Borg, Lewis, and Attonement

Marcus Borg said one other thing in his lectures that revolutionized the way I think about language for Jesus. It was in his lecture about reclaiming Christian language, and it should be noted that this was by no means my first exposure to ideas like this; it’s just the time I got this particular point. In fact, I’m sure that had I been able to understand it fully, it was laid out perfectly well by my professor and Dean in seminary, Dr. Robert C. Neville, in his book, Symbols of Jesus, which I remember mostly for its cover (my favorite depiction of the crucifix in all of art history) and the many sentences I underlined which demonstrated to me exercises in increasing verbosity and obfuscation. Exercises I took to heart, it seems. I know he was saying something about understanding what the different names and claims about Jesus (Jesus is my Savior, Jesus is my Friend, Jesus is the Cosmic Christ) mean historically, theologically, and personally. I think. But the man is way over my head. Not for nothing, I’m 5’9” and pretty smart. He’s that kind of genius that normal people can’t even understand when all he’s asking is if you want cream and sugar in your coffee.

Okay, so people say different things about Jesus, things that, when not understood in their historical context, can be hurtful or misleading today. The prime example, and one I’ve internalized before, is “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Said today, mixed in with medieval understandings of feudal lordship and centuries of oppression of the working class by the ruling elite, with sexist, chauvinistic and borderline abusive connotations, I don’t much resonate with “Jesus Christ is Lord.” But it was John Dominic Crossan who first taught me (through his writing of course, I’ve never met the man) to read ‘Lord’ through the lens of the first century. It was a political statement, an appropriation of the Roman title for Caesar, applied instead to Jesus. It was a statement of allegiance. It meant, simply and profoundly, “Jesus Christ is my Lord, and Caesar is not.” Or, to modernize it as Borg did in his lecture, “Jesus is my Commander in Chief, and that other guy—well—he ain’t.”

Similarly, “Jesus is the Prince of Peace” contrasts Christ’s way of peace through nonviolence to Caesar’s promise of peace through conquest. “Jesus is the Son of God” argues against the Roman claim that Caesar was of divine birth. “Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit” argues that everything that happened in Christ was of God, and “Jesus rose from the dead” refers not to an historical miracle in one time and place but to the eternal and ever-present reality of Christ.

But the kicker was “Jesus is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” I have a problem with this whole Jesus-died-for-my-sins bit. And Borg just put it all to rest.

The background and basis for this problem is tied up in bad theology and lots of fantasy literature, and contains at least mild spoilers for, at random, The Chronicles of Narnia (rant included), The Lord of the Rings, “The Matrix Reloaded,” and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

I know I’ve said it time and time and time again, but I really hate The Chronicles of Narnia. Since I can’t find any one place where I rail against its appalling theology, this will be it.

First, just to have it said, the writing lacks subtlety. In the way that, say, beating someone about the face and neck might. Gag me with a spoon.

It’s not metaphor but simile, that tritest of literary forms, where everything equals something else, and the picture that is drawn from that is pretty grim (by contrast, Lewis’ colleague and contemporary and friend Tolkien pens a work rich with subtlety and metaphor. We all know that Lord of the Rings embodies some of Tolkien’s most cherished religious beliefs, but which character ‘is’ the Christ figure? Is it Frodo, the suffering servant who gives part of himself to save the world? Is it Aragorn, the reluctant, just king, who does not seek power but rules and judges with fairness and love? Is it Gandalf, the cosmic creature who, giving up god-like status, lives among the little people until, to save them, he battles the demon of hell and dies–only to come back to life after three days [every day was as long as an age of the earth…] and meet three former companions in the woods who at first don’t recognize him… ? True metaphor is polyvalent).

Anyway, literary flaws aside, the problem with the series, and to start at the most obvious place, with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is its theology–a theology that has all sorts of great things to say about Jesus, but terrible things to say about humanity, women, the way the world works, and God.

In theological-speak, we call this the theology of substitutionary atonement, and it goes something like this (those who’ve ever been accosted by a teenage evangelist in a mall will find this familiar): 1. People sin. A lot. Bad people. 2. There’s a price for sin, and that price (or ‘wage’ as Romans puts it) is death. Because we sin, it is right that we die, and burn in hell forevermore, to boot. Sin cannot be forgiven without the shedding of blood. 3. Jesus was such a great guy that he was willing to die on behalf of everyone else, and he was so perfect a guy that he counted as everyone else, so his blood was shed in substitution for ours, and we are forgiven by God, case closed (Now, meditate on the nature of that bloodshed. Meditate some more. Watch Jim Caviezel get whipped into an unrecognizable bloody pulp. See all that blood? It should have been yours! Blood, blood, blood. Feel guilty yet? Good. Don’t you want to thank Jesus for getting so bloodied up for you? Hooray! That’s faith!).

What an awful thing to think! But that’s exactly what happens in our simile-heavy Narnia story. 1. Edmund sins; he eats the forbidden fruit sweets given to him by the Source of All Evil, a woman. Bad Edmund. Edmund is everyman. Bad everyman. 2. There’s a price for eating that Turkish Delight and allying oneself with the Bad Evil Woman, and that price, set by the Ancient Magic, is death. Edmund has to die, and probably burn in hell forevermore, or at least be left on a train platform in England along with all the other heathens at the end of the last book (but, on the upside, that same cosmic King’s Cross purgatory in the sky is expecting nekkid!harrypotter on platform 9 ¾ any moment now). In any case, the Ancient Magic requires a sacrifice in blood to atone for Edmund’s transgression. 3. Aslan is such a great guy–or lion, symbol of the tribe of Judah (and of Gryffindor tower, hmmm…)– not a safe one, mind you, but a good one, that he is willing to die in Edmund’s place, and such a perfect guy, or lion, that his death counts as everyman’s. See Aslan get tied to the rock? See Aslan killed by the Bad Evil Woman and her Minions? Bad Edmund. Feel guilty and love Aslan like your sisters do.

My problem, if you can’t tell, is with point #2 (well, that and the Gibson-esque fixation on blood and suffering that #2 conjures up). Because Lewis is so heavy-handed with his this=that simile, we have no wiggle room. Edmund is Everyman. The Witch is evil incarnate (way to bash all women and all pagan, earth-based religions in one swell foop, buddy!). Aslan is Jesus. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. And the Ancient Magic that no one ever sees but who set this whole universe in motion and is responsible for the rules that govern sin and redemption? That’d be God. The big, distant, blood-sacrifice-loving deity. God, who *cannot* forgive sin unless blood is shed. Now there’s a god we should all love and obey, right?

My problem reading Narnia, and my problem with sustitutionary atonement in general is that the real problem to me lies with whatever rules God/the Ancient Magic concocted that make forgiveness impossible without blood sacrifice. A true Savior would not die at the hands of the Witch, offering himself as a sacrifice, but would tear down the very system that requires blood sacrifice to begin with (this, by the way, is what I understand that whole business with Neo [the One], the Architect [the bad guy trying to sacrifice Neo], and the Matrix [the system] is all about in “The Matrix Reloaded.” Neo refuses to choose between sacrificing some or all of those he loves and instead goes after the root, the system itself. Had the Washowskis stuck with that as their Christology, they’d have been golden).

Anyway, Borg completely re-explains Jesus as the sacrificial lamb in a way that removes substitutionary atonement from the equation, makes for a much more powerful statement of belief, challenges the systems of sin and forgiveness that require sacrifices in the first place, and is historically valid as a bonus.

It goes like this: by the first century, Jewish Temple worship was a well-oiled machine, and it controlled much in the lives of the common Jewish individual. Sin and being unclean were problems not only for the conscience, but for inclusion in the community; a person whose sin had not been forgiven or a person who had been/come in contact with something unclean (so that’s every woman every 28 days, and her husband, most likely) could not be part of ritual, community meals, or have any entrance into the Temple, and thereby entrance into the presence of God and relationship with God. Forgiveness and cleansing of sin/uncleanness required blood sacrifice of certain animals, offered by the priests on behalf of the sinner in the Temple in Jerusalem. So, those Jews who could afford the animals for sacrifices and the fees for the priests and the trips to Jerusalem could have their sins forgiven, could enter the Temple on the High Holy Days, and could stand in the presence of the Almighty. And the rest, well, too bad for them. The Temple priests held a monopoly on sin and forgiveness. They had become the ancient magic, not only demanding the sacrifices, but setting the fees, limitations, and means by which forgiveness and relationship with God were possible. One might say (although Borg did not, but perhaps I can stretch here) that the Temple claimed that they were the way to salvation, that no one could come to God but through them and the expensive sacrifices they required.

The claim, then, that Jesus is the sacrificial lamb is not a claim about the human blood required for the forgiveness of sins– that’s not part of Judeo-Christian theology in antiquity. It is a claim about the ritual sacrifice offered only by the Temple priests. To say that Jesus is the sacrifice, that he died and his blood was shed for the forgiveness of sins, is to say that the sacrifices and rituals of the Temple are meaningless. No longer do you need to buy an unblemished calf or travel to Jerusalem or pay the fees for a priest to offer sacrifice on your behalf. Christ is that sacrifice, and the Temple monopoly on forgiveness is no more. Through Jesus, whatever we or others might claim separates us from God has been removed and no further sacrifice is needed. He has, in short, challenged the very authority– that of the Temple– which required blood sacrifice, shattering the barrier between the individual and God’s presence, grace, and abundant life (we see this symbolically as the Temple curtain tears at the moment of the crucifixion; the barrier is destroyed).

Now I can dig that.

Of course the brutal irony is that, just like Lord and Son of God, we have removed Sacrificial Lamb from its historical context, a context that died along with all of Temple worship in 70 C.E. when the Romans pulled down all but the Western Wall of the Temple. In the two millennia since, the Church has built itself into the same position the Temple used to be, and now considers herself (whether by creed, practice, membership, rite of confession, etc) to be the same monopoly-holder on the forgiveness of sin and access to God’s presence and grace that the Temple once claimed. We’ve completely reversed the message and example of Jesus and become the same blood-hungry ancient magic he died to subvert. If, as Borg insists, we can re-educate the adults of our churches and educate the children as they come through the Christian Education system with what was really meant by ‘Jesus is the sacrifice for sin,’ we have hope of reclaiming Christ’s radical message: that nothing stands between us and the God of life, and no intercessor is needed to stand in the presence of the Holy.

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6 Responses

  1. […] of books that I would recommend people not read for religious reasons. I don’t mean like Narnia and Left Behind, which are Christian stories with bad theology. I mean the other end of the […]

  2. […] some context for the statement (some of which I gleaned from Borg, and discuss toward the end of an earlier post), which, read against the absolute claim of the first century Temple priests to be the One Way to […]

  3. Regarding Lewis and the atonement, Lewis was not really a penal substitution guy. The following discusses his view on why Jesus had to die: http://homepages.paradise.net.nz/mischedj/ca_lewisatone.html

  4. […] reminds me of my mammoth post on attonement, which is longer and probably more boring, but you’re my friends, so you’re used to me […]

  5. […] died and did we mention the blood? for us– you can read some of my reactions to this theology here). It’s also very dominated by masculine, hierarchical, and violent language. I get squeamish […]

  6. […] whole long post is now six and a half years old, and is worth the fun reading if you want to hear me riff on why I […]

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