Religion Booknotes

God’s Many-Splendored Image
Theological Anthropology for Christian Formation
Nonna Verna Harrison
Baker Academic, $22.99, 224 pp.

Nonna Verna Harrison is a well respected patristics scholar with a special interest in the Cappadocian Fathers. In God’s Many-Splendored Image, she carries her learning lightly as she explores the significance of the biblical assertion that all humans are created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26).

That passage of Scripture has been the subject of powerful meditation throughout the history of Christian thought. One might even argue that Pope John Paul II rooted his entire project of social justice in this one statement. Harrison, an Orthodox nun and a seminary professor, echoes the common patristic notion that the word “image” names the stable foundation of human nature, while “likeness” captures the process by which we conform ourselves to the Trinitarian ground of our being.

Taking the typology of “image and likeness” as her fundamental theme, Harrison gradually develops the two concepts, covering a wide range of related theological topics along the way. As her subtitle suggests, she is concerned with how we are “formed” as Christians. Thus in chapter three, she considers how we can refresh our perception of the world so that we are better able to love God, our fellow human beings (all bearers of God’s image), and the rest of the world, understood as a gift. In the following chapter she addresses the connection between our likeness to God and the forms of moral excellence we call virtues.

Lest anyone think that an insistence on our being made in the image and likeness of God tends toward a self-involved spirituality, Harrison devotes the last four chapters of her book to the practical ramifications of her image-and-likeness theology—to the ways it deepens and clarifies our concern for the natural world and for every kind of justice in our human communities. In a chapter I found particularly arresting, Harrison shows how this kind of anthropology is related to the love of beauty and wisdom in both the arts and the sciences.

At the conclusion of God’s Many-Splendored Image, Harrison quotes Gregory of Nyssa’s observation that human identity is an unfathomable mystery because that identity is a mirror of God. In this rich and accessible book, Harrison has approached this mystery from many angles and looked at all of creation under the clear light it casts.

 

Full of Grace
Encountering Mary in Faith, Art, and Life
Judith Dupré
Random House, $40, 352 pp.

Of the Blessed Virgin Mary it is sometimes said numquam satis—“never enough.” For example, ever enough devotions, never enough books. Judith Dupré’s new book, Full of Grace, is a mélange of history, personal reflection, marginal quotations from other writers, and beautiful images of Mary. Much of the art is “traditional” and well known to anyone familiar with the history of Western art. The contemporary works are less famous, however, and some of them are quite stunning. I was left wishing for more of them.

The individual chapters follow the order of Mary’s life, but one doesn’t need to read them in order. The book’s various elements work together like a kind of mosaic; one may appreciate it detail by detail, starting anywhere. However briefly you browse, you will learn something. For example: Until I opened Full of Grace, I had never heard of “Blue Christmas,” which turns out to be a kind of para-liturgical rite for mourning and remembering. We are often reminded that Christmas can be a lonely time for many people. This celebration of a Blue Christmas in tandem with the feast itself strikes me as a tradition worth rehabilitating. More browsing will introduce the reader to Marian traditions all over the world, from the House of Loreto (and Ephesus) to the special connection between Mary and gardens. The author also has interesting things to say about the role of Mary in the Qur’an.

Although Dupré draws deeply from many scholarly sources, her book is not itself a piece of scholarship. It is instead a book intended for readers of all kinds, including scholars—a book well conceived, well executed, and beautifully illustrated.

 

Inspiration & Interpretation
A Theological Introduction to Sacred Scripture
Denis Farkasfalvy, O Cist
Catholic University of America Press, $34.95, 251 pp.

In Inspiration & Interpretation, Abbot Denis Farkasfalvy begins by looking at how the Hebrew Scriptures were first received into the Christian Church and then at how the New Testament obtained canonical status. He examines the liturgical—or, more precisely, eucharistic—context of the New Testament, as well as the theological character of its inspiration. Several chapters are devoted to a schematic summary of the history of biblical interpretation, from the patristic period through the Middle Ages to the present. I use the word “schematic” without prejudice: drawing carefully from the enormous literature on the topic, the author has economically condensed a very complicated history.

Farkasfalvy may be disappointed to learn that when his well-arranged book arrived I started with chapter nine, where he discusses Vatican II’s statement on divine revelation, Dei verbum. I did so only because it was near the beginning of the semester, when I have my undergraduates read Dei verbum before we look at the biblical texts in the syllabus. Farkasfalvy reminds the reader what difficulties the council had to overcome in order to produce the document, difficulties that explain some of its rough edges and less-than-final conclusions. He devotes the final chapter of his book to a systematic treatment of inerrancy and inspiration, both central topics in Dei verbum.

When I went back to read the earlier chapters, I discovered that they all provided the expository legwork for Farkasfalvy’s reading of Dei verbum. I suspect that the guild of Scripture scholars will not rise to greet this book with a harmonious hymn of praise. Farkasfalvy takes on some prominent peers, whom he doesn’t hesitate to name. His interpretation involves—and insists on—a hermeneutics of trust rather than one of suspicion. In the chapter on the eucharistic context of the New Testament, he argues that the entire New Testament be read in light of  “the spread of the Jesus tradition to communities gathered in cultic assemblies to witness, experience, and respond to the coming of the Lord.” The clear implication is that it is only within such communities that those texts come fully alive.

Farkasfalvy has been reading and thinking about these issues for forty years, and it shows. He writes with assurance, in a tone that is careful but not overcautious. More important, he writes from within the tradition he is discussing, and those who read from within this tradition will learn a lot from this book, as I did.

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906–1945
Ferdinand Schlingensiepen
T & T Clark/Continuum, $29.95, 472 pp.

Since the publication of Eberhard Bethge’s great biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer more than a generation ago, there’s been a raft of books about Bonhoeffer the man and his theology. Now comes another monumental biography written by Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, a German pastor and scholar—and a founding member of the International Bonhoeffer Society. Schlingensiepen has had access to papers, letters, and other documents not available to earlier biographers. He also has an impressive mastery of Bonhoeffer’s historical and cultural context.

This book makes it clear that Bonhoeffer’s opposition to the Nazis was profoundly theological. He may also have shared the instinctive disgust of the aristocrats who thought of Hitler as a destructive parvenu and, later, a psychotic criminal, but Bonhoeffer’s fierce rejection of everything Hitler stood for was deeply rooted in his own faith as a Christian. In the 1930s he saw that the plan to purge the “Reich’s Church” of all Semitic elements was an outrage against Scripture. Bonhoeffer was writing about the “Jewish Question” as early as 1933, and his rejection of what the Reich’s Church taught about the Jews was total and unwavering. He recognized right away that the National Socialists’ call for Gleichschaltung (“harmonization”) between church and state was an obfuscation. What the term really referred to was not harmony but Nazification, a form of both idolatry and blasphemy.

Against the ever-swelling power of the National Socialist state, Bonhoeffer saw that true Christianity had to evolve into a “life of uncompromising discipleship, following Christ according to the Sermon on the Mount.” It is in light of such statements that one can begin to understand Bonhoeffer’s later thoughts on “religionless Christianity,” a phrase he used in letters and meditations he wrote while in prison.

I was struck by the fact that Bonhoeffer was writings about the “signs of the times” (Zeichen der Zeit) in 1941. That phrase, widely known because of its use by the Second Vatican Council, took on a real poignancy as I read this splendid biography. Bonhoeffer went to the gallows less than a week before the war ended, one of a small minority who had understood the signs of the times in Nazi Germany and was willing to bear witness to them, even when it meant death.

Published in the 2011-03-11 issue: 
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Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.

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