THE BLOG
01/14/2015 12:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Images and the Sacred

In the last several years, I've been making art using found objects.  One day I looked in my boxes of raw materials in my workshop and found a rusted toy pickup truck, a corroded CO2 canister, a broken spring, and what looks like a gasket.  I put them together, and after the fact of my creation, concluded it was a self-portrait.  Something about this assemblage reminded me of how I see myself.  I suppose you could say it's a self-deprecatory or at least whimsical representation, an irreverent image of an ordained Reverend.  Come to your own conclusions!
 
The horrific attack on the staff of the Charlie Hebdo satirical French magazine obviously cannot be justified, regardless of whatever offense its images of Mohammed might have inflicted on some Muslims.  But to understand the context of the tragedy, it helps to have some background on the history of images of the sacred in Islam and other faiths.  (A recent article in Huffington Post is useful to this end.)  In short, the Abrahamic faiths have gone back and forth over the centuries about whether or not visual images of God or the prophets are allowable, and if permitted, in what form.  Some classical Islamic art contains images of the prophet Mohammed, but with his face covered by a shroud or represented by licking flames that suggest his close brush with the fire of the Holy.  The Protestant Reformation began with a spasm of Christian iconoclasm, resulting in stark, blank sanctuaries.  In recent decades, the pendulum has swung the other way.  The interiors of white-steepled Congregational churches are often graced with colorful banners and iconography that would have been unimaginable in my tradition three hundred years ago.  Iconoclasm prevails in many theologically conservative churches.  But recently some evangelicals have added religious imagery in their sanctuaries in an effort to reconnect with the ancient roots of the faith.  
 
Art is dangerous for those who want to preserve the purity of a religious doctrine.  Some worry that making an image of God or God's prophets will lead to the idolatrous worship of the image itself.  In any case, the meaning of art resides in the eyes of each of its beholders, who may or may not gaze at it with orthodox lenses.  A few years ago I made the acquaintance of an art student at USC who was an evangelical Christian.  I asked her to show me some of her work.  She was very excited to show me a pen and ink piece she had done, depicting a woman on a cross.  I was impressed with the quality of the art, and also with its subject matter.  "This is the Christa!" I exclaimed, taking her to my computer to show her Edwina Sandys' bronze sculpture from the 1970's, a very controversial piece at the time.  It was a depiction of Christ as a woman, crucified.  My young student friend was horrified at the blasphemy of Sandys' apparent intention.  "No, no!" she said.  "My drawing isn't of Christ.  It's of a woman who suffered the same death as Jesus, because lots of people, including women, were crucified by the Romans in the first century."  I could sense her shock to discover that her art could be interpreted in a way that was orthogonal to her intent. 
 
It can be jarring, but it is this fundamental freedom of expression and interpretation that makes art so critical to religion and spirituality.  Iconography enables the healthy ongoing evolution of a religious tradition.  "The Christa", in its time, was an artistic move toward gender equality in the church, a step away from the dominance of male imagery for the divine.  It was accompanied by a period of great increase in the number of women clergy.  But it didn't just have meaning for religious people.  It spoke to and for women who suffered discrimination and abuse.  The image spoke to and for people on their own terms. 
 
My artist friend Karen Whitehill's series of collages, "Hymn to Her," mashes up old movie poster images of female Hollywood stars onto images of Jesus in the florid illustrations of children's Bible story books of the same era (see attached).  Karen's images lend themselves to all sorts of interpretation.  Some may see them as comic blasphemy.  Others like myself are inspired to stretch their imaginations and consider what the gospel stories would have been like if the central character was female.  Others might get a visceral sense that the divine is incarnated in women's bodies as much as it was in the male body of Jesus.  Yet others will find in her images a commentary on the parallels between the apotheosis -- the raising of a mortal to immortal status -- of media stars and of religious figures.  And the list of possible meanings to be found in her pictures goes on.  Her work pulls us deeper into an examination of our assumptions.  It has the potential to impel us toward progressive religious and social change.  
 
Much room must be made for creating and sharing images that go up to and even over the edge of religious propriety -- for religion's sake, and for the sake of souls that yearn to look through artistic windows into the realm of the holy.