The Gospel at Ground Zero

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Below is an excerpt from my article, “The Gospel at Ground Zero,” which ran as Christianity Today’s cover story on the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

Where the Wild Things Are

Does denying unpleasant realities really protect us from emotional trauma? Perhaps not. A generation ago, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim warned that our kinder, gentler children’s stories weren’t really an advance over the often dark, violent fairy tales of ages past. The children don’t have nightmares because of the stories, he suggested. Rather, we tell dark fairy tales because of children’s nightmares.

That’s because children know at a primal, intuitive level that there’s something wild out there. Stories can help children make sense of a chaotic world and of their often-chaotic selves. When we merely present “good role models”—happy youngsters in safe places making wise choices—our children will soon wonder whether we are telling the truth, or they will come to see themselves as freakishly fearful.

The full force of the trauma from events like September 11 doesn’t come from contemplating the violence done to strangers or even “the nation.” Only when we envision ourselves and our loved ones on the scene, as children transplant themselves into nightmare stories, does the severity hit home. We imagine hearing those jihadists screaming prayers as the plane plummets from the sky, or being trapped in a smoke-filled stairwell, or leaping from a window in terror. The phenomenon here is precisely what causes us to flinch when we see blood on the pavement after a car accident. We are reminded of what scares us, of what could happen to us, too.

And so it is with the gospel. The story of Jesus records a persistent strain of denial in the life of Simon Peter. Virtually every time Jesus speaks of his impending execution, Peter insists that such trauma will never happen on his watch (Matt. 16:22; John 13:37). Of course, this not only suggests Peter’s empathy with his teacher. It also demonstrates the apostle’s refusal to face up to his fear that he might be tempted to protect his own skin.

Though he doesn’t unveil it all at once, Jesus refuses to shield Peter from the awful truth. In one of the Bible’s most pitiful narratives (John 13:36-38), Peter ostentatiously promises to protect the Messiah from harm. “I will lay down my life for you,” he blusters.

Jesus responds: “Really? You’re going to fight for me? Before the rooster crows, you will deny you even know me—not once but three times.”

Jesus revisits the trauma on Peter. When the rooster crows, Jesus happens to be passing by, and he looks at his friend, prompting Peter to cry bitterly (Luke 22:60-62). Even in the famous restoration of Peter, after Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus seems eager to remind Peter of his previous denial. He questions his disciple’s love three times. He meets with him around a charcoal fire (John 21:9), precisely the setting of the denial itself (John 18:18).

Then Jesus presses the trauma further. What Peter fears most—the shame and torture of crucifixion—is exactly what Jesus assures him will happen. He will stretch out his hands and be led where he doesn’t want to go (John 21:18). Peter will have the kingdom he so longs for—with all of its glory and peace—but his immediate future is skull-shaped.

You can read the full article here.

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).