Baker Academic

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Darkside of Cruciformity - Le Donne

In response to this thread, I've tried to communicate something that I've been stewing on for several years. I think I am closer to arriving at a thesis. My thanks to Krista Dalton and Larry Behrendt for giving me the necessary fodder:

Christians are (and have been for some time) in the business of self-crucifying. Indeed, we are at our best (and perhaps that's not saying much) when we find our identity in cruciformity. We are at our worst when we attempt to stand above culture and condemn it. We can find both elements of "Christlike-ness" in the NT. To my mind, only one of these is worthwhile.

Given that we (Xns) are in the business of self-crucifying, we have a tendency to identify as the religious establishment. We are analogous (so the story goes) with the Pharisees and Temple establishment and Roman persecutors. Indeed, the caricatures that we've created for these historical figures are projections of our worst selves.

By identifying with these caricatures, we find ourselves in need of healing, condemnation, etc. I think that there might be virtue, for example, for American Christians to realize that we look much more like Rome than the society Jesus hopes for when he preaches the Sermon on the Mount.

The lamentable byproduct of these caricatures is that we Xns have sinned against the historical figures represented by these narratives. Rome becomes an anti-Christ (when we know it was more complicated than this) and "the Jews" become unfeeling elitists who resist grace (when we know that this isn't true).

In short, by writing ourselves into the NT as the "unbelieving" and "hard hearted", we Christians have unwittingly created ancient Judaism in our own images.

This is not to forget that we Xns have historically condemned Judaism on other grounds. I only speak from my experience as character within the narratives of my generation.



  1. Anthony, I'm at a loss for how to respond, but I think I should respond. The only thing I feel confident about is that there HAS to be a difference between cruciformity and "the business of self-crucifying" ... and this is an odd thing for me to feel confident in, since I hadn't even heard the word "cruciformity" before today.

    I find your post beautiful and heartfelt, and also deeply disturbing. But it is grounded in a worldview that is not my own. To respond, I have to rewrite. Here’s the easy part of the rewrite: Christians are at their best when they focus on love and care for others, and do so modestly and with a minimum of self-righteousness. I won't argue with you about when Christians are at their worst.

    The rest of the re-write will require more thought.

    1. Larry, I'm looking forward to more feedback. I should say, however, that I don't think that your paraphrase quite captures my point.

      Much more to come to be sure...


  2. Not very helpful! The Gospels were written for a reason: To give their readers and listeners the good news. For it to be good news for us, we must be able to place ourselves in the story. How do you suggest we understand the disputes between Jesus and his opponents? Where can we place ourselves in these Gospels?

    There's no doubt that the NT has been misinterpreted and misused in the past. But we should be careful that in trying to not repeat the mistakes of the past, we do not sterilize the NT of the gospel message.

    1. Jean, I see your point. Thank you.

      I'm not able to suggest any alternatives at this point. I'm simply suggesting a greater awareness of the consequences of reading ourselves into the narrative.


    2. Jean, you lose me when you argue that the gospel is not good news for you unless you can place yourself in the story. Try drawing an analogy. For example: the formation of the modern state of Israel is good news for me (not such good news for others, but I digress). But I don't need to place myself in Israel in 1948 to make this so.

      I've always read the Gospels with the understanding that they are in some sense addressed to all people in all places at all times. If this is the case, then you don't have to select a particular place or time to receive the good news. You merely need to place yourself in your own story.

      I've also understood the Gospels to be addressed to a particular audience at a particular time. I see the value in trying to understand that audience and time, in order to understand the Gospels in the sense of what they "meant". But that place and time is not the Galilee and Jerusalem circa 30 C.E. The Gospels were written 40-80 years later, and while we're not sure where they were written, some of them were certainly written outside of Palestine.

      So I gather that you're talking about the gospel message, and not the 4 NT Gospels. If you feel you need to place yourself in Jesus' time and place to receive this message, then presumably you'd place yourself in the shoes of those who accepted the message. If it's your goal to "get" the good news, why place yourself in the position of those Pharisees and priests who didn't "get it"?

      If this message sounds pointed, I apologize. Anthony wrote above that I'm not getting his point, and I think he's right.

    3. Larry,

      I think Jean's primary concern is taking the good news out of the NT.

      Allow me to try to explain both what Anthony and Jean are concerned about with an example from the gospels. I will use one passage and explain it in three ways. The first is the kind of interpretation that Anthony is concerned about (more or less). The second is what Jean is concerned about. The third is my attempt at dealing with both of their issues. I will use the parable of the rich young ruler (Matthew 19:16-30).

      The first way is to interpret the rich young man as myself. Like the rich young man I am rich, I have lots of shiny things and I don't want to give them up. As a result, I have the same dilemma as the rich young man. Do I give up my stuff and follow Jesus or do I forfeit the kingdom of heaven? As a good Christian, I recognise the futility of relying on my own wealth and decide to put Jesus first. I exegete around the requirement to actually giving everything away (too much work to explain in this post) and I resolutely affirm my loyalty to Jesus. As a result of my interpretation, I look at the rich young man (and all those rich and self-righteous) with condescension and pity. And maybe I reserve my deepest pity for those rich and self-righteous Jewish people who missed their Messiah and continue to fail him by trying to be self-righteous?

      The second is (This is what Jean is worried about): Well, this story has nothing to do with me. I'm not Jewish and I don't live in Palestine in 30 CE. Jesus obviously cares about giving away possessions to the poor so maybe I should do that and hopefully, maybe Jesus will let me into his kingdom?

      A third way. I recognise that this young man was Jewish, pious and rich - according to the popular expectations of the day, he was a shoe-in for membership in Jesus kingdom. But to the incredible dismay of Jesus' disciples, not even he was worthy of the kingdom (see their response in Matthew 19:25). The point of this story is that not even the best are good enough on their own merits to enter the kingdom. Therefore, if God's own blessed people cannot enter the kingdom what hope have I? I as a non-Jewish person wouldn't have even been considered by Jesus and his disciples to enter the kingdom of heaven. Well, the good news, as Jesus explains in the preceeding verses (Matthew 19:13-15) is that only those who humble themselves like little children are worthy to enter the kingdom. Only those who recognise their complete helplessness will be welcomed in. Jesus welcomes only those who forfeit everything for him and it doesn't matter who you are or where you come from. [Admittedly this story does not address the entry of non-Jewish people into the kingdom but there's enough places in Matthew where you can pick that up (Matthew 8:5-13 for an early example and Matthew 28:16-20 for the real sucker punch).]. Finally, If I want to apply the idea of wealth and it's suffocating affect for those who desire to enter the kingdom, I can apply it in a secondary way without distorting the message of the text (there are other NT texts that are directed to Christians in general that warn against the deceitfulness of riches - e.g. 1 Timothy 6:6-10)

      I recognise there are more than 3 ways to hermeneut what is going on in this passage. My point was to illustrate what Anthony and Jean are concerned about. The first way is supposed to be what Anthony is worried about (more or less. I recognise Anthony is more concerned with how interpretations feed our framing of ourselves and others), the second way is what Jean is worried about and the third way is how I propose to answer the two concerns - keeping the historical fabric of the text while still applying the gospel to myself.

      I hope that I have fairly accurately represented Anthony and Jean and explained clearly what they are concerned about.

      Btw, I'm the "Anonymous" posting below.


    4. Billy, of the approaches you described, I prefer approach 2, though I don’t think that’s your point!

      There is a danger in making the text “all about me”. It’s really a bigger text than that. That’s my main objection to approach 1. Your approach 3 is a good remedy, because you’re attempting to understand the young man on his own terms and in his own context, and with this understanding in hand, determine what the text means to you in the here and now. I might quibble with your understanding, but I think you’re taking the right approach, and the meaning of the text to you is a personal thing that I would not dispute.

  3. Hey Anthony,

    I'm with you. I think we, predominantly non-Jewish Xns get a bit excited and insert ourselves into the NT without having read the whole of the NT first. I see it as a symptom of a slightly wider problem, which is collapsing the distinction between Jew and Gentile.

    I don't think it is wrong to identify with various gospel characters. I think the problem is that we over-identify with particular characters to such a degree that we buy into a false identity. As a result, we think about ourselves in ways that we shouldn't, we distort history and we distort the identity of others.

    1. Also, have you read Graeme Goldsworthy's Gospel and Kingdom? I think the issue that he takes aim at is very closely related to this.

      Unfortunately biblical theology is a topic often neglected. I think if we focussed more on reading every part of the bible in light of the message of the whole bible we would be in much less of a mess.