The narrative testimony of Kierkegaard and rowling: fidelity as the basic criterion in substitutionary atonement.
THE execution of Jesus was intentionally brutal and humiliating, so how was it that Christianity made the astonishing achievement of transforming it into a deep mystery inspiring reverence and contemplation? Within a generation of Jesus' death, substitutionary atonement appeared as a possible explanation. Early Christianity found this understanding supported and likely inspired by the resonance of Christ's death with the Suffering Servant motif in Isaiah. Jesus was understood as willingly offering his death as a sacrifice, and in accepting this offer God transformed what was experienced as a meaningless murder to a permanently efficacious remedy for sin. Substitutionary atonement thus helped change the cross from a scandal to a purposeful event demonstrating God's desire to save. However, by handing down to each generation the central event of the Cross, Christians cannot help but inspire anew the question of how a tortuous crucifixion can at all have purpose in the divine plan for salvation.
That Jesus is the divine Son of God who brings salvation from sin by dying (and rising) for the sake of all people is a doctrine of Christianity--perhaps its most foundational. But, what exactly happens in this substitutionary atonement rightly remains open to theological explanation. The tradition has held certain starting points for that reflection as unalterable, even if they lead to difficulties or paradoxes. It must be held that the Father loves the Son and the Son the Father. The Father does not force the Son to become incarnate and die. The cross is a gift from God to human beings, but it is made possible by the obedience and yet also free will of the Son. Of course, these positions only set the parameters.
Even a brief survey of the recent and prolific discussion of how the atonement saves demonstrates its continuing need for explanation. A pivotal moment can be traced to Gustaf Aulen's Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, published in 1931. It suggests that western Christianity had strayed from what he calls the "classic model" of atonement that he believes to be prevalent in early Christianity. In it, Jesus conquers Satan's earthly dominion through his work to cure the sick and cast out demons. Even Satan's most powerful weapon, death, was destroyed when Jesus rose from the dead. This model faded as western Christianity moved away from an interest in the supernatural power of Satan toward a more rational, juridical, and punitive understanding of divine justice. Aulen's position has since been recognized as limited by its use of the patristic sources and by a particularly Lutheran interpretation. His work, though, motivated theologians to recognize the diversity of explanations about the efficacy of substitutionary atonement in the early Church.
The question prominent today is the role of violence in the notion of substitution itself. Marit Trelstad introduces the volume Cross Examinations by noting that feminist and womanist theologians, in particular, reject theories of atonement that validate patriarchal use (and abuse) of violence and its endorsement of these practices in western culture. Others, like J. Denny Weaver in The Nonviolent Atonement, argue that any explanation that relies on the Father using violence against the Son cannot be accepted. Still others return to the Pauline epistles, which in the past have been read as describing a Father who needs the sacrifice provided by the Son in order to forgive sins. For example, both James Dunn in The Theology of the Apostle Paul and Stephen Finlan in Problems with Atonement: The Origins of and Controversy about, the Atonement Doctrine suggest that Paul interprets Jesus' death as a substitutionary sacrifice but not a penalty paid to God for sin, as if God demanded the violence of the cross. Yet another approach is taken by S. Mark Heim who, in Saved from Sacrifice: a Theology of the Cross, borrows from the work of Rene Girard to argue that the very violence of the cross suggests not violence demanded by God but an explicit rejection by God of all violent and scapegoating sacrifice. God takes the misdirected murder of Jesus and employs it to end religious violence.
As this brief survey highlights, the role of violence is a contested image in atonement. The central issue is whether God may be appropriately "blamed" for the violence of Jesus' crucifixion since the sacrifice of the cross has been proclaimed to be the medium of reconciliation with God. There is also the closely following question of whether violence is necessary (or even possible) for achieving something that is ultimately good--that is, salvation. Hans Boersma in Violence, Hospitaliy, and the Cross helpfully exposes the issues involved:
The cross is not simply an arbitrary divine punishment inflicted on God's Son, a punishment that could have taken place at any time and in any place, but is a historically dated expression of God's hospitality, accompanied by the type of violence (punishment) without which such hospitality cannot materialize. (171)
Boersma here substitutes the notion of hospitality as a close corollary to salvation. Hospitality is an invitation to a relationship that extends to some but not to others since not all wish to be or are appropriately invited into a relationship of mutual love. To be sure, Boersma's description represents one end of the spectrum regarding the use of violence and atonement. More importantly, in making this claim he shows that the contemporary discussion about atonement and salvation entangles several factors, such as the relationship of violence to punishment, the cross's implication for God's care of the Son, and the necessity of the cross as a form of just violence in exchange for salvation.
I cite Boersma only as a way of showcasing the themes involved in current thinking about atonement; useful examples could also be found in many other works. But, rather than respond to any of these directly by employing yet another argument from systematic or moral theology, this paper makes an appeal to literature in order to reassert the importance of the relationship between the Father and Son which precedes the atonement itself. The role of violence is critical to be sure, but the value of that role must always be in keeping with the nature of a relationship between father and son. In the case of the divine Father and Son, this will be one of absolute fidelity that preexists sin or even creation. This paper suggests that any model of atonement that does not maintain the fidelity of that relationship cannot be viable. To make this claim, I argue that our literary sensibility finds narratives to be deeply troubling when they involve a betrayal of even the imperfect fidelity of earthly fathers and sons. Further, such infidelity is an unconvincing way of achieving an ultimately satisfying solution to narrative conflicts. In particular, I argue that J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Soren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling explicitly show this kind of betrayal, but the narratives themselves find it so disturbing that they must provide excuses for it. These works thus showcase the expectation we have as readers that trust and fidelity are at the heart of our human relationships--an expectation that must be likewise maintained between the divine Father and his Son.
One clarification is necessary: It is important to emphasize that the " narratives of Kierkegaard and Rowling are not employed here in order to make an overly facile connection between their protagonists and Christ. They rather point to the genuinely human predicament of being betrayed. It is not important or even helpful to proceed as if the value of their characters depended on their conformity to the image of a Christ figure. The first problem with such an approach is that the literary type of the Christ figure is open to a wide spectrum of presentation. For example, Lloyd Baugh in Imagining the Divine develops a list of eleven characteristics (not all of which need to be present) for identifying these figures in film. Some of them, like having moments of prayer, or a concern for justice, or being the innocent victim of suffering, seem hardly unique to Christ (206-08). This kind of generality fails to say much about any particular protagonist. A second, more serious, difficulty in employing the Christ-figure label can be seen in the Christian responses to Harry Potter that see him as a kind of covert Christian. John Granger, for example, writes about The Chamber of Secrets for the Bulletin of the New York C. S. Lewis Society:
The Harry Potter books do not offer a generic "good over evil" message. Ms. Rowling writes the powerful, spiritual answer in story form to mankind's larger questions in the only language even a post Christian culture can understand: she writes in the symbols and doctrines of the Christian faith. Harry Potter fans enjoy a resurrection experience in every book and are awash in word pictures and images of Christ and souls in pursuit of perfection in Him. (Granger)
Here, Harry is as a kind of Christ that can enliven the culture's sense of God's care. Kristin Johnston gives a similar interpretation: Harry shows a "self-sacrificial love, love that is stronger than death" and a love that "risks itself for the salvation of another" (par. 34). Similarly, Jeffery Weiss in his review of The Deathly Hallows notes specifically that Harry's death suggests a strong parallel to the Christian notion of substitutionary atonement because he suffers on behalf of his friends, even of the whole wizarding world, to bring about the defeat of Voldemort.
The approach of Baugh and the conclusions of Granger, Johnston, and Weiss represent a particular way of correlating literature (or film) with theological investigation. This method generally subordinates literary uniqueness and worth to theological criteria. Ironically, this method is shared with those who oppose the Harry Potter novels because of their association with magic. (1) In both cases, Harry's literary value lies in the degree to which he points toward or away from Christ. (2)
Another way to proceed, however, is to give literature an equally critical voice in theological reflection by recognizing that a truth revealed in literature must be taken into account in the meaning and practice of Christianity. David Tracy gives a classic explanation of this method in The Analogical Imagination, describing it as an effort to find the questions and responses produced by a mutually critical interchange between cultural and religious classic texts. More recently, Rebecca Chopp in "The Poetics of Testimony" represents others who would prefer to describe this way of reading by saying that literary texts offer a "testimony" about human experience (especially of those who are oppressed) to which theology must respond. Whether we appeal to the arguments of Tracy or Chopp, it seems possible to read literature in such a way that it should inform theological explanations of the Christian faith. In this case, the issue involves the implications of substitutionary atonement for the relationship between Jesus and his Father.
FEAR and Trembling does not shrink from Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac but glorifies it as a supreme act of faith? According to Ronald Green in "Developing Fear and Trembling," Kierkegaard intends to remind readers of the anxiety that accompanies true obedience to God. His interpretation of Abraham "is meant to replace the centuries-old understanding of faith as merely an acceptance of dogmatic truths" (259). Yet, even with its existentialist connotations, the term "anxiety" may not adequately grasp that what God calls a "sacrifice" in Genesis 22 looks much more like the willingness of a father to murder his child. Kierkegaard points to the betrayal inherent in the trip to Mount Moriah in the Exordium to Fear and Trembling. Here Kierkegaard imaginatively portrays the events of Genesis 22 in four distinct vignettes, each depicting differently Abraham's motivation and Isaac's response. In section I, Abraham's countenance on the journey "epitomized fatherliness," but it becomes wild and unrecognizable when the moment of the sacrifice arrives. For Abraham, it is better for Isaac to hate his father than to hate God (10). Again in section III, Abraham cannot escape his guilt "that it was a sin that he had been willing to sacrifice to God the best that he had, the possession for which he would have gladly died many times" (13).
Kierkegaard's pseudonymous author, Johannes, proposes that Abraham may embark on such a clear act of betrayal because Abraham has achieved the paradox of faith. The paradox results from a dialectical movement between resignation and hope with each pole simultaneously absorbing one's entire attention. In terms of resignation, Abraham must first "have the power to concentrate the whole substance of his life and the meaning of actuality into a single desire" and "one act of consciousness" (42-43). Then, he must recognize that he cannot have what he desires and willingly separate himself from it. All the while, he must maintain his desire for what cannot be possessed. At the opposite pole of the dialectic, he must hope in the "absurd," or the recognition that "for God all things are possible" (46). The absurd is the source of his faith that he will have what he most deeply desires without being able to say just how or why. However, this hope does not mean that what is desired will actually be possessed now, in the realm of experience--Isaac must be lost. Abraham "acknowledge[s] the impossibility" of somehow keeping him even while "in the very same moment he believes the absurd," which is to say he must believe Isaac can be saved (47).
Johannes, however, recognizes that Abraham's actions require some sort of further defense if they are not to be seen as murderous. Hence, he argues that Abraham's faith in the absurd must also equal a total trust in God that elevates him individually above the universal prohibition against murder (56). That is, Abraham, precisely as the one of perfect faith, has a unique status that can be seen by his dispensation from the command "do not kill." So, while it must remain true that no individual can be ethical apart from universal principles, Abraham's perfect faith means that he has achieved an absolute relation with God that exists outside the bounds of a universal ethics. For Kierkegaard, complete faith can only exist in this way. It would otherwise not be distinguishable from perfectly following universal moral norms. The text thus attempts to excuse Abraham's (and God's) actions through a paradox. Abraham must not murder because then he would sin, yet this ethical rule must not prevent him from following God's demand to kill Isaac (62), for then he would not have faith. As a result, the only way to avoid calling Abraham a murderer is to say that the notion of murder somehow does not apply to Isaac's death (66). In fact, Johannes explains that Abraham's greatest temptation would be to allow the ethical to become a reason for failing to kill Isaac (60).
Kjell Johansen's "Fear and Trembling--the Problem of Justification" illuminates an important point by suggesting that Kierkegaard's line of defense attempts to distinguish the aesthetic, ethical, and religious spheres of experience. According to Johansen, this implies that a set of judgments in one realm does not necessarily apply to another (266). As a result, the duty to love God does not come from an ethical duty but from a duty toward the absolute. It comes from the divine itself, who exists beyond ethical reasoning. However, for Johansen, when Kierkegaard makes the two realms of the ethical and the religious distinct, he allows them to conflict in ways that cannot be resolved. As Johansen explains, your religious commitment "may bring you into conflict with the ethical," yet "the ethical is not thereby overridden, but remains in force" (264). That is, one can honor the absolute and still be a murderer. It follows that in terms of universal ethical demands, Abraham cannot be defended. Johansen shows how, despite the text's attempted defense, Abraham's obedience to God made in faith has become "a monstrous paradox capable of making murder into a holy act" (276).
It can now be seen that God's demand for the sacrifice of Isaac introduces anxiety for two sets of father and son relationships (God and Abraham and Abraham and Isaac), creating the dilemma at the heart of Fear and Trembling. Yet, Kierkegaard appears able to justify God and Abraham only by arguing that the most basic of ethical norms becomes an obstacle to proper conduct while also saying that Abraham's faith is not constrained by those norms. To quote Green again, "as an ethical treatise, Fear and Trembling leaves us strangely disturbed" (267). How could it not? "Johannes does not shrink from depicting Abraham as fully outside the ethical--as truly the murderer of his own son" (263).
It must be pointed out that at the root of the imbalance is the tellingly simple (but easily overlooked) dynamic described in an essay by Jonathan Malesic. Abraham's betrayal depends on God's refusal to tell Abraham that he will substitute a ram once he reaches Moriah, and Abraham likewise reveals nothing to Isaac. Without this secrecy, the narrative behind Genesis 22 becomes impossible. Secrecy, in other words, functions as a necessary condition for this potential sacrifice (463). Without it, Abraham could not suffer the trial by God, and Isaac would not need to question Abraham about what the offering will be. God, in whom Abraham trusts, creates the conditions for a betrayal between father and son. It is this secrecy that necessitates Kierkegaard's difficult appeal for Abraham's status as outside the ethical. The dangers to such a claim cannot help but lead to anxiety for both Abraham and the reader. In fact, Johannes repeatedly cautions others not to think that they too have become like Abraham and may sacrifice their sons because of a secret communication by God.
As in Fear and Trembling, anxiety about secrecy and betrayal haunts Rowling s The Deathly Hallows. While the narrative moves toward the final duel between Harry and Voldemort, Harry's primary struggle is to make sense of his relationship with his former headmaster, Albus Dumbledore. Harry already knows that the key to defeating Voldemort is to destroy what are known as horcruxes. These are the six magical objects into which Voldemort has placed pieces of his soul, which he has been able to divide through the darkest uses of magic. The quest to destroy these horcruxes began with Harry and Dumbledore in volume VI. In the process, Dumbledore showed himself to be exceptionally, even hyperbolically, intelligent and powerful. His death at the end of that volume is a shocking conclusion for the characters.
Until now, Harry has had little reason to doubt that Dumbledore was concerned for his safety. This is unusual in that, as Rowling has pointed out, the fathers of the series have often been the source of the greatest trouble (Grossman 65). The Headmaster, as the one stable father-figure, has earned Harry's continued loyalty even while he has trouble recognizing the authority of all the other adults of the series (Jacobs 36). Marguerite Krause offers good reason for such behavior. Writing of the early volumes, she notes that all the adults are flawed, including Dumbledore. The government is bureaucratic (and eventually untrustworthy and hostile); "His parents fail him by dying before he has a chance to know them. The Dursleys are narrow-minded and cruel; Hagrid, not too bright; Sirius, short-tempered and impulsive." Dumbledore's fault is of a different order in that he is "too willing to trust and love" (Krause 64). Despite Krause's observations, it must be admitted that Dumbledore's willingness to trust and love has also been the only guide for Harry to follow in a world where confusion and duplicity have forced him to make his own decisions. The final novel removes even this basic crutch, however, and slowly mounts evidence that suggests Dumbledore might have some very deep flaws. Tension surrounding the horcruxes recedes in importance as Harry discovers that his trust in Dumbledore has been abused, and that love seems not so strong after all. (4)
There is no doubt that this final volume of the Harry Potter series must move Harry out of the childhood world of simple truths and blind trust, especially concerning Dumbledore, his primary mentor. As Lawrence Watt-Evans has pointed out, anyone who knows their Joseph Campbell foresaw that at some point Dumbledore would have to exit the series so that Harry could find his own way (111). He must learn to deal with the ambiguous truths of the adult world on his own. So, it is expected that Harry will learn things about Dumbledore that surprise him. For example, he uncovers the fact that Dumbledore's father killed three non-wizards, that Dumbldore was offered the post of Minister of Magic but never accepted the job, that there were conflicting reports about the death of his sister Ariana, and that his relationship with his brother, Aberforth, was strained. However, in The Deathly Hallows, Harry uncovers Dumbledore's deepest secrets. The result is that, as in Feat" and Trembling, secrecy brings about what Harry feels to be a betrayal that leads to his apparent death.
The novel opens with what readers of the series will recognize as the typical insinuations that Dumbledore's relation with Harry has been merely self-serving. At first, Harry easily dismisses these rumors, but this only leads to a greater sense of betrayal when he uncovers more facts. Harry discovers that Dumbledore's sister died mysteriously, which is even more troubling because she had been kept in seclusion by the family for reasons that are not entirely clear. It may have been because she was a squib--a non-magical child of a wizarding family (154-55). This would certainly not be a reason for secrecy unless the family had an abhorrently high regard for magical (that is, racial) purity. Harry is especially disturbed by the thought that the Dumbledores might have kept Ariana confined because she would cause embarrassment. Ariana's situation seems close to his own:
Numbly Harry thought of how the Dursleys had once shut him up, locked him away, kept him out of sight, all for the crime of being a wizard. Had Dumbledore's sister suffered the same late in reverse: imprisoned for her lack of magic? And had Dumbledore truly left her to her fate while he went off to Hogwarts, to prove himself brilliant and talented? (156)
Still later, Harry discovers that Dumbledore also lived in the same village where Harry was born. "Never once, in six years, had Dumbledore told Harry that they had both lived and lost loved ones in Godric's Hollow. Why? ... [H]e felt it had been tantamount to a lie not to tell him that they had this place and these experiences in common" (158-159). These revelations seem minor, yet they leave Harry with an increasing sense of Dumbledore's dishonesty.
Harry thought of Godric's Hollow, of graves Dumbledore had never mentioned there ... and resentment swelled in the darkness. Why hadn't Dumbledore told him? Why hadn't he explained? Had Dumbledore actually cared about Harry at all? Or had Harry been nothing more than a tool to be polished and honed, but not trusted, never confided in? (177)
Dumbledore's brief and youthful friendship with Gellert Grindelwald adds to this mistrust. Together they had made plans for how the wizarding world might rule over non-magical human beings for their own good. Although Dumbledore eventually thinks better of the plan and defeats Grindelwald in a duel, the news disturbs Harry. This scheme sounds like Harry's archnemesis Voldemort's plans to become the supreme power over the magical and non-magical world.
In the face of these revelations, Hermione tries to comfort Harry, but "some inner certainty had crashed down inside him... He had trusted Dumbledore, believed him the embodiment of goodness and wisdom" (360). Later, Harry's feelings are amplified as he and Hermione discuss their predicament to find and destroy the horcruxes.
He flung his arms over his head, hardly knowing whether he was trying to hold in his anger or protect himself from the weight of his own disillusionment. "Look what he asked of me, Hermione! Risk your life, Harry! And again! And again! And don't expect me to explain everything, just trust me blindly; trust that I know what I am doing, trust me though I don't trust you! Never the whole truth! Never!" (362)
Hermione goes to the heart of the matter when she tries to convince Harry that Dumbledore loved him despite the lack of explanations, but Harry can only retort: "I don't know who he loved, Hermione, but it was never me. He shared a damn sight more of what he was really thinking with Gellert Grindelwald than he ever shared with me" (362).
The climactic moment in this series of discoveries arrives with the shocking news that Harry must sacrifice himself to Voldemort. Through the clever use of one of Rowling's mythopoetic devices, Dumbledore--though dead--makes this demand. An object known as the "pensieve" allows a person to travel into the virtual world of another's memories. Through it Harry learns from the memories of Severus Snape (Harry's minor nemesis throughout the series) that Voldemort cannot be killed until Harry allows himself to be destroyed by the evil wizard. Dumbledore had discovered that Harry was himself a horcrux and had hidden this from him in order to give him time to destroy the others (686). Even Snape protests that Dumbledore has kept Harry alive "like a pig for slaughter" (687). Of course, Harry's own feelings match closely, but it also carries a sense of relief. "Finally, the truth... Harry understood at last that he was not supposed to survive. His job was to walk calmly into Death's welcoming arms" (691). For the first time, Harry's interpretation of events can be unambiguous. He finds comfort in the fact that Dumbledore's actions toward him should never have been confused as intending friendship but only the defeat of Voldemort. Harry now understands. "Dumbledore's betrayal was almost nothing. Of course there had been a bigger plan; Harry had simply been too foolish to see it, he realized that now. He had never questioned his own assumption that Dumbledore wanted him to live" (692). Quite the opposite, for it seems Dumbledore has spent much more time planning Harry's death.
Rowling has worked hard to establish this narrative betrayal by creating a deeply flawed Dumbledore. Harry's discoveries about Dumbledore occur in the context of his search for the horcruxes and so allows this sense of betrayal to be drawn out through the length of the novel. This also means that the anxiety accompanying the search for the pieces of Voldemort's hidden and dangerous soul creates a bleak association with what is revealed about Dumbledore and who he might really be. As the novel progresses, tension resulting from one is hardly distinguishable from concern over the other. This conceit works because Harry's indignant feelings show what he and the reader already know but which has not been openly stated: Harry has been hoping to have from Dumbledore the love and protection a child would receive from a father. Instead, he has found betrayal and, it seems, his own murder.
However, as with Kierkegaard's narrative in Fear and Trembling, The Deathly Hallows also finds it necessary to ultimately excuse Dumbledore's actions. After his apparent death at the hands of Voldemort, Harry meets Dumbledore in a version of King's Cross Station. It is a midpoint between life and death, a place where, as Dumbledore explains, Harry must choose to live or die. The pseudo King's Cross Station gives Harry an opportunity to learn Dumbledore's motivations and to discover that he never really expected him to die. Dumbledore had "guessed" that the same love that had kept Harry alive when Voldemort attacked him as a child would prevent him from dying this time too (710). Harry now in fact can choose whether he wants to return to the world of his friends and Voldemort or to go on to another existence, the quality of which the novel leaves unexplained. In this way, Dumbledore is protected from blame for his demand that Harry sacrifice himself. In the end, it is Harry who must make the choice to live or die. This plan to protect Dumbledore also explains a rather confusing development in the novel's plot. At the time of Harry's death, only five of the six horcruxes protecting Voldemort have been destroyed, while the sixth, the snake Nagini, is still well protected. Voldemort will thus survive--as Harry himself realizes (693). In actuality, Harry's death, or sacrifice by Dumbledore, would not directly lead to Voldemort's destruction. The novel reserves that for the final duel where it can be the result of Harry's own skill and bravery.
ALTHOUGH the sacrifices of Harry and Isaac never occur, these narratives presume them to be genuine possibilities. In fact, they constitute the primary source of tension in the texts. Why? The readers' anxiety about Abraham and Isaac on one hand, and Dumbledore and Harry on the other, points to the expectation that such sacrifices are disturbing and ought not occur in authentic relationships. Importantly, this is not the same as saying that these texts prescribe what art or literature should attempt to depict. Rather, their artistry lies precisely in forcing the reader to confront what they do not wish to: the possibility of a betrayal that might lead to the death of these characters. Some narratives do in fact end in such a betrayal, but they work against our expectations for a "good" ending (often purposely) so that even these kinds of narratives ultimately remind us that readers hope for faithful relationships.
This way of reading reveals that fidelity serves as a basic criterion for judging relationships. Because we in fact read this way, we instinctively reject Kierkegaard's defense of Genesis 22 as unjust. Removing Abraham's guilt by setting him outside the category of the ethical altogether fails as a justification for possibly murdering one's own son and seems more than deeply problematic for all human relationships. A similar sense of justice requires that Dumbledore be deeply flawed. Without that, readers have little reason for believing he would actually "betray" Harry. Even then, those flaws would only mitigate the fault involved rather than excuse Dumbledore altogether if he had first used Harry to find the horcruxes to only insist that he must also die. As a result, the text attempts to further insulate Dumbledore against this reading by making sure Harry's "death" would not lead directly to Voldemort's destruction.
What does this narrative testimony suggest about substitutionary atonement? Primarily, it proposes that any explanation of atonement which violates our expectation for fidelity runs counter to our human expectations for storytelling. The discussion of Fear and Trembling and The Deathly Hallows offered here not only proposes the presence of these expectations but also proposes that when they are not met, a betrayal seems to be involved. In these two cases, even the texts themselves find it difficult to justify Abraham's and Dumbledore's efforts to accomplish some greater good by possibly giving over to death the one they should instead protect. Our narrative instinct in favor of fidelity--even at the cost of the greater good--points to the necessity that this quality also be preserved in the relationship between the Father and the Son.
Clearly, the violence of the cross cannot be neglected in any explanation of substitutionary atonement. An insistence on absolute fidelity cannot nor should remove the cruelty of the crucifixion, but it does remind us of the priority of the relationship between the Father and Son that precedes the atonement itself. The Christian tradition affirms that this relationship is one of absolute love, making it difficult to accept that it could be the Father who demands violence as essential to atonement while knowing that such a demand can only be fulfilled by the Son. But, rather than fall into an argument of systematic theology (or of another kind), I instead suggest that the narrative testimony summoned here reveals that this dynamic could only be seen as an act of betrayal. Kierkegaard and Rowling posit situations where violence might seem justified--even necessitated--either by ultimate faith in God or for the defeat of evil for the greater good. Yet, our way of reading texts--our narrative sensibility--suggests that fidelity which proceeds from love cannot accept that any kind of genuine and lasting benefit may be achieved through such possible "sacrifices" as those of Isaac and Harry. When betrayals do occur in narratives, their literary impact depends on reversing the readers' expectations, and so validates those expectations in the process.
In the end, however, the point is not that substitutionary atonement must be a good story but that good stories tell us what we expect from relationships. Fear and Trembling and The Deathly Hallows reveal that our expectation as readers is to find fidelity at the root of our relations with one another. So, while Christians must insist, as they have throughout their history, that the cross is a mysterious mode of salvation involving violence, our way of encountering narratives may also be taken as a guide to its meaning. In whatever way Christ substitutes for us, it must first and foremost be an act of a more perfect fidelity from Father to Son as well as of Son to Father than we could even expect between earthly parents and children. For it to be otherwise would fail us in our search to find that trust which we hope lies at the heart of our relationships with one another and that inspires our storytelling.
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(1) Amanda Cockrell offers an excellent bibliography and introduction to the debate ("Harry Potter and the Witch Hunters: A Social Context for the Attacks on Harry Potter," The Journal of American Culture 29:1 : 24-30).
(2) Although Alan Jacobs' review of The Deathly Hallows (www.christianitytoday.com/bc/2007) might seem to stand out as an exception because he reaches the conclusion that Harry "is not a Christ figure," his method follows a similar Christian literary critique whereby Harry remains valuable for pointing readers to the goodness of Christ and of the imaginative mythos developed by Christian culture.
(3) I distinguish between Kierkegaard's reading of Genesis 22 and the text itself. For example, I agree only partially with a position like that of Murray Rae's in which the ethical difficulty of Genesis 22 remains the same regardless of Kierkegaard's specific treatment because "he is merely the messenger" for the scripture ("The Risk of Obedience: A Consideration of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling," International Journal of Systematic Theology 1.3 : 309). I do so in order to avoid equating Kierkegaard's reading as the one intended by scripture itself. Kierkegaard's interpretation has the particular goal of establishing the absolute priority of and the justification offered by faith alone. This intention differs from the original context, authorial setting, and probable intention of the text's composition. Genesis 22 is problematic, as the vast literature discussing it suggests, but not necessarily so in the way that Kierkegaard proposes. The reading described by Lippman Bodoff, for example, appears in contradistinction to Kierkegaard's. According to Bodoff, God does not intend the sacrifice of Isaac to be a moral dilemma between obedience to God and love of one's son, but an opportunity for Abraham to personally reject the child sacrifice of his culture ("The Real Test of the Akedah: Blind Obedience Versus Moral Choice," Judaism 43.1 : 71-92).
(4) Veronica Schanoes writes convincingly about Rowling's use of writing to create ambiguous characters who defy easy classification into categories such as good and evil ("Cruel and Treacherous Texts: Educating the Reader in Moral Complexity and Critical Reading in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter Books," in Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays, ed. Giselle Liza Anatol [Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003], 131-145). According to Schanoes, while Rowling gives readers clues as to how to interpret the moral standing of her characters, she also uses the text(s) to actively misdirect these same efforts. Snape is a primary example. Readers have access to Harry's thoughts about Snape, which are usually accurate descriptions of his meanness, but the reader realizes that Shape also makes ultimately good choices all the while that Harry is thinking ill of him (and as Rowling has been leading the reader to think ill of him too). It is interesting to note that Schanoes argues (before the publication of The Deathly Hallows) that some constant, unambiguous characters are present. Among them is Dumbledore. But in the final volume, Rowling carries through with the textual mechanism that Schanoes describes to discredit even this ultimate figure of stability.