Saving Paradise:How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire: A review by Tat-siong Benny Liew

Tat-siong Benny Liew
January 16, 2009

Last fall at the annual American Academy of Religion meeting in Chicago, Tat-siong Benny Liew presented a review of Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, co-written by Rebecca Ann Parker, president of Starr King School for the Ministry, and theologian and Starr King visiting scholar Rita Nakashima Brock. The review follows:

Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker have written a book that is incredibly accessible and at the same time amazingly informative. This 420-page book (not counting endnotes) covers not only four thousand years of history from the background of the Hebrew Bible to that of 20th-century U.S. but also touches on almost every field within theological studies. Whether your own expertise is in arts and religion, biblical studies, church history, ethics, pastoral care, ritual studies, spirituality, or theology, you will find in these pages something within as well as something beyond your particular field of knowledge. This is, in other words, a book that can both hold your interest and broaden your horizon. In addition to making these interdisciplinary linkages within theological studies, Brock and Parker have also managed to do something that many of the movements they wrote about failed to do. Instead of writing a book that works on how the Christian religion intersects a single factor or dimension and ignore everything else, these two women have given us a book that deals with religion, gender, race, sexuality, class, colonialism, and the environment. Their interdisciplinary approach to look at how these various factors intersect in, for example, the Crusades is, simply brilliant. 

The main thesis of Brock and Parker’s book is clear but also complex. First, they suggest that paying attention to early Christian art has the benefit of not only going beyond the confines of the literate or literary elites and tapping into the world of the (illiterate) masses but also acknowledging and experiencing a more holistic faith and life. Second, instead of Jesus’ crucifixion, an earthly and this-worldly paradise—namely, one that is here and now—was the dominant image of Christian art in the first millennium of the church’s existence. Third, the emphasis on Jesus’ victimization and death was in many ways an European invention that not only coincided with the First Crusade of the 11th-century but also turned the crucified Christ into a judge who separates the saved from the damned and paradise into a postmortem reward of violence—whether that violence is in the form of killing others and/or suffering sacrifice—as well as the binary and eternal opposite of hell. This emphasis on Jesus’ crucifixion, according to Brock and Parker, makes everyone sinful for what Jesus has suffered on the cross, and fearful of what Christ will do on his seat of judgment; this emphasis further turns salvation from an active affirmation of life in paradise to an escapist avoidance from punishment, mingles love for God with a hatred for the “other,” divides the world into binary groups, and justifies conquest as well as colonization through holy wars.  Whether it is the killing of Muslims in Jerusalem or the enslaving of Africans and killing of Natives in the Americas, Brock and Parker contend that eventually, with this shift of focus from “paradise” to “crucifixion,” “Western Europe [eventually] became habituated to seeing torture and murder as sacred.” Finally, fourth—and I believe this is the lesson that the authors most want us to take home—instead of an imagined, utopian state that is spatially quarantined within a specific geographical location and/or temporally segmented to the past and/or the future,  a life-affirming paradise that suffuses the entire creation and breaks into (and thus honors) real human experiences intermittently may bring about an “ethical grace” that both celebrates and sustains the goodness of life on earth by not only infusing the material with the spiritual or integrating the sacred and the secular but also incorporating individuals into communities to interact with others for the cultivation of wisdom and common good rather than the assurance of private salvation or personal innocence.

Within this fourfold thesis, there are plenty of other insights and trails for a reader to engage and pursue.  For instance, one may think about, particularly in light of how Brock and Parker end the book with a focus on the U.S., how their brief statement that “[t]he Inquisition [of the 13th century] turned the crusading virtue of killing for God against Europe’s own Christians” may couple with Aimé Césaire’s observation or suggestion that imperialism abroad will eventually lead to fascism at home to help us think about how the religion of one George W. Bush may have implications on what he decides to do in Iraq and with Homeland Security.

This is a thick book, but really a good read that is well worth your time.  Since I do have limited time, let me try to engage this remarkable and yet remarkably accessible book with two questions.

First, I wonder if Brock and Parker may have dismissed the human desire—or perhaps even human need—for nostalgia and hope a little too quickly. In the book’s “epilogue,” they call nostalgia and hope, which they also gloss as a “relentless drive toward change, either as retrieval or progress,” an “American Protestant structure” that tends to disengage one from the present. This is so, they suggest, because we become “Western souls” that are “preoccupied with being lost” and “anxious for home.” While I am in agreement with the following paragraph by the authors that we should give up the idea of paradise as utopia, or as “life without struggle,” I find myself struggling to give up the idea of associating paradise with diaspora and hence nostalgia. I understand, of course, their point that too much looking back and/or looking ahead may lead one to miss the present moment; but if that is the case, then a more moderate—and perhaps healthier—remedy is to talk about what kind of balance or what kind of nostalgia rather than the radical move to present these temporal orientations as if they are inevitably mutually exclusive or nostalgia as inherently backward, in both a temporal and a developmental sense.
Brock and Parker suggest early in the book that more than merely describing life on earth, paradise provides an ethical measure of life and grounds our current struggles. I would say that both hope and nostalgia might also contribute to this measure and grounding. Svetlana Boym, in a book titled, The Future of Nostalgia, glosses nostalgia literally as a longing to return home. Brock and Parker have helped me see many positive emphases of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the largest of which is of course in Russia. It so happens that Boym is a Russian native teaching at Harvard, and she is familiar with this “sentiment of loss and displacement” that many immigrants to and racial/ethnic minorities in this country—“Western souls” or not—know intimately well. This is because nostalgia is a glue between personal and collective memory. Boym’s book is an attempt to correct “a prejudice against nostalgia,” which Boym admits is something that she has to learn to get over herself. If one understands nostalgia as a longing for a home that no longer exists or never existed, it is a longing that can never be satisfied or a loss that can never be recovered. This “home” is, in other words, every bit as elusive and unpredictable as Brock and Parker’s recommendation of a paradise that is somehow somewhere between reality and inaccessibility. What Boym wants her readers to understand is that nostalgia may actually challenge or rebel against the modern idea of linear and irreversible time. Nostalgia for Boym is retrospective as well as prospective. It explores “unrealized dreams of the past and visions of the future that [have become] obsolete.” In Boym’s own words, “[f]antasies of the past determined by needs of the present have a direct impact on realities of the future,” and may even “make possible the dream of freedom.” In short, instead of being mutually exclusive, yesterday, today, and tomorrow come together in the hope or the future of nostalgia. It is for a similar reason that W. E. B. Du Bois became impatient with those who were too impatient to think and talk about the black past of slavery. Instead, Du Bois suggested that black folk must become a people “reverent toward time” and “look complexly at the past for the sake of imagining a future.”  

Actually I wonder if the rhetoric of a present focus that can do without nostalgia and hope does not in itself border on what is utopian or idealistic. It strikes me as more realistic and more human to acknowledge our need for not only hope in the future but also to be nostalgic about the past. A faculty colleague of mine at PSR is currently struggling with a second bout with cancer and resting at home. I walked by his empty office the other day and saw a quote posted on his door. It was taken from Arthur Frank’s At the Will of the Body: Reflections on Illness: “Avoid those who seek to minimize what you have lost.  …  The losses you go through are real, and no one should take them away from you.  They are a part of your experience, and you are entitled to them … every part of life is worth experiencing, even the losses.  To grieve well is to value what you have lost.  When you value even the feeling of loss, you value life itself, and you begin to live again.”   Paradise, especially if one keeps on reading Genesis 2 in terms of a fall, is intricately tied up with both nostalgia and hope, just as past, present, and future mingle with and echo one another.

Second, I wonder if Brock and Parker are not giving up the emphasis on Jesus’ crucifixion too readily and hence play into the hands of the dominant power that they try to resist. For them, emphasizing Jesus’ crucifixion was a wrong-headed turn within church history, particularly that of the Christian West; since the 10th century, it has led to not only problematic pursuits of paradise but also empire and colonialism. I wonder, however, if the torment and blood of Jesus’ crucifixion must be emphasized in terms of our guilt and our fear, as Mel Gibson recently did with his infamous movie about Jesus. The authors themselves have, in fact, pointed out that the Gero cross might have stood for the Saxons as a sign of judgment not upon themselves but upon their perpetrators. If so, emphasizing Jesus’ death and crucifixion may be a protest against conquest, a testimony to the oppression suffered at the hands of the perpetrators, a memorial for all that has been lost, a mourning for the dead, and a call to recognize injustice.
In other words, perhaps the problem is not whether one emphasizes paradise or crucifixion, but what one may be suggesting or proposing with one’s emphasis. After all, Brock and Parker have shown us how emphases on and pursuits of paradise have gone awry time and again, whether it was the Protestant emphasis on sola scriptura, Calvin’s social reforms in Geneva, or the English Puritans’ attempt to create a “New World” across the Atlantic.  Just as there can be—and were—different interpretations of paradise, there were—and can be—different readings of Jesus’ crucifixion.
Let me see if I can make my point about Jesus’ crucifixion clearer through lynching, which Brock and Parker not only write about in their book but also insightfully compare to crucifixion. The grotesque pictures and bloody accounts of lynching have been preserved and retold by not only white supremacists but also African Americans, but they mean very different things for these two groups of people. Since I have already referred to Du Bois, let me now offer a quote from him that may be relevant to this issue. He writes, “The things evidently borrowed from the surrounding world undergo characteristic change when they enter the mouth of the slave. Especially is this true of Bible phrases.” I think Zora Neale Hurston is also referring to the multiplicity of interpretation and hence of meaning when she writes that words “all got a hidden meanin’, just like de Bible.”
What I am getting at is whether Brock and Parker, with their linear delineation of a shift from a this-worldly paradise to crucifixion and empire, have unwittingly bought into or at least surrendered to the Roman ideology of  “inflict[ing] uniformity … upon … diverse disputations.” For Constantine, as Brock and Parker tell us, multiple opinions are divisive and thus problematic. And yet multiple opinions have always already existed, whether it is about nostalgia, paradise, and/or Jesus’ crucifixion. As Brock and Parker themselves point out, while early Christians might memorize the same creed, they were acquainted with different interpretations of these same words and phrases. I will therefore say with the authors, “beauty [is] marked by diversity and creative interactions”—and, I would add, diverse and creative interpretations. I have learnt a lot from and have no problems with the lifting up of paradise. I just do not see why it is presented as, at least in my reading, a substitution of the cross, particularly since both are liable to being colonized by oppressive powers and yet open to conflicting interpretations.

While Brock and Parker correctly and helpfully point out to us the Hebrew word pardès and how it is related to the concept of paradise, what they may have forgotten is that the very word has also become an acronym (PaRDeS) for a Jewish hermeneutics of multiplicity. Peshat reads for the plain sense of a text, Remez the allegorical sense, Derush the midrashic sense by comparing similar occurrence in different places, and Sod the mystical sense. Saving paradise is, I would argue, inseparable from saving PaRDeS. One must not only strive to provide multiple symbols but also multiple readings of any single symbol, including that of the cross.

In the spirit of multiplicity, I would like to end by honoring a sensibility that I deeply appreciate in reading this book. I have never read a book on the Bible and church history that mentions Asia and Africa as often as this book. Instead of using the conventional designation of “Near East” or “Middle East,” Brock and Parker repeatedly referred to North Africa and West Asia. They suggest, furthermore, that the idea of paradise is cross-cultural and multi-religious in origin. They talk about how in the long and diverse traditions of Christendom, there have already always been many mixings with other religions, whether this is the case of the Saxons, the Eastern Orthodox Church, or the hybrid mix between church and mosque in a place like Turkey. At the same time, Brock and Parker confront us with the exclusionary tendency within too many Christian church circles, where baptism is held up by some as “the portal to paradise,” or the church the embodiment or the equivalence of paradise. They confront us with what the Crusades have done to both Jews and Muslims, and how for some, “peace of God” is meant only for Christians. As Brock and Parker have so ably and admirably lifted up the urgent need for Christians to acknowledge the cross-cultural and multi-religious reality of both their faith and their world—or how multiplicity may be embedded in what looks like a singularity—let me offer an alternative reading of what Brock and Parker designate as the most commonly depicted Nativity story in catacomb art: the story of the Magi in Matthew 2. Without denying the problems that may be there in the text and in other dominant interpretations of this text, I would suggest that this narrative indicates that Jesus can only be found when these Magi, most likely priests of the Zoroastrian religion from Persia, collaborate with the Jewish scribes in Jerusalem. By themselves, the scribes know the location of the Messiah’s birth but they do not know when. In contrast, the Magi know that the time has arrived for the King to be born but they do not know where. It is only when both parties share what they have come to learn and know that Jesus is located. Whether we emphasize paradise or crucifixion or both, we must also not forget to lift up, as Brock and Parker have done, that spiritual insight and practice require a sensible and sensitive awareness of cross-cultural and multi-religious realities.  This is a wonderful book. Thanks for writing it and for sharing it with us.