I have slowly been watching The Last Kingdom on Netflix. I hope they don’t disappear it before I am done. It is a surprisingly religious show which my wife should like. But it is also bloody, which she does not like. So I watch it on very rare occasions when I am watching TV alone.
I won’t tell you the whole medieval plot: soap opera, action/adventure, theological Ted talk all rolled into one. The heart of the plot, usually, is what it means to love. Last night King Alfred had to decide whether to give all the treasure of Wessex to ransom his kidnapped daughter from the Vikings (a daughter who fell in love with a Viking and spiced up the plot, since we all hate her husband). Alfred asked his wife if he were being selfish not to let his daughter die for the sake of the country and impoverishing peasants to get the silver required to pay off his enemies. She told him, “Your honor and hers cannot be ruined by the shameful spectacle of leaving the symbol of God’s anointed in the hands of the pagans.” Another advisor told him he was, indeed, betraying his duty as king for the love of his daughter. It was another interesting Christian thought problem. Should the king sacrifice everything for the love of his child? Should the child sacrifice herself for the good of the country? Is justice or love the main question? Is there another way?
Much of the conundrum (in a TV show!) circled around the doctrine of “substitutionary atonement” which began to develop into the preeminent doctrine it is about the time Alfred was king. I am not a fan of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement as it is generally taught, although I work with it since it is one of the atonement explanations offered in the Bible [here is a short explanation of all of them]. At the basis of the explanation is the idea there is always a law to be honored, a principle to be served, some justice that must be satisfied. Jesus pays the ransom due; he takes the judgment we deserve; God sacrifices his own son to save us from the consequences of sin.
This can sound legal and distant, just the facts. It already happened, just receive the gift. In King Alfred’s case there is a deep love to be expressed. He will give all his treasure, even at the risk of denying his vocation as king and risking the capacity of his beleaguered country to survive, because he wants his daughter back. People take the love out of substitution, as if the whole thing is happening in a courtroom. But The Last Kingdom offered a scene that shows how it is the king’s love that offers everything to the evil in which the child is held. He is working with the evil deal that runs the world. He satisfies the false justice and does it extravagantly for the sake of his beloved child. God did the same for all of us in Jesus.
There are other explanations, other ways
As if turns out, the still-pagan warrior who is pledged to Alfred (for a variety of reasons) manages to free the daughter and upend the Viking conquest plans. There are many other ways for God to rescue us, too. The plotline of God’s love for humanity is extensive.
Sometimes I feel like a pagan warrior surprising one of my Christian clients with an escape route they did not imagine. The worst side of the dogma of substitutionary atonement is the idea that we are so bad we are about to be sentenced to death for our many sins. Justice must be satisfied, because King God must preserve the basis of his kingdom, which is his holiness, his sovereign rule, his law. My clients often feel like a stench in God’s nostrils (as they have been told they are). At best, their inner critic is always matching them up with who they should be according to the law instead of the wretch who causes the blood of God’s Son to be shed. In their heads they know they have been saved, but it is hard to dislodge the deep wound of shame for causing Jesus to die — especially since they are quite sure they will sin again.
On the other side of Christianity, the one before the Roman Empire became the Roman Catholic Church and beget all the other Eurocentric churches, lies J. Phillip Newell and his deep appreciation for Celtic Christianity. This pre-Roman faith is still soundly Biblical but not infected so deeply with the law-oriented dogma with which so many are familiar. Here is his experience of sloughing off the worst aspect of substitutionary atonement as taught in the church of his youth.
I had an epiphany moment in my early adolescence. It came through someone else [than God] who looked to my heart, my mother’s mother. She lived with us when I was a boy. Granny Ferguson, from Banffshire in Scotland, was a presence of unconditional love in my life. I could do no wrong in her eyes even though she knew full well I was a mischievous “scallywag,” as she called me. But she looked at my heart. I knew that to her I was precious….I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there was nothing I could so that would make my granny not love me. And so my epiphany moment came when I realized that Granny was more loving than the God of my religious tradition.
I had been given the impression that God somehow required payment to forgive, whereas I knew that my granny would never need to be paid to forgive me. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement, and the general religious atmosphere that surrounds the dogma, struck me as a violation of everything I most deeply knew about love, that it is entirely free. Who are the people who have truly loved us in our lives? Could we imagine them ever needing to be paid to forgive? In my mind, it was like the prostitution of God, payment for love. I did not have theological tools at that time to unpack the implications of this realization, but I knew deep within myself that there was something wrong with my religious inheritance. – Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation by J. Philip Newell (2008)
King Alfred thought his daughter was precious (and so did the Viking who saved her life from abuse in captivity!). She was loved. That’s why she was going to be ransomed. That’s why he made a binding deal for her, as was customary in that time. That’s why King Alfred was willing to give everything.
Love is the heart of the story
But I think Newell has a better answer for the depressed, anxious, fearful and angry Christians I meet in therapy. It may take a long time for many of them to become porous enough to feel the love of others or the love of God. It could take a long time to let the idea of being precious to someone or to God get through their wall of constant self-criticism. They are living the famous line from Groucho Marx: “I do not want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member.“ Self-loathing may be human, but elements of the church have made things worse. As a result of bad teaching, many of us look at ourselves in ways God, like Newell’s granny, never would.
Rather than seeing Jesus receiving the sentence we deserve, which is more a reduction of the Bible explanation than the whole of it, I think I might prefer to see Jesus as a wild warrior, driven by love, available at just the right time, against all odds, to save us from what has us in its clutches – like the grip of condemnation that keeps some of my clients committed to their captivity. Many depressed, angry, critical Christians are stuck working out a piece of logic in which the facts are all stacked against them and God is so interested in justice he will kill anyone who stands in its way. They perform goodness to stay off his radar or exact justice to please him. But they would rather be loved. Thank God that is really at the heart of the story!