Reimagining The Prodigal Son

Last night, I finished reading Atticus by Ron Hansen and it was such a, Now this is what good fiction is for! experience for me.

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The premise is that a Colorado cattle rancher travels to Mexico to claim the
body of his youngest (and very troubled) son, who has apparently committed suicide. Upon arriving in the Mexican resort town of Resurreccion, Atticus Cody begins to suspect that his son Scott was actually murdered.

He dives into the world his artistic, addict son dwelt in, meeting his friends and on-again off-again lover, Renata. He stays in the house Scott was renting, talking to his housekeeper and gardener each day. Atticus immerses himself in the aimless, drifting lifestyle of American and European expats living large on the cheap in Mexico, sojourners in a strange land. It is as though, despite the tremendous heartbreak Scott has brought him, and despite the crippling tragedy visited upon the Cody family due to Scott’s rashness and self-aggrandizing behavior, Atticus is compelled by his love for his son to know him completely and without omission.

Every time another of Scott’s failures or catastrophes is revealed to Atticus, he grieves. But his grief is just that- grief for a son. Not anger on behalf of himself or resentment for his own suffering. Grief for a son who is not what he should be.

There is a huge plot twist that took my breath away.

Warning: spoilers ahead!

Following a beggar clad in his son’s Stanford shirt, Atticus finds Scott alive and hiding out in the basement of Resurreccion’s parish church, living among desperately poor, sick Mexicans who have nowhere else to go. It is a kind of tent city, but with pallets of cardboard instead of tents. Scott is wearing the filthy clothes of the beggar with whom he exchanged his Stanford tee. There is no hesitation on Atticus’ part. He embraces his son with joy, because he has found him.

Atticus is a reimagining of the parable of the prodigal son. My heart broke for Atticus when he asks Scott to come back to Colorado with him, and Scott hesitates for a long moment, before giving a noncommittal answer.

I have never liked the parable of the prodigal son. I was the responsible child who got good grades, (mostly) did what I was supposed, limited my rebellious behavior to drinking cheap beer at high school parties, graduated from college in three years, and got two Masters degrees. I was the older son, and I resented the younger prodigal son for all he’d been forgiven and for the havoc he wreaked and the waste he left in his wake.

When Scott hesitated at Atticus’ invitation to come home, I was struck by the fact that although I have always identified with the older son, I too am the prodigal son. How many times I have offered the same lukewarm, tepid response to God’s invitation to me. Well yes, Lord, thank you so much for cleaning up my mess and giving me what I do not deserve, but I’d prefer if we could just leave things that way they are and I could stay right here in my comfortable place and you can just keep saving me. Yes I understand I am being invited to come home, to live with you, to be loved completely and that’s so very generous of you, but I am actually totally fine right here. I mean, until I’m not. But then you can patch things up for me, okay? Thanks, God. Really.

This is the tragedy of lukewarmness. It’s not that God needs me to work for him, to be productive for him. It’s that the One who is love is rejected, and the beloved forfeits everything being offered by the lover.

So yes, this is what good fiction is about. A story that we are immersed in and changed by and that we see in our own lives.

* Lest you think there’s no point in reading Atticus now that you know what the plot twist is, I assure you I have not even scraped the surface.

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