Stringfellow on patriotism and nationalism

A question arising from the previous post is whether Stringfellow makes any distinction between ‘patriotism’ and ‘nationalism’. I am yet to read all of Stringfellow’s writings, but my sense thus far is that any distinction made between the two typically is equally concerned to hold the two together. So he understands patriotism as one of the clearest expressions of the idolatry of nationhood. Patriotism, according to Stringfellow, is just one of the ‘legion’ of principalities, alongside which he names the Pentagon, the Ford Motor Company, Harvard University, the Diners Club, the Olympics, the Methodist Church (I’m yet to discover what he has against the Methodist Church), capitalism, Maoism, humanism, Mormonism, astrology, the Puritan work ethic, science and scientism, white supremacy, sports, sex, any profession or discipline, technology, money, and the family. (See An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, 78).

He also avers, in Imposters of God, that ‘… no nation enjoys exemption from idolatry; no subjects of any nation can escape the claims of idolatrous patriotism, whatever aesthetic or temperamental distinctions may lodge in this or that particular scene’ (pp. 100–1). And so, in another place, he cautions the ‘biblical person’ to always be ‘wary of claims which the State makes for allegiance, obedience, and service under the rubric called patriotism’ (An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, 113)

Nationalism, therefore, is nothing short of blasphemous, making promises that only God can deliver on, and proclaiming a bastard Gospel which announces a pagan form of (political, economic and, in some cases religious) salvation. Nationalism is, to borrow from Luther, God’s ape (!), never having an original idea in its life but only setting itself in God’s place. Nationalism is simply idol worship sanctioned and demanded by the local god, the state claiming worship that belongs to Christ alone, and a level of commitment that belongs to the body of Christ alone. Rowan Williams’ essay, ‘Being a People: Reflections on the Concept of the “Laity”’ (Religion, State & Society 27/1, 1999), is very helpful here. Reflecting on Stringfellow’s statement that ‘the church is the exemplary nation juxtaposed to all the other nations’, Williams writes:

‘In the face of the demonic presence in national social and political life of the trend towards idolatry, towards absolutising the local and tangible, and of the incapacity of worldly nations effectively to repent and be converted, the Church – a visible, institutional ground of identity, a historically tangible `people’ – represents the calling of all human beings to belong together in justice. In this sense, the Church is also, for Stringfellow, ‘the priest of nations’: while it is visibly a polity and structure among others, it has the task not only of showing to others what the true ground of human belonging is, but also of undertaking what he calls ‘advocacy’ on behalf of every victim in such a way that it becomes worship. This is a complex idea, expressed (as usual with Stringfellow) in painfully compressed form. What it seems to mean is this. The Church’s willingness to stand with the victims of the nations of this world arises out of its own experience of God’s victory over death, its own experience of the possibility of resisting the power of idolatry and so discovering what cannot be destroyed. So when it stands with the powerless and the victims, it does so in conscious and articulate gratitude for God’s ability to take us beyond death. Advocacy becomes praise; and praise itself, properly understood, is a political matter because it witnesses to a God who brings us where no power or principality of this earth can intimidate or confine us’. (p. 12)

William Stringfellow, Imposters of God: Inquiries into Favorite Idols – Part III

‘More than any of the other great and familiar principalities of this world – more than the university or the corporation or the profession, or even race – the nation is a symbol of salvation for men, an image of the Kingdom; it is a facsimile of that order, tranquility, dominion, and fulfillment of life in society which seems lost in the present era and yet after which men yearn persistently despite all disillusionments and defeats’ (p. 47). So begins Stringfellow’s assessment of the idol of patriotism. He proceeds to argue that the ‘sheer arrogance of the idolatrous claims of nations, perhaps especially those possessed of enormous economic and military strength, is so startling’ that our fascination with such idolatry can be ‘explained in no other conceivable manner than as moral insanity’ (p. 48). Throughout the book, Stringfellow assesses that the idols are always in competition with each other, but this competition is nowhere more ferocious, he insists, than where the idols are nations: ‘The necessary corollary of the claim that a nation is God’s surrogate in the world is the invincibility inherent in the ultimacy of a nation’s cause, and this notion is sufficient to rationalize any aggression, subversion, or subjection between nations. This is what every war attests. Or, to put the same thing a bit differently, as with all idols, the actual moral power on which the nation as an idol relies and to which it appeals in its practical conduct is the power of death’ (pp. 48–9).

And as with the other idols that Stringfellow names throughout this book, his concern here is a positive one, positive, that is, as defined by the interruption to the demonic rule of the principalities that takes place in the resurrection of Jesus, an event which reconstitutes and inaugurates humanity into life and freedom amidst the death and bondage regimes of the principalities and their idols. His concern throughout is to assist us to ‘identify our own idols as a first step towards freeing ourselves from enslavement to them’ (p. 51)

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William Stringfellow, Imposters of God: Inquiries into Favorite Idols – Part I

Developed as the 1968 Mendenhall Lectures at DePaul University, William Stringfellow’s Imposters of God begins with this insight:

Nothing seems more bewildering to a person outside the Church about those inside the Church than the contrast between how Christians behave in society and what Christians do in the sanctuary.

This contrast is not, I suspect, just taken for granted by outsiders as evidence of the hypocrisy of professed Christians. It is not simply that Christians do not practice what is preached and neglect to authenticate worship by witness. The non-churchmen is, I suggest, much more bewildered by the difficulty of discerning either connection or consistency between social action and liturgical event. The two apparently represent not only distinguishable but altogether separate realms: the former deals with ethics, the latter with aesthetics; the first is empirical, the second theatrical; the one is mundane, the other quaint. For the stranger to the Church, to whom the churchman appears to act in the marketplace much the same as everybody else, the straightforward and cogent explanation is that these peculiar sanctuary activities are sentimentally significant—as habit, tradition or superstition—but otherwise irrelevant, superfluous and ineffectual.

More or less secretly, or at least quietly, legions of church people suffer this same sort of bewilderment. If these people sense any relationship between practical life and sacramental experience, it is tenuous, illusive and visceral: a felt connection, a matter not readily elucidated, a spooky thing. On occasion, when a priest or preacher goes forth from the sanctuary to affirm in the world what is celebrated at the altar, he is usually ridiculed for meddling in affairs outside his vocation. Or when, in the midst of worship, a pastor ventures to be articulate about the relationship between ethics and sacraments, his effort is apt to be regarded as an intrusion defiling the congregation’s ears. (pp. xxi–xxii)

The book, which is essentially a series of studies on St Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, proceeds to name and speak to a number of our culture’s idols (namely religion, work, money, status, race, patriotism, the Church, and education, which ‘clearly has many ideological components, including the worship of middle-class values good and bad, and of an egalitarian type of democracy’ (p. 17) – all of which compete ‘for the very lives of men’ (p. 18) – convinced as Stringfellow is that ‘a significant clue toward understanding what society and sanctuary have to do with one another can be found in examining the common idolatries of men and also that peculiar freedom in Christ from all idolatries, the freedom in which human beings are no longer slaves, but become sons and heirs of God’ (p. xxiii).

Throughout Imposters of God, Stringfellow is concerned to demote what he calls ‘the prevalence and present practice of idolatry among us’ (p. 5), convinced, as he is, that our contemporaries in the West are as enslaved as ever, and perhaps more than ever, to the idols that we suppose our ‘less civilized counterpart[s]’ were. Whether those idols be our children, or the ‘present idolatrous fascination with science’ (which is not significantly ‘distinguishable from the adoration of fire and thunder’), or with the ferocious homage exacted by state leaders, or by the State itself, which is no less idolatrous than the allegiance commanded by Caesar Augustus. Whatever the form taken, ‘all idols are imposters of God’ (p. 6). Indeed:

Idolatry is the worship of what man has turned into such an imposter. In other words, idolatry means honoring the idol as that which renders the existence of the idolater morally significant, ultimately worthwhile. The idolater believes that his virtue or worthiness depends upon the consistency, zeal, and appropriateness of the devotion, service, and elevation he accords to the idol. Thus Americans who have devoutly served the idols of respectability and status all their lives feel threatened in their very being when their children refuse to offer these idols the same worship. (p. 6)

While constituted by the Fall which ‘begets the human quest for meaning in existence’, and after which human persons searching for their lost identity seek ‘somehow to bridge the brokenness of their relationships within themselves and with others and with the principalities and powers’ (p. 15), and to grope for justification, humanity is then – by the event of euchatastrophic love, that is, in the ‘embodiment of God’s action in the midst of the Fall’ (p. 16) – reconstituted, justified. Stringfellow bears witness to this new decisiveness, this new location of human personhood, when he recalls the Christian claim of justification in Christ as ‘the event in which God gives and establishes the moral significance of human life in this world’ (p. 6). It is the event of truth, and of truth-making. Conversely, idolatry, or what I call the praxis of death, both defies God and dehumanises human persons. ‘Every idol is an acolyte of death’ (p. 63), writes Stringfellow. It represents the attempt to return to the time of death, and a refusal to live in the new time, the time of eternal life. And Stringfellow maps the consequences of such a decision: ‘Where idolatrous patriotism is practiced, the vocation of the nation so idolized is destroyed. When money becomes an idol, the true utility of money is lost. When the family is idolized, the members of the family are enslaved. Every idol, therefore, represents a thing or being existing in a state of profound disorientation’ (p. 9).

And again: ‘Thus idolatry means more than that men are religious. It means that they are religious in a peculiar way: they are pantheists. The contemporary, Western, urban man is in truth as much a pantheist as any Greek or any Inca. Discussions about “secularism” – whether for it or against it – would be more realistic if they took this fact into account’. (p. 19)

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William Stringfellow, Free in Obedience – Part III

In his chapter, ‘Christ and the powers of death’, Stringfellow continues to identify and speak to the principalities and powers, what moderns call ‘ideologies’, ‘institutions’ and ‘images’, the latter  being a variety of angelic power manifest in the cultus of celebrity and exists independently of actual persons . So when someone like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean or Adolph Hitler dies, the image does not die but goes on to ‘a new and, some would say, more vigorous life’ (p. 53), and those who pay homage to the image are literally possessed by it.

The principalities of institution – corporations, government agencies, ecclesiastical organisations, unions and universities – demand uncompromised worship no less than do the images: ‘Everything else must finally be sacrificed to the cause of preserving the institution, and it is demanded of everyone who lives within its sphere of influence … that they commit themselves to the service of that end, the survival of the institution’ (p. 56). The principalities of institution offer invitations to bondage.

Having named the idolatrous powers of personality cult and principalities, Stringfellow then turns to the ideologies – totalitarian, democratic and capitalistic – all of which are given to nation-survival at all cost, all of which claim a person’s ‘loyalty, service and worship’ (p. 60), and all of which live in conflict not only with one another but as enemies of human being and flourishing. Indeed, ‘the separation from life, the bondage to death, the alienation from God which the fall designates’ (p. 62) is manifest in humanity’s bondage to the principalities and turn to them for salvation:

‘When a principality claims moral pre-eminence in history or over a man’s life, it represents an aspiration for salvation from death and a hope that service to the idol will give existence a meaning somehow transcending death’ (p. 64).

These are the very principalities and powers – ‘the awesome and manifold powers of death’ (p. 71) – that are confronted and overcome by Jesus Christ in his resurrection victory, ‘not for himself, but for us … His resurrection means the possibility of living in this life, in the very midst of death’s works, safe and free from death’ (p. 72). In his cross, Jesus bears the full brunt of the hostility of the principalities and powers towards him, submitting to their condemnation, accepting their committal of himself to death, and, in his resurrection, exposing, undoing and bringing to nought the false lords of history and the powers they represent.

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Are images of Jesus idolatrous?

It is impossible, it seems, for a theologian to think seriously about the arts and not before long be confronted with the question of visual representations of God and, for the Christian theologian, of God as incarnate. The Orthodox and the Reformed traditions, in particular, have long taken this question with the utmost seriousness (and that beside heated debates on the communicatio idiomatum or of those on the question of Christ’s presence in the Supper). The four main objections seem to be:

# 1. Violation of the second commandment

There are no commands to make pictures of our Lord. In fact such pictures, it is argued, clearly violate the second commandment. There are issues here of the ongoing question of idolatry, witnessed to in the Old Testament’s depiction of pagan idols described as being made of gold, silver, wood, and stone – i.e. of the ‘stuff’ of creation, of the work of human hands, unable to speak, see, hear, smell, eat, grasp, or feel, and powerless either to injure or to benefit (Ps 135:15–18). And, of course, there is the Decalogue’s second commandment:

‘You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth’. (Exodus 20:3–4)

Does this commandment put a fence around what artists can – and cannot – depict of God? Are images of Jesus – whether in Sunday School books, galleries, or spaces dedicated for public worship – idolatry? And if not, then how ought we understand the relation between the unique and unrepeatable revelation of God in the incarnation (and that attested to in the inscripturated word and from the Church’s pulpit, font and table) and visual depictions of that Word?

# 2. All attempts are false representations

Since no accurate representation of Christ can be produced by creatures, all attempts are false representations and can only promote idolatry.

# 3. We don’t know what Jesus looks like

Despite passages like Isaiah 53:2 and Revelation 1:13–16, the Bible does not give us enough information to make a faithful representation of Christ’s physical appearance. Therefore, it is obvious that God does not sanction portraits of God’s Son.

# 4. All plastic (i.e. material) representations of Jesus implicitly promote the ancient heresy of Nestorianism

The most serious objection to artists’ attempts to represent Jesus pictorially has been associated with this charge of Nestorianism. In other words, even if we had a photo of Jesus which depicted what he looked like, no human artistry can portray Christ’s divine nature. Therefore, all attempts are a lie and portray Jesus as infinitely less, or other, than he is as the God-human. This argument was proposed by the Council of Constantinople in 754:

‘If any person shall divide human nature, united to the Person of God the Word; and, having it only in the imagination of his mind, shall therefore, attempt to paint the same in an Image; let him be holden as accursed. If any person shall divide Christ, being but one, into two persons; placing on the one side the Son of God, and on the other side the son of Mary; neither doth confess the continual union that is made; and by that reason doth paint in an Image of the son of Mary, as subsisting by himself; let him be accursed. If any person shall paint in an Image the human nature, being deified by the uniting thereof to God the Word; separating the same as it were from the Godhead assumpted and deified; let him be holden as accursed’.

Regarding this council Philip Schaff, in History of the Christian Church. Volume IV: Mediæval Christianity from Gregory I to Gregory VI; A.D. 590–1073, writes:

The council [of Constantinople, 754], appealing to the second commandment and other Scripture passages denouncing idolatry (Rom. 1:23, 25; John 4:24), and opinions of the Fathers (Epiphanius, Eusebius, Gregory Nazianzen, Chrysostom, etc.), condemned and forbade the public and private worship of sacred images on pain of deposition and excommunication … It denounced all religious representations by painter or sculptor as presumptuous, pagan and idolatrous. Those who make pictures of the Saviour, who is God as well as man in one inseparable person, either limit the incomprehensible Godhead to the bounds of created flesh, or confound his two natures, like Eutyches, or separate them, like Nestorius, or deny his Godhead, like Arius; and those who worship such a picture are guilty of the same heresy and blasphemy. The eucharist alone is the proper image of Christ. (pp. 457–8.)

This issue is just one of the many in which the great twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth and his reformation great-grandfather, John Calvin, agree. They both held that:

  • Preaching and sacraments are central to the community’s activity;
  • That static works are a distraction to the ‘listening community’;
  • That the community should not be bound to a particular conception of Jesus;
  • That even the best art cannot ‘display Jesus Christ in his truth, i.e., in his unity as true Son of God and Son of Man. There will necessarily be either on the one side, as in the great Italians, an abstract and docetic over-emphasis on His deity, or on the other, as in Rembrandt, an equally abstract, ebionite over-emphasis on His humanity, so that even with the best of intentions error will be promoted’ (Barth, CD IV.3.2, 867). To be sure, Barth had already anticipated this move in CD IV.2 when he insisted that Jesus Christ cannot be known in his humanity as abstracted from his divine sonship. See CD IV.2, 102–3.
  • ‘Whatever [people] learn of God in images is futile’ (Calvin, Institutes, I.xi.5). God’s majesty ‘is far above the perception of our eyes … Even if the use of images contained nothing evil, it still has no value for teaching’ (Inst., I.xi.12); and
  • ‘Theology cannot fix upon, consider, and put into words any truths which rest on or are moved by themselves – neither an abstract truth about God nor about man nor about the intercourse between God and man. It can never verify, reflect or report in a monologue. Incidentally, let it be said that there is no theological visual art. Since it is an event, the humanity of God does not permit itself to be fixed in an image’ (Barth, The Humanity of God, 57).

That art is concerned with ‘earthly, creaturely things’ is reflected in Karl Barth’s scathing critique of attempts to visualise the ‘inaccessible and incomprehensible side of the created world’, and he lists ‘heaven’, and Christ’s resurrection and ascension as examples: ‘There is no sense in trying to visualise the ascension as a literal event, like going up in a balloon. The achievements of Christian art in this field are amongst its worst perpetrations’ (CD III.2, 453). And, on the resurrection, he writes:

There is something else, however, which the Easter records and the whole of the New Testament say but wisely do not describe. In the appearances He not only came from death, but from His awakening from the dead. The New Testament almost always puts it in this way: “from the dead.” From the innumerable host of the dead this one man, who was the Son of God, was summoned and awakened and reconstituted as a living man, the same man as He had been before. This second thing which the New Testament declares but never attempts to describe is the decisive factor. What was there actually to describe? God awakened Him and so He “rose again.” If only Christian art had refrained from the attempt to depict it! He comes from this event which cannot be described or represented – that God awakened Him. (Barth, CD IV.2, 152)

While Barth and Calvin could and did find proper recognition of the gift of God’s love expressed in human culture, they both failed to find in their theology a positive place for the plastic arts that they could find, for example, in music. Ah Wolfgang!

So what ought we make of Barth’s – and others (e.g. Calvin, Kierkegaard) – judgement against visual representations of Jesus? Are visual representations of Jesus really any more susceptible than words (poetry, sermons, etc) about Jesus? (One recalls here Calvin’s insistence that it is the heart that is factory of idols.) Does not God’s act of redeeming creation not extend to the arts’ service of giving an account to the creatureliness of God in Jesus Christ? Does Barth’s and Calvin’s rejection misunderstand the nature of the dynamic and continuing event which is the relationship of the viewer of a painting or a sculpture with the artwork, and of the freedom of the Word in that event? (See Michael Austin, Explorations in Art, Theology and Imagination, 21.)

For most of the Reformed, theology is something that is meant to be done with words, and not with images. But, of course, every decision we make about how we choose to communicate the good news is loaded with visual symbolism and reinforces a perception that God communicates with us in a particular kind of way. The question, therefore, is not, whether or not we should communicate visually; it is, rather, how we do so and what we say when we do.

One of the things that good art does is to shed light on the true nature of things; it broadens our horizons, enriches our capacity to see, alerts us to dimensions of reality that we had not seen before, and for which words, sometimes, are simply not enough. The arts help us to birth the kind of imagination and re-imagination that the good news itself fosters and encourages and demands and makes and invites. Artists see differently, but no less truthfully than scientists, how things are with the world. If we are to walk in our world well, and justly and with the mercy of God, then we cannot do so without the kind of re-imagining of reality and of human society that the arts promote and invite.

So NT Wright:

‘We have lived for too long with the arts as the pretty bit around the edge with the reality as a non-artistic thing in the middle. But the world is charged with the grandeur of God. Why should we not celebrate and rejoice in that? And the answer sometimes is because the world is also a messy and nasty and horrible place. And, of course, some artists make a living out of representing the world as a very ugly and wicked and horrible place. And our culture has slid in both directions so that we have got sentimental art on the one hand and brutalist art in the other. And if you want to find sentimental art then, tragically, the church is often a good place to look, as people when they want to paint religious pictures screen out the nasty bits. But genuine art, I believe, takes seriously the fact that the world is full of the glory of God, and that it will be full as the waters cover the sea, and, at present (Rom 8), it is groaning in travail. Genuine art responds to that triple awareness: of what is true (the beauty that is there), of what will be true (the ultimate beauty), and of the pain of the present, and holds them together as the psalms do, and asks why and what and where are we. You can do that in music, and you can do that in painting. And our generation needs us to do that not simply to decorate the gospel but to announce the gospel. Because again and again, when you can do that you open up hermeneutic space for people whose minds are so closed by secularism that they just literally cannot imagine any other way of the world being. I have debated in public in America with colleagues in the New Testament guild who refuse to believe in the bodily resurrection and, again and again, the bottom line is when they say ‘I just can’t imagine that’, the answer is, ‘Smarten up your imagination’. And the way to do that is not to beat them over the head with dogma but so to create a world of mystery and beauty and possibility, that actually there are some pieces of music which when you come out of them it is much easier to say ‘I believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’ than when you went in’. (NT Wright, ‘Jesus, the Cross and the Power of God’. Conference paper presented at European Leaders’ Conference, Warsaw, February, 2006).

Of course, as Murray Rae recently reminded a bunch of us here in Dunedin, the risk-taking work of re-imagining means that there can be no guarantee that misunderstanding and misinterpretation will be avoided. But neither do we have any such guarantee in the use of our words. In both cases, it seems, what we offer is an act of faith given under God’s imperative that we should share the good news. We offer in Christian witness so much as we have understood, knowing it to be partial, inadequate, and marred by our own sinfulness. And we do so in the name and under the inspiration of the God who makes eloquent the stumbling witness of our faith, and moulds our communication to good and loving purpose. It’s risky, but it is, it seems, God’s risk too.

Perhaps a few words from John de Gruchy would be a fitting way to conclude this post:

Art in itself cannot change society, but good art, whatever its form, helps us both individually and corporately to perceive reality in a new way, and by so doing, it opens up possibilities of transformation. In this way art has the potential to change both our personal and corporate consciousness and perception, challenging perceived reality and enabling us to remember what was best in the past even as it evokes fresh images that serve transformation in the present. This it does through its ability to evoke imagination and wonder, causing us to pause and reflect and thereby opening up the possibility of changing our perception and ultimately our lives … From a Christian perspective, the supreme image that contradicts the inhuman and in doing so becomes the icon of redemption is that of the incarnate, crucified and risen Christ. So it is not surprising that artists through the centuries have sought to represent that alien beauty as a counter to the ugliness of injustice. We are not redeemed by art nor by beauty alone, but by the holy beauty which is revealed in Christ and which, through the Spirit evokes wonder and stirs our imagination. (John W. de Gruchy, ‘Holy Beauty: A Reformed Perspective on Aesthetics Within a World of Ugly Injustice’ in Reformed Theology for the Third Christian Millennium: The 2001 Sprunt Lectures, 14–5).

Barth on visual representations of Jesus

Rembrandt - Portrait of Christ's Head (1650)
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 'Portrait of Christ's Head', c.1650. State Museum, Berlin-Dahlem.

In preparing some lectures on theology and the arts recently, I’ve been struck yet again how that for all his radical revision of some central aspects of Calvin’s thought, Barth remains remarkably close to Calvin at so many key junctures, and consistently so (it would seem) on issues related to the visual arts. Here’s just one example:

This decisive task of preaching in divine service seems to suggest that the presence of artistic representations of Jesus Christ is not desirable in the places of assembly. For it is almost inevitable that such static works should constantly attract the eye and therefore the conscious or unconscious attention of the listening community, fixing them upon the particular conception of Jesus Christ entertained in all good faith no doubt by the artist. This is suspect for two reasons. The community should not be bound to a particular conception, as inevitably happens where there is an artistic representation, but should be led by the ongoing proclamation of His history as His history with us, so that it moves from one provisional Amen to another, in the wake of His living self-attestation pressing on from insight to insight. Supremely, however, even the most excellent of plastic arts does not have the means to display Jesus Christ in His truth, i.e., in His unity as true Son of God and Son of Man. There will necessarily be either on the one side, as in the great Italians, an abstract and docetic over-emphasis on His deity, or on the other, as in Rembrandt, an equally abstract, ebionite over-emphasis on His humanity, so that even with the best of intentions error will be promoted. If we certainly cannot prevent art or artists from attempting this exciting and challenging theme, it should at least be made clear both to them and to the community that it is better not to allow works of this kind to compete with the ministry of preaching. (Barth, CD, IV.3.2, 867)

To be sure, Barth had already anticipated this move in CD IV/2 when he insisted that Jesus Christ cannot be known in his humanity as abstracted from his divine sonship:

As God cannot be considered without His humanity, His humanity cannot be considered or known or magnified or worshipped without God. Any attempt to treat it in abstracto, in a vacuum, is from the very first a perverted and impossible undertaking. As Son of Man, and therefore in human form. Jesus Christ does not exist at all except in the act of God, as He is first the Son of God. Where He is not known as the latter, He cannot really be known in His humanity as abstracted from the divine Son as its Subject.

This was the difficulty which beset all the modern attempts – now, of course, more rare – to sketch a biography of Jesus, a picture of His life and character. It is no accident that the New Testament material for this purpose is so sparse and unsatisfactory. The scholars and men of letters who attempted it in their different ways were necessarily betrayed from one difficulty into another. A predicate cannot be properly seen and understood and portrayed without its subject. But in itself and as such the humanity of Jesus Christ is a predicate without a subject. And although the attempt was made – and very seriously sometimes – it was absolutely impossible to try to ascribe a religious significance, or to enter into a religious relationship, with this predicate suspended in empty space. It is only rhetorically that the empty predicate of His humanity could and can be counted as a subject which summons us in this way.

Even greater is the difficulty of representing Jesus Christ in the plastic arts. It is even greater because here there emerges unavoidably, and indeed purposively and exclusively, the particular and delicate question of the corporeality of Jesus. The prior demand of a picture of Christ is that its subject should be seen. And He must be seen as the artist thinks he sees Him according to the dictates of his own religious or irreligious, profound or superficial imagination, and as he then causes others to see Him (and sometimes in such a way that they cannot possibly fail to do so). As against this, the biographer of Jesus only speaks, or writes, on the basis of texts by which he can in some degree be checked by his readers or hearers, and in books which can be left unread or forgotten. The claim of the biographer is an impossible one. But that of the artist who portrays Christ is so pressing as to be quite intolerable. It must also be added that every picture in pencil, paint or stone is an attempt to catch the reality portrayed, which is as such in movement, at a definite moment in that movement, to fix it, to arrest or “freeze” its movement, to take it out of its movement. The biographer has at least the relative advantage over the artist that whether he does it well or badly he has to tell a story and therefore to see and understand and portray what he takes to be the life of Jesus on a horizontal plane, in a time-sequence, in movement. In addition to everything else, the picture of Christ is far too static as a supposed portrayal of the corporeality of Jesus Christ in a given moment. But what will always escape both the biographer and the artist, what their work will always lack, is the decisive thing – the vertical movement in which Jesus Christ is actual, the history in which the Son of God becomes the Son of Man and takes human essence and is man in this act. In this movement from above to below He presents Himself as the work and revelation of God by the Holy Spirit, as the Jesus Christ who is alive in the relationship of His divinity to His humanity. But He obviously cannot be represented in this movement, which is decisive for His being and knowledge, either in the form of narrative or (especially) in drawing, painting or sculpture. The attempt to represent Him can be undertaken and executed only in abstraction from this peculiarity of His being, and at bottom the result, either in literary or pictorial art, can only be a catastrophe. We say this with all due respect for the abilities of the great artists, and the good intentions of the not so great, who in all ages (incited rather than discouraged by the Church) have attempted this subject. But this cannot prevent us from saying that the history of the plastic representation of Christ is that of an attempt on the most intractable subject imaginable. We shall have to remember this when in the doctrine of the Church we come to the question of instruction by means of plastic art. It is already clear that from the point of view of Christology there can be no question of using the picture of Christ as a means of instruction’. (Barth, CD IV.2, 102–3)

That art is concerned with ‘earthly, creaturely things’ is reflected in Barth’s scathing critique of attempts to visualise the ‘inaccessible and incomprehensible side of the created world’, and he lists ‘heaven’, and Christ’s resurrection and ascension as examples: ‘There is no sense in trying to visualise the ascension as a literal event, like going up in a balloon. The achievements of Christian art in this field are amongst its worst perpetrations’ (Barth, CD III/2, 453). And, on the resurrection, he writes:

There is something else, however, which the Easter records and the whole of the New Testament say but wisely do not describe. In the appearances He not only came from death, but from His awakening from the dead. The New Testament almost always puts it in this way: “from the dead.” From the innumerable host of the dead this one man, who was the Son of God, was summoned and awakened and reconstituted as a living man, the same man as He had been before. This second thing which the New Testament declares but never attempts to describe is the decisive factor. What was there actually to describe? God awakened Him and so He “rose again.” If only Christian art had refrained from the attempt to depict it! He comes from this event which cannot be described or represented – that God awakened Him. (Barth, CD IV.2, 152)

Only with Mozart the musician, it would seem, are we in safer hands!

Susan Boyle: Judged by Beauty

susan-boyleA guest post by Bruce Hamill:

The story of Susan Boyle captured the imagination of the world. At one level it was simply the surprise of beauty. Where did that voice come from? And yet there is so much more than that here. And the “so much more” has to do with the expression on the judges’ faces and the sniggers of the audience including those universal judges on their couches throughout the world. It was here that the analogy to resurrection is greatest. For here the whole world was agreed on the form of the beautiful and it didn’t include Susan Boyle. Only the act of casting her out, in which both audience and judges were complicit, explains the looks on the judges’ faces and the astonishing popularity of her YouTube clip. And yet in that moment of discovery a strange thing happened. We realized for a moment our own judgment. We were the judges judged by her truth. And then another thing happened. We began to tell stories which justified the world we are a part of. We could not face the judgment that her unveiling made upon our world, so we turned the attention on her heroism, in such a way that we could in fact adore her as an appropriate idol and icon of our time. Like Pilate we avert our gaze from the truth that judges us. Where Pilate asks the dialectical question, we renarrated the familiar ‘rags to riches’ tale in which there is no judgment or surprise and Susan’s triumph is the logical conclusion of our meritocracy. She becomes the hero so we can avoid the spotlight being turned on us the audience and the world of American Idol-atry that we participate in.

I wonder what will happen to Susan now? How much longer will she avoid baptism by ‘makeover’? How much longer will we be able to stand her ‘look’? How much longer will she be able to avoid seeing herself through the eyes of the crowd?

The purification of the conscience

In his wonderful study, The Conscience – Conquering or Conquered? (Blackwood: New Creation, 1987), Geoffrey Bingham contends that a person ‘cannot displace the creational faculty of the conscience, so he must war with it. He must seek to control its elements which, not being allowed to help man, must now be enlisted – against God – to give him the peace which may only come from true obedience, i.e. true creational functioning. Man then, seeks to control his conscience and re-educate it, even to the point of being enlisted in idolatry’. (pp. 15-6).

Idolatry not only perverts God’s creation, but also demeans God and the idolater. For God to do nothing in the face of such perversion and demeaning is unthinkable. Just as Forsyth argued, for God to do nothing in the face of evil manifested in Germany in the early Twentieth Century would be unimaginable. Judgement is the only possible outcome. So it is on the personal level. Psalms 32:3-4 and 38:1-8 bear witness to the truth that the human conscience refuses to let us off the hook, despite our best efforts to pervert and appease it. Deeply down the nemesis is working. Only perfect obedience from the side of sin will satisfy God and purge the evil rampant in God’s creation. The conscience ever testifies to this, even if the human mind insists otherwise. Satisfaction is a must, and the conscience knows this. The cross alone satisfies the human conscience – and God’s.

So Bingham, this time from Everything in Beautiful Array:

‘The things of which I was deeply ashamed, the things that harrowed my spirit, and that burned their shamefulness into me, are now expending themselves upon this great High Priest who is the true Guilt-Offering, the true Holy Oblation. Into his pure self flow the sin and evil of me, only to be met by such utter purity that the evil dissolves in the pure, the darkness in the light. Pain it all is to him, but effective pain, for it destroys all my evil, all my guilt, and it destroys it wholly until not one fragment remains. There is nothing in me or about me which is evil: no sin remains, no guilt is in my conscience. That conscience has been wholly purified and so has given me the first true sight of the loving God whom now I desire to worship in my purified spirit.’ – Geoffrey C. Bingham, Everything in Beautiful Array (Blackwood: New Creation, 1999), 75.

The Idolisation of Theology

The Apostle John concluded his first epistle with the warning, ‘… keep yourselves from idols’ (1 John 5:21). This word to the Christian community in general extends to those who seek to undertake the specific task of Christian dogmatics. It is a reminder that we must resist at every point the temptation of becoming bewitched by the mere form that faith takes, and with the grammar of its enquiring landscape. To do so is to turn our gaze from the sun itself towards mere shadows, as fascinating as those shadows might be. Such a move threatens to cast and then bow down to an idol called ‘theology’ and allows that god’s agenda – whether of the academy, or of the Church, or of that system the Apostle John calls ‘the world’ – to determine what the triune God has and has not revealed about himself, about his people, and about the world.