I really believe redemption is the ultimate need, the deepest cry, of the human heart. The stories, movies, and songs that inspire, and don’t simply commiserate with the human condition, they speak to our longing for redemption. And therefore, with so much talk of redemption, perhaps we should define it. On second thought, no. An illustration would be better, for redemption is always linked to a story line.
In the movie Cinderella Man, Russell Crowe plays Jim Braddock, a boxer who through injury, bad breaks, and the Great Depression finds himself in a life-and-death struggle to keep his family from submerging so far below the poverty line that they cease to exist as a family. They stoop so low, so eye level with the gutter, that Jim Braddock sells all he owns, surrenders his pride, and begs enough money to keep his electricity on and his family together.
Upon Braddock’s having reached the bottom (which is the neighborhood where redemption lives), his old boxing manager offers him a fight and a stepladder out of misery. Braddock enters the ring as a changed man.
Scratch that. I think a better scene is in Shawshank Redemption when Tim Robbins (playing Andy Dufresne) emerges from the sewage pipe, allowing the rain of freedom to wash over and cleanse him. And redemption, of course, is never more powerful than when Morgan Freeman narrates it.
We could, in fact, list hundreds of movies and songs with the same theme, for as I said, it is pervasive to the point of being a myth or a Jungian type. It is the story we always hear and never tire of hearing. Redemption is ? in the human equation.
While a prominent theme in and of itself, spiritual redemption does not tug at the heart the way its temporal sibling does, but that owes itself more to the illusion born out of movies than it does to reality.
Here’s what I mean by that. When any Jim Braddock story ends, the camera stops filming immediately after the temporal redemption has occurred: a gratifying moment of vindication before the credits roll. Which is nice, as far as it goes.
But in the real world, such redemption is always momentary —a snapshot—as life continues on after the climactic scene wraps. The love that brought temporal redemption grows cold, bitter, or maybe just stagnant until it’s just two octogenarians staring without conversation over black coffee at 11:00 a.m. in McDonalds. Or maybe there’s an affair a decade later. Or one of the partners dies early, leaving the other, twenty years of loneliness in a nursing home.
Relationships, bodies, success all grow gangrenous over time. All vehicles of temporal redemption are themselves subject to decay.
Like many writers, I am subject to bouts of depression. During one of my extended wakes (depressions), I turned to tobacco. Thank God for tobacco, or whatever they lace it with, because it brought relief, parole from my darkened cell. Tobacco is the workingman’s antidepressant. Some years later, though, a doctor’s exam showed a precancerous growth, which led to the realization that the tobacco equation doesn’t balance—the joy of smoking is never equivalent to the agony of quitting.
The point being this: the means of temporary deliverance contained within itself the terminal seeds of cancer. And so it is with all temporal means of redemption—a job, money, success, relationships. They tug us out of one tire rut, only to drag us into the other, for the camera of life is always rolling, always rolling.
Rick James was formerly employed on Madison Avenue, as an art director at the advertising agency of Young and Rubicam. He has a BFA from Syracuse University and an MDiv. from Trinity seminary. Rick is now publisher of a small Press and lives in West Chester, Pennsylvania with his wife and three teenage children.
Used by the permission of the author.