Reading the Bible with the Damned

One of the things I'm learning in the prison bible study is how different theology sounds inside the prison as opposed to outside the prison.

Two examples from this week.

First, on Sunday night during our small group Al, who was leading our discussion, read some selections from Rachel Held Evans' book Evolving in Monkey Town. If you've read the book you know that the book is more about spiritual evolution than biological evolution, mainly the journey from certainty and dogmatism to doubt and tentativeness. In light of that Al had us go around the room describing our own spiritual journeys. And all of us, to a person, had made the same journey Rachel has traveled. Once, long ago, we knew all the answers. Today we have a bunch of questions.

Now I'm aware there is a lot of doubt in the prison. How couldn't there be? But the men I'm working with seem so faith-filled. Not dogmatic, but really convinced God is alive and active in their lives. In short, I don't think our small group class would have translated well into the prison setting. Where our stories, on the outside, were from faith to doubt, the stories on the inside, I suspect, are going the opposite direction.

Driving home from the prison I often call Jana to talk. Tonight as we talked I was contrasting, as I did above, our small group discussion with the time I just spent with the inmates. And the phrase I floated was this: "I wonder if doubt is the luxury of the privileged."

As someone who doubts a lot I know I'm on the wrong end of that assessment. And I don't know how far I'd push that sentiment. But it was the thought that came to mind. Take it for what it's worth.

My second example has to do with penal substitutionary atonement.

For Holy Week the chaplain I assist decided to show Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. A lot of people like the film while others have trouble with the film's penal substitutionary theology. I'm with this latter group as I've voiced from time to time on this blog.

And yet, watching The Passion of the Christ inside a prison gave the film a new frame. It reminded me of a post I wrote in 2008 entitled "Putting in a Good Word for Penal Substitutionary Atonement":

Penal substitutionary atonement has been getting critiqued very harshly by many Christians. It's almost a fad. And I've done my share of criticizing. But following up on the last post, let me offer one good word about penal substitutionary atonement.

As noted in my last post, the death of Jesus is understood by the biblical authors through a variety of metaphors. The cross cannot be reduced to any one of these metaphors. Rather, each metaphor is a particular window on a much larger vista. And each metaphor performs a different theological function. So the issue is, what are the functions of the metaphors that support penal substitutionary atonement?

The metaphors of penal substitutionary atonement speak to the issue of human guilt. No other suite of metaphors so powerfully addresses this facet of the human experience before a Holy God. Thus, I do think it would be rash to completely do away with penal substitutionary thinking. It performs a task that no other view of atonement can perform.

The problem with the penal substitutionary metaphors is that they are so very strong. Too strong to be deployed on a regular basis. And that is the real problem. It's not so much that penal substitutionary thinking is wrong, it is rather that it is wrongfully deployed. Penal substitutionary atonement is at its best when deployed rarely and only in the most extreme circumstances. It can't be everyday fare. The trouble is that it IS everyday fare in many churches. Penal substitutionary atonement is like a very strong acid. It has to be handled with care. And if you handle it as much as we do in our churches, often and carelessly, you end up with chemical burns. Thus many Christians are pulling away from churches in pain.

So when is the proper time to deploy penal substitutionary atonement? Like I said, penal substitutionary thinking is at its best when it speaks to profound human guilt. Specifically, some of us have committed such awful sins that our self-loathing, guilt, and shame destroy the soul. We cannot forgive ourselves. Only a very strong concoction can wash us clean. Penal substitutionary atonement is that chemical bath. It's strong acid--You deserve death and hell for the life you've lived--making it the only thing powerful enough to wash away a guilt that has poisoned the taproot of a human existence. Nothing more mild (e.g., the moral influence views I so love) can speak to this issue.

So, it seems to me, there is a proper time to pull the beaker of penal substitutionary atonement off the theological shelf.

But here's the trouble. Most of us live bland bourgeoisie lives with bland bourgeoisie sins. Few of us have lived catastrophically immoral lives. Thankfully so. But this creates a bit of a disjoint when a preacher throws penal substitutionary atonement at us. It just doesn't resonate. The strong acid just burns us. The notion that God demands our death for these slight infractions AND that God will condemn us to an eternal torment of excruciating pain makes God seem, well, rather crazed.

This feeling gets worse when penal substitutionary atonement is thrown at children. In these contexts the deployment of penal substitutionary metaphors can seem obscene and psychologically abusive. Again, the issue for us is the incommensurability between the offenses of the children (not playing nice on the playground) and the penal substitutionary view (for these infractions God will punish you forever in hell). Continuing my chemical metaphor, kids shouldn't play with acid.

The point I'm trying to make is that penal substitutionary atonement isn't bad per se. The problem is that penal substitutionary atonement is a victim of its own strength. It has suffered not by being a bad idea, but by being handled too often and too carelessly. Some people do live in such a hell of guilt that only the vision of God's death sentence, something they feel deep in their bones to be justified and proper, can reach the depth of their self-hatred. So we shouldn't throw penal substitutionary atonement out the door. We just need to understand its proper function and place.

Christians just need to go to chemistry class.
I think you can see why this post came to mind watching The Passion of the Christ inside a prison. Inside the prison the experience of a deserved death-penalty is not unusual or extreme. It's the norm. So the realization that this death-penalty has been lifted through the substitutionary atonement of Jesus is potent stuff. It's just another example of the inside/outside switcheroo I've been experiencing.

I don't have a neat conclusion yet for any of this stuff. Just the observation, per the title of Bob Ekblad's book, that reading the bible with the damned is proving to be an illuminating experience.

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6 thoughts on “Reading the Bible with the Damned”

  1. On a side note, where did you get your cross ring in the picture above? Peace.

  2. It's a James Avery ring. The Fleuree (three petaled) cross reminds me of the Trinity:

  3. "Where our stories, on the outside, were from faith to doubt, the stories on the inside, I suspect, are going the opposite direction."

    One possibility is that the two groups - your small group and the prison group - are at different places in the faith journey. My understanding is that doubt seems to be a necessary bridge to a deeper, more mature faith. So growth could be continually progressive: from doubt to faith to doubt to faith to doubt to faith...and so on. And, also possibly, our understanding of the atonement looks different depending on where we are on the journey.

  4. "But here's the trouble. Most of us live bland bourgeoisie lives with bland bourgeoisie sins. Few of us have lived catastrophically immoral lives."

    However, stating things this way does tend to lend weight to the argument that people who argue for alternate metaphors don't really address the true nature of sin

  5. In line with what Mae shared, I wonder if Scott Peck's ideas about stages of spiritual growth apply here. The first part of the journey is from a chaotic, antisocial stage (1) to a formal, institutional stage (2). The next transition is on to a skeptic, individual stage (3) that is a necessary transition to the final mystic and communal stage (4). Peck observes that Stage 2 people (rather than stage 3 or 4) are often the best at helping stage 1 folks. You might feeling this acutely. While the whole stage approach to faith development is problematic in its implied linearity, it still can be helpful. I often wonder how much Scripture is a complex blend of messages spoken to address all these stages, which is why some texts don't blend so well with others, and why different folks walk away with pretty different takes on the same passages (like the Sermon on the Mount, for instance).

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