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Paradise Lost and Found

2012 May 24
by Paul Vallely

The Bible is the second book, says Gustavo Gutiérrez. Life is the first book. The liberation theologian is not making some Catholic point here about the Church predating scripture. He is not talking about those who wrote the Bible, but those who read it. Our life experience is the lens through which we engage with even divinely inspired words, says the Dominican who spent much of his life working among the poor in his native Peru.

For Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker art was the first book. Their volume Saving Paradise grew out of a trip round Italy and Turkey which the two American academics made in search of the earliest Christian art. As they wandered through ancient churches and catacombs they discovered that, for a thousand years, believers filled their holy places with pictures of Christ as a resurrected figure. Variously an infant, youth or bearded elder, depicted as shepherd, teacher, healer or enthroned god. It was only at the turn of the first millennium, with the rise of Latin Christianity, that the crucified Christ became the dominant image. It coincided, they concluded, with the Crusades and the embrace of violence as a legitimate expression of Christian obedience.  The tortured Jesus became the iconic focus.

What this meant, as wars were blessed as holy, was that Paradise – which had been seen as something which Resurrection created in the here and now – became transferred to some future life which the Crusaders were promised as a reward for jihadist martyrdom. Obviously this has profound implications for the notion of Atonement which many people today find hard to square with notions of natural justice.

But it also acts as an obverse of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus’ inquiry when he asks Mephistopheles how he has been allowed out of hell to visit him.  The devil replies: “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it”. Yet if Paradise is now, rather than in some hereafter, we clearly have our work cut out to get it into shape.

‘Saving Paradise’ is to be the theme of the Greenbelt this summer. Last weekend the festival ran a taster session with 10 speakers invited to reflect on Paradise Lost and Found in the world around us.

Four of the speakers tackled the state we’re in. The climate activist Tamsin Omond was blisteringly honest on how we have transformed the garden of Eden into a city. Ann Pettifor, formerly of Jubilee 2000, looked at the current debt crisis in Greece and the Eurozone. I considered the strengths and weaknesses of the global development industry (see for the text). And Symon Hill of Occupy lambasted contemporary capitalism.

The Professor of Future Studies at Nottingham University Business School, Christopher Barnatt, offered an intriguing glimpse of the unsci-fi possibilities technology might bring. And three speakers reflected on the tools for progress: Peter Graystone on the saving power of poetry and art; Lucy Winkett on our unacknowledged need for silence and Abdul-Rehman Malik with a piece of ecstatic inspiration on the power of coffee and conversation. Rose Hudson-Wilkin and Martin Wroe offered introduction and epilogue. “Are We There Yet?,” Mr Wroe asked offering hints on “How To Tell When You’re in Paradise”. Videos of the talks will appear on the Greenbelt website.

It was an afternoon of flashes of insight rather than prescriptive instruction. What all the speakers shared was passion and the intuition that Paradise will look different if it is conjured not from theological abstraction but from an encounter with facets of reality on the ground. Paradise, they suggested, is not some future Utopia but the gift of a more profound embrace of the present – and a determination to make it a place in which greater love is possible.

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