Controversial Religious Art

The elders of Ecclesia, a church in the Montrose area of Houston, vetoed display in their art gallery of a photograph submitted by a 10 year old boy for a series of “Stations of the Cross” (see also Jill Carroll’s commentary). In the photo, the boy’s younger brother plays Jesus–and the Roman soldier beating him is depicted by a man in a modern police uniform. See “Station 7 by Jackson Potts,” which has an explanation by the artist and a letter from the curator.

There are a couple crucifixes at Ecclesia–devoid of suffering and pain and blood, just disembodied white hands and feet on a black background. Very different from the Stations of the Cross I saw at a university chapel in San Salvador, depicting Salvadorans tortured by the military government during El Salvador’s Civil War. Very different, too, from the Stations of the Cross I saw in Guatemala, featuring Jesus dressed as a Mayan with the Roman Soldiers depicted as Guatemalan soldiers.

Is this an example of Christians seeking to rob the cross of its scandal, or of citizens concerned about children getting the wrong impression of police officers? Or both? How can we depict the passion of Christ today in a way faithful to Scripture and to contemporary human experience?

In the comments on the Chronicle page, the pastor of Ecclesia, Chris Seay, comments,

One of my primary definitions of what makes ‘good art’ is that it gets people talking. So, it is clear that Jackson’s piece has done just that. I am confident he has an amazing future ahead of him. Our exhibit for the Stations of The Cross is not actually an art exhibit – it is prayerful and meditative guide through lent and holy week and this provocative piece does not work as a prayer station for many reasons. Not least of these is the fact that a member in our church (teenage boy) was shot and killed by a Police Officer in his own home exactly one year ago. You can imagine that this piece would be very disturbing to that family. We have communicated all of this with great honor for Jackson as an artist and a deep desire to demonstrate the love of Jesus to those hurting most in our community. I would hope that all parties involved could respect this difficult decision. Blessings!

But could not that family tragedy give greater meaning to the photograph? Through prayerful reflection on it,  could not one come to link Christ’s sufferings with those of that son? And the hope of resurrection, as well? Isn’t that what the Stations of the Cross are meant to do–connect us with, and immerse us in, the sufferings of Christ? That’s what the Salvadorans and Guatemalans were able to do.

Update 3/3: I stopped by Ecclesia to see the exhibit for myself. There was an card at the space where this photo was to have been directing those interested to the webpage. I also chatted with one of the staff about it. The thing that made it really cross the line for them was the fact that a child was depicted as the recipient of the violence. Had it been an adult, that would have been something else. But “child abuse” as metaphor for sufferings of Christ? No. That was not going to fly in a worship space where children are present, I was told.

I was startled by the reference to “child abuse.” That wasn’t my impression at all. That wasn’t in the young photographer’s mind, either. Actually, what stood out for me was this was the only one of the stations that evoked any feeling for me. It was the only one that depicted violence in a realistic way. The others were all abstractions–like the existing art in the worship space. What is it in the evangelical mind that still recoils to representational art? It’s the legacy of Calvin and Zwingli, to be sure. So different from the incarnational realism of the Lutheran tradition (see Matthias Grunewald’s crucifix, for example), in which the scandal and horror of the crucifixion is presented in graphic detail. I was told it wasn’t thought that this would lead to prayer. No? It would lead me to prayer–prayer for those treated unjustly, those on the margins. I would have done something different, though. Instead of a small white boy, I would have put an African-American, or a Muslim. Now that would have stirred up some emotions–as did Alan Collins’ sculpture of “The Good Samaritan” at Loma Linda University.

2 thoughts on “Controversial Religious Art

  1. Thanks for these reflections [beyond this post as well]. The quality of your blog posts have really increased in the past month or so—not that it was poor before, but just even more substantial now.

    • Well, Jordan, some of these posts are older, or were prepared for other purposes. Not quick ad hoc postings. 🙂

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