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.
It’s holy week. It is the time of the year when Christians enter into the story of Jesus’ last days. It is the time of year when Christians think about sacrifice.
It’s funny then that in the space of 24 hours, I watched two films at the cinema that both deal with the theme of sacrifice: ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ and ‘The Hunger Games‘.
I have already written a post detailing my initial thoughts of “cabin’ here but Ill summarise the plot here: (spoilers)
The film follows five college students who spend the weekend at a cabin and are killed off one by one. What soon becomes clear to the survivors is that they are part of a worldwide sacrificial system to appease the Gods who live underneath the ground.
For many the story of ‘Hunger Games’ is more familiar but here is a quick summary courtesy of IMDB:
Set in a future where the Capitol selects a boy and girl from the twelve districts to fight to the death on live television, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her younger sister’s place for the latest match.
The Hunger Games, the annual event where the young people kill each other, was established after some of the inhabitants staged an uprising. The Games are a reminder of what the people did and why they should never try it again. In some way the fighters are living sacrifices, killed to appease the President.
Both films deal with a worldwide sacrificial system, involving young people, that is set up to appease and entertain. In “cabin’ the young people do not know that they are part of it, whereas in ‘Games’ they do. Both films also end with the survivors choosing to turn against the system.
But there are key differences that mark out the films.
In ‘Cabin’ the Gods are angry. They want death and destruction and so the sacrificial system is set up to entertain them and take their minds off of killing everyone. It is a barter system. If they do not get their sacrifices, their will be bloodshed on a colossal level. Millions will die. What the film seems to suggest is that this is a continuation of the sacrificial system that has taken place since before the Old Testament was written and their are glimpses of Old Testament scenes in the opening credits. To sum it up, this systems primary function is to appease the God’s wrath.
In ‘Games’ the primary function of the sacrificial system is to remind the people of their guilt and through that, subdue them. It is not about appeasing a God or Gods but instead, it is a symbol of oppressive power and authority.
As I reflect on these movies and there sacrificial structures I see some similarities between them and the atonement (the crucifixion of Jesus) as well as some key differences.
In the next post I’ll explore this a little further.
I finally got around to seeing Daniel Radcliffes’ Hammer Horror this week.
I watched it in part because I was so fed up with ‘The Hunger Games’ bandwagon that many Christians have jumped on. That’s something that really annoys me. That’s not to say that there aren’t some incredible resources that are worth using (Tearfund being one of them) but I find the fact that almost every Christian youth work blogger is writing something about it a little tiring.
Hey, I understand why they (we) do it. It’s a big film. Lots of young people are going to go watch it. There are lots of issues to discuss about it. It’s worth talking about.
But it’s not the only film worth talking about. It’s not the only film with something to say.
Take the “woman in black’ for example. It has grossed more than £20 million at the UK box office and has become the most successful British horror film of all time. At least 60% of my youth group has seen it but a search online to find discussion resources for it yields no matches.
And why is that? I suspect because many Christians do not think it’s a ‘safe’ film. It’s not safe because it’s a horror movie that is created to scare you. For those people who would argue that point but would happily talk about ‘the hunger games’, I would ask whether a film about young people killing each other for the entertainment of adults is ‘safe’ but that would be disingenuous.
We need to be talking about all sorts of films with young people because young people watch all sorts of films. Not talking about films like the ‘woman in black’ or telling young people not to watch it does not help. They will still watch it. Promoting only certain films like ‘the hunger games’ does not help either.
Now I get that I some people don’t want to watch horror because it will scare them or give them nightmares. That’s understandable. But get someone else to see it then and tell you about it. Or check out the resources I’ll put up here and at the reel faith site shortly.
Do you agree with me?
- Practical ways of using film in youth work: Part 2 (smoorns.wordpress.com)
- Practical ways of using film in youth work: Part 1 (smoorns.wordpress.com)
- The Story of Film (smoorns.wordpress.com)