April 15, 2006

New Renaissance of Religious Art

Religious art is making a come-back. As the saying goes, "What goes around, comes around." This is particularly true when it comes to Judeo-Christian history and times of apostasy. The Eastern and Western churches of the Middle Ages, for instance, were heavily into iconology, prostrating before statues and "holy" paintings of Jesus, Mary, and the "saints." Those Dark Ages ended with the Protestant Reformation.

Now the Emerging Church wants to take us back to the way the church was before the Reformation and bring back the mystical use of icons, incense, and candles into worship. EC leaders are encouraging their followers to use their imagination to recreate the mystical rituals and art as ways of experiencing God.

Liberal denominations, such as the Episcopal Church, have likewise resurrected the mystical use of the medieval labyrinth, a maze a spiritual seeker follows like mice in a laboratory. One Episcopal church, Grace Cathedral located atop Nob Hill in San Francisco, describes the tradition. "The Labyrinth is an archetype, a divine imprint, found in all religious traditions in various forms around the world. By walking a replica of the Chartres labyrinth, laid in the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France around 1220, we are rediscovering a long-forgotten mystical tradition that is insisting to be reborn."

One emerging church, Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California, pastored by Dan Kimball, author of The Emerging Church and Emerging Worship has resurrected the ritual of the Stations of the Cross, complete with religious art depicting the crucifixion of Christ. The art is being used to stir the imagination to capture a religious spirit. For Easter this year Kimball has asked his "parishioners" to make their own religious paintings to be displayed during "Lent" as the church calendar has made a come-back as well.

Chuck Smith Jr. has done likewise, asking those attending Capo Beach Calvary Chapel to bring in pictures of their own ideas of what is sacred. Some of the religious art he ended up with include a picture of a smiley face with a tear in its eye. Smith tried to find some religious meaning to such pictures on Good Friday

One couple who used to go to Chuck Jr’s church wrote me and told me how the use of icons drove them right out of their church: "For the last 6 to 8 years we attended Capo Beach Calvary…We decided to check out a study called "Immersion." …There were icons, incense, new age books on the floor with pillows prayer stations with candles pictures etc. ... The room was filled with "techno" music, the lighting was low and soon a lady came out and welcomed us and told us to be open to experiencing God in a different way. She left and soon on the screen above the stage there was a video of a jet plane flying across the sky. The same "techno" music played for about a half of an hour as we were to watch this jet fly across the sky or visit the different stations (of the cross) and "experience" God… they didn't discuss much of the Bible at all. It was a dissertation by Chuck followed by a discussion with him about philosophy and how it ties into postmodern culture…It was more like a liberal college classroom than a church service."

Testing the Fruit

The idolatry of religious art has long ago been shown to be unbiblical. The various depictions of Jesus are particularly deceptive because they put an image of the Lord in our mind that is not accurate. The Bible says, "Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer" (2 Cor. 5:16). That tells me that the way He looked when He walked the streets of Jerusalem is not how we’re supposed to think of Him. In fact, an accurate description of how He looks was told by John on the Isle of Patmos. "His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes like a flame of fire; His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace, and His voice as the sound of many waters; He had in His right hand seven stars, out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength. And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead" (Rev. 1:14-17). But iconographers over the centuries and even today depict Jesus as an effeminate looking weakling with a halo. However, the use of the "halo" is in no way Christian. Here’s how one historian describes the traditional origins of the halo in religious art:

"In Christian iconology…the persons of Mary and of the saints, were surrounded by a luminous cloud; or it may be the head only is surrounded by a halo… and the pictorial representations themselves were taken by the early Christians directly from the usage of the 'Pagans.'…It was customary among the Greeks and Romans at times in their pictorial art to surround the heads of their divinities with such a shining light. The God Mercury is frequently so shown, as well as other divinities. ..These are now known to have been a common form of ancient Asiatic art, both in China and in Hindusthan… They were thus esoteric representations of the sublime event which took place in the celebration of the Mysteries."

The recent outrage of Muslims over cartoonists depicting their "prophet" Mohammed has resulted in a media moratorium on doing so. But Jesus is still fair game since "Christian" artists have been making images of him for centuries. The brouhaha over Comedy Central blacking out the image of Mohammed on a recent episode of South Park made a point in a very sick way. Comedy Central blacked out the image of Mohammed but in the same episode allowed an image of Jesus alongside George Bush defecating all over the screen to be shown. I’m not advocating violence in response, but Christians have contributed to the problem by setting a precedence by making images of Him.

Those who really want to honor Jesus Christ have other ways of doing so. We need to lift up the real Jesus, not some figment of our imagination that can only conjure up "another Jesus." We must boldly proclaim Him to the world without being ashamed to say that He is the only way to Heaven at a time when many "Christians" like Joel Osteen or Robert Schuller, for public relations purposes, refrain from saying so. And we can honor Him in song. I leave you with one of my favorites:


Jesus, name above all names

Beautiful Savior, glorious Lord.

Emmanuel, God is with us.

Blessed Redeemer, Living word.


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