Christ as Character Foil

Do you want to hear about the experience that nearly ruined water slides for me? Probably not very much, but what else are you going to do with the next two minutes?

When I was 10, I went to a wilderness camp put on by the Tennessee Aquarium. One of our intrepid wilderness activities took us to a rural park the name of which I have since forgotten, but which would be most accurately called the World’s Least Structurally Sound Adventure Park (WLSSAP). I would not be surprised if the WLSSAP was later used as a set piece for The Walking Dead. There were no staff present, just a massive, empty wave pool, the highest zipline in the state, and a water slide accessible only by 700 rickety stairs. 

After riding the zipline and staring at the abyssal wave pool for a while, I had exhausted my options and decided to make the climb for the water slide. Other, more dauntless wilderness campers were competing to see who could ride the slide the most times; I was content to go only once. I’m sure the mental image you’ve conjured of this water slide is inaccurate, because honestly, I’m not entirely convinced it was of terrestrial construction. The only part of the slide visible from the WLSSAP was the stairs. The slide itself slithered among the hills like a Tennessee copperhead, its length, breadth, and destination obscured by the deciduous landscape. Truly I believe my small self lost her innocence to cruelty on that day. For after the arduous stairs, the blessed slide appeared at first to be a winding, moderately thrilling tour of the hillside. About 40 seconds in, however, it took a turn–or, more accurately, it didn’t. The rest of the slide was a skin-flaying, cardiac-infarcting, volvulus-inducing straight downward drop. Ten-year-old Marlee was Persephone being dragged to Hades by the misfortune of her own ignorance. I found myself incapable of proper speech or ambulation for about an hour after the ordeal was over. 

So that’s how and why I placed myself on the no-slide list for a time.

I tell that story for two reasons: first, because I wanted to see how dramatic I could make it, and second, because it bears resemblance to my experience writing this piece. I’ve had it floating around in my head for weeks, aimlessly wending around like the beginning of that WLSSAP slide, and I have just now been involuntarily launched into the throes of transcribing it.

So, twist: this piece isn’t about slides at all. 

It’s about the man who, by some combination of coincidence and causality, constitutes a considerable chunk of my personality: Alexander Hamilton. Because I am a former homeschooler and a lifelong weirdo, my love of Hamilton doesn’t start with the hit musical; it started when I read the Federalist Papers in my junior year of high school. That’s just my subtle plug for the Federalists; this piece only requires a surface-level appreciation of the musical.

Something I love about Hamilton is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s use of character foil in the characters of Hamilton and Burr. They have so much in common, yet they are starkly different men. Hamilton will “not throw away his shot,” but Burr is “willing to wait for it.”  Hamilton “imagines death so much it feels more like a memory,” but Burr is “carefully taught, else he get shot.” It’s a beautiful construction of two characters who are both despicable and exceptional in different ways. As someone who is more “talk too much, abrasive,” than “succinct, persuasive,” I find myself with things to learn from both Hamilton and Burr, and able to do so because of the incredible detail in which they are fleshed out through the libretto.

Yet, in that fleshing out, I find a more compelling character foil to Hamilton’s folly, one who is neither cast nor crew of the show, but The Capital-O Orchestrator of every event depicted therein.

Hamilton the superhuman is at his most human in Act 2, as he becomes entangled in an affair and buys the silence of a witness, only to later find his career jeopardized by his own wrongdoing. Deeply obsessed with self-preservation and encroaching upon madness, he publicizes the whole thing to protect his reputation. His legacy is intact, sure, but his wife is left heartbroken and humiliated as she sustains the damage from his “hurricane.” He has made her a fool and a pariah. In so doing, Hamilton has committed a sin and sacrificed his wife on the altar as a guilt offering rather than taking the penalty he deserves. He sheds the proverbial blood of Eliza to atone for his sins and preserve his reputation.

Aaron Burr is, in almost all ways, a perfect character foil to Hamilton. But this moment is a lapse in that role. For Burr is no less sinful and flawed than Hamilton; he merely enjoys the security of privacy in his depravity. No, the character foil to Hamilton in his sin is Jesus Christ.

“Of course, Marlee,” you say, “the point of knowing God is that His goodness creates a contrast to our sinfulness, this is your most far-fetched proposition yet, I can’t believe you made me read that whole story about water slides for THIS, etc.” Easy, reader, you must understand that I do not speak of general attributes of God, but of the physical life and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus, in living a sinless life, had unquestionably earned the spotless reputation that Hamilton so desperately clung to. And while Hamilton shed another’s innocent blood to preserve it, Christ Himself was brought low to atone for those who did not deserve it.

I skip those songs on the Hamilton soundtrack. My best friend outright refuses to watch the second act. They are a cringe-worthy reminder that our innate instinct, and our fallen world, would have us sacrifice innocent blood in the interest of self. But the altar is already occupied by a Lamb who required nothing of us but repentance. In his atonement, we have no need to bloody our hands with dirty money and “Reynolds Pamphlets.”

Where others are only able to reveal our shortcomings, I think it is profoundly beautiful that Jesus, the perfect character foil, is able to both reveal our brokenness and use that revelation to redeem us from it. Contrast to Burr is compelling, but contrast to Christ is cathartic.

Reality Changing Observations:

1. When have you witnessed someone thrown on the altar to save someone else from the consequences of their actions? What was your response?

2. Hard question: Have you ever sacrificed someone else to save yourself?

3. As you think about one or two of your favorite stories (in book, play, or movie form, or other), where is Jesus? Is there a Christ figure? Or is Christ the foil for the protagonist?

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