“God-haunted” is an apt way to describe the novels of Cormac McCarthy.
I have returned to McCarthy’s writings often over the past few years for a variety of reasons (see here). He is sometimes considered America’s greatest living novelist; his descriptions of a bygone life along borderlands of Texas and Mexico are both arresting and frightening; and his books are always utterly obsessed with God.
A prime example of this haunting comes in a scene from his dark Western, The Crossing.
The following words are spoken of a grief-stricken father whose only son has been crushed to death in the terrible “terremoto” (earthquake) of 1887 in the Mexican town of Bavispe.
“Men do not turn from God so easily you see. Not so easily. Deep in each man is the knowledge that something knows of his existence. Something knows, and cannot be fled nor hid from.”
Then we read this:
“It was never that this man ceased to believe in God. No. It was rather that he came to believe terrible things of him.”
WHAT KIND OF GOD?
This scene from The Crossing demands attention for at least two reasons.
First, McCarthy highlights an important point that is often underemphasized by both Christian apologists and their atheistic foils. The most pressing theological question is not necessarily “Does God exist?” But rather: “What kind of god?” And in fact, this is the question with which Scripture is most interested.
The deity described by McCarthy is often “bloody and barbarous,” to cite a recent commentary on his work. And this may be because McCarthy was taken by elements of Gnosticism. But that is not the focus of my present post.
Second, and most importantly, I am intrigued by what McCarthy has this grieving father do next.
“It was at this time that he began to pray.”
BENEATH THE DOME
In his anguish, the man sets up camp beneath the tottering ruins of a church (below). The dome of this great building has been shattered by the quake and threatens to collapse at any moment. Thus, both priests and parishioners have abandoned the sanctuary, which is rumored to sway visibly in the wind.
“Beneath that perilous roof he threw down his pallet and made his fire and there he made ready to receive that which had eluded him.”
Over time, a crowd gathers. “They were interested to see what God would do with such a man.” And all the while the grieving father paces, Bible in hand, making his Job-like case against the Almighty—daring God to bring the dome down upon him.
Eventually, a priest is called. The padre tries to reason with this “misguided man” about the nature of God and the work of grace within our lives. The two men argue back and forth, each making points and citing Scripture—but with one important dissimilarity: The priest will not set foot beneath the faltering dome.
In the narrator’s judgment, both men were “heretics to the bone”—perhaps because the priest does not believe the platitudes he speaks. Yet there is this key difference between them: “The priest wagered nothing.”
Only the grieving father remains within the church. He is its anchorite. And he is later buried in its cemetery. At his death, he speaks these words to the same old priest who came to counsel him: “Save yourself.”
“In the end we shall all of us be only what we have made of God. For nothing is real save his grace.”
It would be wrong to assume that the above quotations represent McCarthy’s own views. But the fact that he can sketch such scenes shows why he deserves to be read by theologians as well as fiction lovers.
As James K. A. Smith notes, the most interesting questioners of Christianity in recent years are not the so-called new atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. While these figures suck up all the oxygen in the great God debate, the worthiest conversation partners are often artists and storytellers, like Cormac McCarthy.
For pastors, apologists, and theologians, The Crossing reminds us of the need to address the father’s question: “What kind of god?” And indeed, it is a query that can only be rightly engaged with reference to the long history of Israel: a manger, a cross, and the vault of a borrowed tomb that is shaken by a Sunday morning earthquake.
But most importantly, The Crossing admonishes all pastoral comforters to “wager something”–and to sit beneath the dome with those who suffer.
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