“Black Snake Moan”
There are many God-fearing, genteel, dignified churchgoers who would be deeply offended by the movie “Black Snake Moan.” They would be aghast at the foul language, offended by the pervasive (and yes, gratuitous) nudity, disgusted by the blatant sexuality, and horrified by the apparent beating and bounding of a very vulnerable young woman. This movie is even profane when singing, as some of those blues songs deserve an “R” rating all on their own.
But if the gentle viewer can get past all that, there are many significant spiritual and religious moments in this highly unusual film.
*A man named Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) goes to a local bar to drink a beer, grieving over the fact that his wife of twelve years has just left him for another man. She told him to his face, and in public, that she didn’t love him anymore. The “other man” walks into the bar and tries to tell him he loves him, and wouldn’t hurt him for anything. The cuckolded Lazarus grabs him by the throat, breaks his beer bottle on the edge of the bar, and threatens him with his life if he says that again, forcefully reminding him that Cain killed Abel out of jealousy (Genesis 4: 1-16). It’s the rare Bible lesson taught at the sharp end of a broken bottle.
*The next day, Lazarus is angrily smoking a cigarette beside his old beat up pickup truck, foot on the bumper, staring off into his pastureland beside his ramshackle farmhouse. His preacher (John Cothran, Jr.) is beside him, admonishing him about that violent display of anger in the bar. His preacher friend prays for him, head bowed, eyes closed, putting his hand on him, while Lazarus continues his angry stare into the distance. But Lazarus hears.
*When Lazarus discovers a battered, bruised, and nearly naked young woman (Christina Ricci) lying on the dirt road in front of his farmhouse, he first checks to see if she’s still breathing. When it’s clear to him that she’s still alive, he carries her into the unkempt house and tries to nurse her back to health. But there’s something very wrong with her besides her obvious physical wounds. This woman has some deep emotional scars, and the demons of the past continue to possess her and torment her. At first, Lazarus tries to use his Bible like a magic talisman that could ward off the evil spirits. He chains her to his radiator so he can keep her long enough to try to exorcise her. She’s angry, of course, but it’s significant that after several days, no one’s even noticed that she’s gone, or comes looking for her. That’s how many people in her life really care what happens to her. Then Lazarus calls on his preacher to talk to her. Reluctantly, Reverend R.L. gets involved. He listens quietly. He gives sparse and level-headed advice. She talks to him about trying to understand God’s forgiveness for those who say they’re sorry but are not. And he becomes the 2nd man in her life who is interested in her as a person without trying to bed her. The first one is Lazarus. When they all pray before a meal together, you get the feeling you’re watching not just the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 29-37), but also The Prodigal returning (Luke 15: 11-32).
*When Lazarus is selling the vegetables from his garden at a local farmer’s market, a woman from his church comes by to tell him how much they’ve been missing him there (he used to attend with his wife, but hasn’t returned since the public breakup). While she’s sitting beside him on a wooden bench, he asks her if she would sing to him. She seems embarrassed, but he is gently insistent, and so she sweetly and quietly sings “There Is A Balm In Gilead” (#394, The Presbyterian Hymnal). And we’re all astounded by the beautiful simplicity of that remarkably powerful devotional act.
*The young woman, beginning to heal now, asks Lazarus to sing for her. He performs “Black Snake Moan” in a gathering thunderstorm at twilight, about how evil is lurking at the door (I Peter 5:8-11), and she’s clutching at his leg as if hanging on for dear life. But in the calm of the next morning, she’s quietly plucking on his guitar, whispering the soft tune of “This Little Light Of Mine.” When he wakes up, he accompanies her on the only song she knows by heart.
*The young woman’s boyfriend (Justin Timberlake), who has been in Iraq, returns to find his woman with another man, and hastens to confront them both with violence. But Lazarus calls his bluff with the gun, then summons his preacher friend again. Reverend R. L. counsels brilliantly with the agitated couple, first by getting them to tell him how they feel about each other, then by encouraging them to tell each other. They know they’re messed up, but they love one other, and they are prepared to begin anew.
*Reverend R.L. then presides at the outdoor wedding service for the beaming young couple, newly restored and almost healed (we are all still on the road to recovery). He reads First Corinthians 13 like he means it. And Lazarus gives away the bride with the beaming pride appropriate to a surrogate father.
Perhaps these little religious moments are all the more tender and poignant because of their roughshod context. Or maybe even in spite of them.
Questions For Discussion:
1) Have you ever suffered as an adult from what was done to you as a child? How did you begin to recover?
2) Have you ever been in a "toxic" relationship? What brought healing?
3) Have you ever gotten involved in somebody else’s life when you knew it would be complicated, messy, and possibly even detrimental to your reputation?
4) Have you ever experienced redemption from an unusual source?
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Terrell, Texas