In his Sunday Afternoon Conference Talk, Elder D. Todd Christofferson focused on the Redemptive power of the Atonement in our lives. While it is historically accurate and theologically legitimate to discuss a redemptive power and an understanding of Atonement tied to a redemption of humanity from some great debt, I feel like it can interfere with our understanding of the Atonement’s purpose.
In the movie “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” the narrator and main character is a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy. She lives with her father in a lone and dreary swamp known as the Bathtub. They eke out an existence with their fellow residents, enjoying themselves but always dancing on the edge of oblivion. Strong storms and interfering do-gooders are equally threatening to their way of life.
After much stress and sorrow, Hushpuppy, along with a small group of girls, makes her way out to a lighted buoy that she identifies with her long-gone mother. From there, she is taken to a land of women (possibly a brothel?), where she meets a woman who really does seem quite a bit like her mother. She gives Hushpuppy a bit of gator meat (which she calls magic) and picks her up to dance with her. Hushpuppy says, “This is my favorite thing: being lifted up. I can count all the times that I’ve been lifted up on two fingers.” We immediately shift from this peaceful scene to one of her father holding her as a newborn baby, thrusting her into the light, hoping that she will cry out and live.
The scriptures often speak of the condescension of God and they have good reason to. But for now, I’d rather talk about the reason behind it: the Ascension of His Children. We enter this life to be lifted up.
A focus on the redemptive power of the Atonement can cause us to emphasize its restorative effect. Elder Christofferson begins his talk with a discussion of indentured servitude and the effect that redemption played in freeing immigrants from bound labor. He is careful to note that we are bound by more than financial obligation; our mortal nature and our participation in mortal existence will cause us to generate a debt of sin, a debt that we simply aren’t equipped to pay. Only a perfect sacrifice will redeem us.
However, debt, once repaid, leaves us at zero. We believe that the Atonement lifts us as well.
Height and flight are enduring symbols of our ascension. Imagine the feeling that you got as a child when a swing lifted you to the top of its arc. A moment of weightlessness; a moment wherein, if you let go of the swing, you could fly out, freed from the binding power of gravity. Look again at the pendulous motion of the incense burner in the Cathedral of Saint James in Santiago. It lifts you up with it; you (and thousands of pilgrims before you) rise with the smoke into the rarified air of the dome.
Luckily, Elder Christofferson recognizes that a notion of the Atonement that focuses only on the restoration of our lacks is a dead end. He encourages us to redeem one another through Christian service. He tells a personal story of his mother, whose redemptive intervention in the life of a young mother transformed her. Such transformations are the true purpose of the Atonement.
Consider the health workers in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” They are interested in the welfare of Hushpuppy and her fellows, but only to the degree that they play a pre-defined role. Hushpuppy is made a little girl by them; her father is just an invalid. For redemption to be godly, it must lead us to ascend, to become whatever self God and we settle on, and then to settle on another self again and again, ad infinitum.
There is a great scene at the end of Terrance Malick’s film, “The Tree of Life.” The central family (and everyone else, really) is reunited with one another on a beach or sandbar. As water flows around their feet, they embrace their loved ones, grudges are forgotten, death is overcome, and all are made one. It is as close to a vision of the Celestial Kingdom as I have ever seen.
There is a similar shot at the end of “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Hushpuppy leads her people along a stretch of road, mostly submerged in increasingly choppy water. It struck me, watching it, that if “The Tree of Life” accurately captured our first moments of reunion in some subsequent existence, that it, along with many theories of redemption, had no true notion of what an afterlife might be. It is beautiful (transcendent, even), but ultimately, it’s just people standing around on a beach. In “Beasts,” Hushpuppy takes a clear view of the future and moves into it. Having been lifted, she can now lift herself.