Brown’s book sat on my shelf for weeks after I bought it, though I initially had the intention of reading it right away. I was avoiding it, whether consciously or not, for precisely the same reasons she lays out for writing the book: preachers today are avoiding the cross.
Pastors attending preaching seminars confirmed to Brown that they do not mention the cross in sermons (p. 12). The reasons she provides are that preachers are now aware of the adverse effects some atonement theories can have on believers, particularly those suffering from domestic violence or unjust social systems, and preachers do not know what role, if any, atonement theories should play in the pulpit (p. 12-13). I would add to her list of reasons that the cross and death of Christ can be depressing for many persons, as well as embarrassing in light of the gory and graphic treatment it has recently received through Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
I need not have procrastinated. As soon as I began the book, Brown identified my own unspoken reluctance to address this subject while rousing me to the importance of preaching the cross.
Her first chapter, “At a Loss for Words: Why Preachers are Falling Silent About the Cross,” describes the dilemma facing seminary-trained preachers who have learned to critique traditional atonement theories. They are reluctant to add to the suffering and confusion caused by misappropriations of these theories. They discover, as did I while at Princeton Seminary taking Donald Juel’s course entitled “Why Did Jesus Have to Die?,” that articulating an atonement theory is much more difficult after seminary. There is good reason for this. The New Testament includes a variety of metaphors for the significance of Jesus’ death, but it lacks a clear and consistent theory of atonement (p. 31). Despite this, theologians have historically tried to explain in a systematic way how God in Christ redeems humanity through the cross. Gustav Aulen’s Cristus Victor presented three basic categories that in various forms found their way into the preaching life of congregations: satisfaction (often correlated with penal substitution), moral influence, and ransom (p. 13). In the latter half of the twentieth century, the emergence of feminist, womanist, Black, and post-colonialist theologies brought about a growing awareness that the practical effects of preaching these theories were counterproductive in proclaiming the redemption made possible through Christ’s death on the cross. Instead, these theories were frequently used to keep persons in situations of bondage and oppression (49).
As a result of these critiques, we avoid speaking of the cross altogether, which has had a disastrous effect on the theological education and formation of our congregants. Many Christians, according to David Van Biema when interviewed by Time magazine following the release of Gibson’s Passion, profess that “Jesus died for our sins” but they cannot express what exactly this means (p. 11). Yet although they cannot articulate the significance of this event, aspects of these atonement theories appear in the subtle understandings of congregants whose faith may perceive “God’s wrath, rather than God’s love, [is] the motivation behind the cross” (p. 50); that self-sacrifice or suffering itself is redemptive (p. 53); or that justice primarily entails retributive punishment rather than a “making right” of injustices (p. 54). Thus, Brown summarizes the task of preachers today as being both critical and constructive as they help congregants reevaluate and understand anew the significance of the cross (p. 63).
Brown suggests that this is done through the varied use of metaphors that “grab our imagination and challenge our categories” in order to understand the significance of the cross (p. 34). By refusing to let any one theory or metaphor dominate, the preacher can provide congregants multiple ways to approach the cross of Christ and appropriate its saving efficacy. This theme is strong throughout the book: no theory or metaphor on its own can adequately express the mystery of the cross.
Thus, a point of confusion came as I read through thirty pages in which the same suggestion for why Jesus died was repeated or alluded to seven different times, coming from at least three different sources: “the fact that Jesus’ death was the consequence of his fidelity to God’s reign,” his “fidelity to God” and “fidelity to God’s cause” (pp. 58; 61; 66, Barbara Brown Taylor; p. 68, Laurie Ferguson; pp. 75; 76; 91, Peter Schmiechen). I was concerned that Brown was lifting up this particular understanding of “why Jesus had to die” even though she clearly argues throughout the book that “[we] need to resist any single-theory approach to atonement, however well intentioned” (p. 63). It seemed as though attributing Jesus’ death to his fidelity to God falls into the same traps that Brown has carefully revealed about these other atonement theories: 1) it is a single image that is repeated so it begins to crystallize into a theory; 2) it bifurcates the Trinity; and 3) it lends itself to being the justification for passively accepting suffering as a result of our faithfulness to God.
But this subtle bias is not seen in the last third of the book, nor does it distract from the immense resource of other images found and depicted by Brown throughout the book. Brown has helped tremendously in salvaging for us the traditional atonement theories and metaphors, a task which helps us stay connected to our historical faith while reinterpreting aspects to more faithfully proclaim the liberating nature of Christ’s death and resurrection. She provides samples of sermons and directs us to the work of theologians who have stripped away the negative trappings of these theories and revealed how these theories can offer meaning and hope to today’s congregants. What has previously been seen as the victimization of the child Jesus by the father God is revealed to be “God’s bodily engagement with all that is destructive of human life, including sin” by emphasizing the Trinitarian context of the Incarnation, showing God’s very self died on the cross (p. 51).
Brown brings together the voices of scholars who have turned our focus away from sin as the motivation for God’s acts of redemption, and have instead drawn our attention to the love of God for God’s creation as the driving factor in atonement, a theme echoed throughout her book (p. 53). Even the image of sacrifice returns with new life as “self-‘gifting’” and generative, much like the sacrifices involved in pregnancy and childbearing bring new life into the world (pp. 113, 116). In the final few pages, Brown includes a sermon excerpt by African American preacher Angela M. Edwards that converted even this hemophobe into a believer in the power of blood imagery, by comparing the blood of Abel and Martin Luther King, Jr., crying out for justice and retribution, to the blood of their brother Jesus, that cries out today for forgiveness and reconciliation (p. 135).
Overall, Brown’s book is a must-read for the new preacher, the seasoned preacher, the preacher who sings “Lift High the Cross” at his own wedding. But it is perhaps especially for the preacher who consistently avoids cross talk altogether.
Carolyn Browning Helsel is associate director of admissions at Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, N.J.