Sunday, April 13, 2014

Black Jesus, White Christians

Last Tuesday I found myself overlooking Los Angeles atop a travertine terrace at the Getty Museum, hosted by the wonderful people of Biola University.  Having journeyed throughout the Mediterranean studying Byzantine art, I realized then that Katy Perry is right: You can travel the world, and nothing comes close to the Golden Coast.  In fact, many of the Byzantine icons that I studied had just found their way to California as well. A few hours later we zoomed down the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu to enjoy the opening of the Byzantium show at the Getty Villa. The icons on display there included some old friends.
Gospel book, Ethiopia, about 1504–1505

But little did I know that an iconoclastic controversy of its own was brewing in the area, one not entirely dissimilar to Byzantium's. And for the purposes of that conversation, the Getty image most pertinent was not one of the magnificent icons on loan from Greece, but one of the Ethiopian manuscripts on display, a frank reminder that Christianity (pace the Nation of Islam) remains an indigenous African religion.

The debate I am referring to concerns the ethnicity of a towering depiction of Jesus at Biola, Kent Twitchell's The Word. Theologian Matt Jenson explains the background of the controversy, and introduces the Cultural Encounters issue dedicated it. Let me offer some highlights from this excellent series of articles.  

Biola art professor Barry Krammes writes of being paralyzed when a young African American turned to him in a recent discussion about the Biola Jesus and said, "If you loved me as your brother in Christ you'd be willing to have that mural removed." And yet, Barry brings some necessary background to the debate.  He recalled that in the spring of 1993, students offered similar concerns, and after hearing them, Twitchell himself "offered to pay to have the mural sandblasted off the wall." Faced with such a humble reaction, the students relented.  The art, after all, was modeled after a Russian Jew, and it was also a gift that has come to symbolize Biola, even showing up on ID cards.  
"The Word" by Kent Twitchell at Biola

Of course there are the standard iconoclastic objections as well, to which Jenson responds with characteristic lucidity. His article will be a go-to resource for me to give to Protestants skeptical about icons from this point on. Summarizing John of Damascus, Jenson put it this way: 
It would be presumption to say that we can straightforwardly image God.  But, if God has given us an image of himself in the incarnation of his Son - a Son who could be seen - then we have warrant...  Our imaging of God takes its cures from and is ruled by the incarnation, in which he made himself visible and known.
Jenson adds that John Calvin's iconoclasm "wrongly conflates use and abuse."  And yet, Jenson admits this does not necessarily justify the Biola mural.  "I do not think ours is a case where people value the Jesus mural so highly that they confuse it with Jesus.  No, the danger comes in our very familiarity with the image." 

This in turn leads to a very forceful argument against the mural from Brad Christerson: "For many people of African, Asian, and Native American descent, European portrayals of Jesus are a symbol and a reminder of how Christianity was used to legitimize the conquest and political/economic domination of their people." Christerson makes a strong case for removal, not least of which, "it hurts our current and potential relationships with many individuals and communities of color in our city and around the world."

Agreeing with Christerson's principles, Jonathan Anderson offers a magisterial take on the controversy, explaining that the key issue to be the matter of destruction
It is difficult to see how such an act would not directly contradict the very inclusiveness that we desire: it seems baldly problematic to suggest that Biola’s sensitivity toward and desire for diversity would justify the removal of an image on the grounds that we do not approve of the ethnicity [Russian Jew] of the model that Twitchell chose for the image. 
Scott Haskins and Kent Twitchell conserving
But nor does Anderson merely endorse the image. He adds that "One of the problems that have contributed to this controversy is the singularity of the mural: it is by far the largest, most notable, and most visible artwork in the university’s relatively small art collection..." And this is the insight that appears to have enabled Biola to move ahead.

In the concluding essay, Biola president Barry Corey explains his decision to restore the mural.  It partly resulted from the knowledge that elsewhere in Los Angeles the same artist had painted a brown Jesus that had helped faciliate between rival gangs. And yet, there is not a hint of triumphalism in Corey's essay.  "Today when I pass the Jesus mural and strain my neck to look up, I feel more of the sorrow of my brothers and sisters who have struggled to move on after my decision."  The choice to keep the mural came with the new initiative of the Mosaic Cultural Center to encourage more diversity on campus, and to think more seriously about how art is displayed.

Mystical Body

There is little to add to this illuminating discussion other than to suggest a way to frame the insights that have already arisen within it.  In his difficult book, Corpus Mysticum (Mystical Body), Henri de Lubac recovered the lost medieval understanding of the threefold body of Christ.  These three angles are not segments as much as they are aspects of the one mystical body, the totus Christus (total Christ).  These aspects include...
1.  The historical, raised body
2.  The Eucharistic body
3.  The Ecclesial body
When applied to images of Jesus, de Lubac's distinctions should cause us to ask, "Which of these three aspects is the artist trying to depict?" 

1. If the aim is to depict Jesus in the first sense, then emphasizing his Jewish ethnicity is essential.  The objection against white or black Jesuses on historical grounds would then, and only then, be legitimate.    

2. But in the other two categories, things get more interesting, because the natural body of Jesus does not play by our rules.  The body of Christ also appears in or as (prepositions are very difficult here) bread. Artists have endlessly depicted this Eucharistic body as well (see, for example, the wonderful summary by Wheaton art history major Maddie Johnston of our recent Art Institute conference on this very subject). 

3. But what about when the bread is consumed by all and sundry, and works its way into bodies of every concievable ethnicity?  It is here - in the ecclesial depictions of Jesus - where multiple ethinicities are permissible, and even demanded.  In his article, Matt Jenson did make a move in this direction by quoting Peter Leithart:  "We see His face in the face of His brothers, our brothers... and this justifies, too, the practice of depicting Jesus in culturally specific ways.  Jesus can be depicted as a black man (or an Asian, or a South Sea Islander), because some of His brothers are black."  But should we not add sisters to that as well? 
Gregory Schreck, "Jesus is stripped Naked"

Hesitation in this direction only comes from not being clear about de Lubac's three categories.  Of course Jesus was Jewish, and of course he was male (in the first of de Lubac's three senses).   But if the Jesus being depicted is not the raised Jesus, or the Eucharistic Jesus, but his body as reflected in the church (which obviously includes women) then such images are warranted. 

Take, for example, this photograph in  Gregory Schreck's profound Via Dolorosa series. Schreck does not believe the historical Christ was literally female any more than he believes his wife Karen, who served as a model for the Virgin Mary in the same series, was actually Jesus's mom.  Instead, Schreck's stations operate in de Lubac's third sense.  They "simply" remind us (if only it were so simple!) that the suffering of women, perhaps most especially the suffering of rape so delicately alluded to here, is also the suffering of Christ – a thought that, we can hope, might summon the hesitation of some future assailant. 

The Question of Placement

At the same time, one disturbing trend with these more flexible images of Jesus in the third sense - black and white, male and female - is where they are displayed.  Edward Blum's The Color of Christ tells the famous story of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.  In 1963 a bomb killed four girls of this black congregation, and blew out the image of a white Jesus in the process.  It was replaced with the image to the left, which announces - quite correctly - "You did it to me" (Matthew 25:40). 
16th St. Baptist, Birmingham, AL

The problem, it seems to me, is not with the image, but with the fact that this is not the church where the black Jesus needs to be displayed.  It should also be in white-majority churches who need to be reminded of the crime!  Perhaps it is white Christians who primarily need the black Jesus, and possibly the reverse scenario should be contemplated as well in order to foster enemy love.  We might then defend Warner Sallman's controversial Jesus - so long as it is exhibited outside of primarily white scenarios. And in turn, the black Jesus should not just be for black congregations (pace Father Pfleger), but for more white environments as well. 

Admittedly, worship settings might not be the best place for such experimentation, but Christian colleges possibly are. In fact, something like this did happen at Wheaton during a recent flare up of racial tension.  Art professor Jeremy Botts took Marion Perkins's black Jesus, made a massive print of it, and hung it in the stairwell of our art department, because it is white Christian (the majority at Wheaton) who most need to be reminded of the black aspects of the body of Christ. Come to think of it, we need a native Jesus as well (and there are many).  It is serendipitous that the issue of Cultural Encounters in which the Biola discussion appeared also begins with a memorial to the primary voice for Native Americans among evangelicals in the last decades, Richard Twiss.  As Steve Charleston points out (in a way that nicely converges with de Lubac), “While as a man Jesus was a Jew, as the risen Christ, he is a Navajo. Or a Kiowa. Or a Choctaw. Or any other tribe.”  

Marion Perkins's Man of Sorrows
It light of such possibilities, it is exciting to think how the iconography of such a beautiful Southern California campus as Biola might evolve in decades to come, complementing - not replacing - Twitchell's perfectly justifiable image of Christ. This would break the visual monologue at Biola that Anderson and Christerson lament. The multiplication, not the destruction of images, is what is called for. Caution is certainly called for, but who will take up the charge?  From the quality of the art department at Biola, I would imagine there are more than a few.

Diversity in (not as) Religion

The responsible and civil manner of the discussion at Biola contrasts with the screaming matches about diversity on many secular campuses.  There, diversity is often declared by fiat, until competing groups become satisfied with parallel existence, defending their allotted chunk of ethnic turf.  P.D. James called such an approach its own replacement religion. But because they already have a religion, diversity at places like Biola and Wheaton can be built on a very different, and far sturdier, foundation.

It very well may be that the interest in diversity that has trickled down to Christian colleges is because of secular academic fashion for the subject. This is to our shame, as we should have been setting the pace. Nevertheless, it is also true that diversity is being taken up in a fresh and more lasting way at places like the one where I teach. You can guilt a student into caring about diversity for four years (and even that can be difficult, if not backfire). But intertwine diversity with students' deeply held theological convictions, and they'll care about the matter for life.

And then some.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Sacred Frank Gehry?

And here's an article of mine at Public Discourse on giving up a few prejudices I could no longer afford to indulge.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Glorious Impracticality of Art History

Asked by First Things to respond to the POTUS art history brewhaha, I just said the same thing I've said before, once again; and you can read it here.

Consistency - that's the ticket.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Last chance to register for Envisioning the Eucharist!

Here's the final program for the conference you won't want to miss.  Last day to register by emailing is today.  Hope to see you there!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Miracles in the Age of Reason (and other promising papers)

I've written here before about post-secular art history. Fortunately, this session trifecta at the upcoming College Art Association conference in Chicago confirms that it's not just me.
Thursday Feb. 13, 9:30 AM—12:00 PM
Religion and the Avant-Garde, Part I
Chair: Jeffrey Abt, Wayne State University
The Iconic Subconscious: Vassily Kandinsky and the “Russian Religious Renaissance” (
Maria Taroutina, Yale University)
Reinventing the Messiah: Isou’s Lettrism and the Avant-Garde as Religion in Postwar France
 (Marin Sarvé-Tarr, University of Chicago)
Disco Mystic: Doubt and Belief in Andy Warhol’s Shadows 
(Mark R. Loiacono, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University)
Sacred Dissensus: The Latin American Neo-Avant-Garde (Re)reads the Bible
 (Mara Polgovsky Ezcurra, University of Cambridge)
Discussant: Marcia G. Brennan, Rice University

Friday Feb. 14, 9:30 AM—12:00 PM
Religion and the Avant-Garde, Part II
Chair: Jeffrey Abt, Wayne State University
“And What Shall I Worship if Not the Enigma?” De Chirico’s Religion of Mystery
 (Anne Greeley, Indiana Wesleyan University)
The Color of Supreme Spirituality: Franz Marc and the Religion of Art 
(Nathan J. Timpano, University of Miami)
Useless Love: Matisse’s Vence Chapel and the Question of Religiosity in Modern Art
 (Joyce Cheng, University of Oregon)
Georgia O’Keeffe’s Meditations on Roman Catholic Spirituality in New Mexico
 (Randall C. Griffin, Southern Methodist University)
Discussant: Nancy Locke, Pennsylvania State University

Saturday Feb. 15, 2:30 PM—5:00 PM
Historians of Eighteenth-Century Art and Architecture
After the Secular: Art and Religion in the Eighteenth Century
Chair: Kevin M. Chua, Texas Tech University
The Dôme des Invalides: Sublimity, Religious Rhetoric, and Aesthetic Experience in Early Eighteenth-Century France
 (Aaron Wile, Harvard University)
Theism and Secularization in James Barry’s Society of Arts Murals 
(Daniel R. Guernsey, Florida International University)
The Saving Heart-Knowledge, and the Soaring Airy Head-Knowledge: Quaker Aesthetics as an Agent of Cure in Lunatic Asylum Design
 (Ann-Marie Akehurst, University of York)
The Mother of Light in New Spain 
(Bernard J. Cesarone, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)
Miracles in the Age of Reason (Hannah Williams, University of Oxford)
If only there was a symposium at the Art Institute the day before the conference begins to help set the tone.  Ah, but there is! Wait - and it's free?  And all you have to do is email Miraculous!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Eating Beauty @ The Art Institute of Chicago (Feb 11)

Transubstantiation is alright I suppose, but why should words have all the fun?  How was medieval and Byzantine Eucharistic theology expressed visually?   Alongside ASCHA President James Romaine, I have organized a symposium to explore that question at the Art Institute of Chicago (details at the AIC site), and it's less than a month away.  Our keynote speaker for "Envisioning the Eucharist" is the University of Chicago's medieval art history superstar Aden Kumler, whose book Translating Truth got us going in this direction, to say nothing of the amazing Ann Astell.

Envisioning the Eucharist will be a nice way to extend the current Art and Appetite exhibition, and it certainly goes well with the AIC painting that would surely have cured Cameron's existential crisis, Maurice Denis' Easter mystery, where the Eucharist is dispensed by a tree.  Our conference also follows on the heels of an exciting Morgan Library exhibition on the Eucharist in Medieval Life and Art, the art historically rich publication of A Companion to the Eucharist in the Middle Ages, and (eh hem), my paper that examines eucharistically-inspired Marian masculinity freshly posted at the U of C Div School.   But the symposium explores aspects that each of these venues did not.

Registration for this event, furthermore, is absolutely FREE with admission to the Art Institute (pretty rare for these kinds of things).  All you have to do is email  The whole College Art Association will be in Chicago that week though, so please do so soon.  There's more to the Last Supper than Leonardo's literalism!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Course Evaluations for Sermon on the Mount

Professor was distant.  Arrived late and I could barely hear him.  Didn't engage one on one. Not open to different learning styles.

Loved the course!  Hot prof!

Cocky teaching style. Not challenged to think for myself. He even openly criticized other profs. Messiah complex.

The instructor pandered to the lowest common denominator - "meek" and "poor."  As an AP student, I did not feel adequately challenged.

Way too demanding for Gen Ed requirement. Prof expected us all to exceed best students in the class?! LOL. Not even my major!

Best prof ever! Loved it. Changing my major.

Told us not to worry about grade, and then told us that most people would fail. What?! Seriously?

Moralistic demands. Preachy.  I didn't sign up for a lifestyle course.  Teach the content!

Clearly had favorites (department administrator told me he only met privately with 12 students on regular basis).

Office hours jammed.  My roommate had to physically GRAB his blazer to get noticed.  I couldn't reach him (when I went I was told he was "away"). If I wanted a MOOC I'd have stayed in my pajamas.

Dr. Christ is AMAAAAAAZING!!!! 

Far too rigid reading requirements (something about "not an iota, not a dot, will perish").  Text should be changed - no summarizing boxes or glossary.  Way too long!  

Heard he won't even be here next semester. Gallilee U was just a stepping stone for him.  Career, not student focused.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Hypermodern Oblivion

For what it's worth, a paper of mine so titled has been posted at the University of Chicago's Divinity School web forum.  Of particular interest might be the notion of the Marian male, inspired by Symeon the New Theologian.  I hope the paper has relevance to the issue of celibacy as well, but I had gone on long enough as it was.  What better way to celebrate the week following the feast of the Christ's circumcision?

Saturday, December 21, 2013


What's that dear readers?  You say that for this 10th millinerd Christmas you want something special, along the lines of the 2009 St. Nick recovery post (skin pigment check), the 2010 millinerd podcast (listening fun for the whole family), the 2011 even-though-it's-my-first-year-of-teaching-I-still-read-one-thing-book-review, or a long-winded 2012 Mayan apocalypse recovery project at HuffPo?  Let not your heart be troubled.  I too know this is a special year, so I bought you a brand new, six-years-too-late tumblr (notice the tab above) where I can hereafter post quotes without having to jam them into an awkward hybrid blog entry.  You can even open it early!  Go ahead now... click away:

Enjoy, but don't worry - millinerd, being one of the 36 hidden websites without which the internet would expire, will still be here.  I know it's still Advent, but in anticipation...  Merry Christmas anyway dear readers!  (Well, let's not be presumptuous.)  Merry Christmas, dear reader!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Better than Pilgrims

Millinerd is almost 10 years old.  It's all very exciting and I'm trying to take it in stride, even though it is an absolutely massive deal.  I mean some people started blogs and migrated to Beliefnet, Patheos, or who knows else where?  But despite countless offers (countless because there were none), I stayed put.  My (and your!) reward is the internet equivalent of localism.  I never left for the big city.  I stuck to my hometown address.  And even while the strip malls of Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook drain the old-growth economy, millinerd is still here. Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your Internet Protocal address. 

One millinerd tradition has been an attempt to reclaim - make that claim - Thanksgiving as Jeudi Gras (Fat Thursday).  For the real details of the holiday head to my colleague Tracy McKenzie's new book (with video to boot). But I prefer to co-opt the day liturgically.  Advent, which starts Sunday, is a fast Season, and because in the Christian economy, fasts draw their meaning from feasts (and vice versa), one always has to feast before a fast, making Thanksgiving Mardi Gras without the beads (which would be weird with family around anyway).

But as Jeudi Gras is not catching on (the downside of internet smallville), let me pursue this further.  Advent used to actually be as long as Lent, and the pre-fast indulgence when that was the case took place on the feast day of Saint Martin of Tours (November 11th).  His is a sainthood to savor.  Here he is depicted in Chartres Cathedral hugging the disfigured long before Pope Francis, not to mention St. Francis, did the same; and there he is at the right, cutting off a piece of his own cloak to give to a beggar (who turned out to be Christ).  That cloak (cappa Sancti Martini) is where we get the word for chapel and chaplain, by the way.

When examining the history of Christianity, a frequent question tends to be: "So, what about all those people executed by Christians?" It's a good question if there ever was one, and it was Martin's long before it was ours.  The person with the unfortunate distinction of being the first to be executed by Christians for heresy was Priscillian of Ávila (d. 385), and the killing was (unsuccessfully) opposed by Martin.  Although he disagreed vehemently with Priscillian's position (Martin's mentor was the great Trinitarian theologian Hilary of Poitiers), Martin nevertheless thought swords were better used for dividing cloaks than killing the confused.  Hence, alongside Hugh of Lincoln (who confronted mobs of English Christians out to slaughter Jews), Martin is one of those saints without which we'd have reason to be all the more depressed about the failures of Christian history, regarding which - after a season of overlooking them - I'm learning to be more forthright.

To the left is another clip from the same massive image, The Wine of St. Martin's Day (Pieter Bruegel's largest).  It is humorous, to be sure; but it would be shortsighted to see Bruegel's paintings as a mere caricature, let alone mockery of peasant life. We have in Bruegel "not class ridicule," writes T.J. Gorringe, "but an essentially comic understanding of the world."  The hazy church in the background, dispensing the true vine, is the sponsor of this vinous last hurrah, as is Martin in the very same painting, who gives of his excess (actually, no - he gives to excess).  So happy Thanksgiving, Fat Thursday, and belated St. Martin's Day, from everyone's (well, certainly someone's) smalltown American website.  Cheers!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Modernity = The Middle Ages

\ One of Caroline Walker Bynum's frustration with her fellow historians, past and present, is their inability to inhabit the vast contours of medieval thought, choosing instead to pass off the later Middle Ages as either a hyper-spiritualized or overly-materialized milieu.  The former casts the period as the "Age of Faith" (in contrast to some presumed "Age of Reason"), and the latter see the medieval as a mere set up for Reformation critique.  But for Bynum, it is a paradox between the spiritual and material that "lies at the heart of medieval Christianity." To have not perceived that paradox is to have not let the past adequately work on the present.  It's all very anti-Hegelian:
Paradox... is not dialectical.  Paradox is the simultaneous assertion (not the reconciliation) of opposites.  Because of the paradox not just of Christ's incarnation (God in the human) but also of divine creation (God's presence in all that is infinitely distant from him), matter was that which both threatened and offered salvation.  It threatened salvation because it was that which changed.  But it was also the place of salvation, and it manifested this exactly through the capacity for change implanted in it.  When wood or wafer bled, matter showed itself as transcending, exactly by expressing, its own materiality.  It manifested enduring life (continuity, existence) in death (discontinuity, rupture, change).  Miraculous matter was simultaneously - hence paradoxically - the changeable stuff of not-God and the locus of a God revealed (34-35)
In this sense, medieval history can never be properly "understood" as much as experienced. Bynum continues:
Paradox is by definition impossible to explain in discursive language.  One cannot simultaneously assert contraries.  Rude, other-denying facts such as identity and annihilation, or the haunting presence and yet utter beyondness of ultimate meaning, cannot be spoken together. Yet together they must be lived. Their simultaneity cannot be stated; it can only be evoked - and even this only inadequately.
Henri de Lubac takes this even further.  "It is deplorable," he complains in Corpus Mysticum, "that a
theology that sets out to be strictly historical and 'positive' should sometimes commit the historical nonsense of lending its own state of mind to an age where a quite opposite state of mind pertains" (255-56).  De Lubac grew frustrated with historians who had impressive command of medieval source materials, but still failed to understand them because "the spirit in which they were composed has [in modernity] been partly lost" (220).  De Lubac then claimed to have comprehended the very spirit that so many in his time did not.  This involved being, in his words, "seduced" by Christian antiquity.
This cloud of minor witnesses, attesting to the vigour of a flourishing tradition by its sheer mass, more than any great name on its own could have done, threw me into a sort of amazed stupor.  This was our family inheritance, and many people had hardly a suspicion of it!  Some had even come to despise it, for want of having properly explored it!  It was a matter, then, of restoring to it its proper value, and that could not be done without sharing as deeply as possible the same perspectives as the age that was being studied.  I would have failed utterly, had I not at least been tempted in some way to induce a nostalgia for that lost age!  But that was in no way to urge an imagined return to its methods or its ways of thinking.  My only ambition was to bring them to light and, if possible, to inspire a retrospective taste for them; and I continue to believe that such a result would not be without a certain profit for the theological project of our times.  Because, without ever wishing simply to copy our forebears, a great deal can be gained from a better knowledge, not only of the fruits of their thinking but also of the interior sap which nourished them (xxiii-xxiv).
The preface to said volume connects de Lubac's perspective on the past to Hans Georg Gadamer's use of the wonderful German word Horizontverschmelzung - the fusion of horizons - a fusion which does not just question the past, but permits oneself to be questioned by it as well.  The alternative (see Reno's review of The Swerve) is to refuse paradox, to soberly resist de Lubac's "sort of amazed stupor," to stave off seduction and remain quarantined in the present.

This is the road most traveled, hence the historians who handle the past with protective gloves lest they get infected, and hence the terms we are stuck with such as "Gothic," "Dark Age," "Byzantine," or - worst of all of them - "the Middle Ages."  But as your scribe stated elsewhere, future historians may very well cast modernity as the dreary "Middle Age" between medieval metaphysical wisdom and its recovery.  So why wait?

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Mystical as Political: Illustrated Version

Below is a teaser slide from an art history paper I'm presenting this weekend at the Modern Greek Studies Association at Indiana University. I'm taking on the anarchists (and should have packed more black).  It's essentially an art historical supplement to Aristotle Papanikolao's The Mystical as Political, based on research I did in the on the island of Corfu in those relatively carefree years as a gallivanting graduate student. If you're in Bloomington (which I realize is highly unlikely), and if you have no compunction about invading conferences you haven't registered for, well then come on by!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Oprah trumps Michelangelo

If you're in the Boston area, come on by for the inaugural Hansen lecture that I'll be giving at Gordon College this coming Monday, October 28th: "Visual Heresy: Imaging the Father in the History of Art."  Here are the deets, and here is an abstract:
While the acknowledgment of art’s capacity as "visual theology" is a welcome development, this lecture suggests that art as theology is not necessarily good news.  What are the ways that art has promulgated damaging theology?  A chief instance of such visual heresy may be depictions of God the Father as a bearded male - which proliferate in the second millennium in Catholic, Orthodox, and less so in Protestant spheres. The spread of such images corresponds exactly with "univocal" developments in late medieval theology upon which many recent thinkers pin the blame for the rise of an independently "secular" world.  Should images of the Father be given a share - even the lion's share - of this blame?  Responding to recent feminist protests in Russia, this lecture concludes with more promising avenues of paternal depiction, stewarded especially by the evangelical visual tradition.
In other words, Oprah (who recently said that "God is not a bearded guy in the sky") is, at least on this point, more theologically correct than disconcertingly vast swaths of the Christian art historical tradition.

Hope to see you at Gordon!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Our Lady of National Public Radio

It was not surprising, but was nevertheless saddening, that NPR was more concerned last year with Colm Tóibín's novel The Testament of Mary than it was with a far more newsworthy Marian publication event of the same year - the first English translation of the earliest complete Life of the Virgin by Maximus the Confessor, published by Yale University Press. What should be more important to a radio outlet with pretensions to some degree of intellectual seriousness: another contemporary projection onto the past, or what very well may be the Mariological equivalent to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls?

But NPR simply covered Tóibín again, and again, and this year, you guessed it, they - wait for it...   covered it again. I did not see the Broadway Play version of Tóibín's novel, but some are wondering why it closed prematurely.  Perhaps (and I am only hoping here) people realized - unlike their publicly funded radio station - that the more daring story came from Maximus.  So, if Tóibín is not available for another interview, perhaps NPR will consider interviewing the heroically productive scholar of early Christianity, and translator of Maximus' life (from Georgian!), Stephen Shoemaker.  For a review of his translation you'll need to consult the current Books & Culture (which by such coverage further proves the need for its threatened existence).  For some of the ways that my Wheaton students responded to this profoundly moving text - a body blow to secular feminist caricatures of Christianity - consult my article in the current First Things, Our Lady of Wheaton.

In said essay, by the way, I point out that Avery Dulles - later to be Avery Cardinal Dulles -  made a bold ecumenical maneuver regarding Marian doctrine: He suggested the anathemas could be removed from the papal definitions of 1854 and 1950 while preserving the original teachings, thus making room for more diversity in Marian doctrine - the very kind of diversity that Maximus' Life of the Virgin reveals.  And it wasn't just Dulles. The German Catholic theologian Heribert Mühlen in 1966 asked “whether it is really of life and death importance if a person does not explicitly confess these two dogmas.” Capuchin Father William Henn reasserted the same ten years on: 
Without excluding the hope for complete doctrinal agreement, we need to explore whether it might not be possible that reunion could include at least some diversity of explicit belief, based not upon a particular community’s lack of faith or refusal to acknowledge authority, but rather on its different developmental history – something like the diversity of explicit belief which one observes between the various ages of Roman Catholic Church history.
Maximus' Life of the Virgin is all the more reason to take such suggestions - Catholic suggestions  -  seriously.  What Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox Christians can certainly agree about, however - thanks to Tóibín and NPR - is that there are necessary limits to Marian diversity as well.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Sprang from the Ground

Commenting on a description of an elaborate, relic-infused dedication of a church by Ambrose of Milan (340-397AD), Robert Louis Wilken writes:
What is significant is not so much what Ambrose did, but what the people of the city demanded of him.  As Neil McLynn, a recent biographer, has observed, the fourth-century cult of the martyrs "was not a pantomime staged for the vulgar but a channeling of powerful energies too intractable for the bishop to have controlled at will, and too pervasive for him to have thought to try."  There is no more telling mark of the new society being constructed in the wake of Constantine than this liaison between city, people, and religious devotion embodied in the veneration of martyrs and saints.  The new order sprang from the ground; it was not imposed from above (131).
A main theme of Jaroslav Pelikan's Credo is that the same "from below" dynamic operates in even the most learned of Christian creeds.
[The creed] could in some sense be characterized as "democratic." Its teaching is not replacing or even correcting or revising or amplifying what the laity have in fact been believing and teaching all along, though perhaps without really knowing it.  It is simply articulating and defending this against recent heretical adversaries, or it is making it more precise by the adoption of a more technical theological vocabulary, or it is transposing it from the implicit to the explicit and from the unconscious to the conscious.  Therefore the laity are still confessing their own faith in this text (341).
Needless to say, many instances of aggressive, top-down imposition of belief did occur, however.  For example, one imperial secretary insisted that Ambrose surrender a Nicene church to the heretical Arians, to the point of surrounding the church with soldiers until Ambrose complied.  The bishop's reply: "I cannot surrender the basilica, but I cannot use arms [to defend it]."

And it worked.