#37: Fleming Rutledge 2018
Writing for the Ear, March 6, 2019
Preacher Scott Hoezee interviews fellow preacher and scholar Fleming Rutledge in this wide-ranging interview from Festival 2018. Together, they contemplate the theology of the crucifixion and the centrality of inspired speech to the Christian faith tradition.
- Fleming Rutledge,
- The Bible and The New York Times (1998)
- Help My Unbelief (2000)
- The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015)
- The Battle for Middle-earth (2004)
- Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ
- Madeleine L’Engle
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of The Rings trilogy
- C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia series
- Joy Williams, 99 Stories Of God
- The Passion of the Christ (movie)
- Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
Kristine Johnson: [00:00:01] Support for Rewrite Radio comes from the Fetzer Institute, helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Fetzer envisions a world that embraces love as a guiding principle and animating force for our lives—a powerful love that helps us live in sacred relationship with ourselves, others, and the natural world. Learn more by visiting fetzer.org.
On today’s podcast: acclaimed preacher Fleming Rutledge interviewed by Scott Hoezee at the 2018 Festival of Faith & Writing. This is Rewrite Radio.
I’m Kristine Johnson, and I teach in the English department and direct the writing program at Calvin College.
On this episode of Rewrite Radio: Scott Hoezee, a noted preacher himself and the director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary, conducts a wide-ranging interview with Fleming Rutledge.
Fleming Rutledge is an Episcopal priest and author of nine books, including the award-winning The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. Ordained a deacon in 1975, two years later, she became one of the first women to be ordained to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church. She has often been invited to preach in prominent pulpits such as the Washington National Cathedral, the Duke University Chapel, Trinity Church in Boston, and the Harvard Memorial Chapel.
A native of Franklin, Virginia, Rutledge graduated magna cum laude from Sweet Briar College in 1959 and went on to complete her Master of Divinity at Union Theological Seminary. She was awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from Virginia Theological Seminary. For the first 14 years of her career, she served at Grace Church in New York City. Subsequently, Rutledge served as interim rector of St. John’s, Salisbury, Connecticut, and has twice been a resident Fellow at the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton. She has also been a resident at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto School of Theology, where she taught preaching, and a visiting scholar at the American Academy in Rome.
Her recent book, The Crucifixion, was awarded Christianity Today’s 2017 Book of the Year. Her latest book, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, was published by Eerdmans in September of 2018.
From Festival 2018, here’s Fleming Rutledge with Scott Hoezee.
Scott Hoezee (interviewer): [00:03:06] This is a writer's conference, so we'll begin with, we’ll dig into the theology of the cross and so forth in a moment, but here at a writer's conference, we'll start with a writerly question. So, this is a major work. It's about 700-800 pages long. How long do you think this book was inside you? How long was this book percolating in you? How long did it take you to write the book? So just talk a little bit about the writing process and the background of your book on the crucifixion.
Fleming Rutledge: [00:03:39] I could talk for half an hour, but then you wouldn't want to hear it. Let me see if I can boil it down a little bit. The book started percolating in me when I was an adolescent. It's just simple as that. I've always been a believer, I've always been a churchgoer, I've always been a Bible-reader. And what does the death and, specifically, the crucifixion, of Jesus mean? I'll round it off and say it took me 20 years to write, which is more or less true. In some ways it took longer than that. Writing, as many of you know, is a very solitary affair, and I don't like being forced into solitude, so I find it very difficult to write. I like to write in public because I always have the sense that at least I have people around me, even though I'm trying to concentrate.
Some people are more psychologically attuned to be writers than others, and I'm not all that psychologically attuned to it. I will never write another long book again—it nearly killed me [laughs; audience laughter]. I'm more of a short form writer. The blog and the sermon—they suit me much better. Maybe an essay, but in general I find it very difficult to write at length as I have in The Crucifixion. It was an ordeal.
But that's as it should be: we should be willing, or even if not willing, to put ourselves into a place where the Lord can take us and work his will through us, in spite of our resistance, and that is certainly what happened. When I look at this book, I can't believe I wrote it. I look at it in amazement, as though it really were not my work at all. And that's a real privilege: to believe, to be confident that God does work through the preacher, the writer, the person who is simply speaking to God's glory and to elevate the Lord Jesus Christ. That is the greatest privilege on earth.
Since the gospel, as I said at some length yesterday, reading from Amos Wilder's book, the gospel is word. It's not vision, it's not visual. It is transmitted to the ear, and then secondly on the page, but first to the ear, which is so important for preaching. So I do have a sense of great conviction that writing is a very elevated activity, and that it is worthy of our very best. And I talked about this yesterday: because Christianity is specifically, and uniquely, really, even more than Judaism, a faith in which inspired speech is center and key to everything; because of that, we can take great comfort and great encouragement and great delight in being writers. I can't remember what else—there was more to that question that I've forgotten already.
Scott: [00:07:40] No, that's fine. When you worked on this book—so you talked yesterday about the importance of writing for the ear, and all of us who preach have some sense of what that means: shorter sentences and so forth and so on—did it take a bit to break out of the sermon-writing, write-for-the-ear habit, to write a book that’s for the eye? Sometimes . . . I mean, I've written so many sermons that everything I write sounds like a sermon. People say, "Well, this sounds like a sermon," and I say, "Well, thank you," but it's supposed to be an article. Did you have to shift gears a little bit to write not for the ear, or did it just slide easily, one from the other?
Fleming: [00:08:24] That's an interesting question that I've never thought about, incredibly. The main thing I think about is the matter of length and how much trouble I have with that. A lot of people wouldn't believe that, because my sermons tend to be very long, which is not a popular thing in an Episcopal church, I can tell you [audience laughter]. I'd love to be invited to preach in Presbyterian churches, because they're used to long sermons. So when I say length, I don't mean length in the usual sense, but I do mean that writing a full chapter of maybe 60 pages, as is the case in this book, was a stretch for me.
That was hard. That was much harder than . . . well, I said it's much harder than writing a sermon, but that's not true. Writing a sermon is very difficult. And I struggle over it; I labor over sermons. I don't do it easily. So I'm not sure that's an adequate answer to what you asked me, but I certainly was not thinking about writing for the ear when I was writing the book but my other books are all collections of sermons except for the Tolkien book, the Lord of the Rings book, which was a joy to write—a pure, unalloyed joy—which is very different from writing a sermon, which I found to be agonizingly difficult, and let alone this crucifixion book, which was beyond torture [laughs; audience laughter]. Writing the Tolkien book just flowed. It's amazing, actually.
[00:10:01] You see, I was following the narrative—that's what makes my book different from the other Tolkien books—I'm retelling the Tolkien story but I'm telling it in a way as to show the subterranean movement of the transcendent in the book. Which Tolkien intended. And we know that because it's in his letters: he intended to show the work of God in this non-theistic, pre-Christian culture. [to audience] I guess you know that Middle Earth is a pre-Christian place. And there is nothing in the book about God. It's much less religious in that sense than C.S. Lewis. Tolkien didn't like C.S. Lewis' Narnia chronicles because he thought they were much too overtly Christian and too allegorical, and he was very firm about not wanting to do that with The Lord of the Rings. And yet the divine presence is operating throughout The Lord of the Rings. So I tried to show that. [pause] I didn't mean to get into all of this, but I do love my book on The Lord of the Rings and I like to talk about it [audience laughter].
I love to go back and read parts of it, because it's like reading Tolkien, in a way, because I'm retelling the story. Eerdmans had a hell of a time getting it published because the Tolkien Estate kept saying, "You can't say this," and, "You can't say that." We had to go through six revisions in order to get it published, and we finally did, thanks to [former editor-in-chief at Eerdmans] John Pott. That's the only time I've ever really enjoyed writing [laughter].
Scott: Well, thankfully it doesn't show, because all your writing is just wonderful. On this book now, let's talk specifically about some of the things that drove you to write this book. A lot of the book, I think it would be fair to say, is sort of an apologetic for the cross, but also a defense of the cross against what you rightly perceive to be a lot of misunderstanding. So what would be the top two or three misunderstandings you think laypeople, but sometimes also theologians have, about the cross of Christ?
Fleming: This is why I wrote the book. I'm not going to answer that question directly, because I've got a narrative that goes with it, but I'll try to get to the points [audience laughter]. All of this is in the introduction to the book, so if any of you've read the introduction, you've already heard this. When I was a young, ardent Episcopalian, I used to go to lots of meetings and when I was married at 21 I started being active in the Episcopal Church Women. I was really, really involved in the life of the church, and I would go to meetings such as, well, a meeting that would have seminary professors to speak and this kind of thing, you know the story. Or maybe you don't, but anyway. There are lots and lots of symposiums of this nature in the church. So I began to get the distinct impression that these august seminary professors did not like to talk about the death of Jesus in the way I believed in it.
Now, I was partly raised by a Southern Baptist grandmother. I don't remember her ever talking to me about the cross, however, but somehow I had imbibed the distinct idea that Jesus died for my sin, and the Episcopal clergy didn't like that. And I thought, "Why not? What is it that they are so hostile toward?" I remember distinctly one professor saying, "We don't believe in that idea of atonement anymore." I was about 25 when I heard that, maybe earlier. And to this day I can see him, hear him saying that, and I was completely baffled by it. And I resisted it. And I kept resisting it all the rest of my adolescence and early adulthood. When I got to seminary it was still in my mind: what is this, "We don't believe in this kind of atonement anymore, or this doctrine of atonement anymore."
[00:14:55] I began to notice that in the Episcopal church where I was a regular attendee, until I became ordained myself and then was leading services, I began to notice that a lot of clergy were actively antagonistic toward any kind of really in-depth interpretation of why Jesus was crucified. And I got more and more interested in this and I noticed it more and more and I also noticed that there were counter-indications, and some of these counter-indications were, for instance, a three-hour Good Friday service which I attended in Christ Episcopal Church in Greenwich, Connecticut in the 60s or 70s. And the preacher was Theodore Parker Ferris. [to audience] Does that name mean anything to some of you? It means something to you [to Scott], I hope.
Well, Theodore Parker Ferris was one of the acknowledged great preachers of the United States in the 60s, 70s, 80s. He was—this is relevant—he was at Trinity Church Copley Square in Boston for about 30 years. He died in harness, as a matter of fact. He was known all across the United States as one of the best preachers. This is no longer done, but Newsweek Magazine used to have a feature of the Ten Best Preachers in the United States, or most effective preachers in the United States. They stopped doing that about 20 years ago because nobody thought preaching was relevant anymore. But Theodore Parker Ferris was on that list for decades along with Will Willimon and people that we've all heard of. Theodore Parker Ferris' sermons are still available as reprints on Amazon, and I used them. I don't read many other people's sermons, but I do reread his sermons. They're very different from mine. But he had a power that I've rarely seen in the pulpit. He had a charismatic presence in the pulpit, not out of it. And he preached the three-hour service on Good Friday and it was absolutely mesmerizing and unforgettable.
That is one of a number of events in my life that encouraged me to keep going, that the cross was consequential. The cross was not just something bad that happened to Jesus on the way to the resurrection and to the church. The crucifixion was at the heart of it all. I do look back at that particular Good Friday as a kind of model for my own—I started to say career, but that's not the right word. Ministry's not quite right . . . my calling. My calling. Over the years I just began to feel as if I wanted to mount a defense against this hostility toward what I believed.
I'm naming names here: Madeleine L'Engle, beloved, adored Madeleine L'Engle, wonderful Madeleine L'Engle—she lived and worked at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City where there's a great deal of heterodoxy, I can tell you [audience laughter]. Madeleine L'Engle was not a theologian—she was a great, great writer, but she was not a theologian—but she lived around people who talked a lot of theology. She came down to Grace Church where I was working on the clergy staff and, of course, it was a very popular event, Madeleine L'Engle coming to talk; and she talked very much the way we're talking now. She was sitting down and she was taking questions. And she made a very disdainful remark about the forensic substitutionary atonement as if it was poison. I will probably go into this a little bit in a little while, but I do not really talk about the forensic substitutionary atonement myself, not in those terms. And I'm very turned off, frankly, by those who make that a kind of test of soundness in theology. That really bothers me.
[00:20:09] I can go into some detail as to why that is; I go into great detail in the book. I do believe—I believed then and I believe now, and I write with some degree of passion about the motif of substitution—that Jesus is somehow substituting himself for us on the cross. As Paul says in Galatians, he took the curse upon himself. The curse that had fallen upon us he took upon himself on the cross. Because the cross itself was an accursed object. "Cursed be anybody that is left hanging on a tree." That's from Deuteronomy. I like to think about Paul meditating on that verse in Deuteronomy and making the connection with the crucifixion.
The cursed body on the tree: that is Jesus. Why is the Son of God accursed? It can only be because he has taken our cursedness upon himself. But then the problem was—and I'm probably jumping ahead a little bit here—the problem became an over-rationalization and systematizing of this idea of substitution. In the 19th century it became doctrinal legalism. I expect that many people here at Calvin College are familiar with this and have been taught it all their lives, perhaps.
I was trying to do two things in this book: I'm trying to establish a Biblical foundation, a sort of non-controvertible, Biblical foundation for what the crucifixion was interpreted to mean and the understanding the early Christians had of Jesus' crucifixion. Imagine how challenging it would be to interpret the preaching of a crucified victim as God! And Paul the Apostle, above all, is the one who wrestled with this and spoke about it and wrote in his letters about it. And losing Paul, which has happened in the mainline churches to a great extent, focusing solely on the gospels and not on the epistles, causes us to lose these crucial theological reflections on what the cross achieved.
I try not to use the language of meaning . . . understanding the cross means understanding what was done there, what God did, what Jesus achieved in his, what Christopher Wordsworth calls "His mighty enterprise." I love that phrase. The birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension of Jesus was a “mighty enterprise," undertaken by the Trinity.
Now that brings us to the second point that I want to make always, and that is that the crucifixion of Jesus is a work undertaken by the three persons of the Trinity. It is not a wrathful Father doing this terrible thing to his innocent Son. That's the great mistake made in the 19th century in Protestant scholasticism. It was taught everywhere. I remember hearing Young Life presentations about what the Father is doing to the Son. This is so wrong. The crucifixion is the action of the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit together. We can't divide the Trinity. The Trinity can't be divided. To write as though it can be divided, and to preach and think as though it can be divided leads us into the most grave misunderstandings. And this is partly what has happened. The objections to this form of interpreting the cross have been nourished by this misunderstanding.
[00:25:03] We hear it a great deal in feminist circles—that's not the only place we hear it, by any means—but the objection is that the idea that the Father would subject the Son to this terrible death encourages Christians, especially women, to think that they're supposed to subject themselves to abuse or to subjugation. It's just so unfortunate that the crucifixion was ever taught in that way, because it has opened up the death of our Lord to these grievous distortions. It has opened up the whole concept of sacrifice to be a target for various political groups: that Christianity promotes sacrifice, and therefore masochism—I'm sure you've all heard this, these various points of view. And I'm arguing in my book for 600—not 800, 600; well, it was 800 pages but I had to pare it down to get it published [audience laughter] 600 pages is bad enough—but I argue for 600 pages for a full, Biblical panoply of motifs, themes, imagery in interpreting the crucifixion of Christ.
There are so many, I arbitrarily picked out eight. The image of sacrifice; the image of deliverance, and that's why the crucifixion and resurrection were thought of as the second Exodus, the deliverance of God's people from sin and death; the ransom theme, that Jesus is the ransom paid. Now, that was an image; it was not meant to be broken down into parts so that we start saying, "Who was holding people in ransom? What was the price? Who is Jesus paying ransom to? How did that work?" And that's not the point. Literary people like you will understand that the image of the ransom, which is only used once or twice in the New Testament, but powerfully used, means bought with a price. Paid for by a price. Jesus paid the price for sin. Now, if you start breaking that down into rational and systematized fragments, it falls apart. As literary, writing people, you understand that. You can't take a metaphor or an image and start examining it under a microscope. Joy Williams—I'm not answering these questions. I'm just rambling on [audience laughter].
Scott: Ramble on.
Fleming: I hope to meet Joy Williams before she leaves. On Good Friday when I preached, two weeks ago, for the word from the cross, "I thirst," I took this story from 99 Stories Of God: it's about [indicates with fingers] that long on the page, and I'll ruin it if I try to tell it to you. The gist of it is that there's been some kind of environmental catastrophe, and there are these engineers inside of a vast laboratory located in a vast dystopian landscape. The first sentence of the story is, "The Lord drank some water out of a glass.” Then she says that there was nothing wrong with the glass, but the water tasted terrible. And the Lord said, “What have you done to my living water?" And the engineers say, "Oh, we thought that was just a metaphor" [audience laughter]. The Samaritan woman takes it literally. She says, "Ooh, give me that living water. Then I won't have to come to the well every day." And then Jesus goes on about his Living Water.
And so the way that Joy Williams plays with the difference between metaphor and quote-unquote "reality" is just dazzlingly brilliant. I just can't get over how dazzlingly brilliant it is. And so I'm trying to show in my little—it's not so little—in my sermon about the Living Water of Jesus Christ that the interplay between metaphor and reality is exponential. When you have a good metaphor, it works on so many levels and it keeps on working and it keeps on extending itself. Trying to break down the imagery of the New Testament in order to maintain some kind of rigid theological position is deaf. It's deaf to the image and deaf to teaching and preaching the crucifixion. So that's part of what I'm trying to do, more or less successfully.
Scott: [00:30:42] So, there have been some theological things that have gone on, right—what you already mentioned—that this is divine child abuse on the cross, the father abusing the child. Such things like that. But do you also think, particularly in America and American evangelicalism, that maybe we don't take the cross as seriously as we should because we don't do well dealing with sorrow and suffering and darkness?
I'm reminded that the preacher Tom Wong listened to a BBC interview with a popular American TV preacher—you'd all know who it is if I said it. You're going to guess who it is even though I won't say it [audience laughter]. The BBC reporter was sharp and said to this preacher, "Now, you preach a gospel of success, right? Of possibility thinking?" And he said, "Yes, I do." And then the BBC reporter said, "Well, how does that square with your Savior, who died a terrible death on the cross?" And the preacher smiled and he said, "Oh, like all successful men, Jesus had his setbacks, but on Easter he put all that behind him." Do you think there is something that we just don't want to linger on on Good Friday, to rush to get to Easter?
Fleming: That's the best description, ironically, I've ever heard. I don't know whether this is a uniquely American thing, but it is certainly an American thing. The turnout on Easter compared with the turnout during Holy Week is really distressing. The churches are partly responsible for this. Not everybody is as egregious as that, but it depends. I don't want to paint with too broach a brush here, because for instance the African American church, they don't do Holy Week, but they understand suffering. It's not necessarily true to say that just because you're not a liturgical church, you can't possibly understand the crucifixion.
In my denomination—I don't know as much about others—Palm Sunday, the way we do it now, is designed to bring Good Friday into Palm Sunday with the solemn reading of the entire Passion narrative on Palm Sunday. The way I find most profitable is when it's done as a dramatic reading so that there are four, five, six readers up front and they read the different parts of the story and there's a narrator. And when the time comes for the cross, for the crowd to shout, "Crucify him!" the congregation shouts, "Crucify him!" That's a tremendously useful teaching episode in one's life. I know at least one person who was converted by being asked to shout, "Crucify him!" It's very helpful in teaching that it is not the Jews who crucified Jesus. [pause] I'm trying to quote the great hymn by Johann Hermann, a Lutheran who wrote a lot of the words to Bach's cantatas: "Who was the guilty? Who put this upon thee? Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was undone thee." I thought I knew it by heart. "I crucified thee," is the last line of the verse. "I crucified thee," that’s the last line of the verse.
[00:34:50] In the Episcopal church in many places we sing that hymn on Palm Sunday. We have the celebration of the palms and the procession early, and then the service ends with "I crucified thee." And that, I think, is crucial to understanding the panoply of images. We are involved in this. However you want to define it or explain it or image it, the crucifixion of Jesus takes in the entire human story. Therefore it has cosmic meaning. The whole creation is fallen, and the fact that the sun is darkened when Jesus is on the cross and there's an earthquake, this brings the whole cosmos into . . . it's not just a local event, it's not even just a human event . . . it's a cosmic event. God is demonstrating his power to overcome the cosmic enemy.
My next book, which is coming out this fall, is a collection of sermons and essays about the season of Advent. A central argument in my book, which is titled Advent, and the subtitle is The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, is that in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we see a cosmology. We see a cosmic victory. But in order to understand the cosmic victory, we have to understand the cosmic scenario, which has an enemy in it. And this is completely neglected by preachers like you know who [audience laughter]. Just brushed off. I was taught at seminary by J. Lewis Martin, the really, really important Pauline scholar, and he instructed us to stay away from the word "possibility," from "possibility thinking." He directed us to such verses as, "With man, with human beings it is impossible, but with God all things are possible." Possibility thinking is the opposite of the Christian Gospel. The Christian Gospel begins where human possibility ends.
One of my chapters is based in the theme of recapitulation, which Irenaeus picked up in the 2nd century. Essentially, it's Romans 5. Romans 5 tells us about the theme of recapitulation. Paul wouldn't have used that word, but I think seven times in Romans 7 he says the same thing in different words: that as Adam disobeyed and rebelled, Jesus relived Adam's life as a life of perfect obedience. Recapitulation: Jesus, the second Adam, recapitulates in his life and death the life of the first Adam—that is to say, you and me. Some of you may have heard older people say, "That's the old Adam in him." A wonderful way to identify human frailty.
I read an article by Pope John Paul II who was pretty rigorous in his theological and ethical thinking. He was on a trip to South America and he was informed that it was quite common for the South American priest to have lady friends on the side, and I was very surprised at John Paul II's answer. He responded, "Human frailty." That's all he said. Human frailty. The old Adam. I thought that was remarkably sensitive of him, an expansive kind of way of understanding the human predicament. The old Adam—that's what Paul would have said. Human frailty, human impossibility, human inability, human incapacity to resist the power of the evil one.
[00:40:38] I don't think people realize how much Jesus talks about Satan and how much the New Testament talks about Satan. He's presupposed everywhere. As much as I disliked, loathed, actually, Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion of Christ—I really thought it was deplorable—but there are two things in it that I must say I affirm. The first one is very early in the film when Jesus is in Gethsemane on his knees, praying for the cup to pass from him. When he arises, Raymond Brown, the great New Testament scholar, says that when Jesus rises from his knees it is like an athlete or a warrior girding himself for battle, bracing himself for the contest. He's an agonistikas, a contestant. In the movie, you see Jesus' foot, his sandal, smashing on a snake, which is a recapitulation of the prophecy in Genesis that the seed of Eve and Adam will crush the head of the serpent. And that's a good image. [laughs] That was really good. It depicted the Gethsemane battle correctly. It is Satan that Jesus goes forth to confront.
The second image in the movie that freaked everybody out and certainly freaked me out . . . if you saw it, you may remember the hideous woman with the hideous baby in the crowd at the cross. I later figured out that that is a Satanic mockery of Jesus on the cross. It was an image of Satan in the crowd, mocking Jesus: "Look what you've done. You were born, you were like this baby, you came to do this great work and look what's happened to you." That was not too bad, either. It's too bad we can't just have those two images and have the rest of the movie go [audience laughter].
My point here is that there is a New Testament cosmology and it requires that we understand that there's God, and there's the human race, and there's the enemy. And the enemy is on stage all the time. And Jesus does battle with the enemy, throughout his ministry. This is just assumed in the New Testament: it's not insisted upon, so we tend to fail to notice it or we think of it as just being a demon possession here and a demon possession there. But as Amos Wilder says in the passage I read yesterday, the individual demon possessions represent the demon possession of the entire cosmos since the fall. [pause] So I have completely lost the thread.
Scott: That's fine. I want to pick up on that, because, particularly in the second half of your book, you make it very, very clear that we're never going to understand Jesus' cross and what happened there without an apocalyptic worldview—apocalyptic properly understood—of this other realm.
Fleming: A careful reader.
Scott: Yeah. But you also said and made it clear that it seems like in a lot of parts of the church today, people are embarrassed to have such a worldview or acknowledge it: to believe in a devil or demons. The church seems embarrassed, and yet if you look at popular movies and science fiction, but also other fantasy films, it seems like movie audiences eat up the idea that there is this wider world and unseen forces. So what do you think accounts for the fact that on the popular level people engage a wider view of the universe as having more going on than meets the eye, and the church in a lot of times seems to be embarrassed by that same thing? Do you think part of it, maybe, is these atheists like Richard Dawkins who belittle Christians as no different from people who believe in the tooth fairy or river sprites? Do we want to be too modern, sometimes, and not look like naive bumpkins? And do you think that makes us push away an embrace of this larger cosmology, without which we won't ever get Jesus right?
Fleming: [00:45:49] Well sure, that is a big factor, that people are embarrassed. There's no question about that. I think you're absolutely right about that. But—and again I'm quoting myself a lot here because I have a whole couple chapters on this subject—there are a significant number of highly intellectual academics and other sophisticates who have written about the need in our time for some way of talking about the devil. I quote extensively in my book from these writers, some of them. There are a lot more than I quote, but some of them. Jeffrey Burton Russell of the University of California published four volumes on the devil and takes the devil very seriously.
I think it was after WWII that the imagery of the devil and the sense that there is "an evil agency in business for itself," I’m quoting there, that is larger than the sum total of individual misdeeds. There's an alien force at work. And these writers, most of whom are not Christians or are secular—Jeffrey Burton Russell, I think, probably is a Christian—but a lot of these other writers are not. And they say we have lost the ability to talk about evil as we should talk about it because we've lost this imagery and we no longer believe in the supernatural or the transcendent. But they are pushing the envelope here, because they think that we need to recover this language.
And so I think that Christianity has a great deal to offer here. The trouble is that cultural Christianity such as we see around us and on cable television usually conceives of sin as individual misdeeds, bad things that individual people do. But sin in the Apostle Paul's writings is capital S. It is a great, independent power before whom human beings are helpless. That's why we need the great champion to go into battle for us against the power of the world of flesh and the devil.
That's what we used to say in baptism. Baptism is a rite of exorcism. It was always understood that way in the early church. It was an act of God to claim the child, the baptizand, the young adult, for himself against the power of the enemy. If you learn to read the New Testament this way you see it everywhere, even in unlikely books like James, and even Luke is not known for his apocalyptic modus operandi, but he does talk about Satan a great deal. I don't mean that Luke does: I mean that in his gospel Satan plays a big part. Luke has been sentimentalized in a way that he shouldn't have been. This has a big part in understanding what's going on on the cross. Penal forensic substitution does not do it.
[00:49:40] That's why we need the Christus victor theme, which was very, very strong in the early church, the patristic era, and was lost for a while. Well, not lost, but it fell into the background. Martin Luther famously reclaimed—this is exaggerated; everybody understands that this is an exaggeration—but it still is useful to point to the way in which Martin Luther brought Satan into the foreground, as it were. You see it everywhere in Luther. It sort of fell into the background again with the Enlightenment and all things appertaining thereunto, until WWII and to some extent WWI. We began to see that there was this enormous agency that was bigger than we are, and that the Enlightenment project was not bringing us any closer to what we want to see in life.
And we're seeing it right now: we're being taken captive. Look at Mark Zuckerberg. [laughs] Poor Mark Zuckerberg. You have to feel sorry for him, I mean, inventing this thing in his dorm room, as he himself says. Little did he know—he thought he was going to save the world! This is what the principalities and powers are. Facebook is a classic example of one of the principalities and powers. Something that is meant to be for the good of humanity and it is taken over by the enemy. And we're powerless to stop it.
Scott: I was thinking as you were talking just now, about the reality of the devil and so forth, and I think one place that has captured that better than the church usually does is the end, the climactic scene in Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather in which Michael Corleone is standing as godfather at the baptism of his nephew, and the priest says, "Do you renounce Satan?" "I do renounce him." "And all his pomps." "I do renounce him." And of course this is intercut with his men murdering the five crime family heads in New York. Coppola is showing the reality of Satan and his pomps, even as Michael faux renounces them. That wasn't from the church; that was from a filmmaker who seemed to get it better than the church, the reality of that realm.
Fleming: I'm glad you mentioned that. I had kind of forgotten about that. [laughs] That's pretty powerful.
Scott: It helps when you've seen the movie about thirty times [audience laughter].
Fleming: What did you say?
Scott: I said I'd seen the movie thirty times, so the Godfather is the answer to everything.
Fleming: You need to see another movie.
Scott: Yeah. Godfather II [audience laughter].
Fleming: [to Scott] What else is on that sheet?
Scott: Oh, related to that, by the way, and you touched on it earlier, two years ago or so, at the January Series here we had a woman with the wonderful name of Bobette Buster here. She teaches screenwriting at USC [University of Southern California] and she's a screenwriting consultant with Pixar. She'd made the point that all good movies have basically only two storylines: stories of reinvention and stories of redemption. People love stories of redemption. And yet you also write that the church and some theologians have shied away from redemption because it comes with it the idea of ransom. And you touched on it earlier, but maybe on expand on that. Why do we shy away from ransom and redemption? It's popular, deeply embedded in our humanity, which is why good movies tell stories of redemption, and yet in the church sometimes we pull back. Is it because of that idea of ransom, that we don't like to think we're owned by somebody else, that it goes against our dignity, or is it something else?
Fleming: Well I certainly think you're onto something there.
Scott: Well I got it from you.
Fleming: [00:54:11] [audience laughter] But it's funny that . . . I don't think most people realize that ransom and redemption are the same root. I don't think that. I don't think most people would make that connection, not even in the church. It's funny because yesterday, and I've already forgotten the setting and I've even forgotten who I was talking to, but we were talking about how the language of Christian faith is disappearing from the culture: words like salvation and sin are becoming forbidden, neglected, or despised words, or just forgotten words, I guess, is the most important thing. Forgotten words.
[00:55:56] And I said, "Well I don't think the word 'redemption' is a forgotten word." I think that there is a considerable awareness of redemption among us, and that, perhaps, says something to seize upon. It certainly is true that a lot of powerful movies have redemption as their theme. I have a somewhat dark imagination, I think. I like dark movies and dark books and dark poems. One of my most, I can't say beloved, but one of my most admired books is Blood Meridian, which, as you probably know, has absolutely nothing redemptive in it, not one thing [audience laughter]. And I admire it tremendously because this is the opposite of the kinds of people you're talking about, who don't want to think about the crucifixion, don't want to think about anything ugly. And I really feel sorry—a lot of my friends are like this—they just don't want to hear about anything unpleasant. What an impoverished life that is, it seems to me. Sometimes I like to see a movie in which there is no redemption because it raises a question of where is redemption to come from? And that's the question I want to push: that we have a very namby-pamby view of Christian faith sometimes. And we come from a very sentimental culture, in spite of all the ugliness that we're presently coping with, in spite of all the vulgarity and explicitness and in-your-face nature of our culture today, which I thought I would never live to see anything like what we're seeing and hearing.
[pause] Now, have I lost the train of thought? In spite of the explicit and vulgar nature of our contemporary culture we are a sentimental people, I believe. And it's a duplicitous situation. Just look at the greeting cards that people buy. In the greeting cards there is no word of anything unpleasant. Everything is softened, everything is beautified, everything is prettified up. I like to go to the greeting card sections in areas where there is a large African American card-buying population. Their cards tend to be a little more realistic. They even mention death sometimes [laughs]. They're softened, but they're more realistic than the greeting cards that are sold to white folks. So I really look for those cards sometimes. I think that what you're describing is absolutely right, and Norman Vincent Peale and all of his offshoots have made this more difficult. The whole self-help, possibility thinking culture that we have encourages us to think of ourselves as, you know, you can be anything you want to be, you can do anything you want to do. That is not true. Facing limits, acknowledging weakness—this is not popular.
And I don't mean acknowledging weakness in a "Poor me" kind of situation. I don't mean that. I think you can tell I don't mean that. I'm not trying to encourage people to be soft and to be pushovers and to be all too ready to jump on the flames in self-sacrificial self-destruction. That's not what I'm talking about. The Christian life, when lived according to the ages-old patterns of sacrifice, is a strong, mature, world-defying, victorious way of life.
[00:59:32] And I lament that there are so many bright people out there who want to tell us that this way of life is harmful to our psyches [laughs], that it makes us into victims. There's a victim culture, too. I'm sure you're aware of that. People operate out of their own victimhood. And I don't think that's the way to model victory over victimhood. That's my objection to the Rene Girard influence. Not Rene Girard himself, but his influence has encouraged people to think in terms of victimization.
It's interesting that a lot of Jews, a lot of very rigorous-thinking Jews are unhappy about the tendency in some circles in Judaism to think exclusively in terms of Jews as victims of the Holocaust and to identify in that way. [to audience] You know, he [Scott] was worried about how we were going to fill up the hour [laughs; audience laughter], and I said, "I do like to talk" [laughs; audience laughter].
Scott: I stopped worrying a while ago [Fleming laughs; audience laughs]. By the way, you mentioned Norman Vincent Peale. Do you remember Adlai Stevenson's great line from the 1950s, when he was asked about that? He said, "I find Paul appealing and Peale appalling." That's nice [audience laughs]. The advertising for this session said that we were going to talk about Anselm. We didn't, but read the book, because Fleming does a really, really wonderful treatment on Anselm.
Fleming: We have to let these people go.
Scott: But we are at our time, so, please, thank Fleming Rutledge [Fleming laughs; audience applause].
Kristine: [01:01:39] Many thanks to Scott Hoezee and Fleming Rutledge.
Rewrite Radio is produced by the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing, located on the campus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI. Theme music is June 11th by Andrew Star.
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