Analogy as a Strategy for Faith-Learning Integration

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Analogy as a Strategy for Faith-Learning Integration
(Note: Dr. Wood is the 2018 Quentin J. Schultze and Paul A. Soukup Faith-Learning Integration Award Winner for outstanding Christian scholarship in Communication Studies)

Naaman Wood, Ph.D.

Redeemer University College



As a habit for faith-learning integration, analogies can help Evangelicals accomplish historian Mark A. Noll’s call to resource the Christian tradition, sharpen our means of analysis, and increase our social engagement. To substantiate the claim, this article will progress in four parts. First, using various examples from across the Christian tradition, analogies are figurative, imaginative, and rhetorical interpretations that involve acts of resonance and redescription. Second, faith-learning integration prefers one-to-one correlations, and Christian readings of the film Gran Torino (2008) illustrate that these correlations can be thin and unethical. In contrast, analogies can produce thick and ethical acts of integration, but only if we inhabit sources, desire dialogue, and experience God’s Spirit. Third, James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree provides an example of analogical thinking and accomplishes all three aspects of Noll’s agenda. Fourth and finally, I offer a personal example of an analogy in faith-learning integration.

Keywords: faith integration, integration of faith and learning, redescription, analogy, figurative, imaginative, religious communication, Christian communication



In 1994, historian Mark A. Noll described himself as a wounded lover. Wanting more to incite than inform, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (hereafter Scandal) traced how historical developments had severed Evangelicalism from its rich intellectual heritage. Unless evangelicals recovered this heritage, Evangelicalism would be unable to deal with the challenges and complexities of the world in which it lived. In the intervening years, Noll pursued constructive work that looked beyond Scandal’s criticisms, and his more recent Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind collects many of those pieces. The closing chapter serves as a direct follow-up to Scandal. Noll sticks to many of the assessments he made in Scandal, while also naming and celebrating areas of improvement.

Despite some institutional and academic advances, Noll devotes the final pages of the book to the three pieces of significant work ahead. Avoiding ideology and simplification, evangelicals should engage in patient, reasoned analyses of the problems facing the world. Avoiding fear and suspicion, they should cultivate a well-informed and rounded view of the world and develop broad-reaching social engagement. Avoiding proof-texting, sloganeering, and private whims, they should make a careful study of Scripture and theology from the resources of the Christian tradition. By this last assignment, Noll encourages readers to turn to older traditions, because they provide a depth rooted in doctrine. For Noll, there is “no Neo-Thomist personalism in philosophy without centuries of God-honoring moral casuistry, no J. S. Bach without Lutheran theologies of the incarnation and the cross, . . . and no contemporary revival of Christian philosophy among American evangelicals without the legacy of Kuyperian Calvinism.”[1] Taken together with the thrust of Scandal, this final piece of advice suggests that our recovery of the Christian tradition proves key to a recovery of the evangelical mind.

As wounded lover myself, I find Noll convincing, and I want to suggest one single, concrete practice that will help us accomplish the tasks he suggests, albeit with one expansion. When Noll suggests that we resource the Christian tradition, his language implies an emphasis on theological content. I think Noll is right. The Christian tradition does provide content that can add considerable depth to evangelical thought. What holds true for Neo-Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain, J. S. Bach, and Calvinist philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff likely holds true for many evangelical scholars. Our work will blossom with complexity and nuance the more grounded we are in time-honored traditions to which we fall heir. By way of expansion, I suggest that the Christian tradition offers us more than content. It can offer us habits of thinking or ways of relating various kinds of content. One of these habits is analogy.

As a tool for faith-learning integration, analogies can help accomplish not only Noll’s call for evangelicals to resource the Christian tradition, but they can also accomplish the rest of the agenda he lays out—sharpening our means of analysis and increasing our social engagement. Four observations help substantiate this claim. First, using various examples from across the Christian tradition, analogies can be understood as figurative, imaginative, and rhetorical interpretations that involve the acts of resonance and redescription. Second, although analogy is an option that runs through the Christian tradition, faith-learning integration avoided analogies in deference to tight one-to-one correlations. The example of Christian readings of the film Gran Torino (2008) illustrate that these correlations can be thin and unethical. However, helpful as analogies are, they are not technologies of certainty. Analogies make possible thick and ethical acts of integration, but only as far as we inhabit sources, desire dialogue, and experience the movement of God’s Spirit. Third, if evangelicals hope to recover analogy as a means of faith-learning integration, James Cone’s analogous thinking in The Cross and the Lynching Tree provides an exemplary model because his work accomplishes all three aspects of Noll’s agenda. Fourth and finally, I offer an auto-ethnographic example of what it might look like to follow Cone in an analogical instance of faith-learning integration.

Examples, a Definition, and Characteristics of Analogy

In order to describe analogies, I want to begin with my first conscious encounter with analogy, and from that encounter provide a tentative definition. Through the definition, I offer a brief account of three Christian analogies: Paul’s reading of Hagar and Sarah in his letter to the Galatians; the Orthodox insight concerning the Burning Bush and the Virgin Mary; and Walter Brueggeman’s use of creation, resurrection, and justification. These examples imply that analogous thinking is not only part of Christian tradition, but they also bear a set of characteristics. Before turning to these matters, a bit of autobiography is in order.

My first conscious experience with analogous thinking occurred as I prepared for my Christian Theology final in seminary. I stumbled across the possibility that almost any Christian doctrine, insight, or practice possessed a transparency to many other doctrines, insights, or practices. When I focused on the connections, I could describe a single Christian doctrine, insight, or practice in terms of another doctrine, insight, or practice. In my final exam, I compared the Four Notes of the Church and the Christian practice of baptism.

In the last paragraph of the Nicene Creed,[2] the First Council of Constantinople described the Church using four terms, the so-called Four Notes of the Church. As Christians, we confess that the church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” When the council penned this phrase, they likely had the Macedonian heresy in mind, a heresy that denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. In thinking through the Spirit’s divinity, the council decreed that it is the Spirit who makes the church whole, sanctified, universal, and grounded in the teaching of the apostles.

Rooted in the hunch that baptism bore some relationship with these Four Notes, I could deepen my understanding of baptism with the wisdom of the creed. In baptism, the church is “one.” This means that while Christians differ in the manner and timing in which they practice the rite, baptism constitutes part of what unifies and makes whole the Christian body. In and through baptism, Christians become members of the visible and invisible church—a church that is singularly and simultaneously past, present, and future. When I was baptized into the church, I became part of the same body that, for example, the Ethiopian eunuch entered (see Acts 8:38). Though thousands of years, thousands of miles, race, culture, his death, and a whole host of other matters separate me from this early Christian, we are both still one, still unified, still whole in Christ. Baptism marks that reality.

Second, baptism is also an act that marks the holiness of the Christian. The act instantiates the reality that God brings sinners into the resurrection of Jesus, from the deathliness of sin into a life of holiness, a life of sanctification. Baptism is, third, a universal or ecumenical practice among Christians. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church places such emphasis on baptism’s universality that it recognizes all forms of Christian baptism as legitimate and binding.[3] At least from the Vatican’s perspective, baptism is part of what makes us a “catholic” church. Finally, baptism is an apostolic practice. Jesus gave the practice to the apostles, and the apostles handed it down to the early church. Ever since that moment, Christians have engaged in that same handing down of the practice from one generation to the next.

From this experience, I have come to think of analogy as an interpretive act comprised of at least two operations: resonance and redescription. In an act of resonance, a reader identifies similarities between two or more things, events, texts, images, stories, or concepts that, on the surface, are quite different from one another. In redescription, a reader names or describes one thing in terms of the other. On their surface, baptism and the Four Notes of the Church have very little in common. One is a sacrament; the other is creedal. However, against the background of difference, they share real and important though latent similarities. Analogous readings, therefore, have the potential to expand the significance of both elements at play. It is important to note that both resonance and redescription are not always clearly stated. When analogies are presented, they might often simply appear as acts of redescription. The act of resonance is, rather speculatively, a process that occurs consciously or subconsciously in the mind of an interpreter. While resonance might be stated explicitly, it is often truncated, assumed, or unstated to some degree.

With this definition in mind, the three examples of analogy that follow appear at diverse moments in Church history. The first example of an analogy comes from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In the letter, the apostle uses the technique in Galatians 4 to address a problem. Some person or group has persuaded or is in the process of persuading the Gentile Christians at Galatia to circumcise themselves. The false teachers argue that if they perform this act, then the Galatians will become physical Jews before God. Paul vehemently disagrees. In urging his Gentile readers to trust Jesus rather than circumcision, Paul turns to an analogy. Referring implicitly to Genesis, Paul describes Abraham’s two wives: Hagar, a slave woman, and Sarah, a free woman. Each of these women had one son, but Ishmael, the slave child of Hagar, was a child born through the plans of human ingenuity while Isaac was the child born through God’s promise to Sarah.

Paul associates Hagar with the covenant God made with Moses on Mount Sinai, the covenant that Paul associates with circumcision. Conversely, Sarah represents a free, spiritual, heavenly covenant of promise, the Christ covenant God made in Jerusalem that includes Gentiles in God’s people of Israel. These Gentiles need not become God’s people through the Law of Moses, through circumcision. Such an act would be redundant. Christ has already circumcised them spiritually and re-made their Gentile bodies into the promised children of Sarah. Although the person of Hagar and the act of circumcision could not be more different, for Paul the similarities are profound and binding. Circumcision is slavery for the Galatians. Analogy is simply the means Paul uses to articulate that reality.

A second, liturgical and artistic analogy exists in the Orthodox tradition, imagining Jesus’ mother Mary as a Burning Bush. When Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov describes the glory of God made manifest in the Old Testament, he draws together the theophany of the Burning Bush with the conception of Jesus. The theologian writes that the Burning Bush is “a shrub enveloped by fire, blazing and not being consumed”; moreover, this image is an image of “the Mother of God overshadowed by the Holy Spirit.”[4] Bulgakov did not invent the analogy. Rather, it appears in Orthodox worship and piety. Every year on September 4, Orthodox Christians remember this analogical understanding of God’s presence within their hymnody and prayer.

You showed Moses, O Christ God,
An image of your most pure Mother
In the bush that burned yet was not consumed,
For she herself was not consumed,
When she received in her womb the fire of divinity![5]

Additionally, the Orthodox tradition instantiates this analogical insight in an icon often called “The Mother of God, the Unburnt Bush.” The icon’s name is a likely reference to the scene of the Burning Bush typically depicted in the upper left corner of the icon. In the scene, Moses stands to the left of the Burning Bush. However, inside the burning bush is another icon, sometimes called “Our Lady of Signs.” This icon within the icon depicts Mary with Jesus in her womb. Like the hymn above, this icon imagines God’s divine presence as an indwelling fire and associates the fire with the Word of God. From the bush came God’s divine revelation, God’s word to Moses, “Let my people go.” The same reality is true regarding Mary’s body. Like the bush, God’s divine Spirit overshadowed her and did not destroy her flesh. From her womb came God’s Word, Jesus.

A third, more recent example comes from contemporary Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, who uses a theological analogy. He counts creation ex nihilo, resurrection of the dead, and justification by faith as synonymous statements. Although he assumes the analogy is transparent enough to simply mention and put to use, the analogy does beg a word of explanation. The Christian doctrine of creation out of nothing describes the reality that God brought the world into existence apropos of nothing. Creation is wholly a reality of God’s own graciousness, creativity, freedom, power, and love. Resurrection from the dead names that event when God, through the power of the Spirit, brought to life Jesus’ dead body and, in God’s good future, will do the same to all Christian bodies. Resurrection, however, is more than just resuscitation. It is that life after death that is without death. It is the death of death. Likewise, justification by faith describes that doctrine at the center of the Protestant Reformation. Rooted in Luther’s reading of Romans 4, justification argues that human effort does not save sinners. Rather, only the death and resurrection of Jesus accomplishes that task. Like Abraham whose belief God counted as righteousness, God justifies the sinner through the gift of faith.

Even though the content of these three doctrines have very little in common, Brueggemann uses them to describe God’s work throughout the Old Testament. In Genesis, he sees them as all present in the birth of Isaac. Held together, the miraculous birth and the doctrines all describe the power of God to bring new life, “not out of a ‘life-potential,’ but in a situation where there is nothing on which to base hope.”[6] The scholar also uses the analogy to describe the way God works the “miracle of radical newness” directly at the center of hopelessness moments, like the nullity of Israel’s exile or the psalmists cry from the pit.[7] Finally, Brueggemann puts the analogy to pastoral work. Christians can call out to God in the midst of their darkest moment precisely because God is the God who brings creation out of chaos, life from death, righteousness from the sinner. If God can do this, then God is in the business of bringing hope out of hopelessness. The analogy “invites the needy and desperate to look beyond circumstance to appeal to the God who presides over the nullpunkt [null point], who can move into it and through it and beyond it.”[8]

Brueggmann is able to deploy the analogy in various ways, because the three statements bear a similarity of logic that describes a characteristic God’s actions: God brings that which is out of that which is not. All of these cases—creation, Isaac’s birth, Israel from exile, God’s rescue of the psalmist from the pit, Jesus’ resurrection, the justification of the sinner, the parishioner praying in hope—describe a moment in which God makes possibilities possible out of impossibilities, what theologian Karl Barth might call an “impossible possibility.”[9] God brings the is of heaven, earth, light, animals, plants, seas, land, and humans out of the not of nothingness—life from formlessness and void. God brings the is of resurrection from the not of death—new life from the barren nothingness of the grave. God brings the is of justification from the not of sin—salvation from the deathly abyss of brokenness and depravity.

In taking stock of these analogies, I offer two sets of observations. First, analogies are nothing new to the Christian tradition. They appear as early as the Scriptures to which we fall heir and are still in use. Space does not permit me to offer detailed descriptions of other analogies, whether they be Augustine’s thinking about pagan philosophy as Egyptian Gold;[10] the author of Hebrews imaging the torn curtain in the sanctuary as Jesus’ torn flesh (Heb. 10:19-20); the artist Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, a piece that imagines Jesus’ crucified flesh marred with the plague known as St. Anthony’s Fire; film historian Terry Lindvall’s reading of the birth of cinema alongside the biblical figure of the Brazen Serpent;[11] theologian Alan E. Lewis’s comparison between the Holocaust and Holy Saturday;[12] or others from Scripture and Church history. I mention them here to underscore the reality that they are part of the tradition that Noll urges us to resource.

Second, I take from these examples that analogies are not simply acts of resonance and redescription, but they are also figurative, imaginative, and rhetorical in character. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he describes his interpretive act as speaking “allegorically” (ἀλληγορούμενα) (Gal. 4:24). As biblical scholar Douglas J. Moo rightly notes, this term did not have for Paul the same technical meaning as it does for later readers. Rather, the term “simply refers to an interpretation that would today be called ‘figurative’: a reading of a text or narrative in terms of some ‘other’ issue or reality.”[13] To understand analogies as figurative is to understand them as similar in some way to figurative language. Figurative language, like a metaphor and simile, is a mode of speech rooted in comparisons and contrasts that reach beyond literal meanings. When William Shakespeare has Romeo imagine Juliet as “the sun,” the author is not confined to literalness any more than Paul was in Galatians 4. To the extent that analogy is a figurative mode of reflection, analogies can fall prey to the same dangers of figurative language. Analogical readings can be clichéd or hackneyed if the comparison is too obvious, too sentimental, or too similar. Furthermore, even the best analogies have a shelf life. They can become clichéd over time, especially if they are used too often.

Analogies also possess an imaginative or aesthetic characteristic. Like the icon of the Unburnt Bush or the Orthodox hymn, analogies can stir the hearts and minds of those who encounter them. They can offer unexpected or fresh insights into the world, spark our imaginations, reorient our perceptions, and broaden our own horizons of what is possible. The potential can, of course, be handled poorly. Analogies can run the danger of obliterating the original meaning of the works under comparison or veer into nonsense. It would be a mistake if my reading of baptism led to a loss of the rite’s primary meaning. As the Nicene Creed states in its next phrase, “We believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” However, handled properly, the connections between the doctrine and the practice can enrich, expand, and enliven each other. In this way, analogous thinking has a temperamental similarity to the way the Caledonian Creed imagines Jesus’ two natures. The best analogies hold multiple items together without destroying, distancing, altering, or obscuring either of them. Analogies can preserve difference while generating new, fresh, and unexpected possibilities.

Analogies, finally, may express a rhetorical characteristic, arising under the pressure in which Christians find themselves. This pressure comes from multiple places. Paul and Brueggemann both deploy analogies in regard to the rhetorical needs that situations demand of them. Paul faces the need to speak words of correction. In order to persuade the Galatian Christians not to circumcise themselves, Paul deploys an analogy. Situated within his larger project, Brueggemann uses analogies as one strategy to counter the dominant “scripts” of therapeutic, technological, consumeristic, militarism to which the church has capitulated.[14] Because those dominant scripts have failed to save, the church must marshal Scripture and the tradition to utter words of hope in the midst of hopelessness. In this effort, Brueggemann uses analogy. He describes a God who does wonders at the null point. These Christians not only find themselves under the pressure of the present moment, but they also find themselves under the pressure of Scripture. Analogy is simply one way to speak as though we live inside both the realities of Scripture and the moment in which we live. To this end, analogies open up one possible way to utter rich, charged, improvised, thick, pointed, and timely acts of integration.

Thin and Unethical Readings

Even though analogies are as old as Scripture itself, evangelical Christians tend to make very little use of them in faith-learning integration. But avoidance of analogies can lead to acts of integration that are both thin and unethical. By way of example, redemptive readings of Gran Torino illustrate this habit of integration in action.

Religious studies scholar Diane Corkery argues that the film’s protagonist Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) may serve as a redemptive Christ-figure for some viewers because of the similarities between the film and the Gospels. She identifies several literal correlations between the two texts: a garden setting, a final prayer, a cruciform pose, a willing sacrifice, an honorable death, and a metaphorical resurrection.[15] Similarly, Christianity Today draws explicit comparison between Kowalski’s sacrificial death and Jesus’. In the film, the protagonist willingly dies at the hands of area gang members in order to save his next-door neighbor from the gang’s retaliation. One Christianity Today critic wrote, “The symbolism of what happens [i.e., Kowalski’s death] points to loving sacrifice and the complete commitment of one’s life for the betterment of others.”[16] Because Jesus gave his life so that we can live, the writer looks at Walt’s sacrificial death and sees in it a deep correlation to Christ.

This mode of integration of faith and learning offers and will continue to offer many advantages. This approach takes Scripture and the world in which we live seriously. It attends to both and brings them into meaningful conversation. It is also a perspicuous mode of interpretation. It assumes that the wisdom of Scripture and the Christian tradition is not reserved for experts or only those most educated among us. Anyone with a keen and patient eye can find these connections.

However, this approach has at least two downsides. Robert K. Johnston, one of the leading scholars of theology and film, names one problem as, “thin readings.”[17] By thin readings, he means to describe a habit of interpreting media that exhibits “an overly focused concentration on the ‘facts’ of the text,” that is, on tight and rigid one-to-one correlations between theological texts and media.[18] For Johnston, thin readings are prevalent among evangelicals and, by his account, have stalled integrative thinking. For all the good that the above readings of Gran Torino offer, they are precisely the kind of thin readings Johnston warns us to avoid. Thin readings can also pose an ethical danger to Christians. As communication scholar Annalee Ward has so aptly demonstrated in her own powerful interrogation of Gran Torino, this mode of interpretation can produce “a superficial read that misses . . . values counter to the kingdom of God.”[19] For Ward, redemptive readings of Gran Torino miss the morally complex issues of sexism, racism, privilege, and relating to others.

Avoiding Thin and Unethical Analogies

Despite the reality that analogies can provide a corrective to thin and unethical readings, nothing can stave off with any certitude the possibility of either thin or unethical analogies. An analogy is not a technology of certainty. One can give up on tight, one-to-one correlations and still reproduce the same problems. Something else besides the analogy must be at play. Philosopher Pierre Bourdieu might articulate that something else as habitus, or “a sense of the game, ordinarily described as a ‘spirit’ or ‘sense’ (‘philosophical’, ‘literary’, ‘artistic’, etc.), which is practically never set out or imposed in an explicit way.”[20] Bourdieu not only apprehends the deep elusiveness of habitus as “spirit” or “sense,” but he also grapples with its inexorable power. This means that in struggling to avoid thin, unethical analogies, any description of the “sense” or “spirit” of thick, ethical analogies is only ever partial, incomplete, and ambiguous. As a result, I tenuously describe three possible “senses” that might be at play in avoiding thin and unethical analogies.

For a reader to even attempt to avoid thin analogies, she should attempt to inhabit the sources at play. The term “inhabitation” aims to capture the complexities that go beyond mere knowledge of sources, be they Scripture, media, or anything else. For example, while I “know” many of the same stories the Apostle Paul knows, knowledge of the stories cannot, I think, function as a sufficient explanation for how Paul does what he does. Even if Paul and I know the same stories, I could never reproduce what Paul does. The term “inhabitation” admits that the gap between Paul and me is more than mere knowing. Knowledge is certainly necessary, but it is insufficient for the task. Inhabitation might then function as part of what Noll describes as a careful study of Scripture and Christian traditions and a deep and reasoned engagement with the wider world. For example, inhabitation of the Bible as a source would not only include knowledge of biblical content but might also include a construal of Scripture that helps make sense of the diversity of that content. That construal could take a wide variety of forms, anything from an overarching narrative or a set of concerns.[21] The early church fathers also read Scripture along with a “rule of faith,” or something likely akin to the Apostle’s Creed.[22] For the early church, inhabitation of Scripture included a connection to other readers of Scripture, in something like a tradition, a history, or an institution. This means that if an analogy resists thinness, it is because a reader attempts to inhabit a variety of sources. Inhabitation is, however, never a final state of affairs. It is only something that can be started or begun again.

Second, a reader might avoid unethical readings in part through a dialogic desire. The term “dialogic” names what communication ethicists Ronald C. Arnett, Pat Arneson, and Leeanne M. Bell describe as a site of reflection that takes as normative the temporal negotiation a reader might have with others, a negotiation where agreement, commonality, or sameness might not exist.[23] The term “desire” names what philosopher James K. A. Smith understands as those bodily or erotic longings at the center of human beings.[24] Taken together, dialogic desire gestures toward an imaginative and risky willingness to journey into uncharted territory, be it figurative (intellectual, artistic, etc.) or literal (physical space, social space, linguistic space, etc.). That journey likely also implies an imaginative and risky willingness to grapple with a reader’s own situatedness. Put differently, a dialogic desire includes reflexivity about one’s own inhabitation. Like inhabitation, dialogic desire is never an achievement. It is only something that can be started or begun again.

Finally, and most importantly, the Spirit of God must intervene in some way. What theologian John Calvin said about Scripture must certainly be true about any Christian act of integration, be it analogical or otherwise. “The letter [of Scripture], therefore, is dead,” if it “is cut off from Christ’s grace . . . But if through the Spirit it is really branded upon hearts, if it shows forth Christ, it is the word of life.”[25] Unless the Spirit breathes life into our work and makes it for us and others a word of life, our best acts of integration can be words of death. At the end of the day, only the Spirit can save us from unethical analogies.

The Cross and Lynching Tree as Analogic Exemplar

In regard to both the possibility of thick, ethical analogies and Noll’s hope for Christian scholarship, James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree offers as a powerful example of an analogical imagination at work. In order to unpack Cone’s acts of resonance and redescription, some background on both crucifixions and lynchings is in order. In the ancient world, crucifixion served as a form of execution typically reserved for lower class peoples, particularly rebels against the Roman Empire and disobedient slaves.[26] While the violence was gruesome and harrowing, Rome often humiliated and shamed prisoners in the process.[27] It was not just that soldiers stripped the crucified of their clothes, but the torture served to denigrate and humiliate the victim’s claims and actions.[28] The crown of thorns demonstrates that Jesus, against the power of Caesar, is no real king. He is merely a failed rebel. Furthermore, the public display of the crucified served a distinctly political purpose. Crucifixion is what happened to those who aimed to disrupt the pax romana. Crucifixion is, I suggest, best thought of a pageant of horrors aimed to preserve the status quo and to keep marginalized people like Jesus in their place.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there were thousands of lynchings across the United States. A lynching served white Americans as an extra or paralegal means of “justice” mainly performed against black Americans.[29] An African American could be lynched for almost any reason imaginable: being homeless, stealing, looking at a white person the wrong way, being out after dark. Though the reasons for lynching could be frivolous, the acts of violence were anything but. Whites hanged, mutilated, and often set lynchees on fire. These events were also public and publicized. White folks advertised lynchings in newspapers and on the radio, and they treated such events as social gatherings. It was not unusual for parents to bring their children to lynchings. Lynchings also served as entertainment. In fact, a cottage industry for lynching postcards emerged in the late 1800s. Attendees posed with lynched bodies and could purchase the developed photograph printed on a postcard stock. Lynchers could keep the postcard as a keepsake or send it through the mail as correspondence. And American Christians cannot forget that white Christians were involved in lynching, either in their participation or their silence.

These general descriptions, however, fail to represent the terror of specific lynchings, as the details of the lynching Sam Hose illustrate, one of the most widely reported lynchings in American history.[30] On April 12, 1899, Mattie Cranford accused Sam Hose of murdering her husband, Alfred, with an ax, harming two of her children, and then raping her. That night Hose fled Coweta County, Georgia, and its county seat, Newnan. He travelled over 100 miles before a group of men captured and returned him to local authorities. His captors brought him into Newnan by train on April 23, a Sunday morning. Word quickly spread through town. Literary scholar Edwin T. Arnold notes, “Some pastors were reported to have announced the capture from the pulpit, and services ended abruptly as worshippers hastily made their way to the downtown train station.”[31] A mob formed at the train station, although the Sheriff was able to take Hose into custody at the county jail. However, the mob removed Hose from the jail, paraded him through town with cheers, made him walk about a mile and a half outside of town, and lynched him.

Like many lynchings, Hose’s lynching involved more than just murder. The mob placed a chain around his neck, hung him from a pine tree, and placed wooden logs beneath him. They forced him to confess his crimes. Men then produced knifes and removed his ears, one at a time. Reports claims that each time an ear was removed, the crowd cheered. They severed each of his fingers, also one at a time, and passed them out to the increasingly boisterous crowd. He was stabbed in the body repeatedly. Some reports insinuated that the crowd also castrated him. The sight of spewing blood and dismembered body parts appeared to surge the mob into a frenzy, and voices cried for his burning to begin. His torturers poured kerosene on the wood beneath him, and “[f]ifty matches were struck at once,” certainly a sign of eagerness of the crowd.[32] Some cooler heads warned not to make the fire too hot. The intent was to kill slowly, “by inches” as one man urged.[33] Men removed some of burning logs. Arnold writes, “After his initial shouts of horror and pain, Sam Hose endured the rest of his death largely in silence. With his hands reduced to charred stumps, he desperately pawed at his chains.”[34] After a half hour, “the body of Hose was limp and lifeless, his head hanging to one side. The body was not cut down. It was cut to pieces. The crowd fought for places about the smoldering tree.”[35] His flesh become souvenirs, “pieces of which still circulated in the region as late as the 1970s.”[36]

In response to Hose’s lynching and the thousands who have been lynched without mercy, Cone notes that Christians have been unwilling or unable to see any similarity between crucifixions and lynchings.[37] It appears as true of black Christians as it is of white Christians, although for vastly different reasons. While Cone regularly attended church, he can recall no mention of lynching, much less thinking it similar to Jesus’ cross. This absence might be considered conspicuous, because the black church made emphatic connections between Jesus’ suffering and black suffering.[38] Just as God was present in Jesus’ suffering and death, African American Christians sang and preached that God was present with them in the terrors of their own experience. Jesus’ cross, therefore, served as a sign of great hope in the midst of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and the tide of white supremacy that never seems to ebb. Nevertheless, lynchings remained that unspeakable event within the black community.[39] It seemed to be a space too dark for even the hope of Christ to penetrate. Likewise, white Christians showed and continue to show very little interest in the reality of lynching. Cone draws specific attention to theologian Reinhold Neibuhr. Despite the fact that Neibuhr used the cross to address a host of injustices in American life, he showed no interest in lynching.[40] This collective silence on lynching suggests that most Christians do not see any connection between the cross and the lynching tree.

Against the widespread assumption of dissimilarity, Cone learns from black artists and poets what should have been patently obvious from the beginning: the cross and the lynching tree share a great deal in common.[41] Like crucifixions, lynchings were pageants of horror that aimed to uphold the political status quo. The violence, shame, and humiliation of lynchings sent a clear message to onlookers—this is what happens to those who disrupt the order of things. Both events involved torture. Both events involved lifting the victim on high. Both events were public. Victims were seen as criminals. Perpetrators were seen as loyal citizens. Both events struck fear into lower classes. Rooted in the resonance of crucifixions and lynchings, Cone offers his thesis, an act of redescription.

For Cone, Jesus’ crucifixion was a lynching, and lynchings were crucifixions.[42] To think of the cross as a lynching is to regain for many Christians a deep sense of what theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls costly grace. Like those black Americans who suffered in vile and unspeakable ways, Jesus’ experience was also vile and unspeakable. To think of the cross as a lynching is also to remember that, as the Gospel of Matthew reminds us, Jesus identifies and experiences solidarity with those who suffer. In reference to the hungry, the prisoner, the naked, the sick, Jesus says, “whatever you did to one of the least of these . . . you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40 nrsv). To think of the cross as a lynching is to think of lynchees as our American version of the “least of these.” To think of the cross as a lynching is to admit that whatever Christian Americans did to lynchees, they did to Jesus.

To think of lynchings as crucifixions also opens up the deep possibility that the death and destruction of these events do not have the final say any more than the cross did. For many black Christians, the lynching tree was that unspeakable event, that event of absolute dereliction, that place where the hope of Christ could not be found. For Cone, “the lynching tree also needs the cross, without which it becomes simply an abomination.”[43] To think of lynchings as crucifixions is not to deaden the horror of those horrors on American soil. Rather, it is to hope beyond hope that there is life after death. Cone reflects, “The cross helped me to deal with the brutal legacy of the lynching tree, and the lynching tree helped me to understand the tragic meaning of the cross.”[44]


If we consider analogies in light of Cone’s work, they offer possibilities to Christian intellectuals who strive to think at the intersection of faith and learning. Analogies such as Cone’s can help us in understanding Christianity more clearly, in sharpening our vision of the world, and in following Noll’s agenda. First, analogies have the potential to expand and enrich what we think we know about Christianity, particularly when it comes to our aesthetic sensibilities. Cone reminds me how tempting it is to think of redemption as sentimental: something like a golden cross hanging in our church or around our necks. The cross, however, was a vile, harrowing, instrument of execution like an electric chair, a guillotine, a lynching tree. When we imagine, talk, write, sing, or bear witness to redemption, we must never forget that redemption has a deep sense of loss, tragedy, abjection, terror and fear built into its very architecture. If our redemption has none of those things, we might very well preach a different gospel than the gospel Paul preached: Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Analogies can also sharpen our vision of the world, which must include a richer and more daring imaginative capacity. Like the temptation to see redemption sentimentally, it is also a temptation to think of redemption as somehow always and only connected to goodness, truth, and beauty. Redemption might include those things, but redemption calls us to turn our gaze onto horrors in all their complexity and tragedy. To gaze upon the world with this economy of redemption demands an altogether different imagination. For many of Christians, it is probably easy to watch Gran Torino and see Jesus in the cruciform pose of Walt Kowalski. The ability to see him as a Christ figure works, because our imaginations can accept the reality that a “crusty-but-benign” old white man is similar to Jesus.[45] It takes a different imaginative horizon to see a charred and disfigured black body dangling from a tree as anything close to a Jesus icon.

Third, in regard to Noll’s agenda for Christian scholarship, I submit that Cone’s work is a model to follow. Cone displays a careful study of Scripture and theology from the resources of the Christian tradition, particularly in his imaginative and daring use of analogy. Inside of the analogical imagination, Cone provides a patient, reasoned analyses of the racial problems facing our world, in both the past and present. His book is also well-informed, rounded, and bears for us the potential for a Christian social engagement concerning race. My suggestion here is fairly straightforward. If we agree with Noll on these three tasks, then analogy in the way Cone performs it is one potentially powerful way to do them all.

Saying we should emulate Cone is different from employing analogies in the “mud of everyday life.” By way of example, I conclude with an auto-ethnographic account where analogy opened up a possibility for myself and a colleague to think and act at the intersection of our faith and our learning.

Following Cone’s Analogous Thinking

In the summer of 2015, my wife, Amber, and I moved to Canada, where I took a faculty appointment at Redeemer University College, the school that has historical links to the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA). Our first week, Amber suggested that we visit an art installation called “The Witness Blanket.” It was showing at the Hamilton Public Library and admission was free, so I consented. Like many Americans, I know virtually nothing about Canadian history. The exhibition was my first and most important history lesson. There I learned that from 1870 to 1996, the Canadian government funded church-run Residential Schools. The government forcibly removed Indigenous children from their homes to attend these schools, sometimes located hundreds of miles from their family. The express purpose of the school was “to kill the Indian in the child.”[46] In addition to tortures of assimilation awaiting these children, they also faced a host of other dangers. Many students were victims of physical and sexual abuse. Teachers often underfed and undernourished their students. Also, students died at Residential Schools. Of the approximately 150,000 indigenous students who attended these schools, there were an estimated 6,000 deaths.[47] Residential Schools are the only schools of which I know that needed graveyards. This first history lesson shaped my vision of Canada in a profound way, as it continues to form my identity as an American, precisely because we too had Residential Schools.

I later learned that, in the early 2000s, a group of Residential School survivors brought a class action lawsuit against the government of Canada. In 2005, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled in favor of the survivors. As part of the settlement, the Court mandated the government make a formal apology and form a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC formed on June 1, 2008. Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an apology on June 11, 2008. Like the Truth and Reconciliation work in South Africa, the TRC in Canada heard stories of survivors and performed legal and historical research, all of which was published in a multi-volume Final Report. Putting Residential Schools in its wider colonialist context, the TRC described Residential Schools as a program of “cultural genocide,” and it was in that framework that the TRC issued 94 calls to action for the nation. [48] Calls to action #58-61 address churches; calls to action #61-65 address institutes of education. As I finished my first academic year, a fellow faculty member, Dr. Deanne van Tol, and I discussed Canada’s upcoming 150th anniversary. Van Tol convinced me that Redeemer needed to bring the calls to action to bear on the way the university engaged Canada after 150 years. However, such a proposal would certainly be a hard sell.

The central question over which we toiled was this: Why should Redeemer University College take on indigenous issues as its primary way into Canada’s birthday? As we toiled over the question, we re-read Redeemer’s mission and vision statement, The Cross and Our Calling; we read the opening volume of the TRC’s Final Report; we watched and discussed as the CRCNA fulfilled call to action #45i, the repudiation the Doctrine of Discovery; and we talked to a range of people involved in church and parachurch organizations. As we began to sort through some of these issues, the “Why?” question became a practical and rhetorical one. How were we going to convince the administration to go along with this and give us money in an already tight academic budget? Our solution was to offer an analogy. In our proposal to our Administration, we wrote:

As a Christian institute of higher learning, we are convinced that we have an important opportunity in following the TRC’s lead, precisely because Redeemer places such a strong emphasis on the cross of Jesus Christ. As The Cross and Our Calling states so plainly, we declare that it is in Jesus’ “suffering, death and resurrection, that we find our own calling to academic lives of teaching, scholarship and artistry (1 Cor. 2:1-2).” But how, specifically, does Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection motivate and inform our understanding of the horrors of Residential Schools, much less what reconciliation looks like afterwards? We think that the scars on Jesus’ resurrected body open up theological space for us think reconciliation after Residential Schools.

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus’ resurrected body is that transfigured body that appears and disappears, can enter closed rooms, and is unrecognizable at certain points. However, his glorified body is a body that still possesses scars. God, by the power of the Spirit, could have resurrected Jesus’ body without scars, a body that showed no signs of suffering or death. But God chose not to do that. Instead, the scars become for Jesus the means by which he invites his disciples into the reality of Jesus’ redeemed identity. Jesus says, “Look at my hands and my feet,” the places on Jesus body where he was nailed to the cross; “see that it is I myself” (Luke 24:39-40, nrsv).

As Christians, Jesus’ scars point to two temptations about resurrection we need resist. First, it is tempting to think of redemption or resurrection as that state void of the injuries of the past. However, Luke imagines resurrection as a state consistent with scarring. Or, put more directly, Luke implies that scars should be internal to whatever we think redemption is. If we take Luke seriously, redemption or resurrection without scars is no redemption at all. It is mere denial. Second, it is also tempting to think resurrection as available to us on our own terms. As Luke reminds us, resurrection is unbelievable. The disciples seem unable to apprehend it on their own. Rather, Jesus must invite them into the reality of his resurrection, and Jesus invites them through attention to his scars.

When it comes to Residential Schools, we should not think reconciliation is any different from Jesus’ resurrection, and in thinking reconciliation after Jesus, the TRC has given us two important gifts, two important resources to resist the aforementioned temptations. First, through the work of the TRC, we can see the scars left after generations of abuse, neglect, and cultural genocide. Reconciliation is not possible for us, as non-Native Christians, unless we have the bravery to “look and see” the scars Canada has left on its Indigenous peoples. To no do so would be mere denial. Second, in the same way that the disciples cannot know the resurrection without Jesus’ invitation to know him through his scars, we cannot know reconciliation unless we are invited. The TRC has provided that precise invitation. We can, if we so choose, begin the process of reconciliation, but we can only do so because Indigenous people have invited us to “look and see” their scars. Unless we take up that invitation, that invitation to “look and see,” we cannot know reconciliation in any meaningful way.[49]

The analogy proved successful. Administration approved our proposal for a multi-week, co-curricular program that involved discussion circles, common readings, chapels, outside speakers, a tour of the portions of our property where Indigenous peoples once lived, and a visit to a Residential School.

While the analogy of Jesus’ scars was not a panacea for our school, it did make possible certain realities. It served as the beginning of a serious conversation for some on our campus. It also made possible tentative first gestures toward reconciliation with our Indigenous sisters and brothers. Like any attempt at integrating our faith and learning, this example underscores that unless analogies lead to right action, then they likely are, as the Apostle Paul might describe them, “speaking into the air” (1 Corinthians 14:9, nrsv).


Given Noll’s call for evangelicals to resource the Christian tradition, sharpen our means of analysis, and increase our social engagement, I believe analogical thinking can be a means to help Christian scholars engage in deep and distinct Christian integration. In light of Noll’s call, James Cone’s analogous thinking in The Cross and the Lynching Tree provides an exemplary model for evangelicals to follow. While Cone provides a model, analogies are not technologies of certainty. As Christian scholars and teachers, I think we would do well to reflect seriously on the nature of our own inhabitations, our desire for dialogue (or lack thereof), and our perceived dependence of the movement of the Spirit. Within this field of complexity, an analogy is, fundamentally, an encounter with possibilities that are difficult to imagine. To that extent, the best analogies are likely formed when we, as scholars and teachers, place ourselves in close proximity to situations, texts, and peoples that might make us uncomfortable. Within such uncomfortable proximity, perhaps we can, like Cone, see connections we should have made all along.



[1] Mark A. Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 166.

[2] What contemporary Christians name “The Nicene Creed” was completed at the First Council of Constantinople. The creed produced at the First Council of Nicaea (325) did not have the final section regarding the Holy Spirit. For a brief but clear account of their relationship, see John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches, Third Edition: A Reader in Christian Doctrine from the Bible to the Present (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1982), 28-33.

[3] Code of Canon Law, Book IV: The Function of the Church (Cann. 834-848), Part 1: The Sacraments, 845 §1, accessed June 25, 2017,

[4] Sergius Bulgakov, The Burning Bush: On the Orthodox Veneration of the Mother of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 122.

[5] “Icon of the Mother of God ‘The Unburnt Bush,’ Troparion and Kontakion,” Orthodox Church in America, accessed on June 25, 2017,

[6] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 182.

[7] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 555, 558.

[8] Walter Brueggemann, “Faith at the Nullpunkt,” in The Word That Redescribes the World: The Bible and Discipleship, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 70.

[9] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. by Edwyn C. Hoskyns (London: Oxford UP, 1968), 79.

[10] Saint Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, trans. D. W. Robertson Jr. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1958), 60.

[11] Terry Lindvall, “The Brazen Serpent,” in Sanctuary Cinema: The Origins of the Christian Film Industry (New York: NYU Press, 2007), 16-55.  

[12] Alan E. Lewis, “The Burial of God: Rupture and Resumption as the Story of Salvation,” Scottish Journal of Theology 40, no. 3 (August 1987): 335-362.

[13] Douglas J. Moo, Galatians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 295.

[14] Walter Brueggemann, “Counterscript,” The Christian Century (November 29, 2005), 22.

[15] Diane Corkery, “Walt Kowalski A Christ-Figure? Christic Resonances in Gran Torino,” Journal of Religion and Film 15, no. 2 (October 2011), accessed March 19, 2013,

[16] “The Ten Most Redeeming Films of 2008,” Christianity Today, January 27, 2009, accessed February 6, 2016,

[17] Robert K. Johnston, “Evangelicals and Film: What Moviegoers Can Learn from the Bible,” in Evangelical Christians and Popular Media: Pop Goes the Gospel, Volume 1, Film, Radio, Television, and the Internet, ed. Robert H. Woods Jr. (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2013), 56.

[18] Ibid., 52.

[19] Annalee Ward, “Gran Torino and Moral Order,” Christian Scholar’s Review 40, no. 4 (Summer 2011): 376.

[20] Pierre Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations, trans. Richard Nice (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), 11.

[21] For an example of a narrative account of Scripture, see Craig Bartholomew, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story, ed. Michael W. Goheen (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014). For an example of the latter, see R. S. Sugirtharajah, Exploring Postcolonial Biblical Criticism: History, Method, Practice (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

[22] Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays, “Nine Thesis on the Interpretation of Scripture,” in The Art of Reading Scripture, ed. Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 1.

[23] Ronald C. Arnett, Pat Arneson, and Leeanne M. Bell, “Communication Ethics: The Dialogic Turn,” Review of Communication 6, no. 1-2 (2006): 79.

[24] James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, Cultural Liturgies, vol 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 78-77.

[25] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1.9.3.

[26] Martin Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 87.

[27] David W. Chapman, Ancient Jewish and Christian Perceptions of Crucifixion (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008), 252.

[28] Joel Marcus, “Crucifixion as Parodic Exaltation,” Journal of Biblical Literature 125, no. 1 (2006): 78.

[29] James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 3.

[30] Special thanks to Kevin Miller, whose work on James Cone and Sam Hose informed the structure of my account here. See Kevin Miller, “James H. Cone (1938–2018): Analyzing Public Symbols to Expose Social Injustices,” in Words and Witnesses: Communication Studies in Christian Thought from Athanasius to Desmond Tutu, ed. Robert H. Woods and Naaman K. Wood (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2018) 301-307.

[31] Edwin T. Arnold, “What Virtue There Is in Fire”: Cultural Memory and the Lynching of Sam Hose (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009), 1.

[32] “Burned at the Stake,” The National Police Gazette: New York (April, 24, 1899), 6.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Arnold, “What Virtue There Is in Fire,115.

[35] “Negro Burned at a Tree,” New York Tribune (April, 24, 1899), 1.

[36] Arnold, “What Virtue There Is in Fire,2.

[37] Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 30.

[38] Ibid., 21.

[39] Ibid., xiv.

[40] Ibid., 32.

[41] Ibid., 93.

[42] Ibid., xv.

[43] Ibid., 161.

[44] Ibid., xviii.

[45] Paddy Chayefsky, Network, directed by Sidney Lumet (1976; Warner Home Video, 2006), DVD.

[46] Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (Ottawa: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015), 130.

[47] “Those 6,000 deaths put the odds of dying in Canadian residential schools over the years they operated at about the same as for those serving in Canada’s armed forces during the Second World War.” Residential Schools need to be properly understood as theaters of war. Daniel Schwartz, “Truth and Reconciliation Commission: by the Numbers,” CBC News, accessed on June 25, 2017,

[48] Honouring the Truth, 1.

[49] Naaman Wood and Deanne van Tol, memo to Kyle Spyskma, May 19, 2016.

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