Prefacing her powerful work on the crucifixion (The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ), Fleming Rutledge describes a current cultural unease with putting the cross of Christ at the center of the Christian faith. She notes that these days “it is quite possible for a pastor to go through an entire year of Sundays and never once preach Christ crucified in any expansive way.”
That concerns Rutledge, but not because she sees the doctrine of the cross as an important doctrinal orthodoxy “box” to tick off. Her concern seems rooted in her heart as a minister of the Word for the doubters and the wounded—those who long for the kind of healing the gospel offers but doubt it’s possible. If what the authors of the New Testament claim is true, Rutledge emphasizes, then the cross holds unique power, not primarily as an “explanation” for how a transaction of salvation happens, but as “a living reality that continues to transform human existence and human destiny more than two thousand years after it originally occurred. . . The cross reveals its meaning as it takes shape in the experience of believers.”
In NT Wright’s recent work on the cross—The Day the Revolution Began—he also reflects on today’s discomfort with the cross, as well as some historical and culture reasons for that unease. At the top of that list would have to be distorted doctrinal explanations of the cross that reduce its power to a theological equation, one that seems to inevitably imply that God is a sort of cosmic bully who “must’ punish someone, anyone, before he can forgive and love the world. An emphasis on God’s rage and “need” to punish, he notes, can easily rewrite John 3:16 in people’s minds so that it reads something like, “God so hated the world that he sent his only son . . . so that he might love it again.” And yet, Wright notes, despite those doctrinal distortions and misunderstandings, the cross persists, in art and literature, and in people’s hearts, a symbol that seems to move and compel people across cultures and times regardless of their personal beliefs or lack thereof.
I’ve been returning to a new and deeper look at the cross these days because for me, as for many others, it’s something I can’t explain about the cross that keeps a skeptic like me repeatedly returning to Christian faith—even when the lists of reasons for doubt seem frankly longer than the lists of tangible reasons for belief. Every time I try to exhaustively figure out how my beliefs about Christ add up, my tentative grasp on faith seems to dissolve entirely. But the cross has a power that transcends my ability to grasp, as well as my ability to doubt. As Wright puts it, “The question ‘why’ [the cross has power] is important, but we ask it because we observe the reality.”
In some strange, inexplicable way, the “man of sorrows” seen at the cross still speaks into hearts, still whispers with tantalizing conviction that hope and love might be real after all. Why? Why did the gospel writers insist that it’s not the resurrection that’s the core of our faith, but the cross?
Of course, as I mentioned above, it’s impossible to exhaustively answer that question, and we shouldn’t try. We will all spend our entire lives as believers trying to deepen our understanding of why and how that is true. (Ironically, as Wright points out, both liberals and conservatives implicitly marginalize and minimize the cross’s power when they put all the focus on whether or not the cross and resurrection are factual events or not.) But I think a good place to start is to consider the unique way in which the cross challenges our need as human beings for control and triumph, for versions of reality that we can understand and manipulate to our advantage. A Christianity in which the resurrection is central and in which too much talk of Good Friday is avoided at all costs easily becomes—and has in many ways already become—yet another religious system of thought used for control and security. (Wright notes the tragic irony of a “Christian” nation whose response to 9/11 was an uncritical assumption that America could or should simply wipe out the “axis of evil,” a conversation in which God’s role and the ongoing significance of the cross in believers’ lives seemed entirely absent.)
To that often violent need we have as human beings to reduce reality to what we can understand and control, the cross has a uniquely disrupting power, one that cuts past our defenses to challenge our view of reality entirely.
In the past couple months, I’ve become pretty addicted to the TV show Bones, and I think what keeps me watching is how much I identify with and am fascinated by the growth in protagonist Temperance Brennan, who has responded to her history of pain with a deep antagonism towards what she deems “irrational.” And yet, against all the odds, (spoiler alert) she falls in love with a man of faith. Foundational to their relationship is a passionate yet respectful tension between Brennan’s preference for a reductive, materialistic worldview and Booth”s unshaking conviction in “something more.”
When the two (finally!!) exchange their wedding vows, Temperance frames her vows with a letter she wrote in a life-endangering situation:
When Hodgins and I were buried alive, we each wrote a message to someone we loved in case our bodies were ever found. Hodgins wrote to Angela and I wrote to you. “Dear Agent Booth, you are a confusing man. You are irrational and impulsive, superstitious and exasperating. You believe in ghosts and maybe even Santa Claus and because of you I’ve started to see the universe differently. How is it possible that simply looking into your fine face gives me such joy? Why does it make me so happy that every time I try to sneak a peek at you, you’re already looking at me? Like you it makes no sense, and like you, it feels right. If I ever get out of here, I will find a time and place to tell you that you make my life messy and confusing and unfocused and irrational and wonderful.”
This is that time, this is that place.
I think that scene will probably always make me cry a bit, because it echoes our deepest longing for another kind of irrational, messy, wonderful love to triumph over what we can understand. Only the mystery I see in the cross—of love that’s willing to risk it all—makes me believe it’s possible. “For God says, ‘At just the right time, I heard you. On the day of salvation, I helped you.’ . . . the ‘right time is now. Today is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:3).
(Source for wedding vows in Bones: https://www.eonline.com/news/472530/bones-wedding-recap-did-booth-and-brennan-have-tv-s-best-marriage-ceremony-ever).