My current postmodern 21st century western mind struggles with the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement. Here is a brief summary:
Let me be clear. I do not think it should be done away with and I think there are occasions where this is useful but I do not think it should be the dominant understanding of what Jesus did. The book, “Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross” (ed Mark Baker) offers some great contemporary images of the atonement that I feel work better in our culture.
My problem with it is that it characterises God the Father as an unstoppable ball of wrath that is only stopped because Jesus stands in the way. There are other issues I have but that is the key one. I feel that in some ways the Gods who are spoken of in “Cabin in the Woods” are similar to the God of penal substitution. They demand justice. They must be appeased by a blood sacrifice. Nothing else will do.
I think a similar connection to penal substitution is found in “The Hunger Games”. The President wants people to be reminded of their sins and that to be forgiven, a sacrifice must be made. David Lose, guest blogging on Tony Jones’ site argues that The President is the God of this atonement theory. I would not go as far as Lose does and I think there are significant criticisms to be made of his arguments but there are certain similarities that cannot be brushed over.
I used to really struggle with the story of Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac in Genesis 22 for two reasons. Firstly that Abraham did not seem to find any difficulty in killing his son and secondly, that God asked him to do it in the first place. It seems that there is a parallel between this God and the president in “The Hunger Games”. To show his allegiance to God, Abraham had to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. In the same way, the President also asks this of the inhabitants of the twelve districts.
I said I used to struggle with this passage because once I learned about the culture and traditions of this period in human history, it made so much more sense to me. Abraham lived in a culture steeped in the narrative of sacrifice. Sacrificing your possessions to the gods demonstrated your allegiance to them. And what bigger demonstration of allegiance is there than offering up your own children. The followers of the pagan god Baal often sacrificed their children as a symbol of their devotion. It was common practice for your god to demand this kind of sacrifice. That is why Abraham would have gone along with it.
But the story does not end in the way that the culture would expect. God shows that he is different from the other gods. He provides a sacrifice for Abraham.
It is in this narrative that the penal substitution theory of atonement works best. God offers a sacrifice for us.
I am thankful that the sacrificial system of the Old Testament no longer exists because it doesn’t really work. The bible testifies to this and these two films testify to this. It is fitting that at the end of each movie, the sacrificial system is undermined.
The Atonement is not about appeasing an angry God or a way of oppressing us and keeping us in fear. The atonement is the complete outpouring of God. It is the exclamation mark of the life of Jesus. It liberates us from evil and reconciles us with God. It allows us to be reminded of our frail humanity and to encounter god in the unknown and in the pain. It reminds me to be present with people, to share in their life, their pain, their joys and their struggles. It challenges me to live out my beliefs even if it costs me everything. It causes me to go the extra mile, to love my neighbour, to speak for those who have no voice.
But most of all, it gives me hope.
For those who know my views on film and theology, this is not something that I normally do.
I’m not against selecting a clip from a film that helps to illustrate the point I want to make. It’s just when most youth workers (in my experience) do this, they don’t hold the rest of the film up. It becomes an act of cherry picking wherein you pick the parts of the film that match your beliefs and reject those bits that don’t. This is not good practice and if we try not to do this with the Bible, then we also should not do it with film.
An example of this was the surge in talks using clips from the matrix many years ago. Now, there are good scenes in the matrix but what of the rest of the film? What of the meta-narrative of bondage and S&M? Those parts must also be allowed to speak.
Films must be held up in their entirety.
So, with that out of the way, let’s delve in.
Batman Begins (2005)
I’m aware that this film came out six years ago but it was only after watching it again a couple of nights ago that, the above scene struck me.
Batman chooses to stand up for Gotham. He stands inbetween Gotham and the League of Shadows. In some way, he intercedes for them. He fights for those people. Now, we have to be aware what kind of man Batman is. He is a psychologically disturbed vigilante and at no point are we condoning the actions that he takes (although we probably secretly cheer him).
20 Then the LORD said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous 21 that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”
22 The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the LORD.[a] 23 Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare[b] the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
26 The LORD said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
27 Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, 28 what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?”
“If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.”
29 Once again he spoke to him, “What if only forty are found there?”
He said, “For the sake of forty, I will not do it.”
30 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?”
He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”
31 Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?”
He said, “For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.”
32 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”
He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”
33 When the LORD had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.
Earlier on in Genesis 11, we find the myth of God destroying the Tower of Babel because of the arrogance and slavery that he sees. The League of Shadows are doing the same thing. When the people of a city have gotten too proud, too arrogant, when they have lost what it means to be just, they come and raise the city to the ground in order that it may be rebuilt.
Where Abraham succeeds, is to convince God to hold of its destruction if he finds a number of righteous people.
For our young people, are they willing to stand up for their community, their town? Are they willing to intercede on its behalf?
Batman risks his life to save ‘his’ people. Would our young people do the same?
What would it mean for them to stand up for their community? What would that look like?
Let’s have that discussion with our young people.