I apologise for my long media silence. I was away on holiday (“vacation”, for you North American readers) for a week or two, after which it’s taken a while for my thoughts to return to anything so mundane as regular blogging.
Anyway… today I’d like to introduce you to an author who is probably new to most readers. However, rather than post a straightforward book review, I asked the author in question if he’d be prepared to answer some interview questions. He was happy to do so, and his answers will hopefully give you more insight into his work than I alone would be able to provide.
This is the first of two book reviews, so make sure you come back in a few days for the follow-up to this post.
Before we get into the interview proper, let me introduce our author. Tony Bartlett emigrated with his family from Britain to the US in 1994. He has a PhD from Syracuse University’s Department of Religion and has taught theology in seminaries and local church programmes. Born in 1946, he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in his mid-20s, resigning the clerical ministry in 1984. He currently resides in Syracuse, New York, and leads a small study and prayer fellowship with his wife. In addition to Virtually Christian, he has also written Cross Purposes: The Violent Grammar of Christian Atonement and a futuristic novel, Pascale’s Wager: Homelands of Heaven.
So, onto today’s interview-cum-review. Virtually Christian was published in 2011, and claims on the back cover to sketch a picture of “a God deeply implicated in the human story and labouring with us for a transformed earth”. Having read it a few months ago, I can tell you that this book is a radical and searching re-examination of the meaning of the gospel and its significance and impact in the modern world.
Rob G: If you had to write a two or three sentence summary of Virtually Christian, what would it be?
Anthony Bartlett: Like the tiny coral which over time produces a massive reef, the Christian Gospel has uniquely refashioned the human landscape. The nonviolence and forgiveness of the Crucified One has seeped into the deep structure of human affairs, throwing into relief the victims of human violence, and, at the same time, evoking life-giving responses of compassion, forgiveness and nonviolence. In this sense our world can rightly be called “virtually Christian.”
RG: What was the main impetus for you to write this book?
AB: I wanted to write the beginning of a positive constructive theology to correspond both to Rene Girard’s negative disclosure of the victim and my own deconstruction of atonement doctrine in Cross Purposes. The world is permeated by the gospel revelation and this is a game-changer for Christianity’s own self-understanding. It now has a different ecology, so to speak, from the Greek metaphysical and Roman legal universes in which it first emerged. It is vital to give expression to this changed meaning. Christianity is not so much now a vehicle for “getting to heaven” as a deep engine of human transformation, changing the character of actual life on earth.
RG: In your opening comments, you state, “The target group I am writing to is the steadily growing number searching for a spiritual way forward in a world overwhelmed by violence, and willing to find that forward way through the person of Jesus”. How would you summarise the essence of that spiritual way forward?
AB: Human life is not a waiting-room for a better life elsewhere, for an other-worldly immaterial heaven. Here is it! This is the place where God wishes to live with human beings, the place where love is the meaning of everything we see or feel, from the blade of grass to the urban apartment complex. Only a vision like this can make sense of the whole biblical text from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation.
RG: In Virtually Christian, you make a number of references to Christ’s work on the cross and your understanding of its purpose and effect. You previously wrote a book called Cross Purposes dedicated to the atonement. What are you trying to say in Virtually Christian about the cross that goes further than what you previously said in Cross Purposes?
AB: Atonement thought is a work in progress all across contemporary Christianity. Cross Purposes was primarily an effort of deconstruction, trying to demolish a false tradition; but it also made a sketch of Jesus entering the deepest places of our violence and abandonment to fill them with an answering compassion and forgiveness. It was for me a foundational image, because it means that there is no depth of love where the Christ will not go, and does not continue to go. Effectively it is a picture of the Trinity. It also means that human violence, a.k.a. sin, can never outdo love as a source of meaning. Love is always more radical, more death-defying, more real. In many ways this was a poetic picture, a profound spiritual theme. The question remained of how this works out in practice. Virtually Christian continues the journey, showing that the love of Christ unveiled on the cross works precisely where violence worked before. It is not simply an in-church ‘salvation’ effect, even less a legal fiction in the mind of God. It is a real anthropological event, slowly and irreversibly changing the character of human life on earth.
RG: The subtitle of your book is “How Christ changes human meaning and makes creation new”. In what ways would you say Christ primarily changes human meaning?
AB: Meaning is what keeps us alive, what gets us out of bed in the morning. It is of course a complex thing, made out of multiple strands, connections and worldviews. René Girard has given us a generative account of human meaning. His hypothesis tells of the very first birth of the human species from among our hominid ancestors, by means of primary crises of violence in which the killing of a group victim or scapegoat becomes an enormous event of peace, because at the same time the original violence is conveniently obscured. As he says this one-of-a-kind event is also the first abstract “thought”, separating us from purely animal instinct. Jesus has entered the awful space of this event and changed its covered-over violence into open forgiveness and love. Jesus is then a second birth of the human, from the same structural event but with a totally different inner value or meaning. Forgiveness, love and nonviolence rather than mythicized violence and murderous exclusion. It is impossible to overstate the human significance of this second birth of meaning.
RG: Virtually Christian deals predominantly with the issue of meaning and how it affects our understanding of the world, of God and of the future. Why do you think this is so important? And in what ways do you see meaning as being especially relevant in our fast-moving, interconnected world?
AB: By stressing “meaning” I try to move away from other-worldly and legal understandings of Christianity. The direction also moves in the same line as several strands of modern philosophy which, I believe, are under the very same pressure of transformed meaning. (There is a chapter on this in the book; I think it’s the least successful, and needs a lot of developing, but I thought it was right at least to make the effort!) For example, “deconstruction” can easily be seen as a parallel effect to the gospel unveiling of the victim. Meanwhile, media in general and the internet in particular have dramatically changed our way of being in the world. Instead of trying to figure out the purpose of life we can just go on Facebook or Snapchat or watch a movie. These are all methods of getting into relationship with some “other.” They may not be very successful or happy-making but they are endlessly seductive and promising of meaning. So what is going on in the galactic explosion of media? It brings us into some sort of relationship by means of a visual image or sign which is full of desire. As a result we have rolling crises of desire which can produce cyber-bullying and so on, and increasingly hyper-violent movies. But again and again you can find these visual images or signs turning rather to love, acceptance, nonviolence as the only way to resolve the crisis. The “hug-a-stranger” thing, the attempts at nonviolent political springtimes, the Facebook pages supporting victims, the immediate empathy with people overwhelmed by natural disaster, all of these things give evidence of the birth pangs of new meaning. Then there are so many songs and movies using Jesus-style images and motifs of compassion and nonviolence, again demonstrating the same emerging truth. Just the other day I read a description of the plot of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast which made explicit its gospel content: because of love the beast allows himself to be killed, and because of love the everlasting curse is destroyed…
RG: What do you think it means to be a Christian in today’s world?
AB: If the shift of self-understanding I am talking about – the new Christian ecology – is true, then being a Christian today predominantly relates to the past in terms of the amount of love and compassion our forefathers and foremothers showed: rather than their creedal investment in an afterlife. It means the Protestant Reformation was still largely a Catholic medieval issue. To be a Christian today is to be a seed of human transformation planted in the soil of the new humanity of Christ.
RG: What do you see as the role of the media in interpreting meaning in contemporary culture? Why is this important for those seeking to be faithful followers of Jesus?
AB: As above, I think the media is a constant rehearsal of the basic human crisis prompted by Jesus: violence or forgiveness. If this is the case then followers of Jesus will obviously seek to bring the crisis to clear expression and enhance the direction pointed by the Crucified. However, this is not a new Christian “duty.” I think Jesus is already doing the work and we move in his slipstream. The important thing is to seek and speak the human transformation.
RG: Finally, how do you think Christ’s subversion of meaning affects what we understand by “church”?
AB: A new Christian ecology means a new understanding of church. It’s a radical effect. It means that people of other cultures (including the contemporary Western “nones”) and even other religions, can respond to new human meaning revealed by Jesus. So they are effectively “church.” Gandhi is the great example of this. Those who wish explicitly to follow Jesus in his new human way will consciously seek out communities of daily life committed to this understanding. In Virtually Christian I made an attempt to describe what these communities might look like. This description is provisional. There may be other aspects I missed, or some things I overstressed. Communities of this kind act as sacraments or signs of what is happening to the whole world, but in a chosen and deliberate way. They try to show what the whole world will be, for the sake of love. They are communities in love with this world in its process of transformation. They deliberately make no decision about whether the world will survive its crisis. This is not their job. Their job is faithfully to show the outcome desired by God.
My sincere thanks to Tony for his willingness to engage in this interview. Be sure to check out Virtually Christian on Amazon worldwide. And come back in a few days for an interview about his acclaimed fictional work Pascale’s Wager: Homelands of Heaven.