The first Christian art from the catacombs through the building of worship spaces emphasized the restoration of paradise on earth as a result of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Images of loaves and fishes, water and wine, the rivers of life, trees and animals were used in Christian art to created the sensation of paradise restored. In the same way icons brought the heavenly paradise down to earth for those who touched and prayed to them. To become a Christian brought not only the promise of a future paradise but life in paradise now as part of a community that was attuned through spiritual disciplines to see and participate in paradise and to make it a reality through the practice of what the authors call ethical grace.
They suggest that this same spirit animates much of the New Testament. For example here is what they have to say about John 3:16:
Today this passage is invariably interpreted to mean that God placed Jesus in the world to die on the cross, but at no point does this story mention death. It does not use the Greek word paradidomai, the word that John's Gospel specifically uses to describe the action of those who "gave" or "handed over" Jesus to be crucified. John 19:16 makes it clear that Pilate, not God, "handed him over to them to be crucified." Jesus' words to Nicodemus are about birth and life, not death and afterlife. They reiterate the themes of Creation and the power to be born of God that we spoke of in Chapter 1. God loves the world, the kosmos, and loves the Son, to who he gives "the Spirit without measure" (John 3:34).
In John's Gospel Jesus incarnates wisdom, turns water into wine, feeds the multitudes, demonstrating in various ways that he has come to restore paradise, abundant life, to this life.
Unfortunately, the authors say, paradise is eventually replaced with images of the suffering and tortured Jesus. When and why that happens in a future post.
The thesis of this book reminds me of my trip to Rome several years ago. As we visited the catacombs and churches and the Vatican Art Museum to see early Christian art our guide, Grady Snyder, kept asking us "what are you not seeing here?" There were no crosses anywhere to be found. The promise of new life not a focus on Jesus' suffering and death was what attracted converts to Christianity.
It seems to me that this is or should be one of the predominant themes of progressive Christianity. I think we got to get ourselves back to the garden.