By Alister McGrath
Fortress Press, 96 pp., $15
This is the third book in Alister McGrath's series called Truth and Christian Imagination. His earlier books are Creation and Incarnation; two planned future volumes are Resurrection and God.
Professor of historical theology at Oxford University, McGrath has a gift for combining fine art, poetry and the words of famous writers in ways that may help readers see what he calls "the landscape of faith."
As McGrath tells the stories of Jesus through meditations on classical and modern paintings, he weaves together ideas from theologians like Augustine and Martin Luther, poets George Herbert, R.S. Thomas and others and some beautiful artworks produced by Amedeo Bocchi, Sir Edward John Poynter, Jacopo Bassano, Michelangelo Caravaggio, Antonio Ciseri, Salvador Dali and El Greco.
These artists' renditions are not the ones we usually see. Bassano's Last Supper, in contrast to the well-known work by Da Vinci, shows the disciples in much more casual poses, almost in disorder, around a table with a rumpled tablecloth, and a dog and a cat looking for scraps under the table.
Caravaggio's powerful representation of that moment in the Garden of Gethsemane when Judas betrays Christ with a kiss makes us stop and think: What has gone wrong with humanity? McGrath reminds us of the Apostle Paul's words: "Nothing good dwells within me ... I can will what is right, but I cannot do it ... the evil I do not want is what I do ... it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me." (Rom. 7:18-21). These words spell what is in our hearts, and we know our need for redemption.
Another poignant moment is seen in Ciseri's Ecco Homo when Pilate says to Jesus, "So what is truth?" and then turns away immediately, looking into the crowd. Pilate is a politician, and he lives in a world in which truth does not figure prominently sometimes, but approval does, and he seeks it from the crowd.
Salvadore Dali's Christ of St. John of the Cross is different, yet "a powerful depiction of the death of Christ on the cross." McGrath suggests reading a section of Mark's Passion narrative (Mark 15:29-32) while visualizing the scene at Calvary via Dali's painting.
The last chapter asks, "Where was God?" It is illustrated by El Greco's Pietà, with Mary his mother holding Christ in her arms, attended by Joseph of Arimathea and Mary Magdalene.
This is what McGrath calls a "scene saturated with symbols of abandonment, desolation, rejection and humiliation." He reminds us that, to "grasp the joy of Easter Day," we must "enter into the bleak experience of that first Good Friday. ...We must share that sense of despair, hopelessness and helplessness that led those first disciples to abandon their Lord."
McGrath says that what looked like divine absence was really hidden divine presence. And Easter Day came!