Thursday, February 09, 2017

Keep Christianity Weird

Of late, Father Anonymous has been assembling covers for the worship bulletins at his Saturday night vigil Mass, which the congregation insists upon referring to as its "Contemporary Service." (Let's not open that can of semantic worms.)  To be brutally honest, he doesn't create the images; he steals them, and makes a collage. The arrangement is his own work, but nothing else.

Upon reviewing a few of the said covers, the rotund cleric has has noted that they share a distinctive character. The images and layout may vary a bit, but the aesthetic is consistent from week to week, and it is one that merits consideration.

In a word, our bulletin covers are weird.  Here are a few samples.

We've got a skeleton swinging an axe (an image of autumn, and reminder of John the Baptist); a giant disembodied eye (did it offend somebody and get plucked out?); random dead people on a church sign; a newspaper announcing the Apocalypse; and a virgin learning that she is pregnant with God's baby.

That last one does not seem so weird until you think about it.

In fact, Christianity as a whole doesn't seem so weird ... until you think about it.  But the moment you start thinking about it, our faith starts to sound like a bad acid trip, or a disjointed Italian horror movie.

A baby is born who turns out to be God; he dies and then comes back to life; people are plunged into the water and told they have died and been reborn; then they eat a meal that is supposed to be the flesh and blood of the man-God. Everybody who has ever done this, living or dead, is connected and will get together again when the man-God returns as a judge and, not coincidentally, the world ends.

Yeah, it's weird.  And that's without the medieval "extras" -- relics, purgatory, monasticism, and the whole "is-it-an-apple-or-is-it-a-codeword-for-sex" thing.

This is no new observation. In Irenaeus' Lyons, the early Christians were accused of Thyestean banquets and Oedipean marriages -- cannibal meals and "brothers" marrying "sisters. " Julian the Apostate dismissed churches built over the remains of a saint as "charnel houses."

Nor is it at all novel to represent in art the disorienting strangeness of Christianity. From the Alexamenos graffito to Serrano's "Piss Christ," our imagery has been used with Brechtian power by critics of the faith.  But it has been used to no less disorienting an effect by ardent supporters. Think of Christ as Noah on the catacomb walls, or the profusion of ever-gorier Crucifixes in the later Middle Ages or the entire oeuvre of Hieronymus Bosch. Not to mention reliquaries, ossuaries, or church walls painted with dancing skeletons and tortured souls.

We Christians are the inheritors of a vast treasury of grotesque, macabre, disturbing imagery. Much is symbolic, some is didactic, more than a little is violent, sexual, or frightening.

But come to church most weekends, and what's on the cover of the bulletin?  A butterfly.

Or a flower, or a field of waving grass with a rising sun.  Or a statue of Martin Luther (or your own tradition's favorite saint). Stop by the local Bible Bookstore, and you can find more of the same:  ichthys-fish with clever responses to Darwin, Jesus-bobbleheads, Thomas Kinkade calendars. A shopper drowns in saccharine, suffocates in the atmosphere of phoney comfort.

A large portion of the world, both Christian and otherwise, recognizes the Christian faith not in the blackness of Hell or the red of Christ's blood, but in the cool pastels of a dentist's office. Much of the world, Christian and otherwise, identifies Christianity with images that are tame, domestic, even schmaltzy.

This really has to end. The Goth movement has long since poached passionate, violent, imagery of the Church for its own purposes, which are not infrequently at odds with those of the Church.  Perhaps we should reclaim it for ourselves.  But, for all the Romanticism which inspires the Egg itself, the situation calls for more than medievalist nostalgia -- we tried that in the nineteenth century, and it was good, but not good enough.  No; the present degraded, sentimental, therapeutic representations of Christianity really must be replaced in the popular imagination by something more aesthetically demanding.

How else to put this?  Perhaps with a motto:  If it looks familiar, it isn't the Trinity; if it looks safe, it isn't the Cross; if it looks easy, it isn't really the Church.








1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I could not agree more. It's even better if the field of waving grass has an entirely unrelated Bible verse in Papyrus font.

A few years ago I wandered from a Catholic store to a Pagan/New Age store in the same afternoon (when in a city large enough to have multiple of each). With dismay, I quickly realized that the aesthetic of the latter was vastly superior to that of the former. I haven't been back to a brick-and-mortar Christian store, but do stop in occasionally to admire the real stone statues, hand-carved wood symbols, and beautiful paintings at the New Age store in town. Is it really syncretism if you only buy a bag of frankincense now and then? ;-)