The Old Rugged Cross

My drama teacher in high school taught me how to play the blues and drink my coffee black (he probably would have taught me to chain smoke, too, but I took a pass). I’ve also been a church musician most of my adult life, and before evangelicals decided that the only way they could worship was to a Chris Tomlin cover band, I played a lot of hymns on the piano. Learning the blues made it possible for me to add some flavor to those hymns — “A Mighty Fortress” doesn’t lend itself well to such a treatment, but Fanny Crosby is usually willing to put on her red dress and dance the blues. I once got kicked out of a church for playing like that, but most of the time people don’t really mind a little Saturday night mingling with their Sunday morning.

The truth is I love gospel piano, and to be honest I even like gospel singing. I love playing between the cracks. I love bluegrass straight-tone harmonies. I love digging into a well-placed secondary dominant. I’m not a big fan of country, generally, but that’s not because of the music. I usually like the music. What I can’t take is the general worldview evinced by country music: the manufactured authenticity, the sappy sentiment, the songs celebrating various and sundry women’s body parts or jingoistic American exceptionalism. For every Little Big Town or Sugarland, which I like, there’s a spate of Brad Paisleys and Toby Keiths, which I don’t.

By all rights I should have a similar reaction to gospel music, which conjures a cosmology I can’t abide any more than songs promoting imperialism or unhelpful gender stereotypes. Maybe it’s the utter familiarity of the gospel songs that allows me to suspend my reservations about, say, glorifying an instrument of torture or the quasi-erotic anthropomorphism of seeking Jesus’ loving embrace. These songs are part of my history, one that I can’t completely escape.

I’ve been trying to understand the language of evangelicalism in the sense of what anthropologist Clifford Geertz called “thick description.” What does this language mean for evangelicals, beyond the literal or obvious? How does this language work or function in the life of the community? I haven’t done any real ethnography on it, but simply by virtue of seeking to survive in an evangelical milieu that God won’t let me leave (a situation that my skepticism about God’s existence has done little to ameliorate) I’ve had to tinker with what these things mean to others, even—or especially—when they can’t mean the same things for me.

“The Old Rugged Cross” is not really about an apparatus of torturous execution. That particular meaning is elided, sublimated, even repressed, a strategy that probably goes back to the earliest attempts to make sense of the event itself. In the wake of Jesus’ execution, one of the ways to make sense of this was to ironically declare it a victory. Another was to connect it to the logic of sacrifice—with many theologies, including those preserved in the canon, mixing the two in some way. If the hardcore atonement theologies of Anselm and Ambrose are later developments, it’s not like they didn’t have anything to work with.

Those (like me) who seek to question the totemic fascination with the Cross on the basis of its utter logical absurdity have a point, but they miss the point. And by this I’m not suggesting that we don’t “get” the atonement. Really, there’s not that much to get: God was pissed at humans for being imperfect even though he made them that way so he became a man and got himself whacked so he could get over it.

What I think we don’t get, or don’t often think about, is the role this concept plays in the life of the religious subject in terms of bridging an existential chasm.

We are finite beings, and utterly contingent, products of our histories and our environments. “You are not,” Tyler Durden tells his men in Fight Club, “a unique and beautiful snowflake.” Or rather, we are unique, but only in the very sense of being utterly contingent. As the old slogan has it, “you are unique—just like everyone else,” which is another way of saying you are not a unique and beautiful snowflake. We are tossed about by passions, which we can sometimes reign in but at some point always break free and embarrass us—or worse. Those of us who are upstanding citizens differ from the criminal element in degree but not in kind.

Who we are and how we behave can be influenced at any moment by our serotonin levels, the presence of intoxicants, or what we ate for breakfast. Our sense of self can be bypassed in deep meditation or modified through the use of pharmaceuticals, and some of us can’t get through the day without one or the other, or both. If Paul’s lament over his own contingency in Romans 7 is one of the most hermeneutically challenging passages in the Pauline corpus it is also one of the most accessible.

According to an oft-quoted aphorism, the Talmud teaches that every person should wear a jacket with two pockets. In the one pocket, the rabbis say, there should be a note that reads, “I am a worm and not completely human.” And in the second pocket, the note must read, “For me the universe was made.” I am not a unique and beautiful snowflake, and yet my existential survival depends on creatively asserting my unique and beautiful snowflakeness. Somehow we must suspend ourselves—that is, our respective self-concepts—over the void, and we’re working without a net.

If I can be forgiven for painting with so broad a brush, evangelicalism theology codes this contingency as “sinfulness,” sometimes “fallenness,” a condition that, except in various perfectionist theologies, does not change. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And it is God who bridges the gap, who imparts to us our snowflakeness—washes us “whiter than snow.” We distance ourselves from our project of creative self-assertion by projecting it onto God.

This can be seen in an evangelical trope in which the speaker affirms that Jesus “would have died for you even if you were the only person on earth,” sometimes following this to the logical conclusion that the hypothetical lone human would have had to single-handedly crucify Jesus. From a detractor, this would be a reductio ad absurdum, but it is offered unironically, even earnestly, as a way of amplifying the affective impact of the atonement story.

In such a reduction the contingency is preserved—Jesus still has to die—but denial of the existential void is voiced in the most individual possible terms. For you the universe was made. You are a unique and beautiful snowflake, but only at great expense. (In this way, the significant risk of self-assertion is also projected onto God in the form of Christ’s suffering and death, perhaps another reason Christ was eventually proclaimed to be God.)

It is not difficult to see problems with this, and I applaud efforts to rethink possible meanings of the death of Jesus within Christian theology. But I can’t deny the affective power of the Cross for many believers and its success in bridging the existential gap between our utter contingency and the need to construct ourselves.

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