2010 KBBC: Week 2, Day 1

No Country for Old Man: Karl Barth calls the Coen Brothers
By Jon Coutts

The phone rang one-and-a-half times and cut off. With a glance at the bedside, a bright red 4:37 invaded my bleary eyes. Two dog-eared paperbacks were lit up in the clock’s glow.

One was a hot pink and heavily underlined part-volume of Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Reconciliation; the other a coolly bound edition of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men—picked up in my obsession for Joel and Ethan Coen's award winning film adaptation. For those who missed it, No Country is a story with three main characters (four if you count Texas, which you should) and one devastating theme. There is Anton Chigurh, the villain; Llewelyn Moss, the cowboy who stumbles across Chigurh’s drug-money; and Ed Tom Bell, the sheriff who finds himself in pursuit of them both. The thematic motor that drives the story is that the bad guy wins. As such the stories sitting so close on my nightstand could not stand further apart. And yet my dreams had been swirling with resonances between them, as if the novel were a sort of parable for Barth’s depiction of the sin of sloth.

Unable to fall back asleep, I picked up the phone. The beep said there was a message. I listened. It was some kind of telecommunications misconnection. You will not believe the conversation I overheard.

It began with that ding you’d hear if you bumped a rotary telephone, followed by a voice in German, curt but relaxed: “I saw your film last night, the one that won all the awards.”

No Country for Old Men?” responded another voice. To my ear it sounded like one of the nihilists in The Big Lebowski. “Did you enjoy it?”

“Enjoy! What is to be enjoyed?” shrilled the first voice. “It leaves one with the palpable sense that evil is ultimate; we are caught in the ebb and flow of the most capricious fate; that the best way forward is every man for himself!”

“Granted, enjoy may not be the word,” chuckled the second voice. “But we did want to catch the lurking darkness of reality that the novel depicts so well.” Incredible: it was a Coen. It sounded like Joel, the eldest of the Minnesota-born brothers of film-noir’s postmodern revival.

“Reality? If enjoy is not the word for it, then neither is reality,’” replied the first voice, continuing no less enigmatically: “It was like Ecclesiastes or Job without the final revelation. There may have been a little light on the silver screen, but on its own it is nothing but dark. The film curves in on itself.” I couldn’t believe my ears. It was Barth.

“This sounds like more than a complaint about the lighting,” responded Joel. “Hang on and let me get my brother on the line.”

The younger Coen holds a philosophy degree from Princeton, but Joel was not likely looking for conversational backup. I recalled the interviews where the Coens seemed more interested in hearing responses to the film than spelling out any meaning behind it. Sure enough, a moment later Ethan came on, exchanged pleasantries, and prodded for more:

“Joel tells me that your issue with No Country has something to do with the sustainability of the narrative?”

“I assure you my quibble is not a literary one, but that is a very good way to put it. Your villain is evil personified, is he not?

“We’re not all that interested in evaluating Anton Chigurh, to be honest,” said Ethan. “Clearly he’s not the good guy; I’ll concede that, but I don’t even know that I’d describe him as evil. He’s a little more complicated and elusive than that.”

“That sounds consistent. In the film, evil so eclipses every good that on its own logic there can be no talk of evil. Whatever the case, his is the shadow of death, and it encompasses everyone. Everyone is either trying to hold death at bay or use it to their own gain.”

Joel rejoined: “That sounds like a fair way to characterize them doesn’t it: Bell on the one hand and Chigurh on the other?”

“Yes. Sheriff and villain alike are ultimately submitted to their fate. The one ends up resigned to it, and the other squeezing the most from it. The rest of the characters are simply caught up in-between. It is a startling depiction of what one might call the twin temptations of sloth. The alternatives are passive death and active death. The man in the middle, Moss, tries to beat them both and loses. He can’t win.”

“We don’t do a lot of sitcom endings,” chimed in one of the Coens, “where a sentimental sense of basic goodness bubbles up to the surface in the closing scene.”

Barth seemed taken aback. “That would be just as dangerous a representation of things! A placebo! Evil should not be treated as if it is nothing to be reckoned with. Nor should it be portrayed as nothing we could not reconcile if we applied ourselves.”

The Coens responded one after the other as if they’d had this conversation before: “Our films sometimes get labelled as naturalistic—the way Hollywood defines it—as if we are presenting a kind of depressing realism. We aren’t proponents of anything so abstract. We are most interested in telling stories.”

“Our films might be a recurring exercise in such a naturalism, but I think their comedic element should tell you that there is more to it than that. We want our actors to act as if it’s a true story, for the sake of the story.”

“And yet the film is provocative.” Barth countered.

“Yes. Many people react strongly to it,” came the response, “and that reaction tells us that we told the story well. If people weren’t reactionary to the ending, then we would not have done our jobs.”

“At the same time,” the other explained, “people might also just laugh at the film, and that is okay with us. The characters, the country, and the way they interact are what matter. You see the feet of the characters a lot. We are more interested in the particulars of people and where they come from.”

“And yet the villain, Chigurh, is ambiguous, an interloper. We do not know where he is coming from or where he is taking us. He is your new man.” Barth seemed to be probing for something.

“Yeah, I often say he's like the man who fell to earth,” Joel said. “He's the thing that doesn't grow out of that landscape. So he is able to frighten on several levels.”

“He is an impossible possibility.” Barth seemed to be thinking out loud.

Ethan went with it: “Like the bit at the beginning of McCarthy’s novel where the sheriff contemplates going any further. Right before the line in the film about putting one’s soul at hazard he says: ‘It aint just bein older. . . . I think it is more like what you are willin to become.’”

“Yet the problem posed has all the force of a No and none of the force of a Yes,” Barth said. “It remains a question mark.”

I remembered the scene where Chigurh is about to kill Carson Wells, the private detective who had so resolutely pursued him, and asks: “If the rule you follow brought you to this, of what use was the rule?” I wondered if Barth would see Chigurh as an exposure of the trajectory of the western hero – the dangerous “enticement” of the lone ranger into the “cavern of a fatherless and brotherless isolation” (IV/3.2, 664).

As they spoke for the next few moments, more of the film’s question marks flooded through my mind, from that ominous opening monologue to the deepening pathos of its denouement. Just when viewers are tempted by the comforting notion that the sheriff is simply past his prime, the posturing of the younger crime-fighter is quickly exposed as a brave but foolish mask for the fear of death. Just when viewers clamour for shafts of light in the darkness, the film takes that away too. A visibly injured Llewelyn Moss offers to buy a young man’s coat, and the man bargains with him over price. On the lookout for a good Samaritan, later we get a boy on a bicycle arriving on the scene of Chigurh’s car accident, willing to give the shirt off his back. But when Chigurh refuses to let him go unpaid, the boy quickly refuses to share with his friend. His gut reaction of self-giving spurred by the horror of the accident dissolves into selfishness in the face of the more ever-present banality of day-to-day life.

It is as if the self-asserting principle is latent in even the innocent bystander, just waiting to emerge. Even the stereotypically “innocent” shop-owner has his fateful encounter with Chigurh: The more he is drawn in to the villain’s game the more the white lies of his cliché social-avoidance strategies are drawn out of him. He too is told: “You’ve been putting it up your whole life but just didn’t know it.”

When I snapped out of my reverie, Ethan was agreeing: “Yeah, it is not about young or old. If anything it is a different take on the old west.”

“The guy in the white hat doesn’t actually ride off into the sunset. It certainly challenges the myth of progress,” Barth said. “This film could be looked at as a wake-up call, except it has nothing to wake up to. The Yes, within which the No could have any meaning, is absent.”

I was reminded of something Barth had written and later looked it up. “In the modern novel there are not lacking portrayals which give us the impression that the author originally had in mind something like God's pardon of sinful man. But in fact they do not go beyond what is often a strikingly honest depiction of his vileness” (CD IV/1, 594).

“In the film, to be alive simply means to be not dead yet,” Barth continued. “And the closing scenes follow the violence through to the bitter end, sucking the life right out of its viewers. It is a powerful piece, inasmuch as a vacuum can be said to have power.”

“But in the end it is not as if this is news,” answered Ethan. “We see this in Bell’s conversation with his uncle Ellis. The sheriffs have always known what was coming. Supposed to be shields from the worst reality, they feel like sieves.”

It is quite a scene. Ellis says: “All the time you spend tryin' to get back what's been took from ya', mores goin' out the door. After a while, you just have to try and get a tourniquet on it.”

“Yes,” Barth continued the thought: “Their resignation is simply the tipping point in their struggle to keep it at bay; the crisis experience of the emergence of their ever-present futility. There is certainly no domesticating the tensions of the human situation going on here. To be fair, I think this might be the closest thing to a point of contact with reality. But it is not. Reality has to present itself to us.”

There was a pregnant silence. Joel took the opportunity for a question. “What did you think of Carla Jean Moss and Loretta Bell—the women of the film?”

“They do appear to offer another word,” Barth answered, “but this is no country for them, either. Mrs. Bell has a kind of serenity. That she has found a safe place of peace in the midst of the conflict may be to her credit, but we all know it is a false peace, which comes home to her on the increasingly despondent face of her man. She is simply ahead of him in her resignation to what is out there.”

“And Mrs. Moss?”

“She is the only one who will not play Chigurh’s game. She will not submit to his gods of fate and chance, allowing him to avert responsibility for her death with his coin toss. She won’t bow to his principles. She holds on to some kind of shred of belief in something better—which she doesn’t seem to know.” He paused. “Of course, he wipes his shoes of her blood too. Nonetheless, it is as if hers is the only death not fated, but chosen. She is the closest thing this film has to a Christ figure.”

“But not really,” offered one of the Coens.

“No.” Barth took a breath and continued. There was no stopping him now. He sounded like he might start preaching. “The advertisement said ‘there are no clean getaways,’ but the film implies there are no getaways at all. And we have no reason to believe otherwise. There is no closing scene with Mrs. Moss having the last laugh. Why should there be? Her fate is the same as her husband’s, and everything is tangled up. It is not even clear whether his biggest mistake is taking the money or taking water to a dying man, returning to the scene of the crime. As far as we know, these acts are of one and the same reality. It is the triumph of evil, except the categories by which it can be called that are not available. There is no Christ figure, and no light to see what is darkness.”

I listened to hear if Barth would take this opportunity now to proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; whether he’d talk about the Nevertheless that answers the No, which is only known in the light of God’s greater Yes to man. Was this all the set up for Barth to present one Christ figure, the Son of God, who came into the far country, knowingly took on flesh, and overcame it? With baited breath I waited to hear him say “there is no more place for the old man” and “the day of the new has broken” (CD IV/1, 557; IV/2, 396ff).

Instead I heard a beep, as my messaging system reached its allowable time limit.

Some may question the veracity of my story, insisting that either Barth or the Coen brothers would not have said these things in these ways. As even the tellers of true stories must, I take full responsibility for the words I have relayed. However, I find little here that the Coen brothers have not said with film or in interviews, and I find in this interaction with twenty-first century thought a Barth similar to the one who was so generous with both resonance and critique in Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century.

What first struck me in this film was its staggering depiction of the banality and sheer force of evil. Feeling falsely placated by a chicken-soup-for-the-soul approach to Christianity, I have often felt the gospel more alive when portrayals have forced me to face the problem straight on, and wondered if we need these reminders that there are no clean getaways. I have heard it suggested that Barth’s lofty Christology has its head too far in the clouds, glosses over the mess, has little place for lament. Could the Coens have something to say to Barth? Didn’t Christ predict difficulty in the same breath as resurrection? Maybe films like this help bring us down to earth so our salt is forced to get in with the meat and potatoes and gravy.

There may be something to this, but it has more to do with misreading Barth than raising a substantive critique against him. By the time we come to the closing volume of the Church Dogmatics we have seen Barth no stranger to the human predicament. Sin amounts to nothing and evil is relegated to shadow, but the doctrine of sin is on every page—still there, but put in its place as a misshapen absurdity mocking futilely at the wholeness that is life in Christ. The light of life does not blur but sharpens the assessment of darkness, giving a clear conception of the cross to be taken up.

In fact, the more I listened, the more it was Barth that was speaking—to me. Could such literature and film be for me a veiled attempt at self-soothing sloth? As Augustine suggested in Book III of his Confessions, perhaps such theatre affords me the opportunity to be a spectator rather than a victim; to stroke my own sense of pity without actually having to get my hands dirty with compassion; to play the judge and jury rather than be the one standing in the dock. Wasn’t even Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ an opportunity to serve emotional penance? Perhaps I go to the theatre to wallow a little bit in the mess so that the relief of grace might feel wonderful to me again.

But what depiction of evil (what real-life modern tragedy for that matter) provides humanity a wake-up call on the same level as the event of Jesus Christ? What more needs to be said after the Son of God comes into this far country and dies at the hands of man? What is there to wake up to unless He rose again? The question may not be whether Barth has room for lament but whether the Coen films have room for laughter. How can even the ironic comedy of such dark films be laughed at unless, as the revelation of Christ entails, there is no longer any reason to pay serious respect to such powers? (CD IV.3.2, 645).

Barth himself allowed that things of the world may be used by God as “other words” echoing the Word, as “little lights” reflecting the Light (cf. CD IV/3.2, 110ff). Beyond being a well-told and harrowing tale, this film can serve as a parable for the pervasiveness of sin and a reminder that we are still in the old world. Denying the old life is not the same as living in denial. But the church fails pivotally if in surrender to this “picture of the world in place of the reality it ranges itself with the world in its groping” (CD IV/3.2, 772). Creation is being made new, and the old man is simply no longer definitive (CD IV/2, 560, 570f).

But the lines that haunt the rolling credits still ring in my ears. “I always thought when I got older God would sort of come into my life in some way,” the sheriff says to his uncle, “but he didn't. I don’t blame him.” Confession or complaint, it stings. The defensive reaction is: Where is the church in the movie? But the movie asks: Where is the church in the world? Barth is no stranger to this question. He answers it in terms of faith; of the church both visible and invisible; of the Christian duty to hope that in the end God will come into each life in some way; and of the call to take part in that eventuality here and now. Yet the final scene has the sheriff replaying a hopeful dream that has his father riding ahead in the hard country, “fixin to make a fire out there in all that dark and all that cold.” Then he wakes up, despondently unconvinced. The questions linger as lament, this film posing them better than most. If it is the Holy Spirit who awakens to faith, and Jesus Christ came for all, then why are there those for whom waking equals dying? How long, oh Lord, how long?

By Brad East

Having read the book in advance, and knowing well the tonal parabola of the Coens’ filmography, it was with hesitant openness that I came to the cinematic adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men. What I discovered was, indeed, an impossible possibility: an adaptation both faithful to its source and enriched by other concerns, a work of undeniable literary consonance, stretched taut with a dissonance peculiar to the visual medium.

Thus it was with gratitude and fitting surprise that I received Jon Coutts’ fortuitous eavesdropping report. Like the theater lights dimming in November of 2007, I did not know exactly what to expect—but what a match! A lively conversation overheard between the brothers Coen—that most inscrutably postmodern directing duo—and the prophet of doom to modernity himself, Karl Barth. We are lucky to be in the hands of such a gifted storyteller (ahem, transcriber) and interpreter of film, narrative, and theology alike.

In response to the given transcription, I want to take up one question in particular raised by Barth and Coutts in relation to both the Coens and McCarthy, beginning, as it happens, in the end.

Coutts notes that, in the film’s closing scene, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell tells his wife about a dream he had the night before, a dream in which there seem to be hints and sparks of hope, of light and warmth just ahead in the darkness, until the final words are spoken: “And then I woke up.” As it is portrayed on the screen, Coutts is right to describe the Sheriff as “despondently unconvinced.”

Though this final scene is taken from the book’s closing page almost word for word, the impact of the ending in the book is less straightforwardly ominous, indeed more hopeful, in the context of the whole. For the Coens, it seems, Sheriff Bell’s journey, climaxing in and encapsulated by this breakfast table soliloquy with his wife, consists of what we might call one long awakening from hope to nihilism: there simply were no good old days, malice and violence cannot be explained, and the vision of a father riding ahead to prepare the way is an illusion. For McCarthy, on the other hand, Ed Tom’s final italicized reflection—in this case, the last of many intimate asides and confessions seemingly shared with none but the reader—serves rather as a prophetic coda to the chaos come before: namely, that such hope, even in a dream, speaks of a reality deeper than and untouched by ten thousand Chigurhs. It will not seem so, whisper the wisps of flame sheltered in an ancient horn on a cold mountain pass, but all is not lost.

It seems as if Barth’s objections to the Coens may find an answer in McCarthy, though surely Barth would go still beyond. Yes, there is Something deeper than cold personified Fate, than the indiscriminate scythe of Chigurh’s coin tossed unblinkingly in the air; but were we to stop there, what kind of word or hope would that ephemeral “Something” be pro nobis—that is, for us? Is an old man’s half-remembered dream in a country now unfit for old men’s visions anything but wishful thinking, human grasping for that which might (but ultimately will not) stem the unalterable tide of time and death?

For Barth, and thus for the church, the banal ferocity of Chigurh is neither an awakening jolt nor even a subordinate but presently victorious power—it is, finally, no power at all. Christians confess in the face of das Nichtige—indeed, before such a human face as we see in Chigurh—that it is not Fate or Death or Violence or Chance that has swept through this world and carries the final say: it is instead the insurmountable and unaccountable Nevertheless, enfleshed, entombed, and enthroned. God “Himself has become a creature in Jesus Christ. And therefore He has set Himself in opposition to nothingness, and in this opposition was and is the Victor” (CD III/3, 290). This divine victory “is the existential determination given to the oppressed Christian by the resurrection of Christ,” that “[n]o one and nothing can be against us, or do us true and serious harm, or finally overcome us—not even the last thing which may threaten, namely, death” (CD IV/3.2, 645).

Coutts’ Barth is correct, then, in identifying Carla Jean Moss as “the closest thing this film has to a Christ figure,” but I think he sells her a bit short. That “there are no getaways” remains as true in the light of Christ as before—if, by “getaway,” we mean getting away from death’s reach. Carla Jean does not avoid death’s reach in the person of Chigurh, does not turn and run, but rather opens the door, takes sight of his intrusion, approaches him directly, and speaks the truth to his face. Though not explicitly, of course, Carla Jean may represent for us Barth’s vision of conversion as, ironically enough, “the new life of a new man” (CD IV/2, 560). If “the life of the old man” is unconverted life, and therefore “a life which is encircled by death,” then “the axis which makes [the life of the new man]”—in this case, that of Carla Jean—“a movement in conversion is the reality which is...revealed as the truth, that God is for him and therefore he is for God” (CD IV/2, 560-61).

That is to say: Carla Jean, in her strength and truthfulness and witness before death, embodies a power Chigurh can only see as powerless or futile, but is nonetheless the only real power there is. Might this man, too, before this other meek figure ask after truth? True, “in her blood too” does Chigurh wipe his boots (or wash his hands)—but this supposedly unstoppable force is rendered no less subject, no less brittle and bloody, when the straight line of a station wagon cuts across his circle of death. The path of such a man “also involves movement,” but without the axis of resurrection he “moves straight ahead, and this means straight ahead to the descent—the plunge—to death” (CD IV/2, 560).

“That is no country for old men,” said Yeats; and for McCarthy, “that” country is a post-Vietnam morass of inexplicable violence, however dimly lit by hope. For the Coens, “that” country is here, now, always our world in all its dark absurdity and deathly happenstance.

But which is no country, per Coutts’ title, for old man? “That” country, in the gospel according to Barth, which welcomes the disposed and dispossessed, which blesses the mighty meek, which reverses the verdicts of the Carla Jeans and the Galileans. For with the new man—with the new woman—is a new country, a country whose No turns out, at the last, to be Yes.
--We’re making this into a book! Please donate.


Thanks to Jon and Brad for an engaging discussion. I've seen the movie in question and enjoyed it, but I'm not very skilled in critical "viewing" as it were. So, it was a treat to see it in action here.
Jon Coutts said…
Brad: Thank you for you generous response. I agree that Carla Jean could be construed as a Christ figure, and that if she were it would be precisely along the lines that you indicate. I just don't see the Coens meaning or even allowing for that. Perhaps they would, if we asked them, but even then I doubt they would mean it the way Barth does. Thus my hesitation to call her a Christ figure.

However, you are right, interpreted a certain way she could be just that, and I think that your interpretation of the film adds significantly to what I offered. I guess in my essay I was trying to be careful not to put words in the Coens mouth.

I loved your twists of phrase at the end about which country is actually not for the old man. (I'm using gender exclusive language only to keep with the film's title, but I mean humanity). The film depicts very poignantly the country of the old man--the dead man, the man resigned to the fate of death--and calls it no country for that man, but nonetheless concludes that it is the only country that man gets.

And in that regard you have pointed out very aptly and appropriately (better than I did) just how much darker and hopeless is their film than McCarthy's novel (and I suppose Yeats' poem). Thus I have high praise for your response. Thank you for not only reading my (voice) mail but making more sense of it.

I suppose I shouldn't invite critique, but I should mention that I'm open to it on a number of levels, not just critical viewing. I'd be curious whether anyone wants to take me to task over whether Barth would engage with the arts as I wish to now (in his name)?

And if he did, would he so converse? Or, on the other hand, would the Coens put up with or care for such theological dialogue? And if so, would they put up a harder fight?

In one sense these are mere speculations, but I am curious about the deeper issues behind them nonetheless. I think it would be very interesting to form a Barthian take on the arts and theology (and having been to a couple conferences on that theme recently I think such a thing might indeed be very helpful). So I guess this is a minor exercise in Barthian art criticism. I am curious whether it flies (for either the arts or the Barth people), or whether it is just Couttsian (?) art criticism using Barth however it pleases!
rob Haskell said…
Thank you for the phrasing about Barth being "so generous with both resonance and critique," which will no doubt stay with me. I a sense it might encapsulate your entire theme in this post.
Halden said…
It seems to me that this dialogue which has been helpfully rendered here by Coutts serves, among other purposes, to show us the utter radicality of Barth's understanding of salvation. The "no country" is indeed all that there is for the old man. The sheer banality and ferocity of evil in this world is, quite simply, something with which we cannot deal. There is no way to deal with it, to, as it were, "have dealings" with it in such a way is to make life come out even marginally ok. There simply is no country there that can be had, only a wasteland.

Thus hope, if there is to be hope can only be hope for a new world that in no way could have been inferred, unfolded, or derived from the old. If there is to be redemption it can only the redemption that is new creation in the most fundamental sense. As such it makes perfect sense that the Coen brothers would refrain from including anything "redemptive" in their account. For any such redemption would be but a falsifying of the radicality of the problem which is that we all inhabit the "no country" of death. Any redemption that might come to us, that might bring us into a new country, or as Psalm 66 has it "into a wide open place" can only come from beyond, from a resurrection beyond death, a resumption beyond rupture.

Anyways, those are just my musings on the basis of this piece, which I found to be very stimulating. Thanks to Brad as well for his helpful response.

A final note: I wonder if another "Barthian" way of approaching No Country for Old Men would be to read it as a sort of midrash or narrative instantiation of Barth's argument against natural theology in response to Brunner. It seems to me that the movie's refusal to find any redemption or redemptive movement latent in the world as it is mirrors Barth's refusal to find the revelation of God in anything other than Jesus Christ, the one who goes into the far country for the sake of bringing about the new creation.

Anyways, thanks again. Great post.
Halden: I have nothing but one long "Amen!" to your comment. The point about Barth-Brunner is a brilliant observation.
Jon Coutts said…
Re: Halden's comments: I agree!

I mentioned above that I don't think the Coens would want to call Carla Jean a Christ figure, but I think Halden has put his finger on the pulse of why Barth wouldn't either. In fact, it may be this reason that is the more important one. For if the Coens meant her as a Christ figure then Christ's death is final and it is a Christ with a sacrificial death but no resurrection. This might be okay in other films or novels (which leave the rest to the imagination), but in this case it seems decisively the case that death triumphs. If there is a resurrection it is the human spirit which stands up and tries to resist old man Chigurh in the legacy of Carla Jean (but why that should be considered anything but naive is not something the film is willing to offer).

It makes me wonder how often "theological" readings of such films and novels might actually be Christianzing re-presentations rather than theological readings.
I think of the "Finding God in ..." genre. I'm sure this can be done well, but it can also be done very badly, neither doing justice to the art itself, nor to the Christ that it finds all too conveniently in them.

Maybe this sounds like I'm amping up a polemic against Brad's response here. I'm not. I don't necessarily think Brad has given a 'Christianizing re-presentation' of the film/novel by pointing out Christ-figurings in Carla Jean Moss. In fact I think that in a Barthian sense one might often let Christ's self-revelation light up the arts with little reflections here and there just as Brad has eloquently illustrated can be done with No Country. But I wonder if there is a difference between that and the more frequent practice (it seems), which is to look at arts to shed light on Christ rather than vice versa.

In this case I agree with Halden that the film seemed more theologically potent for what it did not say than what it did.
Jon Coutts said…
I read that again and want it to be clear that I'm not trying to back Brad in a corner or even imply he did something totally different than I did. I thought his take on it was great. I'm just exploring that one point where he took it further than I did because I really wrestled over whether to do the same and am still exploring why I did not.
Brad East said…

Thanks for the clarification, though you are welcome to take me to task if I have do that!

For my own sake, in response to both your and Halden's take, let me quote from my part:

"Though not explicitly, of course, Carla Jean may represent for us Barth’s vision of conversion as, ironically enough, 'the new life of a new man.'"

My juxtaposition of Jon saying Carla Jean is the closest thing to a Christ figure probably suggested that was going to take it all the way. But my proposition is that Carla Jean represents the possibility, not of death as such as salvific nor of a merely human Christ figure -- much less a Christianizing of clearly non-Christian art -- but rather of the converted life. In this way it can remain Barthian, I think, inasmuch as Carla Jean's actions and person are only a witness, not some "thing" in herself.

In this way I resonate with Halden's connection to the repudiation of natural theology, precisely because Carla Jean only points away from herself, only signifies the fact that the present world is no place for someone like her if it is a place for someone like Chigurh. That is: as a person of truth standing up to this monstrosity, she can and must die, but does so as a pointer to a different way/world/country, rather than only as as one more corpse in a monster's rampage of destruction.

(And note: that is my theological reading, not in any way what McCarthy or the Coens would necessarily say.)
Halden said…
In a sense one might say that Carla Jean could be Christ-figure, but only in the strict sense that her death, refuses to "deal" with the evil that is Chigurh but rather manifests a sort of independence over against the determination his power seeks to impose on her. In that she does somewhat image Christ's death, or perhaps better, a martyr's death.

What the Coen brothers so rightly withhold from us is any image of ressurection. If there is to be a resurrection, an irruption of new creation beyond the "no country" we have, it can only come from beyond the story that the movie (and the world) is. This seems to get at the profound truth that the resurrection cannot be inferred from anything immanent within the course of the story that is the world.

Another angle on the matter would be to suggest that the story told in No Country for Old Men articulates, in the most profound way possible, the reality of Holy Saturday. As Alan Lewis puts it, Holy Saturday, is not the day before the resurrection in the disciples' original experience of the event, rather it is nothing, a void, "the day after the end." That is precisely the reality of the world which No Country for Old Men so starkly presents. There is no assurance that a resurrection is coming, and no reason to think there should be. If there is to be a resurrection it can only be an absolute and utter miracle that explodes and dissolves the whole reality that is the "no country".

Precisely by eliminating redemption from the film, the Coen brothers have demanded that we think redemption in the most radical and truthful way possible---if we can bear to do so, wagering on a word of hope that hangs in the air and defies us the moral and religious certainty we so deeply crave.

Continuing to think through this is really lighting a fire in me. This is great stuff, lets keep it coming.
Brad East said…
Error in my comment: "have done that." And I like Halden's latest comment (simultaneous as mine): that's what I was after with the Carla Jean motif -- and a martyr's death is exactly the image of the converted life!

Reflecting on the Coens leaving us without redemption, it is interested to note both how Llewelyn's death is off-screen and mundane, and how so many people were upset or disturbed by the film's lack of resolution or victory of the good. "No Country" as Holy Saturday is an apt description.
Jon Coutts said…
Thanks for that Brad. And Halden. I couldn't agree more with both of your elaborations!

I think it multiplies the 'Holy Saturday' effect exponentially when the Coens seem to dangle Christ figures in front of us on a number of occasions only to take them away. We have the "Idiot" in the store, the boy giving up his shirt, Carson Wells, the Sheriff, the dream of the father at the end... all falling away and, as Halden put it, demanding "that we think redemption in the most radical and truthful way possible." No doubt, Brad, that Carla Jean is that "word of hope that hangs in the air," (to borrow Halden's phrase), although I too could only speculate whether the Coens meant her this way.

I think this is all an ironic contrast with a lot of so called "Christian" art (you know, that chicken-soup-for-the-soul stuff) which demands so little and is more like the sitcom of redemption than the drama. Such art gives rather than "defies us the moral and religious certainty we so deeply crave" (to borrow another phrase).
blair said…
Thanks to Jon for opening up the door to unconventional renderings of conversation with Barth. I'm self interested because I'm up tomorrow and am attempting a conversation between a developmental psychologist and Barth. I get the sense at the end of your first comment (where you suggest there is a possibility of critiquing the very project) a vulnerability that I especially appreciate. In writing my piece I kept humming the old Sesame Street tune, "One of these things is not like the other" with mine in mind. I'm willing to sing, "Two of these things are not like the others" after reading this piece. Thanks for the companionship in trying to do something different.

I'll need to consider your questions regarding Barthian art criticism further but I'm not sure that people like me are the folks that should be answering them. I'm predisposed to suggest that there must be some way, even if it isn't the way that you are using here, to relate these things. I think that the absence of some of the hardcore theological Barthians in the comments section suggests to me that there is some puzzlement (disapproval?) over the boundary breaking that you engaged in here. Conversations between Barth and other theologians or Barth and philosophers falls within the sanctioned purview of Barth studies. Barth and film, less so. I have no doubt that some, like David C., will gladly prove me wrong. I'll therefore reserve judgment and eagerly await a spirited defense of the validity of Barthian art criticism from my colleagues in the systematic department.
Halden said…
More fuel for the fire here, this time from Barth's Romans:

"The Gospel speaks of God as He is: it is concerned with Him Himself and with Him only. It speaks of the Creator who shall be our Redeemer and of the Redeemer who is our Creator. It is pregnant with our complete conversion; for it announces the transformation of our creatureliness into freedom. It proclaims the forgiveness of our sins, the victory of life over death, in fact the restoration of everything that has been lost. It is the signal, the fire-alarm of a coming, new world. But what does all this mean? Bound to the world as it is, we cannot here and now apprehend. We can only receive the Gospel, for it is the recollection of God which is created by the Gospel that comprehends its meaning. The world remains the world and men remain men even whilst the Gospel is being received. The whole burden of sin and the whole curse of death still press heavily upon us. We must be under no illusion: the reality of our present existence continues as it is! The Resurrection, which is the place of exit, also bars us in, for it is both barrier and exit. Nevertheless, the 'No' which we encounter is the 'No'--of God. And therefore our veritable deprivation is our veritable comfort in distress. The barrier marks the frontier of a new country, and what dissolves the whole wisdom of the the world also establishes it. Precisely because the 'No' of God is all-embracing, it is also His 'Yes.' We have, therefore, in the power of God, a look-out, a door, a hope; and even in this world we have the possibility of following the narrow path and taking each little step with a 'despair which has its own consolation' (Luther). The prisoner becomes a watchman. Bound to his post as firmly as a prisoner in his cell, he watches for the dawning of the day." (p. 37-38)
Jon Coutts said…
In Church Dogmatics III/2 (pp. 515-518) Barth talks about the poet who tells us that "our being in its time is an infinitely tragic destiny," illustrating with "Hyperion's Song of Fate" by Friedrich Holderlin, which concludes:

"But to us poor men
Is given no place to rest.
Harried by pain,
We grope and fall
Blindly from hour to hour.
Like water dashed
From cliff to cliff,
In lifelong insecurity."

Following this, he puts such a depiction in the light of the incarnation of the Son of God:

"To compare our lot with that of 'blessed spirits,' with very different and purely eternal beings, may produce a gloomy Hymn of Fate, but it gives us the easy evasion that we men in time are so totally different. Our comparison, however, is with the man Jesus. And although as the Son of God He is so utterly different from us, yet as the Son of Man He is wholly like us. Hence we cannot escape the contrast by pleading His absolute dissimilarity. . . .

It is worth noting, however, that it has always been felt necessary to cover up the original. For this shows us with what cares and questions and protests man faces this reality, how hard he finds it to accept his being in time as normal. We all run away from this picture. We would all prefer it otherwise. . . .

What we have been describing is sinful man in time. The man who lives in that monstrous situation, in that loss of time which cannot be denied, reinterpreted or even forgotten, is the man who is alienated from his Creator and therefore from himself, from his creaturely nature, and who has to pay for his rebellion against God by living in contradiction with himself, in contradiction with his God-given nature. . . .

And the real reason why we cannot accept it calmly, or gloss it over, or forget it, or effectively deny it, is that man is not left to his own devices in this contradiction, but that in the existence of the man Jesus with His very different being in time a divine protest is made against his perverted and disturbed reality. . . .

God did not undertake to recognise and accept our monstrous being in time. . . Because this protest is made, we may look our situation in the face and either handle it with metaphysical profundity or hymn it as our fate, or we may refuse to look it in the face, either glossing it over or simply living on in spite of it, but we cannot escape its monstrous abnormality or accommodate ourselves to it.

It's no accident that there is so little "Barthian" engagement with art. I think those of us working with Barth have to admit that, even though Barth offers plenty of resources for appreciating and assessing art and popular culture, he also did much to discourage such engagement. On this, I recommend Matthew Milliner's article in a 2007 issue of the Princeton Theological Review (available online) where he discusses the "vexing" relationship Barth had to visual art.

My own interest in bringing a somewhat Barthian perspective to the questions of film criticism and theological aesthetics is definitely anomalous. It certainly doesn't come naturally.

But to be fair, this isn't unique to Barth; it's an issue endemic in the Reformed tradition with its knee-jerk reaction to iconography and the Christian engagement with the arts.

All that's to say, while there may be puzzlement and silence from most Barthians on these topics, engagements like this one are all the more important and necessary.
Chris E W Green said…
And yet ... The film (like the novel) is bleak, but not hopeless. A couple of years ago, I responded to Ben Witherington's review of the film. a review I found unsatisfying. Drawing attention to Ellis' rebuke of Ed Tom's 'vanity', and Ed Tom's dream of his father. I concluded:

'This is not a story about the ultimacy or indomitability of evil. Rather, it is about the simplicity and indestructibility of hope, given to us by a Source which passes us by – always silently, but never carelessly, never meaninglessly. This hope given to us is a dream, but it is not a fantasy. Therefore, we must find the courage to speak it to one another, and to look to one another, to be together. Before that, we have to surrender our vanity. We can – we must – put our souls at hazard. We must say, “Ok. I’ll be part of this world.” For, only if we are willing to do that, will we will find that already there is light and warmth in the midst of “all that cold and dark”'.

I'm not sure I'd say it exactly that way now, but I continue to maintain there's something moral about the film.

'Barth' says: 'In the film, evil so eclipses every good that on its own logic there can be no talk of evil'. But that misses the point, if only slightly. Yes, the film does leave us speechless , so we cannot talk about the evil, but evil is never glamorized or cheapened and we can and should rebel against it, in every way, at every point.

We need reminding, from time to time, that evil is nihil, and we need aesthetic experiences that impress upon us the horror of it.

I think the question has rightly been raised: why can't Barth see this? Or why is he uncomfortable with seeing it?
Chris E W Green said…
All that said, I agree with Barth (and Coutts) that we must also not become fascinated with the darkness; we know the world in light of kaine ktisis , so we do not fall into (faithless) despair.
Jon Coutts said…
Being in the UK I was asleep by the time these later comments come in, so please excuse my day 2 responses to the day 1 discussion. (I look forward to the rest of the week's essays).

David: Thanks for the heads up on the Matthew Milliner article. I think my comments below (re: Augustine) will touch on Barth and the arts a little bit more.

Chris: I think I see what you are saying, and pre-Barth I would almost certainly have agreed with you full-on all the way. Now I'm not so sure. This is what I was talking about when I changed gears and had Barth speaking to me rather than the Coens.

It may seem a small thing, but I think Barth would take great issue with the "need" in your comment. ("We need reminding, from time to time, that evil is nihil, and we need aesthetic experiences that impress upon us the horror of it. . . . why can't Barth see this? Or why is he uncomfortable with seeing it?")

I think Barth does see it (as the above quote from vol. III illustrates), but doesn't think we need it.

If there is a Barthian approach to such art it is that we might listen for the living Christ's voice in it (or to it). And in that regard I do think Christ lights up a film like this and impresses upon us the horror of nihil and the gravity of our situation. But the film itself is not needed. Nor is the No seen without the Yes.

(In fact if you go down that road I'm not sure what (if anything) stops you from saying that the Saw films and the Grand Theft Auto games are 'needed' as well--each according to the degree to which the audience/participants are 'desensitized.')
Jon Coutts said…
When I told a professor of mine that I was writing this piece he asked why and I gave him an answer close to what you said in your comments to Witherington. Perplexed, he asked me why we need anything apart from the death of the Son of God to tell us about the depths of evil? I balked at first, but in reflection I took his point to be thoroughly Barthian (right along the lines of 'The Judge Judges in our Place'), and it shaped my approach considerably.

Perhaps we want to disagree with Barth, but I do think the piece is true to him on this point, and against my own leanings I do find myself agreeing with him.

One of the things that really pushed me in that direction was Augustine's bit about theatre in Confessions Book III. (And this is a pretty good example of a pre-Reformation suspicion of a certain form of art). In the paragraph where I talk about that I'm trying to flag the fact that we might convince ourselves we need such theatre when in fact we are like Mrs. Bell with our cups of coffee: self-soothing rather than putting our souls at hazard, watching evil on screen instead of getting out there and meeting it head on in the confidence that we have seen it at its worst and its sting is gone.

Now, given the above it might sound like Barth would have us disregard art like this altogether (and like David said, urely he gave enough of his own ammo toward such a thought). But reading CD IV I just don't think this ends up being the decisive word on the matter. In fact I think we can and probably should bring a film like this in the Light and expect to see a little light reflected there.

And so it is that I agree with your excellent insight about hope. Indeed, in the film's speechlessness about its own portrayal of evil we might see a pregnant silence. Well said.

I do think it is an open question whether this film glamourizes evil or not (I think it actually does in its own subtle way), but no doubt it leaves a gaping hole and refuses fill it in with justification of the violence portrayed. Nor does it portray its violent characters in slow-motion cape-furling awesomeness. Nor does it fill the ominous silence with noise about human progress or the human spirit. Stopping short of these things it begs of its viewers the "simplicity and indestructibility of hope," as you put it.

But I still want to say that the film does not provide any of that hope. If anything it makes us doubt it. At best it makes us clamour for it. The viewer is basically pushed out of the theatre to put her soul at hazard, and has to find a Source for hope. The film is a wake up call, yes, but it isn't a wake up call without something outside of it to wake up to.

And so you are right, we need to find the courage to speak that to each other. But this is a courage born out of the emptied tomb of a crucified Man and nowhere else. The same Man who tells us what is evil, tells us in the same breath as telling us what is the good that prevails.
Chris E W Green said…

Thanks for your thoughtful response. I do believe you're presenting Barth rightly, and I agree his concern is legitimate. However, I wonder if this isn't a case where Barth is overplaying the crucifixion event, so centralizing the death of Jesus that Jesus' life and teachings fade into the background? I think there's a way to argue that 'No Country' and other such stories can function as story-in-service of the gospel -- regardless of authorial or directorial intent. Eugene Peterson says somewhere 'Every time a story is well told, the gospel is served'. I think we might reprise him: 'Every time a story is well read, the gospel is served'. Isn't it possible that the story of Jesus' suffering of nihil has room within it for stories like the one the Coen brothers tell here?
Jon Coutts said…
Yeah I think that's true, but I do think it is the story of Jesus that has room within it and not the other way around. It doesn't need them but they need it.

As for Eugene Peterson's comment, it quite honestly doesn't make any sense to me, though your does.
Nate Kerr said…

Your reflections reminded me immediately of this quote from Moltmann's The Crucified God:

"[H]is resurrection qualifies the one who has been crucified as the Christ, and his sufferent and death as a saving event fro us and for many. The resurrection 'does not evacuate the cross' (I Cor. 1.17), but fills it with eschatology and saving significance. Fromt his is follows systematically that all further interpretations of the saving significance of Christ's death on a cross 'for us' must start from his resurrection. Furthermore, when it is said at length that only his death has a saving significance for us, that measnt hat his death on the cross expresses the significance of his resurrection for us and not, vice versa, that his resurrection expresses the significance of his cross. The resurrection from the dead qualifies the person of the crucified Christ and with it the saving significance of his death on teh cross for us, 'the dead'. Thus the saving significance of his cross manifests his resurrection. It is not his resurrection that shows that his death on the cross took place for us, but on the contrary, his death on the cross 'for us' that makes relevant his resurrection 'before us'." (182-83)
David Tiessen said…
To pick up on the question of movement raised at the close of Brad East's response, it seems to me that something potentially redemptive is introduced after Chigurh has killed Carla-Jean and "the straight line of a station wagon cuts across his circle of death." Chigurh's general rule has been that anyone who sees him, dies. There are one or two exceptions if I remember the film rightly (e.g., the man at the gas station, where the coin is flipped and lands in his favour), but here, having been helped by these boys, he simply tells them "you didn't see me." Throughout the film, the 'old men' are those who assume that the world works according to a logic of trust, whereby one trusts and acts hospitably even to strangers. That ground is apparently gone, yet here the boy is happy to give him his shirt (Chigurh is the one who insists on paying him for it, which induces the argument between the boys as Chigurh walks away). It seems to me that there is a trace of redemption that touches even Chigurh -- just before the accident he has seen them in the mirror of the car, and is clearly assessing whether they pose a threat; after the accident, in light of the help they offer him, he breaks his general rule and leaves a trail by not killing the boys. He thereby leaves himself vulnerable, and he does so for the first time, after Carla-Jean's challenge to take responsibility for his own actions. I wonder if that helps to bolster East's point about a Barthian 'axis of resurrection' making an appearance in the film.
Jon Coutts said…
David T: I like that reading of the last scene with Chigurh. It is pretty subtle, so I don't know how much I'd have wanted to build from it, but it is there. a truly great film.

Popular Posts

So, You Want To Read Karl Barth?

So You Want to Read….Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

2010 KBBC: Week 1, Day 5

Karl Barth on Hell, the Devil, Demons, and Universalism – A Florilegium

2010 KBBC: Week 3, Day 1