There is a quote attributed to H.G. Wells--or maybe it was Parker Posey--which goes something like this: "If Jesus Christ had been hanged, the symbol of Christianity would be a noose." Now, assuming H.G. Wells did say this, in between writing books which would lay the foundation for generations of geeks like myself, he was making a pithy comment about religious iconography. The actual symbol of Christianity, of course, is the cross: a simple, stark image whose influence and commercial viability continue to this day. It is the physical and symbolic focus of worship; it is worn by people as a reminder of their faith; it is used in every British Hammer film with the words "Curse" or "Blood" in the title, when Peter Cushing holds it up to protect himself from Dracula, as portrayed by Christopher Lee. And yet, let's face it, the cross does not have quite the same kick as it used to.
As the story on Wikipedia goes, Mr. Christ was crucified for talking sass back in Biblical times. From what I've seen in paintings and on plates from the Franklin Mint, crucifixion consisted of nails being driven through the wrists or hands and feet of the person afixed to a cross and that cross is supposed to symbolize Mr. Christ's suffering. As symbols go, however, the cross is lackluster. Sure, Mr. Christ carried the cross to Calvary, and died on it. I get it. Powerful stuff. But frankly, who can relate to this kind of thing anymore? No one has been crucified since Arkansas banned it in the early 1960s.
If you want to accentuate the positive in Mr. Christ's suffering, if you really want to sell the story symbolically and iconically, shouldn't the actual implements of Mr. Christ's death--i.e., the nails--be regarded as the true symbol of His suffering? Or, following the line of crucifixion causation, what about the hammer that drove the nails into Mr. Christ's hands and feet? In a world of Home Depots, people relate to hammers and nails every day. Ever hit your thumb with a hammer trying to nail something? Ever hit your thumb with a cross? Simply put, a cross just doesn't convey suffering in quite the same way as nails that have been hammered through your hands and feet with nothing to support you but the nails that have been hammered through your hands and feet.
With current doubts about the core values of the Church, we need new religious iconography that kicks you in the face with Mr. Christ's suffering, for the sake of a younger, more thrill-seeking generation and those yet to come. Let's begin with H.G. Wells' hypothesis: what if Mr. Christ was hanged? Would Christians today wear little nooses around their necks? When you walk by a 3-D picture of Mr. Christ, would His neck snap back and forth like Joe Theisman's ankle during the '85 game against the Giants? Would Peter Cushing hold up a knotted rope to ward off the advances of Dracula, as portrayed by Christopher Lee?
Continuing along these lines, what if He had been killed by an incompetent firing squad? Imagine Jesus Christ being shot over and over again, the bullets lodged in His spine and in His head, His mother and Mary Magdalene at His side as He lapses into a Terry Schiavo-like paralytic seizure, His gentle visage twisted into a grotesque rictus as He is forced to endure additional rounds of gunfire until the job is done. Oh, the pain, the suffering! The most likely candidate to emerge for symbolic resonance would be the gun. People would wear a variety of decorative rifles, cannons, and Glocks around their necks as a constant reminder of how their Savior was taken out. Lively discussions would take place between gun and anti-gun lobbyists about the right to bear arms that killed the Messiah. However, the most potent symbol to emerge from Mr. Christ's death in this fashion would actually be the cigarette He is offered to smoke before the guns are fired. As such, His Final Drag on the Biblical Marlboro would become part of the doctrine of transubstantiation: i.e., the last breath of Christ, to go along with His body and blood. Images of tobacco and cigarettes would become central to Christian dogma, children would be encouraged to smoke at an even earlier age than they are now and tobacco companies would vie for the rights to sell their brands to churches across the world, their products passed out to grateful congregants waiting in the Communion line.
What if Jesus Christ was tied to a boulder and pushed off a mountain into a pile of smaller, sharper boulders? This scenario appeals to the Six Flags-Knotts Berry Farm in all of us and provides us with the obvious symbol of the boulder--that very rock of ages celebrated in song and bad metaphors, a fixture of nature which is a very important part of the world, as we are so often told by Al Gore, one of today's most popular Messiahs. People would wear stones around their necks to symbolize Mr. Christ's suffering, the heavier the better with which to understand His pain, thus strengthening their spirits and their bodies and resulting in a more physically fit generation of followers, able to worship longer, harder, and louder. Church architecture would change, too, from basilica to a round, rough, boulder-like form resembling a combination of Frank Gehry and Buckminster Fuller at their drunkest.
What if Jesus Christ entered a cage fight and was held by Roman guards who repeatedly kicked Him in the balls until He died? There is nothing more attention grabbing than someone getting kicked in the balls as most of our television shows and movies today prove, so the symbolic appeal of the Messiah's swollen testicles is immediately apparent. Furthermore, imagine the representation of those splendid testicles in paintings throughout the centuries, beginning with the Byzantine era and its flat, stylized balls which resemble concave wooden raisins, then gradually moving to the Gothic era's more naturalistic depictions of Christ's balls, balls that people can recognize for the first time as truly belonging to the Son of God. Then the Renaissance where His nads become more human and proportioned. Then to the Mannerist work of El Greco, whose tortured, florid testes resemble engorged hairy zeppelins. Then, the delicate, rosy pastel nuts of the Romantic period and later, the groundbreaking picture plane divisions of Cubism in works like Duchamp's "Jesus' Balls Bouncing Down a Staircase."
If the aforementioned examples of suffering do not seem to meet the imposing standards set by crucifixion, we only have to turn to the British. Thus, what if Jesus Christ was drawn and quartered? Picture Mr. Christ dragged on a wooden frame by a horse to the place of execution, then hanged by the neck. While still conscious, Mr. Christ's penis and testicles are cut off, His stomach ripped open, His intestines and heart removed and burned as He gets to watch. Mr. Christ's head is then cut off and the body divided into four quarters. Those sections are cooked in hot water just enough to prevent them from spoiling, then displayed in a public arena for everyone to enjoy. Besides the continuous pain and suffering on Mr. Christ's part and a grabbag of symbols like horses, nooses, boiling water, balls, cocks, this also has the potential for a kick-ass resurrection. After the drawing and quartering, Jesus Christ's head and body sections are placed in separate tombs. On the third day after the drawing and quartering, each comes to life, hopping, rolling and clumsily loping out of the tombs like large slabs of half-cooked fondue meat, scaring people silly until the four sections and the head finally come together and reconstitute into Super Jesus. Now, that's the greatest story ever told.
Or consider this final alternative for today's jaded, been there-done that congregation: what if Jesus Christ had not been killed at all? What if the crowd in front of Pontius Pilate chose to have Barabbas killed instead of Jesus Christ and the high priests and elders decided to listen to the man believed to be the Son of God? His teachings become establishment and, like all things that become universally accepted, get stripped of their meaning and impact. Or, what if the high priests and elders, realizing Christ was not a specific political threat, chose to simply ignore Him? He (regular "h") loses his dangerous appeal, roams the desert performing miracles for food until he opens a souvenir store in Damascus. Religious iconography functions best when it is attached to pain or the threat of pain, so what symbols would remain of Mr. Christ, hawking his wares to the occasional zealot or false prophet? A "Fourth Philosophy" T-shirt? A snow dome with a Pharisee caught in a sandstorm? There can only be one outcome: Mr. Christ becomes depressed, drinks, goes to a barn not unlike the one he was born in and hangs himself. So, you see--H.G. Wells did know what he was talking about after all.