Saturday, March 31, 2007

Behold the Chocolate Crucified Jesus


I'd like to state that I respectfully disagree with the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and the decision of the Roger Smith Hotel to cancel Cosimo Cavallaro's chocolate sculpture of a naked crucified Jesus. I realize this isn't typical writing for Maundy Thursday or even perhaps sane or safe, but I'll consider it a difficult meditation on the passion of the Christ and an opportunity to sanctify my thinking.

By no means am I trying to write a monograph here. This is simply an examination of my faith as a pastor and an artist.
Here then are my reasons for disagreement.

1. The title.
In the news feeds the sculpture is being referred to as "My Sweet Lord." On the artist's website he titles it "I did it daddy." Both titles, considered as titles alone, are theologically correct. We sing the first title in our corporate hymnody and the second comes closest to the Aramaic term for father, "abba." "It is finished," Jesus cries from the cross. He accomplishes the work for which He was sent to earth. He does it. On the cross Jesus fulfills His earthly mission.
For Him to speak of His Father as "daddy," furthermore, is to refer to a kind of intimacy which our human minds cannot, and perhaps never will, comprehend. And yet that intimacy is a model for us all.

So the author's title works.

2. The material.
The artist used around 200 lbs of chocolate to construct the sculpture. It's an unusual choice of material. Not all of us can afford that much chocolate (was it milk? dark? white?). It also shocks our Christian sensibilities. For one, most of us don't have a physical crucifix hanging in our sanctuaries, and two, I can't think of any historical church that keeps a confectionary crucifix in their facilities.
So a) it's strange, and b) it pushes our notions of liturgical or devotional acceptability.

The question is this: Is it blasphemous to make a chocolate Jesus?
My answer is forthrightly no.

Let me pause here. If a person does not believe we Christians ought to be depicting God/Jesus in artistic form, then this conversation stops right here. If one does, then we continue.

The art, I contend, is not blasphemous for any strictly theological reasons. Have the Councils or Creeds forbidden it? No, they've simply enjoined us to promote what is honorable and reverence-inducing. To this I say that if we're going to allow iron, wood or stone, why not any other physical material? Why not plastic, tinsel or chocolate. They're all transient. They're all material. In fact, I would argue, the chocolate comes closest to capturing Jesus' own words in John 6:55--

"My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed."

None of us is meant to take these words "literally." Christians are not commanded to live, as the early Roman empire judged, as cannibals. We don't eat Jesus for breakfast, in the way that Don Richardson in Peace Child describes the Sawi people of New Guinea doing.

Yet while the words are not strictly literal, neither are they strictly figurative. They're somewhere mysteriously in between. We feed on him in our hearts. We consume him and are consumed by him. So for the artist to use chocolate is a way to present to our minds an image of the Johannine Jesus:

"As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of me. . . . He who eats this bread will live forever" (6:57-58).
The chocolate rattles our minds yet (hopefully) provokes hunger in our spirits.

3. Loin cloth or no loin cloth?
Cavallaro's Jesus is naked. Ought He not be? The answer is yes and no. It depends. It depends at the very least on context. But let's focus on the historical point. Jesus died without a loin cloth. Why then do we depict him with one? For propriety's sake. Modesty. Because we are trying to protect his dignity. We want to preserve a kind of sacredness about his, well, what? His physical body? His sexuality?

Perhaps for Protestants this is a moot discussion. Some of us--again--will contend that we ought never to represent God in artistic form. End of discussion. Closed case.

Fine. That discussion will not bear on my present one. If a reader cannot agree with my assumptions--biblical or philosophical--then this isn't the place to engage in yet another problematical subject matter. For other Protestants and for the Catholics and Orthodox the discussion continues.

What does it mean, then, to assert that Jesus died naked and alone but then to represent him clothed? Is that not the opposite of what God intended: to show utter weakness? Has not God "chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are might?" An artist who depicts Jesus naked does what is true, true, that is, to the Biblical record, true to history, to what Jesus actually and intentionally did.

If the problem is with public nudity then once again we pull back to a deeper question. In what ways is nudity appropriate in artistic work? Some say it has no place, others a moderate function, still others argue that nudity is like all other subject matter: it depends greatly on how you use it; not whether, but how.

3.5 Comfort vs. Orthodoxy
If it makes us uncomfortable that Jesus is depicted naked, perhaps we must allow that this is truer for North American Christians than for believers from other parts of the world where the human body is less fussed over. Other cultures, for example tribal or European, treat our physicalness with less sterile detachment (so our funeral rites) or prudish anxiety (so body odor or comfort zones).

Our not liking to look at Jesus' naked parts might relate more to our cultural conditioning than to our theological convictions. If we don't like looking at them because it makes us uncomfortable, might that not be part of God's intention, to make us really, really uncomfortable with the death of Jesus and the atonement of our sins? Ought these never to become comfortable things for us? Have we grown accustomed to the violence and abject weakness of the crucifixion?

Nowhere does the New Testament say, Thou shalt not depict Jesus artistically. Nowhere. And yet many of us visit and admire the masterpieces hanging from European museum walls--and yet many of us keep such reprints or original works in our own houses or at least tucked inside the pages of coffeetable books. Nowhere does the New Testament say, Thou shalt not depict Jesus artistically in nude form. If we're looking for a prohibition in the NT, we're not going to find it. If we refer back to the Ten Commandments, we are once again in a different department of discussion, one that lies beyond the scope of this entry.

It bears pointing out, finally, that the history of the church and the history of the church's relation to art is a history of discomforting experiences. What is discomforting to one generation often becomes orthodox for the next. The life, death, resurrection and proclamation of Jesus' divinity is an uncomfortable thing for a lot of people who eventually become ardent defenders of that same Living Truth. Artistically one could argue that every stylistic renovation--from Byzantine to Mannerist--has provoked all kinds of headaches for the present generation of Christians who have become accustomed and accultured to one artistic reality.

My point is this: we need to not confuse comfort and orthodoxy. We need to keep revisiting why we believe what we believe and this relates to art (and nakedness) as to every part of our Christian life.

4. What did the artist intend?
Artistic intent matters more than we commonly realize. What is the context for Cavallaro's work? In what way does the place matter (the Manhattan's Lab Gallery which is housed in a hotel)? How does the temporal context affect our experience (intended to coincide with the Passion Week)? What kind of audience does the artist have in mind and how does each audience member approach the work: reverentially, curiously, ironically, condescendingly? All these questions matter in the experience of a work of art.

Once we come here, to the experience of a work, we step into the foggy grounds of obscenity laws and slander laws and indecency laws and the laws of love and faith and courage and other lawful virtues. We bump into the offensive. When is it good to offend? When is it bad to offend? Perfectly orthodox, Bible-believing, history-minded, theologically savvy, dispositionally winsome Christians will find each other offending and offended. The brother sitting to your right in the pew finds you offensive, while the sister to your left is the one who offends you.
Worship wars anyone? Baptism? The charismata?

If Mel Gibson had intended to indulge in some kind of callous, fetishistic way the flogging of Christ, as many critics charged, our perception of the film would be different. Knowing that he wanted to honor Christ--to bring him glory by showing the gore--makes us willing to absorb the relentless violence. Intent matters.

C. S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces was not written for children. It was written for adults. Audience matters.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is not appropriate for Sunday morning worship. But it is for Saturday night entertainment. Context matters.

The artist considers all these factors in the creation of his work and we the audience must attend to them as best we can.

5. Is it sacrilegious? Is it, as the spokeswoman for the League contended, an "assault on Christians"? No, I can't say it is. From the work alone, no. If the artist intended to assault Christianity, that's one thing. I've yet to find that evidence; maybe it's there. But the artist's intention aren't always guaranteed to match up with an audience's reception of the work, especially if that audience lives several hundred years later or virtually hundred years later in terms of personal cultures.

Do we have a double standard in the treatment of Christian and Muslim or Jewish subject matter, as the spokewoman averred? Yes, we do. But that has to do with a whole complex of issues, which again does not fall under my purview here.

What is my point in the end?
Well certainly it's not to compose an invincible argument for the case. I've left plenty of soft spots exposed. My point is to get us to think carefully about art and our responses to art. I want us to keep questioning why we like one art piece and not another; why we champion one art piece and not another; why we react negatively to one art piece and not another; why we would ban one art piece and not another.

I want us, in short, to be fully Christian. I want us to think very carefully about the biblical data and our theological convictions and our philosophical presuppositions--and all the ways in which our personal, familial, educational, ecclesial and cultural assumptions, assumptions that are hidden in our thinking and feeling, inform our responses to art.

Final Questions
Why is a chocolate Jesus sculpture inherently "sickening" but a ceramic one not? All of God's life on earth is a condescension of ineffable, transcendent Nature. How is the fruit of a cacao tree worse material for representing the divine than the wood of that tree? Both are physical. Both are created. Both are ephemeral. Why is gold or silver thought to be more truly representative of the Second Person of the Trinity? Did He not describe Himself as bread and wine and lamb? Could not a breaded Jesus sculpture come closer to capturing both the theological and emotional punch of Jesus' words than a metalic sculpture?

These are questions. That's all. I just want us to keep asking questions, and to think and re-think what we believe art ought to be on about and how we come to those conclusions.

As for me, I'm presently in the middle of an anti-yeast diet. I'm not eating anything with wheat, yeast, suger, fruit, dairy, vinegar, alcohol or caffeine and it stinks. I'm not enjoying one lick it. But it's making me pay holy attention to things about my body and the production, distribution and consumption of food in a way that I've never had to before. It's making me more compassionate to those with food allergies.

It's making me appreciate the world God so lovingly made and the Incarnation which sanctified all these physical stuffs. I feel weak. I feel frustrated. I feel a growing appetite for different kinds of food. I feel that eating liberally whatever I want whenever I want dulls my appetite for divine foods.

So I'm glad it's Lent. I'm glad it's hard. I'm glad Cosimo Cavallaro made a chocolate Jesus, because he's making me re-see the Lamb who was sacrificed for the sins of the world, and for that I'm profoundly grateful.

5 comments:

Charles said...

On my blog, my entry was much shorter - but we got to the same place :) Thanks for the great insight and congrats too!! ...I think she might have been at chuy's with you the other night?? Bummed I didn't get to meet her.

Tim Stewart said...

Wonderfully thoughtful thoughts as per usual. :-)

In the Bible it is mentioned how people typically made idols of durable substances such as gold, silver, and stone (Acts 17; Deut. 29; Hab. 2:19) and that if a poor man was forced to choose wood for his idol (Isa. 40:20) he would do his best to pick out for himself a piece of timber that "will not rot."

These pagans are in touch with an important point about art, beauty, and love: the substance of the physical representation of the beloved has a lot to say about our attitude toward the represented one. The form may speak more explicitly (the form, for example, says that it is Jesus), but the substance has something to say too. When we use perishable and corruptible substances to represent our beloved, what does that say about the durability and steadfastness of our love?

There may well be no perfect physical substance--even stone wears away, as old outdoor statues attest--and copper and silver both tarnish. Even the marvelous frescoes of Michelangelo wear out over time and must be tended. Gold is perhaps the most perfect artistic substance we have found, as it is rare, valuable (thus requiring sacrifice), and beautiful (not tarnishing). Consider how often God instructed us to use gold to construct and decorate his holy temple (Exodus).

Here's an example closer to home. What message does the material substance of a wedding ring speak? Gold is the traditional choice--why? Platinum is another option, and I've seen folks with titanium bands. These materials speak of permanence--they are a metaphor for the eternal. Or the nature of the gemstone on such a ring? An aluminum band with a chip of common glass in it says what about the man's love for his wife? Compare that to the diamond, which represents (as we all know) "Forever."

I'm not against the use of chocolate as artistic medium. But when the chocolate in this statue begins to rot and melt, I think it will be very sad for us to behold a depiction of our Lord on the cross slowly congealing into an unrecognizable mass.

Tim Stewart said...

There's a neat video interview with Mr. Cavallaro done by CNN, for anybody who wants to hear his side of the story and didn't catch it when it aired on TV.

Also, due to a glitch, my previous comment doesn't link to my blog. Like Charles and David, I too posted some extended thoughts on this interesting topic. Happy Easter to you all!

Rosie Perera said...

A chocolate Jesus seems less sacrilegious than a chocolate Easter Bunny. The only thing that might be sacrilegious would be to ask the question: when you eat a chocolate Jesus, what part do you bite off first? A recent survey found that 86% of adults who eat chocolate bunnies start with the ears.

There have been a lot of less honorable and less artistic things done with images of Jesus, such as talking Jesus dolls.

Adam said...

Wow. Thanks for this.