The Forsaken Son: Child Murder and Atonement in Modern American Fiction

The Forsaken Son: Child Murder and Atonement in Modern American Fiction

by Joshua Pederson


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The Forsaken Son: Child Murder and Atonement in Modern American Fiction by Joshua Pederson

The Forsaken Son engages the provocative coincidence of the vocabularies of infanticide and Christianity, specifically atonement theology, in six modern American novels: Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away, the first two installments of John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Joyce Carol Oates’s My Sister, My Love, and Cormac McCarthy’s Outer Dark.

Christian atonement theology explains why God lets His son be crucified. Yet in recent years, as an increasing number of scholars have come to reject that explanation, the cross reverts from saving grace to trauma—or even crime. More bluntly, without atonement, the cross may be a filicide, in which God forces his son to die for no apparent reason. Pederson argues that the novels about child murder mentioned above likewise give voice to modern skepticism about traditional atonement theology.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810132276
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 04/20/2016
Pages: 184
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

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The Forsaken Son

Child Murder and Atonement in Modern American Fiction

By Joshua Pederson

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2016 Northwestern University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8101-3228-3


"Rachel Weeping"

Atonement Theology and Forsaken Children

We wanted theology to offer healing. We were convinced Christianity could not promise healing for victims of intimate violence as long as its central image was a divine parent who required the death of his child.

— Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker

For Christians, Jesus dies on the cross to save us from our sins. Or he dies to set an example of love and self-sacrifice. Or he dies to defeat the devil. But no matter the reason Jesus perishes, Christians are generally sure that his death "atones": it rectifies, reconciles, or saves. But for Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the idiosyncratic hero of Camus's The Fall, Jesus dies because he can't bear living with his own guilt. Clamence explains: "he must have heard of a certain Slaughter of the Innocents. The children of Judea massacred while his parents were taking him to a safe place — why did they die if not because of him? Those blood-spattered soldiers, those infants cut in two filled him with horror." The "Slaughter" Clamence mentions is described in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. King Herod, governor of Judea, learns from wise men that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem, so he sends them to scout the location. Yet the men are warned in a dream of Herod's evil intentions, so they visit Jesus but never report back to Jerusalem. Enraged, Herod orders the execution of every baby in Bethlehem. God is quicker than Herod, though, and he sends an angel to Joseph in a dream to warn him. However, the other parents of Bethlehem receive no similar warning, and while Jesus and his parents escape to safety, the infants from the city and the surrounding area are cut down. According to the evangelist, the massacre fulfills a prophecy foretold in the book of Jeremiah:

A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more. (Jer. 2:18)

That prophecy predicts the Slaughter of Innocents suggests that this mass killing of babies is and always has been part of the divine order. And Jesus, it seems, cannot bear being part of that order if his life is bought with the death of children — many children. Thus, Clamence continues, when Jesus yells from the cross, "Why hast thou forsaken me? ... it was a seditious cry" — a last-minute call to insurrection that Clamence believes is cut from some gospels to staunch the radical spirit it represents. "Yes, it was the third evangelist [Luke]," says Clamence, "who first suppressed his complaint ... Well, then, the scissors!" The author of John follows suit.

Of course, Camus's book is fiction — and heterodox fiction at that — and Christianity does not share his theory of the cross. The great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar seems untroubled by Christ's lament, explaining that "the Son could not be abandoned by the Father" and claiming that his cry of forsakenness is not "sedition" but a kind of role-play: Jesus "has taken on our curse and our forsakenness, not as if he had actually been or become these things himself, but by taking on the role ... and making himself like us." Yet the questions Clamence's exegesis provokes don't die so easily: is the Slaughter of Innocents a necessary part of the divine plan? Does the Christian God really demand the death of children? Jesus's suffering doesn't feel like role-playing; is it? And if Jesus is "forsaken" on the cross, why would God ever forsake his own child? These are difficult challenges, and especially thorny ones for believers. Yet they are also substantive, legitimate, and based on an honest reading of scripture. After all, it's not Clamence's Jesus who is "forsaken"; it's the Christ of the Gospel of Mark. And Camus doesn't invent the Slaughter of Innocents; Matthew recounts it. Further, for Christians, God both inspires and presides over both texts. This book is about that God — a God who arrays angels, shepherds, and traveling kings around one manger in Bethlehem while lining others with blood. It's about a God who gives us his son only to have him tacked up on rough lumber to bleed out. And it's about the violence our salvation seems to require, a violence that too often includes the murder of children, even God's own. Further, this project is about a group of theologians and novelists who amplify Christ's complaint — "Why hast thou forsaken me?" — and who will not forsake the children whose lives God seemingly demands.

The Fall is the seed from which this project grows, because in the years after I read it, I began to see in American literature the same chilling confluence of Christianity and child murder that Clamence observes in the gospels. In recent American fiction, Edward Albee, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, John Updike, Flannery O'Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, Bernard Malamud, Vladimir Nabokov, William Styron, Cormac McCarthy, Sam Shepard, and others have written works that prominently feature infanticide. Yet many of these books are also liberally spiked with the language of Christian devotion. McCarthy's Outer Dark — about a father who tries to kill his infant child by exposure — features dozens of allusions to scripture. In Oates's My Sister, My Love, a mother explains her rationale for killing her daughter using the language of evangelical Christianity. O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away features a young man whose murder of a disabled child sparks a prophetic mission. And the titles of all three are taken directly from Christian scripture.

Of course, child murder and Christianity do not often come up together in polite conversation. Aren't they anathema, the one to the other? The Bible includes persuasive evidence not only that God has an especial love for children but — as if it needs even be written — that he strenuously objects to their murder. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus proves his affection for the young when he reprimands his disciples for keeping them away: "Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs" (19:14). This passage inspired the nineteenth-century Chicago preacher Clare Woolston to write the classic Sunday school hymn, "Jesus Loves the Little Children." More pointedly, many traditional interpretations of the story of the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 suggest that Abraham's near-murder of his son is actually a dramatic rejection of child sacrifice. After all, though God commands Abraham to kill his own child, God also — in cliffhanger fashion — stays his servant's hand. According to this reading, Yahweh speaks a forceful message in the story of the akedah: unlike other ancient Mesopotamian faiths, Judaism does not require the death of children to placate the deity. But given Jesus's affection for children and God's putative rejection of child murder, the Lord's inability to protect children causes some to despair. In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan famously cites as reason for his unbelief his contention that no good God could allow the suffering death of a child. For Ivan, the fact that child murder even exists invalidates the language and promise of the Christian faith. Given this tension, how do we explain the combination of the wrenching violence of child murder and Christian theological language in American fiction?

This book is an effort to answer that question, to explain the provocative coincidence of the vocabularies of infanticide and Christianity in six modern American novels: Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away, the first two installments of John Updike's Rabbit tetralogy, Toni Morrison's Beloved, Joyce Carol Oates's My Sister, My Love, and Cormac McCarthy's Outer Dark. To do so, I turn to recent discussions of atonement. Atonement theology is Christianity's answer to the question, why does God send his son to die a painful death on the cross? That answer — or set of answers — has proven remarkably durable, holding up for centuries. Yet since the 1950s, especially in American theological circles, these answers have become either less satisfying or downright objectionable. And as atonement theology shows signs of wear, the cross reverts from saving grace to trauma — or even crime. More bluntly, without atonement, the cross comes to resemble a filicide, in which God forces his son to die for no apparent reason. Here, then, I argue that the novels about child murder discussed likewise give voice to modern skepticism about traditional atonement theology. And they all develop a single, dark metaphor: the murdered children are also Christ figures, dying for reasons that seem less and less clear, in moments that feel increasingly tragic. This metaphor then allows these novelists to effectively extend modern theology's critique of atonement, interrogating the theories that underlie it, the tropes and themes that relate to it, and the behaviors it inspires.

In sum, it is my contention that these fictions partake in a changing theological discourse on the nature of the death of Jesus in which Christ's execution comes to look more like an avoidable tragedy and less like an atoning sacrifice. In these novels, every time a child is killed, we are tempted to cast a skeptical gaze back on Christianity's traditional interpretation of the cross, thinking, surely these sons and daughters do not have to die — does Jesus?

For most believers, the message of the crucifixion is hope, redemption, and salvation. The third chapter of John — the latest of the four canonical gospels — captures this message succinctly in what has become the bumper-sticker summary of American Christianity: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life" (3:16). The evangelist continues, "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him" (John 3:17, italics mine). It is Jesus himself who speaks all these words, and one senses that the John author writes them with confidence, sure of the salvific power of his Christ's life, death, and works. A hint of that confidence carries over even to the cross, on which Jesus arranges for the care of his mother, asks for wine, and offers crisp, concise last words, "It is finished" (John 19:27–30). The evangelist concludes, "Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit" (19:30). The active form of the last verb — "gave" in the English — indicates that Jesus maintains agency even to his last breath.

By contrast, Mark, the earliest gospel, comes to a close much less cleanly. One hesitates to overplay the contrasts between Mark and John; indeed, they share as much as they keep to themselves. Yet it's hard not to get the sense that Mark's author, who writes his text decades (or even a century) before John, is less comfortable with the crucifixion — and that John's relative assuredness is only the result of difficult reflection by the first generations of Christian believers. Paula Fredriksen describes the mood of Mark as one of "nervous anticipation" amplified by one simple question: "Who is this man, and what will he do next?" It's a question even Jesus sometimes cannot answer. On the cross, Mark's Christ seems hesitant, afraid, even abandoned. It is Mark who first gives us the dying call that Camus calls "seditious": "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (15:34) Jesus has only one more utterance, a "loud cry" that immediately precedes his death (15:37). The gospel's conclusion just a few verses later is equally unsettling. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and a third woman named Salome arrive at Jesus's tomb to find the covering stone removed. Upon entering, having noticed that the corpse is missing, they are confronted by a mysterious young man who tells them simply that Jesus "has been raised" and "is not here" (16:6). In response, the women flee "from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid" (16:8). The text ends with an unexpected word — "afraid" — and the earliest of the four canonical gospels closes with flight, fear, and silence. Serene Jones argues that the last word of the Greek original — the preposition gar (roughly, "for") — leaves the reader even more unsettled; it is as if the evangelist trails off mid-sentence. Jones continues, "At the very moment when we, as readers of the Gospel, are in need of the greatest relief ... Mark does not give it to us. ... He allows the Gospel story to run away from us. Instead of pulling it together, he leaves us peering into the gaping space of an ending that never comes." For Mark, the death of the man who would be the messiah is a ragged wound that is slow to heal, and it's difficult to discern what Jesus's death means — if it means anything at all.

Perhaps one of the best ways to think of atonement, then, is as a set of theologies designed to put Mark's fears to rest — to assure the disciples fleeing the tomb not only that Jesus's death is meaningful, but miraculous. Though there is no single orthodox theology of atonement, all the prominent theories take part in Christology — the systematic effort to explain the purpose of Jesus's birth, life, and death. John Sanders describes atonement by noting that while most Christians agree that Jesus saves, there is a variety of opinions as to how he does so.Atonement theology attempts to answer that very question: how does Jesus's death function? Or, more broadly, what does Jesus's death do? This was a crucial question for first-century Christians, many of whom were deeply invested in the idea that Jesus was the Jewish messiah — a powerful earthly leader who would restore Israel and confirm God's divine preference for the Israelites. The messiah was to be a king, an emperor, or a strong military commander. And when Jesus dies the ignominious death of a criminal, pinned to a cross under a mocking placard, his followers' disappointment couldn't be more devastating. The authors of the New Testament, then, have a daunting task: they must characterize Jesus's death not only as explicable, but as desirable. They must convince their readers that the crucifixion is part of the plan — and that it has a salutary function. The John author offers one simple effort to do so: he argues simply and emphatically that Jesus's death saves. And the confidence of John's Jesus springs in part from the fact that the author can explain the import of Christ's death so forcefully. But the work of atonement theology begins even before the composition of John. As Martin Hengel argues, we find the first recorded theologies of atonement in the letters of Paul, the earliest of which were likely written in the middle of the first century. Paul's efforts at articulating the atoning power of the crucifixion are multiple and sundry; he offers numerous solutions to the mystery of Jesus's death, and he seems content to let that variety of answers stand without ever lifting one up over the others. But while the Christian church never professes one dogmatic version of atonement, two medieval saints developed the most influential models. In Cur Deus Homo, Saint Anselm proposed the satisfaction model — the most prominent version of what would come to be known as "objective" atonement. In it, humans sin and in the process incur a debt to God that they cannot repay. That debt is an unacceptable affront to God's honor. To settle the account, a sinless man (Jesus) must die, in effect accepting the punishment that would otherwise be required of humans. Thus, sin is appropriately met with punishment, debt is paid, and divine honor is restored. Just a few years later, Anselm's near-contemporary Peter Abelard, in his "Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans," put forth a competing, "subjective" atonement model sometimes called the moral example theory. For Abelard, Jesus instantiates ideal human behavior. In his death, he teaches humans obedience to the divine will, self-sacrifice, and steadfastness in the face of suffering. Abelard's atonement fits into the imitatio Christi tradition, a devotional mode that emphasizes the joy and fulfillment that can be had from modeling one's own actions after Christ's. To this day, these two theories remain the closest thing Christianity has to an orthodox theology of atonement and the most prominent explanations of Jesus's death.


Excerpted from The Forsaken Son by Joshua Pederson. Copyright © 2016 Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1 "Rachel Weeping": Atonement Theology and Forsaken Children,
Chapter 2 Cross as Murder, Cross as Wound: Recent Developments in Atonement Theology and Trauma Theory,
Chapter 3 "Forgotten by God": Flannery O'Connor and Orthodox Infanticide,
Chapter 4 "God Descended to Suffer with Us": John Updike's Search for a Sensitive Atonement,
Chapter 5 "People Who Die Bad Don't Stay in the Ground": Surrogacy and Atonement in Beloved,
Chapter 6 "You Are Crucified Too": Joyce Carol Oates, Atonement, and Human Behavior,
Chapter 7 "Consubstantial Monstrosity," "Grim Triune": Outer Dark and Divine Child Murder,
Afterword Post-Traumatic Christianity,

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