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Extra Ecclesiam, Salus

By April 1, 2009 No Comments
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Those who see the church as instituted
by God take comfort in the
ancient Latin dictum, Extra ecclesiam,
nulla salus
(Outside the church,
there is no salvation). Indeed, prior to
Vatican II (as I understand it), this was
the official teaching of the Roman Catholic
church, and continues to hold for
those who have a high doctrine of the

In his latest movie, Gran Torino, Clint
Eastwood proclaims a kind of salvation
that is decidedly outside the church–a
salvation that is meant for the here, however,
more than for the hereafter.

The movie begins at the funeral of
the wife of Walt Kowalski (Eastwood’s
character). A young priest offers pap
sayings about the meaning of life and
death. Walt can barely keep from sneering
at the priest’s too-easy, too-close-to-seminary-textbook words of comfort.
Gran Torino
But the priest has an ace in the hole: it
was the dying wish of Walt’s wife that the priest should get him to come to
confession. Which seems very, very unlikely
to happen.

Walter Kowalski is openly hostile to
the priest, and to the religion the priest
embodies. He lives in a gritty neighborhood
in Detroit, a once-homogenous
enclave of children of European immigrants,
now washed over with a wave
of A frican American, Hispanic, and
Hmong residents. Walt’s
language is peppered with
racist epithets. His soul
has been ossifying since
his ser vice to Uncle Sam
in the Korean war, during
which he killed more
than a dozen men (some of
them, apparently, not under
orders). He’s got a lot
to confess, and the movie
works its way toward that
moment as his relationship
with the priest slowly
softens. It arcs its way toward
a salvation of sorts,
perhaps a form of salvation for his own
soul, but most certainly salvation for his

That neighborhood has come under
the shadow of thugs protecting Hmong
turf. As the gang attempts to initiate
Walt’s neighbor into its violent practices,
it spills over onto Walt’s lawn. Kowalski
responds by taking out his service rifle
and threatening the gang. He has no
interest in saving anyone; he just wants
them off his lawn. Unwittingly, he becomes
a hero to the neighborhood, and
before long, his daily sacrament of beef
jerky and Pabst Blue Ribbon gives way
to bok choy and rice wine. He strikes
up a paternal relationship with a teenage neighbor boy, Thao (which means “respectful
of the father”), and schools him
on how to talk and work and think like
an American man.

Violence escalates throughout the
film until it reaches a head and it seems
inevitable that the final confrontation
is near. A long the way Walt seems to
give in to his wife’s wish for confession.
He does own up to the priest a few fairly
common transgressions. But that is
not the locus of his confession. True
confession comes for Walt after he has
locked Thao in the basement to keep
him from exercising his desire for revenge.
Through the metal screen that
separates the basement from the main
floor, Walt opens his heart about the
killing he’d had to do 50 years before.
Is he given absolution? Or does he devise
his own?

Gran Torino bends toward the latter,
as Walt Kowalski ultimately finds a way
to restore his neighborhood to a place
that is fit for human habitation. I can
not say too much here without spoiling
of the plot. The movie closes with virtually
the only “open” shot of the entire
film, with Thao driving alongside the
shore of Lake Erie in Walt’s 1972 Gran

Notable to those of a religious bent
are the alternative images offered in the
film. The Eucharist is not blessed wafers
and wine offered by an authorized
representative of the church, but the
homey and sustaining food of Walt’s
Hmong neighbors. Baptism is figured
via Kowalski’s initiation of Thao into an
American way of life. Genuine confession
is not offered to a priest, but to
Thao. And peace comes through great
sacrifice, but not through anything
like what the church would offer in the
way of substitutionary atonement. The
final scene is a type of resurrection:
the world opened up, new life coursing
through Thao in a way that perhaps
only a young man can feel when his tank
is full of gas and he’s speeding along the
highway in a muscle car. Salvation of a
sort comes to Walt’s neighborhood, then,
not through the church, and not through
a western understanding of atonement,
but rather through a truncated form of what Aulen years ago called the classic
“Christus Victor” model more familiar to
eastern Christians.

Thus, while Gran Torino is a fine film
and deserves to be seen widely (though
its language will be upsetting to many),
it could rightly be classified in terms
that have increasing currency these
days–“spiritual, but not religious.”
Those looking for a church-affirming
picture will be disappointed. Those
who hope for redemption, however, will
find much to appreciate, and even more
to discuss, in Gran Torino. It is one
of those movies whose scenes one can
play over and over to mine for deeper
significance. And it is well worth the
cost of admission.

Paul Janssen is pastor of Pascack Reformed Church in
Park Ridge, New Jersey.
Paul Janssen

Paul Janssen

Rev. Paul G. Janssen is the Pastor and Teacher of United Reformed Church in Somerville, New Jersey. A son of Iowa, he has served parishes in Hackensack and Park Ridge, New Jersey. He has been a weekly preacher for nearly 40 years, in addition to writing nearly 100 hymns (words and/or music). He was raised a Minnesota Twins fan, but since moving to New Jersey in 1981 he has rooted (tepidly) for the New York Mets.