When the envelope containing my review selections arrived from Mike Morrell at The Ooze, I wondered what three titles the envelope would contain… it was about the thickness of three books, some 600-odd pages. Nope. One book only, a 550-page hardcover copy of Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire by Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker.
The authors traveled the Mediterranean world in search of art depicting the crucified Jesus, but discovered something traditional Christian art and Christian histories had underplayed or sought to explain away for the first millennium. It took Jesus Christ a thousand years to die.
During their first millennium, Christians filled their sanctuaries with images of Christ as a living presence in a vibrant world. He appears as a shepherd, a teacher, a healer, an enthroned God; he is an infant, a youth, and a bearded elder. But he is never dead. When he appears with the cross, he stands in front of it, serene, resurrected. The world around him is ablaze with beauty. These are images of paradise—paradise in this world, permeated and blessed by the presence of God.
But once Jesus perished, dying was virtually all he seemed able to do.
Saving Paradise offers a fascinating new lens on the history of Christianity, from its first centuries to the present day, and asks how its early vision of beauty evolved into one of torture. In tracing the changes in society and theology that marked the medieval emergence of images of Christ crucified, Saving Paradise exposes the imperial strategies embedded in theologies of redemptive violence and sheds new light on Christianity’s turn to holy war. It reveals how the New World, established through Christian conquest and colonization, is haunted by the loss of a spiritual understanding of paradise here and now.
The authors demonstrate how a theology based on death rather than life has serious consequences, including the ideas that led to the Crusades and Holy War and inevitably led us in the West to Manifest Destiny and the conquest and exploitation of indigenous peoples. In this book, they present an alternative, life based theology that they believe provides hope for the earth and for humanity.
The book is not without controversy, but it includes some interesting new ideas for further thought, as evidenced by reviews from Michael Spencer, Christine Sine, and Chuck Warnock. Now, I’m basically judging this book by its cover (hence the title), but there are a number of things one can glean — enough to make me want to keep the book in my reading pile. The authors’ contention that “images of Christ on the cross as the central focus of Christian faith grew out of the sanctioning of war and violence as a holy pursuit” intrigues me, as does the assertion that salvation is paradise on earth, in the present. Statements like these tend to pique my interest and invite me to consider the background support for the idea.
Saving Paradise is largely a retelling of history, with a wee bit of travelogue inserted. Despite the reputation of history as dry, the book is actually quite interesting and readable — I regret not having more time for it now, though as I say, I’m inclined to keep it in my reading pile. The book has an accompanying website, which has a good gallery of art that ties in to the discussions of artwork in the book. Even with over 500 pages and extensive end notes, there aren’t a lot of images, and none in full color.
In the end, I don’t know yet whether or not I can recommend the book, but I’ve linked to a few good reviewers who can, and offered a glimpse of why it holds my interest.