March 29, 2024 / Mandy Smith

A Poetic Theology of the Cross: A Conversation with Brian Zahnd and Mandy Smith

"I want the cross to not only save my mind but my heart, my senses, my memories, my dreams."

"I want the cross to not only save my mind but my heart, my senses, my memories, my dreams."

I know that the cross is powerful, the center of all we believe.

So I’ve been studying it for years.

But I’ve never quite been able to get my head around it.

To love something you can’t understand brings deep failure and dejection.

And now I know why I couldn’t understand. I had felt that I was lacking for being unable to understand the cross. Instead I’m seeing that our theology has been lacking for asking us to understand only with one (good but limited) part of ourselves —our rationality. Jesus came to redeem rational selves. And to draw in their whole being. I want the cross to not only save my mind but my heart, my senses, my memories, my dreams.

In many theological circles to read scripture and to understand the cross with our whole selves is seen as a diminishment of truth. If we let theology be beautiful or moving or poetic  or mysterious some might think it’s somehow less. But unless we allow our theology to engage whole humans we cannot comprehend the humanity of God in Christ. Unless we allow Jesus to be a whole human he cannot save humans.

After reading so much unsatisfying theology of the cross, I knew something was different about Brian Zahnd‘s1 new book, The Wood Between the Worlds. Never before had a book of theology engaged my heart. Both the beauty of its cover and the poetry of its title awakened that part of me which first learned theology in Narnia. I hoped that the contents would be as engaging and have not been disappointed. It was such an immersive read that I invited Brian to have a conversation with me. In it, I ask him:

  • What is Theopoetics and how did you discover it? What difference does it make to the theological landscape? What did it add to your own approach to the bible/faith/church?
  • What was the need you perceived for the book (personally and/or in the church/world)?
  • How do you perceive your own need for the cross?
  • What is your hope for the future of theology and how we explain and share the Gospel?
  • How is beauty/art essential to our understanding of and proclamation about God? How is this relevant to all humans (not only artists)?

And Brian invites us behind the scenes to share insights into his writing process, introduces us to his backyard sycamore tree which has been a friend in this work and reads one of his own poems. (And lets us in on the “Easter Egg” sentence he’s hidden in all ten of his books.)

While walking five hundred miles on the Camino de Santiago across northern Spain, Brian sensed the Holy Spirit instructing him:

Enter every church you can.

Pay attention to the crucifix.

Ask what does this mean?

Don’t be too quick to give an answer.

As Brian reflects, “For forty days and five hundred miles I paid attention to hundreds of crucifixes. It was a profound spiritual exercise. This book is my humble attempt to communicate some of the mysteries I’ve glimpsed while meditating on Christ crucified. Rather than searching for a final word, I seek an eternal recurrence of holy awe. We don’t need a technical manual on the cross, we need something more like a theopoetics of the cross.”

Brian’s deep intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual engagement allowed him to metabolize his experiences. His contemplation and personal transformation is evident in this rich work, engaging scholarship, history, art, movies, not adding citations for the sake of citations but creating a deeply satisfying, immersive experience. Instead of offering a flat formula, The Wood Between the Worlds invites us into a kaleidoscopic way of looking at the cross — 19 different ways scripture describes cross — setting aside the assumption that to have more than one interpretation of Ultimate Truth is to question Ultimate Truth. It’s an invitation to embrace the possibility that the One Truth of God has many facets and that our perspective is always limited, ever unfolding. Simply put, theopoetics does theology in the way the bible does theology.

Too often we try to make sense of the cross according to the small questions we have, wanting tidy formulas that kill all mystery. Instead, Brian Zahnd allows the cross to be absurd, puzzling, grotesque and beautiful. To embrace the richness of the cross will stretch us. In the same way that Jesus defied the small questions at his trial, the cross itself refuses to be limited by our small questions. Instead, will we allow ourselves to be transformed by the cross — our hearts enlarged, our imaginations expanded — and in the process to become more like Christ?



1 Brian Zahnd is the founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri. Known for his theologically informed preaching and his embrace of the deep and long history of the church, Zahnd provides a forum for pastors to engage with leading theologians and is a frequent conference speaker. He is the author of several books, including When Everything’s on Fire, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, A Farewell to Mars, and Beauty Will Save the World. His latest book is entitled The Wood Between the Worlds.