I am writing this in response to reading Episcopalian pastor Fleming Rutledge’s book, The Crucifixion (2015), which has received many accolades, including Christianity Today’s Book of the Year in 2017 as well as rave reviews on Amazon. It is seen by the clergy as a lengthy (612 pages) summation of Christian theological exploration of Jesus’ crucifixion in terms of its primarily Scriptural meanings and how this presumably makes this occurrence a singular event in better defining God’s intent in our world. I wish I could share others’ enthusiasm for this admittedly hefty and valuable undertaking, but I do not. While the book is well-written and covers much relevant territory, it does so in an overly antiquated manner, removed from both psychology and the Resurrection itself. I will respond to aspects of the book which bristle me as the book proceeds, quoting at times and offering my own perspective. I then want to come around to how this sort of traditional “preaching through a book” can leave lay people with the sense that Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection can only be understood by those whom He called “the learned and the wise,” due to the theological complexity involved.
I will start with where I agree with Rutledge. She plainly states “the crucifixion is the most important historical event that has ever happened,” which, in a Spiritual sense, is true, and that it serves as “the touchstone of Christian authenticity” (both: p.44). To her credit, Rutledge spends a few pages describing the crucifixion’s medical details (of which most clergy are overly unfamiliar), but then almost dismisses this in favour of theological interpretations. For example, she says “Christ’s blood is a metaphor” (p. 283). No, Christ’s blood is type AB (universal donor), its loss contributed to His death by cardio-vascular shock, is clearly seen on the Shroud of Turin, and so is no “metaphor.” Being a strong advocate of the Trinity, Rutledge describes Jesus as “God disguised as a man” (p. 62), which I can accept despite my disavowing the Trinity, described elsewhere on this website at length. Rutledge contradicts herself by describing the medical aspects of the crucifixion, but then claims “we must to some degree set it all aside” (p. 96) in favour of voluminous theological speculation, with which I strenuously disagree. All the theology in the world will never explain what actually happened in the tomb, and I would expect her to understand this so late in our Christian journey. The terror of Jesus’ suffering is completely unimaginable to anyone who has not at least witnessed crucifixion first hand, much less experienced it. What I do generally admire is that Rutledge takes up the crucifixion as being central to our faith—I just don’t like enough of how she does so.
A chapter about individual and social justice resonates with familiar verses from the Old Testament before coming around to the slippery subjects of forgiveness and reconciliation, with recent examples from world events described. Underlying this is Rutledge’s unwavering fondness for John Calvin, the 16th Century Reformation thinker who single-handedly created the later oppressive Puritan movement in Britain and America, which imploded with the Salem witch trials. She states: “From beginning to end, the Holy Scriptures testify that the predicament of fallen humanity is so serious, so grave, so irremediable from within, that nothing short of divine intervention can rectify it” (p. 127). Yet out of this Calvinist pessimism comes her effort to describe viable forgiveness by admitting “it (forgiveness) is not a simple matter” (p.131). I wrote a chapter on the psychological aspects of forgiveness in my own book, Once Every Day Becomes Easter (2015), which looks at this subject as reflective of the personal need to heal from translating others’ offense(s) unto us into something comprehensible, while expecting remorse, when possible. Forgiveness can take months or years, and, in some cases, never happens. Even Jesus, in his allusion to Daniel’s “seventy times seven,” is too simple. Forgiveness can be long work, indeed.
After justice and forgiveness comes “the gravity of sin,” which Rutledge explains is “an exclusively Biblical concept” in which we are “catastrophically separated from the eternal love of God” (p.174), which I would describe as willful transgressions against God’s preferences. She says we are “helplessly trapped inside one’s own worst self” because of “an active, malevolent agency bent upon despoiling, imprisonment and death” (p.175). Rutledge is, of course, alluding to Satan or the Devil (as does Pope Francis on occasion), which I reject as a long outdated concept, even if Jesus believed in such a figure. His crucifixion was designed by God to relieve our sins, but this never actually happens. If He “took away the sins of the world,” why is our world in such tough shape in so many ways? Rutledge’s later lengthy discussion of atonement does not adequately explain the necessity of rendering Jesus in the flesh. His primary purpose was to make God visible to us. Adam and Eve are invoked as the Jews’ mythological explanation for the origins of sin, that is then inexplicably passed across generations forever. If babies are born sinful, then Christianity was a mistake. She describes the Israelites’ use of animal sacrifices (to me, a pagan concept, since animals have no inherent Spiritual value) as necessary due to this chasm between the divine God and our own sinfulness. From Hebrews 9:22: “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins,” which, for me, is dogmatically useless in any transcendent religion. Judaism itself gave up animal sacrifices after the second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. Our ability to both acknowledge and express guilt or remorse as well as make amends to those we have wronged is entirely dependent upon our capacity to be honest with ourselves, which is, again, a psychological process. To be “enslaved” by sin comes not from any Devil, but from what Freud would have called “ego-syntonic wishes.” Here, Rutledge’s old-school theology is positively archaic, and she lives too much in a tattered “Bible bubble,” chewing on rather ancient stuff. Psychology nearly always trumps theology.
There are momentary statements made by Rutledge that chafe me beyond a chapter on God’s verses our own judgment (ours tends to win out), such as “faith is not a work” (p.331), which too simply describes the actual conversion process, which can, like forgiveness, take months or years. “Only God is charge of the future” (p.336)—-well, yes and no, depending on what we are talking about. Jesus’ supposed “descent into Hell” comes from the Apostles’ Creed, and not anything historically confirmed. Later on, Rutledge admits that “John Calvin has acquired an undeservedly bad name among many in the churches” (p. 483). No, it is a deserved repututation. Calvin’s calling people “depraved worms” and deciding that only a relative few can get to Heaven no matter what they do (predestination) would make Calvin wiser than God Himself. We have accounts of near-death experiences from both atheists and suicidal people which discount this notion. Only God decides who enters Heaven, that is true, but who does get there can surprise us. The last third of the book is less interesting, to the point of allowing mild skimming. Despite Rutledge not being a Biblical scholar per se, she borrows much from scholars (e.g., Karl Barth), to the point that her own personal contribution becomes a little suspect. Not plagiarism, just a lack of new ideas. I wish there was more revelation in such a lengthy, clearly important-to-her book. While The Crucifixion was worth reading because its subject is intrinsically so central to our Christian faith, I will not be keeping it on my bookshelf. I would instead recommend more highly a book about the little-discussed subject of Holy Saturday by the late Alan Lewis, entitled Between Cross and Resurrection (2001). Rutledge initially alludes to the intricate relationship between these two events, but never clearly mentions their kinship again.
So what does this book say about both the usefulness of Christian theology and the current state of our church, given its generally glowing reviews? I do admire Rutledge’s dogged determination to push the crucifixion back to the forefront of our interest, but her effort winds up being overly abstract and secondary to the terrorable physicality of the Resurrection. How could the impetus of her book be honed into even a series of, say, half-hour sermons, since she was a pastor for many years?
Our problem is multi-fold. As someone has said: how could we translate the miraculous event of the Resurrection for those who came later and thus could not witness it? Unfortunately, the answer, by the mid-third century, was theology. We had Justin Martyr, (Dialog With Trypho), Tertullian (who coined the term trinitas) and Augustine (who misinterpreted his high sex drive as sinful, and became celibate), which led to the formation of the Catholic church, which has always prized theology over (especially) biological reality. As I wrote in an essay earlier this year, the real problem that all we religious people face, regardless of which faith or denomination, is God’s invisibility. It is a kind of black hole, into which much of our scholarly and pastoral energy has been poured to elucidate His meaning and purpose. Theology can be useful when it is not unnecessarily complex and speculative, but we always have to remember that it is slippery business: prone to being at least half-wrong, and generally does not truly affect the spirituality of most people. The clergy would say that theology is for themselves, much like doctors and lawyers have “their own language.” But medicine and the law are not God or Jesus, they can be seen and felt. Rutledge’s quasi-obsession is to correct theology about the crucifixion, but what does this give the rest of us who are not of the clergy? The “problem” of God’s invisibility is not going to primarily be solved by our speculative theology, no matter how intricate or repetitively improved it becomes. Any astronomer will tell us that their theories about whichever aspects of the universe will certainly be altered by telescopes and satellites. The clergy has no such help, so what to do? Rutledge, like most Biblical scholars or the clergy, tends to shy away from speculating about the Resurrection, and too many are unfamiliar with forty years of research on the Shroud of Turin, which is what brought me back to God from the heathen wilderness. On any day, I can see God’s divinity, beyond the Bible and theology. Jesus looks out at us, facially asking: How else would you explain this?
People, like myself, are leaving the church because of excessive admiration for books like Rutledge’s, because they substitute for what needs to go on in church: greater clarity about the relevance of God and Jesus, not the finer points of some academics’ theological pontifications. The church has stagnated during my lifetime, seems to be floating in the aether, and thus has to find itself before Millennials take over the world. Rutledge’s book, unfortunately, does not sufficiently aid that cause, which is a shame, because its subject matter, to paraphrase Pope Benedict, is nearly everything.