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The Historical Jesus

Jesus through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture

by Jaroslav Pelikan
Yale University Press, 270 pp., $22.50

In the thought of the Eastern Orthodox Church a distinction is made between the holy icons placed on the iconostasis—the screen separating the sanctuary from the rest of the church—and other pictures of precisely the same sacred subjects. It is as though the former are so thoroughly suffused by the divine light that they are inwardly transformed, become places where a hint of the glory that lies, ordinarily, beyond the world is manifested. Some of this thought about the interpenetration of earthly and heavenly things is carried over into Latin Christianity, as in the use of the halo or nimbus in iconography and perhaps most strikingly, for here a factual claim is made, in the phenomenon of stigmatization, the reproduction in the bodies of saints, most famously in the case of Francis of Assisi, of the wounds of the Cross. One has to add, to keep things in proportion, that for both East and West the supreme instance of the coming together and interpenetration of heaven and earth is to be found in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, and here, so far as the senses go, nothing speaks directly except as a sign. That for a certain kind of devotional thinking the bare sign wasn’t enough is evidenced by the medieval legends of bleeding hosts.

Such considerations as these would not be relevant to a discussion of the place of Jesus and his image in the history of our culture if they were to be made by one for whom the question was like that of the influence of Plato or Socrates or of the Buddha or Confucius. But Professor Pelikan, one of our best ecclesiastical historians, is also, as he makes plain, a Christian believer. This is one of his qualifications for the task as he sees it. He adds to his immense learning a lively Lutheran faith which does not inhibit his deep sympathies for Catholicism and Orthodoxy. A professor belonging easily to the world of learning, he feels himself as close to the simple devout as to the learned. He writes with authority on the historical matters he has to examine as he goes about giving an account of the place of Jesus Christ “in the general history of culture”; but as a believer he assumes a further responsibility, that of interpreting what for others will be simply the data of history as instances of the irruption of the divine into human life and the material world.

Some things will be for him iconic in the strict sense. In some cases, one is tempted to say that this must be true for nonbelievers, too. The stylistic force of, say, the great mosaics at Ravenna is such that virtually everyone who beholds them must at least understand what it would be to take such images as having behind them forces that do not belong to the phenomenal world. This is true of many other instances cited by Pelikan, notably, at the beginning of the modern period, the music of Bach. But understanding imaginatively how something could be so and seeing the stylistic force that prompts the imagination as truly evidence for the reality of faith are at bottom distinct matters, though not in such a way as to make conversation impossible.

The first two thirds of Pelikan’s book are brilliantly successful. The image of Jesus is not simply a visual image, the Apollo-like figure of the catacombs, the Pantocrator of the Byzantine mosaics, the tortured man on the cross of late medieval piety; it is also “image” in the sense in which a critic may speak of a poetic image without any suggestion that he is necessarily dealing with a poetic rendering of a visual image—poetic images don’t have to be cashable in the language of sense perception. Thus Pelikan is rightly concerned with the history of doctrine and with the connections between the development of Christian thought and philosophical and scientific speculation about the universe. The argumentative structure of Christian theology, the taking up into this theology of such terms as Logos, the great controversies about how rightly to formulate the relations between the divine and the human in Christ, all these things constitute the grammar in accordance with which the images are read.

The image of Christ is everywhere, as child, as man, as the incarnate Logos, as king of the universe. In these various guises, the image enters into all human relations, not only into painting, music, architecture, and poetry, but into political and social relations and into the convention for the recording of time. (How to date Easter was a crucial matter in negotiations between Celtic and Latin Christians in Britain.) Earlier questions about the relations between the divine and the human in Christ convulsed the masses of New Rome and Alexandria. The controversy within the Franciscan order over evangelical poverty troubled the politics of Europe and became an issue in the struggle between Empire and Papacy. In the Middle Ages Judgment scenes painted on the walls of churches or carved above the cathedral’s portals were matters of immediate concern to ordinary people. As late as the seventeenth century Europe lacerated itself over theories of grace and over the right relation between Church and State; at least, this is how it seems to be. There is of course no shortage of reductionist accounts of such relations.

Even if we accept, as Pelikan does, Karl Holl’s judgment that “the Reformation…enriched all areas of culture,” there can’t be much doubt that the Reformation of the sixteenth century marked the beginning of a thorough process of secularization in Western European culture. The syncretistic culture of Catholicism which had been and continued to be the chief bearer of the Christian image in all the arts except, in part, in music narrowed and became poorer. (Pelikan notices but perhaps doesn’t make enough of the iconoclastic side of Protestantism.) There were wonderful Catholic achievements—the whole culture of the Baroque, for example—but in the main ecclesiastical culture became simply that: something that stayed within the seminary and the sacristy. Even those figures who are the glory of Catholic culture after the Reformation—Richard Simon, the biblical scholar, for example, or Mabillon and the Bollandists from whom comes so much that is distinctive in the modern study of historical material—were ill-regarded by the ruling Church powers of their day. And their writings, in the short term, made for secularization. The critical study of Scripture and the critical study of legends of the miraculous in ecclesiastical history both diminished the popular sense of the wonderful and suggested that all the rich phenomena associated with the living cultus of Catholicism belonged to a simple-minded time now over.

With the modern world, roughly from 1780 onward, Pelikan no longer treats Jesus as having a place in popular as well as “high” culture, and this not because Jesus is absent from popular culture—I will say something about this in a moment—but because the figure of Jesus began to present problems for the educated man. In the age of the Enlightenment we have Jesus made acceptable as the one who “republished” the religion of nature and is thus, as Pelikan puts it, the apostle of common sense. We have the eviscerated Jesus of a variety of “biographies” from Strauss to Renan. This version of Jesus necessarily led, in the nineteenth century, to a demand for something more strictly historical and less a priori, and thus we reach a great turning point, the publication of Albert Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus. Schweitzer concluded that the apocalyptic passages of the Synoptic Gospels were written in expectation that the last days were impending and represented the original preaching of Jesus, who was certainly not a serene moral teacher; and that in the end he died frustrated, deceived, and alone. This view at least removed the discussion from the level of triviality at which it had settled down. Pelikan gives us some wonderfully banal pieces of writing by Ralph Waldo Emerson; for example, “A true conversion, a true Christ, is now, as always, to be made by the reception of beautiful sentiments.”

The discussion of the nature of Jesus, the deliverances and limitations of historical criticism, the approach to the New Testament writings as evidences for the beliefs of the first Christian generation, the new and—to many—surprising reawakening of dogmatic theology under such influences as those of Karl Barth and Karl Rahner, all these have transformed the problem for both believers and unbelievers. One troublesome consequence is that authority apparently comes to rest in the hands of scholarly men, most though not all of them clerics, Catholic or Protestant. It seems an odd result of so much intellectual turmoil that men should be persuaded that what they are to believe in matters of religion should be prescribed to them by professors. There are many ways around this, some of them traced by the professors themselves.

There is one manifestation of the presence of Jesus in modern culture that Pelikan doesn’t look at in any detail: the image of Jesus, and of Christianity in general, in religious kitsch. This may be thought to be largely a matter of popular Catholic culture, especially in the visual arts, as is made plain by the flood of “holy pictures,” statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Sacred Heart, that proceed from the shops that sell such objects; into the home, the church, and the funeral parlor. These are often treated indulgently. But kitsch must include more than the golden-haired Madonnas, the epicene statues of Jesus, the twee pictures of the infant Jesus emerging from the tabernacle and simpering at the congregation. It must also include music, and the words of the liturgy, and hymns as well. Pelikan does cite a splendid example of verbal kitsch, and it is clear that he is not unaware of the problem. The example is:

I come to the garden alone,
While the dew is still on the roses.
And the voice I hear,
Falling on my ear,
The Son of God discloses.
And He walks with me and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own.
And the joys we share, as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

He describes this as sentimental and censures it for its individualism; but he doesn’t discuss it as what it surely is, a terrible degradation of religion not simply as a purveyor of the false and the unworthy but as a kind of nastily flavored religious jello, a fouling of the sources of religious feeling. It is as though the image of Jesus is caught in a cracked, discolored distorting mirror in a fun house.

The ravages of visual, musical, and verbal kitsch account for some of the more puzzling features of contemporary Christianity (and perhaps of other religions too). It is not something absolutely new. The origins of kitsch in religious painting go back to Carlo Dolci and perhaps even to Raphael. Once the severe conventions of Byzantine iconography were abandoned, the sentimentality that is one element in kitsch became harder to avoid. And the nineteenth century is the great source of musical kitsch. But in our own day many of the religious elites are incapable of distinguishing between what is kitsch and what isn’t.

This confusion accounts, in part, for the immense disappointment that has in Latin Christianity followed the use of the vernacular in the liturgy. The old Latin liturgy was, except here and there—in the great Benedictine abbeys, for example—a fossil, though even in this form it was able to generate great passion and devotion and was able to touch the merely curious with a sense of mystery. But what has replaced it is flat and touched with verbal kitsch. The word “values” has actually crept into the translations of the Roman collects, as if “those things that are good” would choke a modern congregation. And the hymns and hymn tunes that have become a part of the modern liturgy in many places are sometimes so foolish and embarrassing as to provoke a suspicion of practical joking.

If we are to describe the impoverishment of religious culture in the countries of established Christianity, kitsch is not the only category we need. The New English Bible and the New American Bible don’t plunge into the depths of kitsch. They exemplify mediocrity, almost a fear of the powers of the language. Perhaps we perceive this mediocrity rather easily because the archaic translations are so readily to hand; and whatever the defects of these simply as translations, their nobility is plain; it belongs to the age of Shakespeare and Jonson. No one wants the new translators to give us pastiche. But the art of writing nervous, direct prose that avoids clichés and vulgarisms is not lost.

Pelikan’s interesting late chapter, “The Liberator,” begins with Dostoevsky’s account of the prisoner Jesus face to face with the Grand Inquisitor. The moral of the story is taken to be that the Inquisitor fears Jesus because he is a liberator who aspires to free men from a necessary slavery. But this liberator vanishes into the dark alleys of the town having given the Inquisitor a farewell kiss. Unless we have misread Dostoevsky, Jesus will find in the dark alleys the whores, the thieves, the drunkards, and will give them a message of salvation which may indeed be considered liberating, and which is an implied criticism of the ethos of respectable society, but isn’t at all liberation in the sense of modern liberation theology in, say, Latin America.

This recent version of liberation theology, insofar as it looks to the powers of political society to establish a Christian society on the ruins of the established disorder, is really at one with the vision of the Grand Inquisitor. At any rate, the legend of the Grand Inquisitor is a curious preface to the topics that follow in Pelikan’s account: the social gospel first represented in the United States by the Abolitionist movement, then by Gandhi, then by Martin Luther King. The “icon” is provided by Julia Ward Howe’s “In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, / With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me; / As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free, / While God is marching on.” Pelikan makes this piece of verse a coda to his chapter and even calls it a “stirring summons to live and die in the name of Jesus the political Liberator.” I find this hard to understand. It seems clear that for Howe Jesus died to make men holy, whereas it is for us to die to make men free; and the latter will come about through the march of God in the world, a very Hegelian notion.

The book concludes with a short discussion of the worldwide influence of Christianity through a European-centered movement, part military and commercial, part missionary, an influence that has had limited successes, notably in Africa, but has made little advance in those countries that already had established civilizations and religions—India and China, for example. He glances at some of the famous might-have-beens, and gives high marks to the Jesuit Matteo Ricci who might have brought off the implantation of Christianity in China but for the opposition of his coreligionists and the inability of Rome to see what was at issue. Pelikan also considers what may be the moral for Christians now that it is reasonably clear that the mass conversion of the world isn’t going to happen. How is one to think of the relations between Christianity and the other great religions? (These are sometimes called “world religions,” though it is doubtful that they are this or aspire to the position. Perhaps some branches of Islam do.)

Pelikan ends with a few words on the relations between Christianity and Judaism, and this enables him to bring out once again a theme he has much emphasized: the universality and particularity of Jesus. He writes that both universality and particularity are “grounded in the figure of Jesus the Jew”; and that Jesus “now…belongs to the world.” A flat, or flat-sounding, conclusion to a book that is, in its first two-thirds, full of excitement and interest.


Christian Kitsch May 29, 1986

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