Thursday, March 8, 2007

Visible Representations of God/Biblical Events

Hello everyone! I know, it's been awhile since I've updated the blog. I have so much to talk about, but it never seems to make it here... I missed a couple of big things blogging, and I hate to get out of order, so I haven't posted other things since. I'm having a mental traffic jam... Anyhow, I plan for there to be quite a pile of posts over the next few days. (Really! I know I said that last week, and the week before...send me e-mails and complain until I get it done!).

Meanwhile, I thought I would post this. Recently, one of my friends from home asked in one of her blog posts for people's thoughts
visible representations of God. That's something that I had been considering lately anyhow, and so I decided to write out all of my thoughts on the subject. As usual, I was long-winded. :) Here goes:

Visible Representations of God

Hmm...this is certainly something that I have had occasion to consider several times recently, living here in Italy in a still predominantly Catholic society. I often visit incredible, magnificent cathedrals filled with all sorts of statues and artwork. We owe much of the greatest art ever created to Catholic iconography. In my personal opinion, I don't see that images are categorically wrong; however, a great many of them aren't good. After all, if any image was wrong, what would the children color pictures of in Sunday school? :) Often, pictures of Biblical stories and such can be good teaching tools. They had their use in times when many people were illiterate and learned Bible stories from paintings.

The problems I have with a lot of the iconography is that, at least in this society, the icons soon become almost more important than what they represent. There are candles and altars for different saints, Mary, Jesus... To me, people are already too prone to want to worship a "god they can see," so this is an unnecessary temptation. Of course, I also have a problem with the veneration of saints--I believe that the Bible teaches that we are all the same before God. Each faithful Christian is a priest (see book of Hebrews). These people may have done great things for God--however, no matter how great their deeds, they weren't anywhere near great enough to approach the level of Christ. My life compared to His life isn't much of a sacrifice. Iconography really pushes the veneration of saints as 'superchristians', a step above other Christians, and that, for me, is a problem.

Another problem I have is that often personal or denominational biases get into such things. For one thing, consider this ridiculous picture most of the western world has in our minds of Jesus: the tall white man with long brown hair, a white robe, and a blue sash. We've seen it a thousand times. And yet, it's most likely quite inaccurate. Jesus was a Jewish man in Palestine. He most likely was tanned and had dark hair. And I may be wrong on this point, but I don't think Jewish men of that day normally had long hair. There are plenty of other things like that that influence our mental pictures that may or may not be accurate.

In a related idea, one of the reasons why I love books is that when you read, you make your own mental pictures, incorporating things from your own experience, putting yourself into the story. To me, it makes the Biblical stories seem less, not more, real and close and meaningful to see them always depicted in a stylized way. When we start to think of the people in the New Testament as graceful, saintly, almost-superhuman people like the carefully stylized painting with halos and pious poses and expressions, I think it hinders our ability to remember that the people who walked with Jesus were normal people just like us. They were fishermen, tax collectors, carpenters, salespeople, etc. They made mistakes, had faults, did stupid things in high school, tripped over their own feet, yelled at their kids. They were no different than me UNTIL knowing Jesus changed their lives. And if I am a Christian, I have the opportunity also to be changed by Jesus and be close to him. They are not better Christians than we could also be. While I believe in giving honor where honor is due, I don't think it's a good idea to honor some people so much as to create "classes" of Christians--the very thing Paul taught against when facing divisions in the early church. Following the "bias" theme I mentioned earlier, most of the famous religious art was created in Europe in the middle ages and Renaissance. The artists then painted Biblical characters as looking like Renaissance-era Europeans. Maybe at that time it did help people to relate to the Biblical characters. However, it was so prevalent that now most people's mental pictures of Biblical events is heavily influenced by such artwork--which isn't realistic. I think the Bible is written in such a way as to make it applicable to all people, in all places and times. I think it hurt missions and evangelism in the years from the middle ages until just the last century; it was easy to see Christianity as a white European religion, and often culture was taught just as much as the gospel. I think it better to either leave us to picture Biblical events in our own minds in a way meaningful to us, or to depict them in a realistic, historical way.

Another problem, at least here in Europe, is that religious artwork has been used as almost a way to "keep score" in the religious world. Wealthy families sponsored churches, altarpieces, paintings, to show their devotion to God. Every town wanted the grandest church or cathedral--the pride was in the beauty of the building instead of the lives of the people. To me, it's a form of trying to earn points with God through works rather than faith. Also, I can see such affinity for art causing divisions between Christians--are Christians in Europe who have cathedrals to worship in any better/different/more devoted than African Christians who worship under a tree? All that "stuff" isn't necessary to have a church. A church is people. That also reminds me of what my mother said when I called her after I got back from my recent trip to Barcelona. I was excitedly telling her about the magnificence and sheer size of the Temple of the Sagrada Familia, which is still under construction in Barcelona. It's fantastic and huge. I love it for the incredible architecture, the artistry, the grandeur. But Mom's reaction to it was, "What an incredible waste of money!" I admit I don't like to think of it like that--I love going to art museums, visiting beautiful buildings, and being surrounded by opulence. I love cathedrals and all the marvelous things in them. But she's right. It's beautiful, but with the millions it cost to build such a thing, think how many poor children could go to school, how many missionaries sent out, how many youth rallies organized, how many Bibles printed. What's it worth? We show what's important to us by how we use our money--are fancy buildings and impressive artwork a better example of our Godly love than benevolence efforts?

Moving back more directly to the artwork itself, I have also noticed while going to museums (and I've certainly been to plenty) that a few Bible stories count for most of the artwork. Do you have any idea how many representations of the annunciation I've seen? How relatively few of Jesus washing the disciples' feet? It's another sort of bias--which Bible story is most important? Religious artwork makes things that make good picture subjects seem more important. Everyone knows the details of Jesus's birth; there are nativity scenes everywhere. Does everyone know the beatitudes? They don't make such nice little yard scenes. So much of the Bible is not easily depicted in artwork; in fact, the most important things, like love, brotherly kindliness, and faith are difficult to paint. We also tend to paint the nice, feel-good sort of stories. Have you ever seen a representation of any sort of the Corinthian church being divided between the rich and poor in taking the Lord's Supper? Are Paul's warnings to them less important? Besides, in all these museums and cathedrals I've been to, I've been inspired... to have a greater appreciation for art. The effect on my spiritual life has been fairly minimal. Hearing Christians singing together inspires me much more spiritually than ten Renaissance masterpieces.

That brings me to my main problem with representations. Have you ever heard anyone say, "YOU WORSHIP A DEAD MAN?" I have. We're surrounded by pictures/sculptures/everything of Jesus on the cross. To us, yes, it is a beautiful image of his sacrifice. Yes, his death is incredibly important. BUT IT IS NOT THE MOST IMPORTANT THING. He died--we all die. The difference was HE DID NOT STAY DEAD. His rising was the miracle. If we want to surround ourselves with images that represent our religion, shouldn't it be the empty tomb? I don't serve a dead man. I serve someone who once died, but rose again and is now in heaven. When someone who is not a Christian walks into a church building, are they going to see death or life?

Overall, I can see where representations can be used as a teaching tool, especially if they were done in a much different way than they have been in the past. I think people can use means such as art to express their emotions or to work out in their own mind their impressions of scripture, but that is a private thing. Art can inspire interesting discussions and be a conversation-starter. In this they are good. I love art and can see it being used in a good way by Christians. However, in general, I find representations unnecessary and as causing more trouble than they're worth. Nothing we create can ever approach the true glory of God, and we don't need any more temptations than we already have to look at earthly glory instead of looking up.

1 comments:

Post a Comment

 
;