About Christopher Benson

Christopher Benson is an English Teacher. He earned a B.A. in Philosophy from Wheaton College, M.A. in Journalism from the University of Missouri, and M.A. in Liberal Arts from St. John's College. His writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Weekly Standard, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, First Things, Image, The Christian Century, and Christian Scholar's Review.

Cross-Shattered Christ

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Salvador Dalí, “Christ of St. John of the Cross” (1951)

The title of Stanley Hauerwas’ meditations on the seven last works of Christ, Cross-Shattered Christ, is taken from John F. Deane’s poem “Mercy”:

Unholy we sang this morning, and prayed
as if we were not broken, crooked
the Christ-figure hung, splayed
on bloodied beams above us;
devious God, dweller in the shadows,
mercy on us;
immortal, cross-shattered Christ—
your gentling grace down upon us.

As these meditations sunk in, I received an epiphany: the seven last words of Christ, a biblical number connoting perfection, are cruciform; they consist of horizontal words (spoken by Christ to man) and vertical words (spoken by Christ to God).

  • First Word (vertical): Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34)
  • Second Word (horizontal): “Truly I tell you today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43)
  • Third Word (horizontal): “Woman, behold thy son!” . . .  “Behold thy mother!” (John 19:26-27)
  • Fourth Word (vertical): “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
  • Fifth Word (horizontal): “I thirst” (John 19:28)
  • Sixth Word (vertical): “It is finished” (John 19:30)
  • Seventh Word (vertical): “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46)

For each of the seven last words of Christ, I will offer a favorite passage from Hauerwas’ book.

FIRST WORD
Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. —Luke 23:34

We think it is very simple: Jesus had to die because we needed and need to be forgiven. But, ironically, such a focus shifts attention from Jesus to us. This is a fatal turn, I fear, because as soon as we begin to think this is all about us, about our need for forgiveness, bathos drapes the cross, hiding from us the reality that here we first and foremost see God.

Moreover, as soon as these words from the cross are bent to serve our needs, to give us a god we believe we need, it is impossible to resist entertaining ourselves with speculative readings of Jesus’s words from the cross. For example we think what a wonderful savior we have in Jesus, who, even in his agony, kindly offers us forgiveness. Of course we are not all that sure what we have done that requires such forgiveness, but we are willing to try to think up something. Ironically, by trying to understand what it means for us to need forgiveness, too often our attention becomes focused on something called the “human condition” rather than the cross and the God who hangs there” (27-28).

***

According to Herbert McCabe, these words, “Father, forgive,” are nothing less than the interior life of the Triune God made visible to the eyes of faith. The Son asks the Father to forgive, a forgiveness unimaginable if this is all about us and our struggle to comprehend the meaning of our lives in the face of death. By this deed, by this word, Jesus rules out all speculative theories that seek to subject these words and this death to our understanding about what is required for the reconciliation of the world (29-30).

SECOND WORD
Truly I tell you today you will be with me in Paradise. —Luke 23:43

Remembrance is quite literally to be re-membered. Through baptism we are given a new body, a body no longer isolated from the bodies that constitute Christ’s body, and we are thereby made capable of remembering that we live through memory. Only Christ, only the Second Person of the Trinity, could promise to the thief and to us that today we will be with him. To be with Jesus, to be claimed by Jesus to be his friend, is paradise, for Jesus is the kingdom of God, the autobasileia, the kingdom of the crucified. We need to know no more than this. To be in paradise is to be “with Jesus,” to be pulled into God’s life by the love made visible on the cross. Our salvation is no more or no less than being made part of God’s body, God’s enfleshed memory, so that the world may know that we are redeemed from our fevered and desperate desire to insure we will not be forgotten.

Here, in this crucified Messiah, we see the love that moves the sun and the stars. To be “with Jesus” means we are not ‘”lost in the cosmos,” but rather we can confidently live in the recognition, with faith, that God is not other than the one found in Jesus of Nazareth. How could we ever think we need to know more than this thief? Like the thief we can live with the hope and confidence that the only remembering that matters is to be remembered by Jesus” (43-45).

THIRD WORD 
Woman, behold thy son! . . . Behold thy mother! —John 19:26-27

In the New Testament Jesus is often designated or assumed to be the new Adam, the new Moses, or the new David, but he is never called the new Abraham . . . The reason Jesus is not associated with Abraham is very simple—Mary is our Abraham. Just as Abraham did not resist God’s call to leave his father’s country to go to a new land, so Mary did not resist God’s declaration that she would bear a child through the power of the Holy Spirit. Abraham’s faith foreshadows Mary’s “Here am I” because just as we are Abraham’s children through faith, so we become children of the new age inaugurated in Christ through Mary’s faithfulness (51-52).

***

God restrained Abraham’s blow that would have sacrificed Isaac, but the Father does not hold back from the sacrifice of Mary’s son. Jesus’s command that Mary should “behold your son” is to ask Mary to see that the one born of her body was born to be sacrificed so the that we might live. As Gregory of Nyssa puts it, “If one examines this mystery, one will prefer to say not that this death was a consequence of his birth, but that the birth was undertaken so that he could die.” When God tested Abraham by commanding the sacrifice of Issac, Abraham’s “Here I am” (Genesis 22:1) did not result in Isaac’s death. Mary’s “Here am I,” however, could not save her son from being the one born to die on a cross (52-52).

FOURTH WORD 
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? —Matthew 27:46

Jesus’s being handed over, Jesus’s obedience even to the point of death, Jesus’s cry of abandonment makes no sense if this is not the outworking of the mystery called Trinity. This is not God becoming what God was not, but rather here we witness what God has always been. Here, as the Second Council of Constantinople put it, “one of the Trinity suffered in the flesh.” The Word that was in the beginning, the Word that was with God, the Word through whom all things came into being, the Word that shines in the darkness, the Word that assumed our flesh, suffering even unto death, is God. The cross, this cry of abandonment, is not God becoming something other than God, is not an act of divine self-alienation, instead this is the very character of God’s kenosis—complete self-emptying made possible by perfect love (62-63).

***

God is most revealed when he seems to us the most hidden. “Christ’s moment of most absolute particularity—the absolute dereliction of the cross—is the moment in which the glory of God, his power to be where and when he will be, is displayed before the eyes of the world,” says David Bentley Hart. Here God in Christ refuses to let our sin determine our relation to him. God’s love for us means he can hate only that which alienates his creatures from the love manifest in our creation. Cyril of Jerusalem observes that by calling on his Father as “my God,” Christ does so on our behalf and in our place. Hear these words, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” and know that the Son of God has taken our place, become for us the abandonment our sin produces, so that we may live confident that the world has been redeemed by the cross (65).

FIFTH WORD 
I thirst. —John 19:28

The work of the Son, the thirst of the Son through the Spirit, is nothing less than the Father’s thirst for us. God desires us to desire God. We were created to thirst for God (Psalm 42) in a “dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63). Such a desire is as “physical” or real as our thirst for water, our thirst for one another, and our desire for God. Surely that is why our most determinative response to those who ask how we can ever come to worship this Jesus is to simply ask, “Do you not need to eat and drink?” Our God, our thirsty God, is the One who is capable of saying to us: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water'” (John 7:37-38).

Through the waters of baptism we have been made God’s body for the world. We thirst for one another so that the world may know that the world has been redeemed and that this redemption is as real as the water we need to survive. That redemption is found in the body and blood of our Lord that forever slakes our thirst. So refreshed, we become for the world the reminder that God has not abandoned us, and we can, therefore, trust in his promise that just to the extent we take the time—in a world that believes it has no time—to care for those who thirst for God’s kingdom, the kingdom will be present.

>>Passages from the remaining two words will be added once they are read.

A vision of the unseen

And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. (Revelation 21:22-23, ESV)

Here is Joseph Mangina’s commentary on the wondrous passage above:

The vision reaches its surprising climax in John’s report of something he does not see, namely, a temple. The city has no need of a temple, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” Their radiance is such that even the illumination provided by sun and stars is superfluous. Special sacraments are no longer necessary, because in the new eon “all truth will be openly and perfectly revealed” (Aquinas, Summa theologiae). The life of the city will not point to God, it will be in God. But John’s remark that “[the city’s] lamp is the Lamb” permits us to say something St. Thomas does not: in the age to come, the vision of God will be mediated through the risen, glorified flesh of Jesus. The heavenly city is not the end of the church, for the church is simply God’s people. It is, however, the end of religion, the demarcation of sacred space from profane space and liturgical time from ordinary time, for the purpose of making present the absent god. 

Three constants in the Book of Revelation

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William Holman Hunt, “The Light of the World” (1851-53)

During the academic year, our school has devoted chapel to the study of Revelation. Anglican theologian Joseph L. Mangina offers a well-articulated summary of this mesmerizing and mysterious book:

The Apocalypse opens with letters to seven churches in seven cities. Asia Minor of the late first century may be culturally remote from us, but it is, for all that, a relatively familiar and this-worldly setting. We think we can find our feet here. The book then takes us on a wild, Spirit-driven itinerary in which we behold God’s throne, see the scroll of history opened, suffer earth’s tribulation, meet terrifying monsters, observe with horror the degradation of the human city, and finally see the dead judged and death itself destroyed. Through it all, there have been three constants: (1) the uniqueness and sovereignty of the Creator God of Israel; (2) the victory of the slaughtered Lamb, both in itself and as witnessed in the lives of his followers; (3) the gathering of a community for all peoples, tribes, nations, and languages, the “kingdom” and “priestly people” alluded to in the book’s opening lines (1:6).  

The function of comedy

From Leland Ryken’s chapter, “Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the Comic Spirit in Literature,” in Realms of Gold: The Classics in Christian Perspective:

Aristotle made a provocative comment about the common subject matter of tragedy and comedy when he said that they both deal with “some defect or ugliness.” The Greek word that Aristotle uses is hamartia—literally a missing of the mark in archery and and the famous “character flaw” of tragedy. In comedy this defect “is not painful or destructive,” while in tragedy it is. Both tragedy and comedy reconcile us to common human failing. But tragedy makes us fear it, while comedy makes us comfortable with it. Paradoxically, notes Bernard Schilling, “in tragedy man seems great after all, in comedy he seems small after all.”

It is not easy to say why the spectacle of human defect strikes us as funny in comedy. The same experiences in real life are painful. It is obvious that the angle of vision is part of the explanation. In comedy we ourselves must feel superior to the comic victim before we laugh at his or her misfortune. 

Comedy reduces people to the common lot of the human race and declares it good. A book on the comic entitled A Divine Average argues that comedy not only endorses the average but idealizes it. Comedy levels us all into a community of ordinary people. In comedy we judge the human condition as limited and flawed, but we are reconciled to it and accept our place in it.

A book entitled Why Literature Is Bad For You observes that “the most renowned stories of the Western World are frequently built around a central bungler whose incompetence has the effect of injuring a good many around him” and then draws the conclusion that literature makes us tolerant of competence. I would suggest an alternative conclusion: reading stories about human failing can serve the beneficial purpose of helping us cope with a “given” of our own experiences in a fallen world, namely, human failure

Who is the Great Whore of Babylon?

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William Blake, “The Whore of Babylon” (1809)

Anglican theologian Joseph Mangina answers the question in his commentary on the seventeenth and eighteenth chapters in the Book of Revelation:

William Blake brilliantly captures the dynamics of this scene in his 1809 pen and watercolor sketch The Whore of Babylon (British Museum), which shows the beast as having “seven ugly human heads; the plump whore, stripped to the waist rides him side-saddle holding her golden cup out of which fly personified ‘abominations and filthiness and fornications.’ ” Blake insightfully portrays the scene as a mixture of love and death. Thus one of the beast’s heads looks back up at the whore, with a leering expression on its face, while another is busy devouring human figures on the earth below. Most striking of all is just how wretched and miserable the whore seems. She is clearly unhappy, trapped along with the beast in a covenant of death. While it would be impossible to call her innocent, it is clear in Blake’s portrayal—as in John’s own—that she is not just an agent of evil but also its victim. The vision brilliantly depicts the self-consuming, self-destroying power of evil, which lacks the gift of affirmation (both of God and of self) that is built into the fabric of the created order and especially into the life of spiritual beings. 

***

Who is the whore? John tells us that she is seated on “many waters,” a convention for speaking of Babylon-on-the-Euphrates, but which might also be taken as referring to any seagoing power. She has clients who are politically and militarily powerful. She is gaudy and rich. She is drunk with the blood of martyrs and saints. All the signs point to the whore’s being Rome, the murderess responsible for the deaths of the apostles Peter and Paul and more recently for the martyrdom of Antipas of Pergamum. In John’s time, there was simply no other “great city” on a par with Rome’s scale and ambition. This judgment seems to be confirmed by many voices in the ancient church. No less than St. Augustine called Rome “the second Babylonia, as it were, the Babylonia of the West.” 

Nevertheless, the Great Whore of Babylon is more than just Rome, as the beast is more than just the military power that allowed her to extend her reach across the Mediterranean. Any such simple, empirical identification would be guilty of what William Blake famously called “single vision.” It would mean reading an apocalyptic work in a most unapocalyptic way—that is, unimaginatively. Blake’s own watercolor of the beast and the whore points to realities of his own time—the beast to be understood as scientific materialism, perhaps, and the whore as the modern spirit of capitalism—even as it gestures toward something more universal. 

So it was, too, for Augustine, who identified “the great city” with Rome and with the earthly city as such, which is constructed not just of bricks and mortar but of imagination and desire. There is no question but that Babylon is a figure of desire, longing, eros. She is beautiful, yet fallen; powerful, but exploited; strong, but with the kind of strength that seeks to control and dominate— “the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.” To use Pauline language, we might see the whore as a kind of Adamic figure, a representation of fallen humanity driven by desire gone wrong: “We see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God . . . . The earthly city glories in itself, the Heavenly City glories in the Lord” (City of God). 

***

In Western theology, it was above all St. Augustine who taught us that the human being is essentially constituted by desire (eros). Passion in the negative sense (epithymia) is nothing else but disordered desire, a longing that fails to acknowledge God as what the heart yearns for: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” At the same time, desire is never simply an individual phenomenon. Far from being simple and self-validating, desire is to be seen as “a social product . . . a complex and multidimensional network of movement that does not simply originate within the individual self but pulls and pushes the self in different directions from both inside and outside the person.” What the Apocalypse reveals to us is (a) that not just the human soul, but the human city is constructed by desire—Babylon is a cooperative endeavor—and (b) that this endeavor has become hopelessly corrupted by sin. The city is the glory of humans as political animals—that is God’s purpose for it. The city is a whore riding on the back of a pimp, a seven-headed monster who will soon devour the whole world, consuming the whore in the process—that is the eschatological reality on the verge of overtaking John and his hearers. Whatever the city might be in the divine intention, now in these last days it has become violent and exploitative, ugly and deformed, an appropriately haglike consort for its master the beast. God’s people have no choice but to “come out of her.” 

The question once again poses itself, what is the referent of such language? Is Babylon what John thought it was in the first century, or does the image expand to encompass other realities that the church has had to struggle with across its history? Even if it could be shown that John believed the empire to be the apocalyptic whore, this would not fix the meaning of the image once for all. The whore is a character from the end of the story whom we encounter in the middle of the story. If the church lives out of Christ’s victory, it lives in the midst of the great city and all it entails. Just what it means to say this cannot be neatly determined in advance, since history (rather inconveniently) has to be lived before it can be narrated. What the Apocalypse does is not to narrate history in advance, but to describe the pattern of suffering, tribulation, and oppression that is intrinsic to the church’s historical existence. The church, we might say, is on a pilgrimage through time, in the course of which it encounters Babylon again and again, always in different forms and guises. The Babylon of imperial Rome will be different from the Babylon that Blake imagined in industrial England, which will be different yet again from the Babylon of late modern capitalism, where goods and services are traded electronically and at the speed of light, but where “human souls” are still being traded. The appearance of the figure of Babylon in history is not uniform, nor is every human society or economic system equally deserving of the name. What it means, then, for the church to flee Babylon for the wilderness will also differ in particular concrete situations. Discerning the shape of this pilgrimage is among the chief tasks of theological ethics. 

To use simpler and more traditional language, “Babylon” names the world (ho kosmos) in the negative New Testament sense. The church cannot avoid living in the world, but it may not itself be “worldly.” While the worldly church is a contradiction in terms, this possibility has unfortunately been realized all too often in Christian history. In extreme cases the church may be charged with actually having become Babylon, the spotless bride who has traded in her finery for the tawdry dress of the whore. This trope is biblically far more appropriate than the one that calls the church or its minsters “antichrist.” In the Old Testament, Jerusalem or Daughter Zion can also be castigated as a harlot, and the harlot/bride contrast is implied by Revelation itself. If Israel can be unfaithful to God, so can the church . . . . 

We expect the world to be Babylon; that goes with its being the earthly city. But for the church to be so corrupted is an unspeakable evil. It means that the lust for worldly power and influence has replaced fidelity to Christ. Like the whore in our present passage, the church as Babylon consorts freely with “the kings of the earth,” in such a way that it is no longer fighting in the Lamb’s army; indeed, it has gone over to the enemy. What it means to “come out of Babylon” in such a situation is obviously highly problematic. Suffice it to say that, prior to the sixteenth century, the trope was not used to justify the separation from the church, but as an impetus to repentance, reform, and renewal. The church is our mother, even when it looks like Babylon. Hans Urs von Balthasar thus reminds us that the church in Christian tradition was often viewed as castra meretrix (“chaste harlot”), a people beloved by God despite its manifest faults. 

Bonhoeffer’s “Prayerbook of the Bible”

A close friend and I have completed reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Prayerbook of the Bible (1940). Here are my take-aways and questions.

3 Take-Aways

  1. God hears us “not in the false and confused language of our heart but in the clear and pure language that God has spoken to us in Jesus Christ” (from “The Introduction”).
  2. “All the prayers of the Holy Scriptures are summed up in the Lord’s Prayer and are taken up into its immeasurable breath” (from “The Introduction”).
  3. “The same words David spoke, therefore, the future Messiah spoke in him. Christ prayed along with the prayers of David or, more accurately, it is none other than Christ who prayed them in Christ’s own forerunner, David” (from “Those Who Pray the Psalms”).

5 Questions

  1. What impact does a Christocentric theology of prayer have on the Trinity? “Only in and through Jesus Christ can we truly pray” (from “The Introduction”).
  2. “Whoever has begun to pray the Psalter earnestly and regularly will ‘soon take leave’ of those other light and personal ‘little devotional prayers and say: ‘Ah, there is not the juice, the strength, the passion, the fire which I find in the Psalter. Anything else tastes too cold and too hard’ (Luther)” (from “The Worship Service and the Psalms”). Should I only pray the words of the Psalter and the Lord’s Prayer?
  3. “Jesus Christ himself has offered the perfect worship service, in that he fulfilled all the ordained sacrifices in his own voluntary, sinless sacrifice. In his own person Christ offered God’s sacrifice for us and our sacrifice for God. For us there remains only the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving in prayers, songs, and in a life lived according to God’s commands (Ps. 15, Ps. 50). So our entire life becomes the worship service, the thank-offering. God wishes to acknowledge such a thank-offering and to show salvation to those who are thankful (Ps. 50:23). These psalms wish to teach us to become thankful to God for the sake of Christ and to praise him in the congregation with heart, mouth, and hands” (from “The Church”). How do I cultivate a life that becomes the worship service? 
  4. “Even in the deepest helplessness, God alone remains the one addressed. Help is neither expected from other people, nor does the sufferer in self-pity lose sight of God, the origin and goal of all affliction. The one who suffers sets out to battle against God for God. God’s promise, God’s previous redemptive deeds, the honor of God’s name among all people, are again and again held up before the wrathful God” (from “Suffering”). How do I battle against God for God without blasphemy?
  5. “If I am guilty, why does God not forgive me? If I am not guilty, why does God not end my torment and demonstrate my innocence to my enemies (Pss. 38, 79, 44)? There is no theoretical answer to all these questions in the Psalms any more than in the New Testament. The only real answer is Jesus Christ. But this answer is already being sought in the Psalms. It is common to all of them that they cast every difficulty and tribulation upon God: ‘We can no longer bear them, take them away from us and bear them yourself, for you alone can handle suffering.’ That is the goal of all the psalms of lament. They pray about the one who took upon himself our sickness and bore our infirmities, Jesus Christ. They proclaim Jesus Christ as the only help in suffering, for in Christ is God with us.” Should projects of theodicy be abandoned, referred instead to the work of Jesus Christ?  

Poetry and pain

What do a poet and a theologian have to say about being diagnosed with incurable cancer in the prime of life? Listen to the conversation between American poet Christian Wiman, author of My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, and Reformed theologian J. Todd Billings, author of Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ

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