Richard John Neuhaus enjoys a well-deserved reputation as one of the great polemical writers of our day. His defense of conservative moral and political causes has been sustained in many books and is on display monthly in his journal First Things. Whether these defenses are considered brilliant or perverse, witty or diabolical, stirring or supercilious, depends to some degree on whether they align with a reader's own convictions. Yet sometimes, even when Neuhaus is skewering one's own causes, friends, or books, it is possible simply to marvel at his seemingly boundless joie de guerre.

"Death on a Friday Afternoon" (Basic Books, 288 pp.) is a different kind of book. Polemics are not entirely absent, but the volume provokes more thoughtful meditation than verbal combat. In its seven chapters, Neuhaus reflects on the seven short statements that the writers of the Four Gospels record Jesus as speaking from the cross (for example, "I thirst," "into your hands I commend my spirit").

Here we meet not Neuhaus the neoconservative who happens to be a Roman Catholic priest, but Neuhaus the Roman Catholic priest who happens to dabble in high-brow politics. Nevertheless, "Death on a Friday Afternoon" is carried off at the same high level as his other work.

Neuhaus underscores classical Christian themes but does so with a nearly Chestertonian touch. Like the G.K. Chesterton of "Orthodoxy" (a classic defense of classical Christianity), Neuhaus employs aphorisms, paradoxes, and unexpected conjunctions to recommend the beauty, as well as the truth, of the Good Friday events. The first chapter, on Christ's saying "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," is a particularly effective exposition of the need for divine forgiveness. The chapter reflects on why humans fear yet also welcome punishment for misdeeds: "The fear of punishment is terrible, but not as terrible as the thought that nothing will happen, that bad things don't matter. If bad things don't matter, then good things don't matter, and then nothing matters." It also addresses the notion that dwelling on our own sinfulness is morbidly immature: "To belittle our sins is to belittle ourselves, to belittle who it is that God creates and calls us to be. To belittle our sins is to belittle their forgiveness, to belittle the love of the Father who welcomes us home."

This chapter also contains a compellingly succinct summary of the general meaning of the Christian passion:

"In perfect freedom, the Son become the goat become the Lamb of God is condemned by the lie in order to bear witness to the truth. The truth is that we are incapable of setting things right. The truth is that the more we try to set things right, the more we compound our guilt. It is not enough for God to take our part. God must take our place. All the blood of goats and lambs, all the innocent victims from the foundation of the world, all the acts of expiation and reparation ... all strengthen the grip of the great lie that we can set things right. The grip of that lie is broken by the greatest of lies, 'God is guilty!' ... God must die. It is a lie so monstrous that to suggest it invites instant annihilation--except that God accepts the verdict."

Neuhaus' treatment of the other six "words" is almost as compelling. They offer non-Christians as clear an account of the moral logic of Christian faith as they are likely to find in modern dress. To Christians who share Neuhaus' convictions, they offer a bracing, yet humbling, account of their faith. The last chapter, for example, pauses to affirm the importance of the ancient Chalcedonian Creed, which defined Christ as both perfectly human and perfectly divine, and in so doing shows nonbelievers along with believers what Christianity at its most essential really means.

The book, however, may be most challenging for those Christians who stand just a little to Neuhaus' left or to his right. Neuhaus challenges the former group to take with utter seriousness the specific events of Jesus' life as the key to all reality. Against the liberal Christian tendency to translate the life of Christ into exalted ethical principles, Neuhaus insists that the historical reality of the key events of the biblical gospel is indispensable: "Specificity is all in Christian faith--a specific person, a specific place, a specific time. The Gnostics--then and now--are full of 'spiritualizing' generalities. But God's plan of salvation--then and now--has everything to do with the thus and so-ness of things."

On the other side, Neuhaus attacks the long strand of conservative Christian tradition that depicts part of humanity as ultimately and irrevocably damned. Neuhaus holds out the hope that at the end of time, all human beings will be reconciled to God. He is careful to insist that this statement is a hope. But with a flash of ye olde polemical fire, he also insists on the universal meaning of the cross: "The human story, including all its suffering and tears, is gathered up and redeemed in the cross of Christ." The universal significance of Christ's sacrifice, which virtually all Christians believe, becomes the basis for Neuhaus' hope that "the way home [has] been cleared for absolutely every prodigal son and daughter."

Neuhaus' treatment of the so-called "theories of atonement"--explanations for how the death of Christ on the cross reconciles sinners to God--is also provocative. He describes what he considers crippling problems with the main historic positions--that God took out his anger on Christ, that the death of Christ was primarily intended as an encouraging moral example, that preaching "the Christ event" carries its own existential explanation, or that the cross is most fundamentally a call to contemporary social justice. In place of these views, Neuhaus offers a picture of Christ as Representative Humanity acting in consort with the whole Trinity to offer God's love to all. Neuhaus' explanation lacks the hard edges of the views he does not like--"Atonement ... is not simply a transaction, the paying of a debt or the exacting of a punishment; it is the Father, Son and Spirit actively at work to remedy our great wrong."

But this approach, which stresses the mystery of Christ's sacrifice on the cross, offers much to ponder for those who adhere to one of the other views, as well as to those who have never before considered the larger meanings of this death on a Friday afternoon.

Whatever readers make of Neuhaus' specific arguments, the book is a treasure of reflection and, in terms he takes pains to elaborate, of hope. By stressing the more catholic of his own Roman Catholic convictions, Neuhaus has written a book of great potential value for all readers, but especially to his fellow Christians who seek a way to renew their faith in this first Lenten season of the new millennium.

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