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Perceptive liturgical studies in search of a shape

25 October 2013

David Stancliffe learns much from the diffuse third part of a trilogy

The Sacred Community: Art, sacrament, and the people of God
David Jasper
Baylor University Press £33.50 (978-1-60258-558-4)
Church Times Bookshop £30.15 (Use code CT923 )

THIS is the third book in David Jasper's trilogy - The Sacred Desert (2004) and The Sacred Body (2009) are the earlier two - and completes his discursive review of the relationship between literature and the arts in the service of theology. His oblique pursuit of the near-sacramental quality of the arts is, I suspect, an act of homage to his father, Ronald Jasper, for many years chairman of the Church of England's Liturgical Commission, who is the memorial dedicatee of the opening chapter.

The introduction tells us that the writing is not to be read as an exercise in academic theology, so much as in theoria, understood in its Eastern sense of "gazing", or "contemplation", to use a highly Westernised word.

What is the effect on us of this theoria, this way of looking and learning? "Therefore how you read can become as important, perhaps, as what you read and how you understand," is the tantalising clue to the process of writing which this ruminative book embodies.

Chapter 1 on "The Bible and Liturgical Space" begins with Lacoste's phenomenological question: "Who am I?" which needs to be answered in the context of the liturgy concurrently with the question, "Where am I?"

Jasper explores the space and place of encounter with the divine through poetic imagination from a small room at a university in Beijing, where he was a visiting professor, to the universal paean of praise in the Sanctus. It is followed by a meditation on the sacrificial nature of the eucharist in Chapter 2, where the Isenheim altarpiece of Grünewald provides the central artistic image, and his reflection centres on the eucharistic community as the sin-eater.

Chapter 3 pursues Mark's "evangelical novel['s]" theme of betrayal and denial as a leitmotif in literature. This leads to a reflection on Egeria's pilgrimage in Chapter 4 as a type both of liturgical practice and literary convention.

Reflection on the late-medieval primer and its particular use by the imprisoned St Thomas More to bind his prayer to that of his family and the Church Universal leads to a consideration of the place in the life of England of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer (Chapter 5). Jasper ponders the distinctive incarnational voice of George Herbert and the earthy English poetic tradition before turning to art in Chapter 6, and to the realist French painter Georges de la Tour's paintings of the penitent St Mary Magdalene.

Next (in Chapter 7), he considers the question how we may know the mind of God, and escapes into the world of Coleridge for his thesis: "it is the extraordinary capacity of the human mind to think in words outside and beyond words, to hear and enact an impossibility through a medium that can dare to allow in words the unsayable to remain unsaid."

In the words of the mystics and poets, Jasper is instantly more at home in his supposition that theoria can be practised intellectually only in verbal constructs; but what about music? Is not this a conspicuously missing element in his intellectual analysis? Would not Bach and Haydn, let alone an exploration of the relationship between words and music, which is what Monteverdi was doing in his opera Orfeo, help to rescue him?

The next chapters study the 20th-century phenomenon of isolation induced by "Communities of Oppression" (8); and "The Politics of Friendship in the Post- Christian West" - can we have any common ground philosophically with the generation that has no understanding of what we are on about (9)?

An interesting chapter (10) seems to refer back to the opening exploration of how we become who we are in the defined space, with a helpful analysis of Rudolf Schwarz's seven "ways of thinking and realizing symbols of place and movement". In some ways, this is the most coherent and well-planned chapter; it pre-existed as an article in Theology in 2011.

The rest of the book is a plea for engagement with art as the way to find common ground with the unbelieving generation who throng art galleries and concert halls; and here music does at last find a men- tion, or rather the unheard music of the deaf Beethoven's final quartets.

What do these varied reflections add up to? I am not convinced that they were conceived as an integrated whole: if they were, I am not sure what coherent purpose they serve. None the less, this is a book that will teach you something new, and bring you up short with a novel insight on every page. But, as a constructed theological narrative, it is, I find, much less satisfactory than the trilogy by David Brown, God and Enchantment of Place (2004), God and Grace of Body (2007), and God and Mystery in Words (2011).

As a liturgical construct, it is so deconstructed as to be maddeningly diffuse, and lacks the basic liturgical principles of shape and unfolding direction, let alone the ability to catch people up in the process and weave their story into God's. So, whom is this clever and engaging book, from which I learnt a great deal, actually for? Or are we just eavesdropping on Jasper's conversations with himself?

The Rt Revd Dr David Stancliffe isa practising musician, liturgist, and author of The Lion Companion to Church Architecture; he was formerly Bishop of Salisbury and chairman of the Liturgical Commission.

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