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Briefly Reviewed: December 2018

The Cross: History, Art, and Controversy

By Robin M. Jensen

Publisher: Harvard University Press

Pages: 270

Price: $35

Review Author: Brian Welter

Ancient Christian artists did not commonly depict the cross. As University of Notre Dame theology professor Robin M. Jensen explains, “early Christian art tends to represent Jesus in episodes from his earthly ministry — as healer, teacher, lawgiver, and wonderworker — as more than images from his last days on earth…. Evidently, depictions of his crucifixion were regarded as distinct or problematic in a way that representations of other episodes from the Gospel narratives were not.” Yet when the cross became a symbol of the faith, perhaps around the sixth century, the faithful began a rich artistic tradition that would closely reflect a range of theological concepts.

Jensen describes the development of images of Jesus on the cross. Those from Syria depicted Christ “fastened to the cross with nails in his palms and both ankles. His hair and beard are long and dark.” Later, German Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Elder, for example, stressed “the physical and psychological anguish of the crucifixion.” The image was remade during what Jensen calls the “Catholic Reformation,” when “the triumphant crucifixes of earlier centuries were revived.” Examining a specific detail that reveals the social and theological circumstances of the time, she writes, “Rather than slumping on his chest, Christ’s head is often thrown back as if in an ecstatic state or perhaps looking up toward his Father in heaven.” Crucifixes from the 16th-century Catholic Reformation correspond with Bernini’s sculpture The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, produced around the same time, with the saint’s head likewise turned upward in ecstasy toward Heaven. This reflects a more affective, even sensual, Catholic spirituality — in reaction to what might have been seen as Calvinist austerity.

But before any proliferation of images of the cross, there was the True Cross. From the time of St. Helena’s famous discovery in the fourth century until the Protestant Reformation, the faithful and Church leadership displayed a fascination with and devotion to the True Cross. The True Cross played a unifying role in Christendom until the Protestant Reformation, when Calvin memorably noted that there were enough splinters of the True Cross to make a forest. Centuries earlier, the Persians had stolen the True Cross from Jerusalem, and Byzantine Emperor Heraclius re-captured it. This re-acquisition became a common artistic motif, often set alongside the original finding, with little reference to the intervening centuries. A slow decline in traditions of the True Cross starts in 1204, when the crusaders stormed Constantinople and seized the relic, sending its splinters across Western Europe.

This decline of the real relic only augmented the power of the cross as a Christian image because “the image itself became a relic.” Jensen observes that “over the centuries, the cross changed from being a mere prop in the passion story to a symbolic manifestation of Christ’s power and glory.” Such symbolism found expression in late medieval drama. Re-enactments of Christ’s Passion, including His burial and Resurrection, played a spiritual and almost liturgical role, as the Lord’s “agony and death were meant to arouse viewers’ mixed emotions of love, sorrow, and gratitude.”

Protestants tended away from crucifixion art. While Luther had no problem with the crucifix, Calvin and more radical elements soundly rejected it, along with most imagery, though they did retain the simple cross. Reformer Andreas Carlstadt gave voice to a common Protestant perspective still repeated today: “The crucifix depicted only Christ’s human suffering and neglected to display his resurrection and redemptive power.”

Such criticism did not prevent the Spanish and Portuguese from using the crucifix in their missions to the natives of Central and South America. The missionaries adopted already-existing religious depictions of crosses in their evangelization. According to Jensen, Christian teachings cohered with Aztecs and their practice of human sacrifice: “Holy violence was not difficult for them to understand.” This enabled the cross’s theological significance to spread in the New World. Its impact on history, catechesis, and spirituality is incalculable — and what we would expect of the main icon of Christendom.

Matters of Life & Death: A Catholic Guide to the Moral Questions of Our Time

By Gerard M. Verschuuren

Publisher: Angelico Press

Pages: 201

Price: $16.95

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Our age is reminiscent of Luigi Pirandello’s play It Is So (If You Think So), in which the characters keep lying to one another because they believe the others cannot bear to know the truth. In Matters of Life & Death Gerard M. Verschuuren, a geneticist and philosopher of science, cuts through the lies that disorient us and offers us a “moral compass.” He starts by defining common sense as a “very simple form of metaphysics,” one that comes with human nature and allows us to distinguish what is real from what is not. The aim of his book is to let the sun break through the moral miasma surrounding contraception, abortion, gender change, homosexuality, eugenics, and euthanasia. He contrasts common sense with consensus. The latter refers to particular cultures, which can be fogbound like ours, while the former is given with human nature.

Verschuuren explains that morality is not something material, so it does not come from fleshly genes, the dictates of which our free will can overrule. Moreover, morality is about what is objectively real, not about subjective feelings and values, and so reason can, by contemplating human nature and society, “discover valid moral principles.” Note that reason discovers rather than creates morality. Indeed, what a human being is at the deepest level is what he ought to be. The author shows us step by step that common sense and respect for reality lead us straight to the natural law, a moral law that is unconditional, objective, universal, timeless, and absolute. He carefully explains each of these attributes.

Morality, Verschuuren adds, is not based on that human nature which, Darwinists say, is a random product of evolution. No, for in that case, our equality in dignity and our rights would rest on the quicksand of lawmakers and majority votes. We were “endowed,” as our Declaration of Independence phrases it, “by our Creator with certain inalienable rights,” and so our rights are God-given and come with corresponding duties. Only “entitlements” are man-made.

Many claim conscience as their moral compass, but Verschuuren replies that private conscience is in need of “constant alignment,” just like a ship’s compass needs to be calibrated to account for the iron and steel in the ship’s construction. In other words, in our murky age we must be watchful that our conscience points to the real North Pole of truth and goodness.

Verschuuren observes that as a result of the sexual revolution, freedom has come to mean “an absence of any constraints.” But, he adds, “true freedom does not exist without self-mastery.” Sexual intercourse as a recreational activity can make us slaves of “interior compulsion,” in which our “limbic system” motivates us to keep reaching for a “dopamine reward.” On contraception, he writes that at fertilization an entirely new human being comes into existence in a single cell that contains nearly all the information it needs to develop into an adult made of 100 trillion cells. In nine or ten days this tiny, self-organizing embryo will implant in his mother’s womb, provided he is not first killed in a micro-abortion caused by contraception. For in reality, most so-called contraceptives make the lining of the womb hostile to implantation. Women are rarely warned about this, nor are they warned about the serious medical side-effects of oral contraceptives. Births can be morally and safely spaced by natural family planning, which requires self-mastery only in the short periods of a woman’s fertility. Sadly, 99 percent of Catholic obstetricians and gynecologists prescribe contraceptives and either perform sterilizations or refer for them.

Verschuuren reports that four million children have been born by in vitro fertilization (IVF) since 1978. Why is IVF morally wrong? One reason is that surplus embryos created in a petri dish are usually destroyed or frozen. In the U.S. alone there are now half a million embryos languishing in “liquid-nitrogen orphanages,” most of whom are doomed to be abandoned. The moral alternative is NaPro Technology (natural procreative technology), which identifies and corrects the infertility problem and is two to three times more effective than IVF. Other moral alternatives are adoption and spiritual parenting.

In his discussion of abortion, Verschuuren makes a crucial distinction between rights and interests. The sexual revolution, he says, turned “a woman’s interest into a woman’s right.” And yet interests are subjective while rights and moral duties are objective. He lists other phrases that abortion supporters use to raise a moral fog, such as health care, reproductive rights, and a therapeutic solution. These expressions can never hide the reality that suicide rates for women who abort are six times higher than for those who give birth.

On eugenics, Verschuuren notes there are new, non-invasive tests that can scan the whole genome of the fetus for more than 3,000 single-gene disorders, a screening that will likely lead to more “therapeutic” abortions. Yet here is a reality check: Recent research shows that every individual carries, on average, 313 disease-causing mutations. Eugenics had a bad reputation after World War II but has now made a comeback with genetic diagnoses performed prior to implantation to identify and discard imperfect embryos and correct or edit specific bits of DNA. This is part of the quest for a “designer” child, the ultimate consumer product.

Regarding gender change, Verschuuren explains that sex is a genetic issue, while gender is socially constructed. Embryonic testes or ovaries develop at ten weeks of pregnancy, and by birth “the anatomical differences between male and female are rather unambiguous.” Sex, therefore, is the “objective” reality, while gender is not. Nevertheless, gender ideologists blur the difference and claim that the sex a person “identifies” with is his “real” sex. The sad reality is that 41 percent of transgenders, as opposed to 4.6 percent of the overall population of the U.S., have attempted suicide.

Homosexuality, Verschuuren adds, is about gender, not genetics. In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association (APA) convention, influenced by the gay lobby, declared homosexuality normal. But in 1977, when 10,000 APA members were polled on the subject, 69 percent said homosexuality is usually a pathological adaptation, while 18 percent disagreed and 13 percent were uncertain. So more than two-thirds of APA members disagreed with its declaration! Scientists Alan Bell and Martin Weinberg reported on “sexual compulsion” among homosexuals: 83 percent said they have had sex with 50 or more partners, 43 percent with 500 or more, and 28 percent with 1,000 or more.

With regard to brain death, Verschuuren notes that the concept derives from Harvard Medical School’s 1968 report defining “irreversible coma” as death. Even back then, the Harvard report mentioned that this definition would lead to more organs being available for transplant. Verschuuren warns that “brain death” could be a prognosis rather than a diagnosis. Other ethicists have also warned of “an overly quick rush to procure organs for transplant” and have argued that sometimes “brain-dead” patients are still alive when their organs are “harvested.”

In the course of equipping us with a Catholic moral compass, Verschuuren cites, among other sources, the Didache, a number of encyclicals and councils, several popes, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Thomas Aquinas, Chesterton, Peter Kreeft, and many others in this most engaging book.


©2018 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

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