Have you ever had a Fat Bastard? Now that might be a bit of a shocking even offensive sounding question at first. But the surprising thing is that many many people would actually answer that question with, "yes." Back in the late '90s, a renowned French winemaker invited his British wine distributor friend over to his winery to sample a new vintage. They tasted samples from dozens of barrels, were pleased with the stock but not blown away. Then the French winemaker offered his British friend a taste of an experimental wine that had stayed in a barrel with yeast sediment longer than the other wines. They noted a dramatic difference, it possessed an incredibly full-bodied flavour, which prompted the winemaker to exclaim: "Now that is what you call a fat bastard!"
From then on it would be the only name they ever considered. Fat Bastard wine was an incredibly unlikely name for a wine back in the '90s, long before quirky names became a trend in wines. It was shocking and borderline offensive in a category known for poetic designations like Chateau Margaux or Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Fat Bastard was a cowbell in a symphony orchestra.
Nonetheless, the wine was launched in 1998, and quickly became the largest selling French Chardonnay in the U.S. It was a huge success (except in Iceland. Where a direct mailer for the wine was banned by the Advertising Standards Authority there) despite its off-putting, seemingly offensive face value appearance. A wine with the tagline "Outrageous name, outrageously good."
You may be asking, "what on earth does that have to do with anything regarding Christianity?" The fact remains that we live in a culture where the term "Christianity" and the image of the cross are common place. But for centuries after its inception, both the name and the iconic symbol that would come to symbolize the religion were considered absurd, off-putting, and offensive.
The apostle Paul exemplifies this twice in his letter to the church in the ancient city of Corinth: "For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God... we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness" (1 Cor. 1:18, 1 Cor. 1:23).
Crucifixion (the act of dying on a cross) in the ancient world was humiliating. Under Roman penal practice crucifixion was a means of exhibiting a criminal's low social status. It was the most dishonorable death imaginable, originally reserved for slaves. Seneca the Younger, Nero's tutor and advisor, describes the practice as the artem autem infelix lignum (art of the unfortunate wood),(1) referring to the humiliating nature of being flayed, tortured, and displayed to die in public.
The famous Roman historian Tacitus, while commenting on Nero's decision to blame the Christians for the fire that destroyed Rome in 64 AD, wrote:
Nero fastened the guilt... on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus (Christ), from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of... Pontius Pilatus.(2)
Tacitus' description sheds light on a few things: first he mocks the title "Christian". A group that derive their very name from someone who "suffered the extreme penalty" - crucifixion, an act Tacitus doesn't even mention because of its heinous connotation.
This notion transcended the writings of the higher classes though, we have cases of Ancient Roman graffiti mocking Christians and their admittance and acceptance of Jesus' crucifixion. Known as the Alexamenos graffito (seen below), a satirical piece of ancient vandalism from 85 AD, represents Christian worship. It depicting a man worshiping a crucified donkey, the inscription ("ΑΛΕΞΑΜΕΝΟΣ (ΑΛΕΞΑΜΕΝΟC) ΣΕΒΕΤΕ (CEBETE) ΘΕΟΝ") translates to "Alexamenos respects his god".
Yet, despite all of that, Christianity during this period of time (100-300 AD) spread, grew, and flourished. Regardless of its foolishness and often perceived offensiveness, Christianity in the course of the first four hundred years after Christ's crucifixion proved to be exceptionally popular - despite its name.
It might be somewhat crude and a little bit ostentatious to try to make the connective illustration of Fat Bastard wine and Christ's crucifixion, but it was done to prove a point. Our culture does not hold the same intensity with the concept as it did in its own day. Sure, maybe if you've watched Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ you might have some idea, but something is still lost. The intensity remains in subtle glimpses such as the English word excruciating, derived from the Latin excruxio, literally translating "off the cross", but that simply represents the muted remains of a passed understanding.
Cicero, the second century Roman philosopher-politician, declared that "the very word 'cross' should be far removed not only from the presence of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his eyes and his ears".(3) In antiquity there was an inherent cringe factor that would have been associated with the whole thing. Much like naming a high quality wine Fat Bastard. It is a concept that should just not have worked, and yet, it did.
However, unlike the wine, Christianity and the idea of "Christ crucified" is popular for a completely different reason. At the heart of the gospel message are the concepts of grace and reconciliation. Despite its taboo nature, humiliation and agony were the paths that Jesus chose with which to accomplish those two concepts. The idea of sin (which is often tragically minimized) cuts to the very heart of our relationship with our maker and breaks the grandeur for which we were created. It brings disgrace to our essence and stains our very existence.
The act of Jesus' crucifixion two thousand years ago was the ultimate act of disgrace, shame, and pain, working to bring us back to the dignity of relationship with God - picking up the peaces of the broken relationship and healing our shattered souls. The very reason that the apostle Paul declares that he preached Christ crucified was because it transcended the face-value perception of his day. In among all of the absurd, off-putting, and offensive connotations it held, the cross was the ultimate act of the justice and mercy of God coming together.
 Tertulliani Liber Apologeticus, Apologia, IX, 1.
 Tacitus, Annals 15.44, Cambridge Greek & Latin Classics, (Cambridge University Press, 2002.
 Cicero Pro Rabiro 5.16, quoted in Martin Hengel, The Crucifixion of the Son of God, (London: SCM Press, 1986), p. 134.