Images, Art, Kitsch, Beauty, Doctrine and the Christian Tradition

HT: Houses of Worship in the WSJ
On this past good Friday a painter that you probably know died – Thomas Kinkade, the painter of light. You know, the guy who painted thousands of very pretty overly light filled cottages, houses and other landscapes. Franklin Graham commissioned Kinkade to paint a cross/crucifixion painting for the Billy Graham library. Depending upon your pre-existing thoughts about Kinkade you might either have that sinking feeling or an already natural uplifting expectation. Here is that picture.

Kinkade used to like to say in defense of his work, “I like to portray a world without the fall”. That is a big problem when it comes to painting a cross. But Kinkade is far from alone. I want to bring up a couple of cross scenes from a prior generation’s popular culture – the scene of Christian seeing the cross in Pilgrim’s Progress by Bunyan.

Maybe not to the same extent as Kinkade, but you get that same visual impression. The otherworldly light. The slightly twee sense of cleanliness. The absence of the body from the cross. Superficially enticing, but yet there is something missing. Something not quite right.

And that is probably the tie to doctrine and an ancient heresy – Docetism. Docetism was the belief that Jesus’ body wasn’t really real. Since Jesus was God, and God is Spirit that whole flesh thing must have just been an illusion along with the cross and passion. The church and society moves in a docetic direction anytime the reality of the physical is denied. If your god could not take on flesh and be born of the virgin Mary, then this flesh stuff is substandard. The church specifically moves in that direction when the deity of Christ is emphasized to the exclusion of the humanity. That goes part and parcel with the belief that I’m escaping this world for the joys of heaven. There is a truth implanted in there, but it also obscures the central proclamation of the church. Our hope is not in heaven. Our hope is in the resurrection. The resurrection is the recreation of all flesh, a putting back together of body and spirit which had been separated by the fallen world. A separation that we can feel and experience before the final one as our bodies age. But that flesh is not substandard; it is fallen. And God intends to recreate, to resurrect.

Here is another image – the Grunewald Altarpiece. Until we can find beauty in this, we have not grasped the core of the message of Jesus.

The alabaster jar

I wanted to share this poem primarily because I found it strikingly beautiful.

The woman with the alabaster jar

She knew the lines of a man’s back
as well as she knew the taste
of decanted fig-wine, or the way the spine
girdered the back under her hand;
an uneven scaffolding of flesh under fingers.
It was a gentle gift, this. Acquired slowly
in the stones arranged on her mother’s grave,
in the deep vault of her hip against his.
Dipping like water, she learnt to press libations
into her hair — lavender, dill, coriander;
to twist strands against the frame.
There was salvation in this. And Art too;
that fingers still wet from mulberry
could etch a form of truth on the skin,
like the rim of flung-coin, or the
consolation of Spring oranges and their spurting.

But the truth of them has been forgotten.
His dirty feet and tired eyes, her hennaed-thighs
in sandalwood and linen, how she swung her hips,
how his loneliness was an atrium arching from his chest
to the lip of the buttress; aching for her to unfurl her hair.

—Davina Allison

The allusions swim around these texts (Matt 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, Luke 7:37-39 – although note that the Luke story is a different setting; also look at Song of Solomon 5:15-16). Does it step over a line for the pious, or does it push to the right line reminding us ‘…and he was made man…’?