On the recommendation of a colleague my wife and I started watching the TV series Fargo. Loosely based on the film of the same name, the show is a hodgepodge of Coen brothers films. Set in Bemidji, MN, the show follows Lester Nygaard, an insurance salesman who makes one terrible choice after another, sending him down a dark, twisted path. Billy Bob Thorton plays Melvo, an Anton Chigurh character who orchestrates the whole mess. Of course there’s a cop, a combination of sheriff Bell and Marge Gunderson, who’s always a step behind. While technically not directed by the Cohen brothers, it’s easy to see their influence.
Whether its No Country for Old Men, True Grit, The Big Lebowski, or Fargo, a primary theme of the Coen brothers is what it means to inhabit a dark, meaningless, world. Their films depict simple yet wise characters who go about their lives in a way that is tired yet relentless, jaded yet faithful. These characters aren’t flashy, they’re not trying to work their way up the ladders of power or fame, they’re just trying to live in a way that is faithful to what they’ve been called to. But it’s this simplistic wisdom and tenacious faithfulness in the face of immense evil and meaningless violence that makes the Coen’s work deeply philosophical and theological. They inspire us to carry on, to inhabit this bombastic world of image and branding with a quiet plodding and Minnesota like kitschiness.
Faithful living is hard, it’s not flashy, and it certainly doesn’t make as big of a difference in the world works as we think. Too often the church falls into a naive piety that lives in denial. We feel there is something wrong with the world, but if we cover it over with niceness, with morality, and a little bit of wealth to keep the dirt away, maybe we can pretend everything’s ok. On the other hand, there is the danger of a stark dualism that pushes hope, love, and grace into some otherworldly existence. So we play according to the world’s rules, hoping we’ll be able to appease our guilt with a sprinkling of cheap grace. What we’re called to is the middle… the balance between serpent and dove. Let’s just call it a Marge Gunderson approach to faith—courageously facing the wood chippers of this life with a grace and love that is truly excited about mallard duck stamp art. This is exactly the way Jesus sent out the twelve disciples in Matthew’s gospel. Here’s The Message version:
Jesus sent his twelve harvest hands out with this charge:
“Don’t begin by traveling to some far-off place to convert unbelievers. And don’t try to be dramatic by tackling some public enemy. Go to the lost, confused people right here in the neighborhood. Tell them that the kingdom is here. Bring health to the sick. Raise the dead. Touch the untouchables. Kick out the demons. You have been treated generously, so live generously.
“Don’t think you have to put on a fund-raising campaign before you start. You don’t need a lot of equipment. You are the equipment, and all you need to keep that going is three meals a day. Travel light.
“When you enter a town or village, don’t insist on staying in a luxury inn. Get a modest place with some modest people, and be content there until you leave.
“When you knock on a door, be courteous in your greeting. If they welcome you, be gentle in your conversation. If they don’t welcome you, quietly withdraw. Don’t make a scene. Shrug your shoulders and be on your way. You can be sure that on Judgment Day they’ll be mighty sorry—but it’s no concern of yours now.
“Stay alert. This is hazardous work I’m assigning you. You’re going to be like sheep running through a wolf pack, so don’t call attention to yourselves. Be as cunning as a snake, inoffensive as a dove.
“Don’t be naive. Some people will impugn your motives, others will smear your reputation—just because you believe in me. Don’t be upset when they haul you before the civil authorities. Without knowing it, they’ve done you—and me—a favor, given you a platform for preaching the kingdom news! And don’t worry about what you’ll say or how you’ll say it. The right words will be there; the Spirit of your Father will supply the words.
“When people realize it is the living God you are presenting and not some idol that makes them feel good, they are going to turn on you, even people in your own family. There is a great irony here: proclaiming so much love, experiencing so much hate! But don’t quit. Don’t cave in. It is all well worth it in the end. It is not success you are after in such times but survival. Be survivors! Before you’ve run out of options, the Son of Man will have arrived.
“A student doesn’t get a better desk than her teacher. A laborer doesn’t make more money than his boss. Be content—pleased, even—when you, my students, my harvest hands, get the same treatment I get. If they call me, the Master, ‘Dungface,’ what can the workers expect?
“Don’t be intimidated. Eventually everything is going to be out in the open, and everyone will know how things really are. So don’t hesitate to go public now.
“Don’t be bluffed into silence by the threats of bullies. There’s nothing they can do to your soul, your core being. Save your fear for God, who holds your entire life—body and soul—in his hands.
In a weird way it seems “The Dude” captures the heart of this gospel—confronted with violence, death, and meaninglessness we’re not called to conquer or radically transform… the church is called to “abide”.