Today’s guest post for Jessica Bratt comes from Mark Roeda, pastor of South Bend Christian Reformed Church.
The first season of Louie contains an episode entitled “God.” Bookended by bits from the title character’s stand-up routine, the episode takes place in 1977. A pre-adolescent Louie attends catholic school. While the nun relays the story of Christ’s passion, Louie’s smart-mouthed friend Nick whispers to him some joke. The nun, who’d had her back to the class, interrupts her description of Christ’s passion and turns abruptly. “Who finds this funny?”
Nick raises his hand, “Sister Carson, if Jesus did for all my sins, isn’t it a waste if I don’t sin a lot?” A nervous, titter of laughter. Sister Carson barely masks her outrage by speaking with great solemnity. “I can see I have not done my job. I can see I have not imparted to you the true nature of Christ’s suffering. Tomorrow you’ll know.”
In the next scene, the class fills three rows of pews. Sister Carson introduces them to Dr. Hatherford. Dressed in a coat and tie and carrying a large medical bag, the doctor strides to the front of the sanctuary. “You,” he says calmly, pointing to Nick, “You’ll be our Jesus.” Nick happily obliges. He positions Nick so that he’s holding the Christ candle like a whipping post, pulls a scourge from his bag, and describes the trauma a centurion’s lashes would inflict on Jesus.
While talking in an intense but matter-of-fact tone, he places a paper crown on Nick’s head and with a red marker draws blood drips on the boy’s forehead. He pulls a mallet and a small spike from his bag. He calls Louie to the front, places the mallet in his hand. Then, holding up Nick’s hand and placing the spike to his palm, he invites Louie to pound it in. Louie looks at him, confused.
“Go ahead. Pound it in.”
“Pound it in. You did it to the Son of God. Why not him?”
It is a bit of an exaggeration– even for 1977. But only a bit. It rings true enough that one senses that this scene arose out of, if not Louie’s, then someone’s connected to the writing of the episode. This bears resemblance to the way we teach the atonement. We, after all, rented theaters to evangelize friends and neighbors by showing Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. Dr. Hatherford presents a kid-friendly equivalent. Well, he presents it to kids anyway. I don’t know that it’s “friendly.”
That evening nightmares haunt Louie’s fitful sleep. A dream sequence quick cuts between images of the crucifix, Louie crucifying Nick, Louie reading a Playboy and performing other disobedient acts. Eventually he wakes up, rifles through his father’s tool box, and, though still late at night, runs back to the sanctuary. Approaching the crucifix in tears, he looks up at Jesus, apologizing profusely. Then he leans the cross slowly to the floor, takes a pair of pliers from his pocket and pulls the nails out of Jesus’ hands.
This scene cuts to the next morning. Sister Carson stands with Louie’s mother in the sanctuary. “I trust that he will be punished for this when he gets home,” says the nun. Louie’s mother assures her that he will be.
In the car with Louie slouched in the front seat, she asks her son, “What happened in there?”
Louie unloads his guilt, interspersing confessions of specific sins with references to how he severed Jesus’ nerves, cut his flesh to ribbons– how he killed Jesus.
“Wait,” says his mother. “Is that what they’re teaching you in there?”
“Yes, it’s true.”
“No, it’s not true. Look at me, Louie, it’s not true.” She then assures him that he’s a good kid, that he makes mistakes, but that’s because she’s not through raising him yet.
“But Jesus came back.”
“No, he didn’t. Think about. It’s malarky.”
Their conversation concludes by determining he should attend public school and they should go get donuts. (But then the car won’t start.)
Among the remarkable things about this episode is its affirmation that we desperately need what the church, ostensibly at least, strives to offer. We need freedom from our guilt. We sense that early on. There are times I am sure my own children are psychopaths, incapable of genuine remorse. At others, often as they’re being tucked in for the night, this guilt and shame and tears just pours out of them. The load they were carrying– it nearly overwhelms me.
Sister Carson calls on Dr. Hatherford assuming she is trying to get through to psychopaths. She is wrong. His presentation and many of our presentations of Christ’s suffering and death do not alert us to our guilt as much as they complicate it, make it seem insurmountable. We assume that the distinction between “he did this for you” and “you did this to him” should be clear.
For Louie, it is not the resurrection that offers promise of salvation. It’s the denial of the resurrection. It’s the fact that the resurrection is “malarky.” That saves him from his guilt and shame.
I suspect that this too rings true for a lot of people. They don’t leave the church because they suffer from psychopathology. They carry their share of guilt and shame. But they find salvation from it not in Jesus Christ but in learning to put Jesus Christ in perspective– according to Louie’s mom, “a good man who wanted people to love each other. And, boy, did he get his for it.”