Get Low is a Fable About Forgiveness and Atonement


Felix Bush is the subject of myth and legend in 1930’s rural Tennessee. Few know his real story. Felix has spent forty years of his life as an isolated hermit in a self-imposed penance for some mysterious long-ago sin. Felix becomes troubled by  dreams and visions from his past. The inevitability of death  is punctuated when he learns that one of his contemporaries has died.

Felix recognizes it may soon be his time to “Get Low” and decides to have a funeral party for himself while he is still alive. He goes to the local minister who turns him down because he refuses to repent to God. Felix initially rejects the idea put forth by Rev. Horton that “Forgiveness is free but you do have to ask for it.”

Bush’s old friend Rev. Jackson, who knows his story, has told him much the same thing: make it right with God, with the law, and with the people offended. The self-reliant and guilt-ridden Bush has a different perspective.  He later explains “I didn’t want forgiveness.  I wanted to be made sick from it every day of my life.”

Bush enlists funeral director Quinn who needs the money. Felix’s funeral party begins to take on a carnival-like atmosphere. He announces that he is raffling off his land for $5 a ticket. He invites everyone with a story about him to come and tell it. Felix and Quinn’s assistant Carl strike up an unlikely friendship and Felix the man begins to emerge from Felix the myth.

Separating  myth from truth may be the purpose behind the party. As plans for the party develop Felix feels the need to publicly confess and be forgiven. Throughout the movie Felix focuses on the human damage he’s caused but refuses to acknowledge that his offense extends to Christ as well as to others. For Felix it is Mattie, the person most wronged by his actions, who holds the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation.This seems to be the problem both ministers have with Felix.

Some critics didn’t like Felix’s confession at the end of the movie. Maybe his 1930’s sin didn’t’ translate as heinous enough for a 21st century audience. Perhaps it is simply because confession is awkward and the confession scene was so human and stripped of legend.

Confession is not cool. It’s not the culmination of a fable’s plot; it’s the baring of a soul. It is the most vulnerable and real anyone will ever be. What we think of ourselves, what others think of us,  all the damage to our own souls and all the hurt we may have caused others  is turned upside down by forgiveness and atonement.

Sometimes we expect those who need forgiveness to be able to understand the full moral and theological implications of sin. In the movie Rev. Jackson warns against judging the confession of a soul that is in the process of repair. He explains the need to temper our desires for “right and wrong to be “miles apart” instead of “tangled up with each other.” Indeed a confession is the place where this tangle seems most evident. We can’t always sort out our spiritual or moral conditions in terms of absolutes.

Bush’s confession isn’t a didactic testimony to Christ’s redemption based on a well-defined understanding of moral guilt. It is the cry of a tangled, impassioned soul full of regret and in need of forgiveness. Until Felix can resolve the guilt he feels he can’t fully deal with the moral implications of it.

Felix must stop punishing himself, apologize, and see if he receives forgiveness. He has no control over whether Mattie forgives him. He has no control over the punishment meted out in his direction. Perhaps relinquishing this control, participating in the act of apology and forgiveness guides us toward the atonement that we also cannot achieve on our own. We can apologize, we can forgive, but only Christ can atone.

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