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Friday, July 31, 2009

Is The Cross Necessary for Salvation?

This is the newest book on my Summer Reading List, written by two amazing authors, and it's the one reason I can't wait to start my vacation next week.

I've been waiting five years for this book, ever since I read their first book, Proverbs of Ashes : Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us. (Beacon Press, 2001)

If you have not yet read Proverbs of Ashes, put down your current book and read this. It may not change your mind, but it will, most assuredly, challenge everything you believe about the crucifixion.

The most compelling aspect of 'Ashes' is the links it makes between our present Christian understanding of the standard of the cruciform life and the author's - and other women's - experience of domestic violence.

Brock and Parker argue with intelligence and conviction that the violence of the cross has a direct bearing and influence on the violence in our lives.

Rita Nakashima Brock is a Disciple of Christ minister and Director of Faith Voices for the Common Good. Her writing partner, Rebecca Ann Parker, is president of the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California.

The two writers spent five years sniffing out evidence that the cruciform symbol, the central image of Christianity, arrived very late on the scene. Indeed, they maintain that it was not important during the first millennium of Christian history.

Not until 965 in northern Germany was the life-sized oak crucifix called the Gero Cross carved. On it, the Christian God was suffering and dying, an image of terror, torture and desolation. The carving is now in the Cathedral of St Peter and Maria in Cologne. Could there be a connection: one hundred years later, Pope Urban 11 launched the first crusade promising Christian warriors paradise after death.

“But the death of Jesus was not a key to meaning, not an image of devotion for the Christians of the first millennium”, Parker and Brock write. “He was risen, a healer, baptized, a shepherds, a teacher and a friend.”

From everything all the reviews I have read, I have no doubt that this book will rock the foundations of Christian belief. We who believe in and love Jesus have been thoroughly taught that the crucifixion of Jesus saved the world.

The authors ask - and answer - the important question, "If the crucifixion is absent in historic Christian art, what is present?

Paradise is present, Brock and Parker assert: this world, with water, sheep, hills of grass and flowers, winged seraphim, doves, deer, sheep and a small golden city. They found these images in the art of the apse, quite hidden, in the basilica of St Giovanni in Laterano in Rome.

“Paradise, not crucifixion was the dominant image of early Christian sanctuaries, and paradise was this world, not the next. What the images said was that God blesses this world with the spirit”.

I have a very clear memory of a seminary course I took at Weston Theological School in Cambridge, MA, which then shared the campus, library and faculty with my seminary, The Episcopal Divinity School.

At one point in this course on John, the professor, a Jesuit priest who has several essays in the Jerome Biblical Commentary, asked us to put down our pens and turn off our tape recorders.

With great urgency, he leaned over the podium and said to us, "Jesus is not the important thing about our faith. The Holy Spirit is. Jesus says this over and over again in John's gospel. Jesus shows us the way, and lays out the path by which we can find our salvation - as individual in community - but it is the Holy Spirit, the Resurrection gift of the Crucifixion of Jesus, who guides us and sustains us in that journey back 'home' to Paradise to be with God."

Ultimately, this book offers potent political theology.

Our inherited theology of the cross: violent victimization and devious enemies, (à la Mel Gibson), has stoked holy war, the Crusades, colonization and racism.

It has also been the theological basis which has given tacit approval if not blanket permission to perpetuate domestic violence - especially to women and children.

I suspect it is also the undercurrent of the violence - physical, psychological and spiritual - directed towards LGBT people.

I also want to suggest that The Cross has underwritten our compulsion to 'shame and blame' along with our need to create scapegoats for cultural 'problems' - like the so-called threat of LGBT people to 'the sanctity of marriage' - and the need to 'save' marriage from this threat, even if this means that we much 'kill the infidel'.

Parker has said ‘Legacies of violence, terror and trauma continue to bring anguish into the world”.

She, with Nakashima Brock, is driven to seek its roots, the roots in religion. Together, these theologians reclaim the value of life in this world and the truth of salvation on earth. They are reaffirming a sensibility, the affirming forms of Christianity.

The world could do with some of that.

You can hear some of Rebecca Ann Parker's presentation to the congregation at All Soul's Unitarian Church here. There are three parts to the series.

You can hear some of Rita Nakashima Brock's thoughts in a two part video here.

As for me, I can't wait to read the book. It makes the anticipation of vacation that much sweeter.


WilliamK said...

I perhaps should not respond with a counter-argument to all of this until I have had a chance to read one or both of these books (though I doubt I'll have the time to do so)... but I must say that this just doesn't ring true to me. The authors are quoted as follows: “But the death of Jesus was not a key to meaning, not an image of devotion for the Christians of the first millennium....” I guess this may be true for artistic imagery, and that does merit attention and explanation.

BUT... the New Testament is FULL of references to Jesus' crucifixion that do make it a "key to meaning." And no one questions that these texts come from Christianity's first 200 years. For one example, from many, we have Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 1:23 (written sometime in the 50s C.E.): "but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles".

I'm deeply troubled by the claim that the crucifixion of Christ as a focus of devotion is a basic problem in Christianity; it looks to me like an attack not at late accretions but at something foundational. Why would we want to get rid of the belief so beautifully expressed in the Morning Prayer collect, that Jesus Christ "stretched out [his] arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of [his] saving embrace"?

it's margaret said...

I'm reading it too --upon the recommendation of my hermit-friend Maggie Ross.

WilliamK, respectfully, I think it very important to recapture the imagination of blessings... above, beyond and rather than judgment and the cross. The crucifixion should, perhaps, ONLY be contemplated in light of the incarnation, resurrection and ascension. Jesus "offered himself," yes.... but God responded, and responds, with life, life, and more life. That is the ground of my faith, ---not the death of Jesus, but God's eternal response to the very worst we can offer.... eternal life.

Jim said...

Two more books to read. Lordy do I need more time!


rick allen said...

"We have grown so used to the idea that the Crucifixion is the supreme symbol of Christianity, that it is a shock to realize how late in the history of Christian art its power was recognized. In the first art of Christianity it hardly appears; and the earliest example, on the doors of Santa Sabina in Rome, is stuck away in a corner, almost out of sight. The simple fact is that the early Church needed converts, and from this point of view the crucifixion was not an encouraging subject. So, early Christian art is concerned with miracles, healings, and with hopeful aspects of the faith like the Ascension and the Resurrection. The Santa Sabina Crucifixion is not only obscure but unmoving. The few surviving Crucifixions of the early Church make no attempt to touch our emotions. It was the tenth century, that despised and rejected epoch of European history, that made the Crucifixion into a moving symbol of the Christian faith. In a figure like the one make for Archbishop Gero of Cologne it has become very much what it has been ever since--the upstretched arms, the sunken head, the poignant twist of the body....I am reminded of the most famous lines in Virgil, that great mediator between the antique and the medieval world. They come when Aeneas has been shipwrecked in a country that he fears in inhabited by barbarians. Then as he looks around he sees some figures carved in relief, and he says: 'These men know the pathos of life, and mortal things touch their hearts'."

--Kenneth Clark, Civilisation, 1969

I had thought it a commonplace by now that one of the hallmarks of the transition from the European dark ages to the High Middle Ages was the changing depiction of Jesus, from the glorified Christ to the more human figure who was born, nursed,taught,and suffered, along with us, as one of us. What is new, of course, is not the place of the crucifixion in the theology of the Church--that's plain enough from the gospels, the New Testament epistles, and the writings of the Fathers--but the use of new visual themes to move that theology from the head to the heart.

Personally I'm a little horrified that anyone could interpret these images as glorifications of violence. Surely they instead embody compassion ("com-passion," feeling with) in anyone with any feeling.

As for the crusades, I am sure they are better accounted for by the precarious position of Byzantium after the battle of Manzikert than by the medieval cult of the human Jesus and his tender mother.

Caminante said...

Ooh thanks for the tip. I will track the book down. Happy reading.

RFSJ said...

I need to read one or both of these books as well. My own understanding of the progression from Cross to Crucifix in the Middle Ages is at least *in part* a reaction to the Black Death - a transference in art of the horror of the Plague to God in Christ, who can/could deal with it in ways we humans could not. Explains the rise of extremely gruesome Passion Plays too.

I may be completely wrong. and even if not, it does not preclude a hyposthesis regarding domestic violence. I might ask if there is any correlation in other religious traditions to a rise in deomestic violence...


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

As a survivor of domestic violence all I can say is that "Ashes" had a very deep impact on me. I can't wait to read this one.

I think Margaret's post (Hey, Margaret) makes the most sense. Take the crucifixion as part of the whole - incarnation, resurrection and ascension. That's a much more integrative, balanced approach. What Brock and Parker offer is an antidote to the narrow view offered by many 'fundgelicals' of the Mel Gibson variation which focus in on the suffering of Jesus to the exclusion of everything else. That, I think, is a serious contributing factor to violence.

Jim said...

William makes a fascinating to me critique from non-reading. If I have not read a book I cannot find a way to criticize it.

I will observe that Christos Victor, the triumphant Christ not the suffering Christ was the dominant image in both art and theology for the early church. The violent concentration on the crucifixion is ill advised.

I find the image in one of the Eucharistic prayers particullarly powerful. "He stretched out His arms and offered..." That is about Christus Rex not crucifixion. And it is arguably traditional.

I make Anglican Rosaries (and on request the occasional RC version.) I use either empty crosses or ones with very ancient Christos Victor images for them. I wont do the head down suffering Christ. There are other ways to see God through Christ than transfixed guilt and human violence.

St. Anslem was wrong on more than he was correct!


Modified slightly and cross posted on my blog.

gerry said...

Thanks for the memory jog.

I had purchased this new book at Convention last November and put it in the to read pile.

There it remains pushed to the side by more pressing things. I need to move it to the top.

Enjoy your vacation Elizabeth, you've earned thee quiet days by the sea.

Jeffri Harre said...

I'd been wanting to read this and got it as a birthday present (via a gift certificate to It has many interesting ideas that make a lot of sense to me. And some of what they had to say made me angry about our history.

I didn't agree with all of their conclusions, but even those I didn't agree with made me think and rethink. It was a great read.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

In the 1990-ies an art history professor told me and a class at Lund University about all this and not least the Baptistery at the Lateran (not open to the public).

The one with the life size deer assembled around the well...

Paradisical indeed!

rick allen said...

In any case, please let us know your impressions as you read through it.

I am especially curious about how they deal with the declaration of the eighth century Second Council of Nicaea:

"As the sacred and life-giving cross is everywhere set up as a symbol, so also should the images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the holy angels, as well as those of the saints and other pious and holy men be embodied in the manufacture of sacred vessels, tapestries, vestments, etc., and exhibited on the walls of churches, in the homes, and in all conspicuous places, by the roadside and everywhere, to be revered by all who might see them."

Closed said...

I have read portions of this book. What is problematic is the leap from how an image may have functioned in a given culture and how it's interpretation may have it function differently in our own. The very human images of Jesus nursing, naked, crucified in the 10th century were, as Carolyn Walker Bynum researches, in part responses to those who would downplay the Incarnation. The crucifixion was not separable from this, as it shows both the extent of God's love for us (remembering that Jesus offers himself as he is God-Human in St Anselm's theory, something Parker and Brown misinterpret in "Ashes") and the depth of God-in-the-flesh.

I understand that Parker and Brown's first work is helpful for those who have experienced abuse. It was helpful for me in rethinking, but as theology, it's full of misreads of others works, including St Anselm, and has led me since to offer criticism. One of my comps was just that. I've posted a link to it.

Hiram said...

Those who seek to eradicate the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement do not, I think, understand either sin or the cross as God's love.

The hardest part of accepting the idea of substitutionary atonement is that it requires one to admit that he or she is a sinner - not just in terms of doing that which God has said are wrong, or failing to do what he says is right, but in terms of being in active rebellion against the creator of the universe. It is hard enough to think of oneself as limited and fallible; it is far harder to think that, at the core of our hearts we are dead in sin, as Paul says in Ephesians 2.

God's grace gives us power to lay down our arms; God's mercy forgives, with the assurance that our guilt has been laid upon Jesus and that his righteousness has been credited to us, so that we are fully acceptable before God, with all confidence that our sins have been cast into the depths of the sea.

John Stott puts it very succinctly:
"The concept of substitution lies at the heart of both sin and salvation. For the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man." (In The Cross of Christ (Intervarsity, 1986)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hiram, Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I appreciate your position. As you and I have discussed in the past, we begin at a different place - you with a very low doctrine of humanity and a strong doctrine of sin and I with a higher doctrine of humanity and a strong doctrine of grace.

It's really no wonder, then, that we end up in such very different places.

Hiram said...

Hi, Elizabeth,
I do not know how holding that human beings are created in the image of God is a "low doctrine of humanity." What could be higher?

The odd thing is that I have a suspicion that you have personally suffered more and worse than I have from fallen, sinful people - yet I have a stronger doctrine of sin, where human beings are in rebellion against God, not simply imperfect and fallible (although originally created as perfect and able not to sin).

I also think that my doctrine of grace is far higher than yours. According to my convictions about what the Bible says about the mercy of God, God does not simply put up with the faults and struggles of imperfect and somewhat ornery people, but rather reaches down into the pit of our rebellion, touches our hearts and restores them to faith and trust, and does something real to deal with our guilt. "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom 5:8) I think that it takes a lot more grace to forgive a rebel, both personally and judicially, than it does simply to accept someone limited and fallible where they are. The latter is wonderful - the former is breath-taking.

Or so it seems to this poor sinner saved by the grace of the one who put himself in my place so that I could be with him in delight.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

It's not that you don't hold that human beings are created in the image of God, it's that you start with the Fall. You start the human experience in sin. I don't. I start with God looking at everything in Creation - including human kind - and saying, "It is good."

And yes, I can say this in spite of the domestic violence in my family of origin and in my marriage. It's what has allowed me to move from being a victim to being a survivor and thriving.

Oh, Hiram, I don't want to play, "My doctrine of grace is bigger/higher/stronger than yours." That's a silly boy's game. Because of what I wrote in my second paragraph, I think I have a very high doctrine of grace - but I would never, ever use the reasoning you gave - which, quite frankly, set a shiver of disgust down my spine. My gracious, how can you say those things about humanity and still think we are created in the image of God and claim to NOT have a low doctrine of humanity.

Never mind. Don't answer that. I think I know. It's the Fall again. Right. Well, I'm not buying the Apple Story. Nice myth. Entertaining. Probably helpful to a primitive people to understand the potential for evil we all have. But, I'm just not there anymore - haven't been since I was about 10 years old. I think the presence of human evil is a much, much more complicated thing - which is not suitable matter for a Blog discussion.

Thanks, Hiram. I do appreciate your perspective even if it is so far from my own. It just confirms for me the richness of Holy Scripture and how that is so different from the Good News proclaimed by Christ Jesus.

Hiram said...

I have quite a few thoughts in relation to this little "conversation," which I will post on my blog (soon, I hope) but I do want to say that I do not begin with the Fall.

I begin with Creation, and "behold it was very good." But I believe that to be honest about the human condition and the major problem we human beings face, the reality of the Fall into sin cannot be ignored.

I think that the central difference between you and me (and between those who uphold historic orthodoxy and those who proclaim a "modern faith") is the answers we give to the questions, "What is the human problem?" and "What is the solution to the human problem?"

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey there, Hiram. Let me just say that I do not ignore the significance of The Fall. I just don't give it as much weight as you apparently do.

I also hold a lot more of the historic, orthodox faith than you give me credit for. The same things were said of Jesus, in his day, by the Pharisees. I mean, he didn't keep strict kosher and was always 'revising' the Torah. (See: Eating with non-Jews, Healing on the Sabbath, etc.).

And, I ask the similar questions. Mine are "What is the enterprise of being human?" And, "What can I /we do to bring us all closer to the Realm of God?"

It's not that I don't see problems. I don't deny the real presence of Evil in the world. Trust me, I know those facts only too well. I'm not saying that humans do not sin. My sins are ever before me.

What I am saying is that if you start with a 'problem' or 'pathology' that perspective will frame your response.

I don't believe that the human enterprise is a problem to be solved. I see being human as a gift from God that needs to be lived fully so that, as Irenaeus once said, the Glory of God can be made manifest.

Let me know when that blog essay is up.

Mary Beth said...

THank you for these recommendations. I've been struggling with atonement theology all year and these look like great resources.