Looking back to history to find yet another approach to atonement will not solve the problem, but a reconsideration of the physical or mystical theory of how Christ saves us might contribute to more fruitful and civil conversation.
That religion is especially salient for new immigrants is a commonplace in the sociology and history of U.S. religion. That the U.S. is a nation of immigrants is often cited as a reason for the comparatively high level of religious observance and identification in this country.
As the Season of Lent rushes toward inevitability, scripture calls us to play the old game of Truth or Consequences—no, not the game show from the 1960s, but the old-time religion game of suffering and salvation.
Not long ago the local newspaper carried a story about a young couple traveling to visit relatives in a neighboring state. Having parked along the side of the road so the woman could nurse their baby, the man stretched his legs and admired the view of the river and a nearby bridge. Within minutes a state patrol car stopped to check out the scene.
"The economy of salvation” is an ancient phrase used by everyone from the Eastern Orthodox theologians of old to pioneer Pentecostal preacher Phoebe Palmer to thinkers across the Christian spectrum today. Technically, it refers to divine stewardship, God’s “household management” (oikonomia), but also to elements of trade: God’s gift, our response.
Many Christians can name the hour and the place of their salvation. For me it was answering not one but two altar calls at Billy Graham crusades in the 1960s. For Reinhold Niebuhr, who was asked if he could name the time and place of his salvation, it was “2,000 years ago on a dusty hill named Golgotha outside Jerusalem’s wall.”
On Larry King Live the other night, a well-known Christian musician was telling his life story, and it was exactly the kind of story I prefer not to hear from the pulpit. As King peered at him through his owlish glasses, the musician told of being raised in a warm and loving Christian family and of discovering in high school that he was blessed both with a vibrant faith and with a rare musical gift. Eventually shaking off the dust of his little town, he took his faith and his keyboard and headed off toward the bright lights of Nashville, aiming at a career in gospel music.
During the war against Iraq an interviewer asked me where I got some of the theological ideas that called more for repentance by “our side” than triumph over “them” and theirs. I told him that they came from Martin Luther—though my views are milder than Luther’s were.