In the movie “Zoolander,” vapid male fashion model Derek Zoolander is being presented with an architectural model of a school he hopes to fund, the “Derek Zoolander Center For Children Who Can’t Read Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too.” The presenters are stunned when rather than being pleased with the model, Zoolander is enraged:⁠1

Zoolander: What is this? A center for ants?!? How can we be expected to teach children to learn how to read… if they can’t even fit inside the building?

Mugatu: Derek, it’s just a small…

Zoolander: I don’t wanna hear your excuses! The center has to be at least… three times bigger than this!

The absurdity of mistaking a model building for the real thing works as a gag in a movie, but when the same mistake is made in our theology, it’s not nearly so amusing. And it happens all the time.

One such model that has been confused for the real thing is in an understanding of how it is that Jesus saves us. Early Christology—the reflection on the person of Jesus—was more concerned with what Jesus had accomplished than who he was (that question would come later).  Among the reflections on salvation was a model based on crime and punishment: sin is an offense against God and we stand guilty of having committed a crime, the penalty for which is death. In order to satisfy the demands of justice, God provides Jesus who takes our punishment for himself, sparing us and allowing God’s justice to be satisfied. It was one of many ways that Christians have developed to understand how it was that Jesus had worked this reconciliation between God and humanity.⁠2 But for many Christians, this is not a model that seeks to help us understand, it has become a definition of God and of the very system of salvation.

As emergent church theologian Doug Pagitt notes, the literalization of this model “hamstrings God,” since in a legal system it is the law that is central, not the judge, who, like the prosecutor, the defendant, and the jury, is bound by the law:⁠3

In the judicial model, God must judge us according to the law. But God is allowed to show us mercy as long as the punishment for our wrongdoing is carried out. So God, who is evidently powerless to do otherwise, must offer Jesus as a blood sacrifice in our place. Yes, it breaks God’s heart to have to do it, but what choice does God have? The law is the law.

As Pagitt rightly points out, when this model is taken as a definition, the understanding of God becomes limited by the model. God is not the center of the story, the law is, and God becomes helpless; “love, grace, mercy, compassion, and even God become minor players that must be subject to the law.”⁠4 God becomes as small as Derek Zoolander’s school, and as powerless to effect any meaningful change in anyone’s life.


2 These models are discussed in greater detail in chapter XX, above, “The Metaphors of Faith Explored.”

Pagitt, Doug. A Christianity Worth Believing : Hope-Filled, Open-Armed, Alive-and-Well Faith for the Left out, Left Behind, and Let Down in Us All. A Living Way. 1st ed.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2008, 154.

Ibid., 155.