No Country For Old Men: A Modern Parable

I had the pleasure of reading last week an outstanding, way-over-my-paygrade essay by my friend Dr. Don Collett. Don serves as Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Trinity School for Ministry in Pittsburgh. 

The essay is unavailable online, but since it requires a fairly competent knowledge of Hebrew it isn't designed for the masses anyway. What struck me was a couple of paragraphs in which he argues that the Coen Brothers' film, No Country For Old Men serves as a parable for our times. Specifically, he applies it to contemporary hermeneutical debates about the Old Testament, but I think it speaks beyond those narrow boundaries to our culture more broadly. 

Collett writes: 

"Noteworthy at this juncture is that the question whether the past has the continuing ability to position the present forms the dominant motif in the Coen Brothers' recent film No Country For Old Men. In this film, Tommy Lee Jones plays the part of a west Texas law officer (Sheriff Bell) whose lineage traces back, through his father and grandfather before him, to the tradition of law enforcement embodied by the Texas Rangers. Yet as the movie unfolds, it becomes apparent that Sheriff Ed Bell believes himself to be up against a new kind of criminal that the judicial wisdom of those who preceded him, the 'wisdom of the fathers,' simply could not have anticipated. A violent and apparently unique breed of criminal confronts this sheriff, and he ultimately finds himself at a loss to meet the challenge he faces. The movie not only ends with a failure on the Sheriff's part to apprehend the criminal, but also with a sense of utter defeat before the face of incomprehensible human evil, in the wake of which Sheriff Ed Bell decides it is time to retire. Near the end of the movie he visits a former law enforcement officer, injured in the line of duty and now bound to a wheelchair, who tries to convince him that the situation he is facing 'ain't nothing new.' Sheriff Bell, however, cannot be so convinced.  Having persuaded himself that the species of criminal he is facing is truly unique, truly without precedent, he is simply unable to avail himself of the wisdom of the past. In the end, the inability of the wisdom of the past to enclose the present leaves Sheriff Ed Bell adrift and confused in the present. Sheriff Ed Bell is truly living in 'No Country for Old Men.'

The film makes a powerful hermeneutical point. When the authority of the past to speak to the present breaks down, a point of standing in the present disappears and the present becomes uninhabitable. No 'country' remains, that is to say, no habitable space remains for the wisdom of the past in the present, and with that, a place to stand in the present. What the Coen Brothers' film brings home to us, in its own way and through its own idiom, is that the linkage between the authorizing wisdom of the past and the present is such that removing that linkage inevitably has a disorienting 'ripple effect' upon the present."

Now, I admit that I hadn't seen the film No Country For Old Men  when I read this passage. Coen Brothers' films are sort of hit-or-miss to me. However, I remembered that the source material for the film is taken from a Cormac McCarthy novel with the same title, and I esteem McCarthy as one of the finest living American novelists. So I picked up the novel and read it through in a single sitting. It was, as I expected, profound; likely even more profound than what Joel and Ethan could transmit to the silver screen.

The reason I found this parable so striking is that I've been saying something along these lines in several of my speaking engagements this year. I've been encouraging Christians to view our ongoing cultural collapse in view of the "big picture." We are not facing unprecedented cultural challenges. It is precisely when people think that this is entirely "new" that it has, as Collett puts it, a "disorienting ripple effect." We think of ourselves as without resources upon which to draw. And what inevitably happens is fear . Or cynicism. Or despair

And fear  has enough likeness to anger so as to make the caricature of the "angry, bitter Christian" plausible.

There is far too much cultural commentary flowing from the frightened premise: "We're losing our country!" Fear can motivate for a time, but it has no endurance.  On the contrary, Christians must be motivated by God's love. Not just in the narrow sense of his redeeming love accomplished and displayed at the cross, but by his love in the broadest sense: loving everything that God loves, including human life and sexual flourishing. And in this we have divinely authorized wisdom from the past, forever encoded for us in the books of the Bible. It continues to speak and shape us, providing a "place to stand," a stabilizing anchor in what appears an unprecedented cultural whirlpool.

Our motto at Dead Reckoning is "What Guides You?" and I think it was well-chosen. 


Brian Mattson