The closest thing I’ve seen to an emerging theory of the atonement is that of Alan Mann, in his book Atonement for a ‘Sinless’ Society: Engaging with an emerging culture, in the new Paternoster series called Faith in an Emerging Culture. Because some of you will be interested, here’s the Amazon link. There are three separable sections to this book, each of which is innovative.
The three sections concern (1) Sin as shame, (2) atonement as story, and (3) the use of Mark’s passion narrative as a story for converting to the atonement story of Jesus. I will look today at the first one: shame.
Here’s the question: “How does the story of Jesus’ death touch base with the life stories of contemporary Westerners in a culture that no longer believes in the reality of sin?” The problem is this: “individuals no longer live with a sense of sin or guilt in the way that evangelists would wish them to in order to successfully communicate the atoning work of Christ” (4). That is, postmoderns are sinners with no word for it. The need is for an incarnation of atonement in the postmodernist context.
Here’s our question: How does the postmodern experience “sin”? (And let’s assume two things: that it does experience sin at some level, and let’s also assume that the word “sin” doesn’t work for them — so we need to explore images and terms that seem to connect more with this generation. There is no reason, let me hasten to add, to think this is inherently dangerous to theology. Paul, after all, created several images for Jesus’ redemptive work. Image-exploration is always needed in good theology.)
Mann contends that the operative word for the postmodernist is not “sin” but “shame,” and he defines shame as an “absence of mutual, intimate, undistorted relating that ultimately leads the postmodern self into a lack of ontological (or narrative) coherence” (19). Lots of verbage here, but the sense is this: postmoderns are not guilty of law because they don’t tell that “story” of sin; instead, there is an overwhelming sense that the “ideal” self and the “real” self are so far out of whack that they are “shamed” and afraid to disclose who and what they really are. A lack of inner coherence is what this shame is all about; the lack of a meaningful story or narrative that tells “my story” truly.
Important for Mann is that the postmodern self doesn’t know the “Other” (in a big, divine, sense and in a little, human, sense) and this leads to sin being the lack of self-realization. The cause of sin is victimization.
Shame is not the same as guilt, though they can overlap. Shame is about the self; guilt requires the Other. [My observation: Here we are finding a radical theory of relationality at work in defining sin, and I think Mann is onto something here.]
Here’s a telling implication: “The chronically shamed, ‘sinless’ self needs to be saved — not from divine wrath, but from self-judgement, which isolates and alienates the self from (each) Other” (52).
Another telling insight: postmoderns are not “a”moral but “pre”moral.
And one more: the biggest issue for the postmodern here is confession, or public exposure of the real self and the public recognition that the real self is not the presented self. Atonement, he suggests, can occur for these folks in safe environments where they can hear the atonement story and where they can tell their story safely and where they can find the atonement story to be their story.