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The Misery of a Post-Christian Society

Who will appeal to our better natures when nobody believes in them anymore?

By Petrarch  |  November 9, 2011

Your humble correspondent has a somewhat eclectic taste in film.  Not that I like everything, you understand, and there are certain genres I can't stomach at all; but thanks to Netflix, there are quite a few obscure movies that come my way, for whatever they are worth.

One such was That Evening Sun, possibly the slowest-moving film I've ever screened.  Despite a complete lack of gore or graphic violence, it was perhaps the most fundamentally despairing, depressing, and disheartening depiction of a complete lack of any redeeming virtue in mankind I've come across in many a year.  Don't watch it on Christmas Eve, that's for sure.

The story is straightforward and easily imaginable: Elderly farmer Abner Meecham returns home by taxi after an extended stay in a nursing home.  To his surprise, he finds his farmhouse occupied by none other than drunken white-trash family enemy Lonzo Choat and his wife and daughter.

What's happened is that Meecham's bigshot lawyer son unilaterally decided that dear old Dad was too old to take care of himself and rented out the old family place "with option to buy," figuring to keep Dad institutionalized for the brief remainder of his time on Earth - not troubling to actually tell him beforehand, of course.

Dad Meecham has other ideas, and moves into the sharecropper cottage just down from his ex-home.  Throughout the movie, an ongoing war escalates between old Meecham and young Choat, the one determined to drive away this unworthy interloper, and the other, though violent, rough, and rude, driven by a burning desire to make something of the farm and of himself no matter what obstacles stand in his way.

For the first half of this movie, its arc seemed predictable.  Choat's teenage daughter Pamela longs for a better relationship with a mature man than she has with her abusive father and reaches out to Meecham in a granddaughterly sort of way.  Choat's battered wife also extends a hand of kindness.

Naturally, the two families will come to terms: Meecham will become a surrogate grandfather and teach strong but ignorant Choat how to run the farm that Meecham's own posh son cares nothing about; the Choat family will grow together and go forward into an optimistic future.  Right?

Wrong!  Despite the female peacemaking attempts, none of the male characters will give one single inch.  Meecham's lawyer son won't lift a finger to make things right or try to make amends; Meecham gets Choat arrested for domestic violence and attempts to frame him for murder.  The movie culminates in the ultimate Pyrrhic victory: Meecham gets back his house that he really is far too feeble to live in, the Choats are destroyed, and so is Meecham's relationship with his son.  Every character ends the story far worse off than they began it.

The Lost Charity of Christian Culture

All that was required was someone, anyone, with a little bit of respectability and social authority to intervene and appeal to the men's better natures.  How many Western movies have we seen this role fulfilled by the local parson, or the town's Oldest Citizen?

Sure, Meecham was wronged, but not by Choat.  Yes, Choat had been a ne'er-do-well, but he was trying to better himself; shouldn't this be encouraged?  The plain fact was that they needed each other; they couldn't see it themselves, but nobody bothered to even try to point it out to them except young Pamela, far too late after the battle has escalated beyond control.

Meecham's equally-elderly neighbor seems to be his friend and offers him help - but not the help he needs.  If he truly cared about him, he'd pour oil on troubled waters and not gasoline on troubled flames.  Who is the better friend: the friend who'll fight with you, or who'll try to bring the fight to a swift and safe conclusion?

We all know what will become of the characters after the close.  Meecham will die embittered and alone.  Pamela, who ran away from home, will end up on the streets or at best as a single mother collecting welfare.  Lonzo Choat will probably wind up in prison; failing that, he'll give up and return to his life of welfare leechery, as will his wife.

It didn't have to end this way, and in time past, it wouldn't have.  We've talked before about the importance of mentoring and unofficial social interventions.  These don't have to have a Christian basis necessarily, but in what once was our American Christian culture, the idea of "What would Jesus do?" had at least a little resonance with all but the most depraved.

No more; and in That Evening Sun, we see a society where nobody acknowledges a Higher Power or any need to care about any other people.  It's not a world I want to live in, but it's the world we're fast finding ourselves in.

Whether or not Hollywood meant this movie as a warning or as social commentary, it is both; and it is sobering.