Forgiveness 4 You
304 pages, overlook, $26.95
There’s something very modern, very grim about reading church reviews on Yelp. Washington’s Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle won one from a reviewer who identified himself as True Detective’s Rust Cohle: “I come here to contemplate the moment before the crucifixion.” Five stars. Even more tragicomic is the Yelper who volunteered, “I’ve never attended service/mass here, but I will say this: great, cheap parking.” I don’t doubt that many Christians Yelp their parishes in good faith, that better men and women than I do it, but C. S. Lewis might be rolling in his grave. Writing as a devil, he pointed out with grim savvy in The Screwtape Letters, “If a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighborhood looking for the church that ‘suits him,’ until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches.”
It was in that frame of mind that I read Forgiveness 4 You, Ann Bauer’s subtle new novel of commodified confession. Throughout history, across faith traditions, I imagine the fantasy of a more “convenient” religion is universal. That said, our culture seems especially eager to stretch the text of Mark 2:27: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” Bauer’s satire, starring an ex-Catholic priest roped into launching a non-denominational forgiveness start-up, is distressingly credible on that point. “Key Insight,” a creative brief produced by one of her characters reads and rings true: “Today’s busy professionals are seeking a faster, more service-oriented route to achieve spiritual peace than traditional religion or psychotherapy.” Uber, but for penance.
Some readers who hit the phrase “excitable nipples” on the first page—and who see that Bauer has contributed to Salon—will hesitate to read further. But bear with the book; Bauer’s hero, Gabriel McKenna, is an unusually canny lens on contemporary forgiveness.
McKenna abandoned holy orders during the child sex abuse scandals that rocked the Church. He works, at the beginning of the novel, at a Chicago bookstore, but he can’t shake his calling; strangers will unload their anxieties on them, struck by a supernatural confessional urge. “People regularly dissolved in my presence,” he narrates, “even those who didn’t realize they were harboring shame. Old, young, every race and color, even dedicated atheists and thieves. Nine times out of ten it scared them, so they would abruptly say goodbye and leave.” The book owes a sidelong debt in this respect to Horns, the Joe Hill horror novel whose protagonist is given the same queer gift by the devil.
McKenna and his aura are discovered, firsthand, by ad executive Madeline Murray. Her sin—the one she first shares with him—is abandoning her family; when McKenna then volunteers forgiveness, she receives it like an affront. “It’s not that easy,” Murray answers, “You can’t just forgive me. It doesn’t work that way. You don’t speak for God.” But by the very next page, McKenna’s salvific air has become Murray’s start-up pitch.
The idea is to build him into a lifestyle brand: Forgiveness 4 You, a firm offering “expert forgiveness and absolution in exchange for a flat fee that ranges from $2,000–$5,000 per sin.” Bauer has great fun with the ad agency’s internal communications, stuffs them with glancing insight, even if her jokes are sometimes too on the nose. One of the project’s “Competitive Advantages”? “Requires nothing from customers except payment—no penance, church attendance, or personal growth.” Under “Special Considerations,” one memo records, “Client dislikes/is sensitive to blasphemy and church-based humor.”
The plot arc is mostly romantic-comedic, but the book’s heart is in its soteriology, its study of salvation. At issue is a very Catholic paradox. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is almost unreasonably forgiving; a priest can offer absolution for most anything sincerely confessed (though for the record, canon law punishes severely any person who, “though unable to give sacramental absolution validly, attempts to impart it.”) But for all the rite’s generosity, its user-friendliness even, a 2008 poll by Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found that 45 percent of American Catholics report never taking part in Reconciliation. This even though the stakes are eternal life and death. “There are only two kinds of people,” Lewis is often misquoted: “those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘All right then, have it your way.’”
Bauer’s novel is a way of wondering why we all, Catholic or not, so often fail to seek forgiveness. If even we notoriously guilty followers of the Pope won’t make an act of contrition, it’s hard to imagine the culture at large embracing the penitent instinct. “Great potential for growth in the Baby Boomer market,” one of the book’s memos reads, “but will require awareness campaigns to promote the concept of ‘guilt,’ which 53–68-year-old respondents to a survey reported they are ‘less likely’ or ‘unlikely’ to experience.” The trouble, Forgiveness 4 You intimates, isn’t that absolution isn’t “easy” enough; it’s that it rarely occurs to us to ask for any in the first place. We know not what we do.
This isn’t just a Catholic problem, or even just a Christian one. There’s something suffocating about any moral culture that can’t cognize forgiveness. You can divide these into two categories: worlds that know sin but not absolution, and those that know neither. The first kind of society can seem especially dystopian, and the secular anxiety that we live in one of them powers books like Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. In a similar spirit, in a widely-shared piece on progressive callout culture, Freddie DeBoer warned the left that “the prohibition against ever telling anyone to be friendlier and more forgiving is so powerful and calcified it’s a permanent feature of today’s progressivism.”
But the second sort of world strikes me as the more realistic vision, and in its way the more desperate one. Apathy has long seemed to me the deadliest sin, since by definition it isn’t felt fiercely. It’s the petty, smothering evil; it doesn’t promote its own confession. Bauer’s novel falls into that trap too at turns. For a Catholic-ish novel—for a novel of any kind, really—the book is aggressively sexual in its interests, and McKenna’s dismissal of Church teaching on sex is more casual than is sustainably credible. It’s a fashionably blithe attitude; blithe attitudes, though, are anathema to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
With that in mind, it’s difficult to imagine that a business like Forgiveness 4 You won’t, in time, pop up. Bauer’s ad execs aren’t wrong; there’s an obvious market opportunity. For now, venture capitalist Peter Thiel has put his name and money behind Instapray, a social network offering “a safe place that connects people around the world through prayers.” A noble effort, and probably a positive contribution to life online—but at its worst, Laura Turner wrote for Religion News Service, “Instapray can be like the worst possible version of Pinterest,” another forum for auto-worship and self-congratulation.
More proof that, too often, we the ill choose anesthesia over treatment. The first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem. In its optimistic way, Bauer’s novel points in that direction.
Grayson Clary lives and works in Washington, D.C.