The Sacred Desert

David Jasper “The Sacred Desert: Religion, Literature, Art, and Culture” [Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004]
“The Sacred Desert is a reflection on the role of the desert in theology, history, literature, art and film. An original reflection on the role of the desert in theology, history, literature, art and film. Discusses figures as diverse as Jesus, the early Christian Desert Fathers, T.E. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Georgia O Keeffe, Wim Wenders and Jim Crace. Makes connections across millennia of desert literature. Deepens the reader s understanding of the desert as a real place, as an interior space, and as a textual site.”

David Jasper is Professor of Literature and Theology at the University of Glasgow, and was the founding editor of the journal, “Literature and Theology”. He is the author of “The Sacred and Secular Canon in Romanticism” (1999) and co-editor of “The Bible and Literature: A Reader” (edited with Stephen Prickett, Blackwell Publishing, 1999) and “Religion and Literature: A Reader” (edited with Robert Detweiler, 2000).
“The Sacred Desert is a marvellous and truly integral conjunction of seemingly every dimension of that ultimate desert which is at once our deepest beginning and our deepest ending. Theological and poetic at once, and critical and historical simultaneously, it offers us a vicarious voyage into our most ultimate ground, a ground beyond God but nontheless embodying the totality of the Godhead. If that Godhead is an absolute nothingness, it is a truly actual nothingness, and most actual for us in that desert which is here so powerfully and so comprehensively evoked.” Thomas Altizer, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the State University of New York and Stony Brook

“The Sacred Desert provides a journey into the innermost core of the self––where the soul stands alone before an unknown God, who is both darkness and light. David Jasper has written a magnificent theological reflection on the depth of spiritual meaning sought and found by desert pilgrims in literature, art, film, history, and sacred scripture. A tour de force!”
David Klemm, University of Iowa
desert (2)
“As the pace of contemporary life gathers speed, we can often feel a dizziness that suggests we are out of control. Perhaps this is why there is a marked growth of interest in places that offer a radically different perspective. The desert is one such place; and David Jasper’s profound, beautiful and serious exploration of his desert experience suggests that it is “a kind of theatre of memory”.
That phrase resonates with themes that Rowan Williams has outlined in Lost Icons, a book about “cultural bereavement”; and which Nicholas Lash has returned to in his recently published lectures Holiness, Speech and Silence. Lash speaks of abandoning “the burdensome and life-defining duty to seek and speak the truth”. Jasper foresees a new beginning for talk of truth, and therefore of God, “in a language whose end is silence. But before theology, the poetics.” Here Jasper makes a significant contribution to the poetics.
Our images of the desert are probably of Egypt and the Sahara. “The Sacred Desert” begins with Jasper’s notes from visits to deserts in Texas and South Dakota. They are not romantic places; it’s like being in the Fens of England. But these descriptions give a tone of authenticity to what, challengingly, follows.
The book is a series of meditations that draw on Jasper’s interests in literature, film, the visual arts and music, moving from scripture (entered via Schoenberg’s opera Moses und Aron) to the present day, and to a reflection on Jesus in the desert which puts important questions about how we read truth in scripture.
Each chapter presents a new dimension of the desert. Describing these, Jasper weaves together often disparate threads. For example, the chapter subtitled “Thomas Merton Meets Don Cupitt” also encompasses Charles de Foucauld and T. E. Lawrence. Another most imaginative chapter, “Desert Theology and Total Presence”, brings together poetry and philosophy to illustrate how “it is through the Fathers and Mothers of the desert that ‘the world is kept in being’.”
I have described this book as a beautiful exploration. I hope many people will read it. Its beauty is, I think, twofold. The more obvious expression is the skill with which Jasper draws together his sources, and with which he himself writes.
The second aspect of its beauty is in the grace and imagination with which material from our own arid culture is treated as desert stuff, and transformed, in the manner modelled by fourth-century desert hermits, into poetics: the cultural sustenance of men and women who wish to live as citizens of heaven. This is “nothing short of a ‘transubstantiation’”, and the recovery of a memory lost to us”.
Revd Martin Warner at

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