Dr Giles Fraser is mistaken when he suggests that celebrating the triumph of the Cross is theologically illiterate
Dr Giles Fraser, over at the Guardian, in his latest article, which can be read in its entirety here, implies that evangelicals miss the point of the Cross of Jesus.
Every Christian, if they are to be worthy of the name, has, at some point in life, to encounter the Cross. At some moment our faith will be tested, and if it is true, it will pass the test. On Good Friday, as Dr Fraser mentions, all the disciples failed the test; they ran away; they could not face the Cross. But, and this is an important but, later on they passed the test: each one of them eventually embraced the Cross from which they had earlier fled: St Peter was crucified, so was St Andrew, and so on.
Did I say all? In fact not all – Saint John stood by the foot of the Cross as did Our Blessed Lady. Such was the maturity of their faith! And others stood at a distance, looking on (see Mark 15:40) – their faith presumably was not as perfect as that of the Blessed Virgin or Saint John, though stronger than that of the absent disciples.
But this range of responses to the Cross should not surprise us; the Cross is difficult to face; but one day face it we must, and through God’s grace, we will. At some point all of us will realise that the Cross is not something we look at, it is something we participate in, and that our suffering and that of the Lord somehow become one. This is one of the great themes of St Augustine who at several points says of Christ transfiguravit se in nobis – He transfigured Himself into us; in other words on the Cross He suffered for us what we suffer now. Or in the words of the prophet Isaiah: ‘Ours were the sufferings he bore’ (Isaiah 53:4).
As we make the identification between ourselves and the suffering Christ, our faith matures. But this is the work of a lifetime. St Peter only embraced the Cross fully as an old man.
Speaking of evangelicals and the Cross, Dr Fraser has this to say:
“Welby, however, does have one important inoculation against Cheesus. He has personal experience of tragedy and Cheesus cannot deal with tragedy. Which is why, for the worst sort of Cheesus-loving evangelicals, the cross of Good Friday is actually celebrated as a moment of triumph. This is theologically illiterate. Next week, in the run up to Easter, Christianity goes into existential crisis. It fails.
“The disciples run away, unable to cope with the impossible demands placed upon them. The hero they gave up everything to follow is exposed to public ridicule and handed over to Roman execution. And the broken man on the cross begins to fear that God is no longer present.
“The fact that this is not the end of the story does not take away from the fact that tragedy will always be folded into the experience of faith. Even the resurrected Jesus bears the scars of his suffering. A man who has been through something like that will never smile that cheesy smile or think of faith as some sunny suburban upspeak.”
Well, yes, one sees what he is saying, but…If Dr Fraser thinks that there are supposed Christians who have abandoned the faith and replaced it with some sort of self-help doctrine, then there might be some point to what he says. However, the concept of the Triumph of the Cross is by no means theologically illiterate. This Triumph is celebrated in East and West on September 14. Its extremely nuanced theology is expressed in the Anglo-Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood.
Good Friday is a triumph for on this day our salvation is accomplished. Far from failing –though it looks that way – Jesus succeeds. Regnavit a ligno Deus, to quote an ancient Christian hymn, the Vexilla Regis: God ruled from a tree.
Dr Fraser then goes on to make a specific charge, not just against evangelicals in general but one lot of evangelicals in particular:
“Justin Welby is the theological product of Holy Trinity Brompton, the Old Etonian-run church next to Harrods that brought the world the Alpha Course and doubles up as a posh dating agency for west London singles. They are brilliant at PR and have pots of money. And if Christianity is all about success, then you have it hand it to them. But the problem with PR Christianity is that it can easily transform Jesus into Cheesus, which is a form of Jesus-lite, a romantic infatuation, a Mills & Boon theology that makes you feel all warm inside. The Gospels, however, tell an altogether more disturbing story. And there is no PR agency in the world that could sell the message of a man who told his followers that they too would have to go the way of the cross. That’s the problem with Cheesus. He won’t really suffer and he doesn’t ever die.”
The serious charge here – there are others, but they are too silly to pause over – is that the Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) gospel is one where Jesus’ suffering and death are played down, even denied. One can refute this quite easily. The teaching that comes out of HTB is clear and coherent on the great questions of Christian morality. In other words, when facing temptation, people are not told that these things do not really matter, or that there is no point in resisting their sinful impulses, which are perfectly ‘natural’; they are told, relying on the grace of God, to fight the good fight, and to sacrifice their desires on the altar of the Cross.
This is the crunch moment for all who call themselves Christian. Do we make sacrifices, in our desire to live moral lives? Do we, in other words, believe in the Cross? The trajectory of liberal Christianity (if that is not too great an oxymoron) is to deny sin, and in so doing, to deny the necessity of the Cross. Indeed, as John Paul II observed in his great letter on morality, Veritatis Splendor, to abandon traditional Christian morality is tantamount to emptying the Cross of its power (see I Cor 1:17 and Veritatis Splendor 83). For if we say that the struggle to live the moral life is useless or simply doomed to failure, we are also saying that Christ on His Cross did not win for us the grace by which we conquer our temptations. But the message from HTB is a clear one, I have noticed: you can overcome your faults, through the grace of God, because Jesus has won the victory through His Cross.
This is not just the message from HTB. It is (or should be) the message of every Catholic preacher as well. And that is why, in case you were wondering, I feel called to defend HTB on this matter. HTB shares a denominational allegiance with Dr Fraser; but on this matter Catholics and evangelicals stand together. Where, I wonder, does Dr Fraser stand?