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Good Letters

Like Rebecca Bratten Weiss (“Shapeshifting Jesus,” February 19, 2019), I was drawn to Katie Kresser’s essay, “Christ the Chimera: The Riddle of the Monster Jesus” (Image 99), with its full-page rendering of the so-called “Alexamenos graffito.” Etched into a Roman wall circa 200 AD, the cartoon mockingly depicts a Christian venerating a donkey-headed figure on a cross. The image has long fascinated me, capturing as it does how degrading crucifixion was meant to be for its victims as well as the absurdity, in respectable Roman eyes, of worshipping an executed provincial criminal as Lord of the universe.  

And like Weiss, I grew more interested when Kresser turned to Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, and how psychologist Richard Beck, in reflecting on the public furor Serrano’s photograph aroused, wondered if the real blasphemy lay in imagining that urine might prove stronger than Christ. I appreciate anyone who thinks theologically about art, and though it’s laughable to suggest Piss Christ has the cultural legs of, say, Chagall’s White Crucifixion, the controversy surrounding it remains a cautionary tale.

Chagall, White Crucifixion

Serrano’s 1987 photograph of a crucifix submerged in a jar of urine was favorably received at several exhibitions until 1989, when conservative Senators Al D’Amato and Jesse Helms, among others, expressed outrage that Serrano had received monetary support from the taxpayer-funded National Endowment for the Arts. A few secularist liberals, in contrast, alleged that government funding of Piss
Christ violated separation of church and state. Serrano received death threats and hate mail, and his photos were repeatedly vandalized while on exhibition. Much verbal poison was spilled as culture war partisans found their assumptions about the enemy duly confirmed. 

Serrano, Piss Christ

Lost in the vitriol was any serious engagement with orthodox theology, particularly the mystery of the Incarnation. It seems few, if any, of Serrano’s allegedly Christian critics could tell a hypostasis from a hole in the ground, though neither could their vocal antireligious opponents. Yet what the combatants lacked in knowledge they made up in vehemence, as one would expect when vaguely grasped certainties collide. As theologian and ethicist, Stanley Hauerwas, puts it, the biggest threat to Christianity isn’t atheism, but sentimentality, and we know we’ve grown morbidly sentimental by our inability to produce interesting atheists.

To be fair, a determined reader can find atheists who’ve read enough theology to engage Christian tradition in interesting ways, such as Giorgio Agamben, Julia Kristeva, and Slavoj Žižek.  Žižek even debated doctrine with “Radical Orthodox” theologian, John Milbank, in a book evocatively titled, The Monstrosity of Christ, though their prose – as with most of the “interesting atheists” – borders on the impenetrable. Then again, impenetrability may be the academic equivalent of sentimentality, demanding a response without meriting it.

Whatever the case, a shallow sentimentality lurks in the urge to quarantine Jesus Christ from urine, blood, and other supposed indignities of God’s good creation. It’s a way of enforcing neat categories: God one side, the unpleasantries of embodiment on the other. The result – and perhaps the goal – is to emasculate Jesus, making him safe, cute, and useable, rather like Ricky Bobby’s “tiny baby Jesus” in Talladega Nights . What is denied is the fullness of what God took on in the self-emptying act of entering creation. What is purposely forgotten is that we, as humans, demanded this horrific murder when we realized God had become vulnerable. What is resisted is the immensity of God’s mercy, which fits neither our purposes nor sense of propriety.

This sentimentality might be considered a modern form of Docetism – the heretical belief that Christ was a purely spiritual being who only appeared to have a human body capable of physical suffering – but that implies enough theological grounding to merit the term “heretic.” An orthodox response to contemporary Docetism Lite™ might well include Saints Athanasius and Gregory Nazianzen, who wrote, in slightly different words, “what has not been assumed (by the Incarnate Christ) has not been healed.” However mind-boggling the mystery of the Incarnation may be, it’s survived centuries of theological dispute and ecclesial division. Even TULIP Calvinism, with its troubling but tidy doctrine of limited atonement, makes implicit room for blood and urine in the promised resurrection of the body.

The late Sister Wendy Beckett, who felt equally at home with Christian theology and Western art, had no patience with sentimentality. In a 1997 television interview with an uncharacteristically clueless Bill Moyers, she judged Serrano’s photograph neither irredeemably blasphemous nor great (in fact, she called it “rather simplistic”) but a statement on “what we are doing to Christ.” She even felt tempted to call Piss Christ “comforting art, in that everyone knows exactly how they think about it. They’re not challenged in the slightest.” “Real art,” she said, “makes demands.”

Andrew Hudgins, on the other hand, considers Serrano’s piece real art. His poem, Piss Christ , is relentlessly demanding, and except for having Jesus ascend “bodily unto heaven” before the resurrection, its theology is solid, with echoes of what the Eastern Orthodox call “uncreated light.” It’s a fine poem, and the two last lines particularly haunt me:

                                    We have grown used to beauty without horror.

                                    We have grown used to useless beauty.

There’s a long tradition of naming great beauty with horror “sublime,” and ever since Edmund Burke weighed in on the matter in the 1750s, the beautiful and the sublime have generally been considered mutually exclusive. I find that hard distinction artificial and unnecessary – one more urge to keep neat categories. At the very least, the border between the two is ill-defined and porous.

Somewhere in that spacious borderland dwell depictions of the crucifixion, an artistic tradition that renders the truly great – the redemption of creation – and the unimaginably horrific – a gruesome public execution – in one aesthetic unity. In the tenth century, art in the Christian West turned increasingly toward the sufferings of the crucified Christ, and to this day, that dark beauty remains the central image of the Church, if more so in the Catholic tradition than among the various Protestantisms.

Once again, I’m with Weiss as she goes straight to what may be the quintessence of crucifixion scenes, Grünewald’s center panel in the early sixteenth century Isenheim Altarpiece. The painting steps out of time, anachronistically mixing Biblical figures and dispensing with Renaissance proportion to magnify the majesty and horror of the event. This cross stands, in a phrase often associated with but never written by St. Bonaventure, at “the coincidence of opposites.”  

Crucifixion, from Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece 

It’s here’s where I differ, more in vocabulary than in substance, with Weiss, who writes, “Grunewald’s Crucifixion is not beautiful, not a pretty picture for children, not an edifying image for a respectable congregation.” We agree Grünewald’s image isn’t pretty. Prettiness, after all, is of a piece with sentimentality. Whether the patients suffering from plague and ergotism who came to gaze on the image in the hospital chapel of the Monastery of St. Anthony constituted “a respectable congregation” is more than I know. Yet I find the Isenheim Altarpiece beautiful, if darkly so. That’s a quibble, of course, but one I’m prepared to stand by.

The altarpiece is also monstrous, both in the sense that it truly manifests something, but also in its massive scale, nearly ten feet wide when open. My clearest memory of our visit to the Musée Unterlinden in Colmar, France is of my then thirteen year-old son, Peter, standing a short distance from Grünewald’s masterpiece, mouth agape and body motionless except for his eyes, which moved slowly across the enormity before him.

I, too, was profoundly moved, but my son’s response made it clear: all my theologizing was as so much straw in the presence of the Divine. I may have more facility with the written word than Peter, but I am often his grateful pupil in the art of seeing and hearing. He knew instinctively – as I did not – how to receive dark beauty: in silence and stillness, patiently attentive to a revelation that defies our categories, our words, and all our well-meaning attempts to plumb the bottomless abyss of the mystery we call God. I couldn’t wish for better counsel.  

All images via creative commons.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Brian Volck

Brian Volck is a pediatrician who received his undergraduate degree in English Literature and his MD from Washington University in St. Louis and his MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of a poetry collection, Flesh Becomes Word, and a memoir, Attending Others: A Doctor’s Education in Bodies and Words. His essays, poetry, and reviews have appeared in various periodicals and journals, including DoubleTake, Health Affairs, and Image. He provides clinical care in Maryland and on the Navajo Nation and is working on a book on the Navajo, history, and health.

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