Arts & Culture

Redemption Themes in Stories We Love: An Easter Reflection on Grace

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I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me (Philippians 3:10-12).

Redemption by God’s Hand or Our Own?

Redemption has gotten a bad rap in the modern press. For example, when the Royal Shakespeare Company debuted the 1985 musical, Les Misérables, based on Victor Hugo’s book, it received critical reviews with many predicting it wouldn’t last a year. Christopher Edwards’ Spectator review echoed many poor reviews when he said the show was “sentimental and melodramatic.”

The fans eventually proved all the critics wrong; this musical, with its strong redemptive theme, went on to become one of the most successful and greatly loved shows of all time.

As author John Morrison writes in his book, To Love Another Person: A Spiritual Journey through Les Misérables:

Les Misérables also offers a solution in the redemptive journey of one man who discovers the nature and power of love and forgiveness . . . for Hugo what matters most is the substance of Jean Valjean’s surrender, the passion which comes to define and direct his life, a passion which participates ultimately in The Passion, the Passion of Christ.

A movie that also initially flopped at the box office but is often lauded for its redemptive theme is The Shawshank Redemption. Shawshank is a story about Andy Dufresne, a banker who is unjustly convicted of murdering his wife and is sentenced to life at the Shawshank State Penitentiary. Over the 19 years Andy is in prison, he slowly chips away at a thick concrete wall and escapes through a sewer line. His redemption is framed in a beautifully filmed climatic scene where we see Andy standing in a creek in the pouring rain having escaped the prison to freedom.

While both of these stories have redemptive themes, the underlying story lines could not be any more different. Jean Valjean finds his redemption in a power outside himself, One that is able to not only deliver him but also transform him. Andy, in contrast, finds his redemption in the work of his own hands.

God Redeems What We Give Sacrificially

This brings us to one more movie, one of my favorites: the 1981 Academy Award–winning Chariots of Fire. This British historical drama tells the true story of two athletes training for the 100-meter dash in the 1924 Olympics and is also a story of redemption.

The story line contrasts two sprinters, Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, who both make the British Olympic team and have a good shot at the Olympic gold medal for their event. Liddell is a devout Scottish Christian who sees his running as a vocational call from God, running for his glory. Abrahams is an Englishman who is running to prove something to himself and others.

When the date for the final Olympic 100-meter race is posted, Liddell discovers it is on a Sunday. Harsh criticism notwithstanding, Liddell refuses to run because of his convictions about working on the Sabbath. Abrahams goes on to win the gold in the 100-meter, but that is not the end of the story.

Liddell gets a chance for redemption when British officials decide to let him run in the final of the 400-meter race, replacing one of his teammates. Even though Liddell held the world record in the 100, no one gave him a chance in the 400. Those who know about track recognize the 100 and 400 are very different races. The two require different training, completely different strategies, and different physical skills.

Just before the 400-meter final, an American athlete hands Liddell a note (in real life it was a team masseur that gave him the note). The note reads “Those who honor me I will honor.”(1 Samuel 2:30) Clutching the note in his hand, Liddell runs the race of his life, taking the gold.

Liddell’s life, like Valjean’s, is lived in light of God’s grace. Liddell clearly understood that being redeemed by grace, he was called to live through grace based on God’s design and desire for his life. His work was not about redeeming himself or glorifying himself, but was a loving response to the one who “so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

No Labor Is in Vain

Every year as we enter Holy Week, I go back and read 1 Corinthians 15. The Apostle Paul starts this chapter by reviewing the historical account of the resurrection of Christ. He then moves on to an extended discussion regarding our future resurrection. As many times as I have read this glorious chapter, I am always blown away by the last line:

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).

You see, even if Liddell had not won anything in the 1924 Olympics, all the training he did would not have been in vain because when we live our life based on God’s call, everything we do is done to the glory of God. By God’s grace, the very work of our hands is redeemed. Everything we do in obedience to God has intrinsic value to Him, nothing is wasted.

N.T. Wright develops this theme in his book Surprised by Hope. He writes:

The point of Christianity is not…to go to heaven when you die. [Rather, it is] putting the whole creation to rights…You are not roiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are—strange as it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself—accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.

All of our work matters to God. All the work—paid and unpaid; the work we do in our families, our churches, our communities, and our vocations; the work others see; and the work that no one ever sees—it’s all important to him.

Let Easter be a time when we are all reminded of this great truth.

Take heart, regardless of what you may read. Redemption will never fall out of grace.

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