Jesus Christ Pose

I am a great mono-tasker (the polar opposite of a multitasker) and so I will have to put Unfolding Forms on the back burner for the next week or two as I’m working on a major essay. In a nutshell, I’m trying to look at some of the “theological” aspects of Northrop Frye‘s concept of the imagination (specifically his “analogy of vision,” derived from Blake) and how his work on the Bible and literature relates to similar themes in Tillich, Barth and Balthasar.

In the meantime, however, I’ll just say that I’ve been thinking it’s interesting to consider the “Christian music” theme I mentioned last week from the opposite angle. What about “non-Christian” (although I bristle at the term) artists appropriating Christian/religious imagery to communicate their own message? Does their work – no matter how far it strays from orthodoxy – somehow fall under the umbrella of “Christian” art and culture? In other words, can even the most irreverent, “blasphemous” work best be seen as part of an ongoing dialogue that descends from (and would be impossible apart from) deep Christian roots? For example, is Kazantzakis a “Christian” novelist in some way, and is the film version of Last Temptation one of the best Christian movies ever made? What about Damian Hirst, or (back to pop culture) Madonna? Or are we resistant to anyone using our sacred symbols to speak a “secular” language… indeed, such a redeployment, done without a real understanding of the subject matter (think of The Da Vinci Code) could potentially be even more annoying than Christians talking too much about Jesus.

Make up your own mind, as the issues are complex… but while you’re at it, take a look at my article on Lady Gaga’s new song “Judas” at The Other Journal Mediation blog. If nothing else, I think the song (and the whole notion of “cultural baptism”) is profoundly interesting as a reinvention of the Jesus-Judas story. What do you think?

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3 thoughts on “Jesus Christ Pose

  1. That’s a great question of perennial relevance. I think the main difference between appropriate uses of Christian imagery and inappropriate is in the sincerity, seriousness, and context. In film, an obvious example of a non-Christian making (what is considered to be) great Christian art is Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew. Pasolini was a gay atheist Marxist who simply happened to be inspired by reading that part of the Bible, and set for himself the task of making as realistic and literal an adaptation as possible. I happen not be be as much of a fan, but a great man Christian critics cite it as the best adaptation of Christ’s life ever made. One of my all-time favorite films is Winter Light; Bergman was an atheist existentialist, but not only does his film perfectly capture my own impression of the Lutheran experience, but the conflict of maintaining one’s faith in the face of… well, life. To me, these are very appropriate uses of Christian ideas and images by non-Christian artists who are also making points that are unrelated to conventional Christian stories.

    On the flip side, you have a film like Superman Returns, in which Superman plays the role of the savior of mankind. In my opinion, the crucifix pose as he falls at the end of the film, and his “resurrection” from the dead are very cheap, even with the whole “coming to Earth” at the beginning. Mostly because the images are used as convenient shorthand, rather than a serious, consistent attempt to use Christian images and themes throughout the film. They cheapen the film and the images. Similarly, an outright Christian film like Fireproof, which I just reviewed at my blog, totally botches its own message with a misguided aesthetic approach. In my opinion, even a flagrant and sincere pro-Christian film made by Christians can make a more inappropriate (if not exactly blasphemous) use of Christian imagery than some non-Christians.

    I do like the questions you pose that are specific to Gaga and “cultural baptism,” so I may respond directly to those over at Mediation.

    I guess my big question that I’d lob back at you is whether we should consider an artwork’s overall aesthetic merits first and the appropriateness of the Christian material second, or should the appropriateness/context of the Christian material form the basis for how well we think it’s used? I’m not sure where I fall on that, because it seems like a chicken/egg question. I do know that The Da Vinci Code (both book and film) utterly fail on a basic level of craft, independent on the secular use to which Christian ideas are put. If the book/film had been better made — that is, “interesting” or “entertaining” — I’m inclined to think that I would forgive whatever offense they may have caused to me as a Christian, since they would at least have been stimulating. But I’ll never know that, because they were both pretty terrible almost every conceivable level…

    1. Thanks for your insightful comments! I was also happy to see some of my comments pop up in your review of “Fireproof.” I think you’re definitely right in saying that Christian symbols etc. are often used as a “convenient shorthand” in films, for better or worse. Including someone in a crucifix pose, or having a resurrection scene, is perhaps often a “cheap” attempt to add a certain gravitas to the film that may or may not be supported by the content and narrative. Christian imagery is “tacked on” to give the story some mythological weight and cultural resonance. That said, I did enjoy “Superman Returns” for its entertainment value.

      I guess my big question that I’d lob back at you is whether we should consider an artwork’s overall aesthetic merits first and the appropriateness of the Christian material second, or should the appropriateness/context of the Christian material form the basis for how well we think it’s used?

      I’ll have to think through this question more, but if you think of Christian material as akin to a colour in the palette of the artist, maybe it’s possible to semi-objectively assess an artist’s use of it regardless of their personal faith or lack thereof – whether they employed it clumsily, or with a degree of sophistication… whether a Christian “coloration” is intrinsic to the piece (form and content uniting into a cohesive whole, as in Bergman) or an extraneous element that compromises the integrity of the work.

      We’ll have to continue this discussion!

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