Study Guide

True Grit Religion

By Charles Portis


Like Martha I have always been agitated and troubled by the cares of the day but my mother had a serene and loving heart. She was like Mary and had chosen the "good" part. (1.11)

In the New Testament's Gospel of Luke, Jesus and his disciples visit the home of two women named Mary and Martha. Mary's all, "Oh Jesus! Let me sit at your feet and wash them with my hair," while Martha is all, "ugh, Mary, could you maybe help me with the dishes?" In other words, Mary lets the housework go so she can hang out with Jesus, while Martha is too busy worry about mundane details to appreciate that Jesus himself is in her house.

Some people might say, well, what business is it of Frank Ross to meddle? My answer is this: he was trying to do that short devil a good turn. Chaney was a tenant and Papa felt responsibility. He was his brother's keeper. Does that answer your question? (1.15)

Mattie doesn't seem like much of a reader, but she sure does know her Bible. At just about any given time—like this imaginary conversation with "some people"—she can drop in Bible verses to justify her position.

The Indian was next and he said, "I am ready. I have repented my sins and soon I will be in heaven with Christ my savior. Now I must die like a man." If you are like me you probably think of Indians as heathens. But I will ask you to recall the thief of the cross. He was never baptized and never even heard of catechism and yet Christ himself promised him a place in heaven. (2.13)

Hm. Is the Indian being serious here—or is he just saying what he thinks his Christian audience wants to hear? Or is Mattie just remembering what she wishes he'd said?

I will go further and say that all cats are wicked, though often useful. Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces? Some preachers will say, well, that is superstitious "clap trap." My answer is this: Preacher, go to your bible and read Luke 8:26-33. (3.5)

In Luke 8:26-33, Jesus exorcises a man by driving his demons into swine, which then drown themselves. The point? Mattie is suggesting that cats can actually be possessed. (Yeah, we'd buy that.)

You must pay for everything in this world one way or another. There is nothing free except the Grace of God. You cannot earn that or deserve it. (3.86)

Mattie believes in the Calvinist doctrine of election. According to that doctrine, each of us is born already marked for heaven or hell. If you're marked for hell—too bad, so sad, there's not one tootin' thing you can do about it. Since you can never know for sure if you're elect or not, the only thing to do is act as if you are. The point here is that there's no such thing as "justice" or "deserving" in Mattie's ideas about God. There's only election.

On his deathbed [Judge Parker] asked for a priest and became a Catholic. […] If you had sentenced one hundred and sixty men to death and seen around eighty of them swing, then maybe at the last minute you would feel the need of some stronger medicine than the Methodists could make. (3.91)

Catholics believe in deathbed absolution, something not offered to Methodists. Mattie is suggesting that Judge Parker is converting because he's worried that he'll be punished for sentencing men to death. Although Mattie obviously believes in the death penalty, she has some conflicted feelings about it too.

I was much relieved to find my side of the bed empty. I got the extra blankets and arranged them as I had the night before. I said my prayers and it was some time before I got any sleep. I had a cough. (3.350)

We never see Mattie heading to church, but here we get the sense that religion is part of her daily life.

I too am now a member of the Southern Church. I say nothing against the Cumberlands. They broke with the Presbyterian Church because they did not believe a preacher needed a lot of formal education. That is all right but they are not sound on Election. I confess it is a hard doctrine, running contrary to our earthly ideas of fair play, but I can see no way around it. (6.7)

Okay, Mattie seems a little obsessed with the idea of election. It makes sense. A man like Tom Chaney could never be one of the elect, because he doesn't act in any sort of pious way—and maybe she sees this as a justification for her vengeance on him. Or, maybe she's worried that seeking revenge would earn her punishment, if it weren't for predestination.