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Saving Face: Enfacement, Shame, Theology

Author: Stephen Pattison
Published By: Ashgate (Farnham)
Pages: 205
Price: £17.99
ISBN: 978 1 4094 3691 8

Reviewed by Julian Reindorp.

This is rightly described as a ground breaking book. Pattison begins by noting that both human and divine faces have been almost entirely absent in recent Christian theology and practice. Post-enlightenment Western Protestant theology has emphasised hearing and obeying the word of God. If we want to glimpse ‘the face of God for now’ he argues, we need to take seriously the visible faces of other humans. In particular, we need to take very seriously the faces of those who are marginalised, shamed and stigmatised because they do not have ‘acceptable’ or ‘normally functioning’ faces.

Simon Weston was burnt in the Falklands War. His openness about his hugely scarred and ‘repaired face’, has been a real example of Pattison’s theory. Pattison quotes a psychoanalyst who dismissed Bishop Mervyn Stockwood’s speaking out of the side of his mouth as an affectation. He later learnt it was Stockwood’s way of coping with the results of a serious stroke.

The chapter headings illustrate the contents: Fixing Face (the historical background); the Facts of Face; Losing Face; Defacement and Problems with Face; Face, Presence and the Face behind Face; Seeing the Face of God in the Bible; Seeking the Face of God in Post-Biblical Life and Theology; Modern Theological resources for the Saving of Face; Shining Up the Face of God; Practical Theological Horizons for Enfacement; Just looking - Seeing Faces More Clearly.

He reminds us that the sight of God’s face is reflected in the face of humans created in his image, and all shine, and are changed, by the vision of God’s glory (2 Corinthians 3.18-4.6). He suggests we revalue the human face as itself an icon of the living God.

His thesis reminded me of a colleague who said years ago that every time we pass a beggar, we should always look at them, even if we are not going to give them any money.

 A debate about the Nkib was in the news when I read this book, and the writer’s section on ‘Veiling’ makes the point that it provides a protection against shame and a place of privacy. This debate reveals our ambivalence about facial perception. He underlines this by quoting James Partidge, a facially disfigured person, who argues that, if he can talk to people for ten seconds, they stop seeing him only as a damaged face. He asks whether we gaze or glance at people and in what circumstances.

He reminds us that Christianity can be regarded, not so much as a set of rules and ethics, but as a way of seeing and looking at God. His extensive bibliography reveals how widely Pattison has searched to find illustrative material both for seeing the divine in the face of others, but recognizing how easily people are excluded by their faces. He concludes that our task is to see more clearly and more justly, and that “blessed are the pure in heart and the broad in vision, for with and by the grace of God, they will see God”.

The more I read the more I realized that this is not just an academic thesis, and that how we respond to faces is key to the kind of society we long to create. Pattison has always had interesting and provocative things to say about pastoral care today. Here he refocuses our attention on what should surely always have been a familiar theme and written a wide ranging and stimulating book with growing contemporary relevance. It is warmly recommended.

Julian Reindorp

Team Rector of Richmond, Surrey

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You are reading Issue 60 of Ministry Today, published in April 2014.

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