If the theology podcast Crackers & Grape Juice has any redeeming value*, (and Lord knows they have interviewed some questionable characters in their brief existence—primary evidence: their January interview with me!), it is the recurring “Fridays with Fleming” segments that have introduced the Episcopal priest and theologian, Fleming Rutledge, to a wider audience. With her Tidewater Virginia roots resonating in her every word, Rutledge makes an enthralling and poetic conversationalist, touching as easily on literature and the arts as on theology.
Beneath the gentility and on the page, however, Rutledge is a lucid and systematic thinker who has a preacher’s knack for communicating difficult theological concepts. That’s nowhere more present than in her 2015 book The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. It is a massive tome filled with footnotes, but every page and every note is worth it for the comprehensive journey the reader takes with a gifted and entertaining author.
Rutledge’s primary conviction is that the cross of Jesus Christ stands at the center of the Christian story. Her primary worry is that, in our efforts to divert our attention from the cross—its violence, the way that it has been captured by a narrow, individualized, evangelical message—we have lost the richness and fullness of biblical motifs that would help us understand why it is so central. “No one image can do justice to the whole; all are part of the great drama of salvation,” she says. “We need to make room for all the biblical images.” (7) And so she does.
You will find here sacrifice and substitution, the themes that make many mainline theologians nervous, but you will also find a thorough-going apocalyptic vision that reclaims Christus Victor language, not as an exclusive lens for seeing the crucifixion, but as a dominant one. Rutledge finds her way to this by reviewing Paul’s neglected language of the Powers and by taking seriously the cosmic conflict of God and the Devil. “Most biblical interpretation in the modern age has been done as though there were only two dramas personae,” Rutledge says, “God and humanity—thereby demystifying the New Testament, which presents three.” (377) Rutledge wants to have us be witnesses to the invasion that is taking place in the Incarnation as God confronts the powers of Sin and Death.
Rutledge has heavy-hitting theological partners on her side – Karl Barth and David Bentley Hart, but she has Flannery O’Connor and Ralph Ellison as well. Her argument is for inclusion of voices and against the flattening tendencies of so much post-Enlightenment discourse. “Much of today’s literal-mindedness is doubtless owing to the fact that fewer and fewer people read novels and poetry,” she says. (211)
So the authors and theologians mingle with the preachers in these pages, all seeking something more than a pristine plan. There are no innocents in human history, Rutledge emphasizes frequently. “An eight-year-old can see more clearly than some of the rest of us that well-meaning programs for improving the human species are not going to accomplish much besides making the designers of the program feel good about themselves. We don’t need a program; we need deliverance from this whole cycle of violence and vengefulness. Humankind needs to be saved from itself.” (308)
It is for this reason that Rutledge comes to an appreciative evaluation of the theme (biblical!) of substitution. Surprisingly, she quotes a passage in Barth that brings home the implications of the motif with psychological insight:
“It is a constraint always to have to be convincing ourselves that we are innocent, we are in the right [and] others are in one way or another in the wrong…We are all in the process of dying from this office of Judge which we have arrogated to ourselves. It is therefore a liberation that…[in Christ] we are deposed and dismissed from this office because he has come to exercise it in our place.” (519)
In a land and a time in which the greatest victory any one side of the Great Divide can claim is the marginal satisfaction of knowing how wrong the other side is, such an insight as this feels like a deep inhalation of the Spirit. Freed from being innocent, we are capable of participating in a story that is ultimately not about us, or perhaps more accurately, far more than only about us. It’s about a God who goes the distance, to Death itself, and thereby raises the dead.
In a land and a time in which the greatest victory any one side of the Great Divide can claim is the marginal satisfaction of knowing how wrong the other side is, such an insight as this feels like a deep inhalation of the Spirit.
There’s far more here. Evil, hell, the wrath of God—she tackles them all. But there is poetry and light and fodder for a hundred sermons and more. This is equally important and lovely. It makes this book great.
*There is actually much to recommend Crackers & Grape Juice and its 4-person hosting crew of United Methodist pastors – Jason Micheli, Taylor Mertins, Morgan Guyton & Teer Hardy.