Wonder Beyond Belief: On Christianity by Navid Kermani

Wonder Beyond Belief: On Christianity
by Navid Kermani
translated by Tony Crawford
Polity Press, 2018

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Prolific novelist and essayist Navid Kermani's 2015 book Ungläubiges Staunen: Über das Christentum has now been produced in a lavishly-illustrated English-language edition from Polity Press with a translation by Tony Crawford, Wonder Beyond Belief: On Christianity – a bit of a shame as a title choice, since the original stresses a key fascinating element of the book that readers outside of Kermani's native Germany might not know: some variation on “Infidel Astonishment” points out to the reader that Kermani is a Muslim, in this case encountering Christian art from an “infidel” perspective.

Perhaps the shift in stress was a wise choice; the book is basically a collection of Kermani's vivid encounters with various works of Christianity-inspired artwork, but those encounters are animated by the enthusiasms of an informed outsider, not in any pointed way an informed Muslim outsider. The average smart, observant 20-year-old art enthusiast in virtually any country in the developed world has been raised largely without religion – they'd all be outsiders to the fervent and deeply strange worldviews that inform most of the works Kermani considers in these pages.

Even in translation, he's a tremendously engaging writer, conveying in gripping prose what it's like to encounter these works with no top-heavy cultural momentum. The results are uniformly fascinating, even when they sometimes see a bit twee or intentionally naive, as in this bit about Caravaggio's Judith Beheading Holofernes:

Caravaggio, for whom ordinarily nothing is too coarse in his pursuit of realism, here reinforces the strait-laced source by dressing up Judith in her Sunday best, her braids faultless, her white blouse dazzling, her complexion glowing, not a trace of fatigue, exertion, fear. For days she has been in the tyrant's camp, and at the feast he gave in her honour she must have joined in the revels exuberantly enough to vanquish all mistrust, so that the attendants had no qualms about leaving her alone with the sleeping man. It is morning. Even if she hadn't touched the wine, she couldn't possibly look so fresh.

Caravaggio scholars would instantly fall upon this for its willful over-simplifications of the master's understanding of visual iconography (and any of the millions of tourists who view the painting every year in Rome's Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica might point out that the painting itself gives us no indication that its action is happening in the morning), but the point of it seems to be the freshness, the freedom from the hidebound phraseology that so often encumbers books of art criticism.

This freshness of perspective is the main attraction of Wonder Beyond Belief, this ability on Kermani's part to prompt his readers to look at familiar works of art from new, disarming starting points. It's what makes the book such interesting reading – like when our author opens a discussion of El Greco's Christ Taking Leave of His Mother with simple questions designed to renew our acquaintance with the painting's underlying strangeness:

Supposing you were unaware of the painting's title, and you did not recognize the two figures, an so you took the halo for the rays of the hidden sun, suggesting the shape of a cross as they frame Christ's head; supposing you say just a man and a woman, both very young, the woman somewhat younger, but the man too no older than his early or at most his mid-twenties, their brows unfurrowed, their cheeks rosy, their lips velvety like those of children and at the same time sensuously full; no aging apparent except in the slight suggestion of concavity below their eyes – what, then, would you think they were looking at?

Essentially, this is the question Kermani asks throughout his book: if you knew nothing of this artwork before you encountered it, what would you think you were seeing? This kind of question is invaluable, for instance, when walking young students around an art museum for the first time. The problem with it is obvious: every one of the works of art Kermani considers in this way was commissioned, created, and shown in an environment that would have known its cultural and artistic provenance – indeed, the provenance is no less a part of the works than their paint or canvas.

Removing that element is guaranteed to jolt even them most experienced viewer, and such jolts can lead to fruitful new reactions – like the kind readers will feel in virtually every section of this entertaining book. But those readers should remember what Kermani himself never forgets: the more you know about art, the better you can appreciate it.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.