I watched the last episode of a long TV series while riding my exercise bike. The villain of many years had made several attempts to change his ways. Most often he’d fallen back into familiar esponses. But the last couple of years, he had made faltering, but increasing steps in the right direction. In the finale, he sacrificed himself for the good of others, expecting no rewards or good outcomes for himself — and in that final act, finally found his happy ending.
When my children were little, I called this the Curious George philosophy of redemption. The content of the little monkey’s cartoons has changed since then, but 30 years ago the George books and shows mostly ran by a similar formula. George would do something wrong. Sometimes he was naughty; most times he was just a curious little monkey. But inevitably, he’d cause trouble. Something would fall and crash, someone would lose something, a big mess would be made. People would be upset with George, and he’d feel bad. Then George would notice a need that only he could take care of, and everyone would be happy with him again. The good seemingly canceled out the bad.
Daniel Boscaljon says in The Oxford Handbook of English Literature and Theology, in a chapter called “Possibilities of Redemption Through the Novel”:
Redemption is a powerful and uplifting theme that acknowledges the human potential to succeed after having failed. Theological understandings of it focus on how humans can restore their relationships with God despite having fallen from grace into sin. Literature takes the same theme of brokenness and renewal and places it in the context of life on earth, thus including understandings of redemption that may stray from those theologically defined. In this way, even ‘secular’ literatures can be seen as doing ‘theological’ work.
In literary redemption, the character has a transformation of some sort. He changes his ways, either suddenly or gradually. He had been selfish, but now he acts in another’s best interest even at the cost of his own welfare. Literary redemption can provide balance to the plot in sometimes beautiful ways.
A supernatural, unlikely, or convenient ending in literature is called Deus ex machina, a Latin phrase meaning “god from the machine.” In ancient Greek plays, actors playing gods would be brought to the stage in some kind of machine to save the day and set things right. In more modern literature, the rescue may not be from a god: it may be from an act of nature or someone outside the story who swoops in at the last minute. Though sometimes this outside rescue can be used to great effect, usually it’s criticized as contrived.
In real life, though, there’s no hope without outside help from God. God does not weigh our good and bad deeds to determine our fate. Good deeds don’t make up for or cancel the bad. The Bible states many times over in many ways that we’re bound in sin with no way to save ourselves. Jesus Christ, who is both God and the only totally sinless, righteous human, gave Himself in our place to satisfy God’s just demands for holiness and to take the punishment for our sins. It’s His sacrifice that redeems, not ours. Repentance is a change of mind that leads to a change of action, a turning away from sin and our own ways of achieving righteousness to God and His mercy and grace. That change inside us works out into our everyday lives.
To be sure, there’s sacrifice in Christian life. We’re often called upon not to serve self and to sacrifice for the good of others. But this sacrifice isn’t from a desire to rack up enough good points to outweigh our bad ones: it flows from our thankfulness at God’s redeeming us and our love for Him and our fellow humans.
To me, two examples of literary redemption that come closest to the the biblical are Jean ValJean in Les Miserables and Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, two of my favorite books. Valjean stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving family and was caught and imprisoned. Escape attempts increased his sentence to 19 years. Prison life and the ill treatment he received when he finally got out turned him into a man so hard that he stole from a bishop and a child. But an unexpected, undeserved act of grace from the bishop undid him and caused him to turn to God. The good acts he did the rest of his life flowed from that one turnaround in his life. I saw an article in some forgotten source years ago quoting an actor who played Valjean in the Broadway musical as saying that it was the greatest act of self-redemption in literature. And I thought, “No, no, no! How can you sing those beautiful songs night after night and miss the fact that God changed him?”
Sydney Carton was a dissolute lawyer in Tale of Two Cities who helped defend Charles Darnay. Sydney’s promising talents have all but drowned in drink. He fell in love with Darnays wife, Lucie, but he knew she could never return his love. She was fully in love with her husband. But, out of love for her, Sydney did the one thing that would help her most. (Spoiler alert.) He looked enough like Darnay to be mistaken for him, so he smuggled himself in and Darnay out of prison. Darnay joined Lucie and escaped Paris: Sydney went to the guillotine. What keeps this from being just a literary redemption is that Sydney finds faith: all through the night before his final act, he walks through Paris reciting to himself John 11:25-26: “I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.” One note I read said this quotation showed Sydney was thinking his death would give life to others. That’s true in a sense, but the verse talks about faith in God providing for eternal life. I think Sydney was encouraging himself that God would resurrect him in the end.
I’m thankful we don’t have to provide our own redemption. We never could. Even our most righteousness acts are tainted and soiled compared to God’s perfect righteousness. No many how many we rack up, it would never be enough. But “how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:14).
For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. Titus 3:3-7
But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. Isaiah 53:5-6
I once heard a story that a traveling preacher was accosted by a man wanting to know how to be saved just as the last call came for the preacher’s train to be boarded. Not having time to go into the gospel message as much as he would have liked, the preacher quoted Isaiah 53:6 above: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Then he told the man, “Go in at the first ‘all,’ and come out at the last one.”