March 18, 2011
PARADISE: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion
By Rita Nakashima Brock
and Rebecca Ann Parker
Beacon Press, 2008
Commentary by Daniel
C. Maguire (email@example.com)
There is nothing that
stirs the human imagination as much as the tincture of the sacred
. No area of literature produces the fantastical claims that religious
literature does. To non-religious literature I say, "eat
your heart out. You will never match us!" From Jupiter to
Kali the Hindu Goddess to Jesus, from sexy Gods who create with
masturbation or intercourse, to Gods who create chastely with
a simple word, from the extravagant Gods of Sumer to the rambunctiously
misbehaving Gods of Olympus, to the more disciplined specialized
Gods who focus on agriculture, or fertility, or war.....the dramatis
personarum divinarum is endless. As the ancient Thales said, everything
is full of Gods and what a remarkable ensemble they are.
The Gods of religious
imagination are never static; they grow in talent with the human
species. With the invention of writing, they turned to script,
whether on tablets of stone on Sinai or by sending angels with
names like Gabriel or Moroni to write books or uncover hidden
tablets filled with script.
So there it is, a literature
and a lore filled with Gods, Goddesses, and demigods. There are
divinized planets, mountains, and rivers and there are angels,
and virgin births, resurrections from the dead, and the ability
to ascend straight into the heavens without ever going into orbit....
we religionists have got it all.
Of course religious
imagination must eventually come before the court of truth for
And in that court you must answer the two most neglected questions
in religious studies: (1) How do you know that? And (2) So what?
To religion scholars who don't ask and answer those questions,
who put hermetic sealant around their cosseted orthodoxies, I
give a failing grade. To Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker
I give an A+. They draw us out of a lockbox of orthodoxy with
its rigid certainties and invite our minds into a symbol-rich
experience of truth in poetic process. They invite us to feel
that sanctum and pulchrum, the holy and the beautiful, are concentric
Brock and Parker do
a double service: they peel away the distortions of violent history
and they rescue the poetic religious tradition from a prose reading.
Religious thought is
like a barometer, always sensitive to the surrounding atmosphere.
Gentle ideas of the early Jewish and Christian movements imbibed
violence in violent times and were transformed in noxious ways.
Brock and Parker are healers. Their task is difficult since they
are treating illnesses that people have come to love. When you
are born into these dogmatic illnesses they seem as real as the
starry sky above. When I was a young priest saying mass, I did
not feel that I was returning to the ancient penchant for human
sacrifice. Yet on a daily basis, I offered God the crucified bloodied
Jesus as a "holy victim," hostiam sanctam, in the hope
it would lead to "perpetual well-being," salutis perpetuae.
The communion bread at the Eucharistic meal was called "host,"
from hostia meaning victim. It was a reversion to the ancient
belief that the Gods lust after blood, with human blood being
the preferred offering. I didn't know I was involved in a playing
out of paradise lost. The results of this twisted theology were
and continue to be catastrophic for people and for this planet.
Small wonder Catherine Keller could write that theology "over
its complex and conflictual history has legitimated more violence
than any other -ology."(On the Mystery, Fortress Press, 2008)
Secondly, in Saving
Paradise, Brock and Parker rescue the poetry of the Jewish and
Christian religious traditions from the shrinkage of literalism
where symbols and metaphors are reduced to facts and simple events.
Literalistic dogmatizers reduce poetry to journalism, they take
teachings like "resurrection" and "ascension"
and downsize them and de-symbolize them into happenings that could
have been videotaped. The virgin birth could have been verified
by an OB/GYN attending physician.
Small wonder timid
minds shrink from symbols. Symbols can be as painful as pregnancy
and birthing, leaving stretch marks where placid skin had rested
undisturbed, but like birthing, they can give new life. That makes
Brock and Parker radical and even shocking to those who grew up
reading poetry as though it were prose. To borrow, or rather to
steal a term, Brock and Parker are the real "radical orthodoxy"
people. Their leading subversive question: was paradise a piece
of real estate, a post-mortem experience, or a poetic envisioning
of human moral possibility?
This book attains to
classical excellence and like every classic it raises even more
questions than it asks. I define religion as the response to the
sacred however that sacred is explained, theistically or non-theistically.
Much of historical religion is engaged in an idol-making effort
to concretize the experience of the sacred, to reify it. In the
enriching historical journey of the Brock and Parker book you
can see early Christianity going about this localizing and reifying
of the sacred with a kind of Hindu freedom and fluidity. Deifying
Jesus by way of homoousios and doing it in the Nicene summer palace
of an emperor of the same empire that killed Jesus, was by any
definition a rocky start for Christology.. And it didn't settle
it. A century and a half later at Chalcedon, at the call of another
emperor, the sacrality of Jesus was still in debate, and so it
was for centuries after that, until the deified Jesus finally
froze into orthodoxy.
Truth discovered is
not the end but the beginning of a process. Truth is a quest,
not a quarry. False concretizing and dogmatizing stifles the process.
In God talk, incarnation talk, trinity talk, afterlife talk, and
paradise talk process is regularly short-circuited leaving us
with cold idols in our hands. "Sacred" is an adjective;
imagination presses us to make it a noun. This reductionism does
not happen in the gifted hands of the authors of Saving Paradise.
In this event of a book, Ezekiel's old dry bones take on flesh,
and they don't just live and breathe, they dance and invite us
to join in.
Rita and Rebecca, we
are in your debt.
this page to a friend!