smijer has a long and interesting post today on the topic of Penal Substitution (which I tend to refer to as Substitutionary Atonement). It's a topic that's been on my "to-blog" list for almost as long as I've had this blog. What I'm writing now isn't that idealized/imagined blog post, but a start.
Growing up an Episcopalian, the notion that "Jesus died for our sins and paid the price to ransom us from hell" was not really the dominant interpretation I got from my church community as a child or as a teen. That's despite the lines in the Nicene and Apostle's creeds that suggest as much, although not as baldly.
But that same message was all around me. I grew up in a rural pocket of Southeastern PA that was culturally akin to the Bible Belt, with a strong fundamentalist and Evangelical presence. So starting in about 6th or 7th grade and through my teen-age years I started coming across tracts setting forth this message and friends for whom it was their central understanding of who Jesus was and what his mission was.
It never made sense to me. In a way that I could not even articulate, it struck me as irrational and even monstrous. Just the requirement that all you had to do -- and the only thing you could do -- to avoid eternal punishment was to make a statement that you believed that Jesus died for your sins seemed absurd on its face and more absurd the more I tried to contemplate and understand it.
The priest who was probably most influential in my religious upbringing -- a wonderful man who arrived at our church when I was about 11 and retired when I was about 16 or 17 -- also didn't think much of it. Not long after he arrived in our town, he asked me about the prevalence of "Jesus Saves" messages all over; while I cannot recall his exact words, it was very clear from the way he asked that he was quite dismissive of that approach. And this was not any kind of closeted atheist, either; he was deeply devout, even for a priest, and it was natural and authentic for him to refer to Jesus, whether in the context of his life on earth or in the context of the eternal, as "Our Lord."
At the same time, however, the fundamental idea of Substitutionary Atonement (although not the term -- in truth, that label is less than a year old in my consciousness) has had a near-obsessive hold on my imagination for all my life -- a consequence of how completely monstrous a concept I felt (and feel) that it was and is. Every once in a while I find myself in the religious section of the bookstore and gazing at new (Evangelical) titles in the subject of basic Christian theology, and I often pick up one or another and quickly comb through for evidence (which I almost always find) that it's serving the same old Substitutionary Atonement wine in a new bottle. When I poke around on the web for church websites (something I do occasionally just as a matter of curiosity, or perhaps because I'm following a link from somewhere else), I'll almost always look first at the "What We Believe" section (if there is one) and then assess how much it does or doesn't follow the SA model. And when I read The First Paul, by Crossan & Borg, last year, it was a revelation to me to learn that the whole notion of Substitutionary Atonement could largely be traced to Anselm, nearly a millennium after the Crucifixion.
Perhaps that's why reading Brian McLaren's The Secret Message of Jesus -- the book I'm currently on -- has been such an absolute delight. It's the first work I've seen by an Evangelical that offers a real alternative to that model. (And from some Amazon reviews I've been reading lately, it appears his newest book, A New Kind of Christianity, may actually reject the Subtitutionary Atonement model outright, although I can't yet say that with any first-hand knowledge.)
Some years ago I heard (second-hand) that Garrison Keillor, in an amusing discourse about the New York subway system, explained why the only preachers on the trains were fundamentalists: You just don't have time for a complex message, so the simple one -- "Jesus died for your sins! Give thanks to God!" or something like that -- wins out.
As I've been reintroducing myself to Christianity through its Progressive strains in the Mainline church, I've thought back to my childhood. I'm glad that my Episcopal upbringing offered an alternative to the fundamentalism in the community around me. I just wish, sometimes, that it had offered an equally succinct and clear statement of that alternative.
2 hours ago