There, three shelves from the floor, was a translation of Adolf Hitler's autobiographical manifesto, Mein Kampf. Here I was, the nearest I had ever been (as far as I can recall) to the ipsissima verba Hitler. Again and again I glanced furtively at the black, image-less volume, fascinated that this book should live here, among the heroes and celebrities of American history and culture.
I took the book off the shelf and began to look through the Translator's Note. Ralph Manheim offers the appropriate historical judgments about Mein Kampf's author and its ideas; he also is appropriately negative about the rhetorical effectiveness of its prose. One gets the sense that Manheim rendered Mein Kampf for English readers under a sort of compulsion, obligated by the historical importance and tragedy of its publication but mortified that his name might come to be associated with its ideology. If translation is usually a labor of love, this perhaps should not be called a translation at all.
But what especially caught my eye was the design and layout of the book's cover. Stated bluntly: I have never seen a book like this. A glossy, all-black cover from front to back. No image, either of its author or of its ideas. An understated font, seriffed for the title but sans seriffed for the author and translator. The only color: the title of the work in red, evocative of the NSDAP Parteiflagge. Both the author's and the translator's names in an unadorned, white typescript. But here the similarities end. The author's name appears in thick, bold lettering; the translator's in smaller, narrower lettering that nearly disappears against the glossy, all-black background. The author's name appears closely associated with the book's title; the translator's, on the other hand, stands alone, separated by black space. This book, more than any other, is the author's; it is not the translator's.
This cover, on this book, was striking for its rhetorical power. "Never judge a book by its cover" might be popular wisdom, but it does not describe how people actually respond to book covers. Cover design explicitly aims to elicit positive judgments: attraction, interest, curiosity. This cover, however, refuses to call out to potential readers, to lure them to the ideas expressed within. It's appeal is entirely silent, rooted in what's not there rather than what is.
This book design brought to mind the rhetorical effect of crucifixion. Today, the cross is the symbol of Christian faith, hung around pious necks and displayed atop as well as within places of worship. In the beginning it was not so. Like Mein Kampf, crosses beside roads elicited furtive glances, engaging the gazes of passers-by but shaming them in the process. According to Mark's Gospel, everyone who looked upon Jesus either joined Rome in heaping shame upon him (Mark 15.29–32), or they looked on from a distance (15.40–41). This is the point. Crucifixion does not display its victims. Crucifixion effaces its victims, replacing them completely with the awful visage of Rome's power and resolve. Crucifixion paints a person's biography black.
David Kertzer, in Ritual, Politics, and Power (Yale University Press, 1988), defines ritual as "symbolic behavior that is socially standardized and repetitive" (9). As "symbolic behavior," rituals communicate; symbols, after all, are "tangible formulations of notions . . . extrinsic sources of information" (Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures [Basic Books, 1973], 91, 92; my emphasis). An all-black, aniconic book amidst shelves of colorful, illustrated covers communicates. In the same way, broken, suspended bodies amongst the living communicate. More than this, they communicate the same thing: Here is some-thing/-one important enough to merit attention, but on-lookers ought not find them attractive.
What's the point? In all of this, I think the most fascinating questions arising from the study of Christian origins are simply these: How did the earliest Christians manage to replace Rome's all-black, aniconic rhetoric of crucifixion with the culturally and theologically vivid account of the messiah's "parodic exaltation" (Joel Marcus, 2006; see also Anthony's discussion, here)? How did they convince themselves of this replacement? And how did they manage—ultimately very successfully indeed!—to convince others? The historical account of this replacement is, I think, the story of Christian origins.