Midlife and Iconography and Repetitive Art
Why I need the body of Christ on the Cross just as much as I need the Empty Cross
I’ve been thinking a lot about this James K.A. Smith’s piece from a few years back, about not being able to think our way out of the mess we’re in. For the past few years my most faithful writing allies and friends have been coming to these same conclusions: Of the making of Christian books there is no end, of the thought-leaders and recycled thoughts, there is no end. This refrain comes to mind again as I begin to think and dream and write another book. I’m asking the question, “What am I saying that hasn’t been said before a thousand times?” Publishers are looking for content that capitalizes on a moment in history, but we all know history repeats itself, and so too do the capitalized moments. I can’t say anything that hasn’t been said before a thousand times.
Art is the same though. Take a minute to look at some images depicting the crucifixion, see how they all depict the same man, the same group of people, the same moments, and look again at how they all do it spectacularly differently. Each one is a masterpiece in its own right.
So perhaps, I wonder, the point isn’t to make new art, but to keep recycling the old art with as much faithfulness as we can endeavor?
Perhaps our work as Christian artists is to ward off the cynicism that says, “Been there, done that, never want to repeat it,” and instead to repeat it but better. Perhaps our work is to fight back the jadedness that leads to hopelessness and to crush the envy that leads to anemic art, and to continue to create, continue to cultivate, continue to make and make new. Isn’t that the point of resurrection? Isn’t that the point of creation? Isn’t that the whole point of our entire faith? To uproot the bad and cause the good to flourish?
My mother taught us to love art and history and literature, but we also grew up in a post-Catholic family, so our art was more historical depictions than Christocentric. My grandmother had a host of crucifixes in her home and a bowl of the Host in her china hutch (over which I nearly lost my head as a seven year old when I asked her if I should throw out the stale cracker I found while dusting said hutch). I did not have an appreciation for depictions of Christ or the Holy Week or the cross, even into my adulthood. The reason given (and unquestioningly received by me) was that Christ rose from the dead so why would we focus on the suffering that happened before? Empty crosses are for the Christian, full ones are for those whose faith is weak and anemic or in need of something more than Christ’s resurrection. We pray for those people to get saved.
But now I am in my midlife and my body creaks and groans, my shoulders bear the weight of the furniture we moved last Saturday, I have reading glasses. When I was young and my body invincible, the empty cross made sense. Why would I dwell on the death when my whole life was in front of me? Some might say that my faith is weaker than theirs, that the rhythms of liturgy and the paintings of Holy Week and recitations of the creeds aren’t necessary for faith like theirs in which the empty cross carries them through a whole year.
And I get that. I have also been there and anticipate being there again. But I am not there now. Not this year.
This year I need to see the gaunt curves of a Savior’s hipbone in the artist’s depiction. I need the downcast eyes of a Son who feels rejected by his Father (and brave enough to say it in front of those he led). I need the variety of skin colors on Christ followers through the ages, reminding me that this white evangelical situation we’re in today isn’t even a smidgen of the cloud of witnesses we’ll be among someday. I need the women being the first to see and believe and preach the gospel of the risen Christ. And, as always, I need the vividness of Thomas’s hands reaching toward the holes in Christ’s body.
I used to believe icons were idols, but I see now they’re visual stories made by human hands for human eyes and human hearts, to help us turn our gaze upon Jesus, to see him full in his wonderful face, so these things of earth grow slowly and strangely dim in the light of his glory and full on abounding grace
Make more art, friends. More and more and more. Make it of what has been made before and what will be made again. Say it again, that which has been said a thousand ways and a thousand times before. Fill it out and flesh it in and set it before the readers and viewers and seers and needers. Say it new, different, slant. Attribute widely but build upon generously.
Making art is like waking from a dream and trying to reconstruct it for your friend or neighbor: what was so alive and real to you in the fretful moments of your sleep will still fall flat to them, but it helps. Just a little bit more, it helps. We still have some time to go before we see Him face to face without all the mess of this place crowding it out and we need to remember again what every Christian before us has tried to remember: this happened, this crucifixion, this resurrection, this rising to new life, this eternity starting now.
This is an adapted post from Sayable.net, which is where twenty years of my archives live, but where I am no longer updating.
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