Brian Zahnd: Countering the Politicizing Proclivities of Fundamentalism with the Beauty of the Cruciform Life

Brian Zahnd

In the search for certitude and a penchant for Bible-Answer-Man explanation, the intrinsically artistic nature of the Christian mystery is turned into gift shop simulacra. Fundamentalism is to Christianity what paint-by-numbers is to art. 

So Brian Zahnd, pastor of Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri, states in a recent post on his lively and insightful blog. Zahnd, who is an interesting mix of mystic, pastor, scholar, and Bob Dylan, maintains an insightful blog laced with insights from the church universal.  It’s common to find him quoting anyone from Dostoevsky to St. Athanasius to Stanley Hauweras.  (I first discovered him through a friend who sent me this link)

If you give his blog posts a cursory glance, you’ll find that a main theme in his writing is the need to recognize mystery and not to rely too easily on “cheap certitude,” as he calls it in more than one post.

His most recent offering is no exception. In this post, he astutely notes something that I have long recognized: that Fundamentalism is just as enslaved to modern scientific explanations of the Bible (and the Christian’s experience of grace) as any modern skeptic (which is why, by the way, he prefers The X Files to, say, Sherlock Holmes. For The X Files, the answer is “out there”–there’s a mystery to explore–but for Sherlock Holmes, created as he was in the 19th century with its industrialized imagination, mysteries are only problems to be solved).  In this recent post, he writes:

In discovering a richer Christianity I have been able to identify an ache that had always been in my soul — it was the ache for mystery. Mystery is at the heart of reality. Ask any quantum physicist! Newtonian physics sought to explain everything, but post Einstein physics has learned to bow in chastened reverence before the altar of mystery. And Christians should have at least as much reverence for mystery as quantum physicists! Christianity is a sacred mystery. The Apostle Paul loves to speak of the mysterion — he uses that rich word twenty-one times in his letters. Christianity is a confession, not an explanation. We will attempt to explain what we legitimately can, but we will always confess more than we can explain. I fully confess God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even though I cannot fully explain the Trinity. I fully confess the resurrection of Jesus Christ, even though I cannot fully explain what it means that the Son of God has inaugurated a world beyond the realm of death. Room for mystery is necessary for orthodox theology. Mystery is good for theology. And mystery is good for the soul.

In addition to his understanding of the importance of mystery in the Christian life, I appreciate Zahnd because he recognizes that Christianity is meant to be a prophetic witness in society: it is a political, though not politicizing, faith.  The Kingdom of God challenges partisans on the Left and the Right.  In an interview that The Gospel Coalition’s Trevin Wax conducted with Zahnd, the pastor from “St. Joe” (who, by the way, was once a Word of Faith preacher.  Read Wax’s interview to find out more) replied to the question, “What are the dangers of a politicized faith? And does moving away from that lead us into quietism?” with the following:

Christianity is an intensely political faith and as such can never be compatible with quietism. The church should be a prophetic witness within the body politic—the church is to embody the politics of Jesus. But when the church settles for cheap partisanship, it forfeits its prophetic voice. Once the religious right became the de facto religious wing of the Republican Party, it ceased to be prophetic. To the Left, it was a partisan enemy, and to the Right, it was a partisan tool—but it was prophetic to neither.

Unfortunately, in our polarized partisan culture, if I pull away from a carte blanche endorsement of the Right, it is perceived as an endorsement of the Left—which is not the case at all! For example, as I allow my politics to be informed by Christ, I try to be consistently pro life—so I’m opposed to abortion and the death penalty. As you can see, that doesn’t make for a nice alignment with either the Left or the Right. It’s not political engagement that I’m opposed to but partisan allegiance. Ultimately, political parties are interested in power, but the church is called to transcend the politics of power and embody the politics of love set forth in the Sermon on the Mount.

Christianity is interested in public affairs because it is interested in the common good, but “partisan allegiance,” and ultimately the desire for power, short circuits this involvement and prevents the church from effectively engaging society. Christianity’s witness to the public, in order to be prophetic, must embrace an alternate approach of social engagement that is shaped by something other than the binary imagination of our politicized world.

Photo courtesy of the Fenland Hermitage

Ultimately, our engagement in the public sphere is shaped, according to Zahnd, by the beauty of the cross. Later on in the interview with Trevin Wax, Zahnd says,

In defending truth, the church has created Christian apologetics, and in defending the good, the church has created Christian ethics. But by and large, we have ignored the virtue of beauty, relegating it to the demoted status of mere adornment. Yet the recovery of beauty as a way of interpreting and expressing the Christian faith may be just what we need at this time.

Along with Christian apologetics and ethics, we need some Christian aesthetics. In a culture that is suspicious of our truth claims and less than impressed with our claim to a superior ethic, beauty may be a fresh way to communicate our message. Beauty has a way of sneaking past defenses.

But for us to adopt a presence of beauty, we need a form that we can look to as a guide. Whether it’s a painting or a poem, a sculpture or a song, it’s the form that gives a thing its inherent beauty.

So what is the form of Christian beauty? I think it has to be the cruciform—Christ upon the cross, arms outstretched in offered embrace, forgiving the sins of the world. What I’m suggesting is that the body of Christ should be in the world as the beauty of the cruciform. What we say, what we do, what we demonstrate should be in some way an expression of cruciform beauty.

We should ask ourselves, does this stance, this position, this project, this action, this attitude look like Jesus upon the cross? If not, maybe we should rethink it. This would be a helpful step in getting rid of some of the ugly ways we react to what we perceive as wrong with the world.

Zahnd’s thoughts about beauty here remind me of two things.  The first is in regards to beauty and the second, the cross, cruciformity, and weakness.

The first is Gregory Wolfe’s response to the politicization of Christianity (it’s no mistake, by the way, that both Zahnd and Wolfe have both written a book with the title Beauty Will Save the World).  According to Wolfe, societal transformation will not take place primarily through the go-to modes common in our day and age–politics and rhetoric–but instead will only come about because “of the imaginative visions of the artist and the mystic.” But this deference to the dreams of the artist and the saint is not a surrender, not a withdrawal into quietism, as Wolfe points out.  Instead, this retreat “involves the conviction that politics and rhetoric are not autonomous forces, but are shaped by the pre-political roots of culture: myth, metaphor, and spiritual experience as recorded by the artist and the saint.” Without articulating it quite this way, I think Zahnd promotes this vision of cultural engagement.  What is needed from the church is the more indirect approach of the visionary poet or the suffering saint.  This indirect approach has a way of working on the heart and imagination of the individual that the more straightforward approach of politics–and even apologetics–cannot. As Zahnd says in the quotation above: “In a culture that is suspicious of our truth claims and less than impressed with our claim to a superior ethic, beauty may be a fresh way to communicate our message. Beauty has a way of sneaking past defenses” (italics mine).

The beauty of the cross, of the cruciform, provides an alternative in our world of the culture wars.  In response to the bald desire for power that often undergirds a politicized faith, Christians should prophetically bear witness to the power of weakness, the power of emptying ourselves of our rights and privileges in order to serve and give.  Henri Nouwen called this “downward mobility,” the way of powerlessness:

It seems nearly impossible for us to believe that any good can come from powerlessness. In this country of pioneers and self-made people, in which ambition is praised from the first moment we enter school until we enter the competitive world of free enterprise, we cannot imagine that any good can come from giving up power or not even desiring it. The all-pervasive conviction in our society is that power is a good and that those possessing it can only desire more of it….

Surrounded by so much power, it is very difficult to avoid surrendering to the temptation to seek power like everyone else. But the mystery of our ministry is that we are called to serve not with our power but with our powerlessness. It is through powerlessness that we can enter into solidarity with our fellow human beings, form a community with the weak, and thus reveal the healing, guiding, and sustaining mercy of God….As followers of Christ, we are sent into the world naked, vulnerable, and weak, and thus we can reach our fellow human beings in their pain and agony and reveal to them the power of God’s love and empower them with the power of God’s Spirit.

Paradoxically, as Nouwen points out, it’s through surrendering our power that we will gain a hearing with others, with “them.” Why? Because such a surrendering allows us to sympathize with others, which of course, opens the lines of communication.  It opens the ears so we–so they–can hear. We sympathize because He first sympathized with us.

Elsewhere, Nouwen writes:

This is the way of downward mobility, the descending way of Jesus. It is the way toward the poor, the suffering, the marginal, the prisoners, the refugees, the lonely, the hungry, the dying, the tortured, the homeless–toward all who ask for compassion. What do they have to offer? Not success, popularity, or power, but the joy and peace of the children of God.” (from Here and Now pp. 138-139)

I think it’s this joy and peace Zahnd is calling the church to–a joy and peace that can only be found, however, by surrendering to the mysterious beauty of the cruciform–a joy and peace that counters the concern, worry, and power-grabbing of a politicized faith–a faith that, lacking a substantial vision of the kingdom of God that can capture the collective imagination and move the collective heart of the public, overly relies on answers and morality–rather than holistic witness–to counter the decadence and decay of our society.  If the Gospel truly has an “intrinsically artistic nature,” as Zahnd says–by which he means that it is ultimately a mystery–then we need more witnesses who are willing to enter that mystery and live the mystery.  Doing so, may not produce immediate results, but slowly, over time, the beauty of bearing witness will have its way with those who have ears to hear.  It will sneak past their defenses and give them a picture of what could be and, indeed, what one day, shall be.

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One thought on “Brian Zahnd: Countering the Politicizing Proclivities of Fundamentalism with the Beauty of the Cruciform Life

  1. Pingback: When it Comes to Dealing With Sexual Abuse, Will Evangelicals Take the Path of the Hero or the Saint? | Notes From a Poor Country

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