It is strange how stepping away from a community can turn things commonplace horribly unfamiliar. You go off to school somewhere and over time your family rituals become foreign. Your church or book club goes on a month-long “media fast” and your impulses may stay but your old habits shock you once you log back on. We develop new normals over time, adopt new habits and lifestyles, assimilate in new communities.
These new normals become old normals, so deeply ingrained we hardly question them.
That’s why your grandma hasn’t second-guessed certain slurs commonplace in 1960s Georgia though she’s hardly the sort you’d peg for prejudiced. She watches Fox News, almost exclusively, and once she got a Facebook there was an echo chamber at her fingertips. Regressive attitudes are old normals. She’s enculturated yesterday’s idiosyncrasies.
If you grew up in the Bible Belt you were probably nourished on a steady diet of near-lunacy. A million things at once, it’s not least an incubation chamber for the strangest attitudes imaginable. These are the ruins of Christendom, so to speak, so religious nominals are, perhaps, more widespread here than anywhere else, most of whom self-identify as devout by virtue of having been born in Texas, and little else. There is no substance to their devotion, but these are the “ruins of Christendom,” and to cherish the ashes feels a bit like piety. Nevertheless, between faithfully obeying the will of God revealed in holy scripture and getting one’s rocks off the former rarely wins out.
There is a strange juxtaposition between formless hedonism and reactionary churchgoing. It’s wholly secular, though. Party loyalty. For decades, “evangelicals” have ruled the roost. Dallas is “the center of evangelicalism in the United States,” which is good and bad. Their most influential figures vary in quality, but the worst and loudest have shaped the climate such that there’s a saccharine hysteria in the air, and it feels like apocalypse. Coming of age in a place like that, you adjust to its “normal.” Your measure of what is-and-isn’t balanced, or obvious, or reasonable is colored by what passes for balanced, obvious, and reasonable in “God’s country,” even if you’re not, yourself, part of their clan.
More than anything, you’re endowed by birth with a knee-jerk distrust of “liberalism” – all liberalism, whether “classical” or “authoritarian” or whatever Hillary Clinton is these days. Because these are the “ruins of Christendom,” of course, and whatever smacks of change smacks of loss. Irreparable loss. There is a sense in which we’re still fighting the civil war, that old “Lost Cause.” So you take it as generally self-evident that the world is going to “hell in a handbasket,” because you see vividly the problems we are facing today, and remember yesterday only vaguely, in hazy recollection through rose-colored glasses, or shoddily-told stories from your parents, and theirs. It’s a different world, one which outsiders rarely understand, or care to. It is strange to be an heir to the ruins of Christendom.
It is even stranger to be a convert amidst these ruins. In the first twenty minutes of Steven Piet’s directorial debut, we watch the titular Uncle John kill a man, drag his body onto the bed of his truck, and burn the evidence on a hilly plain. By this point, there has been virtually no dialogue, but I didn’t notice. The grisly mise en scène is underlaid by a fiery sermon, blaring from the truck radio.
Piet might have eschewed traditional narrative form and blared the sermon through the entirety of the film and the mood wouldn’t have changed. Uncle John made me physically ill. Not because of its violence – there is practically none – but the winding dread. To quote David Lynch (whose glowing review drew me to the film initially), “I could not take my eyes off the screen.”
The unlucky bastard from the opening act was Dutch Miller, a long-time bruiser who became a born-again Christian. After finding the Lord, he embarked on an apology tour that, understandably, spanned most of his hometown.
Eventually, it was John’s turn to hear confession. Years prior, his sister fell to her death from a high chasm. Unbeknownst to John, and everyone, Dutch was responsible. She was pregnant with his child, and he broke off their engagement. In despair, she threw herself from the edge.
Some indiscretions are beyond human capacity to forgive, at least straightaway, and John murders Dutch in a heady rage.
John’s nephew Ben has been toiling away at a tech firm in the city – miles from “God’s country.” And it is toil. His early scenes are fraught with ennui, albeit quietly, as he navigates the alleyways of corporate America. A resident of the technocracy-next-door, his world is brightly lit and vacant.
But he’s old enough to remember another world, whose telos reached beyond the bowels of racket and capitalism. Along with his friend Kate, he takes an impromptu road trip to visit his uncle in the country.
The bulk of the film follows their sojourn into John’s world, in which the remnants of Christendom are still discernible. The prairies are idyllic – haunted and familiar. But they are not what he remembers. Not unlike Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Piet’s debut reminds us that another world underlies our own. Uncle John is emblematic of God’s country: safe and familiar, yet unencumbered by mercy.
Hence the Christlessness of the “Bible Belt”: “The Church has only ever been half-Christian when she ran the world,” wrote David Bentley Hart. The image of Jesus, like the image of “old-time values,” can take on a life of its own, unrelated to the God-man who bore the name. When the language of the Messiah has become the “old normal,” it can transvalue into pagan violence. You could be Uncle John, who images “old-time neighborliness” and butchers those who confess to their wrongs.
Because nothing about Jesus is normal. Books abound suggesting, in turns, that He’s an unremarkable doomsday preacher, or a desert radical, or a literary invention. Each new “SHOCKING!” “INNOVATIVE!” new “critical biography” of Jesus beckons sprawling, masturbatory write-ups in the New York Times and elsewhere, but as a matter of course tends to lack staying power. There are the Marcus Borgs (R.I.P.) and John Crossans, who continue, if nothing else, to sell books to Evangelicals in search of edgy sermon illustrations, sure. But does anyone, today, still care what Reza Aslan, or Paul Verhoeven wrote on the subject, like, ten minutes ago?
The Jesus we meet in the Gospels, as remembered by the earliest churches, is enigmatic in Himself. And He’s much more interesting than the reductio-fictions we conjure up in His stead. Not least because the New Testament picture of Jesus is kaleidoscopic: Matthew remembers a “better Moses than Moses,” a Lawgiver who retrieves the “heart” of the ancient Law; Mark remembers a “better David than David,” Luke a “better Caesar than Caesar,” John a “better Wisdom than wisdom.”
All of them remembered “a Man who was Israel”: John baptized Jesus in the Jordan like God baptized Israel; The “God of Israel” became “the Israel of God,” and fulfilled “the mission of God,” kept “the law of God,” bore “the wrath of God.” The “Son of God” made us into “sons of God.”
So it shouldn’t be surprising that, for Jesus, keeping the Law meant challenging the Roman social order, forsaking exclusivism, leveling the relationship between the sexes, avoiding violence at nearly all costs (etc.) – such principles are in continuity with the Law of Moses, not discord. Even when enforcing boundaries between Israel and their neighbors, the purpose was to wean Israel off the innate tribalism of the surrounding culture. Even when, for example, the Law placed women in utter dependency on their male countrymen, this was not new or uniquely misogynistic in the Ancient Near East, and the purpose behind the command was to dig up Israel’s roots, however incrementally, from the scorched-earth of ancient Mesopotamian patriarchalism.
In the Law of Moses, in other words, God was “getting the Egypt out of Israel,” which is to say that reading the Pentateuch as Christian scripture means reading the “Sermon on the Mount” from its pages.
I’m not being creative here. Matthew quotes Hosea 4:3, “Out of Egypt I called my son,” in reference to Jesus. Hosea was written a very long time before the New Testament period and in reference to the nation of Israel – not an individual. That either means that Matthew is a terrible reader or that he’s miles ahead of you and I. If he is the latter and not the former, then Jesus himself is the paradigm for good Law-keeping. Which means, of course, that a good Israelite in, say, the time of Ahab might have behaved in a way corresponding to the example of Jesus – granting, of course, for the obvious differences in social context.
But our “anti-institutional” fetishism inclines us to seek out “conspiracies”: We want stories of “brave nonconformists” who reject “the system.” Often, this is a good thing, because “the system” is rarely just. By importing that fetish into the story of Jesus, however, we can baptize our prejudices with relative ease, inoculating ourselves from being told to act Christianly by retorting that “Jesus worked outside the religious tradition.” This sounds very spiritual, of course, but it’s often a euphemism for “I’ll do what I want.”
Which is to say, good law-keeping got Jesus killed, not the opposite. Again, this should not be surprising. When Yahweh gave the Law on Mt. Sinai, He emphasized the extent to which obedience to His demands would distinguish his people from the other nations. Consistently, they did not obey, and so they were not distinct from the other nations. As historians, the authors of the Old Testament scriptures are essentially proto-Foucauldians, narrating the horrors of a community whose ethos is transcendentally non-violent, egalitarian and reformist, but whose actual practices are quite the opposite.
And as historians, the authors of the New Testament had, perhaps, the easiest editorial job in the world: To recount the way the Son of God was murdered by a nation of Uncle Johns, who strung Him up not because He mocked the Law but because He didn’t. Repent and believe the gospel, and Uncle John May kill you. That is to say that Christendom may kill you. And it would, since Calvary never fraternised with the cavalry, and Christendom’s got to defend itself. But “it’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Lord,” or a joyful thing, if His hands are bloodied from the nails in Uncle John’s workshop. Dutch fell into different hands, but Christendom can only kill you so dead. Repent and believe the gospel and Christendom may kill you, but it’s a pleasant thing to fall into the hands of the Lord if you’re sin-tired and weary as hell.