Bahá'í Library Online
. . . .
>>   Book Reviews
TAGS: Christianity; Interfaith dialogue; Symbolism
> add tags
Three short reviews from Studies in Religion, Middle East Studies Association Bulletin, and Humanities.
See original dissertation online at

Paradise and Paradigm, by Christopher Buck:

by Andrew Rippin, John Renard, Will C. van den Hoonaard, et al.

Review of: Paradise and Paradigm: Key Symbols in Persian Christianity and the Bahá'í Faith
Author: Christopher Buck
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany, 1999, xvii + 402 pp., distributed by Kalimat Press as Volume Ten Studies in the Bábí and Bahá'í Religions
Reviews by: John Renard, Will C. van den Hoonaard, Andrew Rippin, Kathleen McVey, Brannon Wheeler, William Collins, and Daniel Grolin
  1. review by Will C. van den Hoonaard, in Studies in Religion. Sciences Religieuses 31.3 (2002): 501
  2. review by Brannon Wheeler, in Religious Studies Review 28 (July 2002): 293
  3. review by Andrew Rippin, in University of Toronto Quarterly 71.1 (Winter 2001/2002): 170–172
  4. review by John Renard, in Middle East Studies Association (MESA) Bulletin 34.2 (2000): 212–213

Review by John Renard

Published in Middle East Studies Association Bulletin Winter, 2000

Buck constructs a highly systematic and schematized analysis of ‘key scenarios’ and ‘root metaphors’ (borrowed from anthropologist Sherry Ortner) using Ninian Smart’s seven-part breakdown of ‘worldviews’ into doctrinal/philosophical, practical/ritual, legal/ethical, emotional/experiential, narrative/mythic, institutional/-social, and material dimensions. Buck actually employs only the first six, leaving aside the material with its iconographic and broader artistic aspects because its data are non-textual. Readers may hope that the author might eventually offer a look at the two traditions from that perspective as well, since the comparative study of symbols lends itself so naturally to a consideration of visual data. The method Buck attributes to Ortner is reminiscent of Slater who describes how one can compare either different traditions or different periods within a given tradition’s history by noting how ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ symbols (visualized as inner and outer concentric circles) rearrange themselves as modifiers of a tradition’s ‘central’ symbol.[1] Buck likewise talks of ‘symbolic transformation’ around distinctive paradigms, identifying Syriac Christianity with ‘transformational purity’ and Baha’i tradition with ‘concentric unity.’

After an introductory chapter that lays out the methodological framework, the book’s four central chapters offer separate historical and symbolic profiles, first of Syriac Christianity and then of the Baha’i faith. Buck has packed these chapters with fascinating detail, assembling a wealth of background unavailable elsewhere in any single volume that I am aware of. He draws heavily on Ephrem of Syria’s Antiochene symbolic hermeneutics. It is most illuminating to read of the life of a “Persian Church” and of a time when “Syrian Christians and their converts outnumbered European Christians” (p. 64). In addition to the inherently valuable detail on Syriac and Baha’i developments, students of classical Islam will find broad contextualization in the Syriac material, as will readers particularly interested in early modern Shi’i thought in the sections dedicated to Baha’i. From the perspective of general information about early Christianity, Buck offers a most welcome corrective to the still-prevalent perception that its roots were exclusively Graeco-Latin. Middle and New Persian Christian literature “re-mythologized” northern Mesopotamia’s mythic cosmos into a “symbolic (Christological) universe” (p. 85). Buck calls the evolution of Baha’i tradition response to modernity, and that of Syriac Christianity a Mesopotamian response to late antiquity. He then develops ‘symbolic profiles’ by associating a narrative (such as ‘The Way’) and a related root metaphor (such as The Physician) with each of Smart’s six ‘dimensions,’ in this instance the Doctrinal. These profiles Buck uses as the basis for further comparative analysis in the two final chapters.

It is sometimes difficult to avoid the feeling of being bogged down in structure and jargon. Still, Paradise and Paradigm is a goldmine of information about two relatively little studied but fascinating developments in Middle Eastern religious history. All in all, a very worthwhile contribution.
    John Renard
    Saint Louis University

Review by Will C. van den Hoonaard

Published in Studies in Religion / Sciences Religieuses 31:3-4, pp. 501-502 (2002
online at

Chris Buck, a PhD graduate of the University of Toronto in 1996, produced a tandem analysis of the “key symbols” in Persian Christianity and the Bahá’í Faith: Paradise and Paradigm not only offers commendable emic representations of both of these understudied religious phenomena, but, more importantly, compares their symbolic universes. Locating the two Abrahamic traditions in the Iranian context, Buck employs comparative methods derived from anthropology and religious studies. Persian Christianity echoes the Syriac Orient in its “inner landscape” and spiritual experiences with rich metaphors, while the Bahá’í Faith, founded by Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892), born in that same Persian landscape, has transcended it, using its key symbols in its emergence as a world religion. Readers can turn to the conclusions to see Buck’s own reflections whether his experiment in using multi-valenced comparative methodology works. Drawing parallels between the ideas of paradise and paradigms may challenge the integrity of each of the religious traditions being explored for the sake of comparison — a form of reductionism — but it also allows us to understand the power of symbols to transform the human being and society. It is this constant tension inherent in doing comparative religious research that forms the backdrop of this erudite book.
    Will C.van den Hoonaard
    Sociology, University of New Brunswick

Review by Andrew Rippin

Published in Humanities: University of Toronto Quarterly 71:1, pp 170-172 (Winter 2001/2002)
online at

Review by Brannon Wheeler

Published in Religious Studies Review 28 (July 2002), pp. 293

Back to:   Book Reviews
Home Site Map Links Copyright About Contact
. .