For me, writing about grace is like undressing in a cold changing room, with floor-to-ceiling mirrors and flickering fluorescent lighting: self-flattery is an impossibility. Don’t worry, there is more nudity on the way.

When you can no longer unsee your own low anthropology, writing about internal work feels exposing. Feelings aren’t always reality, though, and the “me too” connection that writing can bring makes it worth the, uh, exposure.

Speaking of “me too” moments — meaning I have already done this — you know those times after you stub your toe and, instead of saying “ouch,” you yell at your dog, who did nothing wrong? Sometimes, if we are angry towards someone or about a situation, we project that anger onto others who have nothing to do with the source of our anger. “Butt-hurt goggles,” I believe, is the scientific term for that condition.

When you do a little reflection on why you are angry, you realize just how often you have been actively scapegoating, Rene-Girard-style. I’ve done that very thing myself, many, many times. The thing about scapegoating someone else is that we have to not only ignore the truth about that someone, but we have to ignore the truth about ourselves. But still, deep down, we don’t care about any of that. We need an enemy. We want a result, you know, something like:

In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.

That’s Christian-bookstore fridge-magnet material right there, folks! We often try to actualize those burning coals that Paul talks about in Romans 12:20, a passage talking about not avenging ourselves, but instead loving and caring for our enemies. If we are honest, “burning coals” is the only part we remember. Hey, I’m not proud of it, but I’m willing to bet I’m not alone. We also instinctively know that isn’t grace.

Because here is the tricky thing: grace can’t be prescribed; it can only be described. And yet, doesn’t grace still seem indescribable? Parables and stories can help with that.

If you haven’t watched Preacher yet, stop reading this and go watch it. The series is violent, yet unexpectedly poignant, disturbing, and, at times, hilarious. I love it. Based on a 1990s comic book series, AMC’s Preacher follows reforming outlaw, Jesse Custer, who takes over his late father’s pastorate in the small Texas town of Annville. Jesse discovers he possesses a bizarre power which seems extremely beneficial for a person of his job description. Navigating the unintended consequences that accompany this power every time he uses it, Jesse is joined by an extraordinarily colorful cast of characters, serving as helps or hindrances, sometimes simultaneously. The town is banal, the storyline is apocalyptic, but as David Dark says in Everyday Apocalypse:

Any song or story that deals with conflict by way of a strained euphemistic spin, a cliché, or a triumphal cupcake ending strikes us as the best in family entertainment. This is the opposite of apocalyptic. Apocalyptic maximizes the reality of human suffering and folly before daring a word of hope. The hope has nowhere else to happen but the valley of the shadow of death.

The last time I was engaged in the sport of scapegoating, I kept thinking of a couple of particular scenes from the series. The first one involves Tulip, the Bonnie to Jesse’s Clyde. Puzzled by Jesse’s recent change of vocation, Tulip follows him to Annville. There she meets Emily, the church organist/good person, who is also devoted to Jesse. So basically, instant rivalry.

The particular scene I’m picturing is where Tulip is sitting in Emily’s kitchen, patiently gluing together the “art thing” that one of Emily’s kids made. It had been shattered shortly before by the same Tulip who had burst into Emily’s house in a display of menacing bravado, trying to scare off her supposed rival. Mere minutes afterwards, and after a brief cool down in her car, Tulip is amicably sitting at Emily’s kitchen table, repairing what she had broken, literally. After seeing that Custer’s change of vocation was a result of a real heart change, Tulip was forced to reflect on her own actions. We witnessed a transformation towards grace in Tulip, and it was beautiful.

Then there is Cassidy, the libertine but lovable vampire and best friend of Jesse, who is, like Tulip, affected by his example. Later in the series, Cassidy shows up to church wearing an Annville Sheriff’s Department baseball cap — this after being shot repeatedly (and revived, each time, from a thermos full of blood) by the town’s sheriff, who thought Cassidy was responsible for the disappearance of his missing son. (The sheriff can be forgiven for thinking a vampire a prime suspect.)

The baseball cap makes me happy every time I see it and picture the sheriff giving it to him, like a desperate consolation prize for being wrongly accused and tortured. It was a strangely touching gesture — and a bizarre, if not on the nose, parable for Girardian scapegoating, death and resurrection, and forgiveness. As Capon says in Between Noon and Three:

The parables are true only because they are like what God is like, not because they are models for us to copy. It is simply a fact that the one thing we dare not under any circumstances imitate is the only thing that can save us. The parables are, one and all, about the foolishness by which Grace raises the dead. They apply to no sensible process at all — only to the divine insanity that brings everything out of nothing.

I think Capon hits on why grace is hard to describe, because it doesn’t make sense. It simply refuses to, without apology.

Around the same time I was thinking about tulips and vampires, I heard a podcast with Marilynne Robinson who was being interviewed on GodPod. She was talking about John Calvin and pointed to a passage from his Institutes of the Christian Religion. I was struck by how she paraphrased it:

If someone sins against you, Christ is waiting to take that sin upon Himself.

Calvin’s original version is even more explicit:

You will say, “He has deserved something far different of me.” Yet what has the Lord deserved? While he bids you forgive this man for all sins he has committed against you, he would truly have them charged against himself. Assuredly there is but one way in which to achieve what is not merely difficult but utterly against human nature: to love those who hate us, to repay their evil deeds with benefits, to return blessings for reproaches (Matt. 5:44). It is that we remember not to consider men’s evil intention but to look upon the image of God in them, which cancels and effaces their transgressions, and with its beauty and dignity allures us to love and embrace them.

Book III, ch. VII, section 6

Reading that was as if, in the midst of my anger, God had said to me like he did to Jonah in chapter 4, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

No, it isn’t. I felt very naked in that moment.

I’m reminded of a lyric from Lift To Experience’s song, “Down With The Prophets.”

We sing these songs because we have to, not because we want to
We sing these songs because we have to, not because we want to
Just doing our part trying to feed stubborn horses standing on the lead rope

We sing these songs, we tell these stories, because we know we need to. Don’t get me wrong, we don’t want to, I don’t want to, but man alive, I need to. Stubborn horses we are indeed.