Like most six-year-olds on their first day of school, I remember sitting excited and terrified. My desk was made of grey metal and blonde wood, with a square laminate tabletop angled in such a way that your pencil rattled down if it wasn’t placed in the dark groove. In the right corner was my name, hand-written in black ink on a narrow, white piece of paper scotch-taped to the desk.
As a class, we sat with our backs rigid in anxious silence, the girls in white blouses and plaid skirts, with knee-high socks and black, mary jane shoes; the boys in white dress shirts with navy pants, neatly pressed and creased. I can still recall the smell of chalk dust and bleach.
The teacher sat at her desk scribbling in a notebook, waiting for the bell to ring. She was a nun in full habit, pale hands and a stern face the only flesh showing. In my little six-grade mind she looked ancient, silver eyebrows, deep crow’s feet around her eyes and lined wrinkles on her forehead.
The bell clanged, jarring us, but not our teacher. She gracefully put her pen down and rose, then glided to the front of the classroom. She spoke slowly, enunciating each word in a thin voice, reciting a speech she obviously had given a thousand times before about the rules.
I don’t remember the list, but I do remember her closing remarks. She pointed to a picture of Jesus that hung above the center of the blackboard. It showed only his face, in agony, with sweat and blood streaming down his cheeks. He wore a large crown of thorns on his head.
“If you break any of these rules,” the nun said. “Or, if you are naughty in any way,” she gazed at the portrait. “Then another thorn gets pushed into the head of our Savior.”
That’s penal substitution.
Well, sort of, because we still got paddled. Which made me more afraid of the nun than hurting Jesus.
The crucifixion has multiple facets of truth. And in my last two posts I’ve summarized the major views on atonement, and hopefully I’ve provoked some thought by demonstrating that there are some real weaknesses.
And I wonder if a part of our problem in comprehending this event stems from the fact that in our day, the vocabulary most used to describe what happened at the crucifixion comes from the legal world.
For to me, describing the cross in strictly punitive terms is a lot like letting lawyers define marriage. Are they really the best people for the job? Granted, at one level marriage is a legal contract between two parties. But whenever a judge is called into the conversation it’s usually because things have broken down so badly that the law must intervene. It’s sad. But you can’t understand marriage by only studying what happens when you have to call 9-1-1.
When we want to learn about marriage, most of us turn to our parents, or a counselor, or Shakespeare, or Shrek 3, or that couple in your church who has been married for fifty years and who still stroll down the street at sunset holding hands.
My guess is that very few of us, if any, turn to a dusty law book.
Before there was Neil deGrasse Tyson showing us the universe, there was Carl Sagan. As a teenager, I watched the original Cosmos series on PBS, and I still remember the wonder that Sagan conjured. It motivated me to read his books, including a science fiction novel he wrote entitled, Contact.
You may have seen the movie, starring Jodie Foster as a radio astronomer name Ellie. The story begins with her praising the scientific method to a group of children. And as the narrative progresses, Ellie defiantly defends science as the only legitimate way to understand truth. And yet, her credentials as a scientist were questioned by her more serious counterparts because Ellie had devoted her career to listening for aliens. So the bad guys shut her down.
In true Hollywood fashion, Ellie is saved by an eccentric and insanely wealthy patron who gives her a second chance. And she is soon vindicated as the aliens give us a call. They send a message that describes how to build an enigmatic machine with a capsule seating one person.
[A bit of a spoiler alert here] Ellie fights for the job, and in the end, she gets her chance. Turns out, the machine whisks the individual off through a wormhole. As the capsule containing Ellie drops into the monstrous contraption, she is yanked on a journey through the cosmos. The capsule dips and turns as if on your worst nightmare of a roller coaster ride, stopping from time to time to give Ellie an awe-inspiring view. In short, she is shown what awaits the future of humanity. She narrates her experience into a video recorder, hoping that at least her journal survives, even if she does not.
At the climax of her journey, Ellie sees an especially inexplicable scene. And it’s at this point that she’s confronted with the fact that all of her training as a scientist was failing her in this moment, perhaps the most important one of all of human history. With tears forming in her eyes and in a rare moment of humility she whispers,
“They should have sent a poet.”
Maybe one of the reasons why atonement has been so problematic to understand is because before the inexplicable image of the cross, the language of law just breaks down.
Maybe the language of literature is better suited to allow for all the nuances and complexities. Because the cross is not found in a courtroom presided over by a judge. It’s on a hill, surrounded by humanity, with God in the center, and it’s the most important moment in all of human history. Like all good dramas, evil and good are on full display, and the fate of the world is at hand.
And YOU, my dear reader, are there with your recorder.
The question is: What are you going to say?
Kelly Pigott is a church history professor who teaches at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. You can find more musings on history, culture, contemplative spirituality and theology, along with interviews with authors at kellypigott.com. Follow him on twitter @kellypigott