Christianity as a Foreign Tongue


As I mentioned in the previous post, First Things published an article of mine today on the collapsing "secular cage" in which the public square has been imprisoned these long hundreds of years.

I do not plan on reading through the comments section over there, as that is rarely useful, and more commonly harmful to my health. I did notice the first few, however. And somebody immediately jumped, on cue, to the predictable response that I was overly "bold" in suggesting that Christianity has anything unique to offer that any number of other religious worldviews couldn't equally boast. His example was Hinduism which, surely, he suggests, also teaches that you shouldn't steal. See? Hindus believe in private property! What could Mattson possibly mean by suggesting that Judeo-Christianity is unique in teaching private property?

Well, let me just say that when Dutch and British colonists arrived in India, they didn't find a bustling and prosperous commercial empire. Okay? India did not have a formal system of legal private property, and thus lacked the ability to leverage dead capital for economic investment. You can read all about why free enterprise has worked in the West and failed everywhere else in Hernando De Soto's aptly titled, The Mystery of  Capital: Why  Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else. Anyone who wants to suggest that the Judeo-Christian heritage is irrelevant to the rise and maintenance of Western values faces the inescapable fact that those values have only arisen in the Judeo-Christian West.

But this all got me to thinking. It reminded me that one of the knee-jerk reactions to robust Christian advocacy in public is to deny that Christianity has anything unique to offer. Anything good in it, it is supposed, can be found elsewhere and there is therefore no need for it. But this simply isn't true, and it struck home to me just last night.

I took my girls to the movie theater. This is such an uncommon occurrence in our household that my daughters, 5 and 9, did not realize that we were actually going to see a movie until we had actually stood in line, purchased tickets, and were heading down the hall to find our theater. (Aside: Depriving your kids as a matter of course has its upsides. They were so stinking thankful!)

We saw Pixar's Brave, something I thought we needed to do because we are rather extreme Pixar fans and we had always taken the kids when their new offerings have appeared over the years. This one just took a lot longer than usual, for some reason. (Okay, not some reason: how about $33.00 worth of reasons? Movie prices are simply obscene. Maybe I'll consider another in five years. Sorry, Hollywood. Thank God for Netflix.)

The film was very enjoyable, and exceeded my expectations. From the previews it looked like a Disney-fied feminist message movie, but I found it instead a story of conflict, estrangement, and reconciliation. They managed to cast real Scots, resulting in very authentic (if smoothed-out) accents. The obvious influence of Dunnotar Castle (an old favorite stomping-ground of ours) made it feel like home. Aside from a couple of voice-overs that tried to make the message more profound and transcendent than it really was (something about "changing your fate," when it was merely about changing a tradition), the story was really quite wonderful. And nothing really needs to be said about the animation. It was a Pixar movie (i.e., breathtaking).

The climactic scene (and hopefully this is not too much of a spoiler) involves daughter Merida confessing and apologizing to her mother, whom she had deeply wronged. It was truly beautiful, yet hauntingly incomplete. There was confession: "It is all my fault." There was expression of sorrow: "I'm so sorry." There was affirmation of the relationship: "I love you."

But there was no, "Will you forgive me?"

I have long noticed the absence of this phrase outside of self-consciously Christian circles. The world at large contents itself with half-reconciliations. "I'm sorry," followed by, "Don't worry about it." "No problem!" "We're cool." It seems to me that the Christian worldview is unique in insisting on a full-fledged, judicial, transactional forgiveness. There is something, it seems, that naturally offends our sensibilities about having to say those words: "Will you forgive me?" It is an acknowledgment that somebody must bear the burden. The hurt and pain is real, and requires recompense. Real alienation cannot be smoothed over with platitudes, and maybe we just don't want to look at real alienation in the face and call it what it is. An interpersonal, "Will you forgive me?" is just loaded with transcendent echoes that we prefer not to acknowledge. For if our actions toward our fellow beings require an active, affirmative response of forgiveness, an "I will bear the burden for your sake," and we find even that hard to accept, then what must God require of us?

The world knows of karma. It knows of "live and let live." It knows of "Don't worry about it." It does not know forgiveness. The absence of that word in the cinematic reconciliation last night was deafening in its silence. Christianity is unique in many ways, but nowhere more than in this. Only in Christianity will you find a Cross, a "crux," a place of pure alienation, a place of actual burdens borne, a fully satisfied transaction of reconciliation, an "It is finished."

In the ears of the world, Christianity is a foreign tongue. "Will you forgive me?" seems a particularly untranslatable phrase, so they've dispensed with it altogether. In truth, you need an immersion experience to truly understand it. But what a liberating immersion! Learn and know the forgiveness of God in Christ, and reconciliation with one another becomes second nature. And its absence will strike you as so incomplete you will sit in movie theaters stunned by how hollow relationships are without it.

Brian Mattson