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Behind faith’s interpretations

17 June 2016

John Binns considers two studies of cross and resurrection


Spiritual journalist: cover image of an icon of (St) John Cassian, Abbot of Marseilles, the author or editor of a fifth-century classic of desert spirituality, The Collations: Being a collection of twenty four conferences divided into three parts, translated by a Father of the Oxford Oratory. The translator, in an accessible introduction (Gracewing, £25 (£22.50); 978-0-85244-839-7), favours the view that Cassian and his companion recorded real conversations with 15 senior monks

Spiritual journalist: cover image of an icon of (St) John Cassian, Abbot of Marseilles, the author or editor of a fifth-century classic of desert spir...

Construing the Cross: Type, sign, symbol, word, action

Frances M. Young
SPCK £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

Resurrection: A guide for the Perplexed
Lidija Novakovic

Bloomsbury £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

FEW topics within the Christian faith have been more exhaustively discussed than the cross and resurrection. And here is the difficulty in grasping their meaning. The simple message of life can become obscured and hidden by the many interpretations. These two books use different methods to open up different approaches to these central events of our faith.

Frances Young describes her task as moving from “theory”, by which she means the various explanations of the atonement, to “theoria”, which she renders as “seeing through” from the Greek word that could also be translated as “contemplation”. She follows the approach of some of the Fathers of the Early Church, including the poetry of the fourth-century hymn-writer Ephrem the Syrian, to which she adds some of her own poems, and does this by exploring images, metaphors, rituals, and customs.

Some Christians in Syria, the quartodecimans, remembered both the death and resurrection on the day of the Jewish Passover rather than on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. This makes the cross into a new Passover, which leads the community from death to life and from slavery to freedom. Alongside this go themes of scapegoating and sacrifice, and she uses the work of René Girard and Mary Douglas to show what these meant.

She then shows examples of and comments on the symbol of the cross as the tree of life, recapitu­lating and reversing the disobedi­ence of an earlier tree in the garden of Eden, and then the more sur­prising image of the Serpent-Christ, reminding us of the serpent raised by Moses on a pole, and the serpent as not only the one who tempts Eve, but also an ancient symbol of wis­dom.

This is a book to be read slowly, and I am looking forward to returning to it, to allow myself to absorb its rich imagery and unexpected suggestions.

Lidija Novakovic also wants to reach behind the various interpreta­tions, in this case of resurrection. This has meant different things to different people. It is the great fact on which the Christian faith stands or falls, or it is a spiritual or meta­phorical experience, or a Christian legend, or maybe just the backdrop to the enjoyable customs of a spring festival.

She turns to the Bible and asks what the writers of the biblical accounts themselves thought and said. This is a careful and meticu­lous presentation, which uses other writings from the biblical period and the findings of modern scholar­ship to provide further background to the accounts of the resurrection.

The hope of resurrection is discovered not only in some Old Testament passages but also in other writings of the Second Temple period. She discusses altogether 15 of these writings, many of which were unfamiliar to me. She points out that no one actually saw or claimed to have seen the resurrec­tion, and so all the accounts de­­scribe reactions and experiences of the mysterious event.

First came the statements of faith which occur throughout the preach­ing of the apostles and the letters of St Paul. Then there is the empty tomb, and finally there are the ap­­pearances.

The author seeks to address the problem of the strangeness and inconsistency in the accounts by discovering the early forms of the traditions. She shows that there are different elements of the story — an understanding of scripture, a tomb that was empty, and some experi­ences of meeting the risen Christ — and these may not have been combined together until later. Then there is a discussion of the strictly historical evidence for the resurrec­tion, and finally a chapter to show how this event has shaped the theo­logy and practice of the Christian faith.

These books show how the people of the time thought, and what they meant when they wrote. They are written with rigour, beauty, and clarity, and will help the reader to see these great facts of our faith in fresh ways.


The Revd Dr John Binns is Vicar of Great St Mary’s, Cambridge, and an Hon. Canon of Ely Cathedral.

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