LEONARDO DA VINCI
Painter at the Court of Milan National Gallery
9 November 2011–5 February 2012 Admission £16, concessions available
WHAT THEY say is true. This is probably the one chance you’ll get to see so many of Leonardo’s paintings hanging together and with their preparatory drawings. And the paintings by his followers aren’t very interesting, which is part of the point. And you do need to book.
If you think Leonardo’s that special. The late Lucian Freud said he wasn’t. Freud used to say that what he liked in a painting was a sense of weight and volume, and the tactile qualities of what is being painted – skin, if it’s a person. And looking at Leonardo he found him soft and insubstantial. He reckoned all the brushstrokes are cleared away to create a sort of airbrushed effect.
Freud is right to make us look at the paint. And the paint is part of the problem with Leonardo. The original paint is often painted over or has decayed so his subtle colour schemes have been lost. This is made clear from the Royal Academy’s copy of the ‘Last Supper’, which gives us many details we would not otherwise know about, but the colour scheme is also crude compared even to photos of the original. Secondly, later overpainting has usually defaced the original – in the recently attributed ‘Salvator mundi’ only Our Lord’s hand raised in blessing shows the work of Leonardo, but that stands out so much as to give the painting its attribution. Even the ‘Lady with an Ermine’ has lost some of the balance of its design because of the touching up along the sitter’s left.
So the best preserved paintings cannot give us the full range ofpainterly effects Leonardo achieved. But we can see that the smoothness of the features comes not so much from brushstrokes but from the artist’s fingers. The skin is beautiful and it has a sense of volume created by light effects and moulding which come from intense looking. It is a very different use of the medium from a Freud or a Rembrandt. Leonardo doesn’t celebrate his paint – just as well since it so often let him down – but he celebrates what paint can do.
And what his paint does is preserve beauty and suggest the presence of the spiritual within the physical. This spiritual presence was not merely a rarified beauty as we might suppose from Freud’s comments. Not only did Leonardo enjoy extreme, characterful physiognomies in the manner of Rembrandt or Messerschmitt, he made extremes part of a picture’s overall design. In this show it is the drawings for the ‘Last Supper’ which suggest Leonardo’s fascination with high emotion and the characterful rather than just the beautiful face. Among the paintings, only the sketch of St Jerome points the way towards the Baroque with its precise depiction of old flesh as a medium for searing penitence, and the swirling design which includes one of the first really good lions of the modern age.
By contrast the women are more serene. Perhaps too much so in the ‘Madonna Litta’ where the turning of the big baby Jesus away from his mother to the viewer has been precisely captured, but the Madonna is very smooth. She makes Freud’s point, and the smoothness and absence of modelling was one of the reasons why Kenneth Clarke – whose book on Leonardo remains the best introduction to the artist – doubted it was by Leonardo.
The four big pictures in the show – the two Madonnas of the Rocks, the ‘Lady with an Ermine’ and the woman who isn’t the Belle Ferronnière – are not just serene. They have a mysterious psychological depth, and in the case of the two ‘Madonna of the Rocks’ a real sense of the incarnational. These Madonnas make a contrast. There is the earlier and less restored Louvre version and the National’s own later and more clinical version. All sorts of things have been said about the stand-off between these two pictures and whether they represent the choice between growing old gracefully or having a brash facelift, or the choice of guessing what is in the picture and seeing it all too clearly. The National’s Madonna does have an icy quality to it and the mystery is stripped away. But the Louvre’s charms need their softer lighting and the faces are a little more stiff and medieval. Alongside the two paintings, the preparatory drawings for them are excellent. They reveal how Leonardo took his fantastic rock formations from life and how he struggled to develop the structure of what is a Madonna della Misericordia. They are also very fine drawings – just look at the folds of flesh on the study of a baby.
And then there are the two great portraits. It is not often you go into a gallery and hear people argue which of the sitters was the most beautiful and that is a sign of Leonardo’s triumph – he has preserved recognizable human beauty. The twisting figures, the delicate modelling, the colours, the character of the sitters – this is great painting both in conception and in execution. It may not be Lucian Freud’s way – imagine Kate Moss as painted by Leonardo alongside Freud’s version – but it is a benchmark for what can be done with paint. Leonardo deserves his crowds.
IN THE BEGINNING
Choir of Merton College, Oxford/ Benjamin Nicholas, Peter Phillips Delphian, £14.99
THE DECISION to set up a new choral foundation at Merton College, Oxford, was a daring one, but one which has been vindicated by the choir generally,
and in particular by this recording. Attractively presented, the sleeve notes are articulate and insightful, highlighting the numerous links between the pieces chosen and the chapel in which they were recorded. The repertoire on the disc is diverse in style, ranging from works by Weelkes and Gombert to Eric Whitacre’s When David Heard.
The disc opens with a work commissioned for the choir, In the Beginning was the Word by Gabriel Jackson. This is an impressive piece of writing, setting a not often-used text. The colours of the Merton organ are shown in a good light by the writing and in the performance of the organ part. Choosing to begin the recording with a mainly homophonic first section highlights the good blend that this young choir has achieved. The soloists are excellent, and sensitive to each other in their unison passage. Guy Cutting also shines in his brief solo during the more recent setting of When David Heard.
A couple of general points arise from the first track. First, with respect to the balance of parts, the soprano line is occasionally heavy, due simply to the number of singers involved. There is an attempt to counter-balance this by employing a large bass section, which works in the contemporary repertoire to a very pleasing extent, but slightly less so in the polyphony of Weelkes, for example. This links into the second general point, that the choir seems more comfortable in the twentieth- and twenty-first-century sound-worlds – though this is not at all to say that such pieces are easier to sing than Palestrina’s Nunc Dimittis. It seems to this listener that the sheer size of the forces involved is more that of a medium-sized chamber choir than a polyphony ‘consort’.
There are very few weak points on the disc (the alto section melisma in the central portion of the Whitacre is notoriously difficult to tune), and despite the occasional lapse in tone from the soprano section, the intensity of the tone clusters in Whitacre’s offering indicates the commitment that these young singers have to the music. Diction and energy are exemplary throughout, especially, for example, in the ‘Gloria Patri’ of Holst’s setting of the Compline canticle.
The choir is aware of its capabilities, and confident placing of the widely-spaced chords in the Łukaszewski Nunc Dimittis again highlights the possibility of excellent blend and balance achieved through the hard work done with the choir by Peter Phillips and Benjamin Nicholas over the past several years. The excellent singing by Beth Mackay in Copland’s In the Beginning in no way overshadows that of the choir, which accomplishes the shifts in tonality well.
I commend this recording wholeheartedly: the new choir based in the chapel of Merton College, Oxford, is certainly worthy of the beauty of the acoustic it is privileged to fill.
SONGS OF WAR
Simon Keenlyside/Malcolm Martineau
Sony Music, £15
AS THE sleeve notes make clear, this beautiful album was a labour of love for baritone Simon Keenlyside. He has selected songs which reflect not only the horrors of war itself, but also poetry and music which deals with many of the wider issues thrown up by war and the poets who have recorded its devastating impact on the lives of those caught up in it. Thus there is savage, uncompromising poetry by Walt Whitman put to music by Kurt Weill; and a poignant account of the haunted homecoming of war-scarred soldiers in ‘The Lads in Their Hundreds’ from A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, sung here to George Butterworth’s music. But there are also more indirectly appropriate items such as John Ireland’s setting of Masefield’s poem ‘Sea Fever’ and Vaughan Williams’ setting of ‘The Vagabond’ from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Songs of Travel. These poems, and others like them, reflect ‘a longing for home and loved ones, for pubs and well-remembered country lanes, for rivers, friends, laughter, health and home.’ As Keenlyside points out in his touchingly personal notes, such songs reflect a yearning, searching quality at which the war poets at their best excel.
There is beautiful poetry and beautiful music on this stunning CD. Keenlyside’s voice is on fine form, ably supported by the accompanist Malcolm Martineau. Ireland’s ‘The Three Ravens’ and Somervell’s setting of Housman’s ‘The Street Sounds to the Soldiers’ Tread’ are particularly enjoyable.
Songs of War is a valuable record of some powerful but rarely performed English (with one or two exceptions) song. But it is also more than that: it is a testimony to the Spirit of Man which throughout history has proved itself capable of rising above the self-inflicted terrors of war to search for a deeper meaning to the staples of mankind’s existence: life, love and death. Indeed, as Keenlyside again points out, war poetry is concerned just as often with life as with death, and this lends a poignant optimism to the songs collected here, despite their frequently serious subject matter. The result of all of this is that although there is no explicitly Christian material on this disc, it nonetheless asks many of the questions which Christian moral theology seeks to answer. These are perhaps the questions which prompted Keenlyside to make this album. He writes: ‘Such a perplexing species, Man, with his penchant for waging innumerable and shattering wars against his fellow man. It is a strange legacy of this amazing species of ours…The songs ‘The Three Ravens’, ‘The infinite shining heavens’ and particularly ‘Thy hand in mine’ are the best and only recourse, defence, comfort, joy and consolation to that feeling of absolute incomprehension over the meaning of life … namely love.’
This is a gem of a disc.
HANDING ON THE TORCH
Sacred Words for a Secular World Edited by John Young
York Courses, Booklet & CD pack
THE YORK Courses are well received by many as a means for individuals and groups to deepen understanding of Christian faith as they think through big questions facing humanity. This latest product geared to Lent 2012 is a five-session course with participant’s booklet, CD and transcript of the audio material. It gives great flexibility for groups to be creative in the input they choose to engage with. Wisdom is shared by Archbishop John Sentamu, Bishop Graham Cray, journalist and broadcaster Clifford Longley, Methodist Church adviser Rachel Lampard, John Young and Simon Stanley of York Diocese and the former Archbishop of York, David Hope.
This year’s theme is about Christianity’s struggle in western society and what we make of it. Even if four million Bibles were printed and distributed in China in 2009 and a third of English churches are growing, the relationship of church and society in the UK is becoming difficult. In 1910 the Thames tides were such that the Universities boat race had to be held in Holy Week and this happened uncomfortably without post-race celebrations. A century on, the Christian vision is in a very different place. It no longer predominates. Gay rights triumph over religious rights. There is a new militancy in parts of the church but that is disowned by the majority. Discontent among Christians about the church has led to the ‘Fresh Expressions’ movement but it also represents a loss of confidence. Meanwhile many engage with the church as spiritual consumers balking at the challenge of accountability that being a disciple of Jesus has always been about.
Handing on the Torch is a resource that invites engagement with some of these themes via a booklet rich in illustrations of where church and society are at, with audio contributions on the same theme from leading Christian thinkers. These all come from ‘the best sense of liberal’ churchmanship and provoke both thought and heart-searching along with John Young’s booklet and over twenty substantial quotations from contemporary observers. The capacity to select short tracks on the CD on different topics is a great advantage in customizing a course. As you listen to the CD some topics addressed in order are abortion, disestablishment, euthanasia, whether sex is like food, vocations, the gay adoption crisis, surrogate mothers, bishops in the House of Lords, the Pope’s visit in 2010, experience of God, multiculturalism, horoscopes, atheism, church growth, the Eucharist, wearing crosses in public, and the Holy Spirit.
John Sentamu gives powerful testimony to the call of God upon his life and to how ‘in Christ alone we know ourselves as we truly ought to be as human beings’. Unsurprisingly he defends the Christian establishment and the governance of Britain as ‘the Queen in Parliament under God’. Nevertheless he expresses impatience with the church and people’s failure to see Jesus in her, and inviting more prayer to the Holy Spirit. Clifford Longley affirms the Eucharist as central to Christianity and reality. On sexual ethics he has critical loyalty to his Roman Catholic tradition but laments Freud’s duping of so many into ‘this idea that anything that doesn’t involve constant sexual activity is going to be bad for you’. He is critical of those who see wearing crosses in public as necessary obedience to Christian faith and says it is better to just be yourself where you are as a Christian. Rachel Lampard recognizes the quest for visible Christian unity is on the back burner but applauds many ‘coalitions of the willing’ re-engaging with particular issues from across denominations. She is cautious about church growth projects that draw like-minded groups together and counter the unity in diversity basic to what is Christian. Graham Cray insists that ignorance of Christianity more than secularism is the church’s main challenge with a third of all adults in England having never been to church. He notes how discontent with the church among her members is triggering creative renewal including ‘Fresh Expressions’.
Handing on the Torch is a great resource that will find additional mileage in churches, like my own, lighting beacons on 4 June 2012 for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and seeking resources to help communities look forward from that national anniversary symbolism. As Graham Cray says on the CD: ‘we have some wonderful heritage …but we are not a heritage faith. We are the people of the future’.
A Call to Adventure John Twisleton
BRF, 176pp, pbk
978 1841018959, £7.99
ANGLO-CATHOLICS HAVE sometimes struggled to find suitable material for teaching the faith, be it for the Lent course, confirmation classes, or as a catholic equivalent to the popular Alpha course. This book is not prepackaged for immediate use at any one of those events, but it offers a solid foundation upon which priests, preachers and teachers can build to create a course suitable for their particular needs and circumstances. At the end of the book there is a guide to using each chapter with groups, so that with a little effort at local level, a seven-part ‘Meet Jesus’ course could be prepared and delivered. An appendix also prints the Common Worship texts of the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and a list of the Sacraments. Meditations, mostly from or based on Scripture, punctuate the text, and each chapter concludes with a list of bullet-points ‘for action’. So the book could equally be used by individuals, or given as a Confirmation present. The only practical tools which are not provided are an index and bibliography, though there are thorough notes which in themselves provide ample suggestions for further reading.
The author, a frequent reviewer in these pages, is a parish priest and missioner, and those two strands of his experience are woven into this introduction to the exciting adventure which awaits those who take seriously the invitation of Jesus to follow him. In addition to his own practical experiences, Fr Twisleton quotes from an engagingly wide variety of sources, from Teddy Roosevelt and Mark Twain to John Wesley and Evelyn Underhill, via Teilhard de Chardin and the Curé d’Ars.
Meet Jesus begins by establishing the fact that faith in Jesus Christ is reasonable; that is to say, it is not ludicrous to believe in Jesus Christ. Important as the use of reason is though, belief in Jesus Christ inevitably involves much more than that: it also requires faith, which is the subject of the second chapter. ‘As in any friendship, there is a gradual revelation of one self to another,’ Twisleton writes, before going on to give an account of what it is that friendship with Jesus entails, an account of what Christians believe. His exposition of the Trinity is particularly helpful, concluding ‘only when we talk of love does the mystery of the Trinity make sense.’
Thereafter, Twisleton examines in turn the place of worship, prayer, fellowship, service and witness. He is particularly good on worship, which is God-given and at the heart of which lies sacrifice. He is also very helpful on prayer, which he defines as ‘the bringing of the whole self to God.’ But this is more than simply a theoretical analysis on prayer: there are lots of good, practical tips about how to pray, an area in which even the most dedicated Christians need all the help that is available!
Meet Jesus adopts a conservative (small ‘c’) stance, as typified in the insistence that ‘truth is something outside us that challenges us, not just something we think out for ourselves’. It is never nakedly denominational or factional, but does without question come from a catholic, sacramental and liturgical perspective. Having said that, Twisleton offers some interesting comparisons between charismatic and more formal types of worship, concluding that both are ways to Meet Jesus provided we approach them with open hearts. The final chapter, on Witness, holds up Mary as the example par excellence of contemplative, visionary, obedient, Spirit-led and Church-nurtured discipleship of Jesus Christ.
In discussing mission, Fr Twisleton quotes Rowan Williams describing mission as ‘finding out what God is doing and joining in.’ This book is above all a valuable reminder that to Meet Jesus is to be invited to join in his desire for the coming of the Kingdom. God calls, we follow. Our task is to open our minds, ears, eyes, hearts, lips, hands, and ultimately our whole lives to enable us to respond to that call. Meet Jesus will help people on all stages of the Christian journey to do just that.
LOVE SET FREE
Meditations on Christ’s Passion
Martin L. Smith
Canterbury Press Norwich, 80pp, pbk
978 1848251007, £7.99
THIS SLIM volume contains the meditations given by the author at a Good Friday liturgy in 1997. At the time he was a member of the North American Congregation of the Society of St John the Evangelist, which published the talks a year later. They are now made available in the UK for the first time, with a new introduction.
The book consists of six short meditations, each designed to provoke longer periods of prayer and contemplation in the reader. Smith argues that to an extent unique among the Gospels, John is designed to get to the inner meaning of the events it describes; and he frequently seeks that deeper meaning by referring back to earlier events in the Gospel. So a good familiarity with the whole of John, along with the time and patience to pray and ponder on these meditations, is necessary if the reader is to get the most out of this book.
The meditations themselves are each based on a key phrase from the Passion narrative, which is then woven around a thematic title for each chapter: Embodiment, Vulnerability, Intimacy, Desire, Union, Silence. So in Pilate’s proclamation, ‘Here is the man’ as he reveals Jesus to the crowds, the reader is encouraged to behold the mess which we have made of our own humanity through our capacity for self-destruction; but also the one who is most fully human, because he is one with God.
The Community of Love which Jesus establishes amongst his Mother and the Beloved Disciple is formed at the foot of the cross: this is Love in its purest form, itself crucified and set free, untainted by the desire to possess or control which invariably damages human love.
Jesus’ thirst on the Cross shows us both our thirst for God, but also God’s thirst for us; not a mere benevolent wishing but a passionate, burning desire. Atonement – at-one-ment – is won on the Cross because at that moment those two thirsts are united in Jesus.
The Passion reaches its climax with the violent, degrading penetration of the dead body of Jesus by the centurion’s sword: as a result of which flows from Jesus – just as he said it would – both the water of Baptism and the Precious Blood of the Eucharist, which is ‘no mere fellowship meal or vague memorial… [but] a matter of life and death’.
Smith does not shy away from the horrific violence of the Crucifixion, but he urges the reader to search for the deeper meanings which lie beyond it. So he points out that even from the banal sport of the watching centurions comes a symbol of the unity which is both God’s gift and his self-expression and which we desire for ourselves, in the form of the seamless tunic which is left in one piece. And in his final meditation, Smith moves beyond the violence and concentrates on the silence of Good Friday evening; a silence which only Christ can break with his words of greeting on Easter morning.
Inevitably, some of Smith’s insights resonated with me more than others, but they all made me stop and think. It would be easy to read this book quickly, but to do so would be a waste. It would make a fine companion for a Lenten retreat or quiet day, or daily reading for Holy Week.
WRITING THE ICON OF THE HEART
In Silence Beholding Maggie Ross
BRF, 128pp, pbk
978 1 84101 878 2, £6.99
THERE ARE so many good, rich insights in this book: ‘All our ills come from the loss of silence and beholding, our failure to listen and our insistence onour flawed and limited interpretation…’; ‘The public rhetoric of religion employs such words as ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ even while it is taking away our sense of wonder…’; ‘The tragic search for security in exterior validation makes us hostage to what other people think..’.
The book blazes with originality. Maggie Ross is an anchorite, a solitary – a role which she manages to combine with that of a professor of theology who spends her winters teaching in Oxford. She is a mystic, a contemplative, a strong supporter of negative theology and the apophatic way. She is so enthusiastic about these things that she almost becomes fanatic.
But I must start with misgivings. First, the author permits Professor John Barton in the Foreword to say, ‘This is not a book about ‘spirituality.’ It most assuredly is a book about spirituality, and a highly intellectual one at that. Secondly, I wish Maggie Ross did not say, from time to time, ‘Put more simply.’ This is patronising. Moreover, it raises the question of why, if a topic can be put more simply, it was originally made difficult!
But there is no mistaking the spiritual depth in her book. Anyone who reads it will come away with a transformed view of prayer and the spiritual life. Maggie Ross offers no anodynes and she is brave enough to insist: ‘Most worrying of all is our unwillingness to accept pain as part of the ordinary tissue of life, and the waste and suffering that are the consequence of efforts to avoid it at all costs.’
Yes to all this. And again, yes, yes. But I am troubled by what seems to me to be her extreme emphasis on the way of silence to the exclusion of other aspects of religious life and devotion, and especially doctrine. If we are only permitted to speak of God in terms of what he is not, then where does that leave positive dogmas such as the doctrine of the Trinity? The church has always had regard for mysticism as a noble pathway of the spirit, but at the same time insisted that mysticism needs to be complemented by doctrine. Mysticism and Dogma are equal partners in any mature religious understanding. Goethe expressed this as the necessary tension between Dichtung und Wahrheit – poetry and truth. Without intuition, poetry and the mystical endeavour, devotion can become staid, unimaginative and therefore uncreative. But mysticism without dogma is in danger of drifting off and becoming entirely free-floating, heterodox and Gnostic. Here is another example: ‘Why do we still say Creeds that failed to pacify a Roman empire that became extinct more than 1500 years ago, words that attempt to define what should be left to silence?’ Answer: because left undefined, false and misleading definitions will prevail. Sometimes mystics forget that heresy is a real possibility. There is also occasionally the sense that mystics who pray the prayer of silence are the really first-class Christians and that the rest of us, imprisoned as we are alleged to be in mere words, are not quite up to the mark.
But there is more profit than loss in this fervent and faithful book. Nowhere more movingly than when Maggie Ross answers her aged mother’s fears about death in these words: ‘My views on this subject are mindlessly simple. I think the universe is made of love and that when we die we are somehow drawn deeper into that love.’
THE CHRIST JOURNEY
Sister Wendy Beckett Reflects on the Art of Greg Tricker
Sister Wendy Beckett
and Greg Tricker
St Pauls Publishing, 144pp, hbk
978 0854398225, £45
THE ARRIVAL of this book was an unexpected joy. The Christ Journey was an exhibition of the English artist Greg Tricker’s work mounted first at Gloucester Cathedral and subsequently at Westminster Cathedral in the chapels of St Patrick and St Andrew. In this handsome, large-scale book from St Pauls Publishing, Tricker’s art is splendidly reproduced alongside a commentary/meditation for each piece from the well-known religious art critic Sister Wendy Beckett.
The Christ Journey is not a straightforward narrative of the life of Christ. It is, rather, illustrative of Christ’s ‘cosmic journey through all time’, and also of the journey with and in Christ which all his disciples must undertake. Thus the first picture is of ‘The Christ Boy’ – a youth in a carpenter’s workshop, ready for work but holding a dove which symbolizes freedom; and the last work is a sculpture made of oak entitled ‘The Grail Boat’, portraying the journey of Joseph of Arimathea with the Grail to Britain. In the thirty or so works which come in between, Tricker explores aspects of Jesus’ life and mission, focusing particularly on the great ‘I Am’ sayings and on post-Ascension images from the lives of St Paul and St John and other, later saints including St Francis and St Clare.
Sister Wendy’s meditations are profound and moving, going well beyond the function of simple commentary, though she is also a competent guide to the intricacies of Tricker’s imagination. Her commentary on Tricker’s woodcut print of John the Baptist is a particularly fine example, developing into a beautiful meditation on the vocation of the forerunner of Christ, ‘turning away from the darkness of self towards the demanding brightness of the Lord.’ Tricker’s depiction of ‘Christ Washing the Feet of the Disciples’ shows him kneeling at the feet of an unseen disciple, washing the feet in a copper bowl glowing red. Beckett suggests that the disciple represents ‘Everyman and Everywoman who needs help or who needs cleansing.’ This is, she suggests, a depiction of ‘what it means to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The red glow of the copper bowl brings to mind that our purification will be achieved through Jesus’ death.’ What a thought! It had never occurred to me before that although it is the penitent who kneels in the confessional it is in fact the priest who is the servant in the relationship, as he humbly confers upon the penitent the absolution of the one who knelt and washed the feet of his friends.
What of the art itself? To put it simply, I wish I had seen the exhibition! Tricker’s art is at times sublimely beautiful, and worthy of his exalted subject. There are several styles or themes which recur, of which my favourite is a use of translucent blue which Beckett tells us Tricker sees as indicative of the Spirit. ‘The Woman at the Well of Samaria’ and ‘The Nativity’ are shot through entirely with this translucency, as is to a lesser extent ‘The Christ Boy’ with which the book opens, suggesting that this technique also portrays vulnerability and fragility. Another feature of Tricker’s art which captivated me is his portrayal of his subjects’ eyes – big, wide eyes, full of emotion and depth: very truly a gateway to the soul. The use of colour to highlight the stark choice between darkness and light is another technique of Tricker’s which is picked up and emphasized by Sister Wendy.
The book itself is beautifully produced: high-quality reproductions of the art, with (in most cases) one close-up detail on the following page. Full details of each work of art are given at the beginning of the book, meaning that the information is there for those who want it without ever distracting from the art itself.
At £45, this is not a cheap book. But is one of great value.
JESUS AND THE SUBVERSION OF VIOLENCE
Wrestling with the New Testament Evidence
Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld
SPCK, 190pp, pbk
IN THE November 2011 issue of New Directions John Turnbull reviewed The Blackwell Companion to Religion and Violence: also appearing in the latter part of last year was T.R. Yoder Neufeld’s Jesus and the Subversion of Violence. The author of this book is Professor of Religious Studies (New Testament) at Conrad Grebel University College, of the University of Waterloo in Canada – a Mennonite foundation. Over seven chapters his book looks at the place of violence in the New Testament, from Jesus’ own language and behaviour through St Paul’s teachings on subordination to the imagery of warfare employed in the Book of the Apocalypse. Discussion of the Cleansing of the Temple, and the Atonement, takes place over the course of a whole chapter respectively. Yoder Neufeld is astute in his description of the variety of forms of violence encountered in the New Testament, askinginparticularwhether the vocabulary of violence in Scripture enshrines or subverts its reality. He emphasizes the importance of interpretation and the reader’s context in colouring the violent implications of texts, and criticizes those who would pre-emptively mute the violence of New Testament writings. The author also considers structural, societal and cultural manifestations of violence. The critical methods of academic scholarship are here sensitively employed, but alongside an awareness of their limitations and, indeed,
their appropriateness in specifically Christian attempts to understand the New Testament. For example, Yoder Neufeld writes that ‘[p] utting Jesus on the [therapist’s] couch strikes me as an exercise in anachronism, moreover one in which the therapist does all of the talking.’ This book is frank in its admission that violent ideas lie, often uncomfortably, at the heart of the New Testament, even where they lie alongside strict prohibitions of actual physical violence. The vindication of enemy-love in God’s judgement, and the question whether the centrality of the Cross in salvation ‘makes suffering and death ‘redemptive’ and violence thereby intrinsic to ‘good news”, are but two instances of material making for uncomfortable reading. The eschatological dimension of patient suffering is stressed, and the discussion of the Apocalypse and the ‘ideology of empire’ is excellent. Jesus and the Subversion of Violence is not only an overview of New Testament texts and themes: it is also indirectly a proposal for Christian engagement with the world. Key ideas include the repeated concept of forgiveness as an act of power and sovereign freedom, ‘aggressive hospitality’, and the distinction between non-violence and anti-violence. Yoder Neufeld concludes that the use of a vocabulary of violence in the New Testament is often ironic, and speaks to Christians ‘caught up in the costly, confrontative [sic], anti-imperial stealth invasion of the empire through their exercise of deliberate, defiant and hopeful vulnerability’. The writing in this book can be engaging, and on the whole evidences clarity of thought and a persuasive rhetoric of argument. Occasional lapses into informal turns of phrase jar – for instance, the author has an unfortunate tendency to speak of ‘folks’, where ‘ordinary people’ or an equivalent would fit better. Much of what this book has to say is useful both to the scholar and to the thoughtful Christian, and has immediate relevance to the life of the Church as well as to the lives of individuals.
Richard Norman ND