In Christopher Deacy’s book Screen Christologies we are introduced to the idea of film as a ‘fertile site of religious significance’, and as one in which redemption narratives are commonly played out. For Deacy, film has co-opted traditional religious themes and acts to (in some sense, and only so far) ‘fill the void’ left by the disappearance of traditional mass religion in European culture. It is in this context that I wish to discuss Tyrannosaur and in particular its themes of redemption and atonement. I’ll be explaining what exactly I mean by this, and then I will be arguing in favour of a secular ethics of redemption on that basis.
Tyrannosaur follows two characters, and it is clear from the frankly devastating opening scene onwards that Joseph is an angry, damaged man unable to connect in a meaningful way to others. Hannah, meanwhile, appears as a mild-mannered and devout Christian woman, although we soon find she has problems of her own – her husband is abusive and cruel, and, as with her Biblical namesake, she cannot conceive.
The plot of Tyrannosaur stems from the recognition by Joseph that he is out of control, and needs to change. But his attempts to do so are frustrated when he tries to do so on his own: immediately following his revelation and what at first sight appears to be a Damascene conversion, he lashes out at Hannah, and soon afterwards we see him frustratedly turning his anger in on himself in a desperate bid to change his ways. And this is the first insight into redemption: it is not, at least in the Christian tradition, something which one can confer upon oneself. Redemption is rather something given by somebody to someone else: whilst we talk about such and such a character ‘redeeming themselves’, what we really mean is that they have helped somebody else in such a way that it somehow makes up for their past misdeeds, and that this has been recognised. So Joseph’s ‘redemption’ can only begin in earnest when he has the chance to atone for his own bad actions. This happens when Hannah comes to stay with him: it is hinted that Joseph, like James, was an abusive husband, and that he was a negative influence on his best friend, to the point where the friend’s daughter barely tolerates his presence. In other words, Joseph is presented with a choice: to either continue to act in his habitual way, or to become a ‘new man’ by caring for the vulnerable and scared woman who has appeared on his doorstep. This conflict – which is played out throughout the second half of the film – is nothing if not a traditional narrative of redemption, salvation, sin and grace.
But what do I mean by these words? You may have noticed that I have not just been using the word ‘redemption’ in a talk supposedly on just that topic. Rather, things like ‘atonement’, ‘reconciliation’, ‘salvation’ and ‘grace’ have come into the picture, along with that very unfashionable word, ‘sin’. So I had better explain what I mean here. I am going along with Paul Tillich, the great existentialist theologian, who declares that ‘sin’ should best be understood as ‘separation’ – we might say also ‘estrangement’. Tillich claims we are separated in three ways: firstly from others; secondly from ourselves; thirdly from the ‘Ground of Being’, which is God. But this separation is not merely passive: instead, we ‘actively participate’ in upholding it, and the knowledge that we do so causes us guilt and suffering. Indeed, separation is inherent in the very act of existing: it is perhaps the most profound state of our being. Grace – which is the state in which Christians are supposed to find themselves when in Christ – is therefore to be understood as reconciliation, the ‘reunion of life with life’ which happens despite the estrangement that is our natural condition. With this in mind, we can understand what Tillich means when he interprets ‘salvation’ as ‘healing’. The healing of Christ consists in our coming into the ‘New Being’, the ‘conquest of estrangement’ through his saving power. What we may notice here is that, so far at least, there has been no moralistic overtone in what Tillich says: salvation is not a moral question but an ontological one. It is only once we feel the effects of the New Being that we begin the process of atonement, which is for Tillich the human reaction to the ‘divine act’ of reconciliation by which we are transformed. ‘Redemption’ therefore expresses this process of atonement, forgiveness and absolution, through which we achieve a change in our being. This includes a change in our moral character and outlook.
One important point is that salvation is not, for Tillich, an all or nothing process, just as one is never either completely healthy or terminally ill: rather, we are all incompletely healed, and as such never free from estrangement, sin or sickness. This much should be clear; at least, the perils of the opposing viewpoint which in extremis posits the infallibility of the elect were summed up in James Hogg’s novel Confessions of a Justified Sinner.
This redemption narrative, as I have said, is played out in Tyrannosaur. Joseph is nothing if not estranged; at the beginning of the film, the only real relationships he has are with a dying man and a small child, and in the course of the film we learn that he feels responsible for his best friend’s death and guilty for not protecting the child Samuel. He is otherwise unable to form meaningful relationships and frequently lashes out at other people. He is largely contemptuous of Tommy, the only other person who could be called his friend; his interactions with other characters, Hannah aside, are characterised by mistrust and violence. Again, Joseph is not merely a passive victim, but – whether consciously or not – reinforces his alienation from others with his erratic behaviour. But Joseph is given the opportunity to change through his meeting with Hannah. She actively attempts to connect with Joseph, and prays for him, which moves him to tears and helps him to realise that he needs to change. Despite this, he continues to battle against his former self – for example, in his changing attitudes towards letting Hannah stay with him, and with his brutal murder of the dog which attacked Samuel. Nonetheless, Hannah represents the possibility of redemption for Joseph. Through her, he is able not only to connect with another person on a fundamental level, but also to admit his former mistakes. We can see this when Hannah asks Joseph more about his wife:
Hannah: Do you wish she was still here now?
Joseph: No. I’d have still treated her like a dog.
Joseph: I’m not a very nice human being.
Hannah: Well, I don’t agree. I think you are a good person.
Joseph: You know nothing, girl.
Hannah: I feel safe with you.
Joseph: Nobody’s safe with me.
But this exchange comes when Joseph has already begun to atone for his mistakes. Even at this stage he has helped Hannah, despite the force of his habitual aggression and self-isolation. And indeed Joseph is able to overcome his ‘old self’: on this view his assault on the dog is almost a sacrificial offering which symbolically represents the death of his old self and the birth of the new Joseph, who lays flowers on his wife’s grave and who connects finally with Hannah at the very end of the movie.
This is not to say that Joseph is now ‘free from sin’. Nobody does no wrong. Nor is it to suggest that Joseph’s actions somehow negate his former sins; rather, he has come to terms with them and, through the process of reconciliation and healing, has become a ‘new’ person with a different and better moral outlook. In a word, his sins are forgiven by Hannah in the moment of love (agape) and the formation of a connection between them.
This reading is by no means decisive, or exhaustive, and there is another story to tell about Hannah’s journey, which I have unjustly neglected in this talk. But what I want to discuss now is whether these concepts can be of use to us in our ethical discourse. Tyrannosaur does not, after all, present the redemption narrative in exclusively Christian terms: Joseph is redeemed not (or not only) by Christ but by Hannah. The film therefore suggests that there may be a secular way in which we can understand redemption.
In fact, what I want to argue is that such an understanding of redemption is not only possible but would be of great benefit. First, though, I want to clarify what I mean by a secular idea of redemption. Here, the ‘redeemer’ is not God, or Christ, but each other: the process of healing and reconciliation is something which we must actively engage in for the sake of another as well as for ourself. This will, of course, necessarily be incomplete and imperfect, as we are ourselves, but it is nonetheless valuable. Valuable because of the form our redemption must take, the only way we can possibly be healed: through love and forgiveness.
Love itself implies absolute acceptance of the beloved. Whatever they have done, whoever they may be, however they act. This is not to say we might not wish those we love to behave differently, or that they can do no wrong: but when we admonish those we love we do not thereby stop loving them. This acceptance plays the key role in Tillich’s account of Christian Justification: human beings are saved in spite of their guilt and de facto hostility towards reconciliation, once they ‘accept that they are accepted’ having been born into the New Being of Christ. In the secular terms I want to put it, we are redeemed despite ourselves by the love shown to us by others. The love which lets us change our very life. This, I believe, is suggested to us in the final scene of Tyrannosaur.
One might reasonably object at this point that what I am talking about seems to be exclusively eros, that while we might be able to do this for someone we are passionately in love with we are hardly likely to be able to do it for everybody. It is true that I have expressed the above in those terms. I would argue, however, that we are able to have the same effect through agape. Joseph and Hannah’s relationship begins as an act of kindness, not as in any way erotic, and it is at best ambiguous as to whether it ever moves beyond agape. Nonetheless, their relationship is strong enough that by the end of the film both Joseph and Hannah are healing and arriving towards reconciliation with themselves and with the world. But this reconciliation is only possible because of the compassion they have been treated with and the compassion they have had to learn to treat themselves with.
The second element of redemption is forgiveness. I do not mean a glib, easy ‘forgive and forget’-style forgiveness of actions which have not affected you in any way. True forgiveness is much harder. It does not involve forgetting that which another has done; you must forgive despite the pain they have caused. Forgiveness in this sense is perhaps the cardinal Christian virtue, displaying as it does compassion, agape and the recognition that nobody is irredeemable. Everybody can turn their life around.
At this point we are talking from the standpoint of the ‘redeemer’, who must show love and forgiveness. Redemption and reconciliation, however, is a two-way process. For us as ‘redeemed’, it is a chance which we are given, and not a state bestowed upon us. The secular redemption of love and forgiveness is ill-used if it just salves our conscience whilst we continue to act in a way to reinforce our separation. The chance we get is to atone: to admit and come to terms with our past actions and the worse parts of our nature, but to accept the love and acceptance we are offered anyway and to begin a process of healing and reconciliation.
The value of this should be apparent: we are presented with a solution to the separation and anxiety which can consume us; we are offered the chance to make up for our mistakes; and the cultivation of an attitude of love and forgiveness will improve our own character and outlook on life. The valorisation of redemption would create a more caring and connected society, one in which we are less likely to ignore the pain and suffering caused every day by natural disasters and by the injustices of our economic and political system. My final suggestion, then, is this: that in our ethical conduct and relationships with others we do all we can to heal and redeem rather than scorn and condemn, and that after two thousand years of Christianity we begin at last to listen to the lessons of Christ.
 Christopher Deacy, Screen Christologies: Redemption and the Medium of Film (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2001).