what Joel and Ethan Coen can teach us about reading the Old Testament

I’ve been wondering what the relentless realism of the Coen brothers’ films can teach us about reading the Old Testament.

Earlier this week Stanley Fish posted a provocative appreciation of the Coen brothers’ latest film, True Grit (a remake of a John Wayne movie). I say provocative because Fish concludes by contending:

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.

I’m keen to see the film. Not least because Fish’s review reminded me of this imagined conversation between Karl Barth and Joel and Ethan Coen about No Country For Old Men.

I can’t say that I’ve found many of the Coen brothers’ films enjoyable to watch. Especially not No Country.

But neither can I say that I enjoy reading a whole lot of the Old Testament. The historical narratives in particular often leave me feeling bewildered — and a little bit nauseated.

To me, biblical Israel’s history resembles nothing so much as a horrendous car wreck in slow motion. Perfect source material for Joel and Ethan Coen!

Of course, there are flashes of grace. There are hints anticipating God’s ultimate triumph. Indications that he does have purposes — good purposes — that he’s patiently working out in and through the messy, tragic humanness of it all.

But these flashes don’t point to some fulfilment of an intrinsic trajectory within human history. As if there were some promising germ of perfection within it — buried deep but straining continually towards realisation (lurking somewhere in the special identity of Israel perhaps).

Instead, they point to God’s apocalyptic, unlooked-for, in-person invasion of human history. Not to cancel it out. Or offer an escape from it. But to finally perfect his original intentions for it — in liberation, redemption and glorious transformation.

That is, they point us to Christmas. And beyond it to Christ’s return.

I don’t think this resolves all the problems we might have reading the Old Testament.

But I am convinced that learning to face reality squarely (from the likes of the Coen brothers, for example) may help us embrace God’s governance of history without smoothing over its tragic angularities — either in the Old Testament or in our own experience…

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