Tag Archives: Grace

Finding Flannery among the Three Billboards

Another way that you love your enemy is this: When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it. There will come a time, in many instances, when the person who hates you most, the person who has misused you most, the person who has gossiped about you most, the person who has spread false rumors about you most, there will come a time when you will have an opportunity to defeat that person. It might be in terms of a recommendation for a job; it might be in terms of helping that person to make some move in life. That’s the time you must do it. That is the meaning of love. In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.

Martin Luther King, Jr.: Sermon on loving your enemies  (link)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a top contender for an Oscar this season,  in a field with several other great films like Get Out (perhaps the best horror movie I’ve ever seen) and Dunkirk (chilling sound design + interesting manipulation of the timeline in the storytelling), this festival darling has gotten a lot of attention since the turn of the year.

Three Billboards has sparked controversy too regarding whether it exhibits blind spots about race and police brutality. I figured I’d have to wait for rental since the film is completely off-market here in the South for the types of movies that open at our theaters, so I was pleasantly surprised it finally opened here.

Three Billboards is a raw film, a brutal and unflinching observation of human nature at war with injustice.  ]

Briefly (spoilers): the plot centers on Mildred, a working-class single mother whose teen daughter was raped, murdered, and burned seven months ago in a little fictional town in Missouri. Mildred gets the idea to put up three huge billboards calling out the town’s police chief for not cracking the case, leaving her daughter’s killer at large and herself with a gaping hole and a lot of anger.  The film is told through the perspectives of several characters, mostly Mildred and the police chief Willoughby and his deputy Dixon.

In an early shot, a supporting character reads from Flannery O’Conoor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The homage to Flannery’s work in this film is unmistakable.  Martin McDonaugh, the writer and director, is Irish, but he’s clearly a fan of Southern Gothic themes.  And I’d say her stamp on this film is critical to understanding the story rightly, lest the viewer misunderstand the layers of irony at work. Were Flannery alive today and writing film scripts, I’d easily say this one were hers.

Why is the film controversial? Well, language for one. Mildred in particular is quite unhindered in her vulgarities, caring little whether her language or behavior offends her audience. For her, the injustice of an unsolved brutal crime makes social “rules” irrelevant.  In one scene, she screams at high schoolers who mock her son and wear their parents’ judgmental stance as their own. Her words escalate to physical violence. It’s a “balls to the wall” moment, but not without cost. When grief and anger drive one’s actions, a lot of people get hurt who don’t actually deserve it.  That’s a central point of this film, one that the writer put on a billboard so you couldn’t forget it.

Some have criticized the film for offering only a white woman’s POV of crime and injustice, when the narrative repeatedly refers to Deputy Dixon’s racism and brutality as a cop without providing details. Several times he is accused of or admits to “torturing” a black suspect in custody but this part of his story is left unexamined. Some have suggested this is a flaw: Is not the systemic injustice of police racism worse than an individual mother’s loss? Black bodies are threatened with violence almost constantly, yet we are asked to watch this particular white mother rage at her daughter’s murder.

I think that criticism is missing the point here. In Flannery’s Southern Gothic storytelling, the reader is usually presented with a whole set of character flaws to consider, operating as a backdrop to egregious evil that’s not always showing up holding a sign to announce its presence. In Three Billboards, the problem driving the story is Mildred’s relentless drive for justice. But that’s not the only problem in Ebbing that needs to be addressed.  I don’t think it’s a flaw in the writing that McDonaugh expects his viewers to recognize evil when they see it (like a racist deputy) and draw their own conclusions – all while wrestling with whether individuals suffer more because of individual crimes or systemic ones.

Those same critics suggest that Dixon is offered a cheap redemption arc in the second half of the film and this makes his racism all the more inexcusable for the writer to gloss over. Dixon isn’t a good man – indeed, any good man (or woman) is hard to find in this town.  He’s also a product of a racist and uncaring upbringing (highlighted via the scenes with his mother, who seems more hateful and racist and cruel as Dixon). But every human possess the power of choice, and Dixon uses his in the second half of the film to express a bit of sympathy, perhaps a desire for real justice for Mildred’s daughter.

Again, I think the viewers who charge that Dixon is given a redemptive arc he didn’t earn  are missing what McDonaugh is trying to do – and why he made sure we saw Flannery O’Connor’s name and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” on the screen at the very outset of the story.  In the end, Dixon and Mildred drive off to execute vigilante justice – should they even get that far.  Is that actually justice?  Another great question, one that we aren’t allowed to ignore.  As a viewer, I do feel better about Dixon, a bit, by the end, but by no means do I like him or sympathize with his unemployment and broken  life. Nor do I feel comfortable with Mildred, who so thoughtlessly injures the people around her as she lashes out. Her suffering does not give her permission to inflict pain on others.

Mildred’s actions don’t solve the murder. They just bring more pain. At first, we stand with her against the townspeople who hate her for making them remember this crime. They hate her for implying it’s the police chief’s fault. Woody Harrelson makes Sheriff Willoughby  pretty likable without letting us forget that he’s not without blame here too. Like Mildred, his own story is both tragic and sympathetic. His suicide complicates matters for Mildred, after her public shaming of him and disregard for his terminal cancer diagnosis. In his final words to her, he seems to forgive her for it. Should his daughters be so gracious toward her? Or would that be cheap mercy?

O’Connor’s unflinching and brutal stories of Southern self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and Grace are not for the faint of heart. While I would say her themes are some of the most Christian that we can find in early 20th century American literature, many of my Christian friends cannot stand to read her. They find the violence and grotesque characters in her story too off-putting to be “proper.”  They miss – as do some of the viewers of Three Billboards – the truth that Grace is sharp. It has teeth and claws and a backbone. Real Grace, the kind that can undergird Cross-death and self-sacrifice, changes the receiver as well as the giver. It’s nothing like the cheap religiosity which permeates Southern culture, where God and guns and college football and family pride are worshiped at individual shrines. Cultural Christianity – the fake kind – has little beyond platitudes to offer Mildred in her aching grief and searing anger.

In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a dysfunctional family goes on vacation, gets lost thanks to the self-centered and foolish grandmother, and falls prey to a murderer on some backwater Georgia country road. The killer and the grandmother engage in one of the most memorable fictional discourses about existential good vs evil and human choices. She all but begs for the killer to find the good in his nature to spare them. He’s far more prepared than she to identify her Pharisaism and denies her mercy. The story title warns us there won’t be any good people in this tale, and there aren’t.

In Three Billboards, Mildred seeks justice for her daughter because it’s been denied thus far and she’s desperate. Does she also see her own flaws and own them honestly? We see flashbacks that any parent could relate to- and feel guilty about. She’s not really a great parent, before or after her daughter died.  But she also didn’t ask for her daughter to be raped, murdered, and burned. Nobody deserves that.

We see Mildred at the outset of the film as heroic. We’re expecting a to like this “nasty woman” on her quest, hard as nails and relentless. McDonaugh turns our expectations sideways, making us squirm as we realize we can’t feel entirely sympathetic for anybody on the celluloid before us. The dividing line between good and evil runs through us, not around. Southern Gothic writing – even when written by an Irishman – is always at its best when holding a mirror before our faces, forcing us to see humanity as it really is.



Why we need blue-haired people

A few weeks ago, I dyed my hair blue. This has caused a bit of a stir.

I’m not surprised. I find it quite stirring myself.

I did some experimental color last summer and fall, but this was a step well beyond the reds and even dark purples which don’t seem to scare people. I guess blue screams, I’m breaking away from the norms!

I’m sure people think I’m having a mid-life crisis. I don’t feel all crisis-y, so I doubt that’s it. I just honestly wanted to do something cool for once and this seems pretty innocuous and non-permanent. And fun.

Having blue hair has been a revelation in some ways.

For one, total strangers are way more likely to give me a shout-out now. “I love your hair! Blue is my favorite color!” I’ve heard that at least a dozen times now, usually in the grocery store.

I’ve seen kids’ eyes get wide as they break into huge grins. They know what’s up. Sorry, parents, if your kids are using me right now as leverage in their argument to let them dye their hair…. By the way, you should totally let them do it….. Be prepared for some weird colors left behind in the shower though.

We need blue-haired people in this world. We do. And tattooed people, and people with nose rings, and people who wear weird colors or look androgynous or who play D&D on the weekends with their friends in a basement somewhere.

We need the people outside the “norm.” They show the rest of us that it’s ok not to be all matchy-matchy with what the world tells us we should be like.

We’re called to love those who are different, difficult, or outside our comfort zone. If you can’t get past the fact that I, a woman in the middle of her professional career, assaults your eyeballs with hair displaying about 5 blue hues — what are you going to do with the genuinely odd people you’re called to love?

Further, young people need to see all kinds of people living healthy, productive lives. Offering one standard model of a Human creates the impression that all the others are somehow deficient.

We crazy-haired people are pretty normal. Some of the nicest employees at the mall work at Hot Topic. Their body modifications (a typical trait of a HT employee, I’ve noticed) has no bearing on their friendliness, their capabilities as workers, or their value in this world. Likewise, I’m not sure why schools tend to jump all over things like crazy socks or crazy hair colors. Who cares what your socks look like? Or your hair?  “It’s distracting.”  Really?

God doesn’t care (I’m pretty certain) what my hair looks like. He created it brown, but I’ve never put much stock in the “if God wanted you to have ——, He would have created you that way” line of argument. Adam and Eve, apart from the Fall, would have still been working toward the New Jerusalem. From a Garden to a City was always the plan. (Read more about that in Al Wolters’ excellent little book, Creation Regained.)

Growth and development have always been the tasks of humans who create, being in God’s image.

Evangelicalism is really struggling right now to handle the LGBTQ+ movement. What I’m seeing, for the most part, is a willingness on the part of most Christians to love individual people (people they know, people they’re already friends with) even after they find out those people identify with an alternate sexuality …. but a deep-seated resistance to loving LGBTQ+ people as a group.

Somehow, in the aggregate, what is non-normative is more threatening. To extend marriage rights (some argue) diminishes marriage. To bake a cake implies approval. And Godforbid we imply that in any way, we condone anyone’s aberrant sexual behavior, identity, or leanings.

Apparently the Holy Spirit has lost His ability to convict people of sin, righteousness, and judgement (cf: John 14) in these latter days. The LGBTQ+ movement broke Him?

A decade of teaching taught me that I can’t change anyone. I can love them, encourage them, cajole them, and warn. But I cannot change anyone. It’s simply not my job. And it’s also not my job to function as someone else’s conscience, certain that I identify the areas in his life where he’s clearly wrong and sinning to make sure he knows that he’s messing it up.

I grieve when a friend tells me they’ve spent a lifetime trying not to be gay, not to be weird, not to be trans*, not to be different. I don’t have easy answers for them. I don’t even know how I’m supposed to think and feel about these issues – I cannot reconcile the Bible’s words (as I understand them) with the narratives I hear from people I love.

I’ve read the arguments from Christians working to reconcile biblical narrative and systematic theology for those who claim both faith in Jesus and a non-heterosexual identity. Ken Wilson’s Letter to my Congregation is one of the few I find compelling — I like his recommendation that churches provide a pathway for gay Christians to remain in communion with the Body while the larger Church sorts this stuff out. The Holy Spirit is big enough to handle Christians who are behaving non-normatively and – if they’re sinning – convict them of sin.

I’m certain that breaking people in the name of Jesus isn’t the right way to handle this.

Friends, if we cannot bring ourselves to tolerate oddball hair colors, a non-threatening behavior that lies outside our accepted norms, how are we capable of loving God and our neighbor when that actually gets hard?

Loving God doesn’t mean making everyone around me worship Him the same way I do and for the same reasons. It’s God’s job to call people to His name – He makes that clear.

Loving my neighbor doesn’t mean co-opting the Holy Spirit’s job to sanctify those who claim faith in Jesus. It means …loving.

Perhaps it means allowing myself to live in the uncomfortable region where I cannot exactly see how to reconcile my theology and my faith with my friends or their narratives, while remaining genuinely hospitable and welcoming to anyone who shows up at my door needing a shoulder to cry on or a listening ear. Perhaps that is what Grace looks like – giving up my comfort zone for the sake of another.

Perhaps we Christians need more blue-haired people around.

Because if you can learn to stop thinking of my hair as an unnatural aberration, maybe you can also stop seeing your LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters in Christ only as misguided, disobedient Christians … and simply care for them instead.

Link: Grace and Mercy in Chicken Fingers: Matt Redmond’s God of the Mundane | Mockingbird

Grace and Mercy in Chicken Fingers: Matt Redmond’s God of the Mundane | Mockingbird.

^ A review of what sounds like an excellent read.

We all want to think of ourselves as special and we deeply wish there were meaning to every task we do at work.

But what about the massive parts of life that are just … mundane? What about the millions of jobs that are honestly kind of boring?

A message of Grace for the everyday is what we need. And Redmond offers that, according to this reviewer.

Link: Should Mom-and-Pops That Forgo Gay Weddings Be Destroyed? — The Atlantic

Mob “shaming” tactics do nothing to advance LGBT rights, just as refusal to bake a cake does little to stop them. We need to follow a better way – dialogue, grace, patience. Both sides.

A very good read.  An excerpt:

The owners of Memories Pizza are, I think, mistaken in what their Christian faith demands of them. And I believe their position on gay marriage to be wrongheaded. But I also believe that the position I’ll gladly serve any gay customers but I feel my faith compels me to refrain from catering a gay wedding is less hateful or intolerant than let’s go burn that family’s business to the ground.

And I believe that the subset of the gay-rights movement intent on destroying their business and livelihood has done more harm than good here—that they’ve shifted their focus from championing historic advances for justice to perpetrating small injustices against marginal folks on the other side of the culture war. “The pizzeria discriminated against nobody,” Welch wrote, “merely said that it would choose not to serve a gay wedding if asked. Which it never, ever would be, because who asks a small-town pizzeria to cater a heterosexual wedding, let alone a gay one?” They were punished for “expressing a disfavored opinion to a reporter.”

via Should Mom-and-Pops That Forgo Gay Weddings Be Destroyed? — The Atlantic.

A couple good films for your February

Instead of just grousing about how Christians often fail to recognize excellent, biblically normative art when they see it, I’ve got a couple films to recommend to you for February viewing.

I’m pretty sure both of these are rated R. The first is just for a couple uses of the F-word and some mild violence. The second has adult content and I would recommend that parents screen it before showing to kids.

Ink (2009) – Jamin Winans

When I first stumbled across the excellent indie film INK on Netflix a few years ago, it punched me in the stomach with Grace, just like a good Flannery O’Connor story.

A band of supernatural beings called Storytellers race to rescue a little girl kidnapped by a bad spirit who’s desperate to make it into his own “league of evil,” while in our world the girl’s father buries his failures under layers of anger, bitterness, and numbness.

The film is inventive, visual, snarky, thoughtful.

Favorite scene: when the blind Pathfinder changes the rhythm of the world so as to “shake the shit out of” the girl’s father, giving him an opportunity to be something better than he is.

Lo (2009) – Travis Betz

If you mixed a Broadway play with a rom-com AND a horror movie, you get LO – a winsome and disturbing and heartwarming story of love in the face of hell. Literally.  Justin, a lovable loser, finds his life changed when he meets April …. until demons show up and take her to hell. So he does the most desperate thing he can think of to get her back. It looks like a horror movie mixed with a stage play (and there actually is a stage version) but really … this is a movie all about love.

It’s hilarious. It’s interesting. It’s …. kinda sketchy in places. And it’s one of the best love stories I’ve ever watched. Perfect antidote to all the sappy Valentine’s Day stuff.

Unfortunately, neither INK nor LO are streaming on Netflix right now, but you can rent INK on Amazon Instant Video. Both are available through Netflix DVD or for purchase at the films’ websites.