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.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

I am engaged

And that explains, I think, my almost 27-day silence on the blog front.
As I relayed it to a number of friends . . . .

"I am still startled to write these words but am pleased-as-punch and thrilled-to-boot to say: I am an engaged man. Not engaged in yet another activity, not engaged in conversation, I am engaged to the very fine woman by name Phaedra J. Wendler!"

The shorter catechism goes like this:

I plan a decoy Medieval Winter Lights Masquerade two months in advance. I plan it with Phaedra but play dumb about my ulterior motives. I plan it as a placeholder. If the timing of an engagement is not right for the day, that day being March 17th, St. Patrick's, we simply go on with the masquerade and drink our fanstistical spirits como que si nada. I wait further. I keep waiting. I keep waiting as I have been for almost ten years since I was 25 and felt for the first time in my life ready to be married, hungry for that kind of deep communion.

I don't tell anybody of my honest intention save my immediately family and three boys at the last moment to keep me sane. We hang lanterns from the tall, gangly branches of pecan trees in my backyard. We solicit meat and mead and flowerless dark chocolate tortes.

Participants arrive garbed in medieval and whimsical dress with one fellow wandering in as a nine-foot tall, green leafy fearful Ent who also looks like a knight who says "Nee!" (the galant Tim Jones).

Renaissance music plays. Welcomes are floridly given. The stage is set for ad hoc re-enactments of morality tales. And I drop to my proverbial knee with one question:

"Phaedra Wendler, will you marry me?"

Words like that remind me of the Old Testament.

Mostly I think of my own words as ones and zeros, a stream of un-mindful, information-dispensing instruments, like the plastic mini-squares on my computer keyboard: things. My words are like chattering letters--like the kind that float in front of people's mouths on that old '70s show The Electric Company. They're seldom a force. A force is something like solar radiation or electricity that if you touch too much of it will kill you--change you.

But not those words, the marry me words. Those words are like Abrahamic or Isaianic words, hefty. They matter and hit and force themselves upon you, in you. They change you into something different. Elijah says, You're going to have leprosy and the dude has leprosy. Isaac says, The blessing is yours, and the blessing is Jacob's instead of Esau's--forever and irreversably so. No "I didn't mean it"--"I was just kidding"--"It was just words." Nope. The prophet speaks these words and the words turn you into a different reality. An X-man. An X-singleman.

Phaedra is startled by my words.

My mother has asked me earlier in the week, "Son, are you sure she'll say yes? That's a lot of people watching. Are you sure you want to do it that way?" I tell her, "Mom, I'm pretty sure she'll say yes. Pretty sure. I'm not God (or that Dawkins fellow) so I can't say that with absolute certainty. My gut tells me she'll consent. I hope she does."

In my mind I think of Plan B. If she says no we go on with the party, we try to go on. I know I'm fooling myself. If she's says no, it'll be massively awkward. "Ooo-kay folks. Just kidding. Uh, well, lots of drinks at the bar." I pray.

She says yes.

There is cheering. Some womenfolk in fairy outfits jump up and down like jitterbuging cheerleaders who have just witnessed their lowly college basketball team take down the juggernaut school at the NCAA Final Four. There is squealing and hooting. I am in suh-low-mo-ti-on reality. I have jumped off the cliff.

Oh, and I whisper a little thank you prayer to God. There were no white house leaks. Phaedra was deliciously surprised.

Then there are two ministers who emerge clerically robed: Reverends Bill Taylor and Cliff Warner, father and brother-in-law respectively.

Then there is a betrothal ceremony which I have cobbled together from various sources.

Then there is more hollaring.

Then there is wine and homemade, Texas-juicy ribs and saut├ęd portobello mushrooms and green tea rice krispy treats courtesy of the Tea Embassy's official emissary and live troubadour music and very silly, farcical skits performed by participants who had 20 minutes to come up with a tale involving all their costumes and one given object.

A good time was had by all and Phaedra and I are profoundly grateful for the love and care and years and years and years--and double the years--and let's go ahead and supersize the years--of prayers on our behalf.

If it takes a village to raise a child right, it takes a village to get two people married properly.

Our hearts are full.

Now we begin a journey of preparation for what Mike Mason has aptly called the burning furnace of marital love--burning and beautiful and strange. So may it be.

I leave you with a picture: Count Wilhelm Schneider the Jubilant and Countess Phizdranella Spleenwort the Joyful of a kingdom near you.

Monday, March 05, 2007

(GB) How Not To Make Art: Part II

(My dear good-natured friend Laura Jennings is an MFA student at North Texas. She's just about to finish her three year program in studio art and other arty things. Recently she sent out one of her irregular updates to friends and family. I asked if I could post it publicly and she kindly said yes. I love her missives because they're embarrassingly honest. She says things that I think but would never voice for fear of appearing stupid (i.e. "the un-smart, un-cool artist"). She's a brave gal. I tell her often that if she doesn't make it as a famous artist, she should try to become a famously unintentional humor columnist. GB = Guest Blogger.)
Dear Friends and Family-

Greetings from Denton. Some of you might recall volume I of “How to Not Make Art and More” from my first year at good ‘ol UNT. It often requires some special circumstances such as abscessed teeth and infected toes, but I imagine you have some good material of your own to work with.
So for maximum zero results, follow the instructions below and e-mail me three months later with your results.
1. It is always helpful to have a crisis before the semester even starts – for example, your car completely falling apart to the point of no recovery and throw in your Mom’s car incinerating.

2. Get your teaching schedule re-arranged four days before beginning to teach. Of course, this will only work if you switch out a TA job for a TF job, like beginning painting, where you are solely responsible for its content (I’ve always wanted to say that)—syllabus, schedule, projects, grading criteria, etc.

3. Be awakened in the middle of the night, like around 3 am, to hear your dear, precious cat screaming and screeching at the guest’s cat, which was kept two doors away from the precious. Was. In your cold stupor dash into the dark bathroom, react on pure emotion, and just surrender your bare hands and wrists to the demonic guest cat while pushing it out of the bathroom.

When sweet Jennifer Seal asks if you are OK say yes because it is dark, you are stunned and a bit PO-ed, and you are not aware that your wrist has just been reformed into several spouts for you exiting blood.

Turn on the lights, and upon lightening-quick analysis, recant your claim. Notice that you are now sweating and dizzy and that stopping the spouts would indeed be challenged by sudden vomiting. Lie down with arms in air and most spickets covered. Realize that the perpetrator is still at large. Instruct with your handy teacher voice for a search committee to form to locate the demon and the precious.

Precious is in the bathtub breathing fire and poisonous gasses you learn.

Several small Asian girls run about the house looking for demon cat, a.k.a. Kitty-O. (Now I understand the “O” part.) Be sure to not get a doctor’s appointment until the next day around 4:00 so that there has been plenty of time for the post holes/former spouts to become infected and throb to what you are sure is a rap beat.

4. Now, it’s important to throw in some truly positive detractors – so as to not catch on to the diabolical plan. For example, miraculously have two shows in Dallas…that open on the same night.

This one is brilliant, because not only are you not working but you are getting really tired. Deliver the work, on two different days, of course. This may seem a little too simple for you but—aha!—remember you have no car and you develop a shocking case of vertigo upon entering the city limits of Big D (D for disaster). One show at the MAC necessitates a panel discussion on Wednesday. Drive for 1.5 hours to get there. Say four sentences. Drive back.

5. Enter the famous Voertman’s Student Show – you know, the one open to grads and undergrads that you haven’t gotten into the past two years. Enter two paintings and a video.

A video? Yeah, c’mon, don’t let the fact that you are doing good to just play a DVD stop you, because hey, you got a brilliant idea (you do). Ask a friend to join forces with you – the electronic guru that knows all. Of course you actually get accepted into the show this year because everyone is secretly involved in the plan to keep you from making art – I mean, art specifically related to your alleged MFA show.

OK. You’re in—all three. Spend Friday night and part of a Saturday filming the students and the work that are not accepted into the famous Voertman Show. (Get it???) Sunday night meet up with a friend because she knows iMovie. No worky. Freak out just a little bit because the freakin’ video is due to the gallery Monday. HA.

Spend all of Monday extinguishing your immune system while locating some helpful sole that will help you for providential reasons alone. Turn in the DVD that by the way has practically no sound from the interviewees, but has your voice booming like an air horn…throughout the gallery…ALL DAY long.

6. Join e-harmony for a hobby.

7. Start 10 two hour sessions of Rolfing so as to walk like a homo sapien.
That should do for now.
Other than that I am fine. I’ll probably be in rehab or 2 or 3 twelve-step programs after this experience, but at least I know what to say when people ask me what my plans are after graduation.


Save the date of SATURDAY APRIL 28

to make a joyful trip to the ever so near Fort Worth Community Arts Center for my MFA Show 7-9 pm, secretly entitled, “Laura Lived to Tell.”

Make it a fun filled weekend for the whole family. The Center is conveniently located in the Arts district where the Kimball and Modern are located – venues every self-respecting Texan should frequently visit, especially at the end of April.Please overwhelm me with an RSVP so I can plan some fantastic food and beverages for











(For other cool LJ work, click on hyperlink of her name in my first sentence.)