The Danger of Portraying a Soft Jesus

I have been reflecting on how we portray Jesus in art. I did a quick google search using the words “paintings Jesus.” The results were about what I expected, but it still astonished me. It seems we are very comfortable with Jesus as the gentle teacher, compassionate healer and the good shepherd. We also seem to be oddly comfortable with the suffering Jesus, the crucified Jesus and the resurrected Jesus. Of course those are all true, but what about Jesus the Lion of Judah, the courageous man with calloused hands, cleanser of the temple, judge of the nations, the one who is coming back wielding a sword and sceptre, wearing a robe dipped in blood? I even googled “lion of judah paintings” which primarily displayed cute gentle pet-able lions. I tried various terms related to the second coming and came up with a preponderance of soft gentle images. How ironic since Revelations chapter 19 juxtaposes the wedding of the Lamb and the rider of the white horse who will strike down the nations. We don’t get one with out the other.

I guess this bias should not surprise me. We all like the idea of a loving merciful Jesus. I certainly do. We are, however, less comfortable talking about Jesus the King of the armies of heaven coming in judgment. Please  understand that I am not suggesting we ditch the gentle and compassionate depictions of Jesus, but i think that we are choosing to miss something. The good news of the Gospel is only good news because there is a judgment. The wonder of the mercy and grace of Jesus finds substance because he is also the King of Kings and Lord or Lords who will judge the nations. Grace and mercy are only needed in the face of judgment and condemnation.

The fact that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus only has meaning if there is condemnation for those who are not. There is nothing politically correct about that statement. I will seem harsh, even arrogant to others. Understand that I don’t like it either, but as I accept grace of Jesus as taught in the Bible, so I must also accept the judgement it teaches. As unlikely as it might seem to some, this is also the reason the Church must act as the hands and feet of Jesus spreading His grace and mercy through the gospel. This should drive Christians to love – radical love offering radical grace in the face of judgment.

Below are some of the few paintings that depict Jesus as the courageous warrior Lord.

Rembrant, Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galiliee

File:Rembrandt Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee.jpg

 

Bernardino Mei, Christ Cleansing the Temple

File:Mei, Bernardino - Christ Cleansing the Temple - c. 1655.jpg

 

Michelangelo, The Last Judgment

File:Michelangelo, Giudizio Universale 02.jpg

Da Vinci on Form and Limitation

“Da Vinci on Form and Limitation” may not be the most compelling title, but stick with me for a moment.

In “The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci,” he wrote,

That which is no part of any body is called nothing. That which has no limitations, has no form.

To be clear, Da Vinci is talking about painting. His somewhat pedantic consideration of points, lines, and forms in painting is part of a discussion of the eye, how we see, and how that must translate to the painting. I wonder, however, if we might apply the concept far beyond the two dimensional world of the canvas and apply it to the vastness of creation it self.

In the opening verses of the book of Genesis in it reads,

1  In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:1-2, ESV).

“Without form and void.” Those are interesting words for sure and all the more in light of what Da Vinci wrote. albeit with a different motive in mind.

Let me just get to the point. Creation as we know it exists only in its limitations. A tree is only a tree because it is constrained by the limitations of what a tree is. A particular species of tree is of that species because it is limited. If a Pine tree presumed to grow leaves like those of an Oak tree, it would no longer be a Pine tree. In the same way a human is a human because they are similarly limited. If we grew antlers and wings we would be strange creatures indeed. These things are obvious enough.

However, if we back up to the prolegma of creation, the time of formlessness and void, daring to apply Da Vinci’s insight, we see nothing. It is nothing because it is not yet limited (arguably there are already some limitations in Genesis 1:1). Being limitless it has immeasurable potential to be something, but in boundless chaos, or so it must appear to us, we have nothing more than the potential of something. It is only by constraining and limiting that potential that we have something. God created the potential for something and then limited it that we might have something.

Now do not presume that I would mean this of God, for God is uncreated thus not subject to the necessity of limited creation. Gog is limitless, without form as a human has form. That is, unless God so chooses to limit Himself as He did in Jesus Christ.

  5 …Jesus,  6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,  7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8, ESV).

The form of God but not equal to God. In the form of a servant, in human form. This is the remarkable unlimited God who limited Him self that we might see Him, know Him and be reconciled to Him.

We who exist only in our limitedness can not become equal to God since as created beings we must become nothing if all limitations are cast off. The great lie in the garden that we could be like God is absurd as it is foolish. To presume to leap over that divide is to become nothing (understand that I am not suggesting any sort of nihilism, merely pointing out the absurdity of the presumption).

If there is a point to this whimsical philosophical rambling, it is this. Rejoice in your limitation, for with out it, you would be nothing. To have unlimited potential is to be nothing. While we might push the boundaries of our limits and have certain freedom within those boundaries to the extent that God has permitted, we can no more cease to be who and what we are than a dog who wants to be a cat. Not that any self respecting dog would want that.

PS – This dear Kraus and Dawkin, limitation is why there is something rather than nothing.

______

Leonardo Da Vinci, compiled and edited by Jean Paul Richter, The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, Vol. 1, Gutenberg

To Be A Christian

From time to time I go back to those basic questions of the Christian faith. I need to step back because it seems as humans we are constantly complicating things. With respect to being a Christian, we add on expectations and duties we deem necessary if one is to be considered a “real Christian.”

Consider this statement, “if you are right with God you will read your Bible every day.” Is that a true statement? How about, “if you are living for Christ you will be in a right relationship with everyone else around you.” Is that a true statement? I know some people who would say yes, but I say no.

The problem is that both of these imply the necessity of the action, reading your Bible or being in right relationship, in order to be “right with God” or “living for Christ.” There is an implicit priority of doing the “right thing” to be acceptable to God. As well intended as these kind of statements are, they are wrong.

The statements are wrong for two reasons. First they presume, if only by a thread, that our works justify us before God. The implicit priority is right behavior and then acceptability. “You are good when you do ________ .” Second, and closely related, they negate grace. The statements in effect suggest, modify behavior and then “be right with God.”

That is not to say that what we do does not matter. For that matter, there is even something of a priority of act. Consider Matthew 10:38,

And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

… and Matthew 16:24,

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

Exactly what it means to ‘take up your cross’ is no trivial question. The question of how do we ‘follow Jesus’ is also no trivial question. A life time is too short to fully grasp either one, yet as Paul wrote in Philippians 2:12-13,

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. 

That God works in us is nothing other than grace, grace that makes it possible to take up our cross and follow Christ. What that means is something we work out daily in our lives. That is the Christian life.

One of the ways we figure this out daily is by spending time reading the Bible and meditating upon it. Reading the Bible, a relatively modern benefit of the printing press and literacy, is an important way of growing in knowledge and being shaped by God, but we are not “right with God” because we spend time in the Bible. We are right with God because God made it possible through Jesus Christ to be right with God the Father.

Likewise, doing our best to live in right relationship with other people is not living for Christ. On the contrary, it is because we are in Christ, with our warts, thorns and relational thistles, that we have any hope of living at peace with one another. Yes, as we become more Christ like, we will become easier to love. Perhaps more importantly, we will find it easier to love those who are the hardest to love.

When Jesus took up His cross, He demonstrated His love for those who were hard to love. Jesus did not need to do what He did, but His love for sinners was worth more than death on a cross.

When we take up our cross and follow Him, at least in part, it means that we love others, warts, thorns, thistles and all. Loving like that is impossible for us apart from the grace of Jesus Christ and the formative work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

So to return to our two opening statements, let me suggest another way of wording them. “By the grace of God we can spend time daily reading the Bible.” “By the grace of God we can walk by the Holy Spirit, growing in Christ-like love for one another.”

More importantly, “By the Grace and Mercy of God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can take up our cross and follow Jesus.” That is the heart of the Christian life. That changes how we live.

The Color Harmony of Creation

I have wondered from time to time what life would have been like before Adam and Eve had knowledge of good and evil.

Genesis 3:5  For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

The idea of “good” vs. “evil” requires a dualism, the belief in two opposing principles. It seems at times that one does not have to look far to see vestiges of this assumed dualism in nature. We live in a world of opposites…or do we?

Consider the colors red and green. They are opposites on the color wheel, red being on of the three primary colors and green being a mix of the yellow and blue, the other primaries. The artist, however does not think of red and green as opposites, rather they are considered complements. Place complementary colors next to each other and they stand out. They complement each other. They are unique since the perfect complement of red will have no red in it. Interestingly, if you mix perfect complements, the vibrant colors are reduced to gray, even black.

Male and female complement each other because they are different, but one is not lesser. They are not opposites, rather complementary varieties of the same thing. Colors of humanity if you will.  We could speak of the weather in a similar way. Rain and sun complement each other, sustaining life. All of one or all of the other is devastating. Even as a tulip bulb needs the cold before it will grow in the spring, but it needs warmth to grow. Summer and winter complement each other, sustaining life through the seasons. This is the harmony of creation.

Speaking of creation, the book of Genesis tell us, “And God saw that it is good.”  Creation is good.

If creation is good, what is evil? Allow me to suggest an artistic metaphor. When that which is complementary is mixed together, it looses vibrancy. A new thing has not been created. The rich harmony has merely been reduced to a colorless mess.

The presumption of evil is the judgement that what God has created in perfect harmony is not good. Evil is to presume to judge God. Who are we to judge our creator? Who are we to presume to know what is good and what is evil…as if such a thing intrinsically exists. We can only truly know good, for that is all that God created, but it is only in creation as God intended that we can know it.

The problem, however is that we have messed with the color harmony of creation. It is only by scraping off the palette and loading on fresh paint that the vibrancy of creation can be restored. This is the reconciling work of Jesus Christ. This is redemption. This is the new creation.