Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Book Review: Atonement for a Sinless Society

First, let me get this out of the way. This is a heavy book. It is a deep book. It's a book that makes you think. It's not easy Saturday afternoon reading. It's the kind of book that makes your head hurt. It begins like a freight train exploding out of a tunnel, and never lets up. So reader, beware. This one takes time.

On the other hand, it's a very important and necessary book, adding a much-needed voice into the 21st Century atonement discussion. It stands up there with Scot McKnight's A Community Called Atonement and Joel Green and Mark Baker's Recovering the Scandal of the Cross in calling the church to rethink the message of the cross of Christ in a multicultural, multilingual, postmodern, postChristian society.

Mann begins by making this somewhat startling claim: sin is dead. Or, to put it another way, we live in a 'sinless' society. But before you instantly write him off as a heretic, understand his reasoning.

"Sin has been caricatured, a tool for advertisers to suggest that a product is good and pleasurable. Far from being something to be avoided, sin is now part and parcel of the human desire that drives consumerist mentalities."

There is something deeper here, however, than simply a consumer-driven mindset. In actuality, sin is first and foremost a relational concept; sin is something we do against another, be it another person, or God. And both of those categories - the other, God - have all but disappeared from our thinking. Whether or not there is a God, belief in God has been waning for some time now; in addition, even many who would claim belief in God certainly live their lives as if God didn't exist. But even more, the postmodern self is an isolated self. In a world of I-pods and My-space, in a world lacking in deep relationship and community and familial relationships, in a world in which human beings have been reduced to consumers of products, people have lost any sense of "others." And, thus, "We live in a 'sinless' society because without the 'Other' there are no subjects to have wronged."

Even worse, where any concept of 'sin' exists it does so within the context of being 'sinned against,' rather than being a sinner. In other words, the 20th Century Therapeutic culture has successfully convinced people that "it's not your fault." We're all victims, be it of our parents, the institutions around us, or strangers in our world. ". . .the only obligation the client has is to his or her own self-realization, something deemed achievable without the 'Other', who is more likely to be perceived as the cause of traumas rather than the answer to them."

Now, astute readers may argue that Mann is discussing perception here more than reality, but that's exactly the point. Mann is not so concerned with the ontological nature of sin as he is the missional question of how we share the gospel of Christ. And for hundreds of years, that message has gone something like this:

1. You're sinner
2. You're guilty before God
3. The penalty of that guilt is death
4. Christ died in your place

However. . .when we attempt to tell this story today, people stop tracking right there at point 1. Since the people of this culture live in a 'sinless' society, any message beginning with concepts of sin and guilt will fall on deaf ears. Back in the day of big revivals and Four Spiritual Laws, people got this - they understood it. I've sinned. I've hurt others. I've hurt God and broken his laws. But today, people are more apt to protest "Wait! I'm the victim here!" And thus they never will stick around long enough to hear the message of the Gospel.

At the heart of Mann's work, though, is the understanding that, even as concepts of "sin" and "guilt" have passed away from our consciousness, people are no happier, nor fulfilled, than before. In fact, the utter isolation and separation that marks the lives of many people is just as miserable and painful as were earlier feelings of guilt and sin.

The new story goes something like this:

the post-industrialized self is able to push away the sins of moral misdemeanor. . .the intensity of emphasis placed upon the self has generated a chronic, internalized dis-ease, typically labeled 'shame'. . .shame has so consumed some, however, that they have taken on the identity of a shamed person and can only relate to themselves and to others as such."

In this new world, individuals still seek intimacy with other humans, but no longer out of a desire to know another; instead, "the self is primarily looking to satisfy its own need." There is a deep hunger for self-realization, and a latent understanding that relating to others is a necessary step to that self-realization. However, in the end, it's always about project "I." And, "once the 'Other' discovers that the agenda in relating is always 'I,' the person becomes disillusioned, cynical about relationships and the real reasons for social interaction."

And where this all leads:

"Thus a vicious cycle ensues: we long for intimacy, to have a deep sense of connectedness with ourselves and with 'Others.' However, the project of self-realization ultimately pushes the 'Other' away. Alone, the project of self-realization collapses in on itself, laying the seedbed for chronic shame to grow. . .With such fears the chronically shamed person hides behind masks, never truly connecting with others, never satisfying his or her need for intimate, mutual, undistorted relating - and so always falling short of what it means to be a human being, created in the image of the relational, Trinitarian God revealed in the Bible."

In other words: our society is awash in deep-seated feelings of shame, desiring above all else to share in mutual relationships, and yet knowing that, should they open up to the 'Other,' they will be rejected for being less-than perfect, less-than acceptable. For being a Loser, for being Lame, for being Stupid. Think of it this way: the images young people portray are all the images of who they want to be - cool, hip, sophisticated, partiers, fun, sexy - and so they present themselves on their facebook pages, their myspace profiles. Yet behind those stories lie their real selves, desperately seeking affection and unconditional love and acceptance; in fact, they desire Eden, where Adam and Eve were "naked yet had no shame." But there is no getting there, because of this reality: to be exposed is to be shamed, for none will truly love them and accept them as they need.

Shame, then, becomes the over-arching story for all postmoderns. "What becomes obvious is that she fears being exposed. . .for who she really is - a chronically shamed person, a self trying to live an unexposed life, fearful that others will 'notice' her and see the true self rather than the ideal. The self has a sense that it is defective and has a basic flaw that ensures its unacceptability and rejection by those whom it loves."

The ultimate result of all of this is a serious distortion in any and every relationship - their relationships with others, their relationship with God, and even their relationship with themselves.

It is at this very point that we can begin to discuss atonement. What people seek most of all is mutual, accepting relationship - someone who will love and accept them as they really are. And, at its most basic level, this is the story of Jesus and the cross.

Mann spends significant time expounding on the narrative surrounding the cross, bringing it to bear on our own narrative. Our experience is this: often, people will say they are "for" us; and yet, just when we need them most, they turn from us. This rejection feeds right into our psyche of shame. Jesus, on the other hand, said he was "for" us and then proved it. His "real" self lived out the "ideal" self which he presented to the world. In more common parlance, his "talk" was proven by his "walk." Not only did he say "greater love has no man than this, than to lay down his life for his friends"; he went out and actually did it - he gave up his life for his friends, rather than run away in self-protection.

Mann makes much of this issue of "ontological coherence" - the idea of being complete and true and coherent, even at our deepest levels. As humans, we lack this kind of coherence. Our "ideal" self is never matched by our "real" self. And this is the heart of our shame, why we never reveal our "real" self." Jesus, on the other hand, was completely true to himself. And the cross was the proof of that. He certainly made a lot of promises; had he turned and walked away from the cross, he would have proven that his "true" self was just like ours - a sad shadow of the "ideal." Instead, when faced with the option of allowing himself to be killed, or running away and saving himself, Jesus chose the former, and thus proved that his word can be trusted. His love and acceptance can be trusted. And here we begin to overcome the power of shame.

In fact, it is on the other side of that cross, at the resurrection, that the possibility of new, undistorted life begins. Having proved that his love conquered even death itself, Jesus invited all to enter into this new life he had begun.

"Rather paradoxically, Jesus' pursuit of death in actuality becomes the pursuit of life. The postmodern fears that, in living for the 'Other,' we die to ourselves. At the cross, Jesus subverts this rationale. Living for the 'Other' (even unto death) leads us from a place of isolation, alienation and meaningless insufficiency as a human being to a coherent ontology and to a place of mutual, undistorted, unpolluted relating - to a life that conquers emotional, spiritual and (almost inexplicably) physical death."

Now, I've almost completely ignored one of the major tenets of Mann's work, which is that, to the postmodern, fact is nothing and narrative is everything. One can confront postmoderns with the Fact of sin and guilt, or with the Fact of shame and fear, but it will continue to slide off. Postmodern people define their reality (much as premoderns did) via story and narrative. Thus, the counter to the narrative of shame is not the Fact of the cross, but the Story of Christ, living a life of love and truth, sharing meals with the outcast and the shamed, dying himself as the most shamed and yet returning with continued love and acceptance.

As an example of this at work, Mann counterposes the stories of Jesus and Judas at the last supper, and in so doing presents Judas in a new and, I believe, refreshing light.

For too long, Judas has been caricaturized as the conniving, greedy, satan-filled villain of the story. The truth is, the scriptures leave plenty of room to discuss the final motives for his actions. Perhaps he was simply greedy, or making a play for power. On the other hand, does he not fit this description, penned by Stephen Pattison and quoted by Mann?

Some shamed people lack a sense of personal worth and value. This means that they may act compliantly and in such a way as to attract approval from outside themselves rather than being concerned to do the right thing or what is best for others. The need to be acceptable may also cause shamed people to lie or be dishonest.

Mann recognizes that we may never fully know what Judas was up to. But that's not the issue. The fact is, Judas easily becomes the recognizable figure to the post-modern self, seeking value and worth in the absence of true relationship. "The post-industrialized self reads the story of Judas and recognizes someone traumatized by the dis-ease of chronic shame."

Point of fact: while the reader often focuses solely on Judas the betrayer, it is usually missed that the other disciples are all betraying Jesus, and each other, at the same time. Each is left to ask "Is it I who will betray you?" To add to the pain, note that nobody followed Judas out of the room as he left to make his final bargain. "Surely the disciples could feel the distress that must have come over Jesus as he watched one of his closest friends depart. Still, for whatever reason, there was no attempt to stop him, no one willing to inquire after his welfare. He was left to his own devices, to disappear from their lives into the darkness." To top it all off, in Luke's telling of the story, "even as the door closes behind Judas, an argument breaks out as to who is the closest to Jesus, the most loyal friend, the truest companion and therefore the most important in the kingdom." All are self-serving, all seeking after their own gain.

When told this way, the postmodern reader will quickly identify. This hodgepodge group, all self-serving and self-seeking, all presenting their ideal self - "I will never betray you, Jesus" - while at the same time living the reality of their true self - focused only on their own gain.

And Judas plays one final role - he displays for us the ultimate response to complete personal breakdown. The pain of the fracture between ideal and reality becomes too strong, and Judas kills himself. He can no longer endure the isolation, the loneliness, the incoherence, and death - non-identity - becomes preferable to carrying on.

Jesus, however, plays the counter-story, the story that gives us hope.

To frame Jesus once more with the narrative of Judas: both Judas and Jesus die on trees away from human relating. Though both, it may be suggested, are 'offerings', only one is efficacious. Judas does not restore his own relationships, or those of anyone else, through his death because he dies in the absence of mutual, unpolluted relating. His death represents his life, and the life of all who suffer the same absence - and that includes the postmodern self. . .Jesus' death, however, takes on this non-relatedness, this non-being, by making way for the possibility of a restoration of relationship - resurrection, even. . .

The cross. . .is not a place of judgment for the inadequacies and insufficiencies of human relating. Indeed, it is a place of acceptance, of embracing the human condition. Atonement is the presence of the 'Other' without condemnation.

So, then, what do we do? As the postmodern self is define by narrative, and that a painful, broken narrative, the answer is to tell a new (old) narrative - the narrative of Jesus, who died as he lived - seeking open, honest, mutual intimacy with those around him, and who destroyed even the final barrier, death itself, thus opening up the door for the rest of us to live lives of mutual, undistorted relationships.

Mann sketches out one primary method of telling that story - the Lord's Supper, or the Eucharist. Mann suggests we recast the liturgy of the Lord's Supper, so often told as a story of guilt, wrath, and forgiveness. Instead, the same story can be told as a story of broken lives posturing for self-gratitude while at the same time full of shame and loathing, and the one at the center who sees beyond all that and loves and accepts anyway. This story, re-enacted and lived whenever the church gathers around the table, tells the atoning work of Christ in ways that will sink in and reach a culture that knows its shame but knows nothing of guilt.

There is so much more here, so many other directions this book moves, so many powerful nuggets, but this review is too long already. Congratulations if you're still here. Obviously, I was impressed with the book, and am still wrestling with many of its questions and implications. I need to set it down for a bit and let my brain stew on it, before cracking it once again and seeking how to apply it in my life. As I said earlier, it's a heavy book, but a book for which I am very grateful. It's truly one of the most important books on the atonement that I've read in a couple years. I only hope this review has done it justice.


Next Up: Soul Revolution, by John Burke


Lori said...

Dan, you'll be proud of me, I read it twice. I had to read it again to make sure I tracked with what you were saying. I'm glad I did. This book is indeed deep and thought provoking. I'll have to get a copy and read more. Thanks for sharing. BTW, have you ever thought of writing summaries for book covers? I don't know what you call that, I'm sure there is a name, but anyway, you are so good at book reviews.

Alan Mann said...

Hi Dan,

This has to be one of the most accomplished reviews/overviews of my book on the web.

If it's OK with you, I will post a link to it on my own blog in the New Year (I'm taking a break for Christmas)


Many have loved the book, and most have commented how difficult it is to grasp, while at the same time recognizing the importance of what I've tried to do.

I'm actually thinking of updating and re-writing it for a much more popular market as this version is very much aimed at the under/postgraduate reader.

BTW - if you are wondering, my friend Mark Baker put me on to you :)

Have a blessed and peaceful Christmas and thanks for writing.

kevin said...

Hi Dan,

I'm wondering if, behind Mann's provocative claim of "sin is dead", there is something profoundly anti-heretical in what he says in his book. The traditional conception of being privileged substance over relation, and so traditional doctrines of sin associated depravity with the soul to say that humanity is sinful in the deepest way. Whereas contemporary conceptions of being privilege relation over substance. So, when Mann frames sin in terms of relation, is he perhaps upholding the idea that humanity is fundamentally depraved by reformulating a doctrine of sin in light of a contemporary understanding of being?

I might have to read this book... :-)