The Myth of Fingerprints and Saint Anselm

As the air turns cool and the leaves begin to change color each autumn, one of my personal rituals is to watch Bart Freundlich’s film “The Myth of Fingerprints.”  With all due respect to the Godfather films, The Myth of Fingerprints is my favorite movie.  The film was released in 1997, and the cast is stellar: Roy Scheider, Blythe Danner, Noah Wylie, Julianne Moore, Laurel Holloman, Michael Vartan.

The setting is a Thanksgiving holiday in a rambling New England country house.  A family has reunited after three years apart, and the viewer quickly is made aware that their separation has been with good reason.  The house crackles with tension–spoken and unspoken–and the veneer of familial love repeatedly cracks.  Characters variously wonder in confusion why their family relationships are so broken.

This morning I’ve been working on lecture notes for an upcoming Gathering class session on Jesus and the Atonement, and I’ve been re-reading Saint Anselm.  Anselm argues that humanity’s sin has created a chasm between ourselves and God.  Because of the age in which he lives (the 11th century), Anselm casts his argument in terms of honor and satisfaction.  Humanity’s sin has robbed God of God’s honor, and because God’s honor is supreme, even if humanity were to become sinless today, we could not satisfy the honor we’ve besmirched since the dawn of time.  God’s love is supreme also, and in love God offer’s Jesus the Christ–the God-man–as the one who can pay humanity’s debt and satisfy God.  Most often in our day, Anselm’s theory is vilified as cold and transactional.  His language of honor sounds archaic to our ears.  We protest, “Why can’t God simply forgive and forget?”

But Anselm’s theory underscores, as does the Myth of Fingerprints, that true reconciliation cannot occur without satisfaction.  This has special significance in today’s world where so often broken human relationships attempt to achieve reconciliation with superficial ease.

Whether one considers the societal oppression of the Jim Crow South; a strained relationship between parish and priest; or a wounded marriage relationship in which partners have been emotionally abusive toward one another, these devastating experiences prove that no efficacy occurs when a paper-thin veneer of amicability is taken as an acceptable response to wrongs committed.  Anselm’s theory, even with all its flaws, drives home the fact that cheap reconciliation is no reconciliation at all.

All that aside, there are some great lines in The Myth of Fingerprints.  Like this exchange around the Thanksgiving table, where Noah Wylie’s high school friends Tom and Jerry have joined the family for dinner:

Mom:  You boys haven’t changed, at least where food is concerned.

Jerry:  Actually, that’s not true.  Tom likes mustard now.

Warren (Noah Wylie):  You do?

Tom:  I like mustard now.  Although, I don’t understand it…it seems that any sandwich with mustard on it is, in essence, a mustard sandwich.

Truer words were never spoken.

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3 thoughts on “The Myth of Fingerprints and Saint Anselm

  1. Right before Warren Zevon died he appeared on David Letterman’s show. Letterman asked Zevon if cancer had given him any special insight into life and death. He replied, “not unless I know how much you’re supposed to enjoy every sandwich.”

    Wise words for all of us. However, I tend to think he was talking about ketchup sandwiches.

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