It took me a while to read Atonement for a Sinless Society by Alan Mann.  It’s style is full of ultramergent pomo-babble which normally turns me away and made it tough going for this particular storied-self.  But the title intrigued me and piqued my curiosity.  Finding effective ways of communicating the gospel of atonement in away that is faithful to Scripture, inherently Christ-centred, and readily grasped by those who are hearing it is something I have grappled with (as all church leaders and teachers do I guess).  For this reason I persisted.

Mann’s main premise is that the word “sin” has become meaningless, semantically diluted, in our Western culture.  Consequently a gospel that speaks of atonement in terms of the alleviation of guilt, or the forgiveness of sin, fails to impact those who nevertheless are in need of atonement.  Mann’s suggestion is to consider the human predicament in terms of “shame” and the “incoherence” in their “story”, a difference between the story they tell of themselves to others, and their real self:

“The chronically shamed fear exposing the reality that the way they narrate themselves to others is not their real self.  They are insecure in their relating, constantly aware of the need to cover the self from the ‘Other’ for fear of being found socially unacceptable.  The shamed person lives lives in permanent state of hiding, even when interacting with others.  Only ever seeking to story their ideal-self, he or she never wants their real-self to be found.” (Page 41)

There are some strengths to looking at things this way.  For instance, shame is certainly part of the fallen human predicament (e.g. Adam & Eve hiding from God and each other).  So is relational dishonesty and that sense of incoherence between the who we aspire to be and who we actually are (e.g. Peter’s denial of Christ).

It also provides some useful handles on how we might consider the redeemed person.  Such a person has allowed themselves to be exposed before the ‘Other’ (expressing faith, contrition, perhaps repentance?) and has found themselves caught up in the story of One who has never been ontologically incoherent, namely Jesus.  Lives are “re-narrated” and therefore made coherent in Christ.

Analysis like this is not necessarily antagonistic to the truth of the gospel.  Mann explores this sense of shame, self-narration and coherence in great detail – including an explanation of narrative therapy.  Much of this is useful.

My difficulty with this book, therefore, is not so much the “What?” question but the “So what?” question.  Setting up a semantical framework which is broad enough to express the gospel is one thing, actually bringing it to bear in a useful way for the Kingdom is another.

One of Mann’s problem is that he ends up preaching his framework rather than simply doing what he suggests.  For instance, in proclaiming “We come to reflect on his story.  But we also come to reflect on our own story.” (From a proposed Communion liturgy on page 169) he misses his own point.  Just tell the story of Jesus so it impacts our own!

He does do this somewhat in an intriguing comparison of the deaths of Judas and Jesus – both hanging on a tree, both under a curse.  Judas’ is the result of his incoherence – a shame-filled suicide.  Jesus’ is the result of his coherence – the being true to himself as obedient Son to the point of death.  The juxtaposition of how one is redemptive and the other is not is a useful exercise.  And the application whereby we all see ourselves in Judas is also helpful.

But even in this he never quites get there.  He may get us to look to Jesus’ coherence on the cross… but then what?  Are we simply to be inspired?  Follow his example?  If we are made coherent because of Jesus – what actually causes that coherence, upon what does it rest?  Mann talks about the “restory-ing of the self” (Page 151) through ritual (particularly Communion) but in this Jesus is simply an inspiring character, not a sovereign Saviour.

I think it’s indicative of a nervousness about being objective in any way, or to talk about sin-in-terms-of-guilt in any form.  For instance, Mann wants absolution in liturgy to be deliberately ambiguous so that all people can bring their own story to it and notes that “this is perhaps a story that only those who already dwell in the fuller picture of the story of salvation can understand.” (Page 157)  For me this speaks of telling one story to the uninitiated and another to the more fully initiated – isn’t this the same incoherence we are trying to find an answer for?  No, narrative needs to meet truth at the beginning, and delve deeper as the spirit leads – but that will never be askance to what is first heard.

I think this book is well motivated and it is one of the better engagements of the gospel with postmodernity that I have read.  His framework is not inherently flawed and would be contextually appropriate in many places (including Mann’s own circle I suspect).  But it needs some theological precision so as to make Christ, not story, central – and an actual telling of the story, more than telling the story of the story.

The book concludes with a conversation between Mann and fellow author Robin Parry who interacts with Mann at his weakest points.  It’s by far the most productive part of the book to read and makes the task of reading the book somewhat satisfying rather than annoyingly circuitous.

Recently I posted an article on the facebook group Club Theo < and a member quoted me, writing:

Hi Will, I like what you said here:
“The resurrection can thus be seen the Father’s act to honour the son’s act of self-sacrifice – and to bring not only Christ, but all those he counts as “his” – into a place of new life and authority.”
What verses/ideas did this flow out of? I’d not heard it put this way before, but it rings true to me. (perhaps a new discussion is now born??)

Well, here’s some thoughts-on-the-fly and a bit of a biblical cherry-pick. I would like, at some point, to do this properly, dip into the greek etc., but for now I’ll do what time allows.

There’s two points to make:

  1. That the resurrection is primarily the act of the Father.
  2. The act of the Father is, at least to some degree, a response to Christ’s act on the cross.

If these two points are true then we have an insight into that wonderful phrase (hinted in an entry in my Connections blog): “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Rom 4:25).

So here goes:

There are lots and lots of places where Jesus foretells the resurrection in the passive – e.g. “…until the Son of Man is raised” (Mt 17:9). See also Mt 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; 26:32; Mk 14:28; Lk 9:22. And also after the resurrection the simple descriptions are also in the passive – “He has been raised from the dead” (Mt 28:7). See also Mk 16:6; Lk 24:6; Jn 2:22; Jn 21:14. The implication is that the Father, or at least “God” is the active participant in the resurrection.

In Acts we have many similar simple descriptions – but we also start seeing some reason being ascribed. Consider:

Acts 2:23-24 – This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.”

Although the reason for the “impossibility” for the hold of death is not given, there is at least a sense that God’s action to raise Christ was a right thing to do, not an arbitrary thing to do. [For further consideration: implications of the quote from Psalm 16 in Acts 2:25-28, it is quoted again in Acts 13:34-35 where the “reason” for the resurrection is related to a fulfillment of covenantal promise]

The Pauline epistles, especially Romans, also use the passive “raised” and Paul is quick to apply the resurrection to us as part of the justification process:

Romans 6:4 – “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

Romans 8 is probably my favourite chapter in Scripture and contains the wonderfully trinitarian reference to “the Spirit”, “the Spirit of God” “the Spirit of Christ” and “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead” (Rom 8:9-11). Galatians 1:1 specifies, explicitly, that it is the Father who is the “raiser.”

In the letter to the Hebrews we, once again, see some reason/cause or purpose to the Father’s actions:

Hebrews 2:9 – “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”

In the end (and I’ve probably missed a whole heap of passages – so feel free to point them out to me), I think this famous passage sums it up:

Philippians 2:8-9 – “… he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name…”

In this well-known “hymn” the cross and it’s death is an act of the Son’s self-sacrifice and obedience – and the resurrection is an act of God – who “exalted” him and a response “therefore.” [For further consideration – exact nature of the “therefore” in the greek.]

Perhaps I can conclude with something of a blessing:

Heb 13:20-21 – May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleaseing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen