reviewed by Barrie Miller Kirby
During this 500th anniversary year of John Calvin’s birth, a number of my colleagues are reading his Institutes of the Christian Religion. To keep the Reformed tradition and the white-walled, clear glass windows of the sanctuaries it birthed in historical perspective, I recommend Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker’s latest book. It will take you to places Calvin never would have gone.
In Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, Brock and Parker map the evolution of the image of paradise in sacred writings, art, architecture, and liturgy from ancient Sumeria through twentieth-century America. Their journey is literally a long one. Their research took them first throughout the Mediterranean and then to the far north of Europe.
They began, however, not in search of paradise, but in search of the corpse of Jesus. Much to their surprise, his body was missing. Instead of a crucified Jesus, in first millennium churches they found images of the living Jesus in “a lush visual environment: a cosmos of stars in midnight skies, golden sunlight, sparkling waters teeming with fish, exuberant fauna, and verdant meadows filled with flowers and fruit trees. Punctuating such scenes were images of the great cloud of witnesses, many dressed in purple robes of nobility (xiv).” The authors confirmed their suspicions — they were seeing an earthly paradise — by studying liturgy of the first millennium church.
In Part I of Saving Paradise, Brock and Parker explore the image of paradise in texts from ancient west Asia, the Hebrew Scriptures, and the Gospels; the relationship of paradise to martyrdom; the struggle of the church to maintain an understanding of paradise under an empire pressing for uniformity of belief; the rite of baptism as an initiation into paradise; and the necessity of maintaining paradise through a life of “ethical grace.”
The authors finally found the corpse of Jesus on the oldest surviving crucifix, the life-size Gero Cross (ca. 965) of Cologne Cathedral in Germany. This violent image of crucifixion has dominated western Christian art during the last millennia. With its rise in prominence, paradise was expelled from earth and transformed into a symbol of the afterlife. Liturgy changed as the Eucharist became a reenacting of the crucifixion instead of an embodiment of the resurrected Christ. The theology of the western Church also was revised. “War ceased being a sin and became a way to atone for sin. Killing became a mode of penance, a pathway to paradise” (p. 264).
In Part II, Brock and Parker explore the reasons for, and impact of, this shift in art, liturgy, and theology. The reader will experience Charlemagne’s tyranny over the Saxons; the Crusades and the theology of atonement that supported them; the growth of a piety of suffering and various attempts to escape it (including the Protestant Reformation); the conquest of North America; the attempt of Calvinist Europeans to recover paradise in New England; and the attempt to reclaim the goodness of the earthly world through the reform movements of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American Christianity.
This book intrigued me because of my love of Christian art. I grew up worshipping in a Methodist church under the watchful stained-glass eyes of the Good Shepherd and numerous saintly witnesses. With apologies to Calvin, I confess that the bare sanctuaries of Presbyterian churches often seem sterile by comparison. Saving Paradise provided a stimulating journey beyond the walls of the Reformed church.
Even those who prefer to worship within the white walls will benefit from reading Saving Paradise. In spite of Calvin’s scorn for “those whose eyes rove about in contemplating idols,” in recent years visual images have crept back into Reformed sanctuaries. These are fleeting pictures projected on screens rather than art permanently mounted in windows or painted on walls. They communicate to the worshipper nevertheless. But what do these images say? What criteria are used in selecting them? Saving Paradise can be a vehicle for contemplation and conversation about what and why particular images are selected to illustrate sermons, hymns, and liturgy.
Saving Paradise offers something for anyone interested in Christian art, architecture, symbolism, Church history, theology, or liturgy. A pastor will more likely read this book on study leave than while vacationing at the beach. Admittedly, it is a massive tome, but even at 552 pages, Saving Paradise is shorter than Calvin’s Institutes. And it contains something Calvin never would have allowed: pictures!
Read it anyway. John will never know.
Barrie Miller Kirby is a lover of Christian art and architecture, and minister-at-large in Salem Presbytery, Clemmons, N.C.