Confession is Good for the Soul

Review of Fox’s Sleepy Hollow, Episode 3, “For the Triumph of Evil”

Week three of Sleepy Hollow, and the apocalypse is still upon us. Maybe we can blame the government shutdown for how long it’s taking to stop the end of the world? This week, a demon known as “Rokaronti” (also known in better fiction as the “Sandman”) has been loosed on Sleepy Hollow and is systematically eliminating those who had a hand in covering up the dark secrets of the past. This particular villain strikes while the victim is asleep and uses their guilty conscience to drive them to suicide. Lieutenant Abbie Mills is next on the list, unless she and Ichabod Crane can successfully enter the dream world and, with the help of the local used car salesman/Indian Medicine Man, put a stop to this faceless nightmare’s murderous rampage. Let us all sincerely hope the Medicine Man is a recurring character, since his car dealership is called “Geronimotors” and has the motto “Tomahawking Prices since 1980.” That alone ought to earn this show an Emmy…

As with the last two episodes, there are lots of potential topics here for reflection. We could (and I probably will at some point) talk about dreams and portents as possible revelations from God. Likewise. we could talk about the value of turning to pagans for advice about the supernatural, or the use of hallucinogenic drugs to jump-start spiritual experiences.

This episode, however, involved a picture of confession that is just too good to pass up. [Spoiler alert from here on out.] Abbie has to fight the demon by facing up to her own sins. In the past she committed a terrible wrong against her own sister and against the truth. Now she is being called to account for it. She is told that the only way to save her life is to confess her guilt—to admit the wrong she did and hold up the truth that should have defined her actions. When she does so, the power of the demon shatters and she is free to embrace the possibility of reconciliation with those she wronged.

In these events, we are given an excellent picture of the Christian understanding of sin, confession, and repentance.

1) Guilt

We are not good people caught in a bad system, or misguided, or sick, or anything that would lessen the moral impact of our sin. We are guilty. We have sinned. We have broken the law. We have wronged others, but above all we have wronged God. Abbie’s crime was not a mistake or an accident or a well-intentioned necessity of the moment. She offers none of the many excuses we that trot out when we try to justify our wicked actions—to ourselves or others. She told a lie, and that lie had devastating effects on her, on her family, and on the world. She knows she was wrong, and she knows that she deserves to be punished. Each and every one of us is in exactly the same boat. We are sinners and are worthy of judgment because of it.

2) Confession

Once we experience internal conviction of guilt, our proper response begins with confession. Abbie, for example, does this when she admits her wrong and declares the path that she should have followed. Basically, the Christian view of “confession” is that we are agreeing with God about the nature and reality of our sin. We are admitting that we are guilty, and not trying to hide behind excuses or half-truths. This is not just a rational and external admittance of guilt, as one might admit that two and two are four. It is rather a deeply-felt conviction that our actions were moral atrocities, and that we have fundamentally wronged God in what we have done. This requires us to know something of what we should have done instead and the life we should have lived but failed to—though of course we can’t expect to know fully how things might have turned out otherwise. I can know that I should have told the truth instead of a lie, but that doesn’t mean I have a full knowledge of the exact words I would have used. In any case, confession is acknowledging and feeling the weight of our wrong.

3) Repentance

The Christian response to sin does not end with confession. As Christians we understand that it is not enough to merely feel the weight of conviction and admit our sin; we also need to reject it and turn our lives in a new direction. We need to repent. Abbie declares that she is following a new course and, as part of that course, goes to those she has wronged to ask for forgiveness (and is now living a life dedicated to the uncovering of rather inconvenient truths). We as Christians understand that our confession cannot be a matter of mere words or feelings; it must have real-world consequences for our actions. If our lives are not affected by the forgiveness we’ve received, then we are liars when we claim to believe in Jesus.

Now, this isn’t to say that we have a perfect view of confession here. Christian confession after all has to be built on the foundation of the atonement worked for us on the cross. All the confession in the world won’t actually pay for a single sin—that requires the blood of Christ to have been shed in our place. But what we see in the Christian life is that when we come to believe that Jesus died for us personally, confession and repentance increasingly shape our thoughts, our words, and our actions. In that sense, this episode of Sleepy Hollow has given us a decent picture of confession in action, even if the one foundational thing that would make such confession efficacious is absent. Nevertheless, we are given a wonderful reminder of the great Christian teaching that we can’t change the past, but that the past can be forgiven—a forgiveness which shows itself in acknowledgement of guilt, confession, and repentance.

Alas, it appears that, at least in the world fo Sleepy Hollow, confession only works on the Rokaronti. They’ll have to find some other way to kill the Headless Horseman. And I for one am very much looking forward to seeing what that other way is.

Dr. Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, where he regularly fights the good fight against the sandman and all such nightmare folk. 


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