Saturday, January 31, 2009

Vintage Cars and Historic Theology

I will say at the start that I do not think Gran Torino is Clint Eastwood's best film. It is not even the best of the ones I have seen, and I have not seen all of them. His turn in The Outlaw Josie Wales is a favorite of mine, but Unforgiven is, I believe, his most profound work--a midrash on the doctrines of justice, sin (original and actual), redemption, even the communion of the saints.

That said, I found Gran Torino both compelling and theologically interesting. Eastwood's character is Walt Kowalski, a Korean war vet and Ford Motor Company retiree who in many way is still fighting those wars (he hates his Hmong neighbors; he loathes his son's affiliation with Toyota). He is "not at peace," as the tiny Hmong shaman rightly observes. Walt's regard for the foreign priest is as jaundiced, if more bemused, as his attitude toward the Church. If Walt ever had more than nominal regard for matters of faith he has long since given-up even that. His wife's funeral, which opens the movie, finds him a stranger in a strange land, alone in the midst, as estranged from his own sons and their rude and presumptuous children as he is from any of the few church members who have gathered. He is especially contemptuous of Father Janovich (Christopher Carley), growling at the young priest, “I think you're an overeducated 27-year-old virgin who likes to hold the hands of superstitious old ladies and promise them everlasting life.”

The test of wills between the young priest (who promised Walt's wife he would check-in on Walt and try to get Walt to go to confession) and the grizzled old man that Kowalski has become comprises one major sub-plot in the movie. Another is the silent and in that way hilarious stand-off between Walt and the old Hmong woman who lives next door; each disdainfully eyes the other porch-to-porch. If by the end, the young father has learned from Walt something about death, for his part Walt turns to the priest for something like friendship and for absolution. That unforeseen eventuality is as surprising as Walt's learning from his heretofore-hated neighbors that life does not consist in mowing the grass, fixing things, drinking beer and waxing the Gran Torino that he helped build while he was still on the assembly line ("I mounted the drive shaft in that car").

Everyone wants Walt's car--his unappreciative granddaughter, who has no use for Walt himself but brazenly asks for the car when he, "you know, die(s)"; a Hmong gang; his young neighbor Thao. The fate of the car will mirror Walt's own.

The Gran Torino is Walt's "immortality symbol"--a kind of religious relic, a symbol and sacrament of a former time when, to Walt's mind, life obviously made more sense. All the homes in his neighborhood save his, where people like him used to live, are run-down and inhabited by folks "he used to kill and stack like wood." Only later does he realize that the Hmong were actually allies of American forces. The old Hmong woman wonders why he, like his kind, doesn't just move. She seems not to understand that his home, where he made what passed for a good life with his wife and sons, is his castle, his fortress. Maintaining this property, like maintaining his car, is his last defense against change. He will not, it turns out, be saved by his work--at least not this kind of work.

Walt is sick, and unto death it seems--another parable.

Begrudgingly and unwillingly, Walt becomes guardian angel to his neighbors. At first he is simply, and literally, defending his own "turf." He remains an old soldier almost to the end, still lighting cigarettes with a First Calvary lighter he "got back in 51," taking up his rifle when he can and wielding a pipe wrench or his fists and boot when the rifle is not available. His most ominous threat, however, comes in the form of his finger! It is strength and weaponry that has saved him thus far; the salvation he ultimately both experiences and provides is effected by laying all his weapons down--except perhaps that of prayer. With his last breath he begins to recite the Rosary.

There is much plot I have not mentioned, many levels of meaning to be discerned. What finally interests me is how Catholic the movie is--and not just in its context and trappings. I will say that his eventual confession to Fr. Janovich (where he confesses three sins: a stolen kiss in 1968, not paying taxes on a boat and motor he sold ("just as good as theft") and not being close to his boys) is beautifully linked, both temporally and visually, to the "confession" Walt makes to Thao after he locks Thao in the basement to keep him safe. Even more is the way in which the movies maintains that life, real life, comes only through sacrifice and death. All the resurrection we see--whether in the Hmong community, in Thao and his family, or in Walt himself--is occasioned by surrender. Even before Walt dies cruciform in a Hmong yard, he has sacrificed much in the way of prejudice, habit and behavior. His self-surrender for a few becomes efficacious for the many as by his willing death he takes on, and defeats, the "principalities and powers" at work in the neighborhood--and especially in the form of the gang.

If you have a "Faith and Film" series during Lent, this is a good one--if you can deal with the harsh language that is absolutely crucial to setting the table of Walt's (and others') prejudice.

Monday, January 26, 2009


I promise I am not making this up...

My daughter, taking a break from her pursuit of a graduate degree, is a server at the Chili's a few miles down from our house. Like many others her age she is already pretty critical of the church and its obvious hypocrisies. Her cynicism, that to say, is neither atypcial nor incomprehensible. Nor does this kind of thing help--her or others.

A group of six church-goers came in last night after their evening services and sat down, not in her area but in another server's. When the girl came to greet them and take their drink order, one of them said, "We want to tell you up front that we will not be tipping you tonight because..."

Are you ready?

"...we do not believe in people working on Sunday."

The girl was taken full-aback, stammered out something that sounded like "I wouldn't have to work on Sunday if so many church people didn't come in," or some such. She was furious. So was the manager of the restaurant whom she summoned to deal with them. I think he should have tossed the people out on their...uh...Bibles. To his credit, and demonstrating something like agape all around, he did say to them, "Well, we don't believe in making our people work for nothing, so I will be serving you tonight." And he did. God bless him.

No one is consistent. I am clear on that. But better to confess your own sin in such a situation than presume to see it in another who is just doing the best they can. No wonder Jesus had such animosity toward Pharisees who "lay (heavy burdens) on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them" (Matthew 23:4). No wonder an entire generation of would-be believers has such animosity toward the church.

As George MacDonald wrote long ago, "Had you given yourself to understanding his word that you might do it, and not the quarrying from it of material wherewith to buttress your systems, in many a heart by this time would the name of the Lord be loved where now it remains unknown..."

For my part--and I am a Pharisee myself, even saying this, but I cite my practice not with pride but with confession--I pray for the forgiveness of God and verbally ask the forgiveness of the Hardee's drive-through lady each Sunday as I buy coffee on my way to church. I know I am complicit: on the one hand I do wish, with my head and heart, that all people had Sunday free; that said, I do nothing, nothing to lift a finger to make that happen by even so little a fast or act of self-sacrifice as making my own coffee on a busy Sunday morning--much less by not eating a Sunday lunch or dinner at one of the sit-down places in town.