For two thousand years, since the birth of Christ, his followers have sought physical connection to this human aspect of God. As early as 451, councils and church officials battled over the issue of iconography; what is blasphemous idolatry and what is necessary to import a connection to the masses that needed a tangible representation of their faith?
For centuries images were, in turns, created then destroyed as the Church fought to establish a consistent doctrine on the issue. According to religious theory, and as quoted from S. Brent Plate’s Blasphemy: Art that Offends, “Church authorities were responding to the already established practices of many Christians….it is ultimately religious practices that produce the need for doctrine and not theologians….”
What was true in those early days of Christendom is no less true today, and the most recent surge of Christ imagery to incite fervor in the realm of Christianity are those created by gay and lesbian artists who are establishing their own collection of icons, allowing them to make the Christ story their own. In support of this effort, an art gallery in Taos, New Mexico that specializes in Judeo-Christian iconography staged a show giving this new influx of artists a venue for their work. Running from May through June, JHS Gallery presented Who Do You Say That I Am? Visions of Christ, Gender, and Justice.
“This was a unique venue for Christians of the gay and lesbian community to see images that depict their own faith in a setting where they are comfortable. There really are no churches offering these icons for the community,” said Michael Roberts of JHS Gallery.
Just as African-American artists recreated Christ in their own image in 1960’s America, and women have depicted female Christ figures in more recent decades, gay and lesbian Christian artists have come to the fore demanding a respected inclusion in their community of faith that has become increasingly fundamentalist in reaction to what many see as a more liberal turn in American culture.
“Religion is a love/hate relationship for me,” said Douglas Blanchard a New York painter whose Passion of the Christ series will be shown at JHS Gallery. “The love is the contact with the soul, with your neighbors, and with God. But I hate what it [Christianity] has become, this tribalistic, legalistic thing that is about identity, not faith. It’s not a theology but a fundamentalist revival.”
“I have gay friends who love God,” said Jodi Simmons, owner of JHS Gallery, “but who have been told they can not reach God due to their sexuality. I wanted the show to explore what an evolving faith involves.”
By using the term “evolving faith,” Simmons refers to a relatively new movement in spirituality which is of a progressive nature. This movement looks at how Christian practitioners must reexamine historical icons and consider if they represent the needs of today’s society. This becomes especially true as artists recreate the image of Christ into likenesses they or their communities can relate to. Is the Christ of 2000 years ago an image people today can connect with as representative of themselves in faith?
“People underestimate the importance of the visual arts in relation to spirituality,” says Roberts, and his feelings are supported by both Simmons and Plate. The visual images are what can reach beyond the intellect; they stimulate those emotional, visceral responses that often make us look inward. As Simmons explains, “we look at the art, and observe the art, then look within ourselves and look at the responses we have to the image.” The questions can become, ‘Is that something that resonates with me?’ ‘Can I relate to this symbol?’ Likewise, it can become, ‘Why does this offend me?’ ‘Why do I not connect to this image?’
The image of Christ has no official historic background. He was not depicted, that we are aware of, during his life. What artists have done since is create what they thought he would look like based on his ethnicity and his social standing. As history progressed, his image continued to be adapted and interpreted, often depending on the historic period or the ethnicity of the people depicting him. For example, in the Renaissance when the physical body was artistically rendered as voluptuous, nude and white European, Christ changed from a darker skinned, thin man to that of the image of the society of the time.
Likewise, as Asian cultures accepted Christianity, his physical features reflected those of the people he represented in those cultures, and the same occurred in African cultures who accepted the faith of Christ. Christ became what the people needed him to be.
Today, with the increase in images like Blanchard’s Passion series — that depicts Christ as a young, gay man in the streets of New York — gay and lesbian artists are creating a figure they can relate to in a faith that is rarely welcoming of their presence in the Church. It is also the vehement response against these images that again exemplifies the powerful impact of the visual in a spiritual realm.
S. Brent Plate, Associate Professor of Religion and the Visual Arts at Texas Christian University, explains the passionate responses.
“Jesus, or any religious icon, must be made relevant to each culture, to each people of the time. It is important in the continual redrawing of the faith,” he said, but continuing, further explains, “Sexuality is more provocative. It stirs the passions. Sexual imagery and religious imagery are two very volatile subjects, which thrown together become an explosive force.”
In his book on blasphemy, Plate considers the definition of the word and how a piece of artwork becomes powerful enough to lead to censorship of its artist. He writes, “Artist’s intentions are one thing, formal evaluation of the images another, and the reception of the images…still another. To understand the place and function of blasphemy, it is necessary to take stock of the power of images and the ways they ‘call out’ to people.”
He initially defines the differences between blasphemy and the profane to lay the groundwork of the argument, and in this differentiation, we need to also consider what is sacred. Things sacred, as many can relate to, whether on a religious or personal level, are those things held dear. They are what we hold as our most profound truths, that which is above the baser “humanness.” Conversely, something profane is the common, the everyday, that which is human. Blasphemy occurs when the two meet, when those things sacred are meshed with those things profane. A simple example Plate uses to illustrate the meeting of the two is the bumper sticker that says, “Jesus is my co-pilot.” The idea of sacred Jesus plastered on a profane 3”x12” piece of sticky paper which is stuck to someone’s car bumper.
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