Edward J. Oakes, SJ, with some striking thoughts on Ian McEwan’s Atonement (the novel and the movie), in light of Pope Benedict’s recent encyclical.
What struck me in reading this intricate work of metafiction was the implicit motor of the plot: Briony knew the devastation she wreaked and knew equally she had to atone for it. Lies that are consequential demand atonement, as the title of the novel already tells us. But Briony lives in an a-religious world (religion never comes up in the novel, even as a topic of conversation), and so her only way to expiate her lie is by living a life of yet more lying. “Horkheimer radically excluded the possibility of ever finding a this-worldly substitute for God, while at the same time he rejected the image of a good and just God,” says Pope Benedict.
I suspect McEwan has taken the same position as Horkheimer, rejecting God while eschewing easy substitutes for Him, precisely by writing a novel about a character who herself tried to find a this-worldly substitute for God (fiction) as a way of atoning for her sins. But such a project, such a hope, is itself a lie. Indeed, it is, according to the Bible, the greatest lie of all: substituting a no-god for the real God.