Kiera Knightly, Emo Phillips, Stolen Bicycles and Guilt

I never realized that actress Kiera Knightley was a comedienne. The only problem is that she probably doesn't think of herself as a comedienne either. She probably thinks of herself as a serious thinker. Allow me to elaborate.

In our adult education program last Sunday, the teacher used the meme above in the class PowerPoint as part of a discussion of world views and atheism. In the event the reader is unable to see the meme above, it shows a photo of Ms. Knightley with a quote that reads, "If only I wasn't an atheist, I could get away with anything. You'd just ask for forgiveness and then you'd be forgiven. It sounds much better than having to live with guilt." Now, I didn't comment about the quote in class, but whether Ms. Knightley realizes it or not, her thoughtful words are basically a retelling of a joke that Emo Phillips (an acknowledged comedian - and a very funny one, at that) shared as part of his stage act in the late 1980s or early 1990s.

Emo's joke went like this: "When I was a kid, I used to pray every night for a new bike. Then I realized, the Lord doesn't work that way. So I just stole one and asked Him to forgive me." Compare this joke to Ms. Knightley's supposedly serious statement about Christianity. I don't see much difference, do you? Both assert that if you are a Christian it is okay to sin because God will forgive you.

Emo's joke is funny because, like all good jokes, it has a grain of truth. Yes, Christianity promises that if you confess your sins and trust in Jesus' promise to forgive your sins then your sins will be forgiven. To the frivolous, that is a license to sin at will because God will forgive the sin. But of course, that is not the Biblical teaching.

Numerous verses in the Bible talk about the need for Christians to have good conduct. Romans 6 is but one example. Paul asks, "Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? " Much of the Bible tells Christians that they are forgiven, but the forgiveness comes with an obligation to behave in a good and Godly way. In fact, one could argue that James makes the point that a person who is a Christian but acts as if nothing in his life has changed is not truly saved. ("Faith without works is dead.")

Emo's joke works because the answer is unexpected in context. Readers/listeners know instinctively (or from having actually read the Bible) that it is wrong to steal a bicycle just because you know that God will forgive you. Emo recognizes this because his quote is a joke. Ms. Knightley apparently misses this essential point because her quote is apparently her effort at serious thought. Emo recognizes his joke has a grain of truth; Ms. Knightley believes that her quote is the whole truth.

But what most fascinates me about the meme is that Ms. Knightley seems to admit that she feels guilt. What is guilt? Guilt is the knowledge that the guilty party has violated some rules or ethic and know it. In my earlier blogpost (way back in December 2004) about Edgar Allan Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart," I discussed guilt, and I want to share a small portion of that earlier piece again.

"There is a very important lesson to learn from [the Tell-Tale Heart] and it has to do with guilt. You see, all of us have guilt. According to the Gale Encylopedia of Psychology’s article on guilt:

"Guilt is both a cognitive and an emotional experience that occurs when a person realizes that he or she has violated a moral standard and is responsible for that violation. A guilty conscience results from thoughts that we have not lived up to our ideal self. Guilt feelings may also inhibit us from falling short of our ideal again in the future. Individual guilt is an inner reflection on personal wrongdoing, while collective guilt is a shared state resulting from group-such as corporate, national, or community-wrongdoing.
Guilt serves as both an indicator and inhibitor of wrongdoing. Healthy guilt is an appropriate response to harming another and is resolved through atonement, such as making amends, apologizing, or accepting punishment. Unhealthy guilt, sometimes called neurotic or debilitating guilt, is a pervasive sense of responsibility for others' pain that is not resolved, despite efforts to atone. Healthy guilt inspires a person to behave in the best interests of him- or herself and others and make amends when any wrong is done. Unhealthy guilt stifles a person's natural expression of self and prohibits intimacy with others.
"Guilt is a concept that is taught in the Bible as well, but it does not lay the reason for guilt on such things as sexual drive or aggressive impulses (as Sigmund Freud did). Instead, Christianity teaches that each of us has guilt in recognition of the fact that we have fallen short of what we were meant to be by God. (According to the Blue Letter Bible, Sin as used in the Bible means “missing the mark.”)"

Ms. Knightley acknowledges feelings of guilt. After all, in her world if one can merely sin, get forgiveness (relieving one of guilt) and sin some more, then that's the easier road than living with guilt -- which is apparently what she is saying that she as an atheist must do. I would love to know more about this guilt that she apparently feels. Is it transitory guilt that one gets from getting a speeding ticket or is it the deep down guilt one feels when we know that we are violating some great moral law or rule of the universe (or of God)?

Ms. Knightley's quote is based on ignorance of what Christianity actually teaches about morality, forgiveness and sin. In saying that, I recognize that she is not alone nor am I accusing her of being stupid. She is a victim of the popular press. A lot of what Christianity teaches is misinterpreted or completely ignored by people who prefer to discount or even make fun of Christianity and Christians, and they are anxious to share their ignorance with others. But Ms. Knightley's quote shows hope - she recognizes that she has guilt even if she is probably dismissive of what it really is. Maybe some day she will come to recognize that the guilt is what's real, and then she might be led to try to figure out if that forgiveness for sins that she thought was so easily gained might be something that she truly needs. One can only hope.


good article BK. It's typical of atheists, as with most worldly people, not to understand the concept of Grace. I' e often wondered how they manage forgiveness in their own lives. I've noted they don't forgive easily and hold grudges.

Those of you who recall the hedonism of thee 70s might remember that there was an attitude going around that guilt is always bad. Guilt is like repression,and Freud acknowledged it: a bit is good it's the surplus that's harmful. Marcuse said the same about repression. guilt tells us we have done something wrong, The Me generation of the 70s wanted to just eliminate it and not mess with being wrong. It doesn't work that way. Like the good bit of repression guilt restrains us from making total asses of ourselves,

I could go on but I guess that means you wrote a good one (as usual) because it stimulates me to say more. I think this is one of the areas where we see the real superiority of the Gospel over other philosophies of life. But also it shows the intuitive nature of Grace. Intuitive because those who try to understand Grace as the percentages" don't understand it; it's a concept it can;t be worked out by figuring it has to be understood conceptually.
BK said…
I would welcome you to write more on it as a separate blogpost. Guilt (healthy guilt) is evidence of the existence of God.
I'll think about it but I'm, pretty booked up now
Jason Pratt said…
It's also possible that Ms. Knightly is reacting to Christians in her life who have abused divine forgiveness: they pray or do their assigned penance and then having met their (evidently legal) obligation they're good to go for the next round of whatever they want to do wrong, perhaps to her or to those she loves. They don't live with the guilt of what they do, and aren't really repentant about it either, except in the sense of escaping God's punishment (and maybe human punishment). Nor do they seek to reconcile with their victim. The "get away with anything" -- so, on this theory, she's complaining that she could get away with anything, too, and live guilt free like they do, if only she wasn't an atheist.

Even on this theory she isn't reflecting on the implications of what it means to feel guilt -- plenty of atheists also live guilt-free lives (or try as hard as they can to do so) and feel like they can get away with anything so long as they have the power to avoid getting caught or to avoid the consequences of being caught (by their fellow humans). But it may not be a case of KK trying to be philosophically (if also sarcastically) deep about the proper moral superiority of atheism. It might be a case of bitter complaint about the practical effects of bad Christians in her life. (Considering that she's an activist against domestic abuse, that raises the likelihood at least a little in my estimate.)

Having said that, a lot of her public quotes are rather shallow and trivial. Not all of them, but a lot. So... eh.

As a trivial aside, she's a diagnosed dyslexic, Joe. {g}


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