Tag Archives: atonement

From Avatar to theories of the atonement

I went with some friends to see Avatar on Friday.  I had been pretty annoyed that it got so many Academy Award nominations, but I had not actually seen the film, so my annoyance was based on absolutely nothing.  I no longer feel that way.  It is an absolutely stunning film, in terms of immersive special effects–James Cameron has created a beautiful, convincing world, which, quite frankly, I wouldn’t object to living in.  And the film entertains: it’s nearly 3-hours long, but it doesn’t feel that long for a moment.  It deserves the nominations for these reasons alone.

Story-wise, however, it’s nothing special.  But you’ve probably heard that.  You may even have seen this hilarious Avatar Plot Fail:

epic fail pictures
see more Epic Fails

I’ve never seen Pocahantas, but that sounds about right.  I saw a lot of Dances with Wolves (and therefore also The Last Samurai) in the film.  I made a prediction based on the Dances with Wolves Connection, but thankfully it did not happen.

(I am now also put in mind of a film I saw as a child, in which a First Nations boy is hustled to the top of a mountain by a group of other  boys from his tribe. On the mountaintop, they stick eagle feathers into him–actually piercing his skin–and then he either jumps off the cliff or is pushed off.  But instead of falling to his death, he turns into an eagle.  Does that sound familiar to anyone?  I have no idea what that it could be.  But I digress…)

Critiques: “Unobtainium”?  Really?  We are on this planet to mine for this highly profitable mineral.  However, we are not able to get access to the most concentrated stores, due to the presence of the Na’vi people.  This mineral, which we are unable to obtaindue to these people, is called…er…”Unobtanium”.

Momentary de-suspension of disbelief: During the final fight scene, when the huge robot operated by the general loses his gun and then HE PULL A BIG KNIFE FROM A SHEATH!  Seriously? Am I crazy to think that in the future, knives will not be standard issue for combat robots?

That aside, I heartily suggest that you watch this film in theatres and in 3D.  In fact, I’ll go one step further than suggesting: I urge you to see it in theatres and in 3D.  But only because of the captiviating 3D world.

After the film I opined to my companions that the solution to violence and oppression in both film and reality is inevitably more violence.  Can the Na’vi (essentially a representation of the First Nations people before the arrival of Europeans) ever return to their peaceful, in-tune-with-the-natural-world lifestyle after experiencing a battle of high-tech weapons of if-not-mass-then-still-pretty-big destruction?

I suggested that what was unique about the story of Christ’s efforts against the forces of oppression and suffering was that he did not meet them on their terms, but on entirely different terms. One of my companions was intrigued in a “I’m not sure about that” kind of way.  I agreed that there was a lot of violence in the Gospels–the crucifixion being its ultimate example–but suggested that it was one-way.  My companion wondered about the wrath of the Father poured out on the Son.  And for the first time in my life, I think, I was really hit by the fact that there is not one Theory of the Atonement, but several theories, and that I really have no clue about what they all are.

I started writing something here about why I’m uncomfortable with the penal substitutionary atonement theory, but I quickly realized that if I continued I would be blowing a lot of hot air, because I haven’t a clue what I’m talking about.  Happily, I notice that for the next two weeks, we will be discussion atonement–or more accurately, “soteriology”–in my theology class.

Evil and the Justice of God

From N.T. Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God:

It is not enough to say that God will eventually make a new world in which there will be no more pain and crying; that does scant justice to all the evil that has gone before. We cannot get to the full solution to the problem of evil by mere progress, as though, provided the final generation was happy, the misery of all previous generations could be overlooked or even justified, as in the appalling line in a hymn: “Then shall they know, they that love him, how all their pain is good,” a kind of shoulder-shrugging acquiescence in evil which the New Testament certainly does not authorize.

What N.T. Wright is rejecting here is the idea which, I think, led  to Dostoyevski’s Ivan in The Brothers Karamzov (as described in David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea) rejecting God. Perhaps I did not understand his argument (which is quite possible–it’s a very dense little book), but it seemed that at the end of The Doors of the Sea Hart had done just this–shrugged his shoulders.  He can do this, of course, because ultimately death and suffering have no meaning whatsoever. But still, shrugging the shoulders.

Wright goes on:

No, all theories of atonement adequate to the task must include both a backward look (seeing the guilt, sin and shame of all previous generations heaped up on the cross) and a forward dimension, the promise that what God accomplished on Calvary will be fully and finally implemented. Otherwise the cross becomes merely an empty gesture, ineffective unless anyone happens to notice it and be influenced by it to act in a particular way (97).

So he’s saying that evil is heaped up on the cross.  And yet it’s still there.  Something isn’t clicking for me. But this is a helpful reminder: “The “problem of evil” is not simply or purely a “cosmic” thing; it is also a problem about me (97).

Good point. Evil isn’t just something “other”, something “out there”, but it’s right here beside me and inside me as well. No use pointing fingers at this and that wondering why in blazes God doesn’t intervene there, when one could just as well ask the question of me. I’m reminded of the lyric from Sufjan Stevens‘ song about the John Wayne Gacy, Jr., the Chicago serial killer. The song, which I’ve mentioned here before, gives a short but heartbreaking account of Gacy’s life, actions and victims and then ends quite suddenly with these haunting words:

And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid

Of course, God is intervening–in me and in the world–but just not in the way I might expect or want him to.

We’ll see what else the good bishop has to say…