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By Robert Sweetman


Heavenly Dust

"The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336"

By Caroline Walker Bynum

Columbia University Press

368 pp.; $29.95, hardcover;

$17.50, paper

I have awaited publication of this volume for some time. Caroline Walker Bynum has for 15 years written about medieval texts--often the same texts that I had just begun to struggle with. Each time, upon the appearance of her book or article, I found she had written about them with compelling insight and fetching good humor. As a result, I have come to think of reading her work as an eerie but pleasant process by which I discover what is in my own mind (at least were it as fecund and acute as hers).

Great expectations, however, can impose a heavy burden upon any human artifact. It was perhaps inevitable that the "Christmas" of finally examining this volume should fall short of the wild imaginings of an "Advent" spent contemplating its promising wrapping. I admit having had such moments of Yuletide ennui, but they were mercifully few. Indeed, on the whole, my reading was dominated by long stretches of delightful discovery.

Bynum proposes to examine several moments in the Christian community's ongoing reflection upon embodiment, moments in which embodiment had become the subject of debate, of disagreement, and of change (AD. 200, 400, 1100, 1200, 1270, and 1330). The doctrinal issue that served to inspire reflection upon, disagreement about, and change in the West's experience of embodiment was the central Christian confession of bodily resurrection. Potential readers should be aware that the doctrine of bodily resurrection and what might be termed its pendant theological themes (eschatology, soul, heaven, hell, purgatory, millenarianism, mysticism, time, and self) are treated not so much for their own sake as for what they can tell us about the experience of body and the transformations such experience has undergone through time.

Bynum's study, then, fits into a new effort being championed by some of North America and Europe's ...

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