Monday, February 7, 2011

The Sunset Limited: Cormac McCarthy takes on God

God is in all of Cormac McCarthy's works. His characters speak of God, they pray, they question God's perspective and his motive. Many authors write like this about God - their stories tinged with questions about fate, morality, and death. It's sometimes frustrating then, if such questions are never fully played out and examined with the kind of intensity and rigor that the modern debate about religion and atheism has brought us.

McCarthy, at the age of 74 and in the same year he wrote his most popularly successful novel, The Road,  turns around and gives us a straight-up, no tricks, good old Greek dialog on faith. For and against, Black vs White.

Those are actually the characters' names in the text: Black, a black man, played by Samuel L Jackson in the upcoming HBO production, and White, a white man, played by Tommy Lee Jones. White does not believe in God, and he has just tried to jump under the eponymous train. Black does believe in God: he stopped White from jumping and brings him to his apartment, where the action opens.
This is not Sam's costume for this production.
For the entire play, the two sit in a sparse apartment, at a "cheap formica table", and talk about God. The result is a short little book, a "novel in dramatic form" as it is subtitled, that is refreshingly bullshit-free.

Books about God are usually chock-full of bullshit. Whether it's The Bible or The God Delusion, there is a remarkably high background level of seemingly unavoidable bullshit associated with talking directly about religion.

"Show me a religion that prepares one for death... there's a church i might enter"
On the one hand, you have the pretty obvious fact that there is no such thing as heaven or hell or an interventionist God. On the other hand, books advancing the atheist argument, despite quite clearly having truth on their side, often come across as strident and petty: they rubbish religion's ark while constructing a hasty raft out of wet straw and calling it "The Humanism".   And if you don't buy into the humanism - as White doesn't - what good is your truth if it can't keep you glued to the platform when the train comes rushing in at 80mph.

"White" is no Dawkins or Hitchens: ("I loathe these discussions. The argument of the village atheist whose single passion is to revile endlessly that which he denies the existence of in the first place.") He has lost faith not only in God but in humanity too. "Black" is no professor. There is no tired argument about intelligent design or the anthropic principle. Black is a good old fashioned theist, a St Augustine type: ("If it ain't got the lingerin scent of divinity to it then I ain't interested").

McCarthy very astutely leaves the audience considering the predicament of the two characters at the end of the play. Through my atheist eyes, Black looks foolish. Deluded. But White, with his complete loss of faith in any form of value, is no role model either.

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