THE cover of Terry Eagleton’s latest book looks like a red rag to a Christian. A raised fist is pictured brandishing a cross, in the style of a Soviet propaganda poster. The cover hints at what Eagleton means by “radical sacrifice”. For him, the cross is political — and politics, especially left-wing politics, ought to pay more attention to the cross.
Eagleton is Distinguished Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University. He is an academic with radical credentials. Back in 1968, he signed the May Day Manifesto, and his books include Why Marx Was Right. Marx had no truck with religion, which he famously called “the opium of the people”. Eagleton is not so dismissive. He is one of those rare scholars outside theology to treat Christianity seriously. While some of his critics have called him a closeted Christian apologist, he actually gives equal weight to Christian thought and secular philosophy. That will make this new book equally bother militant atheists and Christian fundamentalists. For less dogmatic readers, there is plenty here to absorb.
Through five short chapters, Eagleton follows what sacrifice has meant from Calvary to Auschwitz, scapegoats to kings. Sacrifice is so radical, he writes, because it “concerns the passage of the lowly, unremarkable thing from weakness to power”. If Christians know this as resurrection, political radicals know it as revolution.
Eagleton explores sacrifice across an impressive scope (a research assistant gets credit in the preface). Besides reflections on the Gospels, there are lessons from literary characters such as Shakespeare’s Lear and George Eliot’s Dorothea. Even Harry Potter has a cameo. There are enough philosophers to fill a loud dinner party, and anthropologists provide the myth and ritual. With so much packed in, the book is deceptively slim.
A learned book can be a pleasure. Eagleton writes almost meditatively, and gives something to mull on almost every page. One way in which readers less steeped in literature and philosophy may like to use this book is as a sampler for discovering new texts. Besides the heavy topic, though, this will not be a book for the beach.
Eagleton is far from a stuffy, ponderous academic writer, but he does breeze through complex ideas at a pace that could overwhelm readers less au fait with Lacan and Nietzsche. One brief paragraph alone pulls in Jesus, three philosophers, one novel, two poems, and Martin Luther King, too. With so many voices, sometimes what Eagleton himself is saying gets a little lost.
Radical Sacrifice is not for the faint-hearted. The book will best reward slow reading and contemplation. But the revolution will not be philosophised.
Dr Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Aberystwyth University.
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