In the third section of Alan Mann’s book, Atonement for a ‘Sinless’ Society, Mann deals with the Passion narrative of the Gospels as a narrative that invites the postmodern self into the text in order to find ontological coherence through Jesus’ own coherence. I think the book deserves reading by pastor groups, seminaries, and advanced college classes. And, of course, I think the emerging movement as a whole ought to spend some time with this book.
Some of us will say, “Say what?” I found this section of the book both stimulating and rhetorically heavy. It is loaded with the rhetoric of postmodern self discussions but at the same time a fair and even-handed study of the passion narrative as a text that can lead to conversion. The postmodern sees a Jesus who portrays and goes public with his real self.
“The reader is beckoned into the narrative by the hope that, perhaps, here is the narrative possibility of liberation from his or her own ontological incoherence, here is a counter-story with which to retell his or her own story in a coherent way without the fear of shame that comes through exposure” (113).
Judas, whom Mann treats with sensitivity, is an example of narrative incoherence. In other words, the reader is challenged to be like Jesus or like Judas — to have a real self or a shamed self. “Judas experienced the total and utter collapse of his personal narrative — psychologically, socially and spiritually” (124).
Jesus, as the real self, goes to the cross by his own choice. It is his commitment to give his life for others — and having others is the only way to have the real self.
“Described briefly, the atonement is an act of love that restores the relationship between humanity and God by removing all boundaries that separate us — including death. It is the making possible the presence of mutual, undistorted, unpolluted relating between the individual and the ‘Other’, for to be ‘at-one’ in this way is to be human as God intended” (137).
And this: “The cross, however, is not a place of judgement for the inadequacies and insufficiencies of human relating. Indeed, it is a place of acceptance, of embracing the human condition. Atonement is the presence of the ‘Other’ without condemnation” (139).
A final statement: “In this way Jesus’ story leads the post-industrialized self ‘exactly to the “places” he must occupy with his person: on the one hand, to the place of the person rejected by God and before God; on the other hand, to the place of the child living near with God’, and with his, or her, fellow human beings” (145).
The eucharist is physical participation in this story. Mann recommends permitting the postmodern (unconverted) selves to participate in the eucharist as a form of physical welcome for the postmodern self moves to conversion through group acceptance and participation. It may be that the postmodern self will find the ability to “confess” this story by participating in a group that confesses this story.
I’m interested in Mann’s “theory” of atonement. This book seems to be a recapitulation theory of atonement. Its hints of Abelard are, as I see it, only hints; it is bigger than example and more that Jesus lived our life for us and we are summoned to be incorporated into his life. It is not quite substitutionary, though it at times comes close. I think the substitutionary theory of the atonement is an adaptation of recapitulation, a radical recapitulation theory.
The structure of the atonement in this book is problem, theory, and resolution: shame and ontological incoherence, life/Jesus as story, and resolution of shame by seeing Jesus’ life and death and resurrection as the story of the truly ontologically coherent one. The structure is entirely traditional; the contribution is that shame and ontological incoherence get the normal place of “sin” (and he sees shame as a form but not identical to sin) and he utilizes “story” theology in a fairly normal fashion, but his use of Jesus as ontologically coherent is clearly innovative and suggestive.
I see a weakness to this book: I wonder if there is concrete evidence, anecdotal to be sure, of those who find this story of the passion to be a way of growing out of shame and into the story of Jesus as their story. This is the one element that I thought Mann needed in order to make his book credible. As it is, it is entirely theoretical: and I like the theory so far as it goes, at least in the main, but I wonder if it “works.” In other words, do “practitioners” find this to be atoning for postmoderns?