Church of the Second Chance

Church of the Second Chance
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Christmas, with its cheer and festivities, lends itself to pluralism in a way Easter cannot.

Chocolate bunnies and Peeps aren't enough to draw secularists and others to a holiday in which theological concepts like Good Friday and the Resurrection loom large. Whereas just about anyone can get into the spirit of gift giving and, even tangentially, nativity sets, it takes a fairly Christian-oriented sensibility to embrace the mystery of redemption.

Ancient Israelites purged themselves of guilt when the high priest cast lots for two goats, the first killed and its blood spattered on the mercy seat of the temple to make amends for the people's sins. The second goat -- the scapegoat -- would be released into the wilderness after receiving the sins of Israel from the hands of the high priest. Interestingly, other ancient cultures practiced scapegoating rituals to symbolically transfer their guilt elsewhere. Today, Christians still persistently feel the need for absolution, rejoicing every spring in the mystery of Atonement that involved suffering, death, and a return to life.

Dostoevsky may have come closest to decoding the enigma of guilt and our need to get rid of it through Raskolnikov, his Crime and Punishment protagonist whose superior intelligence and disbelief in religious constraints led him to commit the perfect crime. Rationally, ridding the world of an unscrupulous, miserly old woman should engender no angst; however Dostoevsky's "superman" instead finds himself, post-murder, wracked by an inexplicable guilt which drives him to confession and, ultimately, redemption.

A universally recognized helpful primer on the subject, C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity puts it this way: "We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself." Those are the fundamentals, along with, according to Lewis, fallen man laying down his arms - "saying you are sorry, realizing that you have been on the wrong track," and embarking on a repentance process Lewis likens to "surrender," which, he admits, "is no fun at all."

So why do it?

Interestingly, modern literary master Anne Tyler, acclaimed more for her perceptive depiction of the prosaic than for grandiose themes on the human condition, astutely answers this question through a much more relatable protagonist than Rodion Roskolnikov of the bloody ax murder. (She was, intriguingly, a Russian -- not English -- literature major). Ian Bedloe, or Saint Maybe, as Tyler's book title calls him, could be any of us. We, the readers, would probably do the same thing as Ian when he watches his brother marry an overly eager single mom, develops valid suspicions that she is carrying on an affair, and after a particularly suspicious incident, shares those misgivings with his brother.

We too, like Ian, would be horrified to watch that brother impetuously react with a suicidal auto accident, a tragedy further compounded by his widow's spiral into despair and death by sleeping pills. But the worst part might involve overhearing a complete vindication of the single-mom-turned-widow's fidelity, which leaves Ian wracked by anguished guilt that evinces itself daily, nightly, and won't go away-until Ian discovers the aptly named Church of the Second Chance.

Led to the storefront chapel through spiritual hints that the religiously inclined tend to pick up on, he confesses to Reverend Emmett and begins a repentance process that is, just as Lewis promised, no fun at all. It involves raising his brother's three step children while trading in his college studies for, symbolically, a vocation as a carpenter.

Telling exchanges between Ian and his skeptical adopted daughter Agatha occur years later when she balks at attending church anymore, with its irrational Bible stories, ill-educated congregants, and tedious demands. Fraught with irony (religion did, after all, compel Ian to save Agatha and her now prospering siblings from becoming wards of the state), Ian's conversations with her mirror the chasm between a believer's experiential journey involving forgiveness and grace and the outsider's distrust of the inexplicable and, to them, preposterous. How, then, should the believer respond? "I know walking on water and rising from the dead seem ridiculous to you...yet I once was lost, but now I'm found."

The great and universal, even pluralistic, point of Easter is that, as Paul explained to the Romans: "All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God," not just the Saint Maybes and Raskolnikovs. Jesus forcefully condemned the obedient and diligent whose self-congratulatory religious practices served as extensions of their egos more than he reprimanded Publicans and sinners. Scottish theologian Henry Drummond even referred to the combination of "ill temper with high moral character" as "one of the strangest and saddest problems of ethics."

So basically, we're all in trouble, and that is why Jesus did what he did.

Many find their deliverance elsewhere. Author David Shields probably exemplifies the artistic version of redemption with his declaration that, "the royal road to salvation, for me, lies through an artist saying very uncompromising things about himself." But much as I love artists, and have gleaned spiritual sustenance from Dostoyevsky, Tyler, Van Gogh, and others -- in the end, none of them will save me, and none of their prodigious prose or brushstrokes will absolve my sins.

Christians believe that when Jesus proclaimed, "It is finished" on the cross at Calvary, he completed a work of atonement, though each sect interprets its ramifications differently. Easter brings us together in hope of empty tombs, second chances, and, especially, salvation. Those of us who've tasted of it once, twice, or continually, feel, like Saint Maybe, that,

"Each footstep...led him closer to something important....He felt he was an arrow -- not an arrow shot by God but an arrow heading toward God, and if it took every bit of this only life he had, he believed that he would get there in the end."

Betsy VanDenBerghe is a writer based in Salt Lake City.

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