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Monkeys, Marauders, and Atonement Theory

By March 13, 2015 4 Comments

With a trip to Britain just behind me, then a full week of teaching plus catching up with duties delayed, all under the pall of jet-lag, I have, Gentle Reader, no coherent, well-developed thoughts for your delectation. Some point-to-point impressions and musings instead.
1. In the ceiling of the nave of the magnificent, not to mention gargantuan, York Minster you see a rosette featuring a nice symmetrical set of footprints. It is explained that these are the soles of Jesus’ feet, our lasting view of his ascension. A nice bit of theology, told tongue in cheek.
2. But then what are we to make of other images in the place? Around one striking window of stained glass, most of which tells a biblical story just so, runs an outer rim depicting monkeys engaged in all sorts of behavior, seemly or otherwise. Monkeys in a cathedral, running around saints and sacred images. Matches the gargoyles outside, I suppose. But what’s the exact meaning and purpose?
3. I won’t even mention the grotesque bawdiness being carried on between ape and pig in a ceiling panel nearby. And here I as a good Calvinist Cadet in my boyhood Christian Reformed church had only blank tiles to count in the ceiling as I wiled away another sermon. Brits have all the luck.
4. As you amble around York you come across various positive references to Richard III, Duke of the same. No fans of the Shakespeare rendition here.
5. Instead the villain would seem to be William the Conqueror—better, William the Bastard—of Normandy who, invading the land in 1066, whacked his rival and then set out to, as the books put it, subdue the land, imposing a Norman nobility in place of the previous Anglo-Saxon worthies, imposing as well Norman friends and clients in ecclesiastical positions. Remember, Normans are Vikings who have acquired a bad French accent.
6. One such buddy was Lanfranc, an abbot from Normandy remembered as the teacher-patron of one Anselm, who would succeed him as archbishop of Canterbury. Follow the train here. Lanfranc served as Sky Pilot for a bunch of gangster invaders and was awarded for his benedictions with the highest church post in England just as William went off on a near-genocidal rampage in the north of the land. Homes, farms, crops were all destroyed, with famine and lasting poverty the result. That’s what “subduing” and “imposing” come to.
7. Lanfranc’s successor becomes known as Anselm of Canterbury, deviser of the ontological argument for the existence of God—and, notably in this season of Lent, of the satisfaction theory of the atonement. To what extent is that theory saturated with the peculiar notions of medieval jurisprudence in general, and of lord and vassal political arrangements in particular? Not to mention a mentality signified by the bloody trail of a ruthless invader?
8. My mind jumps to American evangelical preachers who are fond of invoking God’s wrath when preaching about Good Friday. And to the marked preponderance, in American opinion polls, of their parishioners in the number of those who approve of capital punishment, of the American cult of unregulated gun ownership, of torture carried out in the name of national security, and of unprovoked invasions of other countries that lay them waste and render their people homeless. They’re decidedly pro-life, however.
9. But then I’m brought up short by the sermon of my favorite preacher-at-a-distance, Daniel Meeter, of Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn. Tomorrow, so his blog indicates (, Daniel will preach of divine wrath in clear and forthright tones. Only mixing it with divine love, with—as I understand him—divine self-mortification.
10. Do follow Daniel’s sermons, Gentle Reader. If you’re like me they will bring you up short, teach you something new, weave old themes into revealing new patterns, and always sound the gospel of grace in resonant tones without stinting a bit on our folly and woe. Makes me pull back a bit from my sure judgments. Scrambles the categories some. Like those monkeys scrambling around the saints in York Minster.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


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