"For by so much more frequently as Jesus is seen in artistic representation,
By so much more readily are people lifted up to His memory… And to a longing after Him."
-The Second Ecumenical Council of Nicaea

Friday, February 28, 2014

Son of God (2014)

                        “If we must have a Jesus let us have a legitimate Jesus.”
                         - Stephen Dedalus, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

So after just having seen the big Son of God (2014) movie, my initial reaction is “Meh.” Don’t get me wrong, I love Jesus, I love movies, and above all I love Jesus movies… Ok, I actually love Jesus more than Jesus movies but you get my drift. At some points in the movie I was rather impressed with artistic decisions the filmmakers made but others times where I felt I was watching a bad Leslie Nielsen-esk parody of The Passion of the Christ (2004) (i.e. meticulous recreation of scene staging sans any humor).

The movie uses John the evangelist as our window into the life of Christ. It begins with John as an old man living on Patmos narrating to us the prologue of his gospel weaved into flashback scenes from the history of the Jewish people. The virgin birth is clearly understood to be alluded to by this narrative, but never explicitly mentions. We see baby Jesus born in a manger and visited by magi. Then the adult life of Jesus is kicked off with the call of Peter/miraculous catch of fish. When Jesus approached Peter’s boat and calls him by name to catch a bunch of fish it is not clear if Peter has any idea who Jesus is. But Peter does seem to feel obligated to show this wandering hippy who invited himself into the boat that there aren't any fish biting. Yadda, yadda, yadda… Jesus invites Peter to “change the world.”

A while later in the film we have the call of Matthew. The scene begins with a bunch of people griping about those nasty tax collectors who work for the Romans. Rather than directly reprimanding the Pharisees and disciples, Jesus, being a good Rabbi, recognizes a teachable moment when it presents itself. He tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector where they both go to the temple to pray. The Pharisee thanks God he is not like the tax collector whereas the tax collector asks God's mercy. Jesus praises the humility of the tax collector and condemns the self-righteousness of the Pharisee. Well, low and behold, it was not a made up parable after all but biographical about our man Matthew who subsequently abandons his sinful career to join the band of merry disciples.

These two scenes give us a pretty good idea of who Jesus is in the film. He is very much a divine miracle worker who can manipulate the world around him (as attested to by the many miracles he performs) but also has a supernatural knowledge of the human heart. His knowledge does have its limits in the film. Jesus is surprised by the deaths of Lazarus and John the Baptist. Also the night before he is crucified Jesus experiences some flash-forwards and is like, “Oh snap! This is my last supper.” (I think that might actually be a paraphrase.)

The trial and crucifixion were the weakest part of the film (this is perhaps because The Passion did them so well). Judas was basically duped into helping Caiaphas whose biggest beef with JC seemed to be a comment he made to a tween girl about how the temple would be destroyed. In fairness Jesus did say this after he very nonchalantly knocked over four money-changing tables. Regardless, the film did leave me wondering why on earth Caiaphas was scheming to take down the mostly harmless Nazarene while showing little concern for this other Jew named Barabbas who was actually instigating armed riots with the Romans. Just saying… I personally would be much more concerned Pilate would be much more pissed off with the Jews for the guy who murdered Romans rather that the guy who preached peace. But maybe that’s why I’m not a Jewish high priest. One other off putting thought I had during this part of the film was, “For someone being crucified, Jesus sure seems to be smiling a lot.”

The resurrection scenes were very well done and curiously had strong Eucharistic and Petrine theology associated with them. After a modified great commission Jesus disappears (err… Ascends?) and Peter announces that there is a whole lot of work to be done. Then we return to John on Patmos and hear how all the other disciples were martyred in spreading the Gospel. In a very creative and poignant conclusion to the film Jesus appears to the aged John and starts speaking the book of Revelation. Finally, Jesus tells/warns the audience that he is coming back soon.

Now although there were less than a dozen people in the 10 o’clock “premiere” I went to, there was a 7PM showing of the movie that was sold out. A Lutheran church in town booked the theater and invited their congregation to use the film as an outreach tool. I arrived at the theater early enough to hear some of the reactions of my Lutheran friends as they left. “Powerful” was a word that was repeated numerous times. And I think, clearly, for people of faith this can be a very powerful film. I wish it would have been as inspirational and thought provoking as The Passion of the Christ was a decade ago, but that is as a Jesus movie aficionado speaking. I have no doubt that this film will be inspirational and thought provoking for many within the Christian world; however, for some of the critiques I mentioned and others I left out I do not foresee this film having nearly the cultural impact The Passion did. Which is a shame, because it is a great story… nay, the greatest story. And if you’re not going to see the movie (and even if you do) I’d strongly encourage you to spend some time reading one of the original versions this Lent. They’re actually cracking good reads!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Jesus Movies-A Brief Introduction

The idea of making a movie that tells the story of Jesus is as old as the idea of making a movie. The art of cinema was invented in 1895, and by the turn of the century there had already been at least five attempts to tell the story of Jesus through this medium. Most of these films were rather short, ranging in time from about five minutes to about twenty. Over the next thirty years the Jesus story, as told by motion pictures, would grow and expand until it ultimately climaxed with Cecil B. Demille’s The King of Kings (1927.) This was the definitive work on the subject for the following thirty-year period.

Even though the person of Jesus was not directly dealt with over this period of time, Hollywood did bring the story of Jesus to the screen in an alternative fashion. A series of movies that had Jesus as a cameo role were made. Some examples of what I call “Jesus cameos” would be: Quo Vadas (1951,) The Robe (1953,) or Ben Her (1959.)


In these movies Jesus was a very important  character within the film, but his was not the main storyline; rather, the storyline revolved around someone whose life had been touched by Jesus. Besides these exceptions the story of Jesus would rarely grace the silver screen; however, things would change dramatically in the 1960’s…

Friday, August 3, 2012

Movies-Post Modern Art Par Excellence


“The Enlightenment and the challenges it posed to biblical faith; the encounter of theology with modern philosophy; the introduction of technology into art with photography and then moving pictures, and the subsequent rethinking of meaning of art itself—all of these had profound consequences for the Christian imagining of Christ’s passion and its relation to salvation. These demand the opening not merely of a new chapter but of a new volume”
- Richard Viladesau, The Beauty of the Cross

We live in an ever changing world. The enlightenment, modern philosophy, and new developments in technology have radically transformed our society, culture and world. The impact each of these has had on faith is immense; although some aspects more so than others. Some of effects have been fleeting, whereas others have been long lasting. I’m not sure if Viladesau’s analogy of needing a new volume versed a new chapter is all that useful. Especially with the advancement of technology we may be in need of an entirely new medium.

The enlightenment and modern philosophy have each run their course. Because they have had their impact on the way we understand the world, to the postmodern, Locke, Hume and Kant have all earned their places on the book shelf along with Plato and Aristotle. But their influence is now waning in light of a postmodern philosophy that recognized and put to bed the follies of the infallibility of human reason just as Kant previously demolished the house of metaphysics.

The impact of the enlightenment on theology is most dramatically played out in the world of biblical studies and the multiple quests searching for the holy grail of the “historical Jesus.” Although finding its roots in an anti-Christian movement, the enlightenment has opened Christianity to a critical interpretation of the bible that has deepened our understanding of not only scripture, but of the way God interacts with in human history and allowed us to further mine the depths of the person of Jesus of Nazareth in ways never contemplated before. Our limits and challenges with this undertaking have been prophetically pointed out by Albert Schweitzer warning us that doing work on the historical Jesus can easily turn into autobiographical work, but nonetheless the historical critical method still dominates much of biblical studies today.

Which now allows us to turn our attention to how new technologies have transformed art. Beyond photography and film, the internet is also a new medium for artistic experience. Not only does is allow artists to easily express their work to a worldwide audience, but seeing and hearing great masterpieces is not an experience confined to cathedrals and galleries cotenants away but can be viewed or heard instantaneously on the smart phone we keep in our pocket. We are in a mass media culture where ideas and images can be shared en masse tout de suite  . There is no telling how long post modern philosophy will hold cultural dominance, but technology is going to keep expanding paradoxically causing the world to get smaller and smaller.

What impact does all this have on “the Christian imagining of Christ’s passion and its relation to salvation?” Imagination is one of the most powerful tools the Church is armed with in this postmodern world. Scholarship grants us the ability to re-imagine the person of Christ in new ways that we can share with others. Art can and does effect the religious imagination of the populous. The question we should be asking is, “How can the Church empower the Christian imagination to think about Christ’s passion and its relationship to salvation?” The answer is, it will take a lot of creativity and capital which the church has not been willing, as of yet, to invest (with rare exception).

Enter Hollywood. As the Church is doing a poor job of informing people’s religious imagination around the passion of our Lord, Hollywood has been able to “pick up the slack.”  The cinema is the new media par excellence of post modernity.  The reasons for this is because it combines many of the previous types of art into one form.  From literature, we get powerful story lines.  From music, we get moving scores.  From the visual arts with get breathtaking cinematography.  From theater we get emotional driven acting.  The list could go on and on.  (Ironically all these art forms can and should come together at liturgy as well, but that is a subject for a book not my blog.)  It has gotten to the point where art cannot be truly successful until it is in the form of a film. 

How do we judge the success of a book?  It’s got nothing to do with the New York Times Bestseller List, but rather whether or not it has been made into a movie yet. Need another example?  As I mentioned in an earlier post, when many Americans people think about the death of Jesus, they do not think of the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, but the Gospel according to Mel. The Passion of the Christ has so greatly informed people’s religious meditation that it has found its place in many church’s Lenten devotions right next to the Stations of the Cross.

Then for the less churchy we have the alternative of The Da Vinci Code which offers the populous a revamping of the Pascal mystery that includes Jesus being elevated to divinity centuries after the crucifixion and the institutional church suppressing the deification of Mary Magdalene, which was there from the start. (Please note I never made any claims as to abilities surrounding logic of the post modern.)

Both these examples have had a strong following within USAmerican culture and demonstrate some ways the story of Christ is being re-imagined.  Unless the Church is willing to devote the time, energy, creativity and finances needed to engage our post-modern culture with powerful images imbued with deeper meaning that Mel Gibson’s or Dan Brown’s then we are just going to be writing in the same book to a world that demands a multimedia experiences.  Rather than wait for that to happens, I am going to have some fun exploring Jesus of the Cinema in my blog. Enjoy!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

“Hipster” Jesus

In honor of Easter, Newsweek has decided to resurrect Jesus as, what many have labeled, a “Hipster” in Times Square. 

A quick Google image search for hipster will reveal many young men dressed similarly to the way Jesus is portrayed on the cover.  UrbanDictionary.com defined a hipster as thus:

Hipsters are a subculture of men and women typically in their 20's and 30's that value independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence, and witty banter…

Although indie-rock is a bit after Christ’s time, one could make the argument that by that definition, Jesus could be considered a hipster without a gigantic stretch of the imagination.  Our 33 year old messiah was most definitely an independent thinker that clashed with both the religious and civil authorities of His time.  Being Himself a woodworker, He would have a strong appreciation of well done craftsmanship and most likely art in general (although Judaism was an anionic religion during JC’s day, so this may be a stretch). 

The Gospels do make very clear that Christ engaged in “witty banter” with Pharisees through His teaching.  For example, some of you may of heard of the phase “wolf is sheep’s clothing.”  That was a JC original (Matthew 7:15).  Matthew chapter 23 is actually full of the Messiah’s zingers ranging from “blind guides” to “whitewashed tombs” to accusing the scribes and Pharisees of meticulously straining out a gnat from their wine but upon having a drink neglecting to notice there happens to be a camel in the beverage as well.  These are just a small sampling of Jesus’ witty banter.  Reimagining Jesus as a hipster can most definitely be a fruitful exercise in exploring who Christ is in our 21st century USAmerican culture.

Beyond the hipster clothing style we have a fair skinned, blue eyed Jesus with long dirty-blond hair and a short beard.  A typical look for not only hipsters, but also common in traditional artwork (although clearly not historically accurate).  Our Jesus finds Himself in the middle of the busy streets of downtown Manhattan at night—a popular hipster hangout. His head is backlight giving a subtle halo effect and perhaps alluding to this Man’s divinity.  Jesus also wears a crown of thorns recalling the passion, yet has His hands in His pockets hiding any possible stigmata so no other signs of physical suffering are visible.  Jesus has His eyes raises upward, but there is a certain ambiguity whether this gaze is meant to be towards His father in Heaven or if rather this Jesus is just too cool to look at you.  Much of who this Christ is is left to the viewer to decide.

Finally, superimposed over His fashionable getup is the provocative title of the cover story, “Forget the Church, Follow Jesus.”  In the picture, there is a certain isolation of Christ amidst one of the world’s busiest places that lends to the ideas of Him being separate from any formal organization.  This is not explicate, but the wording does lead one to that conclusion.  Curiously, the title given on the cover is not the title Andrew Sullivan give the story inside the magazine.  Sullivan simply calls his piece “The Forgotten Jesus,” a title that rings more true to his article, but not nearly as attention grabbing.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

St. Veronica

As Holy Week quickly approaches, I thought I would take this opportunity to spend a little time reflecting on one of the first Jesi of popular culture; namely, the image that has come to be associated with St. Veronica.  For anyone unfamiliar with the tail of the saint, tradition has it that as Jesus was carrying His cross dirt, sweat and blood covered His face and blurred His vision. At one point a woman bravely stepped out from the crown to wipe Jesus’ brow with her veil.  In her merciful act of cleaning Christ’s face, an image of the Lord was miraculously impressed upon her veil. It is not clear if the woman, called Veronica, knew Jesus or the peculiar circumstances surrounding His crucifixion. What we do know is that somehow she was able to look past a condemned criminal on His death march to see a broken person in desperate need of help. She was able to stand apart from all those around her to aid a fellow human being experiencing great suffering.

Her story is not found in scripture, but has become an intimate part of Christian devotions surrounding the death of Jesus through the Stations of the Cross. It is believed that her name, Veronica, is a combination of the Latin word “vera” meaning “true” or “real” with the Greek word “eikon” meaning “icon” or “image.”  Although tradition tells us Jesus’ face was impressed upon the cloth she used, I have often pondered what the real “true image” is in the story of Veronica.  It is not the image on Veronica’s veil, but rather Veronica herself. In her willingness to help someone in need, even to the point of putting her own self in harm’s way, she reflects the genuine “true image” of Christ.  Veronica’s act of mercy is a striking contrast to the violence taking place along Jesus’ walk to Calvary. Her compassion stands as a witness to the way we should live as Christians. How often do we reach out the the those suffering in our lives?  Would we be willing to risk our safety to aid someone who needed help?  May we all embrace the opportunities we have to be the true image of Christ to our hurting world.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Tebow meets Jesus

In Jesus news this week, the outspoken evangelical quarterback known for his Biblically laden Eye Black who even has a prayer position named after him has been traded to my home town team.  Yes, Tebow is moving to the Garden State to play for the Jets!  I thought I would take this opportunity of having our buddy Tim back in the news to explore a skit that aired on Saturday Night Live this past December in which the Lord visits this faith filled QB and his teammates in the locker room after Tebow led his Broncos to a “miracle win” over the Chicago Bears.

Jesus descends from heaven on a cloud to have a heart to heart with Tim and team. Jesus takes full credit for winning the past six football games, and has come to request that they put forth some effort so Jesus does not have to interrupt his busy schedule to bail them out each week during the forth quarter. Jesus, somewhat begrudgingly, acknowledges the importance of prayer and the Bible but then goes on to tell Tim that practice and discipline are likewise important. Jesus then nonsensically suggests that He Himself prayed to the Bronco’s kicker because of his superior football skills then uses the opportunity to jokingly razz Tebow for being too “in your face” about faith. Upon a football players inquire as to why Jesus bothers to fix football games, Jesus retorts that He “just goes where [He’s] called.” Christ concludes that “You guys gotta help yourselves a little” Before Jesus leaves he jokes about having “sacrificed everything” for them, comments on the likely postmortem destination of the New England Patriot’s QB and coach, then expresses his love for Tim. Jesus also suggested Tim take his faith down a notch.  Finally Jesus says Mormonism is all true wishes the team peace as angelic music plays his exit on the clouds.

SNL presents us with a curious blend of clearly embracing some aspects of the Christ of faith, while simply rejecting others.  On the affirming side we have a Jesus who is clearly the son of God that hears and answers prayers.  We also have allusions to the sacrificial nature of His death, the importance of scripture, and that Jesus judges the living and the dead.  The joyful nature Christ emulates in the above clip is not at all all foreign to the tradition and Jesus’s playful sparing with Tebow does have precedence in scripture (I’m thinking particularly of a certain wishy-washy disciple Jesus renamed Rock).  Finally, and most importantly, we have a Jesus who clearly loves his disciples in spite of their imperfections and challenges them to be the best people they can be.

Now onto the challenging parts… First, the Mormonism comment was just a throwaway joke clearly in reference to the TV show South Park, which declared Joseph Smith to have founded the one true religion.  Secondly, Jesus saying he prays to the Bronco’s kicker was simply a use of hyperbole and not meant to be taken as a deification of Matt Prater.  Also Jesus not knowing who the Broncos are playing next week is simple a rejection of His omniscience.  But there are two other truly troublesome aspects of the clip to address in detail.  This first is the whole basis of the clip, “Does Jesus care who wins football games?”  The answer, as most theologians—even the ones at Notre Dame—will tell you is “No.”  This premise is where the sketch draws a majority of its comedy from and rightfully mocks such an understanding of God.  But I do think it stands as a challenge to our 21st century American culture.  There is a real temptation to think of God as some sort of divine butler we can call upon whenever we need or want something, but the reality is God is the one calling us to transform our lives.  The Jesus of SNL does call for a transformation, but does so simply because he is tired of being that divine butler.  The God of the Judeo-Christian tradition calls us to not only radically transform ourselves, but the world around us so that God’s light may shine forth in all creation.

This brings us to the major conflict I see between Jesus of SNL and Jesus of Christianity.  The Jesus who tells Tim Tebow to tone down expressing his faith is simply incompatible with the Jesus who tells his disciples to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations… teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Mt 28:19-20)  Christians are called to live their faith in every aspect of their life.  Now I make no claims to know very much about the inner workings of the real Tim Tebow’s spiritual life, but the outer signs are a powerful witness to the Gospel.  Beyond the Eye Black and Tebowing fad, Tim Tebow’s philanthropic work stands as a testament to the reality of his faith.  From his work in the Philippines building a hospital and supporting an orphanage to his outreach to children suffering cancer in Florida, Tebow has a long record of living out his Christian Faith and that is something we can look to as inspiration.  St. Francis of Assisi once said our mission as Christians is to “Preach the Gospel at all times.  Use words when necessary.” Far from taking out faith “down a notch,” we need to let our faith inform every aspect of our lives.  This may not mean writing Bible verses under our eyes, but it does involve looking for the face of Christ in all those around us.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The RedBull Jesus

And so it begins…

So let’s see…  A bored Jesus steps out of the boat and begins walking on water much to the amazement of one of his disciples.  Disciple B, however, immediately jumps to the conclusion that Jesus simply drank a RedBull.  Jesus tells him that is not the case, at which point the reprimanded disciple likewise becomes confounded and asked the Lord if He is working “another” miracle.  Jesus corrects the second theory as well and explains that you just need to know where the stepping stones are.  Then, just for good measure, before the end of the commercial Jesus almost slips off of one of said stepping stones and takes His own name in vain.

This RedBull commercial aired earlier this week in South Africa sparking the outrage of the South African community.  Receiving complaints from both Muslims and Christians RedBull decided to “suspend” the add campaign.  Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, Archbishop of Durban, South Africa, went so far as to release a statement concerning the ad on the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference’s web page.  Cardinal Napier states that “While the RedBull adverts are characterised by their cleverness, we believe that RedBull South Africa have overstepped a mark.”  The Cardinal then, in his own clever way, suggests

“Much of RedBulls marketing is targeted to small shop owners, youth and young adults. In the spirit of observing Lent, we suggest that Catholic store owners and our young people fast from displaying and consuming RedBull until Easter. We suggest that the money you would have spent on RedBull be donated to charitable works. In this way, RedBullSA will understand that the idea that there is ‘no-such-thing-as-bad-publicity’ is dangerous territory when it comes to mocking religious symbols.”

So here is the question… Is Jesus being mocked in the above advert?  For the most part it seems RedBull is simply recycling a very old religious joke.  I’m pretty sure I remember my priest telling the very same joke during a homily at mass back when I was in elementary school, much to the amusement of the congregation.  Claiming the commercial mocks Jesus takes the critique a bit far especially since our friend “Disciple B” professes that Jesus is, in fact, a miracle worker.  Humor is what the commercial was going for, not blasphemy, and you can be your own judge on how well it succeeded.

Now with that said, we do have a second question to deal with.  Is Jesus being exploited by the advertisement?  On this point, I am going to side with the good Cardinal who points out “People are more than consumers and faith-based symbols are more than marketing opportunities.”  This in not the first time, and we can be confident not the last time Jesus is being used to sell something.  In the grand scheme of things, using Jesus to sell RedBull is a pretty minor transgression as opposed to say, using Jesus to sell a war; nevertheless, it is still “using” Jesus.  And people have every right to be offended by an ad campaign that reduces someone they hold to be sacred down to a celebrity spokes person.

RedBull is just the latest in a long line of companies, organizations and individuals who have tried to “use” Jesus for their own, shall we say “less than noble,” reasons. We could take this opportunity to shake our heads in disgust at the naughty ubercaffeinated beverage company, or we could take this as an opportunity to examine our own lives.  Have we ever “used” Jesus for our own selfish reasons? Have we ever “used” Jesus as a convenient excuse not to think through challenging issues in our own life?  Have we ever “used” Jesus as a tool of oppression rather than let Him be an instrument of liberation?  As Christians our calling is not to use Jesus, but rather to let Him use us.  When we are able to do just that, the miracles Jesus can work will be far greater than anyone walking on water, with or sans stepping stones.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Project

People love Jesus, although as Youtube will testify, they may not be to crazy about religion  “For Muslims and some Jews, Jesus was a prophet.  Buddhists say he was enlightened.  Hindus call him an avatar (the incarnation of a deity in human form), and Christians hail him as the Son of God.”  Or so it say on the back of the box of one of my many bobble-head Jesi.  A quick survey of the past 2000 years will reveal that there has been no person who has had as large an impact on the psyche of the western world than Christ; moreover, Jesus miraculously transcends human boundaries which, to most rational people, seem diametrically opposed. 

Case in point… On December 13, 1999 at the Republican Presidential debate, the potential presidential candidates  were asked, which political philosopher or thinker they most identified with and why. Without hesitation, the then governor of Texas, George W. Bush replied, “Christ, because he changed my heart.” When asked to clarify to the viewers what he meant, his response was, “If they don’t know it’s going to be hard to explain. When you turn your heart over to Christ, when you accept Christ as your savior, it changes your heart, and changes your life and that’s what happened to me.”

Eight and a half years later on August 16, 2008 at a church in Lake Forest, California the then presidential hopeful  Barak Obama told the gathered congregation as well as the nation watching on television, “I believe that Jesus Christ died for my sins, and that I am redeemed through Him. That is a source of strength and sustenance on a daily basis. I know that I don't walk alone… but what [that] also means, I think, is a sense of obligation to embrace not just words but through deeds, the expectations, I think, that God has for us. And that means thinking about ‘the least of these.’ It means acting, well, acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with our God.”

In the political spectrum, you do not get much farther  apart than Bush and Obama. Yet they both claim Jesus Christ to be a major influence in their lives. Of course, this is nothing new for American politicians. Back in 1803, Tomas Jefferson, who adamantly rejected the divinity of Christ, nonetheless refers to Jesus as, “the most innocent, the most benevolent, the most eloquent and sublime character that ever has been exhibited to [humanity.]” (Letter to Dr. Joseph Priestley) These three politicians share little else in common besides  a love for America and a love for Jesus.  So what do we make of this curious ability of Christ to captivate such a diverse audience? 

For as long as Christians have meditated on the life of Christ, fiction has entered the story of Salvation. People are apt to embrace a Jesus they like regardless of what the gospels say. In 1910 Albert Switzer made the astute observation in his magnificent book The Quest of the Historical Jesus, “There is no historical task which reveals a person’s true self as the writing of a Life of Jesus.” This concept shows that it is a natural tendency to create God in our own image.  From a skeptics standpoint, one can take this assessment to demonstrate the real limits of looking at depictions of Christ; however, one need not come to this disparaging determination.  When we come to understand representations of Christ are artistic interpretations rather than historic speculations we are freed to recognized that behind each portrait of Jesus stands a very real image of God in the artisan who created it.

Nearly two thousand years ago on the northern shore of Sea of Galilee, Jesus asked His disciples who people said He was.  Way back then, there was a litany of possibilities, “John the Baptist,” “Elijah,” “Jeremiah,” or “One of the ancient prophets has arisen.”   Today the answers are more varied than ever, ranging from “Superstar” to “Vampire Hunter” to “Jim Caviezel” to, my personal favorite of the past couple years, “Grilled Cheesus.”  Now I make no qualms about my own sharing of Peter’s subsequent profession. But my interest lies in who people say Jesus is. My goal for this blog is to engage the Christ we find in our media saturated culture.  I will compare that Jesus to the one of Christian faith, affirming the ways they are compatible and, when need be, challenging the ways they are not.  My hope is that you find my blog engaging, enriching and entertaining.  So thanks for joining me as we drop our nets into the sea that is popular culture.  I promise, there is plenty of good fishing to be had!

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Potential

Whenever I go to an art museum, I head straight for the medieval gallery. I have always been fascinated with images of the divine. The medieval artist found its patronage through the Church. So it is not surprising that divine iconography is the main theme of the middle ages. Saints and sacramentaries, stained glass and reliquaries, Biblical imagery, and ornate tapestry, all pointing to a reality beyond what someone seems to see. Granted, the medievalist had their eccentric sides too, as evidenced by Chaucer and Boccaccio. But even in popular piety and devotion, there was a deep longing for the sacred. As I finish contemplating the sacred art of medieval Europe, I inevitably wind up in the Renaissance. The contrast between art of the middle ages and art of the Renaissance is staggering. Devotion gave way to realism, and the results were astonishing. The images are incredible, the paintings are prodigious, and the art is awe-inspiring. Although images hinting of the divine will always have their place in art, they would never again maintain the monopoly they had in the middle ages. The secular began to dance with the sacred, and images of the annunciation appear next to depictions of princes and nobles.

One of the most celebrated Renaissance artists was Michelangelo Buonarroti, a gifted artist in many different mediums. The Vatican used his work extensively in the renovation of St. Peter’s. Michelangelo was born near the beginning of the high Renaissance in 1476. Although spending his childhood in Florence, he moved to Rome in 1496. It was there he carved The Pieta, one of the most famous and recognizable of Michelangelo’s works. The Pieta is a marble sculpture of the Madonna cradling her dead son. Michelangelo’s piece is  one of the most tragic and magnificent artworks that came out of the Renaissance. Mary’s face exudes a powerful beauty that reflects the tragedy that surrounds her. The pain in her face is real, but it is also somber as she knows this is the destiny to which her son was born; however, that consolation helps little in her grief. Jesus’ lifeless body lays limp in his mother’s arms. Michelangelo depicts Jesus within that brief window between death and rigor mortis. His muscles have all relaxed and all that is left of his gruesome execution are the nail marks in his hands and feet. As tragic as this image is, it is also seen as a victory for Christians. Salvation came because “Christ was sacrificed… to take away the sins of many.” (Hebrews 9:28) Victory in defeat, redemption from revulsion, salvation from scandal, this is the Christian “celebration” of “Good” Friday. Michelangelo’s Pieta captures this paradox with its bittersweet beauty better than any spoke language possibly could. Words get in the way of the divine beauty the statue forces us to come to terms with.

Michelangelo’s masterpiece was revealed to the world in 1499. Five centuries later, we find ourselves in a very different world. In this world we need not venture beyond our computer to see Michelangelo’s Pieta in cyber space. The beauty of it is compromised, because we can see anything we want thanks to the advent of the internet. All the artwork in the world is a few key strokes away, and ironically when we can see everything, we see nothing. The philosopher Jean-Luk Marion argues in his book The Crossing of the Visible that our minds have been hard wired to the point we can no longer see the reality beyond the image, “With the image, the viewer sees the satisfaction of his desires, thus of himself. Every image is an idol, or it isn’t even seen” (Marion 51). He contrasts this with an understanding of the icon. “The icon, in effect, it is a matter not so much of seeing a spectacle as of seeing another gaze that sustains mine, confronts it, and even overwhelms it” (Marion 57).

Because of this media saturation in post modernity, every image has become an idol, which leaves the icon in quite a quagmire. “Only if we can release the icon from the logic of the image—and thus only if we ourselves can escape from the tyranny of the image. The invisible—of the thing, of the gaze, and of the “invisible God.” –thus requires we take a new plunge” (Marion 58). With the image prostituted for the post-modern mind, there is only one solution Marion can see: “We find a situation that appears to call for an attitude at once conceptually simple and spiritually holy: iconoclasm.” Just as Christ emptied himself, the icon needs to be “derived from the kenosis of the image.” (Marion 62.) The only place, Marian argues, where we can find iconography today is within the worship of the church. “The liturgy alone impoverishes the image enough to wrest it from every special, so that in this way might appear the splendor that the eye can neither hope for nor bear, but a splendor that love—shed abroad in our hearts [Romans 5:5]—makes it possible to endure” (Marion 64).

I, however have a different theory. I maintain we find a situation that appears to call for an attitude at once conceptually radical and spiritually liberating: incarnation. We worship a God who is passionately in love with humanity, and desires for us to return that love. God loves us so much “that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3:16). We worship a God who wants to make His love known to us and shouts to us whatever way we will listen. This is clearly demonstrated at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came to the apostles, and they went to preach to the crowds:

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, "Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his own native language? (Acts 2:6-8)

This is not an isolated incident that happened 2000 years ago. From age to age, God gathers a people to Godself precisely by communicating with them in a way they will understand. For better or worse, the language of post modernity is not spoken, but seen. We are an image driven people. So if we are truly a society of voyeurs, God will become an exhibitionist to get our attention. He loves us that much. That is the message of the incarnation and the story of Pentecost.

I am fairly certain from Marion’s assertion that the liturgy “accomplishes the paradigmatic kenosis of the image for the benefit of the holiness of God” (Marion 64), that he and I have had some vastly different worship experiences. Now, admittedly, I have been to some extremely “impoverished” liturgies, but an experience of divine love is not what most people walked out of mass with. At more parishes than we would like to admit, the liturgy is a lot more like mini-blinds than a window to reveal the gaze of God. Whereas, the “spiritually mature” can still sense the gaze pulling them deeper into the mystery, most people don’t bother going to the house, let alone attempt to look through any window. But we believe in a living God who cannot be contained by the restrictions we place on Him. When we are off objectifying our idols, God is still there on the other side engaging our gaze while loving us unconditionally and longing for our vision to pass through to engage the invisible beyond the visible, even only for a moment.

Michelangelo’s work, despite being half a world away and half a millennia old still has that power. If upon first glance of the Pieta someone’s immediate thought is “A Michelangelo!” and not of the Virgin mourning her son, they would still have to engage the message being preached to them whilst admiring it. This is not unlike images in post-modernity.

Images overrun the world in which we exist. We are in very serious danger of confusing these images with reality, as many people already do. This is a complex problem and deserves serious contemplation from philosophers, artists, theologians and others concerned about post-modernity’s artificial reality. Jean-Luc Marion suggests that iconoclasm is the solution to this postmodern predicament. I maintain the only way to combat the artificial reality of postmodern imagery is to fully engage both high and low art with iconophilic eyes.  When we are able to do so we will find the invisible God who shouting love for us from the backdrop.  Fyodor Dostoevsky once said, “Beauty will save the world.” I am a firm believer in that quote. The real is always more beautiful than the artificial. Truth is always more beautiful than lies. And icons are always more beautiful than idols. Just as light overtakes darkness, beauty has the power to redeem postmodern idolatry if we but look for it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Problem

Images are dangerous. They have to power to warp the mind and transform the way one thinks. This fact was clearly demonstrated to me a couple years ago, when I was a youth minister at a small church in Michigan. During Lent, the youth group prepared a “Living Stations of the Cross” to be performed Good Friday evening for the church community. As we were practicing, many youth were challenging my choice of how to block out each  station. Upon exploration of this unusual adversity, I realized these protest were coming out because my blocking did not match up with The Passion of the Christ (2004). For a majority of these teenagers, when they thought of the events surrounding the passion, they do not envision the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John but rather the Gospel according to Mel.

This cinematic hermeneutic is not a unique  phenomenon. Likewise when many the youth’s parents read the Gospels, images of Robert Powell frolicking with his disciples in Zeffirelli’s film Jesus of Nazareth (1977) come to mind. Before that film, perhaps it was Jeffrey Hunter or Max von Sydow of King of Kings (1961) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) fame respectively.

  Of course, this mental picture of Christ is not only shaped by film but other visual imagery as well. For many people today, Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ painted in 1941 is the definitive image of Jesus. Each of these depictions of Christ has an inevitable impact on the Christian who relates to it, and by impacting how Christians view Christ, it impacts how they view the world.

It is of little wonder there has always been a strand of Christianity that has been highly suspicious of images. The earliest Christians inherited an aniconic tradition from Judaism. But along with the Hellenistic gentiles, images found their way into Christian piety. Religious  iconography,  however, did not come without a fight… literally. In debates about the proper use of icons within Christianity, bloodshed was often a way to make an argument heard. The iconoclastic controversies of the eight century required an ecumenical counsel to settle, and despite the fact veneration of icons was dogmatically defined as acceptable, the battle continued. At the dawn of the twelfth century, the Cistercians, a Benedictine reform movement broke away from Cluny, the major monastic system of the time. The Cistercians rejected the ornate nature of the Cluniacs, and forbade all statues and pictures from being displayed in their monasteries. With the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, Ulrich Zwingli led the iconoclastic way by attacking the “papist” tradition of worshiping images and destroyed many priceless works of art.

The debate continues to this day; however, things have changed dramatically. Iconoclast of the past often rejected all form of images “in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth.” (Exodus 20:4) In the twenty first century, it is nearly impossible to exist without embracing secular imagery. And here is the kicker; whereas, in the past the use of both secular and sacred images has been met with suspicion for the power they possess, secular images are now accepted without question.

Post-modernity is image driven. Media is the new church that requires our reverence and expects our adoration. We constantly consume the signs and symbols that assaulted our senses. Media feeds the post-modern mind a mystical meal consecrated by television, music, movies, magazines, billboards, books, videogames, radio and the internet. The icons we now venerate are on our laptops, and every week we vote for our favorite idol by dialing 1-866-I-D-O-L-S. We live in a society that is known for its celebrity worship and religious viewing of reality TV. In post-modernity, the power of the image has been pimped to the point where voyeurism is not a perversion but the modus operandi.

Paradoxically, the image has become defiled, while at the same time it is being deified. No longer do images point to a deeper reality, but images are reality the post-modern mind points to. The pseudoreality of postmodern imagery is idolatry at the deepest level. We are no longer worshiping the creator, but rather the created. So in this cave of post-modernity, can we possibly free ourselves from the digitally enhanced, technologically superior fifty-two inch plasma HDTV images “so real you can almost reach out and touch them” on the wall? Can there possibly be salvation from this “American Idolatry?”