Art • Music • Film • Poetry • Books
Grace Carol Bomer
John Christman, SSS
“The incarnation made visible the invisible. God became a man. Spirit and flesh were brought together, as were the invisible and the visible” (Grace Carol Bomer).
Word and Image. Logos and Eikon. Theological aesthetics has been drawn again and again to these perennial Christian touchstones, like a moth to a fluorescent flame. John’s gospel begins with the Word becoming flesh and dwelling amongst humanity. Thus, Word and Image seem indelibly joined in the incarnation.
But debate instantly springs forth on numerous fronts when considering what this might mean for the arts. The veneration of images, the Old Testament ban on producing graven images, the question as to whether representations of Christ are permissible, whether there is a way in which Christ can be depicted such that both his humanity and divinity are respected, a sacramental manner of seeing the world, the possibility of inculturated depictions of Christ, all of these find their way back to the incarnation, Word and Image.
Of course, these are questions mostly for theologians. Artists have long since gone their own way, leaving Church constraints aside and following their own muses. Western art, so indebted to Christian subjects and Church patronage has pursued other philosophic and aesthetic goals in modern and post-modern times. A plurality of styles and ideas now reign.
However, given time, distance, and creative freedom, it seems like some of the dust of these often-contentious art movements and explorations is beginning to settle. Internationally renowned artists like Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke have received and completed large-scale commissions for liturgical art. Artists well versed in current aesthetic ideas and styles are directing their energies to engaging religious subjects. And even the distinction between “word” and “image” seem much less hard and fast in contemporary art.
Enter Grace Carol Bomer, whose aesthetic language is equally adept with palette-knife swaths of color as it is with scrawled poetic script. Her paintings are filled with dramatic colors and religious texts. Here a biblical passage drives through the layers of paint like an ice-breaking ship, there a pericope emerges from a thick encaustic mass like an archeological discovery. Neither word nor image compete for primacy upon her canvases, nor do they rest in an uneasy tension. Instead, the opposite is true. Word and image find beautifully harmonious and ecstatic expression in her hands.
In lesser hands, references to poems or scripture passages could make a painting illustrative. The enigmatic and evocative elements are lost, and the painting becomes secondary to the text. Great art aspires to more than mere quotation. When the illustrious artist Cy Twombly scribbles a line from Rilke across a sea of murky white and green paint, we don’t simply read a quotation as much as we encounter a profound exegesis that illuminates a spirit that animates artist and poet alike. Twombly is not attempting to illustrate Rilke’s subject. Instead, Twombly and Rilke are pursuing the same subject.
The same could be said of Bomer’s artistic endeavor. Her paintings are animated by the same transcendent longings as the poets and religious writers whose words emblaze her canvases. However, whether they are her words or the words of Scripture, they merge seamlessly with her exuberant colors and forms to direct the viewer to the divine. Abstraction plays an important role here, for how can a person imagine the divine? How does the finite evoke the infinite? The task is impossible, and yet artist and poet alike cannot refrain from artistically expressing their awe and wonder.
An excellent example of this is her painting entitled Seek the True Center. A cascade of blacks and midnight blues speckled and streaked to conjure an abstract, starry firmament slowly opens to a warm light. The subtle orange and yellow glow creates an intimacy within the vast space. The lightning-bright gold leaf pulls our gaze, keeping us from getting lost in the depths. The energetic lines swirl and coalesce into words, “Seek the True Center.” The artist directs us to the Beauty that brings all things into being.
Perhaps less enigmatic, but nevertheless equally inspiring is her work entitled The Vision of the Seven Golden Lampstands. Here, Bomer draws more explicitly from biblical sources, namely, the Book of Revelation. Revelation, chapter 1, verses 12-13 convey John’s description of the messenger of whose words follow. It reads: “Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and when I turned, I saw seven gold lampstands and in the midst of the lampstands one like a Son of Man, wearing an ankle-length robe, with a gold sash around his chest.”
In Bomer’s imagining of John’s vision, the golden lampstands cleverly frame and contextualize the experience, but what is of unique artistic insight is the figure of “one like a Son of Man.” The white paint in the upper half of the painting gently shifts to a subtle purple as it underlies the figure. This aesthetic device makes the gold leaf figure practically leap from the canvas . . . radiating its own light.
And what is the figure? It is the Hebrew text for Jesus. It is “The Word.” Indeed, in Bomer’s hands, it is both “Word” and “Image” seamlessly presented as one. In works such as these, Grace Carol Bomer clearly demonstrates that she has a contribution to make not only to Christian art, but to theology as well.
A Celtic Prayer
Be gentle when you touch bread,
let it not lie uncared for — unwanted.
So often bread is taken for granted.
There is so much beauty in bread,
beauty of sun and soil,
beauty of honest toil.
Winds and rain have caressed it.
Christ often blessed it.
Be gentle when you touch bread.
The Gregorian is a Pontifical University that dates its founding to Saint Ignatius Loyola in 1551. Its name honors Pope Gregory XIII, who gave it a great new building some years later. Among its alumni are 17 popes, 72 canonized or beatified saints, a third of the present College of Cardinals. and 900 living bishops.
Presently, it has 3,800 students from 150 countries. Most of the students are seminarians, priests, or religious who are there to do a graduate course in theology, but it also offers a number of licentiate and doctoral degrees. In recent years, a growing number of lay men and women have studied at “the Greg.” It is under the authority of the Society of Jesus and most of the faculty are Jesuits.
Father O’Collins is an Australian Jesuit who was invited to teach at the Gregorian in 1974 and retired to Australia in 2006. That’s 32 years! A person, especially one living in Rome, can experience a number of adventures, meet a myriad of people, interact with a global faculty, and develop keen insights on how the Church operates. As I read this book, I imagined a great uncle who had been away from the family for many years. He gathers everyone together in the den around a warm fire and begins to tell stories of where he has been and what he has been up to. That’s pretty much the nature of this book.
O’Collins primarily taught systematic theology courses to students at the master’s level, but he did help licentiate students and doctoral students with their dissertations. As Rome pretty much closes down in the summer due to the heat, the universities are closed. O’Collins was encouraged to accept invitations to teach at universities elsewhere in summertime. These experiences are part of the narrative.
He tells stories of some of the more illustrious and some of the quirky Jesuits who lived with him at the Gregorian. He writes of the intrigue in the Vatican and the absolute meaninglessness of the phrase, “Rome thinks.” There are far too many sources, which are in some cases diametrically opposed, which express what “Rome thinks,” to make any of them truly credible.
During his years in Rome, O’Collins served under three popes — the very end of Paul VI’s years, the 33 days of John Paul I, and the long pontificate of John Paul II. He holds all three in esteem and had great regard for John Paul II, except for three areas which he discusses at some length: the increased centralization of the Church under his influence, the pope’s interference in the government of the Society of Jesus with his appointment of Father Paola Dezza as interim superior general, and his very negative assessment of “liberation theology.” He dedicates an entire chapter to the funeral of John Paul II, which was truly an international event.
The Gregorian University has as its chancellor the prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education and its vice-chancellor the superior general of the Jesuits. As a first-class university of scholars, many of its professors publish. (O’Collins himself has written or co-authored 61 books.) Some of these books have been negatively received by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and one of them was written by the Gregorian’s former dean of the School of Theology, Jacques Dupuis, one of O’Collins’ friends and a fellow Jesuit. The book in question had to do with religious pluralism and the CDF came down hard on some of Dupuis’ ideas. O’Collins served as Dupuis’ representative in the hearing.
While the Dupuis case was a difficult time, O’Collins records the fond memories of the youth he worked with, the international friendships he developed, his many lively dinners in Rome’s innumerable cafes, and the interfaith encounters he enjoyed.
Alumni of the Gregorian will enjoy the book as it will spark memories of their own time at this esteemed university. Other will enjoy the stories of this man who made Rome his home for over three decades.
Patrick J. Riley, DMin
Book Review Editor
Without a doubt this is the best book I read last summer! This book is filled with homilies, talks, and texts penned from the hand of Pope Francis and delivered by him from 2013 through 2016. Fifty-three homilies or talks, all of which were offered to priests, bishops, or members of the Roman Curia.
The texts contained in the book are not always given in their complete form, as the editor, Giuseppe Merola, tried wherever possible to limit what is in the book to those passages in which the pope referred explicitly to priests or bishops. From Chrism Mass homilies in Saint Peter’s Basilica to ad limina visits, from Christmas greetings in Clementine Hall to visits to priests in Bolivia, in the grandeur and beauty of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City to the simplicity of the Mass chapel at the Casa Santa Marta, page after page is filled with wisdom, wit, inspiration, insight, fraternal correction, and fatherly advice as only a Shepherd of God’s people could give.
Bishop Robert Barron wrote the Foreword and highlights four significant points about the writings of Pope Francis that can be found on every page of this book. Bishop Barron suggests that Pope Francis’ writing expresses a spirit of closeness and pastoral availability, a spirit of spiritual detachment, a spirit of joy, and, finally, a spirit of prayer. These four elements are at the very heart of what the Shepherd of the Church is calling priests and bishops to cultivate in their ministry and their service to all of God’s people.
The book is an easy read, in that no one talk or homily is more than four or five pages. It is the kind of book that can be used for personal spiritual enrichment or as fruitful food for retreat talks and ongoing formation for clergy. I would especially recommend this read for priests’ prayer groups to use as a source for conversation over the course of a few months or a year’s worth of meetings.
I highly recommend With the Smell of the Sheep. I suspect this book will not simply be a good book for the pile next to your easy chair or a book that will collect dust on the book shelf. It has the potential to be used as a wonderful resource for years to come!
Thomas M. Dragga, DMin
Pastor, Resurrection of Our Lord Parish
President, The National Organization of Continuing Education of Roman Catholic Clergy
A comic and film critic in academic robes, Terry Lindvall brings the perspectives of scholarship and popular culture to God Mocks. As the C. S. Lewis Chair of Communication and Christian Thought at Virginia Wesleyan College, he is the author of ten books on a spectrum from the academic to the light-hearted, including The Mother of All Laughter: Sarah and the Genesis of Comedy. While God Mocks stakes its claim at the academic end of this range, it is accessible in style and abounding in entertaining examples.
Lindvall opens with an Introduction that identifies religious satire as “moral outrage expressed in laughter.” Taking his title from Psalm 2:4, “The one enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord derides them” (NAB), he reminds us that satire holds a mirror up to society. What’s more, if we look with fond or biting humor on the community of faith, we have to account for ourselves, with all our faults and foibles, in the crew.
Chapters present well over 200 practitioners of religious satire, in a chronology that begins, as promised, with the Hebrew prophets and ends by invoking Monty Python, The Onion, and The Colbert Report. Early chapters recall the joy with which Christian martyrs faced death, including Saint Lawrence, burnt on a grill and now patron of butchers and chefs, and the burlesques on parade in the medieval Feast of Fools.
Galloping from Jerusalem and Rome to Canterbury, Utopia, and Lilliput, Lindvall packs his middle chapters with satirists familiar and unfamiliar. Rabelais and Marguerite of Navarre, one of very few female authors noted, rub elbows with the lesser-known pseudonymous Martin Marprelate (“bad prelate”). A chapter on Continental works of the modern age describes not just the parables of Søren Kierkegaard but also the Don Camillo stories, modeled after Camillo Valota, a priest who survived Dachau. Historic U.S. authors range from Ben Franklin and Mark Twain to H. L. Mencken, who took on the Bible Belt during the Scopes “Monkey Trial.”
As a visual device, Lindvall draws what he calls the Quad of Satire, created from two intersecting axes, the horizontal stretching from ridicule to moral purpose and the vertical from rage to humor. The graph repeats in each chapter, with satirists’ names on banners positioned according to Lindvall’s assessment. Inserted also is a signature of 16 glossy pages with satiric visual images; and end materials include not just an index but 48 pages of notes and six pages of bibliography.
If the Introduction observes that in the church “laughter resides in both the pulpit and the pews,” the Conclusion warns that, despite its noble goal to “bring about positive change through humor and wit,” satire can be misunderstood. Readers of Lindvall will certainly understand satire better, while homilists who borrow from his wealth of examples will prompt at least a few hearty laughs from the pews.
Christine De Vinne, OSU
Professor of English
Pepper Pike, Ohio
Elizabeth Johnson, one of America’s premier theologians, has written a provocative treatise on redemption. Although aimed at a popular audience, the work presents a comprehensive critical analysis of Anselm’s satisfaction theory, and attempts to bring readers to a contemporary understanding of redemption as it applies to all created reality.
While the satisfaction theory served well enough in its time to make sense of the crucifixion, it failed in several ways to account for New Testament beliefs. For example, it sacralized violence and neglected the resurrection. These and other deficiencies motivate Johnson to look for a more adequate theory of redemption.
Eventually, Johnson settles on a theology of accompaniment to describe redemption as God’s companionship with creatures everywhere on their journeys through creation. She offers a good analysis of how the Wisdom tradition lies behind the Johannine theology of the Word. She borrows Niels Gregersen’s concept of “deep incarnation” to emphasize that, when the Word became flesh (Jn 1:14), it became not merely human flesh but it “. . . entered personally into the natural sphere of what is fragile, vulnerable, perishable . . .” (184).
Johnson’s text seems ambiguous. At times, she says that God simply connects in a new way with all creation as “God lays hold of matter as a human being” (185). But then she claims, along with Gregersen, that “God shares the life conditions of foxes and sparrows, grass and trees, soil and moisture,” as if God were incarnationally present in them (185).
Johnson builds on the idea of the deep incarnation to develop the notions of the “deep cross” and “deep resurrection.” These concepts enable her to claim that God is sympathetically present to the pain of every creature, and that every creature will eventually share the joy of the resurrection. This implies that “God-in-Christ is with all flesh that suffers and dies, not just human beings. . . . Christ is with every field mouse that is devoured by a hawk” (188).
It is unclear what these notions properly add to a traditional theology of grace. She writes that in virtue of the deep cross and resurrection, dying animals “. . . are not alone, but knowingly accompanied in their anguish and dying with a love that does not snap off just because they are in trouble” (189). What does it mean to say that prior to the deep incarnation and resurrection, field mice died alone but now they “knowingly” feel the companionship of the Lord?
Although Johnson cautions that “the transformation to come escapes our imagination” (192), her images often involve knotty problems that go unrecognized in the text. For example, she shows sympathy for the field mouse, but does not mention the hawk that needs to eat the mouse to sustain its life.
Nature itself seems cruciform to Johnson (188), yet she states several times that the cross is not necessary to salvation (27, 50, 108, etc.). While Johnson claims that God does not require the cross, perhaps the necessity of the crucifixion (see Mt 16:21) rests on the fact that Jesus must confront the principalities and powers that rely on death.
The author spends much time discussing the salvation of individuals, but much less on the cultures that produce those individuals. René Girard has shown the special significance of the cross for Jesus who needed to convert not only individuals, but also the principalities and powers behind those formative social structures. In my opinion, she treats the principalities and powers far too lightly and summarily. She refers to the havoc caused by the principalities and powers, but apart from their strategy of death (123). Death is a primary culprit in society (along with sin), making the resurrection particularly relevant as the “anti-death” answer of God.
Johnson presents an ecological ethics (193) that builds on humanity’s mutual responsibility with the natural world (206). Drawing liberally from Pope Francis’ Laudato Si, she insists that humanity ought to look to its kinship with natural creatures rather than to exercise domination (206). In keeping with her version of the deep incarnation, she asserts that the killing of every polar bear is a murder of God, and that the extinction of a species should be looked upon as a death in the family (211). Should people really mourn the extinction of the dinosaurs?
At various points in the text, Johnson will present a controverted position without alluding to the complexity of the issue. For example, when she rejects dualism (99), she fails to consider issues raised by theologians such as Joseph Ratzinger and Gerhard Lohfink who claim that the endurance of the soul beyond death is needed to preserve the identity of the individual in the resurrection. Their position finds support in Scripture. For example, Paul expressed his confidence that to die is to be with Christ (Phil 1:23). Luke used “Abraham’s bosom” as an image of the afterlife where Lazarus now enjoys heavenly bliss and could warn others of the dangers of wealth (Lk 16:19-31).
For Johnson, humanity no longer occupies the top of the pyramid in creation. When it comes to how people should view animals, she prefers “kinship rather than domination” (206). The author looks for passionate commitments to the natural world “in tandem with all the earth’s poor and marginalized people” (226). But what if environmental commitments would harm the poor?
Renewable energy costs consumers far more than fossil fuels. The director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, Bjorn Lomborg, claims in an article in the New York Times, that without cheap electricity, the poor have little chance to better themselves (“The Poor Need Cheap Fossil Fuels,” 12/3/2013). Johnson fails to recognize such predicaments. She asks us to “feel our way” (216) into the community of creation, but it is not clear how her theology can guide her readers to do so in a reliable way.
In my opinion, Johnson has taken her agenda a step too far, especially for a book aimed at a popular audience.
Gerald J. Bednar, PhD
Saint Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology
This book is well researched with explanations from New Testament texts using clear, “on the ground” theological language. The author clarifies some previous biblical translations and uses 75 primary texts and biblical journals, along with a huge bibliography of other biblical scholars. He combines all of that to expand his title in explaining the use and misuse of money in the New Testament.
To make the explanations even more clear, Collins gives examples of some of the same customs and biblical teachings on wealth from Jewish, Greek, and Roman sources from the same period. Each chapter ends with an additional section, “So What?” where he describes actions, examples, and statistics in similar situations today. They include quotes from Pope Francis and articles in the news media. In one sense the text is an illustration of the same misuse of wealth and robbing from the poor throughout history.
From each of the gospels and letters, he notes what is common to them and what additions there are that make them different. He explains how money is used, positively and negatively: greed, wages, collections for the poor, taxes, corban, almsgiving, etc., and devotes the longest explanations to greed, a “staple of every list of Christian vices.”
One of Collins’ focuses is the parables, such as the payment to laborers, the rich man and Lazarus, and others. His treatment is very thorough, and I found many of his insights new and refreshing. The last section of the conclusion on “The Prosperity Gospel” is another example of Collins’ thoroughness. It is short, blunt, and to the point.
The book is a very thorough treatment of wealth and its relationship to the poor. The “So What?” section at the end of each chapter brings the Scriptures to life in a very concrete way. This work would be excellent for a study group or an undergraduate course in social ethics.
Mary Vianney Bilgrien, SSND, STD
El Paso, Texas