“Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” (Matthew 7:9-11)
It’s a simple principle, really. Whatever good we find in ourselves, God is like that—only better. Much, much better.
And yet I can’t think of any principle more overlooked by our story critics today. The goodness of man is not a thing to be exalted in itself. It is great, certainly, and contrary to what many religious folks would have us believe, it is real. Christians need not wink at the kindness and goodness of man. But we also know that for all our good deeds, Jesus was right when he put men finally in the category of evildoers—when he taught that we are only tiny, corrupt images of God.
A month or so ago, my husband and I had the great privilege of seeing True Grit. Despite the fact that I paid over $10 for a seat, it was worth every penny. Yes, it’s a brutal movie in many ways—the Coen brothers lived up to their reputation in that. But with 14-year-old Mattie as one of the lead roles, the movie also dealt in innocence and sweetness that is uncommon in any film today, whether by the Coens or anyone else.
Above all, the portrayal of grace made my heart tremble. In this latest version of True Grit, the climax—the moment of greatest suspense and emotional pathos—occurs when Rooster Cogburn, a solitary law man, rescues snake-bitten Mattie from a den of vipers and sets himself to the task of riding her to a place she may be treated and spared from death. Through the process, Mattie slowly loses her grip on reality, and though we have begun to see it all along, we finally see the cost of her quest threaten to overtake her. Rooster, the law-man, has of course known the cost of Mattie’s search all along; he has felt its deadening effects in his own life.
Yet as Rooster drives Mattie’s prized pony to the end of its physical ability, we are startled to see what her rescue will actually cost. Rooster, without thinking twice, throws away his whip and knifes the poor beast to spur it on. The result for the viewer is a startling picture of costly grace—Mattie begs him to spare the animal, but Rooster loves Mattie far too much for that. As precious as the innocent animal is, it is not as precious as Mattie herself.
In the Coen brothers’ True Grit, the idea of the grace is palpably present from beginning to end. The traditional gospel hymn, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, bookends the film, sung in haunting simplicity by Iris Dement. Yet the song is almost ironic, considering the plot premise: 14 year-old Mattie has set out on a quest to kill her father’s murderer and thus achieve justice for his soul.
The animosity between mercy and justice is even clearer when compared to previous incarnations of the story. Literary critic Stanley Fish, in his NY times article Narrative and the Grace of God: The New ‘True Grit’, has ably shown why this contrast between justice and grace defines the heart of the movie. Apparently, in both the book version and the John Wayne movie, the climax is defined by justice. It is a showdown between Rooster and the villain, in which a more traditional kind of heroism marked by bravado eventually triumphs over evil.
Yet in the Coen Brothers’ movie, the climax is quite different. Rooster’s heroism—his selfless act of love to save Mattie—is relatively quiet and seems instead to occur in a world of chaos. As Fish puts it in his essay, “In the novel and in the Coens’ film it is always like that: things happen, usually bad things (people are hanged, robbed, cheated, shot, knifed, bashed over the head and bitten by snakes), but they don’t have any meaning, except the meaning that you had better not expect much in this life because the brute irrationality of it all is always waiting to smack you in the face.”
And that is where grace breaks through in this movie: a man, isolated by his profession of hunting law-breakers and living in his own daily choices which add up to nothing, finds himself suddenly connected in selfless love to another. It is a moment of clarity, in which he may rise above his loneliness and failure, and he may tenderly and freely offer all that he is to give life to one that he loves. And more than anything else, that moment of grace is also a singular moment of meaningfulness.
But then, as swiftly as it comes, the moment is gone. The river of life ebbs again, and the characters walk out into their separate concerns. They are connected only by a memory, and no matter how they may try, there is no going back.
Perhaps the most heart-wrenching aspect of the movie for me was the knowledge of how men like the Coens and Fish could be so close to real grace and miss it. Grace is only possible in a world of justice. There must be laws, a design, a structure behind all the machinations of life for injustice and even grace to occur. Grace and mercy are abrogations of the law, a dismantling of the structure—but for that to happen, there must be a law or a design to abrogate.
While the Coens powerfully show that the old John Wayne idea of law and justice is woefully inadequate, their version of True Grit also demonstrates that real Calvinistic grace is not, as Fish would have us believe, capricious and free. To gain Mattie’s restoration, Rooster must push his body to its utter limits. And if ever there were a spiritual scapegoat in Modern storytelling, Mattie’s pony is it. I couldn’t help but wonder if the storytellers remember somewhere deep within their souls a Biblical concept of redemption: as it says in Hebrews, “without the shedding of blood, there can be no remission of sins.”
And yet, Fish is right that Mattie is rescued by a sacrifice outside herself. But does that make the grace she experiences capricious? If the wages of sin is death, and if death is meant as a merciful warning of our spiritual state without God, then there is nothing capricious about all the pain and futility of our lives. Because even the worst of us are made in His image, God’s justice may be tragic or pitiful. But simply because Christians cannot pay the cost of the grace we receive, we need not believe it to be capricious or unjust.
I suspect many Christians will see this movie and be startled by a fresh picture of God’s work—both of grace and justice—in our lives. We naturally look for signs and shadows of the Almighty in the stories around us, and we need not see competition between the beauty of human love and the perfection of the divine. The one naturally points us to the other.
But I cannot help but hope, too, that the precious men and women who made this movie, as well as the generations to come who will continue to interpret the movies and book in their own lives, will come to see the story is but a picture of water. And rather than die of thirst, they will reach out “by grace through faith” to possess the Living Water that is Christ.
True Grit was originally a novel published in 1968 by Charles Portis. It was first adapted to film starring John Wayne in 1969. (You can get this first version on Netflix.) In 2010, Joel and Ethan Coen released another film version starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Hailee Steinfeld. This second version was nominated for 10 Academy Awards.
You can hear more about focusing on Christ in The Bible and all of life in our audio interview with Kevin Twit on The Jesus Story Bible.