Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Cross.

There is this poem: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.

As one might imagine, Wallace Stevens provides the reader with over a dozen different views, snap shots, and perspectives on birds.  Birds, I suppose are interesting.  But honestly?  They are not that interesting.  I wonder if this was part of the point.  I wonder if there is implication that if we could look at something as simple as a bird in 13 different ways, how many different ways could we possibly view something more abstract, something more complicated, something, perhaps, more important.


I have wrestled with the idea of writing a poem in response to Steven’s work.  It would be called 13 Ways of Looking at the Cross.  Because the Cross?  That’s a pretty important thing.  It is at the center of what it is to follow Jesus.   It was a failure to understand it that prevented me from following Jesus for the first three decades of my life.  I was intruiged by the person of Jesus to such an extent that even his obnoxious followers couldn’t keep me away.  It was the fact that I could not make sense out of that cross he was nailed to, this is what truly kept me from calling myself a Christian.

The story of how I made peace with that struggle is a story for another time.  The thing I want to write about today is that I heard a lot about a single understanding of what Jesus death and resurection meant.   In Theology texts they call it penal substitution.   In short, this says that we people have earned a consequence for our sin.  Somehow, the universe is structured in a way that this penalty must be paid by somebody.   However, it doesn’t have to be us.  The account goes that Jesus took on the penalty of our sins that we can avoid that penalty.

God gave us this frustrating, amazing, ambiguous, and brilliant gift when he gave us the bible.  One of the understandings we can gather from reading the bible is the penal substitution view.  But it is not the only understanding.

Viewing a simple bird in at least 13 ways gives us a fuller view of the bird than we would have if we only viewed from one perspective.  Even after we view it in 13, or even 130 different ways, though, we will still not truly understand.

How could it be otherwise with a God who came to Earth and then died?

There are lots of troubles with our simplified view of the meaning of the cross.  For now, I will discuss a single one.

I am growing increasingly convinced of the importance of nonviolence in following Jesus.  Our unhealthy dependence on the penal-substitution view has created this feedback explosion.  We begin with the idea we got from the world.  This idea is that violence redeems.  We carry this idea into our understanding of the meaning of the cross.  We think the penal-substitution view is the sole, literal meaning of the crucifixion.  We can then take this as the ultimate example of redeeming violence.  And so we enact violence on the world around, individually and collectivally, verbally and physically, in our thoughts and in our deeds.   At the end of it all, we look back at the violence we have done.  And somewhere, deep, deep inside, we are ok with it.  Because if the universe is structured in a way that violence has to happen to somebody, if there is justice in submitting the wrong person to punishment, then how can we, in our own lives, be blamed for whatever it is that we do?


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The stories that speak to our soul begin at a home where things are good. Cinderella is happy with her father. The three little pigs have grown up and are ready to move on. Bilbo Baggins knows his shire. Adam and Eve walk with God in the garden. My story isn’t much different. There was a time and a place where it was so good. There was a community for me. And there was joy. We were filled with a sincere desire to do what God wanted us to do. We possessed explanations and understandings that went a certain distance. We offered security and tradition and laughter. For a lot of years, that was enough. I have this sense that it was also necessary. I have this surety, now, that it certainly wasn’t everything. There were some things that became increasingly problematic as time went by. There was a desire to package things up so very neatly. Sunday morning services were efficient and strategic. Responses to differences of opinion were premeditated. Formula began to feel more important than being real. A real desire for everybody to be one of us, but also a real sense that there is an us, and there is a them. They carried a regret that it has to be this way, but deeper than this regret was a surety that this is how it is. I began to recognize that there was a cost of admission to that group. There were people who sat at the door, collecting it. Those people wished they didn’t have to. But I guess they felt like they did have to. They let some people in, and they left others out. There was a provisional membership. My friends did possess a desire to accommodate people that are different… But it would be best for everyone concerned if they were only a little bit different. I did make many steps forward in this place. Before I went there, there were lies that I believed. Some of the things that I learned there, I still hold on to. But that place is not my home anymore. Those people are not my community anymore. There were times it was hard. I am engaged in a different community now. And I am working hard at finding a place in many different places now, embracing many different kind of families. I don’t always get it right. I am trying and I am learning and I am moving foreward. I have this sense that I am not alone in these experiences. I believe that we are tribe and we are growing. We are pilgrims, looking for a new holy land. Perhaps we won’t settle on the same spot of land. But if you’ve read this far, I am thinking that we are probably headed in the same general direction. I have begun this blog to talk about where my journey is taking me. In every space, we find people who help us along. And maybe we can get to know each other, here. We embrace ideas that provide a structure for the things we believe, and perhaps we can share these too. Maybe we can form a group, a tribe, a community, if we can figure out a way to work through the shadow of these kinds of groups, if we can bigger than the us-and-them ideas that have caused so much trouble in the past. As important as they are, I think the very nature of online interactions will lend itself to something equally powerful. I am stumbling onto these practices that my grandfathers and great grandfathers in the faith engaged in. I am learning about these attitudes and intuitions are so different than the kinds of things we call doctrine today. I don’t know about you, but I am running out of patience, and even interest, in conversations about doctrine. I hope that maybe you’ll share a little something about where your journey is taking you, and maybe our common joys and challenges might help each other along, and we might lift each other up. Thanks for doing this journey with me.

5 thoughts on “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Cross.”

  1. You have a great post here!

    I read the poem first, I would agree about blackbirds, and the author seems to have confused crows with blackbirds. I am not particularly fond of crows.

    “I was intruiged by the person of Jesus to such an extent that even his obnoxious followers couldn’t keep me away.” – This was true for my own conversion process as well.

    But, what I most appreciate about your post is your honest address to the shallow way the crucifixion is understood. I am delving myself into theology these days, and deeper Biblical study. I wonder if the penal-substitution theory is symptomatic of our society/world? If violence can be seen as redeeming, then the past 2,000 years of violence, vengeance, retribution, war, prejudice, discrimination, etc. can be seen in a context of fitting in somewhere. But, I think, Jesus’ whole point is that ‘they’ don’t fit… anywhere… in the kingdom of God. (whether one believes that is ‘in heaven’ or could be here ‘on earth’.)

    Thanks for the post.


    1. Thanks so much for the thoughtful & kind words & reblogging… I think you are 100% correct around the relationship between violence, vengence etc. and the penal-substitution theory. Personally, I see some biblical evidence for penal-substitution as one possible understanding of what the cross is about. But I think the bible provides evidence for additional understandings, as well. And if we had held all these understandings together, in a tension, I think we would have been hard-pressed to justify our violence and retribution, because we would have had all these other understandings balancing it out; and also, the mere fact that we would be wrestling with a number of different views would serve as a reminder that all these understandings are poetry and metaphor, because the truth is so much bigger than us. I don’t think it’s an accident that we just happened to grab on to the one theology of the cross that happens to make it easy to justify violence…


      1. Thank you for the reply.

        “all of these understandings are poetry and metaphor”

        That is a big hurdle for so many to accept. If I could just impart this to my own family, perhaps they would understand my own conversion and faith more (I grew up in an agnostic/atheist home) – and then if it could just be imparted to those who are literalists/fundamentalists in my life, I think they would reach new levels of faith and spirituality and comprehension!


  2. It’s so true! I wasn’t raised in the church, either, and many of my family members don’t get my faith. I think some of the problem with poetry and metaphor are that people think it is is somehow less real than metaphorical truth. Our literalistic brothers and sisters in Christ fear that we are watering down the gospel, and our non-Christian family and friends think that we somehow are faux-Christians. Sometimes, I get a little bit of traction with both groups by pointing out things like “The early bird captures the worm.” If this had been an actual reference to a single, specific bird, it would actually cheapen the value of the statement, not increase the value of this statement… But it is an ongoing discussion, and not always easy. For me, the challenge right now is around trying to hold on to what I know to be true (for example, the value of poetic and metaphorical understandings) but not becoming a sort of liberal fundamentalist myself, with no room for learning from people who might disagree with me.


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