The wrong paradox

Antonio_Ciseri_Ecce_Homo

Permit me one final quote from Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice. I heartily recommend this book to you. Coupled with other Girard resources I’ve been looking at, this Lent/Easter season is turning into a kind of second conversion to Christianity for me. I quite serious, but more on that later. I’d like to close out looking at Mark Heim’s book with a quote from chapter ten in which he summarizes the various arguments he’s been making. In this passage he brings a non-sacrificial (Girardian) reading of the Cross into conversation with the standard sacrificial reading among Christians.

At a later time when I get around to reviewing Greg Boyd’s new work Crucifixion of the Warrior God (2 vols), Girard will figure significantly into my assessment. In the end, in spite of Greg’s desire to establish a non-violent (non-sacrifical|non penal-substitionary) reading of the Cross, all goes well until he insists that the Father himself must abandon his Son who has become sin and that Jesus must suffer the punishment we deserve (Godforsakenness). This is essentially a sacrificial reading of the Cross. As Heim describes Anselm’s view, the parallels to Greg are clear. One need only adjust a few terms (Heim’s “blow” which the Father “strikes” Jesus with to Greg’s “withdrawal”) to accommodate Heim’s critique of Anselm to Boyd’s theory of the Father’s visiting upon the Son the Godforsakenness we deserve. The logic between the two is the same.

Often opponents of the penal substitutionary view of the atonement summarize what they dislike about this view in terms of its making God “bloodthirsty,” picturing the Father wanting his “pound of flesh” or needing “more blood,” of Jesus “saving us from the Father,” or the Father’s feeling for Jesus the hatred he has for sin. But as Heim’s passage here shows, these extreme claims can be rejected while leaving one essentially within the grip of their sacrificial-scapegoating logic. Heim writes:

22879What I have tried to say in this book is that there is a concrete rescue in the cross. There is the rescue and vindication of a victim of scapegoating sacrifice, and more broadly, there is a rescue of all of us from the thoughtless bondage to that violent way of maintaining peace and unity. This is a saving transaction, in which God is willing to be subjected to our persecution in order to deprive it of future victims and end its power. That is the simple rescue, on which the other meanings of the cross are built.

Critics of atonement theology see in the account of Jesus’ death no literal redemptive example. And in a sense they are exactly right, for the Gospels themselves make this point. They dramatically emphasize that the crucifixion is wrong. The Gospel presentations stress that it is an evil act, and make no effort to soften that fact. As critics see it, the theology of the cross seems to suppose that the heavenly value of Jesus’ death increases in direct proportions to tis failure to do any earthly good. The cross does not present us with a parable of behavior that is admirable in some general sense. Rather than the concrete demonstration of a rescue, the passion narratives give us Jesus’ predictions of his death, an assurance that it will be offered for us. Critics do not find here any meaningful explanation of why that death would help. It is an “empty” death, and seems to invite or require the postulation of some hidden divine transaction to give it the meaning it lacks on the face of things

The Wrong Paradox
The classic penal substitutionary theology of atonement (we will take Anselm as its representative) constructs the terms of just such a hidden transaction. It posits a cosmic bargain that takes place on a plane quite distinct from the historical reality of the crucifixion. This mistaken move has decisive consequences. But before we explore those results in detail, we need to register the many authentic elements of the passion that Anselm incorporates in his vision. These are factors that account for the many positive effects that the teaching has had, despite its deep flaws. If the result is faulty, it is because the elements are misaligned, not because he starts with the wrong material.

In developing his theology Anselm fixes on a few details as crucial cues. Nearly all of them figure significantly also in the reading of the cross that I have been advocating. His doctrine of atonement builds around many of the key antimythical elements of the Gospels. He assumes, as scripture does, the injustice of the crucifixion, the falseness of the accusations, the innocence of the victim, and the uniqueness of the divine act that takes place in this event, separate from the intentions (explicit and implicit) of its human actors. On all these points Anselm is in line with the fundamental critique of historical sacrifice present in the Gospels. He stresses that it is not humans’ offering of someone else’s blood that is saving. That ancient human path is identified and condemned in the passion accounts. It is not the crowd’s thirst for Jesus’ blood, for a third party’s death, that saves us. It is God’s willingness to suffer in our place that is the unique and only transformative meaning for “sacrifice.” Anselm rejects any repetitive practice that exchanges some people’s suffering for others’ benefit…

Anselm clearly breaks with the foundational mythic scenario that assumes victims must be regularly offered to assure peace and harmony. He condemns that idea, because in his view this task can belong to only one person, the incarnate Word. All of Anselm’s arguments that are aimed to point up the human need for just such an extraordinary savior serve to make this point well. On the only point that matters, atonement for sin, human sacrifices are of no avail. They cannot redeem us. Our offering of others in sinful and in vain. Even our offering of ourselves, any self-immolation, would be equally futile. Like the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, Anselm firmly grasps this point. Without Christ, no amount of self-sacrifice, no amount of innocent suffering offering in any way could save us. With Christ, not even the smallest increment from any others is needed.

imagesIn the wake of Christ, no innocent suffering can be propounded as required by God. Suffering may come. It may even be occasioned by obedience and faithfulness to God. But it has no role to play in “satisfying” God. That was done once for all. Insisting on the necessity of divine initiative and divine action for reconciliation, Anselm rejects the assumption that human action alone may be sufficient. One good reason to deny this assumption is that whenever it is granted it tends to lend support to the common human procedure for effective atonement – sacrifice and scapegoating. In these fundamental ways Anselm recognizes and affirms the antisacrificial trajectory of the passion narratives. It is the presence of all these elements in his theology that accounts for its many liberating as well as destructive effects. So, for instance, even a very sacrificial reading of the cross that treats Jesus as a divine scapegoat, often still powerfully deflects our tendency to cast our own guilt onto a human scapegoat, allowing it to be discharged instead by Christ. Those who have opposed sacred violence from within the Anselmian perspective have done so on the basis of these resources.

But the Anselmian view of the cross is defined by two major additional steps. The first is the decision to privilege legal images to represent the basic dynamic of “death for us.” Anselm senses the magnitude of God’s action in the cross. It is something unexpected, gracious, and of universal vicarious effect. It has the immense dimensions that earlier Christian writers often describe in the terms of a unique and final sacrifice. Anselm sought to define the scope of grace through a legal quantification of our moral debt and Christ’s merit.

The second step is to conflate this legal framework with a vision of divine justice that dictates God’s purposes in suffering death. If Christ steps in to intercept a blow meant for us, where does that blow itself come from? It is occasions by our sin (so far, a view fully in accord with the general traditions). Anselm’s departure is to insist with new systematic rigor that it is actually coming from God. What we need to be rescued from is the deserved wrath and punishment of God. God wishes to be merciful and so God becomes the one to be punished on behalf of us all. God strikes the same blow that God protects us from.

In response to the criticisms of atonement in his day, which complained that only a weak or incompetent God would be compelled to go to the unseemly lengths of incarnation, and especially death by crucifixion, to redeem a wayward creation, Anselm explained the necessity of incarnation by focusing on the magnitude of the human offense, something only the infinite merit of God’s undeserved suffering could overbalance. The paradoxes of Anselm’s satisfaction theory attempt to reflect the paradox in the Gospels. The scriptural presentation of the crucifixion as both a bad thing and a good thing is translated to mean that the bad (undeserved) suffering of an innocent victim is finally a good thing, which it provides the merit to allow God to remit the punishment rightly due humanity. The debt to God can be paid only with what is not already owed. Jesus’ death can cover the bill because God’s justice cannot demand it, because it is so purely undeserved. The cross is necessary because it is not required. It works only because it is wrong. The wrongness is part of the solution.

This vision draws its power from points of genuine contact with the Gospel narratives of the cross. But it has gone badly astray, at a point where even a small difference can do great harm. The wrongful suffering Jesus is subjected to, the evil the passion is meant to end, becomes the essential good to be celebrated in it. The key error is to refer both the meaning and need of Jesus’ death to its character as an offering to God. What Anselm rejects at the level of human community, he re-creates at the level of community between God and humanity, a community whose reconciliation depends on the offering of an innocent victim. Most important, Anselm presents God as the one who requires this sacrifice and also as the one to whom it is offered.

Scapegoating is a human practice, and Anselm is clear that such a practice cannot solve our estrangement from God. But in his view God has taken over a human scapegoating sacrifice (the execution of Jesus) and turned it into a unique scapegoating sacrifice of unimaginable magnitude. God is doing what human sacrifice does, but on a much larger scale, and one time only. God has not stepped into the process to oppose it, but to perfect it. Sacrifice to end sacrifice is an accurate and biblical way to describe Jesus’ death, but it is an ambiguous and delicately poised idea. Anselm has taken it to mean that God does the same thing that human scapegoaters do, taking it to an ultimate extreme. Instead of God throwing a wrench into the gears of human sacrifice, Anselm’s God has endorsed that machinery, borrowing it to perform the biggest and most effective sacrifice of all. Jesus has become our all-purpose scapegoat, whose suffering generates an infinite reservoir of merit that, like his shed blood, can be dispensed through the sacraments.

These are fatal steps. Once these points become fixed, they dramatically deform the theology of the cross. To return to our simple image about Jesus stepping in between us and an evil bearing down on us, we can say that Anselm unequivocally states that what is bearing down on us is God and God’s wrath. This radically bifurcates the God of justice and the God of forgiveness, and it appears to require a plan of salvation that sets Christ and God against each other. In contrast, I have argued that the actual transaction at the cross is one in which God is handed over to our redemptive violence in order to liberate us from it, not the transaction between God’s left hand and right hand that Anselm pictures…

images (1)Anselm’s mistake is to make primary what is derivative. God did not become human only to die. And Christ did not die as he did to cancel an infinite of deserved punishment for humanity with the infinitely undeserved suffering of innocent divinity. The legal apparatus around the crucifixion is not there because God has a satisfaction case to prosecute and a punishment to enforce on humanity, but because the machinery of false accusation and political and religious legitimacy are part of the way sacred violence works. The death of Jesus follows the script of human persecution because that is the ongoing evil into whose path Jesus steps, to rescue us from sacrifice, to open the way to new community.

Anselm’s doctrine preserves paradox, but the wrong one. He has made the cross a celebration of the sacrifice it meant to overcome. We have seen in earlier chapters how two things are stereotypically overlaid in the passion narrative: a bare description of scapegoating sacrifice along with the rationale of its practitioners, and then a counterscript of criticism, rejection, and reversal of that practice. The second is the distinctive meaning of the cross. At a crucial point Anselm has crossed these wires and taken over part of the sacrificial rationale that was being rejected. In his vision there is a crisis of conflict that threatens to tear creation permanently apart. It is the conflict between humanity and God. Sin has put them at irreconcilable odds. The only way peace can be restored is for God and humanity to unite together in sacrificing an innocent victim. God, Judas, Herod, Pilate, Caiaphas, Peter – all join in one unanimous crowd. This is straightforward sacrificial logic, borrowed from the script followed in the Gospels by those who kill Jesus. And Anselm has enlisted God on its side. But it is a logic the passion narratives subvert and the resurrection denies.

The obvious change Anselm must make when this sacrificial scenario migrates into his thought from the realm of mythical sacrifice is an inescapably Christian one. Given his commitment to scripture, the true nature of the sacrificial logic cannot remain invisible. It must be directly faced. In classical sacrifice the guilt of the scapegoat and the validity of the charges against him or her are assumed. The crowd celebrates the killing because they do not recognize any victim. Innocent suffering works to bring peace because it is invisible as such. For Anselm, since the Gospels have made the victim unavoidably visible, it is the acknowledged innocent suffering of the victim that becomes the hinge of the whole process. The effectiveness of Jesus’ death in reconciling us with God depends on our knowing full well that it is unjustified persecution. The Gospels pulled back the veil of unanimous accusation to show the hidden truth of sacrifice, the undeserved suffering of the innocent victim. What was revealed was what was wrong, and what must be changed. But Anselm insists that what we see behind the veil is right. God has become the proprietor of redemptive violence, and by that very act made it a good thing. This injustice becomes the whole purpose of the incarnation, and not one of the prime evils Christ came to defeat. Thus, at the last minute, things are turned backward. Rather than a strategic act of resistance to overthrow sacred violence, the cross becomes a divine endorsement of it. This is the missed connection, so close to the truth and yet so fatally far, that has tangled our thinking about substitutionary atonement.

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Suffering servant

downloadOne more passage from Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice. There are a dozen passages I’d like here to reproduce from this insightful book, but I’ll try to make this the final post and encourage you to acquire and read the book for yourself. In this section (from chapter three) Heim continues to trace the development of the theme of scapegoating in the Old Testament and how the Scriptures, though they are “thick with bodies [and] the voices of victims,” expose this economy of violence as bankrupt, even as that economy is adopted within and by Israel’s worship of God (also to be judged in light of the Cross). At times scapegoating is depicted from the perspective of the persecutors, those who employ scapegoating as a means of achieving and maintaining peace, while at other times that same process is described from the point of view of the scapegoat/victim. Heim’s section on Job is one example of scapegoating presented from the perspective of the victim who in Job’s case, argues Heim, is a failed sacrificial event. Here, however, I’d like to reproduce Heim’s treatment of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, which as we know was a source of understanding for the early Church’s understanding of the Cross.

For later Christians the revelation of persecuting sacrifice that is so deep in the Old Testament reaches a special climax in the “songs of the servant” in the book of Isaiah. Here in the figure of the suffering servant we find perhaps the single most prominent scriptural text for early Christian interpretation of the cross… [Heim’s here reproduces the fourth song, Isa. 52.13—53.12, which I’m omitting.]

These words are so familiar, and so freighted with tradition, that it is hard to hear them say anything new. But compare them with the description of the sacrificial scapegoat presented in our last chapter. This passage says concisely in a few sentences all that was contained there. Consider it first not as a mystical job description for a unique messiah, but as an anthropological account of a repeated reality. As Gil Bailie, says, “The Suffering Servant Songs combine two insights: first, that the victim was innocent and his persecutors wrong, and second, that his victimization was socially beneficial and that his punishment brought the community peace.”

This is presented in great detail. “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him.” The persecuted one is likely chosen from the marginal or those whose appearance is marred, and so is more easily rejected. “He was despised.” The person chosen is without supporters, isolated and abandoned. “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases.” The victim has been chosen and will suffer because of our problem, our collective disease of rivalry and conflict. The impetus comes not from some offense in the victim but from a need in us. “Yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God.” We thought this, but we were wrong. Though the problem is ours, we believed it was this one who was the cause, this one who was hated by God, this one who deserved the Job and the Joseph and the Abel treatment.

“But he was wounded for our transgressions.” In fact, it is because we could not maintain peaceful relations that we require a sacrifice. We wound because of our iniquities. And wounding is another iniquity. “Upon him was the punishment that made us whole.” We are actually reconciled and freed by this violence, even though the victim is wrongly charged and we are the actual guilty ones. Hating together unites us, strops our divisions. What hurts him helps us. “All we like sheep have gone astray.” We are all involved. We do this together; we have all turned to scapegoating. “By a perversion of justice he was taken away.” The entire procedure by which we carry out this killing may claim to have some moral basis, but there is no justice in it.

This is about as clear as it can be about religious scapegoating violence. It is an unequivocally bad thing, with undeniably good results. To perceive this sacrificial mechanism in others is unusual, a breakthrough. To face it explicitly in our own behavior may be, literally, miraculous.

Of course, there is another element in the text, expressed most powerfully in two lines: “And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” and “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.” Otherwise the passage is giving an uncannily clear description of violent sacrifice as the unjust if fruitful persecution of an innocent victim, wrongly attributed to God rather than to our own evil. But these lines appear to turn around and say it is all God’s idea after all.

The different biblical voices we have been examining in various ways exposed and criticized this foundational religious dynamic, and set God against it. The trail of attention to scapegoats in the Bible leads to this moment of blinding clarity about what is going on. And at this point, it seems, the writer blinks, and in a few words draws the whole thing back under divine authorization. That long struggle to hear the voice of victims backslides into a passive acceptance, the surrender of a crushed Job who mumbles that it must be right after all.

Is that what’s going on? No. But let’s suppose for a moment that it were. If we stop there, we still have something completely new. In the past the participants in persecuting sacrifice, including the divine participants, endorsed it as something other than what it actually was. They accepted a mythical account, the validity of the accusations, the guilt of the victim. They did it because they thought it was right. What is proposed in this text would be a knowing acceptance of sacrifice for what it actually is. God knows and we know that it is the evil killing of an innocent, for our own benefit. This is the way the world works. We go ahead anyway. It’s wrong, but useful. This is a God who has read Nietzsche, and agrees.

But this isn’t what the text is saying. The writer is not talking about divine approval for sacrificial business as usual, and the sign is in the way God’s will is distinguished from the will of the persecutors. Isaiah says that we, the sacrificers, esteemed the victim stricken by God. But the whole tenor of the text is that it was wrong to think that. We are the ones who wounded and crushed the scapegoat with our iniquities. If what is being done is so clearly wrong, why would God support it? If it was wrong to think that God inflicted the punishment, what does it mean to turn around and say that God laid on him the iniquities of us all? It can mean only that there are two different things going on. When we inflict our iniquities on the victim, it is not the same event as when God lays those same iniquities on him. The writer of the servant song brings these two together with the suggestion that “the victim was allowed to be struck down by a God who counted his sufferings as an atonement for the faults of the very mob that inflicted them on him.”

imagesGod is doing something different from what the persecutors are doing. The Isaiah text gives us many plain indications of this shift. It ends with exaltation of the servant. And it begins with verses that already presume the vindication of the sacrificed one. “See, my servant shall prosper; / he shall be exalted and lifted up….” The victim’s cause will be upheld, in a way that will startle the nations, “for that which had not been told them they shall see, / and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.” Though what is happening is old and common (even if the blunt description of it is new), this instance of it is going to be dramatically different. It has a purpose counter to, but superimposed on, the standard purpose of sacrifice. This is powerfully reflected in the lines “By a perversion of justice he was taken away. / Who could have imagined his future?” Clearly, those doing the sacrifice do not imagine it, a sign that God is not playing the same game they are.

The text says, “When you make his life an offering for sin, / he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days, / through him the will of the Lord shall proper.” In other words, when you sacrifice him as a sin offering, it won’t work. Instead of falling into death and oblivion, the servant will live long and see descendants. Through him the will of the Lord – and not the will of his killers – will prosper. The servant will be blessed (“Out of his anguish he shall see light”) and will bless many others (“the righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous”). Traditional sacrifice may accomplish something very real. It may still our strife for a time. One thing it cannot do is make its practitioners righteous, since they must sin to carry it out. Somehow the servant’s death is to save them from what led to the killing.

We can understand this better by comparing the servant in this passage with Job. Job is a full-scale resister to his scapegoating, but the servant is patient, like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb. Job protests his personal innocence while the friends enlist God to argue his guilt, and the outcome is up in the air. The servant songs are crystal clear that the servant is suffering unjustly for other people’s sins, and it is a mistake to think the servant guilty. Job demands some kind of vindication from God. He does have his earthly prosperity restored, but gets no unequivocal verdict in his favor, no reply to his plea for an accounting from God. The entire episode of his suffering is still posed as a test proposed to God by Satan, an episode that turns out to be a test of God too. By contrast the servant song is framed by an affirmation of the victory of the victim. The servant does not protest, because the protest has been heard and validated by God. The song directly proclaims the innocence of the servant and the injustice of the persecution. The servant is in league with God to change this dynamic. This sacrifice is not meant to be one in a long line. The servant is a singular figure, and the effect of his life will be something new: “for that which had not been told them they shall see.” For a beginning, in this picture of the servant, the nations see what they had not been told about their own scapegoating practice.

The servant song tells a story like that of Job, from a different perspective. This time there is no doubt about the scapegoat’s innocence, no doubt about the evil of the suffering inflicted, no doubt whose side God is on. The focus has shifted. Now it rests on the sins of the persecutors, US. Job poses a question: How can God be justified in fact of the arbitrary suffering of a righteous person ganged against by everyone, including God? The servant poses a different question. Assuming that God decides to side with the scapegoat, how can those who do the violence ever be justified? If the first was about how the one can be rescued, the second is about how the man can be saved.

Saved from Sacrifice

51FQZ2wZv+L._SX335_BO1,204,203,200_Move Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross to the top of your to-read list. Read it slowly. Read it all. Then read it again. That should do it.

It’s been out a decade, but I have little money and a long list of things to read. For some reason, though, it got moved to the top of the list, and since it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg (no pun intended, given the subject matter), I picked it up. Here’s Heim’s summary of the book:

The event of Jesus’ death, his condemnation, suffering, and execution, is a bad thing. The Gospel accounts emphasize this. Christians remember it, retell it, and even celebrate it as a unique and saving action. The day of Jesus’ death is Good Friday. The New Testament emphasizes that too. This is odd. The main, first thing is not to miss that fact. Everything worth learning has its hard parts, the tricky passages, like math problems where there’s one point where it’s so easy to go astray. The difference between being right and being wrong is both small and enormous, like performing one last multiplication and remembering whether it should come out negative one billion or positive one billion (and that’s a difference of two billion!). We have to add up all the oddities or it won’t come out right. Jesus’ death is that passage in Christianity. The answer balances on a razor’s edge.

Is this God’s plan, to become a human being and die, so that God won’t have to destroy us instead? Is it God’s prescription to have Jesus suffer for sins he did not commit so God can forgive the sins we do commit? That’s the wrong side of the razor. Jesus was already preaching the forgiveness of sins and forgiving sins before he died. He did not have to wait until after the resurrection to do that. Blood is not acceptable to God as a means of uniting human community or a price for God’s favor. Christ sheds his own blood to end that way of trying to mend our divisions. Jesus’ death isn’t necessary because God has to have innocent blood to solve the guilt equation. Redemptive violence is our equation. Jesus didn’t volunteer to get into God’s justice machine. God volunteered to get into ours. God used our own sin to save us.

We humans took a terrible thing – scapegoating violence against the innocent (or against those who are guilty of something, but not the demonic effects we claim) – and made it a good thing. It brings us together, stops escalating conflict among us, unites us against a common enemy. We overcome our differences and make peace by finding a common victim, by hating together. We restrain violence with violence. Satan casts out Satan, and becomes all the stronger for it. This isn’t a random, pointless evil. It is woven into the way our communities work, and the problem it solves is real.

Is there any point in Jesus dying this particular, specific kind of death? Is he dying for our sins, in order to save us? Yes, because his death exemplifies a specific kind of sin we are all implicated in and we all need saving from, and acts to overcome it. Only the divine power of resurrection and revelation could do that. God was willing to be a victim of that bad thing we had made apparently good, in order to expose its nature and liberate us from it. In so doing, God made that occasion of scapegoating sacrifice (what those who killed Jesus were doing) and occasion of overcoming scapegoating violence (what God was doing). It is the same event, but what is happening in that event for the people who kill or accept the killing or fail to oppose it (in short, for all involved) is not what’s happening in that event for Jesus, for God, and hopefully for the church. God used our sin to save us from that sin. And the result, uneven but real, is that victims of such acts become harder to hide. They look too much like Jesus. The challenge, all too failed, is to build another basis for peace than unity in violence. That is what the gathering around the communion table attempts to do.

There is a saving act of God in the cross, and there is a sinful human act. The two are so close together that it is easy for them to get mixed up in our understanding, and in our theology. The saving part is so real that it exercises and effect even when distorted almost beyond recognition in our interpretations. The sinful part is so ubiquitous that even the best theology is subject to a kind of gravitational degradation. Without the language of sacrifice, innocence, guilt, punishment, substitution, and blood, we can’t tell the truth about our situation and what God does to liberate us, a truth that the cross makes available to us in a new way. With it, we always run the risk of taking the diagnosis for a prescription. Sacrifice is the disease we have. Christ’s death is the rest result we can’t ignore, and at the same time an inoculation that sets lose a healing resistance. The cure is not more of the same.

This is why Christian theology has what sounds like the same language overlaid on this event twice, once for what it means according to our sacrificial usage, once to turn it around. Christians say the cross is a sacrifice…but to end sacrifice. They say “blood shed for us,” but blood shed once for all. They say, “We are reconciled in his blood,” but they mean we have been freed to live without the kind of reconciliation that requires blood, the kind Caiaphas and Pilate and Herod had in mind.

That is what this book tries to explain

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I’ll definitely be back with more on this wonderful book.