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An American Protestant novel filled with Catholic themes; ‘Crash’ takes on ‘key questions of life and death’
by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register
(From the June 9, 2005 edition of the Inland Register)
Growing up in Walla Walla in the 1950s I was greatly influenced by a number of Providence Sisters who taught
English courses at the old St. Patrick High School. They passed on to me their love of fiction in Catholic writers like
Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and Myles Connolly. Later I came to know and love the short stories of Flannery O’Connor.
This year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize for novels is Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. She has written the
classic American Protestant novel that is filled with Catholic themes. Robinson has written a novel of religion and doubt,
war and peace, and sin and forgiveness. In my opinion, Gilead is a novel that will live for the ages.
Gilead is a small town on the southern Iowa border that was founded in the 19th century to make sure Iowa did not
become a slave state.
The time of the novel is 1956, and Rev. John Ames, in his 70s, is writing a long letter to his eight-year-old son.
Ames’s first marriage ended in the death of his wife and child. He second marriage at age 67 to a younger woman brings the
son he always hoped for. The letter Ames writes about his father and grandfather, also preachers, is meant to be read by
his son when he reaches adulthood.
As a child, John remembers going with his father to Kansas to make sure his grandfather was buried properly. His
grandfather was a Civil War abolitionist who preached men into the Union Army. John’s father later becomes a pacifist. In
walking with John through his memory we walk through much of America’s history of war and peace.
But Gilead is very much a family story of what is said and unsaid among an ordinary family in a very small
Iowa town. The Reverend looks back on his life and ministry and reflects on his faith through the disciplines of philosophy
and theology. He is not afraid in his own life and the lives of others to look straight into doubt.
John Ames sees himself as the elder son in the story of the Loving Father and the Prodigal Son. He believes there
won’t be a lot of trumpets blowing when he reaches the Kingdom. But it is this powerful portrayal of Ames as the elder son,
if you will, that makes this very ordinary story rise to the heights of universal appeal.
In his judgments that can sometimes be harsh we see a human being we can identify with. He tries so hard and yet he
is well aware of failure and suffering. The final pages of Gilead are filled with forgiveness and blessing. No
blessing I have ever heard strikes so true as the one John Ames gives to a friend’s son who just happens to be his
Gilead is so powerful as a spiritual book that it would make a perfect companion on a religious retreat. It is
the story of a pilgrim’s religious journey.
Gilead teaches us that every day, including the dark of the night, has the possibility of a little bit of
heaven. John Ames is an ordinary guy who, as he approaches death, sees both the failures of his life and the moments of
joyous love and forgiveness.
The Biblical “balm of Gilead” pours over you and fills your heart with hope when you read and pray with Marilynne
Robinson’s radiant Gilead.
Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, is published in hardcover at $23 by Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York.
Paul Haggis, who wrote the script for the film Million Dollar Baby (“Media Watch,” IR 2/24/05) has
just directed and co-scripted the new film Crash. For my money this is the best film of 2005 so far.
Crash is the story of diverse people in Los Angeles who become interconnected in the tradition of the great
Polish film maker Krzysztof Kieslowski, who gave us the 10-part series The Decalogue. Hollywood movies do not
usually like to deal with chance, coincidence, serendipity, or, if you will, providence. But Crash is more than
willing to say that people who logically would never meet, by chance just may and their lives can be forever affected.
Crash is a movie you will want to talk about after you’ve seen it. It’s a movie that is meant to be discussed
and dissected maybe over coffee and dessert. Haggis asks us to look at ourselves through others. He powerfully warns us
that even the most principled persons faithful to their ideals can commit an evil deed. At the same time he reminds us over
and over again that the stereotyped bad person can perform extraordinary acts of heroism and goodness that are
Los Angeles is built around the car. As a conservative driver I would have a terrible time driving in L.A. You need
to be assertive and aggressive. If you’ve been to L.A. haven’t you heard that its common knowledge that the impossibly
conservative drivers who slow down traffic are Asian? Crash is about these stereotypes that can lead to racism. Haggis
takes us down a roller coaster of humor and tragedy that forces us to look inside at our prejudices.
The acting in Crash (with the exception of a miscast Brendan Fraser as a District Attorney) is stunning.
Sandra Bullock is extraordinary as Fraser’s shrill, pampered wife. Matt Dillon, who my prejudices would say I won’t like,
is terrific as a racist cop who horrifically abuses an upper class black couple when he stops their Lincoln Navigator, just
because he can. Ryan Phillippe is perfect as Dillon’s idealistic partner. Don Cheadle continues on a roll as he nails the
part of a detective who bookends the film. Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton, as the rich African American couple abused
by the Matt Dillon character and themselves are so good they are worth seeing the movie just for their story. Howard and
Newton’s acting is a sure bet to be remembered in the Academy Award nominations. Larenz Tate and Chis Bridges (also known
as Ludacris) are perfect as the bright young punks who steal Lincoln Navigators. The Latino locksmith graciously played by
Michael Pena is the one character whom we always see as a good and caring person.
Crash is wrapped in religious symbols. Notice the scenes of Christmas creches often in moments of anger and
violence. After Vatican II in the 1960s Catholics demoted St. Christopher from the list of saints because there was no
proof of his existence. Afterwards it is said sales of St. Christopher medals and statues skyrocketed to the number one
position of religious gifts. In Crash the statue of St. Christopher, the patron of travelers, is exalted to a key
plot point that takes your breath away.
For some, the characters of Crash will seem manipulated and unreal. All I can tell you is that I realize
this story is not reality, but it is one of the strongest attempts to answer in an artistic and moving way the key
questions of life and death we all can ask ourselves in the middle of a very dark and lonely night.
Crash is a wonderful gift for the moviegoer who wants to be entertained but is also willing to be affected and
even changed. On top of it, the haunting score by Mark Isham is unforgettable.
Crash is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) by the Motion Picture Association of
America. There is violence, strong language that includes racial slurs, and a brief sex scene. The United States Bishops'
Office for Film and Broadcasting rates Crash L – for a limited adult audience.
(Father Caswell is pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish, Cheney, and the Spokane Diocese’s Ecumenical Relations
Officer. His reviews also appear in the Cheney Free Press.)
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