murder, Bell finds the door’s lock punched out, evidence that Chigurh has also returned to the scene. Bell looks into the circle. In the reflection, the film shows Chigurh standing on the other side of the door, waiting for him to make his move. Bell hesitates, considering what to do. This is in essence the western dual or Chigurh’s coin toss. Will it be heads or tails? Will he enter or turn tails and run? Is Chigurh there or not? Bell chooses to enter and confront Chigurh. But Chigurh is no longer in the room. On the floor, Bell sees a dime showing heads. Bell has called it. He can live another day. But he sits down in the dark a broken man. This risk was too much. He won’t risk again.
In the end, he sits at home, pondering with his wife the emptiness of his dreams.
“Two of ’em. Both had my father in ’em… The second one, it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin’ through the mountains of a night… It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin’… and he had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin’ fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it… And in the dream I knew that he was goin’ on ahead and he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up…”
Given that he’s quit the fight, waking up from his dreams refers to Bell’s loss of faith in the reality of some good place where his father has gone before him.
Is Bell right to give up? Does the film agree with him? Given life’s uncertainty it could very well be that he’ll never find security with his father. Heaven may not exist. This disordered world may never be put right. But is uncertainty a reason to give up on the dream? To lose faith?
I think the film actually condemns his decision to quit. The film, appears to me, to be alluding to pascal’s wager. Not as a pragmatic reason to believe in God, per say, but as a pragmatic reason to risk. Given the certainty of death, a failure to “call it” is an instant loss. Given the inevitability of death the only option is to bet it all on hope of that better day.
Life has always been uncertain. Young men live by risk because they don’t know what they can lose while old men die for fear of losing. There is No Country for Old Men.
Toni knocked on my door yesterday. She’s a five-foot, 80-year-old woman with a warm grandmotherly disposition. As I opened the door, she gave me a big smile and said, “Well Hello, Matt! I’ve moved, but I wanted to make sure you had someone calling on you.” She then introduced Greg – a much taller gentleman in his late 50’s. “Have you read the booklet I left you? Do you have any questions?”
I love talking with Jehovah’s Witnesses. There’s a great deal about them I respect. They’re willing to suffer for their beliefs. They read the Bible. And though they distort some essential Christian truths, there are some things they get right more than the average Christian. Many Christians, for instance, have this idea that our only goal in life is to go to heaven when we die. And while this is true, it’s not the entire picture. The Bible points beyond this intermediate state to renewed bodies in a new heaven and new earth. JWs get that right.
But I can’t just let the JWs off on their false teachings.
Toni and I (and occasionally Greg) ended up talking on my front porch for more than an hour. The topic at first rotated around the JW’s less controversial view that consciousness ceases at death.
She opened her Watchtower magazine and turned to the section answering the question “What happens When you Die?” She then pulled out her gray New World Translation (the distinct “Translation” of JWs) and read from Ecclesiastes 9:5. “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing.” She next turned to Genesis 2:7, “God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” And from there she jumped to Genesis 3:19, God’s curse for sin, “for you are dust and dust you shall return.” Toni tried to convince me that these verses prove consciousness ends at death. The soul was created with the body and ceases to exist when the body dies.
“No,” I said. “It’s not that clear. What about other passages which indicate that consciousness continues after death, apart from the body – like when a very dead and disembodied, Samuel appears and speaks to Saul in 1st Samuel 28?
“That wasn’t Samuel. It was a demon,” she said.
“Really,” I asked. “because 1st Samuel doesn’t say that. It says it was Samuel that spoke to Saul. I think you’re mistaken in your interpretation.”
The conversation continued in a friendly manner like this for some time. Toni would offer a proof text on a given topic which appeared to undermine some Christian teaching. And I’d counter with another text which undermined her argument.
“The Bible doesn’t disagree with itself,” She chastened with a smile.
“No, it doesn’t,” I said returning the smile. “But it’s not clear in the way you make it out to be.”
But the intermediate state isn’t my concern. I think JWs are wrong on this issue but there are genuine Christians who hold to this idea, and I wouldn’t cease to call them brothers and sisters because of it.
As our conversation continued, I told Toni and Greg, “There are many things I really do admire in your teaching and practice. But there’s just some major issues you totally get wrong and are deal breakers.”
“Like what,” She asked. She had tried to stay away from the topic of trinity.
“Well the Bible says that Jesus is God,” I said.
“How can that be?” She replied. “Jesus said, ‘the Father is greater than I.'”
Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe Jesus is God in the same sense God the Father is God. For them, he’s a lesser deity, the first created being through whom God created everything else. And they detest any suggestion that Jesus is Jehovah (God’s name by which He revealed Himself to Moses and the Israelites).
This is where there New World “Translation” fits in. In it, they’ve attempted to erase any proof that Jesus is God. For instance, they’ve changed John 1:1 “and the Word was God” to “and the Word was a god.” And they’ve altered Jesus words in John 8:58, “before Abraham was, I am (which is the meaning of God’s name, Jehovah, in Hebrew) to the much less specific, “before Abraham was, I was.”
But the Bible’s more than a list of unconnected verses, a fact they often fail to forget.
“Can I see your Bible,” I asked?
She handed it to me. I turned to Isaiah 9:6 and handed it back to her.
She read aloud: “For a child has been born to us, A son has been given to us; And the rulership will rest on his shoulder. His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.”
She looked up at me. And somewhat hesitantly said, “Yes, I believe he’s talking about Jesus. But that doesn’t mean Jesus is Jehovah. Jehovah said he would not give his glory to another (Isaiah 42:8).”
“Precisely,” I said. “Can I see your Bible again?”
She handed it back to me. I turned to John 12:36 and read,
“Although he (Jesus) had performed so many signs before them, they were not putting faith in him… The reason why they were not able to believe is that again Isaiah said: ‘He has blinded their eyes and has made their hearts hard, so that they would not see with their eyes and understand with their hearts and turn around and I heal them.’ Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory, and he spoke about him.
“Who is John referring to,” I asked. “Whose glory did Isaiah see?”
“Jesus,” she replied.
“Right,” I said. “And what passage is John referring to when he quotes Isaiah, “He has blinded their eyes and has made their hearts hard…? Isaiah 6:10, I answered.
I turned to Isaiah 6 and handed the Bible back to her.
“Now in that passage, whose glory did Isaiah see?
She started reading from verse 1. “In the year that King Uz·ziʹah died, I saw Jehovah sitting on a lofty and elevated throne, and the skirts of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were standing above him… And one called to the other: “Holy, holy, holy is Jehovah of armies. The whole earth is filled with his glory.”
“Whose glory did Isaiah see,” I asked.
Toni closed her Bible and tucked it under her arm. “Well there’s a lot we could talk about, but we really have to be going.”
No joke! It was that quick!
“No, no, no,” I said. “Let’s do another one.”
I reached out and tried to take the Bible from under her arm. She held it there tightly before releasing her grip.
I had the idea for this video in 2006. I was driving home from teaching on the gospels when Delirious’ “Did You Feel The Mountains Tremble” shuffled onto my I-Pod.
Did you feel the mountains tremble?
Did you hear the oceans roar?
When the people rose to sing of
Jesus Christ the risen one
Did you feel the people tremble?
Did you hear the singers roar?
When the lost began to sing of
Jesus Christ the risen one
And we can see that God you’re moving
A mighty river through the nations
And young and old will turn to Jesus
Fling wide your heavenly gates
Prepare the way of the risen Lord
Open up the doors and let the music play
Let the streets resound with singing
Songs that bring your hope
Songs that bring your joy
Dancers who dance upon injustice
This song, and particularly this performance, had always reminded me of Christ’s resurrection; the moment at which He triumphantly leads the captives out of Hades to stand before the gates of Heaven (Psalms 24). Years before, I attempted to write a screenplay with that image and this song as it finale. I shelved the idea, however, in frustration that such a movie would ever be made.
But as it so happened, that day, I had just finished exploring with my Canby Bible College students the way in which the Shawshank Redemption hinges on an allusion to Christ’s death and resurrection. As I listened to the song, images from a half dozen movies began to flicker in my mind.
I realized that while I may never make a movie about the glories of Christ’s resurrection, that movie has already been made. The wonders of our Lord are proclaimed in films time and time again. Surprisingly, though, for most Christians, it’s often in rated R films or movies that never explicitly speak His name.
Our Lord has triumphed not just over the grave, nor simply over those who have chosen to accept him. He has captured the hearts of all mankind. They simply fail to recognize it. He is the Longing of Man.
This Jesus in disguise – this Christ figured, who makes his appearance in so many movies – reminds me of how those two disciples in Luke 24 who didn’t recognize Jesus on the road to Emmaus. While they are walking, the resurrected Jesus approaches them and asks them why they are downcast. They explain how he (Jesus) was crucified in Jerusalem and they were sad because they thought he might have been the messiah. But then Jesus explains to them the story of scripture and how the crucified messiah actually makes sense of the story. When at last their eyes are opened and Jesus disappears from their sight, they ask “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
I have the burning feeling often in watching great films. And I’m been surprised again and again by the presence of Jesus in these places I least suspect. When you watch a movie and feel that burning, perhaps it’s Jesus and his story that’s calling to you.
It’s time to take a closer look at Mark’s arrangement of scenes! So throw out graphic divisions, like chapter and verse, as indications of the book’s plan and listen instead to what Mark says! Mark wrote specifically for hearers and weaves his organization into the very words of his story.
Let’s start by reading Mark 1:1-15. Hear any repeated words?
“Gospel” and or “good news”
“Messenger” or angelos in Greek, which is the same word for Angel.
The phrase “baptized by him (John) in the Jordan”
Now consider where they occur!
The words in the first section are repeated in the last. And the ones in the second are repeated in a third. It’s A-B-B-A sequence. Though on the surface the story unfolds in a linear progression, the repetition creates an underlying pattern which packages these scenes together and, in turn, point to the start of a new unit.
Do you hear more repetitions in the scenes that follow? Mention of Jesus preaching in Galilee and the naming of Peter, Andrew, James and John? Where do they occur? Concentrically around Jesus’ ministry in the synagogue. It’s an A-B-C-B-A pattern. Once again, the echoes signal to a listening audience the units beginning and end.
Mark creates still a third sequence in the five stories after that. Echoes appear at the outer limits, in Jesus’ cleansing of the leper and his healing of the man with the withered hand. In both stories we find the phrase “stretched out his (your) hand” and the mention of Jesus becoming “angry.” Now most translations of Jesus encounter with the leper still say Jesus was moved with compassion. But the majority of scholars today have come to the conclusion that Mark originally said angry. And that incidentally finds a correspondence in the later scene when Jesus becomes angry at the religious leaders. Echoes within these five accounts also occur in the second and fourth stories, the story of Jesus forgiving the paralytic and the account of the disciples picking grain on the Sabbath. In both scenes, Jesus uniquely cites his authority as the Son of Man. Again these echoes appear concentrically around a center, Jesus’ calling of Levi, and are packaged together in A-B-C-B-A sequence.
Its here at the end of the third sequence where we encounter Mark’s inciting incident, the first indication of a plot to destroy Jesus. But Mark further emphasizes this narrative turn by packaging these three sequences together, revealing in this turn a termination to this larger unit.
We see this in the expressed parallels between the beginning of the first sequence and the end of the third. In chapter 3, Mark summarizes the effects of Jesus ministry, stating that people came from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. Three of these place names (Jerusalem, Judea, and Jordan) appear in a remarkably similar summary of the Baptist’s ministry at the beginning of the gospel, though we don’t hear them mentioned elsewhere together. And it’s here we find another parallel. Immediately before Mark introduces John the Baptist, he tells us that Jesus is “the Son of God.” A title which we’ve already seen is extremely significant though its only repeated three times in this form. The first is here in Mark 1:1 and the last, the centurion’s climatic statement in Mark 15. Which leaves the summary of Jesus’ ministry in Mark 3, as the only other instance. Which further suggests a connection between this summary and Mark’s beginning. Though these parallels, Mark has packaged these sequences together and brought this section to a close.
The termination of these three sequences simultaneous with the first mention of a plot to destroy Jesus marks this point as major turning in the narrative. In the next episode, we’ll explore where the turn leads and how Mark builds his story to the next major point.
See you then.