On Sunday afternoons, typically, the adrenaline of the morning’s activity crashes in, and I’m left with the stillness of a week’s worth of exhaustion. This past Sunday the house was especially quiet, with everyone else napping (something I can’t do well). Without the energy to read or write, I slipped off to my neighborhood movie theater to, like Walker Percy’s Binx Bolling, just to “be” for a while. As the closing credits of Get Low filed by, I realized I hadn’t expected a near encounter with the gospel.
Get Low is the story of a mysterious hermit (played with brilliance by Robert Duvall) who hires a funeral director (Bill Murray) and his associate to carry out a “funeral party” for him. The catch is that this memorial service is to be held before the hermit is actually dead, in order that he would be there to hear all the stories folks would tell about him.
I was first struck by the fact that this was one of the very few contemporary films I’ve seen that portrays positively either the clergy (two of them, in this movie) or funeral directors (well, at least one of the two). But that was not the most impressive part of the movie. I was jarred by the guilt that throbbed through the whole of it.
I’ll try not to spoil the plot for you, except to say that the hermit turns out to be a hermit for a reason. There is something wicked back there in his past. And that’s what the funeral party is about. He wants to hear the stories others have of him (knowing they’ll be awful) because he is fearful of telling the story that only he knows about himself.
Get Low is not a “Christian movie.” The point of view is decidedly non-Christian, as is most of the mode of discourse. And that’s just the point. The film portrays something the Christian Scriptures insist to be true. Guilt isn’t something society foists upon us. There’s something primal, something real, in the guilty conscience.
The apostolic preaching confirms what human experience already affirms, a moral law is embedded in the human conscience. The conscience is not simply a kind of internal prompt for good behavior. It is instead a foretaste of judgment, of the Day when every secret is unearthed.
“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law,” the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Rome. “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Rom. 2:14-16).
Get Low portrays where we all are, apart from Christ. Our conscience shows us who we really are, cut off from our only source of life and unable to get back to it past the watching angel’s fiery sword. That kind of guilt is enslaving. Like the protagonist in the film, we want somehow to explain our actions, or to assemble a cloud of witnesses who can explain it for us, without admitting our culpability. We want to live through judgment (which is, after all, what a living funeral is) so that we can reassure ourselves that the end result of our choices isn’t quite the horror we fear it to be.
Get Low ought to prompt us to sympathy for those around us, in our neighborhoods and sometimes in our own homes. They are in captivity, the gospel tells us, to “lifelong slavery” to the one who by his accusation has the power of death, the devil (Heb. 2:14-15).
In the movie, the hermit exiles himself. In his forty year (forty years? Was this accidental?) isolation, he sought to make up for his past. He sacrificed family and friends; he did thankless good deeds, even constructing a church. But, through it all, he denies himself what the Christian preachers tell him he needs: confession of sin before God. In fact, in a chilling scene, the hermit denies that he has wronged God at all.
That’s where Get Low leaves us just this side of Golgotha. The hermit confesses his sin, but his confession is, it seems, just short of repentance. His sin is unveiled. The context is explained. Through forgiveness, human relationships are restored. And then, finally, there’s what the film portrays as the (atoning?) release of death.
But the conscience won’t leave us alone that easily. We know that our death can’t wipe away our sin. Our exile doesn’t end there. It’s only just begun. Without the shedding of blood, of a blood we cannot draw from our own guilty veins, there is no remission of sin. We need more than explanation, confession, restoration. We need crucifixion, burial, resurrection. We need to be born all over again.
Get Low isn’t Christian, but it’s Christ-haunted. In an often animalistic culture, it reminds us that even the Gentiles know that guilt is real, and that it burns. It also reminds us that, no matter how deep the exile, where there is still a conscience there is still the God who put it there.
That’s not the good news, but its a step toward acknowledging the bad. It’s not the whole truth, but it’s the truth, the (almost) gospel truth.