Atonement and incarnation
Warning: this post contains spoilers about the movie Atonement.
Fr. Edward Oakes presents an analysis of the recent Academy Award winning movie, asking the question “What sort of atonement is available for the atheist?” The gist of the novel is that the character Briony accuses another character of rape on flimsy evidence, ruins his life, and then spends the rest of her life attempting to atone. She becomes a writer and writes a novel about her evil deed, giving those whose lives she destroyed a happy ending in order to make up for or atone for her misdeed. Oakes says:
What struck me in reading this intricate work of metafiction was the implicit motor of the plot: Briony knew the devastation she wreaked and knew equally she had to atone for it. Lies that consequential demand atonement, as the title of the novel already tells us. But Briony lives in an a-religious world (religion never comes up in the novel, even as a topic of conversation), and so her only way to expiate her lie is by living a life of yet more lying.
The atheist has no recourse in attempting to make justice in an unjust world except by lying, by creating a fiction where happy endings can happen. It is an interesting point, but I think there is a different way to read it: The device of the author within the book, who writes herself into the book, is a sort of mini-incarnation. Briony, who reveals at the end of the book and movie that she has falsified the ending to make up for her misdeeds, has put herself into the fictional reality she has created. She has entered into her own creation to make things right for her characters. This, to me, suggests the Incarnation. Briony so loved her sister and her love that she enters into her own novel. In her case, it is ultimately a lie. She can’t change what has happened, but only her representation of what happened. The Incarnation is the same sort of story, except that God can in fact reshape reality, making all things new.
Or so it seemed to me.