Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Atonement, postmodernism, and questions of truth

Ian McEwen's Atonement, like many postmodern novels, questions whether there is a single reality, or many different versions of reality depending on our point of view, and the stories we create to give our lives meaning.

Here's a passage which asks the big questions:
Was everyone else really as alive as she was? For example, did her sister really matter to herself, was she as valuable to herself as Briony was? Was being Cecilia just as vivid an affair as being Briony? Did her sister also have a real self concealed behind a breaking wave, and did she spend time thinking about it, with a finger held up to her face. Did everybody, including her father, Betty, Hardman? If the answer was yes, then the world, the social world, was unbearably complicated, with two billion voices, and everyone's thoughts striving in equal importance and everyone's claim on life as intense, and everyone thinking they were unique, when no one was. One could drown in irrelevance. But if the answer was no, then Briony was surrounded by machines, intelligent and pleasant enough on the outside, but lacking the bright and private inside feeling she had. This was sinister and lonely, as well as unlikely. For, though it offended her sense of order, she knew it was overwhelmingly probably that everyone else had thoughts like hers. (pp. 35-6)

The moral role of the storyteller is not to describe the battle between good and evil, but to show that every character, every person, has their own perception of reality, their inner story to tell, each as valid and valuable as any other:

She could write the scene three times over, from three points of view; her excitement was in the prospect of freedom, of being delivered from the cumbrous struggle between good and bead, heroes and villains. None of these three was bad, nor were they particularly good. She need not judge. There did not have to be a moral. She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive. It wasn't only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you. And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had an equal value. That was the only moral a story need have. (p.40)
And of course, if there is no over-arching narrative, no ultimate reality to which we have access, there are as many versions of right and wrong, of truth and falsehood, as there are people. Post-modernism undermines the false confidence that we can have a single morality or truth without God.

And what of "atonement?" How is it won? I won't give away the story by explaining how. Suffice to say that it is, unsurprisingly, through story.

As is our own. For our atonement was won through the supreme Story of God become man, the Word clothed in human flesh, giving up his life that we might live. But unlike postmodernism, not one of many stories, but the Story; not one of many truths, but the Truth.


Bill Weber said...

I am so glad there is a story --- his/story to which we are connected and find meaning through our faith union with Him!

Jean said...