Cathleen Falsani is one of the last full-time Religion Writers left alive in American newspapers—so that’s the first major reason you should support her work. Buying her book is a good deed akin to saving rare species of owls. It’s virtually a mitzvah—a valued sacred act—to buy a copy of Cathleen’s book. That’s as strong a recommendation as ReadTheSpirit can make.
And, listen! This good deed is fun. She’s very good at her craft. It’s a pleasure to explore her world.
If you live near Chicago, I’m preaching to the choir. You already enjoy her columns in the Chicago Sun Times.
If you’re a regular reader of ReadTheSpirit, you’ll remember her popular book, “Sin Boldly,” which we recommended earlier. Here’s that earlier interview with Cathleen on “Sin Boldly.”
Now, Cathleen is inviting readers to enjoy the spiritual wisdom of the Brothers Coen with her in the new book, “The Dude Abides,” which also is the nameplate on one of Cathleen’s blogs.
If you’re familiar with her work already, you know that Cathleen proudly describes herself as evangelical and her publishing house, Zondervan, is synonymous with top-flight evangelical publishing. (They’re Rob Bell’s home base, for example.)
And, Cathleen is well aware the Coens come from a Jewish family. Her book’s Foreword was written by Rabbi Allen Secher, who is probably as well known nationally as Cathleen for his many years of media work.
Her new book is custom-made for small-group discussions in congregations, whatever your religious affiliation might be. The whole point of the book is to kick start lively discussion about the point at which our spiritual journeys intersect popular culture.
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR CONVERSATION
WITH CATHLEEN FALSANI ON “THE DUDE ABIDES”
DAVID: The first news item we ought to mention is your brand-new Web site—www.GodGrrl.com—which looks great. We’re going to put a link to your new site at the top of our interview with you, because it’s a very creative place to find out more about your work, your books and your ongoing adventures.
CATHLEEN: In the new site, you can read about all three of the books I’ve completed so far and then I’ll add a fourth book that should come out next year. On the site, we’ve also got video, mp3s, radio interviews and my blogs.
DAVID: You’ve had a long-time interest in all forms of media, so writing about the Coen brothers’ work is a natural subject for you. But, as I understand it, you’ve never actually interviewed the Coens. They don’t like to talk about the underling themes in their films. They want their films to speak for themselves.
CATHLEEN: They want people to interact with their films as living, breathing art forms. They’re interested in each of us bringing our own baggage into the theater and responding to what we experience. I’m absolutely certain that I saw some things in their films that they never intended—and maybe weren’t even aware of themselves—but I’m also certain there are many important things they intentionally put there for us to find.
I did meet them at the Toronto Film Festival. I gave Joel a copy of my book. He was really amused and brought a copy to his brother. They asked me to sign the books. They hadn’t read it, of course, but they were very enthusiastic about the idea as we talked.
DAVID: It’s nice to hear they were gracious to you. Sometimes people get so caught up in the media profession that they stop behaving like—well, like real people.
CATHLEEN: They’re very lovely Midwestern people with very little pretense, considering they’re so successful at filmmaking. They don’t take themselves too seriously. They’re easygoing and funny—just how I hoped they would be.
DAVID: There’s an interesting anecdote in your book about Gabriel Byrne, the actor who’s probably best known right now for his HBO series “In Treatment.” Gabriel co-starred in “Miller’s Crossing,” an earlier film about the Irish mob during Prohibition.
In that movie, there’s a famous scene involving a man’s fedora—just an empty broad-brimmed hat that blows through the woods. Gabriel was working with the Coens on that movie and he asked about the hat sequence. What’s it mean? Why is this hat blowing around? And they refused to tell him anything about the scene, right?
CATHLEEN: Yes, that’s true. I like that about them a great deal. They don’t feel the need to plumb the depths of their own work in explanations afterward. They love what they do. They raise certain questions over and over again in their movies. But they want viewers to engage with the films themselves.
DAVID: That’s what you do in this book—you engage us. In 14 chapters, you give us your own spiritual interpretation of all 14 Coen movies. Then, you turn us loose as readers to ask questions. You want us to argue with you—and with the Coens—and with each other—struggling to distill some wisdom from the experience.
So, let’s talk about several films in the book—to give readers a feel for your own interpretations. Let’s start with “Miller’s Crossing.” In the movie, Gabriel Byrne plays Tom Reagan, a brilliant but deeply troubled adviser to an Irish mob boss. Describe just a little about how you understand this movie.
CATHLEEN: In “Miller’s Crossing,” Tom Reagan is a postmodern man in a world that’s not quite postmodern. The story is set long ago, but we recognize him as exploring relationships we all can understand today.
He’s Catholic and was raised in a religious home, but he finds himself in a whole new world—this world of organized crime and Prohibition and politics. There are all of these complex new rules to navigate, but none of them really are based on faith. He trusts no one and yet he’s totally faithful and loyal to the mob boss he serves.
Tom wears this fedora that’s like his emotional body armor. He’s always having his hat knocked off and somebody hands it back to him.
He longs for moral order. He longs for a God of grace. He’s searching for whatever God-force might be out there. And he also longs for real human intimacy.
DAVID: As hard-edged and cynical as he is, Tom keeps extending grace to other people in the movie—and often he finds himself punished for it, right?
CATHLEEN: Yes, Tom shows mercy in the film and he gets burned for having shown mercy. One wonders at the end of the film, when we see Tom pulling down the hat over his eyes, whether that’s a permanent retreat. Or, perhaps he’s learned from what he’s experienced—so that he finally is able to make new connections with people and with God.
DAVID: So, if you’re leading a small group through “Miller’s Crossing,” there are lots of good questions one could ask. Give us a couple of examples.
CATHLEEN: One good question starts by saying to people: “We’ve seen that Tom is hiding lots of things from God.” Then you ask: “What are you hiding from God?”
Another question you could ask: “If God sees everything, then how does that affect what we choose to show other people and what we continue trying to hide from other people?”
DAVID: Then, let’s talk about a movie that millions of people have enjoyed: “Fargo.” The hero of this Minnesota crime story is a pregnant police woman. You write in the book that she’s a life-giver relentlessly confronting people who are life-takers. One of the amazing things in “Fargo” is that this woman’s confidence never fails her. She believes that, in the end, goodness will win. She investigates some horrible crimes—and just keeps going until she restores the balance of justice. Nothing stops her.
CATHLEEN: I’ve always liked “Fargo,” but it stumped me for a while as I tried to think about how it fit into this book. It’s different than many of their other films. But, when it clicked in my mind, it really clicked. I think this is the closest they’ve got to a morality play—playing out their vision of a Judeo-Christian, morally ordered universe.
Marge Gunderson is a life bearer. She’s heavy with child. In the Coen-iverse, she’s their best example of their highest moral values. She’s decent. She’s kind and respectful of others. She’s always in good cheer—and it’s never a false kind of cheer. She sees the best in people even though her job requires her to deal with the worst in people. The closest she ever comes to losing her temper is when she’s interviewing the crooked car dealer and she actually gets close to snippy with him.
Even when she confronts one of the killers at the wood chipper—and his former partner’s foot is sticking out of the machine—she doesn’t shoot to kill in this confrontation. She’s grace filled and merciful.
Throughout the entire film, her own home remains this haven of simplicity, warmth, order and love.
DAVID: One of the questions you ask in your book is: If you could have a conversation with a character from the movie, what would you ask? I think I might start with Marge Gunderson. She seems like someone a lot of us know already. Just imagine a conversation with Marge. What would we ask her about faith?
CATHLEEN: We don’t see her doing overtly religious things in the movie, but I think it’s easy to imagine that she’s a good Lutheran, goes to church and is active in the ladies’ guild.
DAVID: How about “No Country for Old Men.” Now, on this film I disagree with your interpretation in the book. You describe this movie as an example of “theodicy,” which is a centuries-old term in philosophy for defending the justice of God. It’s a way of responding to the problem of evil in the world. How can there be a God when there is so much evil all around us? Theodicy is a classical attempt to answer that question.
Here’s where I disagree with you: I don’t see anything in “No Country for Old Men” that defends God at all. It’s a relentlessly bleak movie. Evil wins in the end.
CATHLEEN: Yes, the movie is a really good depiction of what evil feels like and how even good people, people of faith, sometimes are powerless to stop it. The killer in this movie just keeps going. He can’t be stopped. That’s what’s so terrifying. He takes pleasure in killing and he’s got his own very strange set of moral rules. He’s almost omnipotent.
Then we have this sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones—someone who I think does have a kind of faith in his life—and even he can’t stop the killer.
DAVID: So where is the defense of God in the face of such evil? Seems to me that God comes up completely empty at the end of this movie.
CATHLEEN: I don’t think the Coens were trying to defend God in this movie. I think Joel and Ethan are agnostics, asking difficult questions about God and faith and all kinds of spiritual and moral questions. I think we bring our own questions and our own answers to these sometimes very difficult stories.
DAVID: The way that I think “No Country” makes sense, in terms of a spiritual discussion, is if we see it as the flip side of “Fargo.” I think the two movies are closely related—almost a set of reversed images.
CATHLEEN: I do think that one way we can respond to these two films is to look at the confounding struggles within our own lives. Both films raise deep questions about good and evil. Of all the Coens’ films, I think “No Country for Old Men” is probably the most difficult mirror to look into.
DAVID: Let’s close with another real crowd pleaser: “O Brother Where Art Thou?” People just love this film! It’s a really weird, quirky movie and it’s based very, very loosely on the Odyssey and ancient mythology—but it led to a revival in “old time” American music. I’ve been in church services where people have performed music from this movie.
CATHLEEN: I think, in this case, the claims about ancient mythology are actually just a funny excuse for some of the elements in this story. The Coens often misdirect us and surprise us—like saying: Hey look over here! And really they’re capturing our attention with a story that takes us in a completely different direction.
I think “O Brother” is a film about grace and what it means to be a family and ultimately what it means to be a family of God. They use this device of the Odyssey as a distraction, I think, to keep us from becoming overburdened with the heavier stuff they’re showing us.
There’s a whole lot going on in this film! You’ve got a Cyclops, a traveling Bible salesman with an eye patch. And it turns out he’s also one of the ring leaders in the Ku Klux Klan. On one level, this movie may seem like a frivolous slapstick comedy, but the characters here are complex.
I think the music is very important in this movie. I think a lot of the deeper themes are carried in the music itself.
DAVID: You suggest that people talk about the nature of grace, after seeing this particular movie. That’s likely to spark a lot of discussion after “O Brother,” because we’ve seen a whole range of characters here—some who are miraculously saved and some who are not; some who are saved even though they’re dirt simple in their faith and some who seem to have cleverly helped themselves along.
CATHLEEN: These are powerful films. I’m sure that I saw things in these films that reflect my own Christian faith. I am a Christian and I see these films through my own lens. Other people will see them through other lenses. Perhaps some of the things in these movies were never intended by the Coens—but I argue that these ideas are right there on the screen.
That’s the power of art—the power of story.
I hope that a lot of people in religious leadership will pick up this book and take a look at the ideas I’m describing. Film is the language of today’s generation. Maybe the Coens aren’t your cup of tea, but you should be looking at film in this way. Millions of people are passionate about film or about television shows they love. Pay attention to what people are passionate about and start the conversation about faith right there where they live.
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(Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)