Rosemary Ganley of Religion Dispatches reviews Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of this World for Crucifixion and Empire by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker.
Rita Nakashima Brock, a Disciple of Christ minister and Director of Faith Voices for the Common Good, and her writing partner, Rebecca Ann Parker, who is president of the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California have, with passion, scholarship and clear writing, laid out a fascinating thesis. It is also a stylish and readable book.
“This is”, said Diarmuid O’Murchu, the Irish psychologist-priest-writer, and no slouch himself, “the best book of theology I have read in 20 years”.
After finishing Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering and the Search for What Saves Us in 2001, the two writers spent five years sniffing out evidence that the cruciform symbol, the central image of Christianity, arrived very late on the scene. Indeed, it was not important during the first millennium of Christian history.
“But the death of Jesus was not a key to meaning, not an image of devotion for the Christians of the first millennium”, Parker and Brock write. “He was risen, a healer, baptized, a shepherds, a teacher and a friend.”
This book is a rock-the-foundations work. Christians have been thoroughly taught that the crucifixion of Jesus saved the world. If the crucifixion is absent in historic Christian art, what is present?
Altogether Saving Paradise is a daring challenge to cruciform-centered Christianity. With just a whiff of political savvy and a slight hermeneutic of suspicion, readers can conclude that the crucifix was not in fact a vital symbol for early Christianity, and that its introduction in the second millennium must have served some purpose. If Jesus’ corpse was not featured in the early art and not in many early writings, why then has it become the ultimate symbol today? What political use has been made of exaggerated atonement theology? Of violent death? Of exaggerated induced guilt in believers? Of the extension of control over individual consciences by church authorities, and the creation of an obsession with the afterlife, where happiness may reside.
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