Atonement Raises Questions of the Heart

Note: This commentary was delivered by PFM President Mark Earley.

The film Atonement won a Golden Globe for Best Drama and has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. It may look like just another period drama, but there is something in this film that is resonating deeply with audiences. It might be the love story or the performances or even the look of the film, but I would venture that it is something deeper: the way it touches on one of our deepest spiritual needs. (Before I go on, you need to know that I am not recommending the film. It deserves its "R" rating. But I do think the film's themes are having an impact, and Christians should be ready to discuss them.)

The story revolves around a little girl named Briony Tallis, who tells a lie. She claims she saw a man who molested her cousin one night, when it was actually too dark for her to be sure of what she saw. For reasons of her own, Briony is convinced that she really knows who committed the crime and that she is doing the right thing by swearing that she saw him do it. But her lie sends an innocent man to prison and lets the real rapist go free.

Her guilt, as she comes to realize what she has done, haunts Briony for the rest of her life. The title of the film, though, is deeply ironic, because although she tries in her own way to atone, all her attempts fall short.

It makes the story all the more poignant when you learn that Ian McEwan, author of the critically acclaimed novel on which the film is based, is an atheist. In a recent interview, McEwan told the New Republic, "It is crucial that people who do not have a sky god and do not have a set of supernatural beliefs, assert their belief in moral values and in love and in the transcendence that they might experience in landscape or art or music or sculpture or whatever." He continues, "Since they do not believe in an afterlife, it makes them give more valence to life itself."

But when you apply McEwan's reasoning to his own story, the resulting principle is unbearable. Briony's victim had the only life he could ever know taken away from him. But Briony's plight is even worse. She is never able to earn forgiveness from the people she wronged, and, if McEwan's beliefs are correct, there is no God to forgive her for her disobedience to the "moral values." She has, as the novel suggests, played God with people's lives, but she has neither God's power of omniscience nor His power to bring good out of evil.

As his story suggests, McEwan's universe-as noble as he tries to make it sound-offers no second chances for those who get it wrong. Atonement, the theological doctrine that for Christians provides the path to a restored relationship with God, here becomes only an elusive, mocking wish that can never be fulfilled.

Although McEwan's atheism is not spelled out in the story, the viewer comes away with a sense of tragedy and waste that reflects the author's ideas, perhaps even better than he knows. But the film also makes us face our own desperate need for atonement and forgiveness. It just goes to show, yet again, that the truth of the human condition and the law of God are written on our hearts, no matter what we tell ourselves we believe.

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