Top 5 Reformedish Books of 2016

This has been a busy year of reading for me. Most years are. But the difference with grad school (at least during courses) is that you don’t have quite the flex you had before in terms reading for pleasure, or randomly choosing what you wanted to take up at any given moment. You also have much less time for popular level works. With all that said, I managed to get in some very fun books this year, and so I figured I’d keep up my cliche tradition of giving you a list of my top 5 Reformedish books of the year.

As always, these come in no particular order. My criteria are pretty basic: was it theologically-stimulating and well-written? Did I enjoy it even when I was disagreeing with it? Etc.

Without further ado, then, here they are.

mountain of the LordWho Shall Ascend to the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus by L. Michael Morales.

Leviticus is a much-ignored book largely because it seems arcane and disconnected from the rest of the dynamic story of Scripture. Morales corrects both of those problems for readers, by setting Leviticus within the broader storyline of the Torah and the Scriptures as a whole, tying it to the basic movement of exile and entrance into the Presence of the LORD. The New Studies in Biblical Theology series is one of my favorites in general, but this volume in particular distinguished itself. I highly recommend it.

crucifixion rutledgeThe Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge

I have already reviewed this work and I have to say it might be the most beautiful piece of theological writing I have read in a while. In my review, I said: “Aimed at reinvigorating the dying tradition of “Good Friday” preaching of the Church, Rutledge sets herself the task of examining the cross of Christ in its various biblical, theological, historical, and social dimensions. In other words, while she engages at a fairly academic level at points, she’s not so much concerned with the academy, but with the pulpit—which is why the book is rich with illustrations and reflective sections interacting not only with historical and biblical theology, but with literature, poetry, and newspaper headlines. Essentially, it’s a work aimed at pastor-theologians.” In the review, I note that it’s not without its theological problems, but worth the read all the same.

making-sense-of-godMaking Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical by Tim Keller

I have a recent write-up of this one too. Also, we had Keller on the Mere Fidelity podcast this week as well. Basically, you need to know that it’s classic Keller. It’s a bit of pre-evangelism aimed at provoking the apathetic to curiousity about Christ, less than defending Christ against the animosity of the skeptic. In the post-Christian culture we’re entering, believers who care about evangelism or explaining the relevance of their faith to their neighbors need to start thinking about how to do this better. Keller offers guide for the path.

triune-godThe Triune God by Fred Sanders

I also wrote a review for this one. Here’s a bit of what I said: “Yes, it’s a work of trinitarian doctrine, but it’s also a master class in how to constructtrinitarian doctrine. Sanders doesn’t just set about telling you how to think about the Trinity, but also how to think about thinking about the Trinity. In that sense, Sanders is concerned with trinitarian doctrine as a species of Theological Interpretation of Scripture; he wants to show us how to read the Bible to arrive at the doctrine of the Trinity without misconstruing either the Bible, or even worse, the Trinity. And all of this for the sake of rightly praising our glorious God.”

Delivered from the elements coverDelivered From the Elements of the Universe: Atonement, Justification, and Mission by Peter Leithart

I also reviewed this one last week. Like Rutledge’s, this one had some moments of significant disagreement, but it was just such good book despite it. I described his work of atonement theology like this: “Indefatigable polymath that he is, Leithart is “cheerful, even giddy” about his limitations as he sets about constructing the argument of his self-described “Big Red Book About Everything”, drawing broadly upon a variety of discourses to get the job done. Within its pages, one can find forays into comparative anthropology, religious theories of sacrifice, OT studies, Pauline studies, Gospel studies, theories of secularization, Medieval and Reformation metaphysics, and so much more. The through-line connecting the disparate fragments is Leithart’s typological reading of the whole of Scripture and even human history. Indeed, you can characterize the work as a “systematic typology.””

Finally, I should note that Kevin Vanhoozer’s book that came out this year just won the CT Book of the Year for Theology and Ethics. I would have put it my list but he’s my advisor, so y’all might not believe me. I also did a write-up for that one.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge

crucifixion rutledgeWhy the cross? Why this particular, bloody, grotesque means of execution? Why was this the necessary mode of the Savior’s redemption of the human race? Why not a life, leading into old age and peaceful death leading into resurrection? Why the seemingly Godforsaken horror of it all? This is the motivating question at the heart of Fleming Rutledge’s masterful tome The Crucifixion: It’s Meaning and Significance. After over twenty years study, research, and meditation, Rutledge has delivered a stunning piece of theological and pastoral reflection on the cross of Christ.

I originally intended to work through it for my Lenten readings every morning (being far too addicted and Protestant to give anything up for Lent), and found myself running far ahead of my intended, daily page-count. It’s really a beautiful piece of theology.

Aimed at reinvigorating the dying tradition of “Good Friday” preaching of the Church, Rutledge sets herself the task of examining the cross of Christ in its various biblical, theological, historical, and social dimensions. In other words, while she engages at a fairly academic level at points, she’s not so much concerned with the academy, but with the pulpit—which is why the book is rich with illustrations and reflective sections interacting not only with historical and biblical theology, but with literature, poetry, and newspaper headlines. Essentially, it’s a work aimed at pastor-theologians.

In what follows, I’ll simply highlight what I take to be some of the significant features (both positive and negative) of the work and hope that gives you something of a feel for the whole.

Sin and sins

One of Rutledge’s chief concerns is to get her audience to reckon with the reality of sin. Coming out of the Episcopal mainline, this is unsurprising given the theological trajectory much of the church has taken over the last forty years or so. Rutledge is not dour, or morbid, but after years of preaching, teaching, advocating for justice (especially on social and racial fronts), she is not naïve about the pervasive wickedness and corruption of both human nature and human cultures. As one of the blurbs put it, she wants us to “get real” with ourselves, open our eyes and truly look at the world as it is, and reckon with our dire need for redemption. Her work is a bracing antidote to any last vestiges of cheap sentimentalism in our doctrine of humanity that would blind us to our need for the kind of salvation only a bloody cross can bring.

Connected to this, Rutledge doesn’t simply want us to recognize personal culpability and “sins”, but rather the Power of Sin. This is partially due to her heavy leaning on the “Apocalyptic” school associated with J.L Martyn, De Boer, and the Union School. For Rutledge, we need rescue from the Powers of Sin, Law (used by Sin), and Death. We are not only culpable, but captives, sold and bound under the dark dominion of evil that overwhelms us and keeps us oppressed in sin.

Deliverance AND Substitution

It is this sense that gives shape to Rutledge’s main argument, which I take to be the resituating of the “substitution” motif within an Apocalyptic understanding of the Christus Victor motif. Because she takes both sins and Sin seriously, she wants to take both of those master motifs and develop them as well.

When it comes to substitution, Rutledge does a fantastic job slowly, carefully, and piercingly drawing our attention to the problem of injustice in the world. Whether to apartheid in South Africa, the struggle for racial equality in the Civil Rights movement, child abuse scandals in the Catholic church, to the millions of petty, untold sins in our own lives, she forces us to deal with both the biblical and the theological need for satisfaction, for an atoning sacrifice, for a judgment that says no to a culture of impunity, to cheap grace, or the sort of “forgiveness” that makes a mockery of the victims of violence throughout history. What’s more, she does it in such a way that is appealing, not so much to theological conservatives, but to those with more progressive and liberal sensitivities. You might say that as someone who has taken the social gospel seriously, Rutledge knows that you need a more classic theology to undergird it.

But, of course, we need not just sacrifice but redemption. The Exodus is a good model here. In the Exodus, the Israelites received both atonement in the slaughter of the lambs at the Passover, but also redemption from the social, political, and yes, spiritual, powers of Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt. Rutledge forcefully argues that the cross of Christ (and his resurrection) were at the heart of a liberation, a deliverance from the powers of Sin, the Law (as used by sin), Death, and the Devil. In him, we have a liberating “Lord”, who transfers us from the kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of the Son, who frees us for his glorious service.

And these two halves point to the broader concept of righteousness and justification she embraces. Following much 20th Century scholarship, for Rutledge, God’s righteousness is his saving justice that is more than forensic, but also transformative and liberative. She translates “justification” as “rectification”—God’s justification of the ungodly, then, is not merely their forensic vindication, but their total deliverance from the Powers and their “setting right.”

This “rectification”, though, that comes by way of the cross and resurrection of Christ is not merely individualistic in nature. In this regard, she joins the choir of many other recent voices in proclaiming a “cosmic” salvation, in which God sets the whole world to rights through the Son in his cross, bringing about a New Creation, while the rectification of individual comes within that broader schema. Indeed, over and over again, Rutledge emphasizes the “cosmology” implied in Paul’s theology (because this is a heavily Pauline work), in regards to both the aim and the characters involved.

Multiple Motifs

Within those two broader motifs, Rutledge does a good job at trying to give voice to the broader range of New Testament motifs surrounding the death of Christ. Sacrifice, justification, ransom and redemption, Apocalyptic war, and the descent into Hell. In many ways, this is one of the chief strengths of the work. I would say, though, in comparing it to Jeremy Treat’s similar project The Crucified King, Rutledge’s treatment could have benefited from a more synthetic, redemptive-historically organized account.

While she is no Marcionite (she makes fantastic use of the Old Testament, connecting it to the New), there is something of an atomism, typical of much of the critical scholarship she draws on, at work in the treatment of the themes that could be integrated to greater effect. That seems to be something of a side-effect of her Apocalypticism which makes less use of unifying, covenantal themes, and places a greater emphasis on the disjunctive, in-breaking work of God. Again, though, overall, she’s got a very sensitive eye for the diversity of the New Testament witness to Christ’s work. There’s nothing reductionistic about it. And this, I think is probably because she’s not exclusively “Apocalyptic” in her orientation, but has a strong regard for certain traditional, Western exponents such as Anselm, Calvin, and others.  Still, I would probably add Treat’s work as a complementary one, in this regard.

The Problem of Theodicy

Given her concern with the necessity of the cross, justice, and sin, it’s no surprise that the question of theodicy is a running theme throughout the work. Indeed, much like the great theologian of “holy-love” P.T. Forsyth, Rutledge connects the cross with the issue of the “Justification of God.” There is much to commend in this regard. I will say, I had my qualms about this thread in her work, though, as it drinks quite deeply from the Dostoyevskian/Hart-style anti-theodicy. There seem to be some equivocations at work with respect to thinking about evil as “purposed” by God, or “part of God’s purposes” because of a failure to distinguish different senses of the will of God, the decree, and so forth.

Again, though, she does tap the breaks on the cheaper, hasty work of theodicy that we see all too often from the pulpit and the counselor’s office. So there is much benefit in the section.

Defending Substitution

One of the major sub-themes of Rutledge’s work is defending the substitutionary motif both against critics and misguided supporters. I have to say, her work here is simultaneously some of my favorite and least favorite segments. Connected to the themes of justice and God’s rejection of a culture of impunity, Rutledge has excellent discussions of the pastoral use of the doctrine of the wrath of God. She does fantastic work defending the different, mutually supporting elements of substitution and representation in Christ’s work. Also commendable is her repeated, careful emphasis on the perfectly and beautifully Trinitarian character of the Son’s cross-work. And I especially appreciated her exposition of Karl Barth’s contribution to the subject and the way his work can help us think more carefully about the notion of God’s agency in the cross, guarding against some of the more ham-handed expositions we’ve all heard.

That said, there were moments I thought she gave too much ground to the critics of “cruder” expositions of “penal substitution.” While there’s plenty right about those criticisms, I think there are not as many as Rutledge credits, or they don’t have quite the force she accords them. Also, her tendency to beat on the Post-Reformation Orthodoxy and their schematizing, propositionalizing, depersonalizing, etc. ways, grew a bit tiresome, but that’s probably just some of the Post-Barthian influence.

Overall, for those of us in more Reformed, Evangelical circles, it’s a very helpful exercise reading Rutledge’s defense of substitution within a church context that in many ways has left it by the wayside long ago.

Indeed, this could probably said about many of her discussions. Yes, there are tell-tale marks of the liberal tradition she’s engaged with that I just won’t agree with. For instance, Rutledge will follow Riceour on the nature of the Adam narrative (no historical Adam), and gesture towards either annihilationism or universalism in her discussion, all the while giving us a discussion of both radical evil and the realism of hell that’s still quite useful in pastoral conversations and preaching about the issues for those rejecting some of her premises. This is particularly relevant for more conservative readers since many of the theological tendencies Rutledge is speaking to are still with us and more widespread than simply the mainline.

Conclusion

Instead of wrapping up with my words, I figured I’d give you a taste of Rutledge’s own work drawn from her concluding summary:

The power of God to make right what has been wrong is what we see, by faith, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day. Unless God is the one who raises the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist, there cannot be serious talk of forgiveness for the worst of the worst—the mass murderers, torturers, and serial killings—or even the least of the worst—the quotidian offenses against our common humanity that cause marriages to fail, friendships to end, enterprises to collapse, and silent misery to be the common lot of millions. “All for sin could not atone; thou must save, and thou alone.” This is what is happening on Golgotha.

All the manifold biblical images with their richness, complexity, and depth come together as one to say this: the righteousness of God is revealed in the cross of Christ. The “precious blood” of the Son of God is perfect sacrifice for sin; the ransom is paid to deliver the captives; the gates of hell are stormed; the Red Sea is crossed and the enemy drowned; God’s judgment has been executed upon Sin; the disobedience of Adam is recapitulated in the obedience of Christ; a new creation is coming into being; those who put their trust in Christ are incorporated into his life; the kingdoms of “the present age” are passing away and the promised kingdom of God is manifest not in triumphalist crusades, but in the cruciform witness of the church. From within “Adam’s” (our) human flesh, the incarnate Son fought with and was victorious over Satan—on our behalf and in our place. Only this power, this transcendent victory won by the Son of God, is capable of reorienting the kosmos to its rightful Creator. This is what the righteousness of God has achieved through the cross and resurrection, is now accomplishing by the power of the Spirit, and will complete in the day of Jesus Christ. (610-611)

That’ll preach.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Cross Between the World and Me

betweenAfter a number of months of having it on my to-do list, I finally got around to reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Written as an extended letter to his teenage son, Samori, it is part memoir, part manifesto, and part social history, giving voice to Coates’ experience growing up Black in America—with all the ironies, tragedies, dangers, and, yes, joys that affords.

I guess I read it for some familiar reasons. Like many, I’ve read Coates’ thoughtful and provocative pieces on race, justice, and public policy at The Atlantic. My curiosity was provoked by the wide variety of conflicting reviews of it, ranging from fawning praise to cynical rejection.

I’d like to say the biggest reason I read it was to try to and better understand my friends, my brothers and sisters in Christ, my fellow Image-bearers, who live, day to day, in a different set of skin than I have. At least, as much as reading a book can help with that. If I’m honest, I think it’s important to kids like me (having grown up in schools reading about the Civil Rights era) to stay “woke” about the reality of race in America. And I say this as someone not typically prone to liberal, white guilt, since I’m not liberal (being raised conservative), nor white (being Arab/Palestinian and Hispanic, a first-generation, somewhat Brown man born in the States).

The experience—because it’s something of an experience reading Coates—was challenging, nonetheless, both emotionally and intellectually. As a theology student, it’s become impossible to avoid reading texts like this in theological perspective and processing them in that fashion. But I don’t think I have to stretch things too much to see the work as a deeply theological one. Indeed, despite his avowed atheism, I found much of Coates’ analysis down-right Pauline.

In what follows, I’d simply like to note some the broadly theological points of contact with and criticism of Coates work and the Christian gospel. None of what I say will be ground-breaking or likely that eye-opening. All the same, I do feel the need to process this as best I know how, so here goes.

The Body

My first impression was related to the feature of the work that almost every commentator I’ve read has touched on: the viscerality and physicality of its anthropology. Coates’ writes constantly of the experience, the value, the suffering, the reality of living in the black body. Philosophically this flows in part from Coates’ materialism, but there’s more to it than that.

With story, with carefully chosen metaphor, and torrentially applied adjectives and verbs, Coates aims to communicate the experience, the consciousness of living as a black body who can be taken, dominated, used, threatened, destroyed, and plundered at all times with seeming impunity. The hardness, the constant fear, then, of growing up on the streets of Baltimore, is not merely psychological, but physiological, welling up in your bones, your muscles, tendons, and instincts too close, too raw, too ingrained by force of history, experience, and even birth to be a strictly philosophical reality.

In attempting to understand, we instinctively reach for analogous situations, even if they don’t quite fit. The closest I’ve come is thinking about life in post-9/11 as an Arab in the States with the last name Rishmawy. I remember getting called sand-nigger, dune-coon, and Taliban on the football field where I got speared in the back for being a “Palestinian.” I remember the chilly sweat that broke out on my skin at the airport, when the guard at the metal detector told me I’d “be in a world of hurt” if the detector went off again when I walked through. As I thought about rendition stories I’d read about, it didn’t matter that I had my cross necklace and Bible in my backpack and coming home from a mission trip—the threat to my young, Arab body coursed in every nerve of my soul. It was a reality bodily and yet more than simply bodily. But again, it’s only an analogy.

In any case, throughout the whole work, every time he spoke of bodies I kept thinking through the dynamic of flesh/body (or sarx/soma) in the New Testament. At times, these terms can simply refer to the physical, biological material of the person—flesh and bones. But most biblical scholars will point out that more often than not, these terms are more of a complex of the spiritual and historical forces that are located within our lived, physical reality. In Paul, the sarx can refer the corpse as the site of the created and fallen dimensions of human experience and nature apart from Christ, while the body is often referring to embodied, human experience in the renewed sphere of the Spirit in Christ.

As I noted, Coates’ viscerality is quite materialist—his description of the spirit and the soul as the charge flowing through his nerves is formally reductionistic in that the physics of the body are all there is. But in another way, his emphasis is quite biblical, even Pauline. Christians confess in their creed, not merely the immortality of the soul (though we affirm it), but the resurrection of the body in its fully physical, material, social, and historical dimensions. To certain forms of spirituality and philosophy, Christianity’s focus on resurrection can appear crassly materialistic. But for Paul, what we do in the body, not merely in our “spirits”, matters. We were created and redeemed, body and soul, at a price–so the body is an object of moral concern and a site of moral care (1 Cor. 6:12-20).

Many of us can tend to lose sight of that, however, losing our understanding of the damning, bone-crushing, destructive, disembodying (quite literally) nature of sin, or the gloriously physical relief that the resurrection promises. Coates’ language, his emphasis, I think, has the salutary effect of reminding some of us Christians of the material dimensions of being created good as bodies in the world. As Christians, we surely believe there is more, but we must not believe there is any less.

Sin and “The Dream” as Kosmos

Coates is also a theologian of sin.  This is almost more obvious than the viscerality of his language. For Coates, to tell the story, the history, the experience of the black body is to tell the story of its plundering, its rape, enslavement, subjugation, and burial under the edifice of white society and persons who “think themselves white.” Narrating the black body means narrating the sins committed against it.

There isn’t a blind, Manicheanism in Coates’ telling, though, with pure martyrs and pure villains. I was struck throughout the whole at Coates’ self-analysis, his coming to self-consciousness and questioning of his own motives, his own narratives, his own ideas that he speaks of in response to his mother’s writing assignments. Coates operates with a heavy hermeneutics of suspicion, but one that’s aware of the pervasive nature of sin in the self–in all selves—especially his own. It’s downright Puritanical (not in the bad sense) in terms of its self-interrogation.

Connecting to this theology of individual sin,is his broader cosmology and theology of culture as expressed in his idea of “The Dream”, which he outlines for his son and constantly warns him against. For those acquainted with biblical cosmology, the Dream functions like “the World” or kosmos in John and Paul. The world is not simply the physical creation, but rather the cosmos including and especially human culture under the power of sin, hostile to God and his ways of peace. For the Christian, the world with its desires, pressures, systemic drives, and allure to conformity that threaten to overwhelm the believer with its ways of thinking, behaving, and being. It presents us with visions of the good life (money, sex, power, success, etc) and the standard, often-times godless patterns of procuring it.

The Dream, for Coates, is that of living “white”, of acting white, sequestered away in the safe, suburban communities, built on the sweat, tears, blood, bones, and centuries of black bodies plundered for their wealth–separated from the hard streets of Baltimore where being black and a child could still get you robbed of your body. It is a dream upheld and made manifest in school systems, social practices ranging from slavery to redlining to arrest quotas to the common trope assumption that because a young, black man won’t keep his pants up and shows the defiance to authority common to just most 15-year old boys, he’s kind of asking to get shot. Indeed, when you look at it closely, it’s not just that the Dream functions as the World, in many ways it serves as an angled description of what Scripture is actually speaking to.

And so, every time Coates tells his son Samori to resist the deep-seated ways his culture will try to shape and form his affections, his assumptions, his own dreams, desires, and prejudices, I just keep hearing Paul say, “Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world…” (Rom. 12:1-2).

This, I think, is connected to that deep sense of sin as act and Sin as Power. That’s not how he’d put it, of course, but there is a very thick theology of universal, personal complicity, and at the same time of an external, systemic, supra-personal Power that enslaves, enlists, and overwhelms. It’s not just whites, but blacks striving to be white, who are co-opted and conformed to the Dream. Again, it’s sin as individual acts, but more than that, it is Sin as a power that works its way into corporate systems that have their own logic which, in some sense, can’t be overturned simply by the exercise of the will of one good-hearted individual.

As a Christian, I’m tempted to have recourse to the language of the demonic. Christians have always known that despite God’s rule and Christ’s reign, there is some sense in which world is “under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19), the god of this age who tends to blind and deceive the world about the truth, especially of the gospel (2 Cor. 4:4). Why wouldn’t he work through social and political systems to lie and wreak death in the world now, if that’s what he’s been doing since the beginning (John 8:44)?

Religion, Truth, and the Crucifixion of the Body

Naturally, following a discussion of the “plight”, a theological read of the book might lend itself to a section on “The Gospel according to Ta-Nehisi Coates.” But, to be honest, I couldn’t find one. I don’t believe that’s the point, either. Coates isn’t offering his son a grand, universal hope, a solution. He’s trying to prepare him for reality in a world without a coming universal redemption, with people and systems that don’t know they need one. To carve out a life—one with love, tenderness, integrity, and a sense of honest pride—neither enslaved, nor blind to the world as it is. As one friend put it—he’s preparing him for life in this present, evil age when that’s the only one on the horizon.

And this is where I think about Coates’ atheism and honest confession that he’s always been alienated from the comforts of religion, having never been raised with them. There’s an understandable ambivalence (though, I don’t sense a hostility) towards religious faith in the book. On the one hand, there is his early incomprehension at those taken with its comforts—their willingness to endanger their sacred, fragile, and single-shot bodies against clubs, against dogs, against death. Religion seemed to cultivate a carelessness about the body. “Do not be afraid of those who can kill the body…”

What’s more, there’s the problem of what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Coates has seen the quick rush to forgive in some churches and communities—calls that seem to glide quickly past the problem of Abel’s blood still wet on the pavement crying out for justice. Or the calls for non-violent suffering for black people from those watching the protests in the streets of Fergusson comfortably seated on their couches in the suburbs. Or reconciliation without any sense of restitution—or even an indictment. You can sense his realism, his history, his cosmic sense of injustice rise up much like protest atheism chronicled in Camus’s The Rebel.

How can religion of this sort not seem like a palliative?

All the same, Coates wonders if there’s something he’s missing out on. Something that he is alienated from in the faces and the souls of men and women he respects who believe differently on this score.

Wales WindowAnd this is where I think about the book I’m reading for Lent, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge. The front-cover is an image of the “Wales Window” given to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. It was donated as a gift from the people of Wales after the 1963 Klan bombing that rocked the church and robbed the life of the four little, black girls in their Sunday best.

The stained glass is striking. In it, we see a Christ with brown skin, arms outstretched. Rutledge notes that the position of his head hangs at the same angle as that of an ikon called “Extreme Humiliation.” According to the artist, the two arms outstretched are doing different things. The one is thrust out, stiff-arming the powers of death and injustice, while the other reaches out, offering forgiveness for the world. Under him are the words “You do this to Me”, which come from the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25. Here Christ identifies himself with his people, declaring that whatever is done or not done unto them, for good or ill, for woe or weal, for blessing or curse, “you do this to me.” You do this unto me.

The central mystery of the Christian gospel is the Holy God who out of the fullness of his own, perfect life stooped, became incarnate, identifying himself with the whole of humanity, and, as the Creed has it, suffered under Pontius Pilate. The Savior is the Divine Son who knew no suffering, yet assumed human flesh, a Body in midst of a dominated people to suffer on our behalf and rise again. God became a gendered, embodied Jew in the 1st Century, heir to hundreds of years of political oppression at the hands of colonizing invaders (Babylonian, Persian, Greek), mostly recently of an empire, Rome, that stood as the chief political, economic, social, and religious power the world had ever seen. He grew up under the eye of the soldiers of a people who prided themselves as superior to every other people; a people who used subject nations and cultures to prop up their own; a people who threatened anyone who crossed that system with torture and death. And eventually it was under the administration of their laws, their justice, that his body hung naked, exposed, broken, shamed on a cross, tossed on the garbage heap of history, scorned even by the elite of his own people. In the particular sense that Coates speaks of being black, or at least, not white—that is the space that the Son of God entered in his body. That is the place that his body died.

I cannot do justice to the multifaceted character of Christ’s death, not with 3,000, nor 3,000,000 words, but the thing we must say is that the death he died, he died willingly for sin. He died in order to wipe us clean from the sins we commit as well as deliver us from the Sin we are enslaved to. He died in order to atone and liberate. He died to do justice, to ensure that forgiveness is not offered on the cheap. That reconciliation does not simply walk past restitution and truth, or support a culture of impunity.

Indeed, one the most powerful accomplishments of Christ in the visceral, flesh-ripping, godlessness of the cross is the way it tells the truth and opens our eyes to the violence of sin in the world. The hideousness of the cross, Rutledge notes, the crucifixion of this man who is God, puts to flight sentimental religion and forces us to face up to the malignant, persistent ugliness of sin. It unveils reality, much as Richard Wright writes in the poem from which Coates draws his title. To look upon “the sooty details of the scene” of our Savior upon the cross is to have them “thrust themselves between the world and me.”

And I think this moment in the Gospel is important for me to sit with when reading Coates. Obviously, a concern for the body and Coates’ totalizing fear of its loss, of his ultimate powerlessness and inability to secure it or that of his son, is crying for an answer in the good news of the Resurrection. For Christians, death is not the concluding word, and in his resurrection, Jesus actively and powerfully breaks the power of Sin, the World, the Dream, by showing that despite appearances to the contrary, it does not have the final say of things. This is what gives us hope, gives courage, gives the moral steel that accounts for the paradoxical attitude of Christians towards the body: it is precious, it is good, it is inviolable, and yet it’s loss is not our absolute terror. God’s promises do hold us up.

But the resurrection only comes as good news after we’ve sat in the shadow of the cross. Jesus is the Resurrected one only as the Crucified one. Hope for reconciliation, both personal and cultural, only comes after we’ve truly reckoned with the nature of the rupture, confessed, and repented. This is one of what I take to be the glories of the Christian gospel: it forces you to see the truth about the world, about yourself, about your neighbor—both the grime and the glory—and it is precisely there where the God with a broken body meets us.

In Lieu of a Conclusion

I have no conclusion, really. With a book like Coates’ there’s always more to say. I haven’t weighed in specifically on any particular charges, critiques, details of history, or political implications to be drawn with respect to things like reparations or #BlackLivesMatter. And I’m not really sure that’s the point.

I suppose at the end of Coates’ work–beyond a better, heavier understanding of the struggles of my neighbors–I can’t help but come away with a stronger desire to plumb the depth of the Christian gospel, to grasp the power of Christ and him crucified and speak it into the darkest reaches of the human condition without maudlin or mawkish sentimentality. A hope hell-bent on truth. A reconciliation forged through justice. A God who enters our life and then invites us into his, saying, “This is my body, broken for you.”

Soli Deo Gloria