Real History

People are always reinventing and re-envisioning history.  Sometimes they do so in ways that are challenging and stimulating, not attempts to deny actual history but to get us to think beyond the neat categories and definitions of history.  Other times, they seek to undermine what we believe to be true about history.  Artists participate in these processes as well, and when you throw religion into the mix, things get very heated and complicated very quickly.

So it was that in 1984 there was a great deal of controversy around a female crucifix.  Not Christ on the cross, but rather Christa, as the piece was named.  This was not one of many feminine Christs that were still definitively male, but a definitively female figure hanging on the cross.  The Episcopal bishop at the time ordered the crucifix removed from an Episcopal cathedral in New York City.  Now the figure is being re-displayed, with the defense that times have changed, and the assertion that “Surely we can have a woman on the cross.”

I wonder about it from the artistic standpoint.  I object to it from the religious standpoint.  In an era where the fundamentals of the Christian faith are being eroded or discarded, this seems like another attempt to reduce the death of Jesus of Nazareth to the equivalent of a Greek myth.  Why should it matter who is depicted on the cross if we don’t really believe there was a Jesus on the cross in the first place?  I don’t know if this is the artist’s intent or belief or not, but she should know that, like preaching, artists don’t get to control how their work impacts their audience.

As a historian, I don’t know what the value is of arbitrarily changing the gender of historical figures for artistic purposes.  And I think I would have far less problem with it if the work was being displayed in an art house rather than in a cathedral.  But to place it in a Christian worship environment, that seems deeply problematic, similar to a textbook replacing Hitler with a female rather than male identity.  The artistic impact can muddle the reality of what is supposed to be happening.  When we study history, we want to study facts.  When we worship, we want to worship the reality of the Son of God Incarnate as the man Jesus of Nazareth.

If American Christians were completely clear on the historicity of their faith, this might not be a big deal, although I would still think it inappropriate to be displayed in a church.  But given the great deal of misinformation and ignorance among American Christians, it would be nice to focus on reality and the fundamentals and save the artistic re-interpretations for another venue.


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