The Red Cross of Jesus
On Recovering the Lifeblood of the Church
by Russell D. Moore
American Christianity is far less bloody than it used to be. Songs like “Power in the Blood” or “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood” or “Are You Washed in the Blood?” are still sung in some places, but fewer and fewer, and there aren’t many newer songs or praise choruses so focused on blood. The Cross, yes; redemption, yes; but blood, rarely.
And this is not only a Protestant phenomenon. Roman Catholics—centered as they are on the Eucharist—often seem to go out of their way to speak of the “real presence” of Jesus in the elements, without going so far as to mention that this presence is believed to be that of his body and blood, as well as soul and divinity. Even Catholic communion hymns, I’m told, prefer terms like “the Cup” to “the Blood.”
We often justify our embarrassment about the bloodiness of Christianity by appealing to our missiological impulses. We are, after all, seeking to persuade a post-Christian culture of the attractiveness of the way of Christ. What could be more repulsive, even sickening, to a clean, antiseptic society than talk of splattered blood? (Some of the Christian responses to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ were of just this sort.) Ironically, contemporary Christianity grows more and more bloodless while the communities around us become bloodier than ever.
Look, for example, at the newest trend in mass-marketed romance novels: vampires. The industry has identified a profitable female fantasy: having one’s blood savagely drained by a man who cannot die. Erika Tsang, a senior editor for Avon Books, explained to Time magazine: “It’s that fantasy about taming the bad boy, and you can’t get any worse than a vampire.” She goes on to elaborate: “They do suck blood, but it’s a very erotic process.”
Indeed so. The novels, with titles such as Dark Secret and Desire After Dark, repeat all the clichés and forced dialogue of “regular” romance novels, with the added hint of something dark, animalistic, and blood-drenched. It’s the sense of danger that someone somewhere—maybe your mysterious lover—really wants in your veins and not just your petticoats. In the novel Dark Secret, the protagonist swoons as her vampire lover laps up blood from her cut wrist, thus replenishing his life. “The intimacy of it sent heat curling through her body.”
The appeal of the vampire-romance trend isn’t limited to suburban housewives with a taste for the paranormal. Vampire novels are also marketed to homosexual men, most notably through a series penned by Michael Schiefelbein, a lapsed Catholic who spent ten years studying for the priesthood. Not surprisingly, the former seminarian’s novels include repeated references to the Eucharist, comparing the feeding of churchmen on the body and blood of Jesus to the feeding of vampires on one another, for life and being.
In these novels, it is as though florid descriptions of kissing, touching, and even sexual intercourse cannot convey the intimacy the readers seek. The same search for intimacy is found in the vampire subculture of American youth. Journalist Christine Wicker in her book Not in Kansas Anymore describes the profoundly sexual aspect of young Americans who identify as vampires, some even feeding on human blood.
At a “Vampire and Victims Ball,” Wicker observes a “vampire priestess” sucking from the wounded wrist of her consort. The taste of his blood, the priestess tells the journalist, connects her with the very life of her lover. As she puts it, “What’s more intimate than that?”
Wicker notes the testimony of women who claim to have their most impressive orgasms while being drained of small amounts of blood. Could it be that the reduction of sex to “exchanging bodily fluids” has led some on the margins of society to seek to exchange the most vital of fluids, in an effort to connect with another human being?
But, Wicker observes, pop vampirism equates blood with something more primal even than sex. It has everything to do with control over death. As the vampire legend tells us, those who feed off the life-force of others never grow old, and they never die. Not only are the self-styled vampires themselves parasitic; the entire mythology is parasitic off the blood motifs of Judaism and Christianity.
At the “Vampire and Victims Ball,” Wicker is surprised to hear the “priestess” intone: “I am the Resurrection and the Life. All those who drink of me will never die.” As she prepares to suck from her consort’s wound, the vampire says, “Drink deep the blood. For the blood is life.”
It does not matter how technologically advanced a human society may become; if it is human, it must still contend with blood. Blood reminds us—all of us who heed it—of the answer to what Wendell Berry calls the most important question of the modern era: whether human beings are to be thought of as creatures or as machines. It reminds us that no matter how fully we think we can control our destinies, we are mortal—flesh and blood—after all. This may explain why we are simultaneously obsessed with and repulsed by blood.
Journalist Bill Hayes, in his book Five Quarts: A Personal and Natural History of Blood, traces out the history of blood “treatment” from bloodletting to leeches to modern-day DNA testing. He discloses, however, that his interest in blood is quite personal. His homosexual lover is infected with the AIDS virus, a disease that demands constant attention to the arrangement of cells in one’s blood, a disease in which one’s blood can become a lethal weapon.
Hayes’s investigation, however, leads him to a sense of wonder. He concludes the book by describing what it is like for him to listen to his own pulse:
The flow of blood, for Hayes, is a sign of promise and a sign of doom. There is a reason why the flickering image of blood running down the shower drain is the scariest scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho. There is a reason why highway patrolmen seek urgently to clean blood from the scene of a highway accident. There is a reason why few things are as nausea-inducing as the smell inside a slaughterhouse.
This simultaneous human obsession with and revulsion to blood informs Wicker’s conclusion of her investigation of the vampire culture. Kneeling at the communion rail at Westminster Abbey, she speculates that the vampire mystique is rooted in human guilt over the eating of meat. Wracked with guilt that human life is dependent on the death of other creatures, the would-be vampires “adopted one of the bloodiest archetypes available, one that sucks blood and gives the ‘kiss of death’ in order to live.”
She claims that taking elements she took to be the life-giving body and blood of Christ seemed to her “as strange as any magic I’d seen.” In Holy Communion and in the vampire search for the human “life-force,” Wicker sees a human hope written in blood, the hope that “we aren’t born merely for death.”
Appropriately, she concludes her book literally standing on Charles Darwin’s grave. She wistfully notes that Darwin’s idea of evolutionary progress—an idea she does not challenge—did much to de-enchant older, pre-modern understandings of life and reality. But she doesn’t seem to recognize that this modern vision of progress is awfully bloody, too.
Nature doesn’t just “progress.” It struggles, and is resultantly “red in tooth and claw.” In the mechanistic cycle of the prevailing naturalistic worldview we are, in a very real sense, “born merely for death.” We are “only flesh and blood.”
Jesus the Vampire Slayer
The bloodiness of our age is not an anomaly. Ultra-modern blood tests and pre-modern vampire myths get at something the Christian Scriptures already tell us about reality: The life is in the blood. Immediately after walking off the Ark into a new creation, the patriarch Noah is commanded not to eat the blood of animals, blood that is said to be “the life of the flesh” (Gen. 9:4).
The seriousness with which Yahweh takes blood is carried over into the Mosaic Law, in which God warns the Israelites against the eating of blood. He tells them the blood is “the life” of the animal, and thus is to be treated as holy, and that blood is to be handled reverently since it is the means of atonement (Lev. 17:10–16). This prohibition is no mere “shadow” of Israelite ceremony. It is repeated in the Jerusalem Council’s instruction to Gentile believers as an “essential” (with abstaining from fornication) of Christian practice (Acts 15:28–29).
Blood in Scripture carries with it the implication of morality, of dependence on the life-giving of Yahweh. After the Fall, righteous Abel approaches God not through vegetation—the result of the human vocation to till the ground—but through the veil of bloodied flesh, the recognition that all is not as it is intended to be (Gen. 4:1–7).
When Abel is felled by his brother, his blood is said to cry out from the field itself (Gen. 4:10). When the Holy One of Israel wishes to remind Pharaoh that he is a man and not a god, he turns Pharaoh’s life-giving Nile River into blood itself (Ex. 7:17–25). The Apostle John sees the same judgment on a self-worshiping humanity, content to revel in its independence from God. The waters they so need become blood before them (Rev. 8:8).
Moreover, the New Testament insists that in the Incarnation, Jesus shares with us more than our body type. He shares with his brothers “flesh and blood,” the very essence of human nature (Heb. 2:14–15). It is not just that Jesus once had a blood type; he still does.
The blood of Jesus is everywhere present in the New Testament as a reminder of precisely what our horror films and AIDS education films and Darwinian nature documentaries already intuit: that life is a bloodbath. The Old Testament is built on rivers of animal blood, mounds of blood-drained carcasses.
But not simply a bloodbath: All these scenes point toward the ultimate Passover Lamb, who will approach the heavenly places not with the blood of goats and bulls, but with his own blood (Heb. 9:12). The intercession of Christ, and the life of his Church, isn’t simply about a set of doctrines or an ethical mandate. It all comes down to blood.
Christians sometimes see John 6 as a text to be avoided due to its divisiveness. Evangelicals don’t want to sound “too Catholic,” and Catholics don’t want to end up in another discussion of whether the body eaten and the blood drunk refer to the Mass or to faith in Christ. This is an important question, and one about which we should continue to contend strongly with one another.
But let us not lose the shocking nature of Jesus’ call to the crowds at Galilee. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” Jesus says (John 6:53), not just to a generic mob but to those trained from childhood not to eat even the blood of meat. Jesus offends us with our own blood—reminding us that what runs through our veins will one day run cold—and telling us that in order to live, we must be united to the lifeblood of another, a blood spilled for rebels like us.
The eclipse of blood in American Christianity has quite a bit to do, I suspect, with American prosperity. Contemporary spinners of Evangelical “praise choruses” focus lyrically on God’s glory, on God’s love, redemption through faith, and even on the Cross of Christ. What is absent is the previous generation’s near-obsession in hymnody and popular devotion with blood.
The “blood medleys” once so popular in Evangelical hymnals evoke something of the blue-collar, socially marginalized origins of conservative American Protestantism. To sing “Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb” often seems too much of a reminder to upwardly mobile suburban professionals that their religion has redneck roots. (A Catholic writer suggests that this is also true of the reaction to traditional Catholic piety in the suburban churches filled with the successful descendents of immigrants.)
At the same time, these churches want to relate the gospel to a non-Christian culture. Often, we do so by being as antiseptic as possible: with gleaming restrooms and shiny foyers, with churches designed to look like malls, complete with information booths and coffee kiosks. We assume that making Christianity clean and bright will remove the sting of offense from the gospel.
More “sophisticated” churches avoid the subject of blood, although less sophisticated ones retain enough of the old ways to talk about blood but also to trivialize it. T-shirts ape beer commercials (“This Blood’s For You)” or the tattoo culture (“My Life Was Saved by Body Piercing”).
With all the blood around us, in our pharmaceutical advertisements and in our horror films, in vampire romance novels and in the subculture of would-be vampires, our churches seem bloodless. We’re eager to speak of life, but hesitant to speak of blood. Some of this is the result of the lingering sting of liberal Christian hostility toward a “slaughterhouse religion.” Some of it is the result of an age that fears blood, but doesn’t know why. Some of it is the result of our ignorance, as we think that “blood” is just another metaphor, one we can easily replace.
And yet, bloodless Christianity leaves a void. Could it be that the lack of emphasis on blood in Evangelical Protestant churches at least partially explains why Baptists and Methodists and Pentecostals who otherwise would have little to do with Roman Catholic imagery found themselves openly weeping in movie theaters as they viewed The Passion of the Christ? Did they need to remember that “with his stripes we are healed” (Is. 53:5)?
Power in the Blood
Our embarrassment over the bloodiness of Christianity often results in blood atonement being presented in our catechism and discipleship of believers in an attenuated, abstract sort of way. Less and less often do ordinary believers hum to themselves songs about the blood of Jesus. Less and less often do small children memorize Scripture passages about the blood of Christ.
We assume that we first convince unbelievers to follow Jesus—and then we explicate the meaning of his blood, when we think they’re ready for this specialized theological knowledge. But how do we address consciences indicted by the ancient Accuser of Eden—some of them tortured by the knowledge that they have shed innocent blood themselves—without pointing them to the only means of conquering him, “the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 12:10–11)?
We assume that we teach young Christians how to live, to abstain from sexual immorality and greed and pugilism, before we move to something as seemingly arcane as blood sacrifice. And yet, Scripture assumes that personal morality is built on the knowledge that we were bought “with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:19).
We assume that we build “community” in our churches before we address something as raw and potentially alienating as the shedding of blood. And yet, the community we share—bearing with all of one another’s faults and transcending our petty ethnic and cultural prejudices—comes only through the recognition that we share a common condemnation as sinners, but, as we will still confess to our Christ in the heavenly places, “you were slain, and with your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). Shared life is based on shared blood. Even vampires know that.
The nineteenth- and twentieth-century revivalist tradition gave the Church a valued psalter of “blood medleys.” It may be that their time has passed. Some of them could be done better musically and lyrically, and some even theologically. But let us never be embarrassed by our emphasis—in song, in public prayer, in evangelism, in discipleship, and in preaching—on the blood of Jesus.
There is power—wonder-working power—in the blood. Our culture already sees that. They’re simply looking in the wrong veins.
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