How do we understand the contemporary Arts from a Christian perspective? Here's a few thoughts...

Sunday, January 15, 2006


Heres a recent article I wrote for Created? magazine. Check out their website through the link to the right...

The image of Christ has undergone something of a renaissance in the creative Arts in recent years. Most obviously in films such as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, Norman Stone’s Man Dancin’ and recently in CS Lewis’s allegorical tale of good verses evil, Narnia: The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe.

The later seems to have created much disturbance in the media as to the true nature if Lewis’s intentions. Was he really trying to illustrate a Christian gospel? Are Christians getting a little too excited about a message that wasn’t intended by the author? Isn’t Narnia really just all about magic?

The media reaction to the films, if nothing else, makes the point that whilst we live in an increasingly pluralistic and tolerating society, the unique claims of the Christian faith still have the ability to get under our skin or, as others might suggest, get right up our nose.

Beyond film, the British contemporary arts scene has shown an interest in the image of Jesus in the last few years. Last year, Tracey Emin hung her cigarette Christ from an eight-foot flag of Saint George in Tate Britain.

In 2003, Mark Wallinger installed a tentative, contemporary Christ, precariously positioned on the edge of the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. This Christ seemed thoroughly human. A quietly contemplative figure in stark contrast to the loud congestion of central London.

Religious imagery is nothing new to the creative arts but the way we interpret them has changed in recent years. In our post 7/7 and 7/11 climate, religious symbols have taken on a whole new set of sensitive and fanatical meanings…

We must ask why a society that increasingly acts with caution towards religious icons still holds an interest with the image of Christ? What is our contemporary concern with this ancient symbol of Christian faith and redemption?

Perhaps it is the very nature of fanaticism that holds the interest in itself. This being an ironic use of Christ imagery. In 1989, Andres Serrano’s Piss Chris caused a stir amongst conservative Art admirers. His provocative use of the crucifix as an abused icon, literally drowning in a tank of urine deliberately described the cross as a signifier that points only towards a redundant institution. This is a wholly ironic use of the Christian symbol.

Not all agree with Serrano. For others, the image of the crucified Christ still points us towards something greater, something transcendent, something divine.

The image of the crucifix articulates the humanity, suffering and therefore compassion of Christ. It shows us a Christ who suffered, who bled and died. This Christ offers much hope to those in distress. Something we should not take for granted.

But is the relevance of Christ for the Arts limited, merely religious symbology and a support crutch to those in need?

The crucifix also points us towards the crux of Christian belief: that Christ died to save sinners. In the death and resurrection of Christ, all who ask can find new life and relationship with God.

Christians believe that Christ is God incarnate: The Almighty in human skin. As God, Christ is central to the creation process of Genesis. The Arts have a central place in the development of God’s people as recorded in the bible. In fact, we only need look five words into the bible to see that creativity is right at the heart of God’s character,

“In the beginning God created…”

Later in the book of Genesis we read that God makes human beings in His likeness as creative beings.

“Let us make man in our likeness, in our image,” says God.

The first man is put to work as a gardener, commissioned with the task of working the land and keeping order to the natural environment, a wholly creative occupation. Adams creativity doesn’t stop there. He is invited by God to join in the creative process for one moment in deciding the names of the animals as God creates them. God and humanity joining forces in the creation process.

It is at this point that the first act of poetic performance from a human enters the Christian creation story. We are told in Genesis that God sculpts the form of a woman out of the raw material provided by Adam’s rib. The woman is brought to life and Adam’s first reaction, like a lovesick teenager is to write her a poem.

“This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh
She shall be called woman for she was taken out of man”

It might not be Shakespeare (and something is lost in the translation from the original Hebrew text) but essentially what we have here is man expressing himself through the creative Arts with God looking on and approving.

From this point on, the bible offers a multitude of creative art forms from the love poetry of the Song of Songs to the fine art and tapestry of the Israelites temples. The Revelation of John (the very last book in the bible) is, in itself, an apocalyptic vision that would rival the imaginative imagery of any apocalyptic Hollywood blockbuster.

The Christian claim is that God created all things and is the author of creativity itself. This is a concept rarely expressed in western contemporary art.

We like the idea of the suffering Christ. From time to time even the image of the gentle Jesus, meek and mild as a baby filters back into popular culture, namely at Christmas. The idea of Jesus as Almighty Creator, even as creativity itself is seldom expressed visually yet it seems massively important as we discuss the relevance of Christ to the Arts.

If true, it means all who create in any way at all are engaging in an act of extreme spiritual profundity. To create is to imitate the very acts of God himself. To be Christ-like in some way…

If false, the act of creativity is rooted in something far less divine. If Christ is not really God, the crucifix symbol is nothing more than that - a symbol, and a redundant one at that. The crucifix is reduced to mere kitsch.

The question of Christ’s relevance to Art is the same as his relevance to any area of culture or society. Belief in God pivots around the central claim that Christ was no mere man but God incarnate. This is a claim well worthy of investigation. If Jesus really is God, it places Christ at the centre of all things, not just Art but the art of living itself.