Generous Orthodoxy  

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Cormac McCarthy: crypto-Christian?

Cormac McCarthy, one of America’s most celebrated writers, has long been one of my favorites. I have great admiration for a writer who can look unflinchingly at pure evil. His masterpiece Blood Meridian, is the most thoroughgoing fictional account of limitless atrocity that I know of, with not a hint of relief or redemption in sight. But what are we to make of a book which deals with murderous brutality for hundreds of pages yet mesmerizes with the literary beauty of the writing? I am reminded of the Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, whose pictures of acute suffering around the world have been subject to criticism as well as praise for their stunning formal beauty.

I haven’t read McCarthy’s well-known Border Trilogy yet. My passion for his writing is based on The Road, Blood Meridian, and to a lesser extent No Country for Old Men (parenthetically, I didn’t like the movie) and Suttree. I’m inspired to comment because of the HBO production of his play The Sunset Limited, which aired last week with those estimable actors Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson. I have suspected McCarthy of being a crypto-Christian since I read The Road, and certainly Sunset Limited would suggest that is the case (even though a Web search yields the information that the NYTimes called the play “a poem in praise of death”). Whether McCarthy personally leans toward Christianity or not, he has certainly given us a picture of utter nihilism (the suicidal Mr. White, played by Jones) confronted by faith (Mr. Black, an ex-con, played by Jackson). Black has just saved White from committing suicide by subway and has brought him home. White is almost entirely without affect throughout, which befits his state of mind, but he manages a hint of scorn when he asks, “You think Jesus is in this room?” Black says, with both humor and intensity, “I don’t think he’s in this room. I know he’s in this room.”

The verbal duel between the two does not end happily. Nihilism seems to win (or so the NYTimes critic apparently thought). And yet, not. McCarthy has given us a portrait of faith in action even when it seems to be proven useless and deluded. “Help my unbelief” might be the final summing up. But isn’t it striking that the only way for full-blown, earnest Christian faith to get into the newspapers or onto mainstream television is for a black character to embody it?

(Here is a link to an interview about how McCarthy and the two actors had a wonderful time together: )

When I speak of McCarthy as a crypto-Christian, I certainly don’t mean that he is some sort of orthodox apologist. In The Road, for instance, there are references to the little boy as a sort of messianic figure which don’t fit the gospel. It’s the hints and suggestions that add up, though. There’s a view of the powers of evil and the helplessness of the unaided human being that resonates with the Scriptural picture of the human predicament. In No Country for Old Men, Sheriff Bell (also played by Tommy Lee Jones in the movie) muses about the evil he has seen in the drug trade on the Mexican border, and the men who run it: “I aint sure we’ve seen these people before. Their kind. I don’t know what to do about em even. If you killed em all they’d have to build a annex on to hell.” And then later, he says something that did not make it into the movie: “I wake up sometimes way in the night and I know as certain as death that there aint nothin short of the second comin of Christ that can slow this train.”

There's an Advent sermon in there somewhere...