Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Cheap grace

18 Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. 19 And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all (Act 19:18-19).

The second season of Once Upon a Time has been flailing around for good stories. Thus far, the best storyline involved a subplot in which Mr. Gold left Storybrooke to go in search of his long lost and estranged son.

By his own admission, Mr. Gold is a coward. He turned to black magic to protect his son, but black magic made him evil and repellent to his son.

When he devised the curse, he made sure he’d take his magical powers with him into Storybrooke, in self-defense. His magic is stronger than Regina’s.

However, when he leaves Storybrooke, he has to leave his magic behind. Magic exists in Storybrooke, but not beyond the city limits. At this point he becomes very fearful. He’s relied on magic for decades to feel safe. Now he’s just another ordinary, vulnerable human being.

Incidentally, the show euphemistically calls Regina the “Evil Queen.” Twenty years ago, she’d be the “Wicked Witch.” But, of course, it’s politically incorrect to say bad things about witches.

Although this is fiction, it has a real-world counterpart. Pagans resort to defensive and offensive witchcraft. When pagans became Christians, they had to renounce their sorcery.

At one level, that was obviously a good thing. They were emancipated from occult bondage. However, by renouncing sorcery, Christian converts were disarming themselves. At that point they had to trust in divine provision and protection. Christianity left them very exposed. They could no longer resort to fortune-telling and hexes to protect themselves or their friends and relatives. No longer could they pronounce a malefice on their enemies.

They become ordinary. Had to live by faith and prayer. Face persecution and martyrdom.

Another theme in Once Upon a Time is cheap grace. Because the series avoids Christian theology, the screenwriters have to decide how we should judge evil characters. This is framed in terms of whether bad people can change. Can villains like Cora, Regina, Mr. Gold turn around? Do they still have a spark of goodness within them?

Now, Mr. Gold isn’t a pure villain. Rather, he’s a tragic character, a conflicted character.

The screenwriters seem to take the position that if Cora and Regina repent of their evil deeds, then all is forgiven. This is despite the fact that Cora and Regina are mass murderers. As long as they say they’re sorry and turn a new leaf, other characters should let them put their past behind them. The victims don’t matter.

Although this is fictitious, it, too, has a real-world counterpart. Penal substitution has come under increasing attack from the evangelical left (e.g. Joel Green, Randal Rauser, Scot McKnight, Steve Chalke). I don’t think it’s coincidental that contemporary attacks on penal substitution are coming from the Arminian camp.

This is a classic case of cheap grace: remission without redemption. Forgiveness without vicarious blood atonement.

The screenwriters create a moral dilemma for Snow White. Should she kill Cora? But what if Cora still has some embers of goodness in her? The notion that Cora should be die, not only because she is dangerous, but because she deserves to die, doesn’t register with the screenwriters. The show has no category for sin.

At an artistic level, the show also suffers from the fact that Snow White and Prince Charming are central characters. But these are boring characters, played by boring performers.

The screenwriters try to spice up Snow White by making her a warrior princess, but Jennifer Goodwin isn’t the kind of actress who can pull that off. There are actresses who can convincingly play tough gals (e.g. Barbara Stanwyck, Sigourney Weaver, Samantha Ferris), but Goodwin isn’t one of them. And Josh Dallas is hardly a tough guy actor.


  1. From what I can tell, McKnight holds to Penal Substitution.
    "He died instead of us (substitution); he died a death that was the consequence of sin (penal)."
    See "Community Called Atonement" pp 113.
    He seems to simply say that the gospel itself should not be reduced to penal substitution only.


  2. Does he fully endorse that view or is he just quoting it for effect?

    I only wonder because McKnight's other book on Atonement (Jesus and his Death) makes a point of arguing from the gospels that Jesus perceived his own death as representative of his followers and thereby would lead to the avenging angel of pass over to pass over them despite their sinfulness. The research is pretty good and the conclusion is modest and solid. So it seems weird to me that McKnight would change his mind about it.

    I guess I could just email him and ask.

  3. But thank you for the link.