The First Days of Jesus by Andreas Köstenberger and Alexander Stewart, Free for CAPC Members
Readers are able to experience the supposedly familiar early chapters of Matthew, Luke, and John with new eyes.
God? What God? Mister, you clearly don’t know where you are. Look around. There ain’t no higher-up around here to watch over you and your young’ns. This here’s the paradise of the locust, the lizard, the snake. It’s the land of the blade and the rifle. It’s godless country. And the sooner you accept your inevitable demise, the longer you’re all gonna live. If you think about it, same God that made you and me also made the rattlesnake. That just don’t make no sense. All man can count on is hisself. That’s the truth.
So says the villain of Godless, the Emmy-winning Netflix miniseries written and directed by Scott Frank. An American Western set in 1880s New Mexico, Godless shows us a violent country of suffering and evil, a corner of the world where God is seemingly absent.
Real good and real harm are certainly seen in this series, and so is the presence of a Hidden God.The brutal man who names this territory “the paradise of the locust” is gang-leading outlaw Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels), on the hunt for his former protégé Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell). Years ago, Griffin had informally adopted the orphaned Roy, promising that the gang would be his new family. Now that he is a grown man, Roy has recognized the cruelty of his “Pappy” and is breaking away, even thwarting Griffin’s murderous plans. This is a disloyalty Frank Griffin cannot abide. The arc of the series follows Griffin’s vengeful search for his “wayward” son, and the catastrophe that he inflicts on anyone who gets in his way. When Roy takes shelter at the ranch of Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery) just outside the town of La Belle, all of the inhabitants are implicated and must pull together to defend themselves from the coming onslaught.
When presented with a lawless land like this, where innocent people are terrorized and the wicked have their way, we sooner or later ask ourselves, “Where is God? How could he let this happen?” The question of why evil thrives in a world made and overseen by a benevolent Creator is one that has smoldered for centuries, and Godless continues that exploration in story form. The answers it provides are not propositional statements of Christian doctrine (or the refutation of such), but rather the embodied, existential answer of lives well-lived.
The Bible presents us with a God who is both noticeable and hidden. When Christ ended parables with, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” he implied that one can hear without really listening. “And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand’” (Luke 8:9-10). God intends to grant people the possibility of denial. He comes to us muted and filtered, recognizable only to some, and only sometimes. The rare occasions when God appears to people in an unmitigated manner, Scripture shows them nearly coming apart at the seams: they freeze, tremble, and fall prostrate. Our limitations and sins are such that no human can bear his unfiltered presence, which feels to us like the barrel of a gun—terrifying, threatening.
So in his mercy, he comes to us not as a conqueror, but as a lover, lingering at the periphery of our vision, inviting our gaze but not commanding it. He comes to woo, not to slay, allowing us to seek him out rather than shattering us with sheer majesty. And for this tenderness and condescension, we mistakenly accuse him of abandoning us. In the Pensées, Blaise Pascal speaks of Deus absconditus, the God who hides: “What can be seen on earth indicates neither the total absence, nor the manifest presence of divinity, but the presence of a Hidden God.” God’s hiddenness gives us the opportunity to orient ourselves freely toward him or away from him, without the force of crushing undeniability. And in this ample space for our freedom that God permits, evil can emerge. As C. S. Lewis has pointed out, however, this possibility for evil “is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having,” for we live in “a real world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen.”
Real good and real harm are certainly seen in this series, and so is the presence of a Hidden God. God is hidden enough that Frank Griffin can wager that “there is no higher-up around here.” He himself was once a “young’n” whom God did not rescue. His family was slaughtered when he was a child; he was adopted by their murderers, and raised with constant abuse. He is a shattered man who has chosen to take the suffering inflicted upon him and magnify it out into the world, using the shards of his broken heart like a blade. This creates an atmosphere of unpredictable cruelty about him. In the brilliant essay “The Broken-Open Heart,” Parker Palmer describes the inevitability of heartbreak, and the choice it presents to every human:
Violence arises when we do not know what else to do with our suffering. . . . There is no way to be human without having one’s heart broken. But there are at least two ways for the heart to break…
The heart can be broken into a thousand shards, sharp-edged fragments that sometimes become shrapnel aimed at the source of our pain . . . people try without success to ‘pick up the pieces,’ some of them taking grim satisfaction in the way the heart’s explosion has injured their enemies. Here the broken heart is an unresolved wound that we carry with us for a long time . . . sometimes trying to ‘resolve it’ by inflicting the same wound on others.
But there is another way to visualize what a broken heart might mean. Imagine that small, clenched fist of a heart ‘broken open’ into largeness of life, into greater capacity to hold one’s own and the world’s pain and joy . . . heartbreak can become a source of compassion and grace . . . as people enlarge their capacity for empathy and their ability to attend to the suffering of others.
There are others in this tale who have also suffered deeply, and yet they choose to walk the risky path of love and hope. And in so doing, they bring the presence of God with them. We ought not to cede to Griffin’s depravity the power to name the land “godless.” It would be more accurate to call it “the land of the heartbroken.” Everyone in Godless is broken, but not everyone is evil.
Where is God in Griffin’s godless country? Where is God in a tragic, malevolent world where mining accidents, poisonous snakes, early-onset blindness, maternal death in childbirth, and flash floods are just around the corner? Where revenge, cruelty, rape, and violence are commonplace? Good people suffer harm, and God does not rescue them from catastrophe. The Bible holds space for the pain of this question. The laments and remonstrances of the Psalms echo over the millennia: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? . . . I cry by day but you do not answer” (Psalm 22:1-2).
While we wait for an answer, perhaps we can consider: what if God is waiting for us? What if the tragedy of life is a question posed to us, as Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl thought? The swapping of roles, from questioner to questioned, is seen vividly in the book of Job. When Job contends with God, the only answer he gets is a litany of questions directed back at him. How are we to live when answers are not forthcoming? As C.S. Lewis reminds us, “Crying is all right in its way while it lasts. But you have to stop sooner or later, and then you still have to decide what to do.” Good stories can help us decide what to do. Godless shows us what it looks like to answer Life’s interrogation both rightly and wrongly. It gives striking examples of how to conduct oneself bravely in a terrible world: how to become a hero instead of a villain or a victim. When we suffer and God is seemingly absent, we need to remember that he is embodied in the heroine and in the hero. God reveals himself through people who accept their suffering and, with moral aikido, redirect it into loving actions.
Observe Alice Fletcher: nearly drowned, twice widowed, a survivor of violent sexual assault and theft. Yet she exudes confidence, hospitality, and determination to make her ranch sustainable and her family safe. Observe Roy Goode: a lost boy, adopted into Griffin’s gang when he was too young to resist. Yet he grows up to leave his abusive father figure, and uses his skills to benefit and protect innocent people. Observe Sheriff Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy): bereft of his wife in childbirth, tasked with protecting a town full of widows, and going prematurely blind (therefore soon to be useless in his role). Yet he honors his wife’s memory, opens his heart to love again, and bravely attempts to hunt down the murderous Griffin. Observe the women of La Belle: the entire town widowed in one day because of a mining accident. Yet they adapt their lives to become self-determining agents, protecting themselves, their children, and their livelihoods with hard work, tough dealing, and a whole lot of guns. These heroes and heroines are not without their faults: cockiness, illicit sex, stubbornness, a foul mouth, a quick trigger, foolhardiness. But there is no mistaking those who stumble along a good path with those who rush headlong down a wicked one.
The wry Mary Agnes McNue (Merritt Wever) is my favorite of the Godless heroines. As the widow of La Belle’s mayor and the only woman in town who wears her dead husband’s pants, she recognizes that “[s]omeone’s gotta look after things around here.” With nearly all the town’s able-bodied men dead, Mary Agnes takes responsibility for her community. I expect she would have preferred the experience of safety, but, denied this, she leans into what is arguably better than safety: strength. While she verbally eschews mothering, she does a fine job of caring for her motherless niece and nephew during their father’s lengthy absence. She also keeps an eye on the youthful deputy Whitey, ensuring his cockiness doesn’t get him killed, that he has food on his plate, that he knows how awful he smells, and that he has someone with whom he can discuss his first kiss (to which Mary Agnes responds with the deep affection of sisterly scorn). She combines familial caretaking with leadership and sharpshooter skills. Mary Agnes will not live as a passive victim. Instead she loads her gun, distributes firearms to every lady in town, and organizes them to face the violent assault she knows is coming.
Who would these people be if they had not suffered? Surely less strong and compassionate than they are now. Who would Frank Griffin be if he had not suffered? Most certainly less monstrous and cruel: perhaps an unremarkable man, maybe even a kind man. On a few occasions Griffin shocks us with such gentleness that it feels as though the doppelganger has stepped aside to let an alternate-reality Frank take the scene: the man that could have been. Suffering can turn one set of persons into heroes and heroines, and another set of persons into villains. Suffering is the energy brought to bear into a static system, a test of character, a revelation. Sufferers’ internal attitudes, their own inner freedom, will rocket them off into one moral trajectory or another once propelled by suffering.
When a crisis emerges, as it does throughout Godless and as it inevitably will in my own life, it becomes obvious that the kind of knowledge I need to thrive is practical and embodied. While it is true that God will give me the strength I need to make it through the day, it is often the case that repeating those words to myself just isn’t enough, and neither is praying them. But give me the memory of Mary Agnes’ feisty look as she whips out her line, “Mister, we’re a lot fucking stronger than you think we are!” and I can slip into the character that my responsibilities require of me that day. I’m a lot better at imitating virtues I’ve seen than I am at turning an abstraction into right living. As my best friend told me years ago, “God knows we are skin, and we need skin.”
Perhaps, when we are busy looking for obvious miraculous intervention, we are missing God in the faces and virtues of the people around us.We learn virtues by watching others embody them in a particular time and place and manner. A practical incarnation will beat out a proposition any day. An incarnate Christ, a loving disciple—that’s worth a thousand abstract doctrines. A good story with some worthy heroines and heroes will help me learn my lines and act out the part on the stage of my own life. That’s more useful than getting all my questions answered, and it’s actually possible. Human anguish wants to wrench a satisfying answer to suffering from the Cosmic Help Desk, but the Bible’s pages are full of laments and unanswered questions. And even if God gave us a propositional, causal answer to our tragedies, (“Your loved one died young and painfully because ____”), would that actually be what we wanted anyway? Would we believe it? Would it help? Great losses are incalculable, and verbal reasons for them would feel like an insult. C. S. Lewis has written, “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?” I have reached the point where I am trading in my questions for his face and for the storied know-how that will make my broken heart fruitful.
In the final episode of the series, there is a funeral for one of the dearest characters. The long-overdue preacher on whom the town has been waiting for months finally arrives, just in time to help the survivors mourn and bury their dead. He reads a poem that epitomizes the reason why this isn’t a godless country after all:
’Tis a fearful thing
to love what death can touch.
A fearful thing
to love, to hope, to dream, to be—
And oh, to lose.
A thing for fools, this,
And a holy thing,
a holy thing
For your life has lived in me,
your laugh once lifted me,
your word was gift to me.
To remember this brings painful joy.
’Tis a human thing, love,
a holy thing, to love
what death has touched.
This is where the presence of God is most clearly seen: in the painful joy and holy humanness of a loving, broken heart. As Parker Palmer observes, “In Christian tradition, the broken-open heart is virtually indistinguishable from the image of the cross. It was on the cross that God’s heart was broken for the sake of humankind, broken open into a love that Christ’s followers are called to emulate.”
God shows up in this story not as a deus ex machina, not through miraculous intervention or plot contrivance, but through the action of heroic people and through vulnerable love. The incarnate Christ is the ultimate Hero, sacrificing himself bravely in love for others. In the days since his resurrection and ascension, God is noticeable in the world through the Spirit-filled, Christ-imitating actions of his children. We should expect to see God most clearly in other people, since we bear his image, and since he chose to bear ours.
The older I get, the harder I find it to pray for circumstantial changes, to ask God to interfere with the plot and re-write the storyline so things turn out better for me and for others. I more often pray for heroes, that I and those I love would step into that role and learn our lines. I pray that we would shoulder our burdens bravely, and put our broken hearts to good use for the well-being of others.
Perhaps, when we are busy looking for obvious miraculous intervention, we are missing God in the faces and virtues of the people around us. Perhaps, when we are praying for our troubles to disappear by God’s providential smile, we miss his call to act out Christ in a world that is often terrible. Perhaps, while we question God about the meaning of our suffering, we fail to hear that he is questioning us: “What are you going to do with your broken heart?” This is not to agree with Frank Griffin’s conclusion that “all a man can count on is hisself.” It is rather, in the words of Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, a call to:
[Act] in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
The opening credits of Godless feature a tableaux of symbols which the episodes gradually imbue with meaning. It ends with a cameo of a face obscured by a bandana, a hat, and deep shadow. I keep trying to discern whose face is hidden in that darkness. Most likely it’s the soft-spoken Roy Goode, or maybe even the dauntless Mary Agnes. The image’s obscurity combines a sense of both recognizability and hiddenness. And it also leaves an invitation there: whose face is the face of the hero? Might it be yours?
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