Non-Christians respond to Christian artworks

One of the art blogs I follow is Hyperallergic, “a forum for serious, playful, and radical thinking about art in the world today.” It’s not Christian-affiliated, but because of Christianity’s vast influence on the arts, it’s not unusual for “Christian” works, or works that reference Christianity, to be covered. This past month two such features stood out to me for the outsider perspectives they offered:

(1) “A Meditation on the Ineffable Grandeur of Churches” by Jennifer R. Bernstein: An “irreligious, halfhearted Jew” describes “what it means to love church but not God,” to be transported in a way that she has never been in synagogue. By way of example, she shows a photo of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona; an agnostic friend of mine had a similar experience as this author—he told me that when he visited that cathedral last year, he came very close to believing in God and falling to his knees right then and there in repentance, so moved was he by the architecture and what it signified.

La Sagrada Familia
Interior of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

Here are some excerpts from Bernstein’s article:

Crossing the narthex of a cathedral is like starting a great book: You simply aren’t in your home world anymore.

***

In my view, the truest kind of reader/viewer is not the intellectual, but the supplicant. To “consume” a work of art is really to be consumed by it: to surrender your will to the vision of the creator — or, in this case, the Creator.

***

Organized grandeur makes us feel small and powerless, yet connected to something all-powerful.

***

Church, if we take it seriously, if we give in to stillness, threatens to reorder what we care about. . . . An extraordinary environment forces us into a confrontation with a striking somewhere, reminding us that we can and should take care in choosing where we place our bodies, for there we also place our minds.

(2) “A Timely Performance of MLK’s Final Sermon Takes Viewers to Church” by Seph Rodney: Commissioned by BRIC for its inaugural BRIC OPEN Festival, The Drum Major Instinct is a dramatization of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final sermon accompanied by original music by Phil Woodmore, presented on April 30 by Theater of War Productions and NYC Public Artist in Residence Bryan Doerries. True to BRIC’s mission, it was followed by an open community discussion on race and social justice.

What was shocking, to me, about this article is the reviewer’s candid opposition to King on the grounds of his “rigid, hierarchic, conservative” Christianity. We’ll take the social justice he promoted, Rodney seems to say, but without all the God-talk. Does he not understand how integral King’s religious faith was to shaping his vision and motivation? And he achieved practical, world-changing results. If our “desire to follow our inherited religious templates” “dooms us,” then why did King’s template, taken from the Bible, usher in such positive change in America? Citing today’s (Muslim) theocracies as evidence of how religion and human rights violations go hand in hand is irrelevant.  

Rodney says that Christianity does not jibe with the contemporary social justice movement because it insists on personal transformation. His main issue is with the idea of surrender: why should we give up our will and adopt someone else’s—that is, God’s? “We might be able to recreate the world if we could hold on to our autonomy . . . and comprehend that being human is an opportunity, not a set of obligations.” Humanity has limitless potential, he suggests; our downfall is when we give up the ego. Let’s go it alone, without God! Only then can we effect real change. Now, if that’s not hubris, I don’t know what is.

Furthermore, he writes, the Bible “doesn’t provide us with the analytical or empathetic tools through which a new social scheme can be constructed. . . . The power of the church to shape and condition our relations with each other is waning.”

I am puzzled by Rodney’s conception of Christianity—its claims, its objective, and its power and limitations. He grew up in the church and yet seems to disregard the Bible’s numerous passages about empathy, neighbor-love, community ties, human dignity, equal rights, inclusiveness, and so on. While it’s true that Christianity doesn’t have a consistent track record in these areas, it has made considerable advances possible during several different eras of history, extending into the present day. (Just the other week I read an article titled “Cambodia’s Child Sex Industry Is Dwindling—And They Have Christians to Thank.”)

Rodney is right to recognize that Christianity requires surrender to a higher power. He’s wrong that that’s a restrictive move; on the contrary, it’s the most liberating move anyone could make. I’m not sure how self-rule would get us any closer to achieving justice for all. Isn’t it us humans who are at the heart of the problem? And cannot being human be both opportunity and obligation? The Bible helps us see what’s possible in terms of human flourishing and provides guidelines for getting there while also showing what happens, using examples from history, when we contradict those guidelines.

The Drum Major Instinct sought to bring a key religious text to life by employing dramatic and musical talents. Seph Rodney admits to enjoying the performance overall—he just couldn’t fully give in to its exhortation because of its distinctly Christian nature. Whereas he sees Christianity as incongruous with social justice advocacy, Christians know that the second is subsumed under the first: social justice is part of our mission. So is the personal transformation wrought through Christ.

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