Becoming Human: Meditations on Christian Anthropology in Word and Image. John Behr. Saint Vladimirs Seminary Press, 2013.
At the end of this life, death is one certainty we share. But in his little book, Becoming Human, Father John Behr reverses the order and claims that the certainty of our life begins through Christ’s willingness to die. Intermingled with Behr’s writings are texts from Scripture, quotes from early church fathers, as well as reproductions of icons, mosaics, and paintings. All of these fragments provide a richly layered reflection on the central question, “What does it mean to become human?”
To answer this, Behr first addresses what it means to be Christ. He does so not by exploring the historical Jesus of Nazareth or by analyzing the authenticity of his teachings. Nor does the author claim that Christ’s identity is seen solely in his death and resurrection. In a profound walk through various biblical accounts, liturgical hymns, and quotes from the saints, Behr asserts that Christ’s identity is known only after his death and resurrection. As the author underscores in his chapter, “Knowing Christ,” throughout Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Christ remained unrecognizable even though he walked among the disciples, performed miracles in their presence, and was led to the cross.
Of significance for the author is the Gospel of John because it opens with an exegetical connection, linking the presence of the Son of Man with the eternal Word of God. Connecting the creation account in Genesis to the account of Christ’s death in the Gospel of John, Behr describes the work of God. After God spoke light, land, and sea into existence and judged them good, he initiated his culminating project, “to make humankind in our image.” Unlike the other acts of creating, this project was not completed in the garden by God’s word alone. As Behr highlights, it is only in John’s Gospel when Jesus proclaims from the cross “It is finished” that we grasp the completion of God’s project to make the human one. In contrast to the synoptic Gospels, Behr indicates that John’s Gospel serves to close the historical distance between the disciples and ourselves. Our encounter with Christ, indeed our identification of Christ, occurs in the same manner as it did for his earliest followers, through the opening of Scripture and the breaking of bread.
Now that their eyes were opened, the disciples comprehended the true nature of his death; that is, the transition from “he was given up” to “he gave himself up.” Christ, over whom death had no claim, was not simply put to death, but voluntarily gave himself over. In this way, Christ is an iconoclast, breaking our expected image of what God should look like. For the disciples both then and now, we recognize Christ’s identity not through his moral perfection or divine attributes, but in his willingness to suffer. This becomes the crux of Behr’s book: Christ shows us what it is to be God in the way that he dies as a human being. Again, the mystery is such that Christ shows us how to live divinely—that is become human—by embracing his own death.
This new use of death is not an act of desperation bringing about the end, or an act of passive submissiveness to victimization, resigning oneself to one’s fate. It is rather, the beginning of new life for the baptized, and for those around them, a new mode of existence—in Christ rather than in Adam—manifest in the baptized (p. 56).
Throughout the rest of the book, Behr develops meditations of this new use of death, grounded as it is in the incarnation. Be it the voluntary martyrdom of first century Christians or later in monasticism, the conscious decision of the baptized is to relinquish one’s hold on this life. Even husband and wife grow to become human when they knowingly submit (bear witness) to one another. In each of these instances, the notion of becoming human occurs when we freely choose to ground our existence in the self–sacrificial love of God. By this voluntary death to one’s self, we are transformed into the image of God.
In his forward, Behr explains that the design of his book is intended to slow the reader down and to encourage the contemplation of the text. Certainly appropriate, this reviewer found that the various type fonts, colors and sizes made it difficult to know when the author was introducing a new point or implementing a parallel idea for emphasis. Another typographic choice was to indent phrases within the middle of paragraphs, making it confusing to read. The inclusion of high quality art reproductions was thoughtful and one might argue necessary, especially in light of the incarnational nature of the book. However, many were very small and details could not be seen. These decisions resulted in a frustrating, visual experience that could easily be corrected with a more nuanced design.
Much of the writing draws from an Orthodox tradition, and so it may be helpful to acknowledge that the theology of incarnation and the doctrine of theosis form a backdrop for this book. While readers may be familiar with the incarnation, the doctrine of theosis claims that our salvation by Jesus Christ restores our original, broken relationship with God. Rather than viewing salvation through doctrines of justification and sanctification, theosis emphasizes the joint work of salvation by which the Christian grows into the likeness of God. Here the language of the book is especially illuminating, and Behr does a fine job of weaving his exegetical writing with expressions of faith by the ancient church. In their consideration of death, baptism and the promise of real life, these early Christians remind the reader of our shared, creedal confession. Together through the opening of Scripture and the breaking of bread, we recognize the Human One, who is both the source and model of our salvation and humanity.
Professor of Art, Concordia University, Nebraska