Giles Fraser’s Cheesus column in the Guardian has stirred up lots of comment from Evangelicals over the last couple of days, much of it slightly hand-wringing as we worry that he has put his finger on a real weak spot of evangelical theology. Leaving aside for the moment that what he attacks is not evangelical theology at all but a certain sort of shallow charismaticism, it seems to me that the glaring weakness in what he says is in danger of being overlooked. For the understanding of the cross he proposes is the very thing he accuses ‘Cheesus’ evangelicals (whoever they are) of.
He criticises those for whom the cross is reduced to an emotional experience. And in its place he says the cross offers… an emotional experience. The experience he criticises is cheerful, insipid, and fake; the one he offers is dark, disturbing, gritty, and real-life. But it is emphatically no more than an experience. The cross he proposes does not do anything. It does not achieve anything. It just makes us feel different; which is exactly what he condemns ‘evangelicals’ for.
The ‘Cheesus’ Good Friday he condemns is like Primula, plastic-tasting cheese out of a tube; the Good Friday he offers is perhaps ripe Gorgonzola, complex, strong, even offensive. But it is still just an experience. It is still cheese. Perhaps a cheese more attractive to those of sophisticated cosmopolitan taste, but cheese nonetheless.
Look at how he describes them. ‘Cheesus’ is ‘a form of Jesus-lite, a romantic infatuation, a Mills & Boon theology that makes you feel all warm inside’. Fraser says ‘[t]he Gospels, however, tell an altogether more disturbing story’. for him, the cross teaches ‘the fact that tragedy will always be folded into the experience of faith’. But that is all it does. It makes us feel the same sort of complex emotions we might get by reading Thomas Hardy or listening to a Mozart requiem. But beyond making us feel something it does nothing at all.
Indeed, Fraser’s Christ is capable of doing nothing more than that. His cry of dereliction is not the human experience of the Son of God being crushed for our iniquities; it is the whimper of ‘the broken man on the cross’ as he ‘begins to fear that God is no longer present’. With this statement Fraser leaves any pretence at Christian orthodoxy behind. This is not the Word incarnate, very God of very God, who has taken human flesh in order to bear our sins in his body on the tree. It is merely a good man racked with self-doubt as he faces the failure of his mission. But we don’t have to go to the cross of Christ to find that. Any shakespearean tragedy would have done just as well.
And so Fraser’s Good Friday achieves, beyond giving us a surge of tragic emotion, absolutely nothing. It is his Christ who ‘cannot deal with tragedy’. Because dealing with tragedy is exactly what Fraser’s Christ, and Fraser’s cross, doesn’t do. It cannot deal with the horrible reality of evil. It cannot help people racked with a guilty conscience. It has no power to transform people gripped by the enslaving power of sin. It cannot bring any kind of redemption to a broken world. It gives no hope that things will ever be better; no means by which the sting of death is drawn and will be ultimately destroyed. Because it simply does not touch evil, nor deal with the power it wields over humanity; it merely displays evil’s power and the pathos of helpless goodness in the face of it. It is an account of the cross in which it is evil which has the final victory. And which cannot, therefore, lead to resurrection – either Christ’s or ours.
Ironically, this means that Fraser’s exasperation at evangelicals is completely groundless. If all the cross does is give us an emotional hit, who is he to say that his emotional hit is better than anyone elses? He may prefer tragedy, but why should others not enjoy comedy? He may prefer to wallow in the sorrow of Good Friday, but why should others not go for happiness instead? He may think Gorgonzola more refined, but why shouldn’t others enjoy Primula if they prefer it? It’s just a matter of taste.
But Christ did not die to give us an emotional hit. He gave his life as a ransom for many. To reconcile us to God. To bear our iniquities. To be a sacrifice of propitiation. So that the Father might be just and the one who justifies him who has faith in Jesus. To nail the record of debt that stood against us to the cross. To triumph over the rulers and authorities. For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven; not for us men and for our emotional experiences. Cheese is incapable of doing any such things, whether it’s out of a toothpaste tube or a fancy package from Waitrose.