Last week’s Question That Haunts came from my friend, Mother Jean, an Episcopal priest in Huron, South Dakota, who hooks me up with some choice hunting every Fall:
My question has to do with Lent. How much, do you think, of the dreary, self-flagellating nature of Lent has to do with our Puritan understanding of the Atonement, i.e., Penal Substitution? I have come to really hate Lent because everyone is SO darned pious and self-sacrificing. Not that those are bad things, but everyone’s so dang gloomy about it. Lent anticipates the crucifixion, certainly, but it also anticipates the resurrection.
Mother Jean asks an interesting question, especially in that she hails from a liturgical tradition. As Rick pointed out in his comment, the Puritans did not observe Lent, nor do many of their progeny. Those who hold most firmly to penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) do not practice Lent — you’re not going to find a sermon series on Lent at John Piper’s former church. I used to joke with Doug Pagitt that when he worked at a Baptist church, they didn’t observe Advent or Lent, but after he left, they did. Even so, these Calvino-Baptist churches tent to observe Lent tepidly.
But not the liturgical traditions, like Mother Jean’s own Episcopal communion. They go whole hog on Lent. But you can search the Book of Common Prayer, and you’ll have a hard time finding any PSA. Here’s one Lenten Collect, as an example:
O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
So if it’s not in the BCP, whence comes Mother Jean’s question about PSA in her experience as an Episcopal priest? It comes from the absolute dominance of PSA in American Christianity. Penal substitution has dominated the Christian imagination for too long, and it’s time to change that.
My brother was reading and early copy of Did God Kill Jesus? on vacation last week. His kids go to Young Life camps in the summer. I told him that for all of its great ministry, Young Life will teach his kids PSA — a few years back, an entire Young Life staff was fired for disagreeing with PSA.
Of course, both introspection and self-sacrifice are called for during Lent, as we journey with Christ toward the cross . I don’t think that Mother Jean would disagree with this. But our motivation for this should not be that God’s wrath burns against us and he killed his Son to satiate his own anger. We should use Lent as a time to remember that Christ is our Brother, and he walks with us in our own agonies.
This is the New Lent — I hope it’s a whole New Lent Movement.