the Crucible

Atonement… aTonement

For many in the emerging church, we have waged the battle against hate, speaking out against Christians hating homosexuals, Christians hating abortionists, Christians hating drug offenders, Christians hating violence, Christians hating pacifism etc… But now there is a new kind of hate being unleashed that is equally concerning.  The hate of the mainstream evangelical church and at times it seems that Christians are leading the fight.  Why is this? Perhaps it is inflamed by our culture, or a by-product of our zeal, but it is wrong. The tragic dilemma we are facing is that programmatic voices with the purest of intentions are failing to reach a generation of people no longer impressed by the trappings of evangelicalism.  If we look intently at culture to evaluate evangelicalism’s recent journey, perhaps a larger concern and question for enfolding individuals into becoming Christ followers is evaluating: where ”We”, the Church, are, and how “We” got here.  I believe in order to fully understand what drives this issue, we need to take a closer look at atonement and our relational understanding of what it means to be the people of God. 

The role of the Church is to be the sent people of God, we need a strong reminder of this calling.  One could easily conclude that hate hasn’t lead many toward becoming Christ followers.  But being the ‘sent people of God’ is a radical agenda, with radical implications. Thinking in terms of NT. Wright, George Hunsberger, and Leslie Newbigin; and the concept of the Church being the sent people of God, we run into several ecclesiological problems. For one: how should churches organize around this role in the world?   Perhaps the most crucial question to the mainstream Christian is one that should be the foundational building block of community:  How do “We” participate in covenantal relationship? 

A demonstration of atonement via covenantal relationship is ultimately a form of evangelism potentially so inviting no language can contain it.  It is so pure, that individuals can feel it and see it, before understanding it.  It is so detectable and present that immersion can result in conversion and it can be caught without being taught.  The demonstration becomes embraced and embodied in community.  So, what does it mean to be working within a covenantal atonement model of relationship?

In theological terms the way the modern church has been describing atonement and the metaphors they have used quite simply are askew, or “off” and they have missed the mark .  A large task to rework some theological under girding and rebuild the framework of some rudimentary understandings is a large task. 

At one time or another, most of us have typed a query or typo in a browser window only to see an  “error message” pop up which states: “The page cannot be displayed” Using that analogy, if one could transcribe the metaphors associated to date with atonement, it would be best for the Church (the sent people of God) if that same “error message” could occur.  Ultimately most “t-shirt” theology, and wwjd type slogans communicate a message of proof text error , in that they seed to streamline events, which quite simply should not be reduced to single phrases. 

An immediate question any (rational) person would then ask is “If the modern Church has been successful in influencing a 21st century audience to the extent that it influences our thinking and many of the commonly used metaphors are wrong. Why, then do these views go unchallenged?” How did these metaphors form?  The models or metaphors of “ransom”, “chivalry” or “penal theories” had day-to-day relevance when they were developed.  But culture has changed, and hence to the extent that these metaphors now have taken on a different meaning from the original. 
A simple image is an example of this metaphorical shift.

An impoverished woman, gathering firewood out in a forest.  Disheveled and tired from her menial tasks and hard living, and dressed only in rags, she wipes her brow as she resumes her mundane chore of looking for twigs to build a fire so that she can heat water she has just drawn.  Fatigued with the emotions of disengagement from this life, she is on her way to her humble home, when a drunken and vile woodsman suddenly singles her out.  This scoundrel’s sole motivation is thievery and desolation.  Seeing the woman alone in the forest, unable to protect herself, and out of sight from witness, he plots to rape her.  Just as this vile, and loathsome being is about to overtake her, she catches sight of a gallant prince riding through the forest on a white horse. Seeing the damsel he cries out to the thief, “Leave her alone!, Should you have a duel your duel is with me”. The woman is clearly unable to protect herself from this treacherous creature bent on her demise, but this winsome hero with all the authority of his father’s kingdom is willing to take on her burdens.

Although it is believable tale, and one repeated through out history and via literature and cinematography of our day its not theology, does it relate to atonement? In this sense is Jesus our rescuer? Is he our gallant prince on a white horse? Is this a demonstration of covenant? Where does the metaphorical illustration break down?   Is it a biblically accurate metaphor for the history of covenanted Israel?  Perhaps, unthinkably to our western minds it is not an accurate metaphor.  As delicately voiced as could be heard this metaphor of chivalry has never been an accurate depiction, of sin, or the taking on of burdens…

No doubt this is a bold statement.  Especially because the aforementioned metaphor is so imaginable and engrained, but what are the implications of the allegations that it is not a metaphor for atonement?  Couldn’t this be considered heretical to challenge?  The implications could challenge many theological precepts already in place.  Those economics of sin management and even the Gospel in some paradigms are foundationally challenged by this assertion. 
But what if we have the wrong starting point for atonement?  What if we have the wrong Gospel or “Good News”? What if Calvin, Luther  and fragmented interpretation of bad exegesis, horrible contextualization and weaker extrapolation have yielded us a Gospel of atonement that has been reduced to a sin management so biased and off base, it can no longer be reduced or translated into a culture?

By viewing atonement through a penal view lens the church has put eggs in the one basket of modernal culture. This may have worked within, but that context is no longer relevant within the world we operate in.  With a whole new set of definitions in post modernity, we are desperately waiting for our own Christus Victor.   Some embodiment of a healthy biblical viewpoint aligning itself with the ancient idea of cosmic battle and forces of evil needs to be brought back to a pre-Augustinian mindset and we need to rethink how we are reinterpreting the atonement.
“Since Augustine, [cosmic warfare motif] has constituted the most frequent explanation in the church, and in western culture in general, for why people suffer. Though it [spiritual warfare] directly opposes the standard Protestant understanding of the atonement (in which all sin has already be atoned for), and though an entire book of the Bible is devoted to its refutation (job) and though Jesus himself teaches against it (Lk 13:1-5; Jn 9:1-5), it has never the less dominated the churches thinking on this subject throughout history and continues to exercise a strong influence today “ God at War, Greg Boyd, pgs. 41-42. 

Classical return to atonement
What would a model that incorporated a biblical covenantal view of atonement look like? A return to a classically biblical view has surrounding relevance to our culture.  Having an openness to Wicca, New Age (and arguably a better understanding of non-western mindsets and worldviews, than of a world 20 years ago), it seems that culturally speaking, the world we live in is smaller, and has a framework of expectancy.  This modern mind is more open to the mystical  than that of our culture even 20 years ago.  With an over arching view a therapeutic model that calls for the reconstruction for the healing of the land and a healing of the people the Old Testaments account of generational healing seems like a culturally relevant fit, in some paradigms this resides in atonement theory.  Perhaps it needs not be stated but there is no therapeutic model that could ever biblically appropriately align itself with penal theory.  Some have searched out means to “fit” penal theory into the texts, but it is then intriguing that not even Jonathan Wesley could find resources to support the penal doctrine of spiritual formation.  Dallas Willard a well-published author and Meta Physics professor at the University of Southern California has appropriately re-named the “Penal Doctrine of Atonement” as “Sin Management” or “The Gospel of Sin Management”.   Unfortunately it seems that in dealing with the consequences of sin, Christianity has developed myriads, whole kingdoms of atonement theories that beg exploration.

Penal Systems are not Relational
In the last 25 years, we have reduced our explanations of the atonement, to the penal system, or a penal view.  In just this single lump of idealism, we have severed the very strand of fabric that our culture longs for: relationship. Our generation has become cynical as a result of institutional stipulations and is weary of any form of mega-institution.   Our mantra is not one of rebellion but rather relationship.  We are longing for a truth that is subjective.  In response to this longing we have sought out the counsel of friends as an interpretational grid of apriori knowledge.  How is it that one could assume modernist thinking towards atonement, would slip through under the guise of theological truth? It’s no mistake that traditional evangelism is failing fast within our generation and there are countless violations by a modernistic lens of how we perceive community. 

For example, “The ipod generation” has a much different view of intellectual properties  than those of just 10 years their superior.  And their superiors, according to Moore’s law are infinitely and exponentially removed from the access of information that the ipod generation now possesses.  This perceived information often is recognized and perceived as the truth, but is not the truth that our emergent generations are longing for.

In an article on Pope John Paul II, National Post writer Robert Fulford points out that
“The Pope’s paradigms were those of the13th century, and the Pope’s model was consistent was because The truth never changes”. 

For the ipod generation the consequences for violations of intellectual properties are virtually irrelevant.  The Statement “If it ain’t hurting me or any of my friends, it’s is ok” comes to mind.  The underlying premise of that slogan is not only an obvious lack of truth, but also the burden of relationship.  This burden of relationship should not go unnoticed; Ask an ipoder  “would you burn for a stranger?  There answer will be “No.”  Consider the expression that “You can break every law but the one which binds “Us”, as indication that relationship is the currency of our generation.  Our culture is longing to get rich in relationship.  Most rules or regulations pale in comparison to the underlying core of relationship.
Is it a mystery that a penal model of gods love for a post-modern culture has not flown well in the face of our humanity?  We are a generation that is bombarded with images of war.  Within our own nation, the ipod generation matured viewing three significant Wars, mostly in the Middle East, but with unparalleled media coverage and participation.  Our minds have been invaded by countless media focused atrocities and judicial injustices.  We have literally seen and abhorrent treatment of the poor, minorities, and disadvantaged.  A frivolity associated with recycling and ecology that will historically be looked upon as a generation of ignorance.  How could the Church present a penal model that could even be conceived of in terms of justice?  Clearly a 21century audience cannot absorb a model where sin has an economy.  “Do the crime and pay the time”, was a mantra of earlier generations. But our generation has come to see just how unjust this mantra is, just how unsacred, and unholy it can be.



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