by Fleming Rutledge
Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Mich. 696 pages
Fleming Rutledge is a preacher. Preachers preach, but it is no longer entirely evident what needs to be preached. A conventional presumption seems to be that the public has already been exposed to Christianity and found it wanting, so it’s not surprising to find all sorts of proudly “edgy” alternatives being offered — something more interesting, more provocative, sort of Christian-ish, dodging the hard parts. Rutledge observes, “so much American Christianity today comes packaged as inspirational uplift — sunlit, backlit or candlelit.”
Rather than scrutinizing the real thing and rejecting it, it seems more likely that the disenchanted public has been exposed either to a triumphalist or a soft-serve version of Christianity. Rutledge’s commitment, as represented in this book and others, is that the boldest thing the preacher can do is to preach and teach the central themes of classical Christianity, anchored in serious engagement with Scripture and intimately in touch with the contemporary world. At the very center is the cross, which necessarily includes the resurrection.
In an epoch in which more and more people are turned off by “religion,” Rutledge argues that Christianity is not, at least in the Freudian sense, a “religion.” “The cross is ‘irreligious’ because no human being individually or human beings collectively would have projected their hopes, wishes, longings, and needs onto a crucified man.” Paradoxically, God’s true character is revealed in the cross.
Those are among affirmations explored in this amazing and fascinating study by a preacher who claims not to be an academic. In particular, she looks with great care at the atonement and apocalyptic themes. If you imagine that you have heard it all someplace before and lost interest, think again. This is not warmed-over fundamentalism. Rutledge declares, “Literal-mindedness is the enemy of vital biblical interpretation.” Rutledge, deeply serious about Scripture, explores these themes through the lenses of metaphor and, like Gail Ramshaw, notes that metaphors work best when set alongside other metaphors, particularly as embedded in narrative. Rutledge’s book focuses not on systematic discussion of doctrines as such, but highlights “the whole cluster of images surrounding the death of Christ, within the overarching apocalyptic drama that consistently presents God as the acting subject while at the same time enlisting even the humblest Christian … in God’s band of resistance fighters.”
Rutledge affirms David Hart’s warning “that we must not be persuaded into a position that requires us to make sense of everything that happens.” To “explain” evil presumes that it serves some larger purpose. “For all that is wrong in the world, a cosmic reckoning is required.” She writes, “It is necessary to posit the existence of a metaphorical hell in order to acknowledge the reality and power of radical evil — evil that does not yield to education, reason, or good intentions.” Justice requires judgment, which is the servant of God’s love. Rutledge claims not to be a universalist, but suspects that God may be.
Pastors might well commit to spending a year with this book — in conversation with others, if possible. It will preach!
Ronald P. Byars is professor emeritus of preaching and worship at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.