Scandalous Sacraments

Scandalous Sacraments April 30, 2014

Jesus called people to eat his flesh and drink His blood (John 6). It scandalized His hearers and led to accusations of cannibalism. Christian mystics have spoken of sacramental communion with erotic overtones, using the love-feast of the Song of Songs as a paradigm.

Brannon Hancock thinks that much Christian sacramental theology has softened the scandal. Traditional definitions of sacraments as “visible signs of invisible grace” can obscure the fact that “God’s grace comes to us through materiality” (14). The various struggles over the triple body of Christ display an ambivalence toward the bodiliness of the sacraments. The church has stumbled over the sacraments and in so doing stumbled over her being as the corporate body of Christ (76).

Hancock wants to recover the Scandal of Sacramentality, a sacramental theology consistent with postmodern sensibilities. He does it partly through a theoretical discussion of the scandal (Part I) and partly through readings of literary texts. Reading fiction is, Hancock argues, a quasi-sacramental event, forming “interpretive communities” through partaking of the common text. Every text we consume also consumes us; texts capture us as much as we capture the meaning of the text (187).

He chooses novels that display sacramental overtones, especially fictions that speak of broken or wounded bodies (e.g., Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy), stories of sacramental cannibalism (e.g., Patrick Suskind’s Perfume), and novels of sacramental (and anti-sacramental) eroticism and pornography (e.g., Aidan Mathews’s Lipstick on the Host; Bataille’s Story of the Eye).

His readings are provocative, and the books he chooses are racy. They certainly scandalize. But in the process of expounding these texts, Hancock calls attention to dimensions of the Eucharist that are often neglected, and that is a service. He shows how sacramentality spills over the boundaries of liturgy into everyday life and art, even in the art of the post-Christian West. Hancock discovers surprising connection points between contemporary sensibilities and the Eucharist.

The ultimate aim is to put sacramental theology in service of an agenda of de-stabilizing, deconstructing, “unfounding” our certainties and settled systems. He insists that the destabilizing is inherent to Christian theology – in the incarnation, in the crucified God – and in language itself. For all its insight, I had the uncomfortable sense that the argument had inhaled the Zeitgeist. Christ’s body is broken, but that broken body was raised and enthroned. The Eucharist unsettles our meals, and our bodies, but it does so at a meal. The Eucharist is a scandal, but is it only scandal?

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