Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Courageous and the Atonement

I graded a stack of papers recently for my history of Christian thought class.  A couple of these were about the atonement, and both mentioned a scene from the movie Courageous.  I've not seen the movie, and don't really have much of a desire to.  I grew up in the 80s when Christian music was trying to come into its own.  I listened to a lot of it, mostly because my music choices were significantly restricted by my parents.  I don't really resent this, any more than I resent having grown up in the places I did.  It was who I was and I'm sure it has contributed to who I am now.  But a couple of weeks ago one of the kids pulled out an old cassette deck from a storage place and we played some of my old Christian rock tapes from the 80s.  There was certainly a lot of nostalgia, but they really weren't that good.  The music was uninteresting and the lyrics were cheesy and preachy.  That's a sweeping generalization for which exceptions could be found, but I'll stand by it on the whole.

The point of that long digression into some of the silliness of my youth is to say that it seems to me that the Christian movies of today (of the Kirk Cameron genre) are in the same developmental phase as Christian music was in the 80s: cheesy and preachy.  I think there is a legitimate place for preaching and cheese, but I'm not sure if it should qualify as good art.  So, I generally don't watch those movies.  (I'd be happy to be pointed to the exceptions in that regard if any of you have some.)

Anyway, evidently there is a scene in Courageous when one of the characters compares God to a judge and says something like, "If someone were murdered and the judge let the murderer off the hook and didn't punish that crime, would you think that was a good judge?  No.  Of course not.  So would God be good if he didn't punish sin?  No. Of course not."  This is supposed to be an argument on behalf of the penal substitution theory of the atonement, I guess.  But I'm not very persuaded by it.  In the analogy, the crime wasn't committed against the judge, and so the judge is supposed to be an impartial protector of the law.  Is that really what they think God is?  If a crime was committed against me, and the offender was apologetic and offered to pay reparations, would I be considered a bad person if I said, "No, that's OK.  I forgive you.  Don't worry about it."??  Isn't sin committed against God, and so couldn't God forgive people without being called a bad judge??  Is it really forgiveness if God demands payment??  That sounds more like God is being paid off.

Christians of our generation have been pretty overwhelmingly persuaded by the narrative of penal substitution.  It seems to me that we need to think more carefully about the implications of such a position.  There's a lot of ink being spilled on theories of the atonement now, and some people are pretty sure that adopting the right theory is a necessary component of being saved.  God help us.  God help us all to think hard and long about matters of truth, and to be generous enough to admit that we might be wrong.


Anthony said...

I think you make a great comparison between the development of Christian music (which I feel is really begin to come into its own) and Christian film, which is still in the "cheese+preach=Christian" phase.

When you consider atonement, which narrative do you have in mind? And with that narrative in mind do you see it as a complete alternative to penal substitution or as an "along-side" narrative; i.e. is atonement multi-faceted?

J. B. Stump said...

Hey Anthony, my theory on the atonement is: Jesus had to die so that he could resurrect. For some reason we've put the emphasis on the wrong side of death.

Sam Ochstein said...

Jim, I wonder if the word "penal" was removed from "penal substitutionary atonement" if you'd be more comfortable? It seems to me that a lot of scripture points in the direction of Jesus as a substituionary sacrifice of some type. Even the earliest Christian creed, where Paul defines what the gospel is in 1 Corinthians 15, begins by saying that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures . . . When you take a look at OT typology and the sacrificial system (instituted by God, mind you--I remain unconvinced by arugments that the OT sacrifices were merely part of humanity's evolving religious sensibilities that the "gods" must be appeased because it tends to downplay the divine inspiration part of scripture that God himself actually mandated the sacrifices), the Passover lamb, the fact that Paul directly calls Jesus our Passover lamb who was sacrificed (see 1 Cor 5), and the various verses in say Romans, 1 John, and Hebrews that link Jesus' death with atonement you come up with some pretty close to the narrative of substituionary atonement theroy. I'm not sure what other narrative out there deals well with all the passages that link Jesus' death on the cross with atonement. There are simply too many passages that explicitly make this connection to ignore it. Of course there are other emphases in Scripture too, such as Christus Victor, etc. And we ought to account for these as well in whatever theory we subscribe to. Perhaps the problem is that there is no one singular theory which can do justice and encapsulate the many facets of what Christ death (and resurrection) accomplished. In any case, I heartily agree with your closing sentences.