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The mystery of suffering revisioned. (Books).

Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker

Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us

Beacon Press, 2001. $26.00 (cloth).

When does the image of a suffering and dying Savior cease being redemptive and become instead a sanction for enduring violence? This question is as deep as the human psyche which, as Heraclitus warned, is fathomless. The authors, Rita Nakashima Brock, a research assistant at Harvard Divinity School and ordained Methodist minister, and Rebecca Ann Parker, a professor of theology and president of the Starr King School for the Ministry at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, were tempted to contribute a theological tome on the subject of atonement theology, but opted instead for an approach rooted in story. This approach is at once the book's strength and weakness.

There are two dimensions of story in the book: those heard by the authors in the course of their ministry and the stories they tell of their own life paths. The former, as reported by Parker, set the tone by the literalness of their interpretations.

It is difficult to argue against the idea that Christianity condones violence, the main theme of the book, when parishioners confess to maintaining abusive relationships because "doing the will of God (is) more important than...personal safety," (18) uttering cliches such as "Your life is only valuable if it's given away" (18) and "This is your cross to bear," (18) or being counseled by priests to "rejoice in sufferings because they bring me closer to Jesus" (21).

Some parishioners even leave her church when Parker shapes her sermons to challenge the "ways that Christian theology has formulated the doctrine of the atonement, claiming that the death of Jesus on the cross saves us" (28). Her groping for a new theology goes well beyond preaching the need for revolt against slavish obedience and victimization as she turns her church into a sanctuary for battered women. Salvation, she discovers throughout the story of her life, lies in loving concern for others, not in enduring needless suffering.

The heart of the book unfolds more profoundly in the stories of endurance and denial told by the authors about themselves. Parker's personal story involves coming to terms with an abortion she decided to have without adequate reflection, resulting in the loss of what was to be, as she puts it, her only child. This event serves as a paradigm of self-sacrifice in her life that becomes clear only as she digs into repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse by a next-door neighbor.

Brock's story is shaped by the influence of her native culture and is from the outset a story of social alienation. Hers is not a story of overt abuse but of losing her ancestors and roots upon relocation of her family from Japan to the United States, and in her youth to a small town in Kansas where she was taunted and ostracized by her classmates at school. Brock identified the pain she felt as an object of racial discrimination with the violence done to Jesus. Because of the identification she does her best to swallow the pain just as Jesus suffered in silence. Her story, like Parker's, involves a gradual discovery of connections that make possible a kind of wholeness that does not eradicate the childhood pain, but makes some sense out of the losses.

The collective effect of the stories may not amount to the force of Augustine's Confessions, to which the authors compare their opus, but it does present a powerful example of the unsettling effect of women's perspective in a tradition dominated for two thousand years by men. The authors claim that feminism was the strongest influence in their intellectual formation and that it helped them both to recognize and resist the tacit victimization of a theology of atonement. Surely Parables of Ashes documents another small step for womankind on the religious front.

In opting for the story-telling format, the authors make an empirical contribution to the study of religious themes and their power to affect psyche and society, however negative the example. The book is certainly more readable because of its approach than any theological treatise, and could well qualify as a popular book-group selection for many. However, there are many questions that remain not only unanswered but also untouched in this work by women who are both theologians and scholars.

One wonders, for example, why the term "goddess" is mentioned only once, in passing, throughout the whole book when the spiritual qualities (listening, mutual presence, care for others, resistance to violence, self-respect, etc.) suggested in the "new theology" the authors seek are epitomized in goddess spirituality. As one of Parker's friends reportedly comments toward the end of the book, "This is California. Get another God" (195). Feminists in search of authentic spirituality have been doing this (for the last twenty-five years) in just the revolutionary style these authors seek.

Barring such total rebellion, one wonders why nothing is mentioned of the work of Thomas Berry, who claimed (in The Dream of the Earth as well as writings dating back to the 1970s) that redemption theology was a wrong turn the Church took in the fourteenth century after the Black Plague. Or in league with Berry, what about the work of fellow Californian Matt Fox and the Creation spirituality movement whose whole point was to revivify Christianity through a rethinking of creation and God's gifts rather than his suffering? Even the feminist/goddess angle has been incorporated by Berry and Fox with Fox, in The Coming of the Cosmic Christ (1988), going so far as to reclaim Christianity in the name of the Cosmic Christ whose attributes are more those of the Great Mother than the suffering servant.

Brock and Parker provide rich grist for the revisionist mill, but not a new idea. Perhaps this is no flaw and this disturbing book accomplishes its aims simply by echoing Job:

I desire to argue my case with God. As for you, you whitewash with lies; all of you are worthless physcians. Your maxims are proverbs of ashes, your defenses are defenses of clay. Let me have silence, and I will speak, and let come on me what may, I will take my flesh in my teeth, and put my life in my hand. Job 13:1-4

More power to them.

Amy Hannon teaches Comparative Religion and Environmental Ethics at the College of Staten Island.
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Title Annotation:Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us
Author:Hannon, Amy
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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