Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire

Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire

by Rebecca Ann Parker, Rita Nakashima Brock

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One of Publishers Weekly's Best Books of 2008 

During their first millennium, Christians filled their sanctuaries with images of Christ as a living presence-as a shepherd, teacher, healer, or an enthroned god. He is serene and surrounded by lush scenes, depictions of this world as paradise. Yet once he appeared as crucified, dying wasSee more details below


One of Publishers Weekly's Best Books of 2008 

During their first millennium, Christians filled their sanctuaries with images of Christ as a living presence-as a shepherd, teacher, healer, or an enthroned god. He is serene and surrounded by lush scenes, depictions of this world as paradise. Yet once he appeared as crucified, dying was virtually all Jesus seemed able to do, and paradise disappeared from the earth. Saving Paradise turns a fascinating new lens on Christianity, from its first centuries to the present day, asking how its early vision of beauty evolved into a vision of torture, and what changes in society and theology marked that evolution. It also retrieves, for today, a life-affirming Christianity that the world sorely needs.

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Publishers Weekly

Why are images of the crucified Jesus absent from early Christian art? When Brock and Parker, theologians and coauthors of Proverbs of Ashes, investigated representations of Christ in Italy and Turkey's first millennium of public art, they found pictured not death but earthly joy. Descriptions of this art (with sparse b&w photographs), quotes from early Christian writers and strong analyses reveal a powerful "genealogy of paradise" in this life focusing on the "ethical grace" at the heart of Jesus' message. Explorations of baptism, the Eucharist, beauty, martyrdom and human divinity (theosis) show an early Christian world where the resurrection had more hold on the imagination than the crucifixion. Brock and Parker locate the paradigmatic shift toward suffering, judgment and atonement in the bloody forced conversion of the Northern European Saxons by Charlemagne. The book's second half describes the harrowing adoption of "redemptive violence" in medieval Europe and the New World's Eden, built on genocide and slavery. This humane and often beautiful study of faith, loss and hope straddles the boundary between historical discovery and spiritual writing. (July)

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Library Journal

The doctrine of the Crucifixion is central to Christianity, but has it always been so? In this controversial new work, feminist theologians Brock and Parker (Starr King Sch. for the Ministry, Graduate Theological Union) argue that Christianity's original symbol was not a cross but a vision of paradise. Building on their earlier book, Proverbs of Ashes, in which they contended that Christianity's emphasis on the Crucifixion sanctions violence and abuse, they here assert that the Crucifixion was neither central nor relevant to early Christians' faith. They base this assertion, however, on their interpretation of early Christian art, largely ignoring historical and textual evidence to the contrary. In Part 1, the authors define their vision of paradise as an ethical, of-this-world community; in Part 2, they explore how the violence of the Crusades began to postpone the notion of paradise, transforming it into the doctrine of atonement and later offering it as an escape route from suffering. By reimagining paradise in this way, they attempt to reclaim it and thereby reclaim Christianity. Though the book presents some interesting new ideas, it would have benefited from greater focus on historical/critical scholarship. Recommended only for specialized collections.
—Brian Greene

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How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire

Beacon Press
Copyright © 2008

Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8070-6750-5

Chapter One In the Beginning ... Paradise on the Earth

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up-for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground-then the Lord God formed an earth-creature [adam] from the dust of the ground [adamah], and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the earth-creature became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden of delight [gan-eden], in the east, and there he put the earth-creature he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden of delight, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A river flows out of the place of delight [eden] to water the garden and from there it divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it is one that flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. The Lord God took the earth-creature and put him in the garden of delight to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the earth-creature. "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die." GENESIS 2:4-17

The four rivers were the visual clue that told us we were in paradise. In the apse mosaic of St. Giovanni in Rome, water poured from the dove, flowed down behind the cross, and became the four streams that fed the meadows of paradise. Seeing images such as this sent us to the library to discover what early Christian sources said about paradise. We knew that this image in St. Giovanni drew on the ancient Genesis text to picture the world blessed by the Spirit, and we discovered that the Genesis story drew on even older sources. Those ancient sources went all the way back to one of the first written languages in West Asia, Sumerian. Sumerian stories of paradise placed it on the earth and described how life was at its most fertile, just, enjoyable, and beautiful. In this chapter, we explore the ancient wellsprings of the Bible's stories and images of the garden of delight as they emerge in Genesis and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.

Just as in Genesis, however, Sumerian stories of paradise are accompanied by stories of what can go wrong: violence, competition, greed, and environmental catastrophes. The Sumerian paradise, called Dilmun, existed to the east somewhere nearby, as did Eden in Genesis. Because it could not be clearly located, it could not be conquered or destroyed. Instead, it was always there so that humanity would remember the ethical requirements of living in paradise and so that those requirements would hold accountable those who threatened it. Hence paradise functioned not only to describe life on earth, but also to provide the ethical measure of life. In this long multicultural genealogy of paradise, we trace various streams of its meanings. Most important, we show how stories of paradise place it on the earth and how they raise ethical implications about how humanity should live.


The genealogy of paradise begins in Mesopotamia (literally, "between the rivers"). The Tigris and the Euphrates originate within fifty miles of each other from the far western edge of the Himalayas in eastern Turkey. The two rivers diverge and wander a thousand miles southeast until they meet again in the Persian Gulf. This landscape generated a literature of paradise associated with mountains, rivers, and gardens, beginning with that of the Sumerians.

The Sumerians, a people of mysterious origins, migrated south from the mountains in Turkey in prehistoric times and settled in the hot, flat, fertile delta between the rivers. Around the fifth millennium BCE they began to master flood control and irrigation and built walled settlements. Their stories, first passed on in oral traditions, come to us as texts pressed on clay tablets that date to around 2100 BCE, near the end of their history. They recorded their myths in a phonetic script they invented, called cuneiform ("wedge-shaped"). One of the oldest written languages on earth, Sumerian became the scientific, sacred, ceremonial, and literary language for the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and many other surrounding cultures for centuries, despite the fact that it was related to no other language in the region and that, to become fluent, one had to master its separate dialects for men and women.

For subsequent cultures, Sumerian, the language and the culture, was the equivalent of Greek in Roman society or Latin in medieval Europe: the much admired classical language and culture of antiquity. Sumerians encouraged this view with stories of the glories of their rulers and gods. Their conquerors borrowed Sumer's stories in creating their own myths and used its script to write their very different languages just as, today, English is written with Latin script. The Bible itself indicates the importance of Sumer; Abram and Sarai (renamed Abraham and Sarah) trace their lineage back to Ur, the last capital of Sumer, from which they migrated westward to Canaan (Gen. 11:2613:12).

It is easy to see the traces of Sumerian stories in Genesis. Long before Genesis 1:2 came to speak of God's Spirit hovering over the deep waters, the Sumerians began their stories of creation with Nammu, the goddess of the watery abyss or primordial sea and mother of all the gods. Out of her depths, she created the god An, heavens, and the goddess Ki, earth. An-ki meant universe or cosmos. A great cosmic mountain united An and Ki in one solid block. The base of the mountain Anki was in the bottom of the earth with the underworld of the (lead and its top was in the heavens with the gods. This cosmic mountain held a three-tiered universe: the heavens of the gods, the earth of all living things, and the underworld of the dead. An and Ki had a son, Enlil, god of air, who separated the lapis lazuli dome of the heavens from the flat disk of the earth and created the world in the space between them. As we find later in Genesis, life on earth in Sumerian myths began with breath, wind, spirit-all translations of the Hebrew ruah, "a wind from God swept over the face of the waters" (Gen. 1:2). Enlil mated with his wife, Ninlil, goddess of air, to give birth to the celestial gods such as the moon and sun.

Dilmun, the Sumerians' paradise, was without conflict, blessed with abundant fresh water, thick forests, and gardens. There Nammu's son Enki, god of sweet water, mated with her daughter Ninhursag, another name for Ki (earth), goddess of the sacred mountain, to create the deities of earth and healing.

The land Dilmun is a pure place, The place, after Enki had laid himself by his wife. That place is clean, that place is bright. In Dilmun the raven uttered no cries, The lion killed not, The wolf snatched not the lamb, Unknown was the kid-killing dog, Unknown was the grain-devouring boar. The singer utters no wail, By the side of the city he utters no lament.

Also unknown were disease, hunger, war, death, and sorrow. The exact location of Dilmun was a bit mysterious. It was not Sumer itself, but was located just east of it on a sacred mountain. This combination of specificity of description and vagueness of location gave it both a sense of reality and of inaccessibility-a place true and real but belonging to no ruler, city, or civilization. Dilmun continued to be a synonym for paradise long after Sumer ceased to exist.

The Sumerians built ziggurats to replicate their cosmic mountain, complete with paradise: they united An and Ki (heavens and earth) linking the gods, humanity, and paradise. Rising from the river delta, ziggurats were rectangular towers, stepped to look like a mountain, with trees and shrines at every level. At the peak, one or more temples were constructed with a main sanctuary and multiple side rooms with altars for making sacrifices. The temples were lavishly decorated, with vividly colored mosaics and frescoes showing the whole range of life-giving community activities, such as planting, harvesting, herding, and processions to the temples. Beautiful flowers, guardian animals such as leopards and bulls, and mythical beasts such as eagles with lion heads and bulls with human faces adorned porticoes and sanctuaries. These centers of ritual, towering above the deltas, grew to contain housing for the community's priests, artists, engineers, scribes, and other trades-people.

Sumer's stories and art celebrated the goodness of ordinary life in ways we can still understand, depicted as activities of paradise. Their myths tell of gods enjoying sexual pleasure, making music, dancing, traveling about and having adventures, and encouraging the fertility of the land. They also waged wars in defense of the land against its enemies and mourned the deaths of those they loved. Inanna, a goddess who lost her shepherd husband, Dumuzi, to the underworld, played the greatest role in Sumer's epics of all the gods and behaved like any powerful deity. On many cylinder seals, she and other deities are shown riding in flat reed boats or striding up stepped mountains. All wear wide-brimmed hats with tall conical crowns-even Utu, the sun, wears a hat. Enki-the god who separated the sweet and salty waters-can be identified by the waves of water cascading from his hands or shoulders, which often contain fish.

A creative, resourceful, and practical people who figured out how to flourish on a hot, flat river delta, the Sumerians tell stories of gods who take pride in such inventions as the pickaxes they used to build canals that protected them from spring floods. Remains of their cities show they cultivated carefully planned gardens and created public architecture. Tablets found in temples give evidence that they held the resources essential to survival, what we might call public utilities-water, fields, orchards, flocks, and herds-as a community trust. Through their temple systems, which replicated the great cosmic mountain and its earthly paradise, they managed these resources by keeping written records of things held in trust and tracking how they were distributed.

The Sumerians told their stories of creation and paradise as a preface to their stories of the many gods. The prefaces were a literary formula such as "once upon a time when ..." or "in the beginning when God created ..." These recitations established the way the world was at its best, as a contrast to the stories they told of disasters, conflicts, violence, and war. The Sumerians loved their rivers, but a rare deluge could deposit as much as fifteen feet of silt in one spring season, so they had a story about a great flood with only one human survivor, Ziusudra, who gained "life like a god ... breath eternal." Ziusudra subsequently dwelt on a mountain in the land of Dilmun, the Sumerian paradise, somewhere east of the Tigris. Later biblical traditions pictured Noah landing his ark on Mount Ararat-the highest peak in the mountains at the headwaters of the Tigris and the Euphrates.

The Sumerians pondered the problems that accompanied centralized city-states and the rise of empires. Their stories spoke of inequality in the distribution of resources and the exploitation of forced labor', and they even suggested some of the problems of male dominance over women. Humanity was created, they said, because the gods were tired of all the work involved in farming the fields and digging calms. At a drunken banquet of the gods, Enki and Ninhursag, using clay, created six flawed humans to do the work. Enki created one human so feeble that Ninhursag was the only one capable of feeding it. Ninhursag cursed Enki and indicted him as a remote god who did not understand life on the land. She accused him of abandoning her when her city was attacked, her temple was destroyed, her son the king was taken captive, and she was made a refugee. Instead of helping her, she said, he tried to dominate her. Though the full contents of this curse are not entirely clear, Enki seemed to accept it as his due.

Early in the third millennium BCE, rulers rose up from the most powerful Sumerian city-states, centralized their control, and expanded their territories. Nippur became the center of the Sumerian temple system. Its patron deity, Enlil, the god of air, superceded older city-state deities, such as An, Ki, and Nammu, and his temple in Nippur collected tributes from them. Eventually, a king system existed alongside of or, in some cases, instead of priests to rule the city-states. Cylinder seals began to show kings approaching deities without being accompanied by priests, and the kings began to be seen as divine themselves.

By the time Sumer's myths were recorded, the Sumerians had experienced the rise and fall of several kings, who had consolidated power by unifying some of the city-states into a monarchy and conquered territories as far east as Syria. The last empire fell within a century or two of the time of the recording of the myths. The stories reflect on the costs and dangers of empires and the talents and liabilities of various kings. Arguments among the patron gods symbolize wars among city-states. The Sumerian hymns extolled their ideal king as like the shepherd Dumuzi, consort of Inanna, and they may have been sung by way of contrast with the real thing. The ideal king filled the granaries, protected the city, and was distinguished-looking, intelligent, daring, eloquent, learned, astute, courageous, just, kind, and pious.

In contrast to the centralized power associated with Sumer's actual empires and the glorification of its kings, the stories of Dilmun suggested that the deities of old held council meetings, and women and men held relatively equal power. The powers of the gods were limited to their spheres of influence, and they governed their spheres for the good and security of the whole. Dilmun's peace required the interactive functioning of all the powers, not the independent actions of heroic gods or one god lording it over all the others. The gods were capable of both good and evil, and the council managed the will to power of any one deity with ]minor, cajoling, negotiation, trickery, seduction, competition, scolding, and distraction. The council, when effective, maintained life at its best, and the stories of the gods of Dilmun contrast with life in the city-states. Dilmun depicts an image of Sumerian life as a confederacy of interdependent city-states or as a distant land no longer so easily accessed, even by the gods.

The Sumerians lived in Mesopotamia for several thousand years before a Semitic tongue began to supplant their language. During their later history, they saw a number of centralized kingdoms come and go, and powerful empires formed at their borders. The Babylonians conquered them for the last time around 2050 BCE, adapted their myths, and re-created their ziggurats. Babylonia transformed Sumer's myths into more aggressive tales of war, conquest, and male dominance. Nammu's creation of the heavens and earth became a deadly contest between the Babylonian dragon Tiamat, the sea, and her son Marduk, the warrior and chief hero of the gods who had been one of the minor sons of Enki in Sumer. Marduk slew Tiamat in fury. From this matricide, he took the two halves of his mother's body to create the heavens and the earth.

Sumer became the lost primordial culture of West Asia. By the time Genesis was written, the Sumerians' myths had been adapted and edited through more than a millennium of history in Canaan, where the legendary immigrants from Sumer, Abram and Sarai, had migrated. The kingdom of Israel emerged in Canaan under Saul (1029-1000 BCE) and David (1000-961 BCE). The Davidic dynasty collapsed with the death of David's son Solomon (961-922 BCE). The one nation Israel, composed of twelve tribes, became two kingdoms in 921. The Assyrians conquered and annexed the northern nation often tribes, called Israel, in 722 (2 Kings 17:5-6). The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar defeated the southern kingdom of Judah in 586 BCE and kidnapped its leaders, initiating five decades of exile for Judah's people. The term "Jews" was later derived from its name.


Copyright © 2008 by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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