A Tale of Two Readings



Some might say that it looks like Joel and Ethan Coen have finally hit the big time—if some were inclined to the neo-Calvinist virtue that cult is meant to influence culture. In which case, plaudits by Christianity Today as prophets writing on subway walls would seem to be proof positive.
But some are skeptical. And, if you ask me, the Coens might be said to have arrived not by showing up in Christianity Today to help make a palatable point about morality, but showing up in A Secular Faith to help make a hard-nosed point about the two kingdoms:

Whilst on the run from the law, third Musketeer Delmar decides to join the crowd goin’ “down in the river to pray, studyin’ about that good old way.”

Everett: Well, I guess hard times flush the chump. Everybody’s lookin’ for answers…Where the hell’s he goin’?

Pete: Well I’ll be a sonofabitch. Delmar’s been saved.

Delmar: Well that’s it, boys. I’ve been redeemed. The preacher’s done warshed away all my sins and transmissions. It’s the straight and narrow from here on out, and heaven everlasting’s my reward.

Everett: Delmar, what are you talking about? We’ve got bigger fish to fry.

Delmar: The preacher says all my sins is warshed away, including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo.

Everett: I thought you said you was innocent of those charges?

Delmar: Well I was lyin’. And the preacher says that that sin’s been warshed away too. Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me now. C’mon in boys, the water is fine.

Everett: Baptism! You two’re just dumber’n a bag of hammers.
Pete: The Preacher said it absolved us.

Everett: For him, not for the law. I’m surprised at you, Pete, I gave you credit for more brains than Delmar.

Delmar: But they was witnesses that seen us redeemed.

Everett: That’s not the issue, Delmar. Even if that did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi’s a little more hard-nosed.

Remember when Pat Robertson lobbied to spring Karla Faye Tucker on the grounds of her faith?  Evangelicals may like to swoon over how Marge Gunderson props up our collective and natural sense of what is right, true and good. But Ulysses Everett McGill brings us a better grasp of how law and gospel are dispensed.

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17 Responses to A Tale of Two Readings

  1. John Yeazel says:

    This still does not clear up some of the more subtle areas of sin that can escape the consequences because they are so hard to come to grips with and point out. I have no problem with putting murderers, rapers and child abusers on death row and seeking justice for law breakers but we often get carried away here and I think Calvin did get carried away with this is certain laws he sought penalties for in Geneva. This caused a lot of problems between the leadership their.

  2. John Yeazel says:

    The Coen brothers certainly are an interesting duo and their movies do seek to come to grips with complex issues in controversial ways. It is interesting to see how others interpret their films depending on the theological grid they are thinking with. I just watched The Big Cahuna the other day with a new perspective after reading Darry Harts comments about it. I saw it through different eyes this time and it seemed a lot more profound. I think we can look at the Baptist rookie with both eyes of empathy and disdain. It is something we need to be delivered from and taught about in a way that gives us a bit more depth and therefore a greater ability to deal with unbelievers who seem to get the purpose of the law in a much more profound way than believers often do.

  3. Joe Brancaleone says:

    I’m starting to think it’s a fool’s errand trying to analyze the moral and theological implications of a Coen film (or a Kubrick film, or any number of auteurs). They are mostly concerned with utilizing those concepts and questions in service to other ambitions (“bigger fish to fry”) which is their ongoing exploration and tweaking of cinematic devices. Their postmodernism is in shifting focus from the moral issues brought up in stories and characters, to goofing with the framework of how it all works together cinematically. The intertwined fabrics of the work takes priority over the story found in the designs. Usually it has to do with genre collision, or at least collisions of characters who represent different genres.

    They are deceptive because they are so good at crafting characters. Yet something is always off about these characters existing in reality, they’re still highly developed cartoons. Same too the issues raised in the story; they’re real and gritty and significant, yet they are embedded in the fabric of the story in extremely abstract ways.


  4. John Yeazel says:


    I think you would have to ask the Coens themselves about their purposes for making the films they do before you can come to those kind of conclusions. Especially when talking about “other ambitions” they may have. But perhaps you have heard that analysis straight from the horses mouth.

  5. Joe Brancaleone says:

    Wow would I ever love the chance to sit them down and quiz them!!! But no I haven’t.

    But absent that, just ask yourself why do they possibly think its important to put so much effort and resources into toying with cinematic devices, narrative mechanics, oddball abstractions played *off* of the representative aspects. If they simply aimed to raise the serious questions for the audience, they’d be sabotaging themselves and us with all the distractions.

    I’m not arguing against the seriousness of the issues that are raised in their films. I just don’t see evidence they actually use their films as a way to come to grips with those issues. If that were the case, they would play it more straight, you know like the golden era Hollywood morality plays, words with explanatory illustrations.

  6. Joe Brancaleone says:

    “If that were the case, they would play it more straight, you know like the golden era Hollywood morality plays, words with explanatory illustrations.”

    ^- Barton Fink being the Coen’s own essay on this sort of clash of expectations, by the way.

  7. Zrim says:


    I agree that, if we’re not careful, there can be something fairly post-modern about reading art in these ways. But the simple point here, I think, is that how we use certain media reveals what’s on our minds. The evangelical is thinking intutively about morality, the confessionalist is thinking counter-intuitively about the kingdoms or law and gospel.

    That a superior message is propped up in the form of good art is just gravy. Or icing.

  8. John Yeazel says:

    That was a thoughtful analysis- I take it you have had some training in analyzing films or at least have read and thought about it alot? Whether your analysis is on target or not is another story. Your reasons for thinking the way you do seem to make sense and the distractions from answering the moral issues raised do sometimes seem to be added more for shock value than anything else (kind of like Torrentino in many of his films- however, I do not think Torrentino tries to make sense of any moral dilemma’s or appease his audience by trying to prentend that is what he is doing like you are accusing the Coens of doing).

  9. Todd says:

    The way I always thought about the point of Coen brother movies – we are all idiots, but evil people are even bigger idiots than the rest of us.

  10. Zrim says:

    …we are all idiots, but evil people are even bigger idiots than the rest of us.

    What’s the principled difference between “evil people” and “the rest of us”?

  11. Todd says:


    I am speaking from the movie’s perspective, not my own. In Fargo, everyone seems a little dim-witted, but the bad guys make the good guys look like geniuses.

  12. John Yeazel says:


    You have an interesting last name- I’m thinking Ponce De Leone; what is that French, Italian? You always have brash and highly reflective posts. Appease me my friend.

  13. John Yeazel says:

    Of course, that is Spanish

  14. Joe Brancaleone says:

    It is Siciliano!

    Interestingly, there is a very famous Italian 60’s comedy called “L’Armata d’ Brancaleone” which is not available in US as far as I know. It was heavily influential to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Very interesting experience when I was in Italy for our honeymoon. It’s like being called Seinfeld here.


  15. Joe Brancaleone says:

    Hi John – no training. Maybe since my day job is systems analyst type stuff, when I listen to music or look at art or watch a film, half of my attention is in appreciating the message or story, and half of my attention is in wondering *why* something works the way it does.

  16. John Yeazel says:

    That surprises me- I thought it was Spanish putting Barcelona and Ponce De Leone together. Ponce De Leone was Spanish wasn’t he?

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