ART & SOUL TEGAN BROZYNA
Bearing Christ’s Image In recent years the international news media has been abuzz with mocking depictions — ranging from inane to sinister—of the Muslim prophet Mohammad. The most prominent examples of this satire are found in the TV show South Park and the cartoons published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Islam is an anti-iconic faith: In keeping with the prohibition of idols in the Hebrew Bible, strict Muslims do not permit the visual depiction of living beings, let alone prophets. (This includes Jesus, who is considered a prophet in Islam.) The newspaper cartoons in Denmark led to a series of violent acts by fundamentalist Muslims, who found them blasphemous. They accused the newspaper of being Islamophobic and racist, and freedom of speech found itself pitted against freedom of religion as the debate circled the globe. Placing current political and religious climates aside, I wonder if there is something for Christians to glean from this, namely the opportunity to consider how we treat the image of Christ and how we respond when others don’t respect that image. The image of Christ has been a cornerstone of the church since its inception. Unlike Judaism or Islam, Christianity has historically leaned on the image of its central figure to help spread the gospel (the exception being 16th-century Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli, who replaced church paintings and decorations with whitewashed walls). For a largely illiterate population, Jesus’ image served to illustrate the narrative of his life and role as Savior to the world. Christ’s image can be traced to as far back as the burial catacombs of Rome, and some denom-
inations, like the Orthodox and the Catholic Church, still rely heavily on the depiction of Jesus to connect their worshipers with the Risen Christ. For them the image of Christ is sacred and holy; it is a window into heaven. However, if you enter your average North American Christian book store, which caters largely to Protestants and particularly to evangelicals, you find a very different Jesus.The image of Christ is on just about anything with a price tag. Jesus has been commoditized; he is on stickers,T-shirts, and erasers. He is a figurine playing soccer with little children and an action figure with “glow-in-the-dark miracle hands” and detachable loaves. Jesus is also embraced as a pop icon by the secular culture; at Urban Outfitters stores, you’ll find him on flasks, dashboard bobble heads, and cups. Are we taking the image of Christ in vain when we sell (and buy) him on products? The issue here is a balance between the approachability and holiness of Jesus. Christ is, after all, fully human and fully divine, so he straddles both worlds. Jesus takes on the role of friend and holy intermediary between humanity and God, and sometimes we lean more toward one than the other. Like the recent controversies about the depiction of Mohammad, the past few decades have seen popular culture critique and sometimes mock Christ. From an all-too-human Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s 1989 film The Last Temptation of Christ to the current development by Comedy Central of an animated show called JC in which Jesus is depicted as a “regular guy” who moves to New York to “escape his father’s enormous shadow”— many Christians are offended when the image of Jesus is used in a flippant, scornful, or profane way; some launch protests and sign petitions. However, many others are so used to seeing it that they turn the other cheek and ignore it. PRISM 2010
But in taking either of these extremes, I believe that we are missing out on a significant opportunity — namely, to consider the critique that extends beyond the figure of Jesus to his followers. For just as the cartoon depictions of Mohammad did more to criticize Muslims than their leader, depictions of Christ are often aimed at such an angle as to mock Christians and our behavior. When we choose to disengage from an arts-and-media world because it seems foreign, intimidating, or offensive, we miss out on the chance to open up meaningful dialogue with those around us. Critique is important to the health of the church. It is essential to look at ourselves in order to gauge where we’re missing the mark and address our shortcomings. We are, after all, called to be imagebearers of Christ here on earth.When we love well and listen well, when we refuse to commoditize Jesus, when we who are artists offer artistic beauty to the culture around us, when we honor both Christ’s humanity and his divinity—we are presenting the best possible depiction of Christ, one that is beautiful, true, whole, and, ultimately, healing. Q Tegan Brozyna is an artist and freelance writer currently living in New York City as a postbaccalaureate fellow with Bethel University’s New York Center for Art & Media Studies, a faith-based artist residency program.
Art & Soul September 2010