Extended home life has led to some unusual TV viewing these days. Case in point: we all watched a 12-hour documentary on an exotic zoo owner. The shortage of content recently led me to watch the old 1962 film, “The Music Man”. The musical has almost canonical status in theater culture and is a staple in the high school musical repertoire. Harold Hill, a traveling music salesman, comes to the stubborn small town River City and convinces them to buy instruments and uniforms to play in a band. The corruptions of the pool table are traded for brass instruments. Everyone comes under his spell, giving the town a newfound buzz and purpose.

The root of all this excitement, though, is a lie. Harold Hill has no intention to teach the children to actually play their expensive, new instruments. As soon as the bills are paid he plans to leave town. “Professor” Hill espouses a “think system” to keep up the ruse. He has no musical training and pretty much everything he says is a lie designed to exploit the ignorance of this small town. Even his romantic overtures to Marian the librarian are a ploy to keep his secret safe.

Watching it recently, I thought it’s a perfect movie to talk about the aspects of imputation, to illustrate what it is and what it isn’t. Imputation is the theological term used to capture how God regards sinners to be righteous by faith instead of works. This gift (or grace) is dynamic, enabling a faithful response of thankfulness and love. Imputation ascribes attributes to the one who does not possess them, ignoring counter-evidence to regard another person as more than they seem, trading faults for perfection. It is the creative word that brings into existence that which was not.

Harold Hill arrives in River City and his almost magical word-craft changes everyone. He promises a band performance and inspires the town. He treats everyone as musicians in waiting and, with flattering praise, he ascribes to them greater aptitude and skill than they actually possessed. The reserved child, Winthrop, comes out from his shell with newfound confidence. The local librarian (Marian) lets her guard down to fall in love. The school board, who “hated each other for fifteen years,” trades their dissonance for the harmony of a barbershop quartet. The town “hoodlum” (Tommy) becomes the drum major and leader of his peers. Hill’s imputation was inadvertent, but it still created the band he dreamed of. The credits roll with a mystical parade of 76 trombones, 110 cornets, 1000 reeds, and drums of every kind.

The promise of a band was all a lie, of course, but it was a useful lie, one that changed River City and created a band after all. In the words of Marian, “I know what he promised us and it all happened just like he said. The lights, the colors, the symbols, and the flags…in the way every kid in this town walked around all summer and looked and acted…and the parents too.” But imputation’s final magic trick is reserved for Prof. Hill himself. Marian knowingly treats the lying salesman as if he were what he claimed to be—regardless of whether he fesses up to his crimes. He falls for her, and risks imprisonment to stay in town.

According to any objective standard of truth, when humans impute to others they certainly are lying. Many parents think their child is a budding genius, but statistics tell us otherwise. Newborn babies are always beautiful to their parents even though the casual observer might compare them to aliens. Imputation is that blindness born from love that borders on willful self-deception. Its power to inspire is directly proportional to the degree of delusion on the part of the speaker. As Prof. Harold Hill admits to Winthrop, “I always think there’s a band, kid.”

But is God’s imputation of sinners a lie as well? This is the point at which scholars and pastors either recoil or find harbor in atonement theories. For centuries, imputation has been accused of being a “legal fiction”, a kind of inane fantasy. A just God cannot simply wave his hand and make everything OK without becoming like the despicable charlatan Harold Hill. To those who cling to inalienable notions of justice, imputation is a lie, a covenant of deceit on the part of God and the recipient. Like those who objected to Jesus’ scandalous company of tax collectors and sinners, God is placed on trial for what he can and cannot do. Instead, the very ideas of justice and truthfulness are at least worth holding more loosely. God willfully self-determines the real truth that sinners are righteous. What God says is, just as light came from darkness.

If imputation appears to be a legal fiction, so be it; it is a beautiful and useful “lie” that changes everything. Life could use a little more loving imputation and a lot less “truthful” judgment. As the psalmist praises, “blessed is the one against whom the Lord does not impute iniquity” (Ps 32:2). So grab a cornet and uniform and join the parade of the justified. Blast your trombone in praise! The crucified Music Man leads onward, ushering the righteous into eternity.