Two famous images of Christ.
One among the most beloved artworks every produced.
The other among the most detested and offensive.
The two make an unlikely pairing, but one which demonstrates the power of Art and the posture that many Christians have toward it.
Image #1 – Head of Christ by Warner Sallman
When you think of Jesus, there’s a good chance that this is what comes to mind. Created in 1940, and having been printed over 500 million times, it has established itself as the definitive portrait for countless people (*bonus points if you can spot the Lord’s Supper wine goblet and bread hidden in the image!*).
Image #2 – Immersions by Andres Serrano
Another famous image, but for much different reasons. The award-winning photograph may not seem controversial at first glance, but its subversive nature is revealed by its more recognizable title—Piss Christ. As the crude name suggests, the image is, in fact, a plastic crucifix submerged in a container of the photographer’s own urine.
The scandalous image has (unsurprisingly) provoked significant opposition—organized boycotts, political marches, and numerous acts of vandalism by Christians who have succeeded in destroying prints of the work displayed in several galleries.
A Different Perspective
The drastically different reactions to the images demonstrates Art’s ability to evoke a wide range of emotional responses, from reverence to disgust. I tend to agree that, of the two images, one is a powerful theological statement while the other is problematic and perhaps even dangerous—but I disagree on which one is which.
The Head of Christ portrait has done as much as any image to shape people’s conception of Jesus…and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
I recall several years ago, during a debate on the skin color of Santa Claus (yes, really!), conservative news anchor Megyn Kelly declared, “Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change. Jesus was a white man, too.” Cringe-inducing moments like that reveal the potential danger of an image like Head of Christ. The culturally ingrained notion of a meek, pale-skinned, and remarkably well-shampooed Jesus is clearly a far cry from the reality of a dark-skinned homeless man who spent his days traveling beneath the scorching sun of the Middle East. With everything going on in the world today, this isn’t insignificant.
Subtle or not, the way we picture Christ physically often affects our perception and relationship toward him. Perhaps nothing has diminished our understanding of the fear and sovereignty of God more than the consistent rendering of Him as a gentle grandfatherly figure. Just for fun, here’s one artist’s rendering of what a 1st Century Jew may have looked like:
On the other hand, what of the scandalous Immersions photograph? Shouldn’t we be outraged and offended by such a disrespectful treatment of Jesus? Yes! Of course we should. The image is offensive and repugnant—but that’s what makes it such a potent work of Art. The photograph evokes justified outrage, and that’s the point.
The photograph points an accusatory finger at those of us who are furious at the treatment of a plastic crucifix mass-produced in a factory while simultaneously shrugging off our own harbored sins which placed Christ on the cross to begin with. The crucifix, baptized in disgusting bodily fluid, is a shocking metaphor for the sins of the world that Christ took upon himself for our sake. I would hope that we’re as fervent about rooting out the sin in our own hearts as we are in rooting out an offensive photograph in an art gallery.
A Time To be Comforted…A Time To Be Broken
You may disagree with my perspective on these two images. That’s completely valid. There will always be a degree of subjectivity with art. My intention is merely to challenge the notion that uplifting and encouraging art is always good and offensive and disturbing art is necessarily bad.
Growing up, the local Christian radio station had the slogan: “Safe and fun for the whole family!” After five minutes of listening to secular Top 40 radio it’s evident why such a safe haven is desired and needed. Yet, I think the catchphrase also reflects the widespread sense that Christian Art should be a constant source of encouragement and comfort. There’s often an expectation that we must feel uplifted and built-up by Christian songs, films, books, or images. With all that’s going on in the world today, there’s certainly a need for that…
…but I think there’s also a great need to be unsettled and broken. There are times when a Christian needs to be uplifted, comforted, and restored, but there are other times when they need to be shattered, humbled, and dismayed.
I think there’s a tendency to use Art as little more than a therapeutic crutch. We self-medicate on the soft and agreeable content which echoes and affirms the beliefs we already hold. We watch a faith-based film with the intention of having our Christian beliefs and values validated, not to have them called into question.
Yet, sometimes we need to let Art shake us out of our complacency. Rather than a gentle pat on the back, we need to let Art cripple our legs and send us collapsing to our knees, so that God can lift us back up stronger and wiser then ever.
Obviously there’s a balance. Dark and edgy art is not better than bright and cheerful art. The best Art is that which depicts truth, and joy and laughter are as true as sorrow and tears. The Gospel is about beautiful grace, but that grace only makes sense against the backdrop of ugly sin. If Art does nothing but make us miserable and hopeless, then we need to make serious adjustments to the music, movies, and books we’re immersing ourselves in. On the other hand, if Art gives us nothing but warm and fuzzy feelings, never challenging us or causing us to ask difficult questions, then perhaps we need to step outside of our safe bunker.
I love the exchange in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when young Lucy asks if Aslan the lion is “safe,” to which Mr. Beaver replies, “Safe? […] who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
When’s the last time that you read a book that challenged the way you think? What’s the last movie that left you feeling broken and searching for answers? What’s the last song that brought you face-to-face with the grotesque reality of sin?