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Wednesday, January 8, 2003

On the crucifixion.

I must confess that I'm more susceptible to art than to philosophy. The crucifixion, about which I have no adequate theological interpretation, has always moved and troubled me. I may rarely have held a clear idea of who Jesus really was or is, but I have consistently been moved by art inspired by his death. (And there is, for me, a theological lesson in this, which I'll get to in the end.)

Bach's St. Matthew Passion is perhaps the most powerful reflection on the crucifixion I know, and while I wouldn't say that I "agree with" Bach's theology, the experience of the music puts me right in the middle of a rich encounter with the biblical texts, with Bach's own faith and genius, and — in many ways — with Jesus. The music has pushed me to try to understand theology; in many ways, the art has made me want to understand the story. For me, Bach truly is the "fifth evangelist."

There is one solo in which the soprano sings that she wants to "engrave" the crucified Jesus in her heart; the German pun is amazing in itself, but the music is so ravishing that I find myself caught up in its imaginative reality: it arouses feelings of tenderness and grief and devotion that I can't say I want to reject. Intellectually, I might not endorse the libretto, but as art it is transcendent and spiritually gripping.

The other work of art that transformed my way of thinking about the crucifixion is Chaim Potok's novel My Name Is Asher Lev, about a brilliant young Hasidic painter who scandalizes his family and community by painting a crucifixion. Among many other implications, the book taught me that the meaning of Jesus' death is not limited to theological orthodoxy or even to Christianity — nor is it even fully "redeemed," since the crucifixion also inspired Christian anti-Semitism — but it can express profound human ideas and feelings. The crucifixion is therefore more than a historical fact; it is one of the most potent of human symbols.

(Marc Chagall's paining of a crucified Jesus also moves me. The Jesus in Chagall's painting is clearly an observant Jew — and Chagall made the brilliant choice to include the manger scene at the base of the cross! Has anyone ever scene a Christian image that links these two events so directly?)

[Update 1.13.03: I may have been remembering White Crucifixion (1938), although it doesn't portray a manger scene. There is also a mother-with-child at the foot of Chagall's other famous crucifixion, Exodus (1952-66). Maybe I'm remembering another painting.]

Here's my theological gloss: The crucifixion happened. It's the event that can't be skipped over. What matters, though, is whether confronting that fact offers anything transformative and redemptive. Art and religion both give us ways to encounter what would otherwise be impossible and too horrifying to encounter; they redeem or at least transform death's meaning, though neither one can change what happened. In faith I celebrate God's creative redemption of us, of the world, of the crucifixion. I reject the idea that God intended the crucifixion, but I embrace the idea that God — and human beings — redeems the meaning of the crucifixion. I agree with John G.: the resurrection marks the real beginning. (My sermon on Doubting Thomas takes up this theme.)

At the moment, my approach to different theological perspectives is to treat each as a different work of music or art: I try to understand the value and impact of each on its own terms, as much as possible, and to find a place for critical thought and emotional contact in the encounter. Some make more "rational sense" than others, but even some of the more bizarre interpretations make aesthetic sense to me.

The medieval and recurrent folk view of the cross as a "tree of life" is one such image — bizarre in rational terms, but aesthetically powerful and full of biblical allusions. (Think of the early American carol, "Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.") I wrote a communion hymn based partly on this image.

See my followup post: But can art save?

(Originally posted to UUCF-L.)

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 8 January 2003 at 5:01 PM

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Next: More on Bach.

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