Sunday, June 17, 2012

Paths of Redemption

    Too often stories about good and evil turn into overt battles; one side triumphs over the other.  Whether we're cheering a spy, a sleuth, a scientist or a salesman, the battle results in the literal or figurative elimination of the enemy spy, the criminal, the mystery or the competitor.  Very often in popular stories the victory of good means the death of the characters that represent evil.  Given the stories we tell, it's not surprising that our children grow up believing that evil beings must be killed--and even then beware that they don't come back as zombies!
    I won't deny that terrific tales have been constructed on the simple plot of good killing bad.  But Christians should not be satisfied with this narrative arc.  The Bible is the story of good triumphing over evil, but the triumph doesn't consist in the annihilation of sinners, rather in their redemption.
    Redemption stories are harder to tell and make compelling to the reader than good-kill-bad tales.  The author has to go inside a character.  Readers need to feel sympathy for a character while at the same time seeing the character's need for repentance.  A character or characters may be pulled or pushed by events toward change, but coercion is not allowed.  Real repentance requires free will.
    A redemption story can be explicit, as in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  Edmund is a selfish traitor and a liar.  Aslan's death substitutes for Edmund's, and Edmund says he is sorry for his bad behavior.  After Aslan's triumph over death, he meets privately with Edmund and forgives him.  Someone might complain: it only works (as a story) because it's written for children.  But Lewis gives a much subtler redemption story in That Hideous Strength.  Mark Studdock is drawn into greater and greater evil by means of his vanity, but in the end he is saved partly by a very simple fear of death.  His salvation is not dressed up in anything like the religious language of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  At the crucial point Mark understands that he will most likely die, and in that extremity he turns against the evil that surrounds him.  On Lewis's view, that's all the opening divine grace needs; God is eager to save, a theme of The Great Divorce.
    Redemption stories can be far less explicit.  Consider one of my favorite movies, Groundhog Day. Phil the weatherman is a jerk.  He's egoistic, insensitive, disdainful of others, and manipulative.  Grace enters Phil's life through time-loop magic; he is condemned to repeat February 2 again and again, ad infinitum . . . until he freely turns from his self-centered life to a life of genuine compassion.  Along the way, Phil learns some humility: he doesn't really "make the weather"; he can't escape Groundhog Day by killing himself; he can't make the girl remember their time together; and he can't stop the old man from dying.  The story makes no reference to God, yet it gives us a marvelous parable of the operation of grace.
    These thoughts lead me to an obvious question.  Can I write well enough to bring redemption into my stories? 

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