This was posted on the Gospel Coalition blog earlier this month and I am grateful to the author, Mike Cosper, for several reasons. Firstly, it is great to see that in a blog consisting of posts by various theologians, pastors, and church leaders there is still some recognition of the significant role that literature has even in our current culture (and everyone with Relief said “Amen”). Despite the apparent conflict between certain subsets of Christianity and mainstream art, there are those of us who are willing to affirm the potential use of the latter in the service of the former. Coincidentally, this brings me to my second reason for gratitude: Cosper’s emphasis on the consequential role of Cormac McCarthy in both the development of the history of American Literature and individual (and potentially Christian) readers.
At the end of his post Cosper quotes something John Piper wrote on Twitter, “Cormac McCarthy is to the American literary canon what Judges is to the biblical canon.” I remember considering the aptness of that tweet myself some months ago. What book of the Bible is McCarthy most like? If that question had been posed to me, I would have suggested Ecclesiastes, but as I have been working through Judges in a study with a group from my church, I see the connection.
Let me give you some of my own context. While I am not particularly well versed in contemporary fiction, Cormac McCarthy is perhaps my favorite living author, and among my favorite authors of all time. I first encountered his work in high school when The Road was published. I read the entire book in one afternoon. Since then I have worked through his other novels, but at a much slower pace. If I have done my math correctly (insert English-major joke here), I have read 10 of his 13 published works. Simply put, there is something I find deeply appealing in his writings.
Cosper does a very neat job of outlining the distinctive features of McCarthy’s literary voice, so I will not spend time reiterating the various reasons McCarthy is important. Instead, let me emphasize one important feature: McCarthy’s unrelenting portrayal of good and evil, the beautiful and the horrific.
McCarthy’s villains are absolutely terrifying and downright compelling. Certain novels feature specific villainous characters in prominent roles, but none are as memorable as Judge Holden in Blood Meridian. To go into much detail would be pointless, you really need to experience the evil that this character exudes through the novel itself.
That said, let me assert that the Judge is eerily compelling, mostly because he is a realistic and depraved human taken to a mythological level. He embodies the evil innate in the human condition and forces those around him to confront it. His worldview is Enlightenment reason taken to a logical extreme which is why he boldly declares “Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak…A moral view can never be proven right or wrong by any ultimate test” (263).
The Judge is scary because he makes a lot of sense. Given the darkness of the world we live in, McCarthy’s villains are particularly frightening because they are so hard to disagree with. Evil, as portrayed in McCarthy, is not something to ignore. Yet, as Cosper writes, there is always a glimmer of hope. Phil Christman described McCarthy’s world as suggesting “a kind of Calvinism minus God” in a Books and Culture review, which is certainly accurate, though not necessarily the full story. McCarthy’s novels certainly portray darkness in such a manner, but by doing so they seem to be fashioned to suggest the need for something more. “This cannot be the whole picture,” readers think as they see the horrors committed by a Judge Holden or Anton Chigurh. If evil and brutality is shown explicitly in McCarthy’s novels, goodness and beauty shine all the brighter by comparison.
As Cosper aptly writes, McCarthy is not for everyone. His tamest books are still brutally honest about the violence that comes with the territory of his subject matter. Yet, for the reader willing to accept this, there is so much richness to be found in his works. If you have never read anything by him I recommend beginning with The Road or All the Pretty Horses, or, for the more daring reader, I strongly urge you to take on Blood Meridian, which I feel is McCarthy’s darkest but most important work. At the very least, watch the Coen brothers’ impressive 2007 adaptation of McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men for a taste of his unique voice.
Jake Slaughter is an editorial intern with Relief.