Knives Out in “the American Church”
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. “I can’t believe the racism I see in the American church.” Stop me if you’ve heard this other one. “I can’t believe the denigration of the unborn [or abuse victims] I see in the American church.” Stop me if you’ve heard this one. “I can’t believe the tacit and explicit consent to imprisoning immigrants and tearing apart families I see in the American church.” Stop me if you’ve heard this one. “I can’t believe the Trump [or Biden] support I see in the American church.” Stop me if you’ve heard this one. “I can’t believe the hatred of my kind I see in the American church.”
The way people talk, it would seem “the American church” is awfully sick and in strangely polarized ways. It’s tempting to listen to the wave of people hurt by and leaving the church and think the whole thing might be a failure. There’s a lot of woe. (Though I most often see people bring out the idea of “the American church” when there’s something going on they don’t like. As if only their enemies were church people.)
The good news is there is no such thing as “the American church.” This in spite of the presence of thousands upon thousands of churches in America. The cynic, ever strong in me, would say they dot the landscape like religious-inflected spore of post-Industrial consumerism. The better angel of my nature, trying to keep up, would say, “Well that’s a bit harsh.” The truth is, churches are made up of people and our tragedy is we can’t always hold it together. We gather and, even though we’ve been singing and learning about the same one Man week after week, sometimes we divide. When it’s healthy we multiply, when it’s not we break, sending out various brokenhearted who sometimes multiply brokenness wherever they land next. The woes above suggest a broad spectrum of hurt, far too broad to be condensed into a single “American church.”How can we endure, persevere, and cultivate in a moment when “the American church” is marked more by public wreckage than unity?
These days church wounds play out in a fractious and digitally public age where everyone gets a megaphone and it can be unpredictable whose will turn out loudest to which ears. Which voice, in the silent cacophony of memory and other social media, would be “the American church”? Would it be the man I saw on TV when I was a boy asking me to touch the screen and be healed (right after I send a check)? Or the churchgoers at the Wednesday business meeting using siege tactics to starve out the preacher they don’t like? Which side of the Twitter feud was it, the ones going cutthroat in defense of God and country or those in full-throated defense of individualism and free choice? And both extremes seeming ready to burn it to the ground with people still inside? A phrase like “the American church” rattles in my own personal ear like a box of broken glass because I’ve seen folks all too willing to pick up the shards and cut one another to shreds in a quest to be right. Could any of this possibly be any church at all, this attempt to purge the public image of the church of all but “my kind” and so inherit the mantle alone?
And yet, the church of the Scriptures, as illuminated in Ephesians for instance, has a character of unity. Abolished divisions. Such a church is hard to see in our scrabbling, squabbling cultural moment. These days, I look at that promise and I look at all of the voices claiming to be the church, and I frankly find Ephesians 2:14 hard to believe. If Jesus has destroyed the “dividing wall of hostility” (a statement that sits there in my Bible in the past tense; not “is destroying,” not “will destroy,” but “has destroyed”), my gut reaction is to think that maybe he missed a spot. Like the entire American spot. Yet there it is. To be made peace with in spite of the pack of vultures at the feast, knives out and beaks bloody.
It’s a line so good it sounds like it’s pulled from Shakespeare, “knives out and beaks bloody.” Writer and director Rian Johnson gives it to his detective, Benoit Blanc, to describe the family Thrombie as they scrabble for what’s coming to them in the wake of their patriarch’s passing. In that way, Knives Out is an apt if unflattering portrait of the public face of all the factions fighting over the future fate of the church in the United States.
In short and without giving too much away, Harlan Thrombie amassed a considerable fortune writing murder mysteries, that fortune being a fact which his children and various other relations put to good use in crafting their own “self-made” success narratives. When Harlan died under suspicious circumstances, these various descendants tried to paint a picture of familial unity and bliss with themselves beaming in the center, handing Harlan his birthday cake. And each in turn threw the others under the bus once their own purity of heart came into question. They all had a hook or two in the money, loathe to be cut loose. Before long the fractures got laid bare as full-on rifts, and the family was on a road to shambles. At the reading of the will, Harlan’s caregiver, Marta, became the perfect outlet for all that pent-up rage.
What makes Knives Out such a refreshing murder mystery is that Rian Johnson chucks the whodunnit suspense in the first 30 minutes. Harlan died by his own hand, but Marta was with him. Which means Marta is implicated by mere proximity, but you’ve already seen enough of the Thrombies to feel her innocence must be the foregone conclusion. The real mystery in Knives Out isn’t who killed Harlan Thrombie but rather how she will get away with actually not having done it.
It’s the tension between faith and fear. Faith that innocence will be proved true vs. fear of the compounding circumstances, plots, and apparent evidence that threaten to bring injustice. All of the aforementioned woe and subsequent side-picking engulfing the church piques this same tension in me. If I’m to read Ephesians 2:14 as the foregone beatification of the church, I’m more than a little worried that it won’t come true. The fear blares out at me. How can faith stand a chance?
In Ephesians, Paul dwells on just how mysterious the unity of the church is. In his day, the real eyebrow- (and hackle-) raiser was Jew and Gentile both made heirs to the Kingdom of God. This was, after all, only a matter of undoing centuries of religious and ethnic animosity, to say nothing of the “claim jumper” resentment that all too naturally springs up when a longstanding establishment suddenly finds itself inundated with newcomers who, like, don’t even know the rules. And then there’s the counter resentment that arises in the resented, already misfits of customs and manners before you even get to the regret of every pork sandwich they ever ate and fertility festival they ever went to tattooed on their memory. Nobody likes to be looked down on, especially if they’re afraid they deserve it.
Even at the very beginning, the Church had a lot of division to reconcile. You know it had to be messy. Galatians tells us outright it was messy, with the Jewish contingent re-erecting barriers to low-key rope out the Gentiles. And then there’s Corinthians where maybe a few more barriers needed to go up between the Christian Gentiles and their old lives. And yet Paul, who wrote Galatians and Corinthians, still writes in Ephesians of unity over division in the past tense. The foregone conclusion. Then and now, it’s a foregone conclusion that must be taken on faith, and this in spite of the easy fear that unity between Jew and Gentile (Republican and Democrat, Trumper and Never Trumper, Antiracist and Proud Boy, anti-abortionist and anti-immigrant-family-separation-ist, et cetera) is not only undone but undoable. As it so often happens, a good story provides a bracing antidote to fear.
Who Was It That Gets to Inherit, Again?
I wrote elsewhere that the church is a people being transformed into the Beatitudes. Poor, meek, mourning, and hungry. Knives Out puts the Beatitudes into narrative form. The Thrombie clan is not what you would call beatific. Far from poor or hungry, they are quite full of themselves. Rather than having spent their lives cultivating the kind of relationship with Harlan that would have led to his blessing, they hungered for the trappings of his success, mistaking wealthy circumstance for blessedness itself. In the wake of Harlan’s death, they’re not so much mourning as they are putting on a show thereof to get through a police investigation. But really just waiting for that blessed reading of the will. Vultures at the feast. Pharisees at communion.
The church is also the story of an inheritance, again an inheritance of character, not circumstance or position in the world. Reality, though, is chaotic. False reality has real currency in the Nietzschean will to power that passes for public life. And so you can get real-life Thrombies. People and institutions (which are really just people, but in unison) who look on paper like they’re heirs of God—people with the right denominational pedigree, theological proofs, and list of outward behaviors and mouthed assents—but reflect so little of the character of Christ that you eventually have to wonder if it’s all just white-washed death. It’s exactly as Pharisaical as acting like a “self-made” success bought with someone else’s riches. This ultra-fragile contradiction at the heart of Pharisaism, though, demands other narratives be cut to shreds.
In Knives Out, the family kept throwing one another under the bus in the film’s preamble because Harlan had spent the days and hours leading up to his fated final birthday party cutting—and therefore pissing—them all off. His death must have triggered quite an avalanche of conscience as each family member had to come to grips with how an outsider, say a renowned detective named Benoit Blanc, would view their pent up rage in light of the Harlan’s violent manner of death. Their only recourse was to spill everyone else’s beans in order to look innocent merely by way of comparison. It was all a parlor game of dry-eyed power plays on the way to what they expected was their final anointing. Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
Anyway, Harlan Thrombie died a lonely man surrounded. Except there was Marta. His caregiver, confidante, and best Go competitor, Marta was all but invisible in the opening scenes of Knives Out as the Thrombie clan told their respective versions of the party preceding the death. Even as she literally kept their father alive (and figuratively), she remained a quickly made afterthought to the rest of the clan. Someone they knew but didn’t even think to mention with their ego under duress. Marta is the very essence of meekness in the midst of noise. Steady, kind, honest to a gastro-intestinal fault. Her meekness makes the looming arc of justice threatening to bend against her so affecting.
In an early scene, Benoit Blanc mentions the novel Gravity’s Rainbow to Marta. She says she hasn’t read it, and he replies that no one has (apparently it’s quite long). But he is keen on gravity’s rainbow as a narrative device, saying, “It describes the path of a projectile determined by natural law. Et voila, my method. I observe the facts without biases of the head or heart. I determine the arc’s path, stroll leisurely to its terminus and the truth falls at my feet.”
It’s a statement of immense faith to believe that the truth inevitably comes to light (to say nothing of the systemic belief that the truth, the facts, will also bear out a just conclusion). But even Blanc gets quite agitated when he sees how close the circumstances of the Harlan Thrombie case came to breaking the arc. Blanc was actively looking for the truth and kept finding holes in the center of his logic. He didn’t have a category for the kind of goodness in Marta’s character. Ironically, what saves Marta is an act of mercy that almost certainly sealed her doom. Likewise, in the churning, Pharisaical, Nietschian will-to-power that casts a long shadow of doubt on the very idea of the church, it is the quiet, meek, Christlike will-to-service that rescues us from despairing.
A Shaky Arc
Our trouble with faith is that we want to believe the world bends like the arc of a projectile. Acted on by trajectory, velocity, and gravity alone. As predictable as a physics equation. Get the launch right and never have to be good again, just follow the bend. I want to receive Ephesians 2 like it’s the schematic of a rocket launch. Read that Christ has abolished the dividing wall of hostility and look up to see unity in the church panning out like clockwork. Lessons learned, repentances never backsliden, revivals ironclad, all bending steadily toward harmony.
But life isn’t like that. Every one of us is bombarded with forces moment by moment. As simple as our blood glucose level, as complicated as grief. Even when we’re trying to be good, we bombard those around us with the personality byproducts of all the forces we ourselves endure. In other words, the path to unity in the church has setbacks. Some real doozies. It’s all too easy to doubt goodness in the now to say nothing of the future. Can any rainbow with one foot in this present maelstrom bend anywhere good?
The consolation of Knives Out is, maybe it can. Faith in Marta pays off, albeit only just barely. The Thrombie clan grasped at their father’s trappings and had their reward in full while it lasted. Marta took care of their father and inherited, if not the Earth, then at least the coffee mug.
Being alive and keeping faith along the arc to true unity, then, takes an act of immense faith. Enough faith to stop trying to predict (or steer) the motion of the entire world and instead pick up tools like endurance, perseverance, and cultivation. In other words, be meek and merciful and leave the inheritance to whomever is writing out the will. It is my fear that if we try to take our woe head on and try to wrestle it to the ground, the fight will force us into making power moves that undercut our character until it resembles nothing more than the woe we set out to fix. The trouble with woe is how often it starts with good intentions.
How can we endure, persevere, and cultivate in a moment when “the American church” is marked more by public wreckage than unity? When woe seeps from story after story of failed pastors, failed protections for the vulnerable, failed discernment when political promises mask true atrocities against the image of God?
Sure, those woes are the loud things that draw attention—and our rightful ire. The trouble with disunity is it is so very loud. This is the silent cacophony of memory and other social media: it is our shared experience of the world in all its blistering contradictions. The way we understand the world is limited to our experience of it, our memory of it. If, then, we want to truly remember and know the church in a way that doesn’t gut our hope, we have to be smart. The evidence of unity, of coherence, of meekness, is so very quiet so we must seek it out to counter the bombardment with the church on fire that prevails in social media precisely because it draws our attention.
Maybe the church, the church, is still here, right here in our woes. Still beatific to people with hearts hungry enough to seek it. “The American church” might be a big, brash, contradictory mess, but in many American churches, the lamplight flickers steadily yet. It’ll be meek. Which is to say in the noise of the public ego, it’ll seem nearly an afterthought until you’re right up on it, seeing the poor and the stranger, the widow and the orphan fed and clothed by forgiven sinners who encourage other forgiven sinners to a better Good Life. On the human scale, the only scale we truly have, there can be no such thing as “the American church,” but all the while the church was alive and well even in America, ready to fill our memories with close encounters with godly people if we’ll only sink lowly enough.
 I inherited this allergy from John Wilson, whom I follow on Twitter and whom I see call out such an unfounded generalization with unfailing thoroughness. I see him as calling out a false conflation with the church (you know, the actual gathering of God’s faithful remnant in the world) and a mass media construction of anyone and everyone who calls themselves “evangelical” or any other religion-inflected poll choice.
 In any one church, there are four basic quadrants at the intersection of happy and hurt, staying and leaving. The happy who stay, the happy who leave, the hurt who stay, the hurt who leave.
 In light of Matthew 5:21–22, our public speech begins to resemble a bloodbath.
 Public in the twin realms of political clout and mass media influence (as measured lately by social media metrics).
 The delightful thing about the church is that you might, by this definition, find pockets of it hidden in any of the “churches” mentioned in the first paragraph. Yeast inside of “yeast.”