September 21, 2015

Sacred* Art by Atheists

Today's question is: can a non-Christian make meaningful Christian art?

David Mach: Crucifixion, Edinburgh, 2011
David Mach, a nonbeliever, was commissioned to recreate biblical scenes out of coat hangers to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Despite the acclaim of art critics, us ordinary folk have trouble shaking images of "Hellraiser." It makes you wonder exactly what Mach is trying to communicate, aside from pain. Anger? Hatred? Torture? Industry?

In an interview with the Telegraph, Mach admitted to being "irreligious," and said, "I’m sure I’m going to get accused of hijacking something that I don’t really have massive feelings about. It’s not about me. It’s about what I’m making. If I’m asked for opinions I’ll give them, but look at the work and see if you can get something from there."

Then there's atheist Gerhard Richter's design* for the transept window in the Cologne cathedral, Germany. The original window was damaged by air raids in World War II. The design* was created randomly with a computer, and mimics a digital "pixel" pattern. I would describe this as iconoclastic, but throngs of critics—and even parishioners—have described it as "spiritual," "contemplative," even "divine."

*Design implies intention. Something that is random cannot, by definition, be designed.

Gerhard Richter: South transept window, Cologne, 2007

Massimiliano Fuksas takes the cake with his design for a church in Foligno, Italy. Art critics use words like "modest" and "inspiring" to describe this massive concrete cube. These critics are apparently used to building with alphabet blocks, so that is to be expected. Photos of the oddly claustrophobic interior can be found here.

Massimiliano Fuksas: Paolo Church, Foligno, 2009. Photo credit:

Germaine Richier: Crucifix, 1950
Not to be outdone by her male counterparts, Germaine Richier caused a stir in the 1950s when she created this crucifix for the church of Notre-Dame de Toute in Assy, France. She explained its ugliness as depicting the suffering of Christ. She also explained that the figure has no face because God is spirit and therefore has none. This illustrates why we don't ask atheists to make theological statements for us. After complaints from horrified parishioners, the cross was removed from the church, and immediately became the center of much early controversy as to the role of artists (and their faith—or lack thereof) in the church.

Igor Mitoraj: Christ Resurrection, Rome, 2006
The last artist whose work I'm going to show is the odd one of the bunch. Igor Mitoraj produced several huge bronze doors and many other large-scale figurative sculptures in the Renaissance tradition. I've scoured the web for any mention of his faith and came up dry—even his obituary from late last year suggested nothing. But his bronze doors from Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli in Rome struck me with their classicism. And while employed with a kind of surrealist, postmodern flair, the Christian symbolism also struck me so much that I cited this door in my thesis. Here is a resurrected Christ figure, reminiscent of Greek gods (and early Christian depictions), but bearing the empty shape of the cross in his body.

There are countless examples that I either am unaware of or have passed over—especially in the architectural realm. The point I'm trying to make is that nonbelievers have made it apparent to believers that their grasp of Christianity is extremely shallow. Even if we didn't have the evidence before our eyes, we know that these truths are only made known by the Spirit, through faith.

This isn't to say that every construction worker who drives a nail into your church must be a believer. But when it comes to designing a church, or producing artwork for that community of faith, it should go without saying that it requires an intimate knowledge of what those people believe and practice and confess. Furthermore, it requires a knowledge of what has come before, and a sincere desire to chart an artistic path into the future that recognizes the eternal and transcendent nature of the Church. What sets Mitoraj's bronze doors apart from the above works is a familiarity with and respect for the pages of art history, many of which were written by artists of faith. Still, even if a blind squirrel occasionally finds a nut, I don't think we should encourage the practice of hiring blind squirrels when we have so many sighted ones...

September 8, 2015

Learning to Yearn for Heaven

Last week I was putting my children to bed (which I sometimes do when my wife needs a break). Bedtime seems to be the time when my three-year-old has his most "theologically aware" moments. I think it must have been the last lines of our bedtime prayer, "If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. And this I ask for Jesus' sake, Amen," that caused him to start sobbing.

"What's the matter, Gabriel?" I asked.

"I just don't want to die."

"Oh, you don't have to be afraid of dying. Remember what will happen when we die?"

"We'll go to heaven?"

"Yes. We'll be in heaven with Jesus forever and ever."

"But I just don't want to go to heaven, I want to stay here," he mumbled. "There won't be any food in heaven."

For the life of me, I don't know what gave him that idea, or why it would even occur to a three-year-old to think about his physical provisions in heaven. But I did my best to assure him that Jesus said heaven would be like a wedding feast (something he has certainly had experience with), and so I think there will of course be food. Besides, I continued, the Bible talks about the Tree of Life bearing twelve kinds of fruit.

"Will there be beds?" he asked.

"I don't know, but I suppose there might be," I offered. "Jesus said he was going into heaven to prepare a home for us. And he said there would be many mansions with many rooms."

That seemed to put him more at ease. We talked about streets of gold and the River of Life, and every heavenly picture I could think of. He asked if there would be cars, and whether or not people could fly. (I said that I didn't know about the flying, but allowed for the possibility. What do I know?) But I eventually brought him back to the most important part of heaven—living in the presence of Jesus for eternity. "When you get there, Jesus will wrap you in his arms and say, 'Welcome home, Gabriel. I've been waiting for you since before the world began.'"

He tends to get giddy at that part. I usually have to blink back a tear or two as the thought of that long-awaited moment washes over me.

But I'm always conflicted about these conversations. Because I know that Jesus gave us these wonderful pictures in scripture—not because they accurately describe heaven, but because the reality of heaven is so far beyond our experience—even our wildest imagination—that we could never grasp it if he told us. If we saw it, our language would have no way to express it. St. John seems to struggle when he describes twelve gates, each made of one giant pearl, and streets that are both golden and transparent, like glass (Rev. 21:21). Jesus gives us just enough to keep us hopeful, to make us yearn for a place where no tears are shed, where there is no nighttime or death or sickness or hunger. "Your sun shall no longer go down, Nor shall your moon withdraw itself; For the Lord will be your everlasting light, And the days of your mourning shall be ended" (Is. 60:20).

So I pass these on to my children. Because even if they aren't true in a literal sense, we have to learn to yearn for heaven. I remember a time in my youth when I didn't want to go to heaven. I thought it would be eternally boring: harps and clouds and people walking around in white robes. Who would want that? But I expect that the older I get, the less I will rely on those short glimpses or pictures, and the more I will come to understand that heaven is so far beyond the limits of my imagination that I couldn't possibly be disappointed. Most of all, I hope that I won't care at all what heaven is like—as long as I get to meet the Crucified One. Oh, how I long for that day!

"And after my skin is destroyed, this I know, That in my flesh I shall see God, Whom I shall see for myself, And my eyes shall behold, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!" (Job 19:26-27).