Another from Mockingbird’s most recent publication, This American Gospel: Public Radio Parables and the Grace of God. Based on the evocative power of NPR’s This American Life, Mockingbird writer Ethan Richardson touches on the theological potency of selected episodes of the program. This excerpt discussses TAL episode 432, “Know When to Fold ‘Em” and the memoir of David Dickerson, about his return to the evangelical home he had shunned for six years. Bitter about his conservative upbringing, he comes home from college ready to exact revenge on the faith he grew up in, particularly on the father whose faith had failed him. David’s father’s reaction, though, is not what he expects. As they sit in a familiar diner, Dickerson comes armed to the teeth with biblical rebuttals of, and resentment for, his father’s simple faith, but in response he finds the backfire of a love that surrenders, and atones.

THE PARADOXICAL BACKFIRE: THE DISARMING POWER OF LOVE

What is interesting about our little offensives is that they are actually strange requests for something lost to come back. Post-break-up, you go after the guy or girl at the bar because you are still reeling from the intimacy and love (however messy it may have been) you experienced with that ex-boyfriend-girlfriend. David is preying upon his father with a cartridge full of biblical criticism, precisely because he cannot stand the existence of the simplistic faith that was shot down in his life. David doesn’t know it at the time, but subconsciously, his attack”” is more a cry for his father to refute and disarm him than an invitation to fall into the ranks of battle with him.

David’s father responds with grace. Having walked into the line of fire, he could have easily retreated, changed the subject, said he was sorry. He also could have very easily pulled out his weapons—sure, it was a surprise attack, but let’s go! Lord knows there’s no shortage of counterarguments to David’s barrage of tired objections to (and obvious misunderstanding of) Christianity. Time for an exchange, an engagement, a reckoning! This has been six years in waiting! David himself admits that he was the black sheep of the family, the prodigal son, the one that needed turning around. This is the moment, this is the “Be still and know that I am God” moment (Psalm 46:10). Bend his gun back on himself! David himself says he’s being a jackass, so get him. Return fire.

David Dickerson: And he just kind of quietly let me do my thing.

David’s father lets him expend every round of ammunition, until all that remains between them are shells and smoke and whatever food is sitting there on the table, maybe a couple coffee mugs. David’s father does not seek his own way or fight back; he does neither seeks to regain control nor retreat. He lets his son exhaust all his aggression. He lets David “get his piece out.” He absorbs David’s malicious tirade. He allows himself to be defeated.

How can you fight with someone who lets you kill them? What is war when the other side volunteers its surrender?

This is highly reminiscent of the father’s love in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). An angry son asks for his inheritance—his ammunition—and the father gives it up freely. The son goes off and squanders it. But at rock bottom, the son’s exhausted heart becomes self-evident. It is only in the freedom to say what he wanted to say, do what he wanted to do, that his life could have been found at all. He was able to expend his resentment and have his nervous breakdown, the pecuniary collapse which revealed the truth to him: he was being a “jackass.” That’s not the end of the story of his father’s love, though.

DD: And when I’d settled down and, you know, gotten my piece out, he said, “David, I’m really proud of everything you’ve done.”

This is the disarming and paradoxical power of love expressing itself through death. In a compassionate and clearly non-premeditated move, David’s father lets David completely blow a fuse, and this compassion is what leads to his revelation. David does not feel controlled, manipulated, subjected; he feels free. But this freedom, still, leads him to the revelation that he’s being a “jackass.” Of course, being given the freedom to go rogue is only the first step. We need something more.

ATONING LOVE: RELINQUISHMENT VERSUS ARMISTICE

David’s father exemplifies the power of atoning love. He hasn’t just chosen not to fight back, he allows himself to be buried by his aggressor so that his aggressor might be lifted up! He not only relinquishes any backbiting reaction he might have to his son’s impudence, he affirms the boy who is pointing the gun at him. He tells his son he is proud of him. Love re-enters the equation for David.

Atoning love moves beyond action-reaction. Atoning love sacrifices self. This is the love offered to the Prodigal Son as well. All resentment purged in his own Late Night Las Vegas, his dutiful apology at the door of his father’s household counts on the rules of cause and effect; but before he can sputter out the apology, before he can promise better behavior next time, the family ring is thrown on his finger, the good cloak is put on his shoulders, and the feast is on. David says it best:

DD: And I remember looking at my dad, and I thought—I had sort of expected to argue like I had with my brother-in-law. You know, not to win, but to come to some kind of armistice. You know, some kind of truce where we’re like, ‘Well, we’ll agree to disagree, but I see your point. It’s a good point.’ I hadn’t expected to lose completely, because you can’t argue with decency. You can’t argue with goodness.

This is not an armistice—this is much more—this is a party. This is, as David recalls, communion. The irony is not lost on David. His father has atoned for him by surrendering to him in love, a credit to his faith—the kind impervious to argument or attack. My son is home, and I love him, without qualification or cause. I love him with the gun in my face. I want him at my table.

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