By James M. Kushiner, Executive Director, Fellowship of St. James –
Just last week I discovered the 1991 film by Swedish director Sven Nyquist, The Ox. It won the Academy Award for Best International Feature film for that year. It is a powerful study in forgiveness, and much more.
The tale begins on a farm in 19th-century Sweden, when Helge Roos kills one of his landlord’s oxen to feed his family in winter. He and his wife Elfrida try to hide the deed, but things unravel. As they do, both are confronted with temptations.
The Lutheran vicar (Max von Sydow) tries to find both justice and mercy for all. That path is narrow and hard, but in the end, the man and wife find much life—and grace. They and the pastor have borne the yoke and realized a harvest. It’s not a light film, but grace seems to be at work behind the scenes, between the lines, unseen but fruitful at the end.
The vicar has little to gain from confronting the landlord with a petition for leniency. Nor does the landlord have much motive for forgiving Helge, whose crime threatened him and others dependent on the ox’s labor. Helge is severely punished, during which time he could only write Elfrida letters–and make a gift of a small cross, a sign of what they must endure along the narrow way of repentance and forgiveness.
I did not think that the husband and wife in the film were self-centered. Helge stole for unselfish, desperate reasons, for his child. He and his wife each ultimately took responsibility for their sins. They did not flee repentance and shame.
These characters and their story—are they even recognizable today in modern culture? Many progressives would urge that the mother should have aborted her baby so they would have one less mouth to feed; the father should have sued the landowner for higher wages; the pastor should have counseled Elfrida to divorce her husband. Everyone should just do “what’s best for me” and look for the best deal possible, the most “happiness” for the moment.
We see here the difference between a “responsibility culture” and a “what’s-best-for-me culture.” A “rights” versus “responsibility” culture. In a responsibility culture, people take responsibility for what they create, harm, and break. When they procreate, they take responsibility for the child; the child is not killed and discarded like a used condom.
Today, where do we see taking responsibility? Confession, acknowledgement of guilt, restitution, and bearing the consequences of one’s actions? Do we not rather see the eschewing of responsibility, refusal to take blame, making excuses, and self-justification? Success is often measured by acquisition, not by provision.
As St. Paul put it, “In the last days, there will be times of difficulty. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant …. lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.” Philautoi—self-lovers. When society is full of such, there will be hardship, for the needed lubricants of kindness, deference, and humility are missing and friction between selfish egos rises.
It is easy enough to make a straw man out of today’s new man and skewer it. Perhaps I partake as much of modernity’s redefinition of the self as the next man. We’re surrounded with appeals to consume, to satisfy ourselves, and encouraged by multiple examples from our peers to do so. It’s hard to resist the flow of the stream, to abandon the comfort of the pampered flock.
The reasons for the modern selfishness destroying our families and communities are manifold and not simply recent; we’re reaping the fruit from seeds sown in past decades and centuries. Would it help to know the many ways in which we’ve gone astray—I mean beyond the central fact that man is fallen and that his heart is deceitful and desperately wicked?
Carl R. Trueman discusses the modern “self” in his new book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Crossway). I haven’t read it yet. It promises to shed light on flaws that now dominate our politics, economics, and even our churches.
Like Helge, we’re often being punished for our sins. Will we bear the yoke?
Yours for Christ, Creed & Culture