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How art can shape - or bend - our faith

The way we view images of Jesus has a bearing on our belief

  • Fr. Bill Grimm, Tokyo
  • Japan
  • January 24, 2013
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The Times of India has reported that some Catholics in Maharashtra are upset because a calendar carried a picture of Jesus holding a can of beer and a cigarette. They claimed to be "insulted" by the "blasphemous picture."

However, if Jesus spent part of his childhood in Egypt, it is likely that he drank beer there. As an adult, we know he drank wine, but beer, too, was probably available to him in his homeland, though not, of course, in cans.

I agree that the picture might be viewed as blasphemous, but not in the way the protesters think. In fact, the modifications to the original picture, a product of 19th century Western European piety, certainly had more to do with making fun of the picture than of Jesus. 

The original picture showing a European Jesus who looks barely able to lift a hammer, let alone know what to do with it, deserves to be mocked. It may even cross the line into blasphemy.

What connection is there between that ethereally saccharin character and the Middle Eastern carpenter who was in fact the incarnate presence of God among us? The original picture in effect makes believe the Incarnation was not real. That is blasphemous. At least the beer can affirms the reality of Jesus’ humanity.

The art we use to express our faith eventually acts upon us to shape that faith. If our art portrays Jesus as something other than a real human being, something unreal, then our faith in the Incarnation will grow weaker. Our idea of Jesus may even become totally divorced from what Scripture and Tradition tell us about him.

At a discussion in a parishioner’s home about how images affect our understanding of Jesus, I pointed to a picture hanging on the wall. It was, in fact, the same image as the one in Maharashtra, minus the beer and cigarette.

I asked the owner of the house how likely was it that her son would remain a Christian as an adult if he grew up with such an idea of Jesus or how she herself would react if he were to one day come home and announce that he had decided to devote his life to following someone who looked like that.

The next time I visited, the picture was gone, replaced by a crucifix.

The Times article mentioned that the same Maharashtra Catholic group was also upset because a Facebook posting portrayed Mary telling Jesus to clean his room.

Has it become an article of faith that Jesus never made a mess? Are we to believe that Mary never, ever, told him to pick up after himself? Was she his maid, or did she not care if he lived in squalor?

The article does not make the Catholics’ objections clear, but it appears that they are based on a dis-carnational, an anti-fleshly, view of Jesus. Remember that the old English word and literal translation for Incarnation is "enfleshment."

That anti-flesh view is called "docetism," an ancient heresy that claims that Jesus was not really fully human, but merely masqueraded as a man, using his body much like a puppet. Such a heretical view would deny that Jesus could make a mess that required cleaning up.

One of the most profound pictures I know of the Madonna and Child is the 1926 The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child before Three Witnesses by the German artist Max Ernst. It shows Mary spanking the child with such vigor that his halo has fallen off. Perhaps he had not cleaned his room when told.

While spanking would not be approved in much of the world today, the painting does convey a very important truth about Mary and Christ. They were people. Yes, Mary wears her halo and Jesus will presumably pick his up and put it back on before tearfully going to his room without dessert.

But that divine reality exists within a very human reality of a boy being punished for some misdeed. 

Our faith is that the one true God became really incarnate in that one true man Jesus of Nazareth. We cannot comprehend that mystery, but we can and must recognize when our art, our words and our attitudes draw us from affirming and exploring it.

Fr Bill Grimm is the publisher of ucanews.com

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