Occupied as it is by adolescent girls, my home is no stranger to crisis. Though it’s hard, one of the great privileges of parenthood is being there for my children when crisis strikes. A few months ago, in the midst of such a trial, one of my kids related her frustration with God, saying, “It’s easy to be mad at God because he never does anything.” When I asked what she meant, she recounted several family prayer requests that she thought the Lord had been remiss in answering. I don’t remember exactly what I told her, and it doesn’t really matter. It was for her in that particular time and place.
Her experience of unanswered prayer is a common one: marriages fail; addiction steals a life; cancer ravages a body; natural disasters wreak ruin. We cry to the heavens. Our cries are met with silence. Or at least that’s how it often seems.
Over the years, and in a variety of ways, the latest time as the instructor, I have taken part in a course on “Good and Evil” (the brainchild of Michel Barnes) at Marquette University. One of the course’s major turning points is a screening of Ingmar Bergman’s classic, Virgin Spring, a tale of murder, vengeance, and redemption.
Virgin Spring is a study in contrasts: the blonde, virginal Karin with her Christian family is juxtaposed with the dark, pregnant worshiper of Odin, Ingeri. The film opens with two scenes of prayer: Ingeri cries out to Odin for help, seeking the downfall of Karin; and the lord and lady of the house, Töre and Märeta, pray before a crucifix that Christ keep them and their family from evil that day. Within 24 hours Ingeri’s prayer is answered in ways that horrify even Ingeri: Karin has been assaulted and murdered, while Töre has murdered her killers and their younger brother, and is now wracked with guilt and grief.
In some ways, Odin might seem like the better deity. Odin gets results. But if answered prayers look like Odin’s, might we be better off praying to a silent, unresponsive heaven? In the course, I invite my students to consider the ways that the world’s suffering can lead us to question the goodness or even the existence of God. However, when we consider Odin’s answers to prayer in Virgin Spring, are we all that sure that we want an interventionist God?
Among the great cultural phenomena of the last decade is the HBO series, Game of Thrones, based on George R.R. Martin’s epic, A Song of Ice and Fire. Game of Thrones occurs in a diverse religious landscape: populated by skeptics, adherents to the old gods, worshipers of the Seven (the “new” gods), and followers of the mysterious Lord of Light, who demands blood magic and child sacrifice, and whose priestess, Melisandre, commits some of the show’s worst atrocities. It seems undeniable that the Lord of Light is evil. It is equally undeniable that he seems to be the only god who delivers the goods for his followers. The Lord of Light’s magic, terrible as it is, works, even to the point of raising the dead. One character asks Melisandre about the Lord of Light’s ways: “What kind of god would do that?” Her response is chilling: “The one we have.”
Of course, it’s not that God doesn’t answer prayer. Nor is it the case that God is not active in the world. But these two contrasts are illustrative. We typically expect God to intervene as a nicer version of Odin or the Lord of Light, but in a world of atrocities, such interventionist answers to prayer only exacerbate the problem. When we demand God stop evil, how do we imagine him doing this? There are limited logical possibilities: God could have made us not free; he could intervene and restrain us from evil acts; he could destroy all perpetrators of evil. But such solutions are violent, and violence is no solution to the problem of evil. The god that we expect God to be when we rail against him for allowing evil is himself evil, like his dark counterparts in Virgin Spring or Game of Thrones.
Crucially, though, Odin’s cruelly answered prayers do not have the last word in Virgin Spring. In the film’s final scene, members of the household make their way to where Karin’s body lies. Töre, overcome with grief upon finding her, lifts his hands to the heavens, falls to his knees, and says,
You saw it, God! You saw it! The innocent child’s death, and my vengeance. You permitted it. I don’t understand you. Yet, I ask for your forgiveness. … I know no other way to live.
Just after this, as they move Karin’s body, a spring of water wells up from the earth, permitting the family, afflicted by guilt as they are, to wash and be clean.
Throughout the film, Odin alone has answered prayers. Odin alone has delivered results. And the results have been terrible. Not until the end does the Christian God act, and then only after Töre vents his frustration and confesses his perplexity. The true God acts, not by preventing the evil, but by the titular virgin spring. Odin gets results. But the Christian God washes away guilt.
This realization doesn’t resolve the family crisis with which I began, much less the problem of evil, but it does provide us with a crucial insight into the character of God’s involvement with the world. We look for him to be involved in the same ways that Odin or the Lord of Light are. Thanks be to God, he is not. Instead, the true God acts in the world to forgive and redeem, to make whole what is broken, to restore what is lost. Rather than destroy his errant children, God reconciles them to himself through his Son.
Often it looks as though he is doing nothing, but only because he has already done it all, one inauspicious Friday 2,000 years ago.