Monday Morning, February 24, 2008
That one of the top Oscar nominees for Best Picture would have as it’s title one of the central themes of Christian systematic theology is quite a curious thing. Even more curious – the novel on which the film is based was written by an outspoken atheist.
The word certainly can be used in ordinary language without the biblical implications, I gather. (Atonement: “reparation for an offense or injury” – Webster.)
In one of the title songs (in the new muscial Wicked), Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West declares, “No good deed goes unpunished!” Out there in the non-theological world there is this cosmic sense that everything ultimately must come into balance. Evil is balanced off by good. Good by evil. If good outweighs the bad at any particular moment, then something bad must inevitably happen in the same measure and so it goes. One could also conclude that the opposite of Elphaba’s statement of faith is also true – no bad deed goes unrewarded.
What happens, then, when guilt has nowhere to go? When forgiveness and reconciliation are impossible? Where is the balance then? Ian McEwan contemplates these questions in his highly acclaimed novel (which, I have yet to read). Christopher Hampton wrote his screen-play (based McEwan’s novel) which contemplates the same perplexities. Is it simply a matter of cosmic balance, or is there something more?
Young Briony Tallis is a thirteen year old with a rich imagination. As she wanders around the grand estate outside London as war brews up in Europe with Germany’s crude nationalism expanding rough-shod in all directions, she becomes a keen observer. Her attempts to synthesize the meaning of the things she sees and hears become an obsession. But they fall well short. She is young. Impressionable. Unsure.
She witnesses a crime. A terrible crime. (Rape.) Her conclusions mix all the raging complexities of adolescence into a place of feigned certainty. But in her heart she knows full well that certain she is not. Still, with a convincing sense of moral outrage, she accuses the man who jilted her – Robbie – the subject of her young fancies. He chose her older sister, Cecelia, as the subject of his affections. She could not forgive him. Based on her testimony, Robbie is sent to prison, where, she fully believes, he belongs.
It’s only later that she comes to terms with the awful consequence of her deceitful lie. And as she ruminates over the news of his fate and that of her sister’s (when they are separated by the prison sentence, they never see each other again), she is overcome by a guilt she can not escape. The outcome is irreversible. The moment irretrievable. It was not some random onset of an uncontrollable outside force; it was her faulty choice. Her false witness. Her need for revenge.
So what does she do?
In an interview1 with The New Republic, the novel’s author talks about his atheism and the “neo-atheists” who are getting so much attention these days. McEwan complains that “Atheism” is an uncomfortable label because, as he puts it, “no one wants to be defined by what he doesn’t believe.” He goes on to make the point that even atheists have moral dilemmas and that these complex human questions fascinate him.
Briony’s quest for atonement makes for a best-selling novel and a powerful film. I won’t spoil it for you by revealing any more detail.
* * * * * * *
But on this Monday morning, as a leader, you carry around a sack full of heavy stuff, too. When you run out of fingers on one hand to count up the decades, you’ve had sufficient time to fill it up. There are plenty of missteps logged in the memory bank to stir up the guilt and the remorse and the regrets and the wish to get another shot at trying it again.
How do I know? Ha!
McEwan borrowed the term not just from the dictionary, but from the theology books. It’s too bad he so easily dismisses the God dynamic. Isn’t that where the real answer is?
It’s not balancing Elphaba’s scales of chance. It’s balancing the scales of justice. The primary assumption raised by the term “atonement” is that a price must be paid.
And on this Monday morning, be thankful.
Copyright, Kenneth E Kemp, 2008
1 My thanks to Chuck Colson’s colleague, Mark Earley, for pointing me to the New Republic interview in his essay, Theology in the Theater published in Break Point.