Monday, January 30, 2006

"How can you help people if you don't know the right stories?"

I went to see "Walk the Line" this weekend. I'm a sucker for any "redemption of a man down and out" tale and this was no exception. The music side of it was a bit weak -- especially compared to "Coal Miner's Daughter" -- but the acting was excellent and the script-writing superb.

One of my favorite lines came right up in the beginning when the brothers J.R. and Jack are talking in bed. J.R. asks Jack why he's so good, and Jack replies he ain't and adds that anyway J.R.'s memorized Momma's hymnal. Jack then adds (and I'm paraphrasing), "If I'm going to be a preacher, I've got to know Scripture back to front. How can you help people if you don't know the right stories?"

Stories. Not doctrine. Not liturgy. Not historical background. Not proof-texts. All the rest -- they serve the stories of Scripture.

And this story reminded me of another I'm reading now: Kristin Lavransdatter, a classic trilogy by Sigrid Undset set in medieval Norway. Although it won the Nobel Prize in its day, it hasn't been so famous lately. An award-winning new translation by Tiina Nunnally has made it a bit well-known again. What does this have in common with "Walk the Line"? In both, the theme is the fearsome anarchy of romantic love. Ironically, it is not Johnny Cash's pills or the loathsome groupies that brings him to disaster, but his constant, unyielding love for June Carter. And yet that same unyielding love is what offers him a second chance.

In Kristin Lavransdatter, it is Kristin's unyielding, brutal, and utterly faithful passion for Erland, her lover and husband, that drives the mechanism of disaster. Because she was writing a book and not a movie, or because she was writing in Europe, not America, the land of second chances, or because she was a divorced Catholic, and not a divorced Southern Baptist, in which a theoretical belief in monogamy has long coexisted with a belief that the desires of the human heart can be recognized and formalized but not tamed -- for whatever reason, Sigrid Undset offers no hope of a second chance at happiness in worldly love. No, the machinery of punishment grinds inexorably, as each broken heart generates two more, and the spurned partners refuse to fade into the woodwork. "Walk the Line" speaks of grace and second chances, but Kristin Lavransdatter speaks of the continuing power of sin.

What is the result of the fall? Is it merely the separation of sex from love, the surrendering to baser instincts? Or is it our reckless faithfulness in blindly pursuing romantic love, regardless of how it hurts those around us?

For both, Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.