On Sunday afternoons, typically, the adrenaline of the morning's
activity crashes in, and I'm left with the stillness of a week's worth
of exhaustion. This past Sunday the house was especially quiet, with
everyone else napping (something I can't do well). Without the energy
to read or write, I slipped off to my neighborhood movie theater to,
like Walker Percy's Binx Bolling, just to "be" for a while. As the
closing credits of Get Low filed by, I realized I hadn't expected a near encounter with the gospel.
Get Low is the story of a mysterious hermit (played with
brilliance by Robert Duvall) who hires a funeral director (Bill Murray)
and his associate to carry out a "funeral party" for him. The catch is
that this memorial service is to be held before the hermit is actually
dead, in order that he would be there to hear all the stories folks
would tell about him.
I was first struck by the fact that this was one of the very few
contemporary films I've seen that portrays positively either the clergy
(two of them, in this movie) or funeral directors (well, at least one
of the two). But that was not the most impressive part of the movie. I
was jarred by the guilt that throbbed through the whole of it.
I'll try not to spoil the plot for you, except to say that the
hermit turns out to be a hermit for a reason. There is something wicked
back there in his past. And that's what the funeral party is about. He
wants to hear the stories others have of him (knowing they'll be awful)
because he is fearful of telling the story that only he knows about
Get Low is not a "Christian movie." The point of view is
decidedly non-Christian, as is most of the mode of discourse. And
that's just the point. The film portrays something the Christian
Scriptures insist to be true. Guilt isn't something society foists upon
us. There's something primal, something real, in the guilty conscience.
The apostolic preaching confirms what human experience already
affirms, a moral law is embedded in the human conscience. The
conscience is not simply a kind of internal prompt for good behavior.
It is instead a foretaste of judgment, of the Day when every secret is
"For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the
law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not
have the law," the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Rome. "They show
that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their
conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or
even excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God judges
the secrets of men by Christ Jesus" (Rom. 2:14-16).
Get Low portrays where we all are, apart from Christ. Our
conscience shows us who we really are, cut off from our only source of
life and unable to get back to it past the watching angel's fiery
sword. That kind of guilt is enslaving. Like the protagonist in the
film, we want somehow to explain our actions, or to assemble a cloud of
witnesses who can explain it for us, without admitting our culpability.
We want to live through judgment (which is, after all, what a living
funeral is) so that we can reassure ourselves that the end result of
our choices isn't quite the horror we fear it to be.
Get Low ought to prompt us to sympathy for those around us,
in our neighborhoods and sometimes in our own homes. They are in
captivity, the gospel tells us, to "lifelong slavery" to the one who by
his accusation has the power of death, the devil (Heb. 2:14-15).
In the movie, the hermit exiles himself. In his forty year (forty
years? Was this accidental?) isolation, he sought to make up for his
past. He sacrificed family and friends; he did thankless good deeds,
even constructing a church. But, through it all, he denies himself what
the Christian preachers tell him he needs: confession of sin before
God. In fact, in a chilling scene, the hermit denies that he has
wronged God at all.
That's where Get Low leaves us just this side of Golgotha.
The hermit confesses his sin, but his confession is, it seems, just
short of repentance. His sin is unveiled. The context is explained.
Through forgiveness, human relationships are restored. And then,
finally, there's what the film portrays as the (atoning?) release of
But the conscience won't leave us alone that easily. We know that
our death can't wipe away our sin. Our exile doesn't end there. It's
only just begun. Without the shedding of blood, of a blood we cannot
draw from our own guilty veins, there is no remission of sin. We need
more than explanation, confession, restoration. We need crucifixion,
burial, resurrection. We need to be born all over again.
Get Low isn't Christian, but it's Christ-haunted. In an often
animalistic culture, it reminds us that even the Gentiles know that
guilt is real, and that it burns. It also reminds us that, no matter
how deep the exile, where there is still a conscience there is still
the God who put it there.
That's not the good news, but its a step toward acknowledging the
bad. It's not the whole truth, but it's the truth, the (almost) gospel