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Brian Zahnd – The Wood Between the Worlds [Feature Review]

Wood Between the WorldsA Work of Poetic Imagination and Theological Punch

A Feature Review of

The Wood Between the Worlds: A Poetic Theology of the Cross
Brian Zahnd

Hardcover: IVP, 2024
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Reviewed by Leonard Vander Zee

I first ran across Brian Zahnd in a podcast in which he related his story about how he had built a megachurch of a thousand members, and then preached it down to about 250. This happened after a period of a few years in which he radically reassessed his theology, starting with reading the early church fathers down to the best in contemporary theology. Now, I thought, this is a preacher I wanted to pay attention to.

Brian has written several books, the most notable for me is Postcards from Babylon, his application of the Book of Revelation to today’s politics and church life. Still, I was not prepared for the sweep, intelligence, and passion of this new book. Remarkably, there are no academic titles or acronyms behind his name on the front pages of the book. He started his church as a 19 year-old Jesus freak, but has obviously devoted a huge amount of time and effort to broaden and deepen his understanding of the Christian faith, augmented with his natural curiosity, sense of irony, and gift with words.

In The Wood Between the Worlds, Zahnd takes up the cross, the mystery which stands at the center of the Christian faith, lifting it out of the banal, transactional meaning found in most of evangelical Christianity, to help us see all of its beautiful facets. To give an idea of the breadth and depth of the meanings of the cross he covers, here is his own description from early in the book:

“It’s the pinnacle of divine self-disclosure, the eternal moment of forgiveness divine solidarity with human suffering, the enduring model of discipleship, the supreme demonstration of divine love, the beauty that saves the world, the re-founding of the world around an axis of love, the overthrow of Satan, the shaming of the principalities and powers, the unmasking of mob violence, the condemnation of state violence, the exposé of political power, the abolition of war, the sacrifice to end the sacrificing, the great divide of humankind, the healing center of the cosmos, the death by which death is conquered, the lamb upon the throne, the tree of life recovered and revealed. And with this brief list of interpretations, I’ve come nowhere near exhausting the meaning of the cross, for indeed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is an inexhaustible revelation of who God is” (8-9).

If that doesn’t whet your appetite, this book is probably not for you.

His journey into the cross began several years ago on a pilgrimage on the Camino. He felt led at the beginning of this journey to look inside every church that he passed along the way, and there were lots of them, mostly Roman Catholic. He noticed the crucifixes front and center at each church along the way. Growing up as a white, southern Evangelical, he began to realize that the bare crosses found in most churches tended to strip away much of its meaning. To limit the cross to a transactional proposition like, “Jesus died for your sins on the cross so you could go to heaven,” empties it of so much of its depth and power.

The book is subtitled, “A Poetic Theology of the Cross,” for good reason. Instead of expositing a theology of the cross in reasoned propositions, Zahnd approaches it more with a pictorial, poetic imagination. In the center of the book there are several pages of beautiful plates of the various images he refers to in the book. This doesn’t mean, however, that the book lacks theological punch. He tackles troublesome theological issues such as, penal substitutionary atonement, universal salvation, the harrowing of hell, the Trinity and the cross, and the meaning of death. But he also shows how the cross confronts our ethics and discipleship today with issues such as capital punishment, scape-goating (Girard), mob violence (lynching), and warfare. Whatever your theological perspective or denominational home, you will be both challenged and enriched by this book.

One thing that stood out for me in his overall approach is how we can obscure the meaning of the cross by quickly leaping to the resurrection (Good Friday is not, after all, a very popular service). Of course, without the resurrection the cross of Jesus is just another tragic crucifixion of a political upstart. But it’s the resurrection of this crucified Son of God that makes the cross staggeringly more important. The cross was a particular challenge both to Roman imperial power, and the Jewish understanding of the Messiah. The cross remains a particular challenge to North American culture, politics, and Christian discipleship. Worshiping the crucified God challenges our superficial, consumer-oriented worship, our easy-going discipleship, and our political idolatries.

If it’s possible for a theology book to be a page turner, this is it. Chapter after chapter, I found it exciting, provocative, mind-expanding, and profoundly meaningful for my personal faith and ministry. I started reading the book during the first week of Lent and finished it in a couple days, finding that it already profoundly shaped my very next sermon. I’m sure it will continue to do that throughout this holy season and beyond.

Leonard Vander Zee

Leonard Vander Zee is a retired pastor in the Christian Reformed Church, married to Jeanne Logan, and father of four and grandfather of 12. Besides serving as occasional Interim Pastor he loves playing tennis, pickleball, and golf, and reading the theology of the church fathers. He is author of Christ, Baptism, and the Lord's Supper (IVP, 2004).

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