Magazine article The Christian Century

Crux of the Matter

Magazine article The Christian Century

Crux of the Matter

Article excerpt

The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ

By Fleming Rutledge

Eerdmans, 620 pp., $45.00


Preacher Fleming Rutledge's magnum opus is many things. It is an examination and rethinking of virtually all the major ways in which the death of Christ has been interpreted. It is also an argument that the how of Jesus' death--the ghastly and dehumanizing ordeal of crucifixion--matters. But perhaps more than either of these, Rutledge's book is a protest. It is a protest against what might be termed Christianity lite: against the many contemporary iterations of the Christian faith, both conservative and liberal, that don't have much in the way of theological depth and seriousness--iterations that trade a rich, world-shaking, challenging faith for what seems only a mess of trivia.

The Crucifixion is also an extended protest against the failure to take seriously evil and sin--that is, to take seriously the world in which we live. Implicit in her argument is this thesis: a Christian faith that does not face and come to grips with radical evil does not deserve to be taken seriously.

Early in her study, Rutledge observes that "personal engagement with the cross is difficult and painful, but leaders of congregations will have a hole in the center of their ministry without it." She is right. Preachers who engage the apparently negative are not only doing so in a culture that is thoroughly committed to the upbeat and positive, but they are likely aware of the complexity of preaching and teaching about something that is both central and controversial. It is easy to get it wrong, and hard to get it right.

Don't conservative and evangelical churches regularly preach the cross and the crucifixion? Yes, they do. But they often reduce these themes to formulaic, even mechanistic interpretations of their meaning, related only to individuals and their fate after death. Moreover, as Rutledge argues persuasively, such proclamations are often theologically incoherent, doing violence to the trinitarian nature of God and rendering the God now separated from Jesus Christ into a monster.

Perhaps partly in reaction to the predominance of such reductive and misleading interpretations of the crucifixion by conservatives and evangelicals, other parts of the church--mainline, liberal, and progressive congregations and their preachers--have had less and less that is substantive to say about the crucifixion. Pelagianism, ever knocking at the mainline door, sidesteps the cross to emphasize Jesus' good works and his role as a moral exemplar and spiritual guide. Then proclamation tends to become telling stories about Jesus rather than preaching Christ crucified. In some mainline church settings, the crucified One is portrayed as just another innocent victim of the empire, not as the One whose death constituted God's redemptive disruption of the world.

One of Rutledge's crucial contributions is her reconsideration of Anselm, in which she shows that neither liberals nor conservatives have him right. Both camps have rendered Anselm far more simplistic, less nuanced, and less pastoral than he was. On more than one occasion Rutledge quotes Anselm's rejoinder to his interlocutor, Boso, "You have not yet considered the weight of sin," implying that this is also true of much contemporary American interpretation. Whatever else one may say of Anselm, he did take seriously the weight of sin.

After discussing Anselm, Rutledge takes up what she calls biblical motifs for understanding and interpreting the crucifixion. …

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