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Monday, October 1, 2012

Cormac McCarthy -- The Biblicist

By Brian Nixon
Special to ASSIST News Service

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS) -- I live down the freeway from Cormac McCarthy. I know that sounds impressive, especially if you you’re a fan of the Pulitzer Prize winning author. But the truth is the man, considered by many to be one of America’s greatest living authors, is a fairly elusive fellow. I’ve never seen him, let alone met him.

Author, Cormac McCarthy

Other than one TV interview given to Oprah Winfrey (who picked his book, The Road, as one of her Book Club choices) and a splattering of magazine and newspaper interviews, Mr. McCarthy lives a private life, dedicating his time to the Santa Fe Institute (a research center), and presumably, his writing and family.

True, I’d love to bump into McCarthy during a stroll on the plaza in Santa Fe, or maybe see him at local restaurant. And wouldn’t it be amazing to meet him during a Church service at St. Francis Cathedral, located in the heart of Old Santa Fe? Let me clear: I don’t know if McCarthy goes to St. Francis. I, myself, don’t attend. But I do walk through the beautiful cathedral often and I have seen other notable folks strolling the same streets. Why not McCarthy?

You may be asking, why bring up St. Francis Cathedral in relation to Cormac McCarthy?

It’s pretty simple: I’m an admirer of McCarthy’s dark writings, and have always wondered what his religious worldview consists of. Most of the articles, essays, and Internet biographies simply say, “Catholic.” But what sort of Catholic Christian is McCarthy, I ask myself?

McCarthy was born in 1933 in a Catholic home, was raised a Catholic, and attended a Catholic school in Knoxville, Tennessee. Beyond this, little is written. Probably McCarthy likes it this way. To a certain extent, it keeps the mystery unsolved. But, then again, inquiring people like me, particularly those of us with theological interests, aren’t overly pleased with the silence or lack of information.

But I’m not the only nosey person out there interested in his religious beliefs, especially as they are portrayed in his masterful works. A forthcoming book by Manuel Broncano called “Religion in Cormac McCarthy’s Fiction: Apocryphal Borderlands” will be released next year.

In the book’s pre-release description it states, “This book addresses the religious scope of Cormac McCarthy’s fiction, one of the most controversial issues in studies of his work. Current criticism is divided between those who find a theological dimension in his works, and those who reject such an approach on the grounds that the nihilist discourse characteristic of his narrative is incompatible with any religious message.

Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Road

“McCarthy’s tendencies toward religious themes have become increasingly more acute, revealing that McCarthy has adopted the biblical language and rhetoric to compose an "apocryphal" narrative of the American Southwest while exploring the human innate tendency to evil in the line of Herman Melville and William Faulkner, both literary progenitors of the writer.

“Broncano argues that this apocryphal narrative is written against the background of the Bible, a peculiar Pentateuch in which Blood Meridian functions as the Book of Genesis, the Border Trilogy functions as the Gospels, and No Country for Old Men as the Book of Revelation, while The Road is the post-apocalyptic sequel.

“This book analyzes the novels included in what Broncano defines as the South-Western cycle (from Blood Meridian to The Road) in search of the religious foundations that support the narrative architecture of the texts.”

Maybe I’m a literary geek, but I get excited when I read a description like this. Someone, in this case, Manuel Broncano, has taken the time to unravel the Biblical underlining of McCarthy’s work. For that, I’m pleased. Furthermore, I’m intrigued in Broncano’s framework: Genesis, Gospels, and Revelation as they relate to McCarthy’s later Southwestern books. It’s a fascinating way to categorize McCarthy’s writings, bringing up the larger themes of law/sacrifice (Genesis), love/grace (Gospels), and judgment/redemption (Revelation).

But again, Broncano’s forthcoming book doesn’t seem to tackle McCarthy’s personal beliefs; that is, unless, they are woven within McCarthy’s works themselves, which they may be.

But what type of Christianity does McCarthy portray in his books?

Image from the movie, The Road

In an article by professor John Rothfork of Northern Arizona University helps give an answer the question. The article is called “Redemption as Language in Cormac McCarthys’ Sutre.” It was first published in Christianity and Literature. In this article Rothfork makes an interesting comment concerning McCarthy’s religious portrayal in the book, Suttree (first published in 1979). Rothfork writes,

“If Suttree is a Christ figure, it is Christ crucified. And if God heals, it seems to be with a knife: “beyond the flayed man dimly adumbrate another figure paled, his surgeons move about the world even as you and I.” Looking through a family photo album, a “picture book of the afflicted,” Suttree wonders, “what deity in the realms of dementia, what rabid god decocted out of the smoking lobes of hydrophobia could have devised a keeping place for souls so poor as is this flesh?”

“Certainly not the omnipotent and transcendent potter of Genesis. Among the several clergy in the novel, the most familiar is a housebound cripple in a wheelchair who calls Harrogate the “spawn of Cerberus, the devil’s close kin” and wishes “all on to a worse hell yet.” William Prather believes these characters and experiences indicate that “the universe depicted in Suttree is existential and absurd. He thinks that “Like Camus, Suttree clearly rejects the recourse of religion.” But Prather has only conventional notions of religion, evident for example, when he says that “religion is presented in the novel in two distinct forms: one a primitive brand of Protestantism and the other, orthodox Roman Catholicism.” Kierkegaard’s atheist and his musings on the would-be child killer, Abraham, suggest that religion may not be so easily elucidated or dispelled.”

So what do comments like Rothfork’s tell us about McCarthy’s faith? The answer: it’s hard to tell. But they do give us clues as to how McCarthy blends Christian thought in many intricate and intriguing ways throughout his works, both clear and complicated. And I think this is part of the allure of McCarthy’s writing; the clear reference to Biblical narratives mixed with a foggy application of their meaning keeps a person in no-man’s-land, having us scratch our heads, asking for more.

Todd Edmondson, in his book “Priest, Prophet, and Pilgrim: Types of Distortions of Spiritual Vocation in the Fiction of Wendell Berry and Cormac McCarthy,” doesn’t see a clear Christian ideals in McCarthy’s works.

Edmondson writes, “McCarthy's characters, in their pursuit of various goals, embody the opposite of Christian vocation in the ways that they relate to the flesh, to community, and to creation. Rather than humbly seeking and encountering God in these contexts, they strive always to transcend them, to overcome creaturely limitations, and to become, in the words of the serpent in the garden, "like God.””

For Edmondson, McCarthy’s characters adhere to a type of anti (opposite) Christian thought, traits more man-centered rather than God-centered.

When one turns to McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Road, Biblical comparisons are manifold.

From the apocalyptic setting of the book (a post-Armageddon-type world), to Biblical allusions (“Word of God” in relation to his son), to symbolic overtones of a Christ-figure (the father) dying to provide life for his child (the church?), The Road is seen as a deeply moral, if not dark, spiritual work. Even the title of the book has Biblical overtones. Is the road a path towards death or life? Or both? Is the journey alluded to in The Road one of moral certainty like Moses’ law, or a journey of suffering like Job or Jesus? Again, maybe both?

In discussing The Road, Tom Ryan, professor of religious studies at St. Thomas University, writes about McCarthy’s use of the Bible in his article, “Cormac McCarthys’ Catholic Sensibility.” Ryan is interested in how The Road relates to an end-times (eschatology) understanding. Ryan writes,

“Thus, The Road differs from popular eschatologies that discount the present by making it an instrument for discerning a nonexistent future. Instead, it exploits the eschaton on behalf of us today and so resembles Catholicism with its regard for creation and the time being. Like biblical prophets and apocalypticists, it hints at Jesus’ final words, “Behold, I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20), and pleads for the perspicuity to see the suffering and exploited not as empty pointers but as vessels of God’s presence now.”

So what is McCarthy’s religious worldview?

Is it the Orthodox Roman Catholicism of his childhood and upbringing? Is it a well thought out Biblical framework, incorporating elements of Genesis, the Gospels, and The Book of Revelation as Brancano alludes?

Is it the harsh God of Rothforks’s analysis? The anti-Christian vocation of Edmondson? Or the Biblical eschaton of Ryan?

If left up to me, I’d say all of the above. Why? Because McCarthy’s works, like all great tomes of literature, don’t fall easily into one nicely wrapped package. Instead, the collective works of McCarthy encompass the scope of human experience, delving into a variety of worldviews, opinions, mental configurations, and yes, spiritual pursuits.

Come to think of it, they resemble the collective works found in the Bible, where differing people confront life and God from very human perspectives and divine yearnings. Though about man’s pursuit of God and God’s working with man, the Bible is a very human work, portraying the full extent of human foibles and actions. But whereas the Bible has a scarlet thread to its nature: God’s works of redemption within the world and His people, McCarthy’s works have blurred lines, following a crooked path.

But even within this crooked journey, McCarthy’s road has a destination.

This crooked sojourn may best be portrayed in his novel, The Sunset Limited. In this book, two men, White and Black, discuss the purpose of life. Black is an ex-druggy, but is now a Christian. White is professor and atheist. Black saved White from suicide when White tried to throw himself in front of a train. In all, the two men debate suffering, God, and meaning.

The books ends with White’s words, “I’m sorry. You’re a kind man, but I have to go. I’ve heard you out and you’ve heard me and there’s no more to say. Your God must have once stood in a dawn of infinite possibility and this is what he’s made of it. And now it is drawing to a close. You say that I want God’s love. I don’t. Perhaps I want forgiveness, but there is no one to ask it of. And there is no going back. No setting things right. Perhaps once. Not now. Now there is only the hope of nothingness. I cling to that hope. Now open the door. Please.”

Black responds, “Dont do it.” Then later, “Professor? I know you dont mean them words. Professor? I’m goin to be there in the mornin.”

Presumably, the professor leaves and commits suicide.

Within The Sunset Limited one finds two worldviews: one of complete trust in God’s care and providence and one of denial in God’s existence. Black believes there will be a “mornin,” a new beginning. For Black there is hope. White has denied God and God’s love, reverting to “nothingness” and a lack of hope.

To a certain extent the two worldviews prominent in The Sunset Limited underscore most of McCarthy’s work. Even more, the worldviews of belief and unbelief underscore all of life: either one believes in God or one doesn’t believe in God.

For me, the power of McCarthy’s works lie, not only in the power of his words, but also in the dance between these two worldviews. Though many can debate McCarthy’s use of the Bible (see the Cormac McCarthy Society website:, the truth is all great work, whether literature, poetry, or religious works, must ask the same questions.

After all, the questions are very Biblical and worth posing. And leave it to a master like McCarthy to ask them with the prose of poet, the doubt of a philosopher, and the heart like a prophet. To this extent, McCarthy is a Biblicist.

Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, minister, and family man. You may contact him at

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