A year or so ago, someone near me rejected a proposed brochure because its central focus was of a stained glass image of Jesus the good shepherd. She cited the Old Testament prohibition against graven images from Exodus. Now I am aware that this argument is still alive and well in certain Christian community, but I was startled to find it so near me. This strange series of events made me consider the nature of an image of Christ and the portrayal of his humanity. Some years ago I had the opportunity to engage certain fundamentalist Baptist pastors about such matters who are ardently opposed to images of Christ even though they had certain didactic purposes, which they consented to. Their main claim was that once you had said that this is Jesus, you would also have to explain that this is not Jesus because it only portrayed his humanity.
So how do artists get off with imaging Jesus?
To my fundamentalist interrogators I would now respond with wisdom I did not possess then, that one may have well passed Jesus on the road or in the market wholly unawares of his divinity. Our eyes have been trained by faith to see the divinity within Christ and yet N.T. Wright suggests that few, if any, Jews of the time would have expected the Messiah to be divine.
Another complicating factor concerns our Western intellectual heritage of emphasis on the written word, and for descendants of the Reformation that is seen in the written Word. While Luther was not as condemnatory of images as Calvin and Zwingli, he kept a wary eye on them. I cannot help but wonder how these emphases, so strongly rooted within Protestantism, has perpetuated this anti-image and iconoclastic tendencies within our Western version of Christianity.
Returning to the woman who rejected the brochure with images of Christ, I wanted to ask her what she thought of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion. Did she enjoy it? Did she even see it? Are there Christians who praise the film and yet reject still images whether painted or sculpted? Do those who praise the film and reject images see their duplicity? What is it for them that sets the film apart from images? Are not those who act as Christ not more potentially misleading than the static images which are surely other than the humanity Jesus inhabited?
These are questions I am posing to my class this coming Monday. I am interested to hear their responses after their readings.