Wednesday, August 22, 2007


So I've been thinking about atonement metaphors and stuff. I've heard about these missionaries who go to a tribe and have to figure out how to express what Jesus did to this new culture. Sometimes they have to get pretty creative to figure out a metaphor that connects with the culture.

So has anyone guessed where I'm going with this? You're so smart!

I've become more and more convinced that our standard slew of atonement metaphors no longer connect to our culture. Without a solid moral standard it's hard to convince people that they need to be relieved of their guilt. People are often deeply offended by a God who would demand his son's death to appease his wrath.

So what's the answer? I have a suggestion. Let's talk about atonement as a healing process (the Greek work is katharsis from whence we get the word cathartic). It's a biblical concept (1 John 2:1-2) and it lines up with a lot of things that our culture is hungry for. The salvation process is about healing broken people in a holistic manner (salvation includes physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects). Healing is for everyone, not just those with certain sins - we're all in need of healing and we will always be in the process of healing.

What do you think? Is there really this need? Is this a good metaphor?


Unknown said...

Good thoughts, James. I remember thinking hard about this in seminary, hearing about the different lenses through which we understand the biblical accounts of what Jesus accomplished on the cross.

I think healing is an important part of exactly what you said--salvation, and a powerful picture of God's preferred future. This is "reign of God" language, something that is only now being recovered by biblical theologians in a variety of stripes. A much needed corrective in my opinion. I have personally found it tremendously useful in discussing with people and one of the metaphors I often use in describing just what Jesus accomplished.

Having said that, you specifically said "atonement." Healing and atonement are tangentially related, but not the same thing. Atonement is one of the things Jesus accomplished through the cross and one of the chief metaphors Paul uses (along with the victory over the powers metaphor, another one which moderns and even postmoderns choke on). There are also ransom metaphors, subjective example metaphors, and others which you probably already know all about. Together, they provide a complete and balanced picture of Jesus' work on the cross, without which we end up leaving out an important part of God's purposes in sending Him.

While I would not lead off with a penal substitutionary atonement message when talking with pre-Christians about why Jesus matters, it ultimately has to be part of the picture at some point in their understanding of Jesus. Talk of sin of any kind is a "metaphor" which this culture has rejected wholesale, and one that deeply offends. But if we neglect the reality of our corrupt nature before God, we don't have much to say about healing either.

We must never be afraid to offend; we must rather fear irrelevance and obscurity, two related errors which can easily lead to trouble. I wouldn't want to leave pre-Christians never quite understanding why Jesus might make a difference in their lives.

Mark said...

I remember reading from someone who compared telling people "Jesus died for your sins" to telling them "Tony sang for your tunas". It's hard to speak to people about things for which they have little or no mental category. A redemption metaphor can be a powerful thing if we find the right one. Whether or not yours resonates with people, the important thing is that we're aware of the need and striving to reach them.

KMiV said...

Good thoughts James. I know we have been talking about this in our weekly meetings.

Atonement and remission are both terms that suggest covering up but give a thought that something could come back. Removing, wiping away, and cleaning give more a permanent element.

Reaching people today will involve addressing the deep seated, buried issues in a person's past. Guilt and shame always surface in our discipleship and we have to find a way that communicates forgiveness, cleansing, and freedom--even though our past is who we are.

One thought might be that since memory, for us, is so important we need to have continual reminders that we are forgiven. We should not assume people will remember this. We have to keep repeating this every week. That is why I feel resurrection is so important. I also feel that communion is a celebration, not a mourning, over our relationship with Jesus and should be celebrated weekly.

James T Wood said...

Jason: Dooood! That's deep stuff you said (and I pretty much agree).

I was intentionally keeping my post brief and a little vague so that I wouldn't lose too many readers. I agree that we need to make use of all of the metaphors in scripture that describe the work of God, but it seems that in every age and culture there is one metaphor that resonates most distinctly.

Andrew Martin said...

Thought provoking...

I really appreciate and resonate with your thoughts Ron. I believe that we can be a blessing for any people group at any time when we are intentional about speaking Gospel everyday to those we are with (and I don't mean the convoluted "fire & brimstone" gospel that people tend to think of when hearing the word).

I believe that Good News is healing and is all around us. Part of our challenge as ministers is to discover creative ways to speak Good News into people's lives every chance we get... without speaking at them or over them (if that makes sense).

Unknown said...

FYI, I thought of your post when I ran across this earlier today:

Scot McKnight's new book on atonement reviewed by Brian McLaren

Good stuff to uncover the major issues floating around this larger conversation...

Anonymous said...

Oh, how I came to play in the conversation, but just seem to be coming into the room late. "Always a bridesmaid, never"...nah, doesn't really apply.

Which leads me to a thought. Language and metaphors really only have communicative power when placed in a context. By now in this conversation, this is a no-brainer. But before we overlook it too fast...

James, your search for metaphors that connect is great, and expresses something far more important than the specific metaphor itself. Your desire is to connect Jesus with people who have never connected with him. They have a new culture to learn - a Kingdom culture - and how we bring that culture is way important.

I think the church has silenced its own voice at times, not simply because we persist with metaphors that communicate nothing, but even more so, because the church (by and large) has lost a desire to connect. What if more churches had this conversation with everyone in their church? What if churches thought very contextually, knowing that the metaphorical language of a church in urban Seattle would sound differently than rural Texas?

Better put, what if we as leaders did a better job at teaching Christ-followers to think theologically about how we communicate as we develop outward-focused people?