Catherine Valmont and “Jesus Christ, Crucified”

[This originated as a set of illustrations for a sermon I wrote, repurposed for a blog post since I was incredibly sick the last two weeks.]

One of my favorite movies is a French zombie film from the 1980s called Living Dead Girl. It’s about a young woman named Catherine Valmont who is accidentally brought back to life when a barrel of toxic waste is spilled on her grave. But she does not come back the same as she used to be.

When she was alive, she was well-loved. The whole French countryside was better for her presence there. This is not the woman who comes back from the grave. She comes back as a zombie, for lack of a better word, and we all know what zombies do.

What makes matters worse, though, is that she doesn’t lose her personality. She’s not mindless, like the ones who stumble around and groan for flesh or brains. She is still Catherine Valmont, but she has to eat, and she can only eat what zombies eat. She was brought back from the grave, not to a new life, but a living death.

What’s even worse is that once the hunger starts, it becomes incredibly difficult to suppress her undead urges, and she become a horrifying monster who threatens the safety of everyone in her village. I’d like to tell you that the movie has a happy ending, but it doesn’t.

There is no cure for her “living death.” Her best efforts can’t make her “alive” again. She is a monster, and that is who she is now. And it’s all she can be. The sense that we are given at the end of the movie is that she will doomed to this kind of existence forever, walking “according to the urges of her flesh,” essentially. There is no hope in sight for her.

You knew it was coming: Without Jesus, this is very much what our lives are like. The passage doesn’t say we were “disappointing in our trespasses and sins,” – it says that we were dead. It doesn’t say that we were “children who would never reach our full potential,” – it says that we were “by nature children of wrath.”

Which sounds melodramatic, but I can remember being six and skilled at finding new ways to cause trouble for my parents. I could break their rules in ways they’d never anticipate, and then break rules they’d never thought to make. Or maybe you don’t remember, but don’t need to, because you’ve got kids of your own and you’re waiting till they turn eighteen and you can sue them for emotional distress. There’s something in us that drives us to want awful things.

And we tend follow that drive, that appetite, into one degree of sin, and then another. And we’ll keep at it, like Catherine Valmonts in our home, and our villages, until we die for good and face the wrath of God, whatever the hell that looks like. Or, until something else happens.

If you’ve read Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor, you’ll remember Hazel Motes is a 20 year-old man who was raised a fundamentalist in the Bible Belt. When he goes off to the military, the other soldiers entice him into joining their sinful lifestyle, and he gets hooked. When he gets out of the service, he becomes an atheistic street preacher.

He sets up shop on street corners and delivers revivalistic sermons about how “there ain’t no salvation because there wasn’t no cross because there ain’t no sin because there wasn’ no Jesus because there isn’t no God, so nobody’s got much of anything to worry about ‘cept for how they’re going to make next month’s rent.”

He manages to scrape together some money, and tries to buy a car. He gets to the used car lot and finds the sketchiest station wagon on the whole lot. One of the seats is missing, so the mechanic simply hammered down some boards to sit on. The Muffler’s hanging off the back. There is no rearview mirror. Hazel asks the car salesman what the vehicle costs, and the salesman replies “Jesus Christ crucified,” which upsets Hazel.

Throughout the book, Hazel uses this station wagon to escape the looming sense of guilt that has haunted him his entire life. Since he was a child, his parents hammered into his head that he is a “worm and not a man.” That there’s no good in him. That God “holds him over the fire like a spider on a web.” He was never, of course, filled in on the gospel itself, so when he finally abandons the faith as a young soldier, he does so largely to convince himself that he isn’t culpable for his sin.

But abandoning Jesus doesn’t make his guilt evaporate like he hopes. And it can’t. Human guilt’s attested to in every culture. Christianity didn’t invent it, and it’s not the thing keeping guilt on life support. But Hazel tried his best to outrun it, so he bought a car in the hopes that station wagons might drive faster than guilt runs.

At the end of the novel, Hazel gets pulled over. The officer asks him to step out of the car but leave the keys in the ignition. Once he gets out, the officer pushes the vehicle off a cliff. And this turns out to be the beginning of Hazel’s redemption. 

You knew it was coming: Without the car as a crutch that he could use to solve his guilt problem, he is left to face the fact that only Jesus can rescue him.

The car salesman said that the vehicle would cost “Jesus Christ crucified.” He was more right than he knew. Jesus Christ crucified is the only thing that can save us. Anything we try to use instead of Jesus is like the station wagon Hazel Motes bought. Anything we do to try to make God like us more is like buying a station wagon to drive away from our sinfulness. Hazel Motes’ station wagon can’t drive you out of the grave. Only Jesus Christ crucified can.

So “Jesus Christ crucified” does what Hazel Motes’ station wagon can’t – He sets us free from the impossible task of saving ourselves from this living death that our sin creates. We can’t outrun it and we can’t work our way out of it. But we can throw ourselves on the grace of God, and in a glorious twist of fate, that’s enough. “Jesus Christ crucified” is enough. The gospel is good news for Catherine Valmont, it’s good news for Hazel Motes, and it’s good news for you and me.

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