We continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).
In the Introduction, Rutledge engages the reader with a bang:
The early Christian preaching announced the entrance of God upon the stage of history in the person of an itinerant Jewish teacher who had been ingloriously pinned up alongside two of society’s castoffs to die horrible, rejected and condemned by religious and secular authorities alike, discarded onto the garbage heap of humanity, scornfully forsaken by both elites and common folk, leaving behind only a discredited, demoralised handful of scruffy disciples who had no status whatsoever in the eyes of anyone. The peculiarity of this beginning for a world-transforming faith is not sufficiently recognized. (1)
In this sense, Christianity is ‘irreligious’ – if religion is defined as a projects set of beliefs emerging out of humanity’s needs and longings for meaning and hope. ‘The religious imagination seeks uplift, not torture, humiliation and death.’ (2).
And so Rutledge’s aim is to re-articulate the radical and unique nature of Christianity. What other faith would embrace shame and death? – think of Paul, ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel’. The cross is foolishness and a stumbling block – the Christian faith is scandalous.
Rutledge’s foil here is much American Christianity that prefers optimism and inspirational uplift. The primary focus is not on narrower recent debates about the ‘rights and wrongs’ of penal substitution (chapter 8 is a major chapter on this theme which we will get to eventually) but much more with returning the significance of the cross to the centre of Christian preaching and teaching.
The atonement is much contested these days. Some are looking to re-cast the foundations; others a return to historical tradition. The former can lapse into cultural trendiness and heterodoxy; the latter into a belligerent defensiveness. Rutledge appeals for a robust, honest but gracious conversation.
But here’s the thing that Rutledge gets so well throughout this book ..
The atonement is not a theory to be dissected, debated and used as a test of ‘soundness’. It is, first and foremost, a doctrine to be preached and experienced. The real question, similar to that of Bonhoeffer (Who is Christ for us today?) is
‘What does Jesus’ death on the cross a long time ago have to do with us now?’ (7)
The Bible, and this book, is full of different motifs and images to answer this question – but no image can ever capture the whole. And they are not to be understood as an intellectual construct ‘but as dynamic, living truth empowering us for the living of these days.’ (7).
So, I wonder what is your answer to Rutledge’s question?
How is the cross something that empowers you to live life to God’s story in the days allotted to you?
And do you agree that much of contemporary Christianity is more about ‘uplift’ and spiritual optimism than a robust theology of the cross?