R.R. Reno recently wrote here (I tried to come up with another "r" word instead of an "h" but got stumped) about Andres Serrano’s famous photograph of a crucifix submerged in a jar of urine. The photograph has a name, but it’s rather impious, and Puritan that I am I prefer not to use it. (The Web isn’t so fastidious¯google "Serrano" and you can see all you want of the picture and lots of others.) Understandably, Reno, and almost everybody else, is offended by it. I just wish that I had thought of it. Seriously.
As a Christian artist, I have a problem. (Yes, I already know you’re thinking, "Ha, just one?") How can I convey the shock of the Incarnation to a culture that after two thousand years of hearing about it finds it quaint and boring? Yes, the more theological term is "the mystery" of the Incarnation, but I’m not a theologian dealing with cool reason but an artist working with hot emotions, and the Lord of the Cosmos becoming fully human is a shock, something apparently both the Greeks and the Jews who heard Paul’s preaching understood perfectly well. In fact, when Paul preached that news, it shocked some of them so badly they started throwing stones, and it shocked others so deeply they changed their lives. But today? "Jesus loves you and died for your sins." Ho hum.
Flannery O’Connor wrote a friend about some chickens that had been specifically bred for large breasts and which became so big-breasted they could no longer fly up to their coops. She said that writing about Christian issues to a contemporary audience was a bit like explaining flight to that poultry. Your storytelling had better be pretty dramatic.
We have to find dramatic ways to tell our story. O’Connor found them, so did Walker Percy, and so did Olivier Messiaen. And for all its faults, Gibson did this, too, in his Passion of the Christ . When I was still a parish musician, I wrote a cantata for one of the first Sundays of Advent using the Old Testament text for the day: Isaiah 64:1-9. In order to drive home the "we" in the passage¯"We have all become like one who is unclean . . . "¯I set it with a rather grotesque rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner." (This was for a Tennessee church; if I’d been in the UK, I would have used "God Save the Queen"¯my point wasn’t anti-American, it was just anti-sin.) Some folks got offended and the rector got nervous, but if the sixty-fourth chapter of Isaiah doesn’t send you a bit over the edge, there’s no sign that you’ve heard it. In fact, the only way you know you’ve read the passage is if it hits you like a full swing of a baseball bat to your gut.
Serrano’s photograph could be like that swing: Put it in the context of the first chapter of John and a crucifix submerged in a bucket of urine is a pretty dramatic exegesis of the Word becoming flesh¯makes you sit up and take notice. And that’s why I wish that I’d thought of it. Of course, there are a couple of problems with the photograph, the first being that the full impact of the work of art lies outside the work itself, specifically the story of its production and its title. If you don’t know about those things, it’s just a rather inconsequential photograph of a crucifix, neither shocking nor illuminating, just dull. And being dull is a pretty big aesthetic problem. The second problem is that Serrano intended the work as mockery, made clear by the gutter language of his title. There is something a bit odd about a work of art intended to ridicule a notion being used as honoring that notion, in which case the artist has to be commended for doing something very well that he didn’t want to do at all.
But there’s a powerful idea latent in Serrano’s piece, whether or not he intended it: The glory of God became fully a man who was humiliated and tortured and killed by us, yet he rose from the dead. That’s a story worth making pretty dramatic. It’s not surprising that some folks want to ridicule Christians. What’s a bit disappointing is how shy we are about dramatic expressions of our faith.
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