Victims and Perpetrators: The Propagation of Sin

You know the most important thing your granddad ever taught me? Hmm? Be ready. Hurricane, flood, whatever it ends up being. No more food gets delivered to the grocery store, gas stations dry up. People just turn on each other, and all of a sudden all that stands between you and being dead is you. ~Keller Dover


There are four basements in the film Prisoners. The first is a finished basement in the home of Franklin and Nancy Birch. Like the Birches themselves, it’s warm and inviting, with comfy furniture and a TV; we see the teenagers relaxing there after Thanksgiving dinner. Keller and Grace Dover’s basement is far from comfy, and the kids aren’t allowed down there, but it’s clean, well lit, and orderly, part workshop and part storeroom. The storeroom side is filled with homemade shelves; Keller’s a carpenter by trade. They’re simple, sturdy, and perfectly suited for their purpose, which is storing survival supplies. Canned vegetables, tubs of shortening, batteries, and bottled propane stand in tidy rows with no wasted space. A clipboard hangs from a nail, holding pages of dog-eared lists.

The other two basements are the stuff of nightmares. One belongs to an elderly priest, who apparently still lives in the rectory in spite of being a registered Level Three sex offender. Even before we see Detective Loki stumble upon a half-rotten corpse duct-taped to a chair, this basement is a terrifying place. There’s no staircase, just a straight drop from the door to the bare dirt floor, and little light. Statues of Mary and Moses look vaguely appalling under Loki’s flashlight beam.

The final basement is the worst of all, just a hole in the ground covered by a piece of plywood. Its bottom, seen by the flicker of Keller’s penlight, is littered with the shoes and clothing of children long dead. It’s a pretty good depiction of hell, a place of darkness and isolation where hope dies. You could call it a pit of despair without irony and without referencing The Princess Bride. But it’s here that Keller finds a final remnant of hope, a potential conduit of grace, something that once was lost and now is found: a red whistle belonging to a child. Keller’s child.

Basements are powerful symbols in the dream landscape. The represent the unconscious: hidden motives, repressed emotions, smothered memories. They’re where people store things—sometimes with organization and intent, like Keller, and sometimes with haphazard haste. Sometimes basements hold things we have no use for, but for whatever reason cannot or will not get rid of (the corpse in Father Dunn’s basement is a rather extreme example of this). Buried beneath the foundation, the hidden items are out of sight but never fully out of mind. They haunt our conscious hours.

keller hood

Keller’s basement is in good order, reflecting his readiness and ability to take care of his family in the event of a disaster. Some may say that being a “prepper” necessarily involves anxiety, but Keller is neither a hoarder nor particularly paranoid. His survival supplies are neat and accessible; his storage system demonstrates mental organization.

No, Keller’s primal fears are kept elsewhere, and they fill an entire building.

Why don’t you rent out Grandpa’s old apartment house? Keller’s teenage son Ralph asks him early in the film. Ralph is trying to raise money to buy a car; he’s already earned half and wants his dad to lend him the rest, but Keller says he doesn’t have the cash. So Ralph asks about the apartment house. Grace looks expectantly at her husband; plainly the subject has come up before. Keller replies that the building is old and would cost too much to fix up. But this doesn’t make sense, because Keller could do the work himself. Money is obviously tight for the family, and for a man as capable and purposeful as Keller to let a potential source of income sit idle is odd.

Later, we learn something of the building’s history from an old newspaper article. When Keller was a teenager, he lived in that building, and his father committed suicide there. Keller and his mother found the body.

Eventually we see inside the apartment building. It’s as bad as the two terrifying basements, dirty and decaying, with peeling wallpaper, gaping holes in the drywall, and long corridors lined with half-open doors. It looks a lot like a prison—and Keller’s father once worked as a prison guard. Abandonment, neglect, and destruction have left their mark. No wonder Keller wants to leave the place boarded up. But when desperation drives him, he needs the building his father died in—not just for privacy in the strictest sense, but because the things he will do here must be compartmentalized. They are too primal, too unspeakable, to be allowed to touch the rest of his world.

On Thanksgiving Day, Anna and Joy, the young daughters of the Dover and Birch families, are abducted. It’s sadly fitting that the abduction happens during a time of fellowship, ease, and laughter among friends, when Keller is as relaxed and content as we will ever see him. Disaster often does strike when all seems most right with the world, teaching us not to trust the happy times or to ever fully let down our guard.

keller grace

Ralph recalls an old camper the girls were playing on earlier. He’s pretty sure someone was watching them from inside. The families go looking for the camper. It’s gone.

Later, the camper is spotted at the edge of some woods. Detective Loki is on the scene in minutes. There’s no sign of the little girls, and the driver, the creepily spaced-out Alex Jones, can’t or won’t tell Loki where they are.


In storytelling as in life, what is left unsaid is often at least as interesting as what is said. Prisoners is haunted with implicit but inarticulate things hovering at the edges. This is especially true of Detective Loki. He looks like someone who is trying to appear normal and not succeeding very well. He’s good at his job—in fact he’s never failed to solve a case—but something is clearly wrong. His hair, his mannerisms, his facial tics, his tattoos, the way he buttons his shirt—he is socially marginal at best and obviously coping with some past trauma. Also he has no place to be on Thanksgiving Day but by himself at a Chinese restaurant. When we first see him we don’t know he’s a detective; he’s just some guy alone on a major holiday, chatting with the waitress, friendly but definitely “off.” He could be the perpetrator for all we know. There is plenty of back story potential here, but the only information we are given about Loki’s past comes when he is interrogating Father Dunn about the body in his basement.

I spent six years in the Huntington Boys’ Home, Father. You know the Huntington Boys’ Home, right? Huh? Hurting a f*** like you would be a real treat for me.

The idea of sexual abuse is one of the hoverers in this story—present, but as a phantom, seldom dealt with directly. There are other ways of hurting children.

At heart Keller and Loki are much alike. They have both been let down by people who should have protected and nurtured them, and as a result they are both self-contained and self-reliant. And when driven to extremity, they both lose perspective and step out of bounds, and innocent people get hurt.

Loki’s investigation into the girls’ disappearance is hindered by lack of evidence. The ongoing search of the large wooded area where the camper was parked is painfully slow and fruitless. There is no DNA evidence to suggest that the girls were ever in the camper, and the interrogation of Alex Jones, who is described as having the IQ of a ten-year-old, yields nothing. Keller asks about a lie detector; Loki replies that it doesn’t work when you don’t understand the questions. In the absence of hard evidence, the police can’t hold Alex longer than 48 hours.

Keller tries to enlist Loki as an ally. Two little girls have to be worth whatever rules you have to break to keep that a****** in custody, he says. Loki doesn’t answer. When the 48 hours are up, Alex is released.


Keller is angry and desperate. It’s possible the girls are still alive, but time is running out, and the police still have no idea where to look. He’s certain Alex knows more than he’s telling, and a cryptic remark Alex makes to him in the parking lot of the police station confirms this.

So he kidnaps Alex at gunpoint outside his aunt’s house, drives him to the old apartment building, and takes over the interrogation himself.


It’s perfectly natural, almost inevitable, for Keller to take matters into his own hands. He tried to let the system do its work, but the system let him down. The basic premise behind a survivalist mindset—which I am in no way criticizing—is that bad times will come, and Keller knows experientially that this is true. Keller’s father warned him not to rely on other people—and in a dark twist, those “other people” turned out to include the father himself. And Keller took the lesson to heart. He is used to doing things for himself. If the economy collapses, he can hunt his own food. If he needs something built, he can build it himself, whether it’s basement shelving or a holding cell for an unlawfully detained prisoner. He has the tools, the knowledge, and the drive to do whatever it takes to protect his child.

keller cell

Everyone has moments of extremity. This situation is intolerable. I must act now! I will do whatever it takes to get results! Our passion is genuine and raw; our motives are good. But we are flawed, deeply and tragically, shaped both by environment and by our own choices, and stepping out of bounds to force a situation will yield a mixed bag of results. And in forcing the situation, we make ourselves worse than we were before.

Nothing is evil in the beginning. We have no less an authority than Elrond for that. (It should go without saying that LOTR can legitimately be brought into practically anything.)

If any of the Wise should with this Ring overthrow the Lord of Mordor, using his own arts, he would then set himself on Sauron’s throne, and yet another Dark Lord would appear….For nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so. I fear to take the Ring to hide it. I will not take the Ring to wield it.

Later, when Sam urges Galadriel to take the Ring, he makes an earnest and reasonable appeal. You’d put things to rights, he tells her. You’d make some folks pay for their dirty work. Yes, she tells him, that is how it would begin. But it wouldn’t stop with that.

Prisoners is a story about sin and its propagation. It’s about what people will become and what they will beget when they try to accomplish good ends by using power that is inherently corrupt. Characters are actively trying to protect children—Keller and Loki at first, and later Franklin and Nancy Birch. Even Father Dunn, as it turns out, did his best to help. The body in his basement turns out to be that of a child murderer who came to him for confession five years ago. Father Dunn was convinced the man would kill again, and so he acted. What other recourse did he have, an old child molester with a lifetime spot on a police watch list? Why should the authorities listen to him? He did what he did and hoped for the best.

father dunn

They all mean well. They all desperately want to act as agents of justice. But they have all been compromised from the get-go by things that have been done to them and things they have done. Their judgment is skewed, their integrity is flawed, and they don’t have all the facts. Their well-meant actions might help the situation at hand, or they might perpetuate cycles of sin and abuse. Probably both.

Even a few well-placed words at the crucial moment can have severe consequences. Keller’s wife, Grace, craters under the strain of her daughter’s disappearance and then rebukes Keller for not taking better care of the family, accusing him of inadequacy if not outright negligence. Grace is barely coherent and keeping to her bed; her nightstand is littered with prescription bottles and crumpled tissues. She has left her husband and son vulnerable, robbing them of an emotional center. People often say and do terrible things when under duress. Does that make it excusable? It certainly doesn’t undo the effects. Shortly after being castigated by his wife, Keller kidnaps Alex Jones. This is not coincidence.

Later, Keller passes the blame on to Loki, accusing him of wasting time and following the wrong leads. You let this happen! he shouts. The words hit home. By now Loki has a new suspect in custody, Bob Taylor, who is just as creepy and baffling as Alex Jones, and just as stingy with useful information during interrogation. Stung by Keller’s reproach, Loki breaks protocol to step things up, but he quickly loses control. Within seconds, Bob Taylor is dead.


Bob Taylor turns out to be a victim, horribly wronged, deserving of pity. So does Alex Jones. But victims generally grow up to be perpetrators, and we are all victims to some degree. A chilling moment occurs when Keller is spying on Alex just before kidnapping him. Alex lives with his Aunt Holly, and he’s about to take her little dog for its nightly walk. He pauses at the end of the driveway and suddenly jerks the leash up, leaving the dog dangling by its neck. The dog gives a strangled yelp and struggles feebly. Keller watches from his truck, horrified. Alex waits a bit, then sets the dog down. Come on, Tucker, he says calmly.

In general we’re all prone to blame others and excuse ourselves. Other people’s abhorrent actions come from faulty character; our own are due to extenuating circumstances. The truth is, everyone has extenuating circumstances and contributing factors, which get hopelessly entwined with their own wrong choices. No matter how horrifically you have been messed over, or how extreme the circumstances that drove you to take desperate action, you are responsible for the damage you inflict. And that damage becomes someone else’s extenuating circumstances and contributing factors for their own future sins. Eventually, a reckoning must come. Justice makes legitimate demands, and we must do what we can to protect the innocent from predators.

The question becomes, how will you relate to the messed-up, perpetrating others in your own life? With compassion? With force? There is no simple answer. If you are able at the end of the day to gather up the people who are left to you and hold on, then you are most likely blessed.

Prisoners ends in a bleak place, but not a hopeless place. There is scope for forgiveness, redemption, restoration. The final shot is open-ended, just like any given present moment in our own lives.

dover family

Grace and Redemption in Cymbeline

New York Daily News

Years ago my young son and I were listening to a modern Scottish folk song called “Knock Knock Knock.” Daniel wasn’t following the song’s plot, so he asked me what it was about. I told him, “Well, this noble Scotswoman’s husband goes off to war, and she tells a page to bring her news of how the battle goes. If her husband survives, the page is to knock twice; if he’s killed, the page is to knock three times. The husband survives, but the page gets killed, and no one else knows about the knocking code. Whoever brings the lady the news knocks three times, and in despair she throws herself out the window to her death without ever answering the door.”

Daniel thought about this, then said, “You know…if the people in these songs would just stop and think things through before taking action, they’d be a lot better off.”

He was right. But the nature of tragedy requires that characters not think things through. At the end of a tragedy the reader or audience is left with a lot of if-only’s. If only they’d waited. If only he’d kept control of his temper. If only she’d been more patient. If only they hadn’t been so unyielding or hasty or impetuous or ambitious or prideful. If only they’d allowed time for further developments or revelations to manifest, or simply for that first overwhelming wave of raw emotion to pass.

Tragedy can be defined as a drama or literary work in which the main character is brought to ruin or suffers extreme sorrow, especially as a consequence of a tragic flaw, moral weakness, or inability to cope with unfavorable circumstances. Indeed, a tragic hero is ultimately someone unable to cope. He cannot or will not learn or adapt or conceive of possibilities beyond some all-encompassing obsession. He may have many admirable qualities, but his character is narrow in scope. He is defined primarily by a few unyielding and overweening characteristics such as jealousy, impetuosity, or pride, and ultimately these cramp and stunt his better qualities. He is like that person we all know who has so much going for him but can’t escape the power of some flaw or addiction—the one who makes us think, I have seen people just like you do exactly what you are doing and fail spectacularly, bringing shame and misery on themselves and everyone close to them. You think you’re different, you think you’re strong enough, but you’re not. And unless you turn from the path you’re on, you’re going to come to a bad end.

The thing about tragedy that works us up emotionally is the feeling that it didn’t have to be this way. All through the unfolding of the plot, we’re thinking, Don’t do it! Don’t send that letter. Don’t insult that person. But the hero does. And that action leads him to a different set of choices, where, again, there’s still a chance to do the right thing—which the hero fails to do. And the further the plot progresses, the more the character’s range of choices diminishes. Early on it’s possible to salvage a lot of future happiness; later, not so much. But right up until the final choice is made, there’s still time for the hero to at least be saved from utter ruin and find a measure of peace. After that, his doom is sealed. There are storms you can’t weather and falls you can’t get up from.

But sometimes, in art and in life, somewhere along that path of destruction the hero chooses rightly. Yes, he’s been morally compromised to a greater or lesser degree, but he still has many opportunities before him, and his experience has taught him wisdom and appreciation for things of value. This is the nature of grace, to be pulled back from the precipice, rescued, rehabilitated, and fitted for a full and productive and joyful life.

It’s also the nature of the romance plot. Romance is tricky to define because the word is used for wildly different applications, but dramatic romance might informally be thought of as a potential tragedy in which the hero stops and thinks, to good effect.

There’s a scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Indy and his father are trapped in a stone chamber with no way out. Indy starts beating himself senseless against a wall trying to force a way through, but Henry Senior calmly takes a seat and says, “I find that if I just sit down and think…” Before he’s finished the words, a hidden staircase opens up, triggered by Henry’s weight on the chair. Henry finishes up cheerfully, “…a solution presents itself!”

So the hero in a dramatic romance stops and thinks, and learns, and grows, and triumphs. He moves from a tragic hero’s narrow focus to a place of wisdom and perspective and maturity.

The designation of dramatic romance is a relatively modern one. Shakespeare himself didn’t use the term. Seven years after his death, when thirty-six of his known thirty-seven plays were published in the First Folio, they were all categorized as tragedies, comedies, or histories. Of the plays that were later reclassified as romances, The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale were called comedies in the First Folio, Pericles of Tyre wasn’t included at all, and Cymbeline was listed as a tragedy.

Dramatic romance does have much in common with tragedy on the one hand and comedy on the other. (An Elizabethan dramatic comedy is primarily defined by its happy ending and usually includes greater emphasis on situation than character, wordplay humor, multiple intertwining plotlines, mistaken identity, separation and reunion, and lovers who triumph in spite of opposition.) A contemporary of Shakespeare’s, John Fletcher, actually used the term tragicomedy to define the emerging genre that united tragic and comedic elements.

It wasn’t until 1875 that Irish critic and poet Edward Dowden proposed that Shakespeare’s late plays—The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, Pericles of Tyre, and Cymbeline—should be classed as dramatic romances. Dowden argued that these plays resembled late medieval and early modern romances—which, interestingly, had gone out of fashion by the time Shakespeare wrote his late plays. Miguel de Cervantes was satirizing medieval romances in Don Quixote around 1600; Shakespeare’s romance plays were probably written between 1608 and 1612. Other critics agreed with Dowden that the late plays represented a more complex kind of comedy and ought to have a special designation of their own. Romance is just a label, but a useful one here.

Like a comedy, a dramatic romance has a happy ending involving the reunion of long-separated lovers or family members. A dramatic romance also contains a contrast of scene, courtly and pastoral, and often exotic; magic and other fantastical elements; and the presence of pre-Christian, masque-like figures. In The Tempest we have Prospero summoning goddesses; in Cymbeline, which takes place in pre-Christian, Roman-ruled Britain, we have an actual appearance by Jupiter (though there is some question as to the authenticity of this scene).

Most significantly, the plotline of a romance is described as redemptive. And where there’s redemption, there’s some egregious badness from which characters need to be redeemed, a potential tragedy caught in time before all is lost.

The romance Cymbeline shares some similarities of plot with Romeo and Juliet and Othello, which are tragedies, but with significant differences. A woman wakes from a death-like sleep beside a corpse that she believes to be her husband’s. Juliet stabs herself and dies, but Innogen, though she grieves and loses consciousness from shock, doesn’t commit suicide or consider doing so. A gullible man is persuaded by a scheming Italian that his wife is unfaithful to him. Othello goes right to work killing Desdemona with his bare hands, but Posthumus engages a very unreliable assassin, and his later ruminations make it evident that he didn’t expect the assassin to follow through. Later, Posthumus gets word that Innogen is dead; he’s tormented by grief and self-loathing, but unlike Romeo and Othello, he doesn’t kill himself. He joins a battle, and hopes and expects to meet death while fighting for his country.

Robert Heilman writes,

Different conventions are at work…those of tragedy…those of dramatic romance. As it is used here, convention does not mean a formula, stereotype, or constricting rule, but rather a certain point of view, a way of perceiving human behavior, of understanding it and responding to it emotionally….The tragic convention interprets life as a clash between, on the one hand, transcendent principles of order and, on the other, urgencies of desire and intensities of feeling that, once they are in play, lead inevitably to destructive encounters and somber catastrophes. The convention of romance approaches life in terms of the ultimate reconcilability of desires and circumstances; though ambitions and needs may be great, they tend to fall within a realm of moral possibility; and circumstances, though they may be antagonistic for a long period, eventually yield to meritorious humanity. The tragic involvement is total, reckless, irremediable; the protagonist is wholly committed to a situation which seems to enfold all of life’s possibilities. In contrast, in the convention represented in Cymbeline the personal impulse does not become identical with, or aspire to dominate, all of reality; beyond the individuals there is an independent life that makes legitimate claims or offers alternative possibilities.

This is not to imply that romance is “tragedy lite.” Heilman also writes,

Romance is not watered-down tragedy; it is another way of looking at conduct and experience. It is equally aware of serious dangers to life and well-being and of preventives, safety devices, the means of return from the shadows. It does not fall short of something that might be expected of it; rather it adopts a different perspective, and the better the individual romance is, the greater its ability to persuade us of the validity of its perspective.

Shakespeare’s tragedies currently enjoy greater popularity than his romances—The Tempest is probably the only one of the romances familiar to modern audiences—but at one time the romance Cymbeline was very popular. It was a favorite of literary critic William Hazlitt and of John Keats. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s favorite Shakespearean line is from the final scene of Cymbeline.

The hero of Cymbeline is Posthumus Leonatus. The title character, Cymbeline, is mostly a figurehead; he errs and is redeemed, but the play is primarily concerned with Posthumus and with Cymbeline’s daughter Innogen.

Twenty years before the play’s action begins, a British ruler and warrior called Sicilius Leonatus loses two grown sons in battle and dies of sorrow before the birth of his youngest son, who is therefore called Posthumus Leonatus. Postumus’s mother dies while in labor with him; he’s born by Caesarian after her death. From the very beginning of his life, Postumus is alone in the world.

The baby is adopted by Cymbeline, a Briton king. Like Posthumus’s father, Cymbeline has lost two sons, taken from him at two and three years of age by a courtier named Belarius, whom Cymbeline wrongly accused of treason. Cymbeline lavishes Posthumus with the care and education he would have given his own sons. Posthumus thrives in this environment and grows into a beloved and respected man.

Cymbeline has another child, Innogen, a daughter of excellent character and intelligence. Innogen and Posthumus, raised together from childhood, fall in love. But Cymbeline, like many widowed kings in stories, has chosen badly in his second marriage, and his second wife disapproves the match. The queen is self-serving, murderous, and manipulative, and her son from her first marriage, Cloten, is as wicked as his mother and just clever enough to be dangerous. With Cymbeline’s own sons missing for twenty years and presumed dead, Innogen is the heir to the kingdom. The queen wants the throne to pass to her own son, so she persuades Cymbeline to make Innogen marry Cloten.

The character of Innogen is considered one of this play’s greatest strengths. Heilman writes,

Even allowing for the susceptibility of male critics to so charming and devoted a creature as Innogen, whose attractions, ranging as they do from sweetness of affection to sharpness in repartee, from blind fidelity to keen insight into motives and character, from cookery to courage, make her virtually a dream girl, there is no doubt that she is one of the most substantially characterized, and hence convincing, of Shakespeare’s romantic heroines.

Innogen is innocent (the similarity of sound is probably no accident) but shrewd. She isn’t fooled as her father is by the counterfeit charms of the queen. She loves and respects her father but she doesn’t mince words when telling him of her contempt for Cloten, and when Cymbeline insults Posthumus she talks back and defends Posthumus in no uncertain terms. In the opening scene, one unnamed gentleman fills in another on Posthumus’s history.

The King he takes the babe

To his protection, calls him Posthumus Leonatus,

Breeds him and makes him of his bedchamber,

Puts to him all the learnings that his time

Could make him the receiver of, which he took

As we do air, fast as ’twas minist’red,

And in’s spring became a harvest, lived in court—

Which rare it is to do—most praised, most loved,

A sample to the youngest, to th’ more mature

A glass that feated them, and to the graver

A child that guided dotards. To his mistress,

For whom he now is banished—her own price

Proclaims how she esteemed him and his virtue.

By her election may be truly read

What kind of man he is (I, i, 47-61).

After giving Posthumus a glowing commendation, the gentleman winds up by saying that the highest praise he can offer of Posthumus is to say that Innogen loves him.

Innogen and Posthumus marry in secret and exchange jewelry as tokens—a bracelet for her, a diamond ring for him. After learning of their elopement, Cymbeline banishes Posthumus on pain of death and imprisons Innogen to coerce her into marrying Cloten anyway.

Meanwhile, the queen goes to work compounding a poison, planning to murder both Innogen and Cymbeline after Innogen’s wedding to Cloten. She asks Cornelius, the royal physician, for the ingredients. Cornelius finds this just a little suspicious and supplies her instead with a potion that will give the temporary appearance of death without causing permanent harm.

The banished Posthumus goes to Rome and meets an Italian named Iachimo. After hearing Posthumus praise Innogen’s virtue, Iachimo challenges him to a wager. If Iachimo can go to Britain and seduce Innogen, Posthumus will give Iachimo the diamond ring that Innogen gave him. If Innogen remains true, Iachimo will give Posthumus ten thousand ducats and meet Posthumus in combat.

The idea of giving some yahoo you just met (or anyone else) permission to go to Britain to try to seduce your wife while you stay behind in Italy is obviously insane to a modern reader, but according to the conventions of the time it’s perfectly reasonable behavior. Posthumus and Iachimo even draw up a written contract to formalize the arrangement.

Even when viewed from a more modern sensibility, Posthumus’s actions in this scene are not as bad as they might be. The scene is a good one, lively and quick-paced, and Posthumus shows himself courteous, well-spoken, and intelligent. He adores his wife and is quick to feel any slight to her honor. Once her virtue is questioned, it must be vindicated. At this stage Posthumus never doubts her; he wants to see her rightly honored. His faith in her is an excellent thing in itself but ought to be balanced by foresight and self-control. Like a typical tragic or near-tragic figure, Posthumus is too narrowly focused.

Posthumus underestimates Iachimo’s cunning and his determination to win at any cost. Perhaps judging Iachimo by his own character, Posthumus unconsciously expects his adversary to play fair. Much is made in the play of Latin cunning versus British forthrightness; the contrast between Iachimo’s scheming and Posthumus’s naïveté is the most striking example. Heilman describes Iachimo as “an Italian rascal, a conventional source of agreeable shudders in Renaissance England.”

Iachimo presents himself to Innogen as a friend of Posthumus’s from Rome. She’s eager for news of her husband, and Iachimo tells her that Posthumus is very well, very well indeed, not despondent at all; in fact he’s known in Rome as the Briton reveller and spends himself on prostitutes. Iachimo tells this as if reluctantly, saying that Innogen’s beauty and obvious good character compel him to make the painful truth known. At this point Innogen is distressed but not fully convinced. And once Iachimo professes his own admiration for her and offers himself as a lover so she can be revenged on Posthumus, her response is swift and certain.

Away, I do condemn mine ears that have

So long attended thee. If thou wert honorable,

Thou wouldst have told this tale for virtue, not

For such an end thou seek’st, as base as strange.

Thou wrong’st a gentleman who is as far

From thy report as thou from honor, and

Solicit’st here a lady that disdains

Thee and the devil alike (I, vi, 141-8).

But Iachimo is not called an Italian rascal for nothing. Here is his response.

O happy Leonatus! I may say

The credit that thy lady hath of thee

Deserves thy trust, and thy most perfect goodness

Her assured credit. Blessèd live you long,

A lady to the worthiest sir that ever

Country called his, and you his mistress, only

For the most worthiest fit. Give me your pardon.

I have spoke this to know if your affiance

Were deeply rooted, and shall make your lord

That which he is, new o’er; and he is one

The truest mannered, such a holy witch

That he enchants societies into him.

Half all men’s hearts are his (156-68).

Clever Italian! He says he propositioned Innogen only to test her virtue, because he thinks so highly of her husband! Now he rejoices that he can give Posthumus a good report. Innogen, herself a forthright Briton, believes him.

Then Iachimo asks a favor. He’s carrying a chest full of treasures for a gift to the Emperor and wants to keep it safe. Might Innogen be willing to hide it for him overnight? Innogen agrees to stow the chest in her own bedchamber.

That night, after Innogen goes to sleep, Iachimo climbs out of the chest. He writes down a description of the arrangement of Innogen’s bedroom, examines her naked body, makes note of a distinctive mole under her left breast, and removes from her arm the bracelet that Posthumus gave her. Then he climbs back into the chest to wait for morning. This is villainy on a high order, something that Posthumus and Innogen in their innocence would never have guessed.

In the morning, Cloten urges Innogen to forget Posthumus and take him instead. Weary of his odious advances, she rejects him soundly in terms that demonstrate that though naturally courteous, she’s quick in repartee and willing to be blunt when necessary. Then Cloten insults Posthumus and mocks him for being an orphan dependent on the charity of Innogen’s father. Innogen replies,

Profane fellow!

Wert thou the son of Jupiter, and no more

But what thou art besides, thou wert too base

To be his groom. Thou wert dignified enough,

Even to the point of envy, if ’twere made

Comparative for your virtues to be styled

The under-hangman of his kingdom, and hated

For being preferred so well (II, iii, 124-130).

Cloten responds by calling down a curse on Posthumus, and Innogen continues,

He never can meet more mischance than come

To be but named of thee. His meanest garment

That ever hath but clipped his body is dearer

In my respect than all the hairs above thee,

Were they all made such men (132-6).

Suddenly Innogen notices that her bracelet, which she’s certain she was wearing last night, is missing. While she’s puzzling over this, Cloten, stunned by her rejection, keeps repeating, “His garment?” and “His meanest garment?”

Meanwhile, Iachimo returns to Rome and tells Posthumus that he seduced Innogen without much effort at all. Iachimo describes Innogen’s bedchamber in detail; Posthumus replies that this is insufficient proof. Then Iachimo produces the bracelet, saying Innogen gave it to him. The final blow is Iachimo’s description of the mole under Innogen’s breast, which he dwells on with particular alacrity. Posthumus, convinced and devastated, hands over his ring.

Posthumus writes to Innogen, telling her to meet him in Milford Haven. He also writes to Pisanio, a servant he left behind in Britain, telling him to kill Innogen. Pisanio, baffled and distressed and knowing Innogen to be innocent of the unfaithfulness Posthumus charges her with, keeps quiet for the time being and takes Innogen to Milford Haven. There he shows her Posthumus’s letter and tells her not to return to court but to remain at Milford disguised as a man while they figure out what to do next. He also gives her a box of medicine given to him by the queen, which he says and believes will cure her of any indisposition she might suffer while away from home.

Meanwhile, Lucius, a representative from Rome, travels to Britain to collect tribute. Cymbeline, prompted by the queen, refuses. Lucius warns that this means war; Cymbeline cordially encourages him to bring it.

Lucius goes to Milford Haven to prepare for war against the rebellious Britons. Cloten, still stung by Innogen’s latest rejection of him and her preference of Posthumus’s meanest garment to his entire person, finds out that Innogen has gone to meet Posthumus at Milford Haven. Cloten obtains the same suit of clothes Posthumus wore when Innogen last saw him and announces his intention of finding the lovers in Milford Haven, murdering Posthumus in front of Innogen, and raping Innogen in the presence of Posthumus’s dead body while wearing Posthumus’s clothes.

Innogen, disguised as a young man, takes the name Fidele. Near Milford Haven, she meets Belarius, her father’s banished courtier, and her two brothers, Guiderius and Arviragus, who are living under different names given to them by Belarius, who has raised them as his own sons and kept their origins secret. The brothers are strangely drawn to Fidele/Innogen and invite him/her to stay with them at their cave and cook and keep house for them.

Belarius and the brothers go hunting, leaving Innogen alone at the cave. Innogen, worn out with travel and sorrow and living outdoors, takes the tonic given to her by Pisanio, not knowing that it was given to him as poison by the queen, who in turn did not know that Cornelius tricked her by supplying a harmless but death-like coma-inducing potion.

Meanwhile, Cloten, still wearing Posthumus’s clothing, meets Belarius and the brothers. Cloten attacks Guiderius, and Guiderius kills Cloten and cuts off his head with Cloten’s own sword. After Belarius recognizes Cloten as the queen’s son, Guiderius throws the head into the creek so Cloten’s body can’t be identified. Arviragus returns to the cave, where he finds Fidele/Innogen apparently dead and carries her body out to the other two. The brothers sing a song of mourning for Fidele/Innogen, then lay her and Cloten out for burial, cover them with herbs and flowers, and depart.

Innogen awakes beside a decapitated corpse dressed in her husband’s clothing and assumes the worst. She deduces that Pisanio forged the letters from Posthumus and conspired with Cloten to kill them both. She throws herself on Posthumus’s supposed body and faints. Later she is revived by Lucius, who assumes she is a page whose master has been slain. Lucius takes Fidele/Innogen under his protection.

Guiderius and Arviragus, aware of the coming battle between Britons and Romans, resolve to leave the forced seclusion Belarius has kept them in since childhood and fight on Britain’s side. Belarius, seeing their determination, joins them. Meanwhile, Posthumus, in Milford Haven as part of Lucius’s company, has received word from Pisanio that Innogen is dead. Filled with remorse, Posthumus disguises himself as a British peasant and leaves the Romans to fight on the British side, pledging to fight so recklessly that he can’t possibly survive.

Posthumus meets Iachimo in battle and vanquishes but does not kill him. Belarius, Guiderius, Arviragus, and Posthumus fight valiantly and save the life of the king. At this point Posthumus and Belarius both have reason to resent the king but fight for him anyway, though their identities are concealed and neither one expects a reward. To Guiderius and Arviragus, Cymbeline is a stranger; they have no idea it’s their father they’re defending.

The young princes rally some terrified British troops, restoring their courage and turning the tide of the battle. Posthumus, unable to find death in combat and aware that the Britons have won the day, surrenders himself to the Britons, claiming to be a Roman.

While awaiting execution, Posthumus falls asleep, and his cell is visited by the ghosts of his father, mother, and brothers, who express their love for him and rail against Jupiter for bringing such misfortune on him. Then Jupiter “descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle,” and throws a thunderbolt. He rebukes the ghosts, telling them he has plans for Posthumus and Innogen that they know not of.

Posthumus wakes to find Jupiter and the ghosts gone. A jailer takes him away to be hanged.

Cymbeline praises Guiderius, Arviragus, and Belarius for their valor in battle and knights them, not knowing them for his long-lost sons and former courtier. Cornelius, the royal physician, arrives and tells Cymbeline that the queen has died in a fit of madness brought on by her anxiety over Cloten’s disappearance. Before her death, she unrepentantly confessed her abhorrence of Cymbeline and her plans to murder him and Innogen by slow-acting poison and make Cloten king.

The prisoners of war, including Lucius, Iachimo, Fidele/Innogen, and Posthumus, are brought to Cymbeline prior to execution. Lucius asks Cymbeline to spare the life of Fidele/Innogen, and Cymbeline, strangely drawn to her just as her brothers were, does so. At this point, almost all the characters who are still alive are together but largely unknown to each other; most of them are wearing disguises and/or using assumed names.

Innogen sees Posthumus’s ring on the hand of Iachimo and demands to know where he got it. Iachimo, full of remorse, confesses his villainy against Posthumus and Innogen, not realizing that both are present. Posthumus, now aware of the deception practiced on him, raves against Iachimo and himself and confesses to the murder of Innogen. Innogen throws herself into his arms, and he, not recognizing her in man’s attire, thrusts her roughly away from him. Pisanio recognizes Innogen and tries to help her, but she accuses him of having tried to poison her. Then Cornelius speaks up and tells Pisanio the truth about the supposed restorative he had from the queen. Innogen and Posthumus embrace, and Cymbeline makes peace with his daughter. Pisanio reveals that Cloten left home in Posthumus’s clothes in search of Posthumus and Innogen, Guiderius reveals that he killed Cloten in a fair fight, and Belarius reveals that Guiderius and Arviragus are the king’s own sons. Cymbeline, humbled and wiser, issues pardons all around and pledges to voluntarily pay tribute to Rome as before.

It’s quite the plot—all those characters running around with their various schemes and deceptions and misconceptions, meeting and parting, instinctively loving or hating and sometimes beheading one another. In spite of all the subplots things never get confusing. The final scene is particularly well-paced with revelation after revelation after revelation, each given at the proper time, with characters giving appropriate reactions in brief asides. Not one of these revelations is a surprise to the audience. We’ve had the information all along. But we enjoy watching as the characters make their disclosures and assemble the full truth together.

Heilman writes,

In both tragedy and romance human beings are reservoirs of strong passions. Yet romance has a greater sense of limits—of the decorum or principle or rational endowment or even pragmatic awareness that balances off the passion and holds it back from the irretrievable.

It’s in the final scene—which, along with the character of Innogen, is commonly considered one of Cymbeline’s greatest strengths—that we see this balance fully restored. Iachimo’s confession speech is an emotionally satisfying piece of histrionic remorse. Like Iago, he is a theatrical villain, but unlike Iago, he repents. He tells Cymbeline,

Upon a time—unhappy was the clock

That struck the hour!—it was in Rome—accursed

The mansion where!—’twas at a feast—O, would

Our viands had been poisoned, or at least

Those which I heaved to head!—the good Posthumus—

What should I say? He was too good to be

Where ill men were, and was the best of all

Amongst the rar’st of good ones—sitting sadly,

Hearing us praise our loves of Italy

For beauty that made barren the swelled boast

Of him that best could speak; for feature, laming

The shrine of Venus or straight-pight Minerva

Postures beyond brief nature; for condition,

A shop of all the qualities that man

Loves woman for; besides that hook of wiving,

Fairness which strikes the eye—(V, v, 153-68)

Impatient, Cymbeline interrupts, saying, “I stand on fire. Come to the matter.” But Iachimo is not going to have his scene rushed. He replies,

All too soon I shall,

Unless thou wouldst grieve quickly. This Posthumus,

Most like a noble lord in love and one

That had a royal lover, took his hint,

And not dispraising whom we praised—therein

He was as calm as virtue—he began

His mistress’ picture; which by his tongue being made,

And then a mind put in’t, either our brags

Were cracked of kitchen trulls, or his description

Proved us unspeaking sots (169-178).

Again Cymbeline interrupts, saying, “Nay, nay, to th’ purpose.” Iachimo goes on,

Your daughter’s chastity—there it begins.

He spake of her as Dian had hot dreams

And she alone were cold; whereat I, wretch,

Made scruple of his praise and wagered with him

Pieces of gold ’gainst this which then he wore

Upon his honored finger, to attain

In suit the place of’s bed and win this ring

By hers and mine adultery. He, true knight,

No lesser of her honor confident

Than I did truly find her, stakes this ring;

And would so, had it been a carbuncle

Of Phoebus’ wheel, and might so safely, had it

Been all the worth of’s car. Away to Britain

Post I in this design. Well may you, sir,

Remember me at court, where I was taught

Of your chaste daughter the wide difference

’Twixt amorous and villainous. Being thus quenched

Of hope, not longing, mine Italian brain

Gan in your duller Britain operate

Most vilely; for my vantage, excellent.

And, to be brief, my practice so prevailed

That I returned with similar proof enough

To make the noble Leonatus mad

By wounding his belief in her renown

With tokens thus and thus; averring notes

Of chamber hanging, pictures, this her bracelet—

O cunning, how I got it!—nay, some marks

Of secret on her person, that he could not

But think her bond of chastity quite cracked,

I having ta’en the forfeit. Whereupon—

Methinks I see him now—(179-209)

He does indeed. Posthumus advances on him, saying,

Ay, so thou dost,

Italian fiend! Ay me, most credulous fool,

Egregious murderer, thief, anything

That’s due to all the villains past, in being,

To come! O, give me cord or knife or poison,

Some upright justicer! Thou, King, send out

For torturers ingenious. It is I

That all th’ abhorred things o’ th’ earth amend

By being worse than they. I am Posthumus,

That killed thy daughter—villain-like, I lie—

That caused a lesser villain than myself,

A sacrilegious thief, to do’t. The temple

Of virtue was she; yea, and she herself.

Spit, and throw stones, cast mire upon me, set

The dogs o’ th’ street to bay me; every villain

Be called Posthumus Leonatus, and

Be villainy less than ’twas! O Innogen!

My queen, my life, my wife! O Innogen,

Innogen, Innogen (209-27)!

Posthumus spends less than one full line rebuking Iachimo and seventeen rebuking himself. He has matured; he has gained perspective.

Heilman writes,

In adopting the genre of romance, then, Shakespeare exploits all its potential variety, at one level by an always lively movement of scene and plot, and in a more fundamental way by examining characters with either an amused detachment or a fullness that stops just short of tragic complications….The characters who survive have not been merely lucky; they have been modified, have learned somewhat better or wiser ways of confronting the unexpected.

The most notable passion to be modified in Cymbeline is the desire for quick revenge: Cymbeline against Belarius, Cymbeline against Posthumus, Posthumus against Innogen, even Britain against Rome. The resolution is marked by forbearance, generosity, restoration, and grace. The pivotal point appears to be when Cymbeline observes Innogen during the tranquil scene. He notes,

Posthumus anchors upon Innogen,

And she like harmless lightning throws her eye

On him, her brothers, me, her master, hitting

Each object with a joy; the counterchange

Is severally in all (393-7).

Then Cymbeline immediately turns to Belarius and says, “Thou art my brother; so we’ll hold thee ever.”

Iachimo, realizing that Posthumus spared his life in the recent battle, kneels before him, saying,

I am down again,

But now my heavy conscience sinks my knee,

As then your force did. Take that life, beseech you,

Which I so often owe; but your ring first,

And here the bracelet of the truest princess

That ever swore her faith (412-7).

Posthumus replies,

Kneel not to me.

The pow’r that I have on you is to spare you;

The malice towards you to forgive you. Live,

And deal with others better (417-20).

Then Cymbeline says,

Nobly doomed!

We’ll learn our freeness of a son-in-law:

Pardon ’s the word to all (420-2).

With so much to be humbly thankful for, hostility is not worth holding onto. Characters who have themselves been the recipients of saving grace pass the grace along. Magnanimity is the order of the day.

In dramatic romance, redemption is key. Characters are flawed but have intrinsic worth, and when they err they are given a second chance. Catastrophe is followed by good news. Someone thought dead is alive; someone lost is found. A relationship that seemed irrevocably broken is restored, instantly, with the need for forgiveness scarcely even noted by the offended party. The overall mood is like that in the parable of the prodigal son, whose father is in full celebration mode before the son can deliver his rehearsed confession speech. Potential tragedy is arrested by grace, which generates a richly happy ending made all the more satisfying for the brush with disaster.

The play closes with a pledge by Cymbeline to forestall future bloodshed by continuing to pay tribute to Rome, though the Britons have won today’s battle. The peace that’s been restored in Cymbeline’s family will be extended to the entire kingdom. The king concludes with the words,

Never was a war did cease,

Ere bloody hands were washed, with such a peace (483-4).

Showers and Sunshine and April Faces

There are few sights more beautiful than an April face, in which laughter and tears mingle. Pure, tremulous joy following on the heels of despair—seeing that is such sweetness. It happened a lot when my kids were small. They’d come to me with some calamity—a rip in the seam of a favorite dress, a dismembered toy—cradling the broken thing in their hands, weeping and appalled, without hope but instinctively turning to me in their grief. And often what seemed irreparable to them was something I could easily set right with glue, needle and thread, or practical knowledge. “Look, honey, that head’ll just pop right back on again. See? Good as new.” “I know it looks like a horrible stain in your gauzy costume skirt, but the fabric’s so thin it’ll rinse right out.” And just like that, all was well. My kid was ecstatic, and I looked like a genius. I liked that. I liked it a lot.

Besides mending the broken, I was also in the business of retrieving the lost. Many a mile have I driven back to various locales to search for stuffed animals and action figures that were left behind. Gwendolyn, Emilie’s furry little jointed stuffed biped of indeterminate species, was lost and found many times. So was Brownie Bear. With what anxious tension did we scan the area where the lost thing had last been seen, and how great was our rejoicing when it was recovered!

But it didn’t always work out that way. Sometimes, try though we might, we couldn’t get the lost things back. It was like they’d just vanished into a void, which was maddening because I knew they really hadn’t. They were out there, somewhere; I just couldn’t get to them. I am haunted by losses—Daniel’s beloved collection of model dinosaurs, a stuffed dinosaur of Anna’s, Emilie’s first rag doll that I made her for Christmas when she was three.

Do I take these things too seriously? I don’t think so. We’re not purely spiritual beings; we have to do with matter and space and time. God made us that way. And when a child becomes attached to an object, investing it with a history and a personality, he gives it an imputed value that exceeds its intrinsic value. The loss of a favorite toy foreshadows future losses of health, opportunity, innocence, and life.

Children grow older, and their problems get more complex. They stop toting stuffed animals around with them, but they don’t stop breaking and losing things, both tangible and intangible. And you can’t always fix that. Sometimes it’s not desirable to rescue them from the consequences of their mistakes; sometimes it’s not even possible. Some things, once lost, are lost indeed and can never be recovered. Some things, once broken, can never be made whole. You want to—God, you want to. You would give your life blood to make things right. But almighty as parents appear in the eyes of small children, we have our limits. Much as I wish I could, I can’t be that genius with the glue gun all the time. Truth be told, I haven’t been that person in years.

Many of my friends, like myself, are the parents of grown and nearly-grown children raised in an atmosphere of love and reverence for God and his Word. Sometimes I look around at all of us and wonder, do we even know what we’re doing? I think in many cases we’re making it up as we go, responding to situations we could never have foreseen when our children were small, praying desperately for wisdom. I say this as one who so far has been spared a lot of heartbreak. And I say it with fear and trembling, because the past is no guarantee of the future. You can’t confer some special immunity on your kid, and you can’t assume that because you’ve escaped major trouble so far, you’re all clear. You never reach a point of being all clear from earthly calamity until death takes you.

But there is hope. More than I ever was as the mother of small children, God is in the business of finding and mending things. I don’t say this in resignation, like those who sigh and say, “Ah well, it’s in God’s hands now. All we can do is pray.” God is the beginning of hope, not the end of it. He’s the one who formed the human body and breathed life into it in the first place, the only one who knows how it’s truly supposed to function in a state free from death and decay. Corruption of mind and body was never part of our original design. It doesn’t belong; it’s an alien parasitic thing whose presence grieves God even more than it does us. And he can defeat it. Those who have fled to him for the cleansing of his blood have access to the full power of his redemptive work. His desire is to restore all, and he can do it. I’ve seen him do it for people I would have given up on and discarded. His restoration defies all human understanding of how the world operates. It’s as if entropy starts working backwards. The new life he promises us isn’t some sorry halfhearted thing limping its way along, crippled by history and habit. New life pushes through in audacious vigor, refusing to be smothered by past failures, seeking light and air and open spaces, growing and blossoming and reproducing. The past is crowded out; there is no room for it.

Of course we shouldn’t forget the grief and failures of the past or what they’ve taught us. There is most certainly a place for genuine fear in the heart of a Christian—fear of real consequences to sin, set up by a just and holy God. But our lives should be characterized by bold joy because of the enormous scope of his mercy and grace and the power of the new life in us. We should have both together, and wear an April face as we walk with him.

Of Errant Dogs and the Grace of God

These are two of our dogs, Avalon and Erin. They are sisters, half Lab and half Australian shepherd. They are not quite two years old. Greg brought them home from the shelter, where they were sharing one kennel after being surrendered by a previous owner.


Sister dogs.

It’s commonly agreed in our household that Erin, though very pretty and sweet, is not the cleverest of dogs. Avalon is a bit brighter, or seems so by the tilt of her eyes and the cock of her ears. Tara, the goofy, puling, lolloping Lab-Spaniel mix, now seems a sedate, responsible, grown-up dog in our canine hierarchy.


A dumb dog.


A smarter dog.

A downright brilliant dog.

A downright brilliant dog.

Sometimes Erin and Avalon do dumb things, like submerging their front legs and heads in their water pail when getting a drink. (The bottom of the water pail has a perpetual layer of humus from their paws and coats.) Sometimes they chew things, like antique books or Christmas ornaments or scrap lumber or their own dog beds. Often Avalon will suddenly start barking at a visitor who’s been in the house for hours, and on more than one occasion Erin has been witnessed attempting to eat a rock.

And sometimes they get out of the yard when we don’t want them to. This was a big issue when we first brought them home over a year ago; they found escape routes that had been ignored by our older, less adventuresome dogs, and as soon as we’d block one—with barbed wire, bits of old roofing, scraps of hog wire, whatever we could scrounge—they’d find another. Eventually all the gaps were mended, and we enjoyed a long period of yard-boundary sanctity.

But not long ago, they started getting out again. At first we didn’t know how or where. Then one day I happened to be looking out my bedroom window just as Erin was slithering her way under the side gate through a gap that appeared no wider than a few inches. Undaunted by the narrowness of the space or the strand of barbed wire looped around the bottom of the gate, she contorted her slender body into unbelievable narrowness, yipping occasionally when the barbed wire snagged her. Avalon stood and watched until her sister had wormed her way out, then followed suit.

In “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost questions the necessity of fences in a place where property owners keep only trees, which are not likely to trespass, and challenges the oft-repeated adage, “Good fences make good neighbors.” But when animals are involved, there are sound reasons for these structures to exist—reasons like highways and railroad tracks and livestock. Dogs at large can do mischief and get hurt. In property as in life, boundaries generally exist for the well-being of people and animals.

One nice thing about these sister-dogs of ours is that when we call them home, they come instantly and gladly. I know the right way to call an errant dog: in a welcoming, encouraging, well-nigh joyous tone of voice. Anger and condemnation would be counterproductive; if you yell at him, he’ll just run away in confusion and fright.

So when I call Erin and Avalon back to the safety of the yard, I call them eagerly, lovingly. At the sound of my voice they turn, their mischievous plans forgotten, and run to me in an all-out, wide-eyed, ears-streaming-back, tongue-lolling lope. I continue to call encouragement, praising their obedience and cleverness. Alternatively, I might tell them how dumb they are in a nice tone of voice; it’s all the same to them. But mostly I say what they most want to hear—“Good dog.” No matter how annoyed I am, or how badly they have inconvenienced me, I call them with love and acceptance, never condemnation. And they come.

running dogs

And every time it happens, I think, The grace of God is exactly like this.

I need the reminder. My default idea of God, the one that comes unbidden to my mind before I have a chance to recollect myself, is of someone calculating and skeptical and visibly underwhelmed by any inclination of mine to return to the yard after I’ve strayed. Certainly not yelling, but far from welcoming—arms crossed, foot tapping, with a cynical twist to the mouth and an unspoken expectation that it’s only a matter of time before I make a hash of things again.

This is an absolutely unbiblical view of God, the Enemy’s lie. It is he, not God, who is called the Accuser, who whispers reminders of past failures and insinuates that our repentance won’t count until it has proven itself. He would steal the joy of salvation and substitute dry, lifeless, prudent behavior modification plans for wacked-out grace. Mysteriously enough, it is precisely this wacked-out, unconditional grace that contains the power for true, lasting change in the human heart.

The Greek word metanoia (μετάνοια), translated in the New Testament as “repentance,” has the sense of a change of mind in both time and direction. The old is past and behind; the new is ahead, spatially and temporally. My errant dogs repent when they turn away from the wrong course and set their faces for home. There is no looking back. There is no cowering under the disapproving stare of the gatekeeper. There is no probationary period, no conditional acceptance, no recital of past wrongs. It’s truly a fresh start.

“Good dogs!” I tell them. And I mean it. They’re good dogs. They’re my dogs. And they’re home.