The Gospel Clothed in Profanity

Some of us have spent several weeks looking forward to the appearance of the History Channel’s mini-series, Hatfields and McCoys. With a stellar cast (Kevin Costner, Bill Paxton, Tom Berenger and others), and produced by Kevin Costner (among others), the trailers have been whetting my historical appetite for some time, not least due to the fact that the events took place not far from where I have been pastoring for the last year and a half. The last three nights, my lady and I sat up and watched all three episodes, which, including commercials (entertaining ones, so they were not all that odious) ran to just over six hours of viewing. So, what of it?

First, the cinematography and acting were superb, even by lesser characters in the story. The events took place in what I consider one of the most beautiful places in America–the place where West Virginia and Kentucky meet. The beauty of the countryside is on display all throughout the film. Costner, as “Devil Anse” Hatfield, Andrew Howard as “Bad” Frank Phillips, Powers Boothe as Valentine “Wall” Hatfield, Boyd Holbrook as William “Cap” Hatfield, Sarah Parish as Levicy Hatfield, and Bill Paxton as Randall McCoy, all filled their roles with meaning, passion, and sympathy. The story truly came alive in their portrayals, and one felt torn between the warring figures, so that my wife and I kept asking each other, “Well who do you like now?” Truth is, that it was hard to feel sympathy for any character throughout the whole six-hour marathon, except for “Cotton-top” Mounts and maybe “Cap.” In sheer entertainment value the mini-series was not at all disappointing.

Historically, as well as I could tell, the events were told pretty straight up, with of course some of the interjected conversations and events that come with historical fiction. But the key events were related with a keen eye to accuracy. That was probably one reason that one alternatingly loves a figure for a while and then becomes disgusted with him (or her). Films like Avatar that have a whole series of monochromatic figures that are just all bad or all good sacrifice any sense of realism. There were only a couple of people that you hated throughout the film, notably Percy Cline (the attorney) and Nancy McCoy, the varlet. But even with Nancy you felt some sympathy since her father had been killed by the Hatfields when she was a child.

The movie opened with two scenes that may have startled some viewers. One, Anse deserting from the Confederate cause to go home to his family. Some may have been shocked by that. But this was a common experience, with something like 110,000 deserters from the South during the war (many returned after straightening things out at home). The Union saw similar numbers. The second puzzling (to some) image was a local Union soldier drinking at a bar in the aftermath of the war in West Virginia. He was certainly out of place in the scene, a fact that led in part to his murder early in the film. But you have to remember that West Virginia was created by the Civil War, as fifty counties in Virginia voted to secede from the state (appropriately enough) after Virginia voted to secede from the United States. The net effect was that some West Virginians (like some Kentuckians and Missourians) fought for Union while others fought for Rebellion. (Four of Henry Clay’s grandsons fought for the Union and three fought for the Confederacy.) That was the way it was, and the family feud was in some ways a statement that the Civil War did not end at Appomattox in April, 1865.

One side issue was raised by the film presentation, and one that is moral in nature. As I have followed the Twitter feed and Facebook comments the last two days, I have noted that some Christians were offended by the language, and dropped out of watching the first night, even the first half-hour. Admittedly, the language was rough–very rough–and I can understand their concerns. I would not have watched the presentation with small children in the house, no doubt one reason the History Channel aired the series from nine till eleven each evening. But for some that goes even deeper; for them, even listening to profanity in a film is too hurtful. I can understand that. Some may have grown up in a profane home where such words were hurled at them by a parent or a sibling. It just brings back memories that are painful and causes them to re-live scenarios that they do not wish to endure again. There may be other reasons not quite so understandable. Let me offer two comments about this side of the film.

First, art comes to us in two primary ways. Some art paints life as it ought to be, while other art paints life as it really is. Norman Rockwell represents the first kind of art. In fact, he was once criticized for his innocent illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post, and he responded in the very words I have used here: “I paint life as it ought to be.” There is a place for that. Picasso represents the other side of the story. His work often portrayed women and others in very dark and ugly ways. He had seen the dark side of life, and that was what he was depicting in his African death masks and his ugly women. There is room in art for Doris Day and for Bette Davis, for Jimmy Stewart and Jimmy Cagney, for Justin Bieber (may have to rethink that one) and Metallica. The problem with Picasso of course is that he does not give us reason to hope, but what he shows us is that there are many people in the world like that, and it ought to remind us of our calling before God. Dark artistic expression can sometimes reach our hearts in ways more cheery messages cannot.

Second, the “Hatfields and McCoys” film shows us that the gospel often comes into peoples’ live in the midst of profanity and pain. The Cross itself was profane, and was surrounded by profanity, whether profanity of a corrupt political system, the profanity of a high priesthood that was complicit in killing the Hope of Israel, or the profanity of a disciple of Jesus who stood in a courtyard during his trial and said, “I never knew the &%#@*.” What is more profane than the Savior of the world, naked and bleeding, dying for the very people who were killing him? The fact is that we live in a profane world, and if we are going to do anything about that profanity, we have to touch it, we have to rub our shoulders against it. CS Lewis once said that we have to feel and endure the horror of the world that we live in so that we can change it, and that God can enable us to do so “without stain, but not without pain.”

I want to drive this home with one last word. (If you have not seen the end of the film and plan to, you may want to stop reading here.)

The heart-wrenching ending of the film, I believe, brings out the point that I am trying to make. The very religious (but very unforgiving) Randall McCoy ends his life blaming God, in a drunken stupor, and in a hopeless and helpless inability to go on with life. Devil Anse Hatfield, a man who had no use for religion, the church, or God throughout the film, is baptized in the final scene, having found both forgiveness from God and forgiveness toward others. A profane man, now washed in the blood of Jesus. That is the Gospel! I think I will watch it again.

Chad Owen Brand

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