March 03, 2009

The atonement of Pacifica Casull

In contrast to the ending of Scrapped Princess, I found the atonement scene in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to be a weak representation of the material being analogized. Furthermore, it makes no sense disconnected from its Christian eschatological framework. And requires a huge suspension of disbelief to make sense of it even when it's not.

C.S. Lewis's hand-wave in this regard is "deep magic," which I think is his way of saying, "Stop asking why." I don't blame him. The "Doctrine of the Atonement" in the Catholic Encyclopedia covers all the arguments and analogies the dedicated church-goer of any faith has ever heard of and dismisses them one by one as "close but not quite." Ultimately, it can't do much better than the tautology it begins with:

Atonement is the Satisfaction of Christ, whereby God and the world are reconciled or made to be at one.

That sounds awfully Deepak Chopra. The saying, "Fish discover water last," resonates here. Lewis tremendously advanced the cause of Christianity by reframing it in the context of medieval legend and mythology, his areas of expertise. But I think it's necessary to look further afield, to audiences not culturally conditioned to make snap connections between the analogy and the thing being analogized.

Taking Scrapped Princess as a case in point, I can't say whether author Ichiro Sakaki and director Soichi Masui intended the metaphor to be extended this far, but Scrapped Princess frames this bedrock principle of Christian theology with a clarity and logic I've never seen before.

The Earth of Scrapped Princess (which could be viewed as a sequel to The Day the Earth Stood Still) was long ago on the losing side of a literal war in the heavens. After the surrender, the planet was stripped of its advanced technology and sealed inside a kind of global "Biosphere Two." Now called "Providence," it is ruled by a computer system that makes its will known through the "Church of Mauser."

The system maintains Providence in a permanent Middle Ages. The primary means of control is the church (an obvious nod to Rome). But there are several other subroutines running as checks and balances to this goal. Aside from the human Inquisitioners, angel-like beings known as "Peacemakers" (self-aware but cruelly stoic robots) that can trigger Armageddon and reboot the Middle Ages all over again.

Human nature being what it is, sooner or later people start getting too big for their britches, begin discovering the "old technology" (a nod to the Renaissance), and generally causing problems. And so the slate has to be wiped clean.

The other, seemingly contradictory routine is the "Providence Breaker." This independently-running program is designed to terminate the entire system when certain conditions are met, and return to the human race their free agency. It tests for these conditions by raising up a "savior" who is prophesied to destroy the world. If she dies before her sixteenth birthday, then nothing happens and the subroutine restarts.

The anime series doesn't explore all the alternative options, but the following exegesis does fit the material: a Napoleonic figure who rises precipitously to prominence and plows through church and state wouldn't trigger the Providence Breaker either. Because that would inevitably result in a repeat of the same situation, the reason for the world being in this state in the first place.

Rather, the savior has to die to save the world, literally have her blood shed to trigger the Providence Breaker. In the end, Pacifica is betrayed by her own kin, just as Mauser, the original designer of the system, originally betrayed human freedom for "the greater good." (Compare to King Hezekiah trading away future liberty for a present peace in 2 Kings 20:16-19.)

Up to that point, Pacifica has been protected by her mecha "Dragoons" (Knights Templar), and by her followers. If they are not strong and resourceful enough, she will die before her sixteenth birthday. If they are too strong, then their power will corrupt absolutely and nullify the effort. It is only on the razor's edge between these two extremes that her atonement becomes efficacious.

In the end, telling Pacifica that "you were born to destroy me," Mauser's virtual ghost leaves the final choice between peaceful tyranny and chaotic freedom up to her. When Pacifica chooses the latter, like a good deist, Mauser instructs the human race that it is now time for them to take responsibility for their own actions and their own future. And shuts itself down.

This interpretation comes to a logical conclusion and makes a clear, comprehensible point. Not that it's necessarily doctrinally correct (depending on what doctrine you adhere to), but as my old violin teacher used to say, if you're going to play the wrong note, at least play it well. That shouldn't be too much to ask of religious theologies that claim to have the power to damn or save us for all eternity.

Related posts

The catechism of Angel Beats!
Scrapped Princess
The passion of the magical girl
Three visions
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

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# posted by Blogger Joe
I disagree that "it makes no sense disconnected from its Christian eschatological framework" but for an odd reason.

My children have little concept of Christianity, especially my two youngest. I didn't set out to do this, but their maturation happened to coincide with my growing apathy toward religion in general, and my belief that Jesus is a myth in specific, though even there I don't care enough to push it.

Interestingly, they mostly "got" the whole Aslan thing. Why? I suspect it's because what makes the Christian myth in the first place is present in most cultures and arguably reflects the our deepest desires in many ways, but more importantly because sci-fi and fantasy writers use the Christian myth in spades. Among other things, it's a convenient way to make shortcuts in plots.

PS. As you point out, Gene, part of the problem is that atonement theology makes no sense in any religion. Even Mormons, at a certain point, just wave their hands in the air and start to mumble.
3/03/2009 1:43 PM

# posted by Blogger Eugene
Good point. Reading The Aeneid, I came away with the strong impression that this business of appeasing the gods was simply part of the background radiation. Everybody did it in one way or another. Paul set about to create a universalist form of Judaism that "worked" in the Greco-Roman context, and succeeded very well. But all those assumptions are still baked into the mix.
3/03/2009 2:46 PM