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Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, acted on the repeated urgings of his Augustinian confessor, Staupitz, to "Look to the wounds of Jesus." And soon after posting his 95 theses, he announced that the only man who deserved to be called a theologian was he "who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the Cross." All through his life, his sermons and hymns contained striking images of that event.

The German pietists and the Moravians who followed in Luther's steps in the centuries after his death also practiced the Reformer's near-mystical devotion to the cross. They wrote hymns filled with the most heart-rending depictions of the wounds and the sufferings of Christ. And British evangelicals like the Wesleys and William Cowper followed with hymns in a similar, if more refined, mold (think of Cowper's "There is a fountain fill'd with blood, / Drawn from Emmanuel's veins").

This comes as a surprise to many, because Protestants have usually followed the image-averse John Calvin. He, though equally focused on the Cross, worried that any imagining of the Crucifixion might become an idol, distracting the believer from God himself.

Thus the "gorier" pietist and Moravian hymns have now, with the almost solitary exception of Paul Gerhardt's (d. 1676) "O Sacred Head Now Wounded," been pushed from most current hymnals (even Moravian ones). And when we run across the sort of vivid portrayal of Christ's passion that Mel Gibson presents in his movie, something in us recoils: Is this not excessive and morbid? Why dwell on the horrific details? Surely Jesus would want us to turn quickly from Good Friday to Easter, placing our focus on his glorious resurrection!

We find it difficult to enter the world ...

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In the Magazine

March 2004

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