ELAYNE RIGGS: The Prodigal Child
White Rabbits! (Sorry, that supersition is how I start every month.)
So Robin and I were watching Godspell on TV the other day. Yeah, every now and then I like to revel in the best of ’70s kitsch. Godspell reminds me a lot of Finian’s Rainbow. They’re both earnest, so very very earnest, in their attempted appeal to perceived hippie consciousness, and there are sections of each that I love to bits… but my gosh, they’re so charmingly dated, bless their hearts.
And I was remembering how cool I thought the songs were when I was a kid, and how silly all the wide shots panning out over NYC look — and gasping when I suddenly realized the ending of one number was shot on top of the then-newly-built World Trade Center, and the title of the number was "All For The Best" — and Robin was comparing it to the version he’d seen on stage in England, and they came to the bit where that cast member who looks disturbingly like Ron Jeremy and a few other cast members were acting out the story of The Prodigal Son.
And I’m kinda caught up in the film despite myself, because I’ve always been fascinated by allegorical fiction, which is what most New Testament stories are, and all at once something just didn’t seem correct to me. It’s the same kind of "wait a second…" I did when I first realized the second most common interpretation of the moral of the Garden of Eden story was "always submit to authority rather than seeking to understand things for yourself" (the most common being "all dames are trash"). It made absolutely no sense to me that the prodigal son, who had sinned mightily and returned to his father’s fold, deserved the fatted calf more than the son who had dutifully loved his father and seen to his work and was a genuinely good person the entire time and who needed no prodding to be good. It didn’t work for me as fiction, it just wasn’t a satisfying resolution, because it rested on the assertion that it’s okay, even preferable, to cheat. And because so many people need an excuse to justify actions that in their gut they must know they shouldn’t do, that message is incredibly appealing to a wide segment of people.
And it’s found its way into reality in a number of places. Take credit cards. Did you know that, if you have an absolutely perfect credit record, have always paid your bills fully and within the time allotted, have never incurred a penalty — that you’re less valued than someone who’s carried over some debt and has surmounted it? Yep, calm old placid play-by-the-rules you will have a worse credit score than an ex-debtor. Kill that fatted calf for that prodigal debtor! Here’s the short end of the stick for you rule-followers, thank you very much.
Our culture seems to delight in rogues made good, in folks who have strayed from the straight and narrow then returned triumphant. In the iconic heroic journey played out in Star Wars, it’s implied we’re supposed to be rooting for Luke Skywalker to defeat the evil Empire — but it’s Han Solo who gets the girl, who undergoes redemption, who’s just plain more interesting. And he’s the one who shot first. The idea of redemption so fascinated George Lucas that he later decided to make the entire sextology about the rise and fall and rise-as-luminous-being-who’s-suddenly-Hayden-Christiansen of Darth Vader.
And take a look at how our media loves to fawn over celebrity rehab situations. Lindsay Lohan, all is forgiven! Mel Gibson, Hollywood still loves you! Paris Hilton does her jail time (well, at least some of it) — and meanwhile, Alberto Gonzalez, Lewis Libby and Karl Rove (not to mention our President and VP) are still at large, their sins compounded and unatoned for. Well heck, hasn’t George told us how he was born again so all his past transgressions were magically wiped from his soul (cocaine use, DWI — even Laura’s vehicular homicide, apparently the do-over magic extends to spouses)? And of course now that he’s hearing divine voices in his head, that makes him infallible so he and, by extension, his circle of friends will never admit to making mistakes because they’re incapable of doing so? (Making the mistakes, that is; we all see they’re obviously incapable of admitting to any wrongdoing.)
These magical get-out-of-jail-free cards (Jesus died for your sins therefore go ahead and commit them because God will forgive you), these celebratory fatted calves for the ex-sinners while the never-sinned get bupkis, their allure is obvious. We’re human beings, none of us is perfect. The idea of reaping a reward in spite of being a worse person than your oh-so-perfect neighbor touches on lots of our lizard-brain emotions — greed, envy, lust, might as wel throw in most of the other Seven Deadlies while you’re at it. So maybe it makes for a good fictional narrative after all. I mean, who wants to root for Flanders when Homer’s around? Who prefers Lisa when you could cheer on Bart?
Well okay, I prefer Lisa, but maybe that’s just me. After all, while I concede that some of the best fiction around features redemptive themes, I still think the Prodigal Son story makes for a lousy life lesson.
Elayne Riggs is ComicMix‘s news editor and looks forward to seeing some movies when she’s on vacation next week, so she can root for Lisa and for Hermoine.