How bad theology yields bad Christian art

Tony Woodlief at Image (an important journal on Christianity & the Arts) argues for a connection between bad Christian art and bad theology. His points are usefully specific and pointed:

I’m convinced that bad art derives, like bad literary theory, from bad theology. To know God falsely is to write and paint and sculpt and cook and dance Him falsely. Perhaps it’s not poor artistic skill that yields bad Christian art, in other words, but poor Christianity.

Consider, for example, some common sins of the Christian writer:

Neat resolution: You can find it on the shelves of your local Christian bookstore: the wayward son comes to Christ, the villain is shamed, love (which deftly avoids pre-marital sex) blossoms, and the right people praise God in the end. Perhaps best of all, we learn Why This All Happened.

Many of us are familiar, likewise, with that tendency among some Christians to view life as a sitcom, with God steadily revealing how the troubles in our lives yield more good than ill.  . . .

Sometimes we suffer and often we fail, and there is no clear answer why, no cosmic math that redeems, in our broken hearts, this sadness. The worst Christian novels seem to forget Oswald Chambers’s insightful observation, which is that God promises deliverance in suffering, not deliverance from suffering. And so they lie about the world and about God and about the quiet, enduring faith of our brethren in anguish.

One-dimensional characters: In many Christian novels there are only three kinds of characters: the good, the evil, and the not-so-evil ones who are about to get themselves saved. And perhaps this saved/not saved dichotomy—more a product of American evangelicalism than Christian orthodoxy—accounts for the problem.

I think we might craft better characters if we accept that every one of us is journeying the path between heaven and hell, and losing his way, and rushing headlong one direction before abruptly changing course to dash in the other, and hearing rumors about what lies ahead, and hoping and dreading in his heart what lies each way, and grabbing hold of someone by the arm or by the hair and dragging, sometimes from love and sometimes from hate and sometimes from both.

Sentimentality: Like pornography, sentimentality corrupts the sight and the soul, because it is passion unearned. Whether it is Xerxes weeping at the morality of his unknown minions assembled at the Hellespont, or me being tempted to well up as the protagonist in Facing the Giants grips his Bible and whimpers in a glen, the rightful rejoinder is the same: you didn’t earn this emotion.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s warning against cheap grace comes to mind, a recognition that our redemption was bought with a price, as redemption always is. The writer who gives us sentimentality is akin to the painter Thomas Kinkade, who explicitly aims to paint the world without the Fall, which is not really the world at all, but a cheap, maudlin, knock-off of the world, a world without suffering and desperate faith and Christ Himself, which is not really a world worth painting, or writing about, or redeeming.

Cleanliness: I confess that the best way to deter me from watching a movie is to tell me it’s “wholesome.” This is because that word applied to art is a lie on its face, because insofar as art is stripped of the world’s sin and suffering it is not really whole at all.

This seems to be a failing—on the part of artist and consumer alike—in what my Orthodox friends call theosis, or walk, as my evangelical friends say. In short, if Christian novels and movies and blogs and speeches must be stripped of profanity and sensuality and critical questions, all for the sake of sparing us scandal, then we have to wonder what has happened that such a wide swath of Christendom has failed to graduate from milk to meat.

And if we remember that theology is the knowing of God, we have to ask in turn why so many Christians know God so weakly that they need such wholesomeness in order for their faith to be preserved.

This, finally, is what especially worries me, that bad Christian art is a problem of demand rather than supply. What if a reinvigorated Church were to embed genuine faith in the artist’s psyche and soul, such that he need no longer wear it on his sleeve, such that he bear to see and tell the world in its brokenness and beauty? Would Christian audiences embrace or despise the result?

HT:  Stewart Lundy

Life as a sitcom!  Good guys vs. bad guys, and we are the good guys!  Tear-jerking sentimentality!  Positive messages!  Of course, these are also features of pop culture entertainment.  Could it be that pop culture is influencing contemporary Christianity, which, in turn, is trying to turn out its own versions of pop culture?

The actual heritage of Christianity in the arts is in the realm of high culture; that is, the creation of serious, complex, creative-rather-than-conventional works of art.  Christianity has produced Dante, Spenser, Milton, Rembrandt, Bach, Donne; also wildly creative innovators such as Herbert, Hopkins, Eliot, and Rouault. Even the seemingly less-sophisticated  Christian author John Bunyan wrote a rich, complex masterpiece that falls into none of the above traps.  And these are just some explicitly theological writers.  Christianity has also profoundly shaped the works of authors and artists who specialized in seemingly “secular” works, such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Swift, Coleridge, and on and on, including modern authors such as Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, John Updike, and more.   There are even great Christian movies–have any of you seen the works of the Danish filmmaker Carl Dreyer?–but they too are complicated, like Christianity and like life.  I suspect that there are indeed Christian artists trying to emulate these kinds of artists, but will other Christians support them and become their patrons?

Cranach’s artistic confession of faith

We had been discussing Lucas Cranach’s seal of the winged serpent, crowned with a ring, and what it might mean.  Thanks to Tom Hering for digging up this scholarly article by Wayne Martin, professor of philosophy of the University of Essex, who offers a reading of the artist’s “Eden” in the Courtald Gallery in England.  As a reminder, art in Cranach’s day was charged with meaning, unlike the preoccupation with abstract forms of today, but  that meaning was rendered visually.  Prof. Martin points out that Cranach this time puts his signature seal not at the bottom in a corner, where it usually goes, but right on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  (You can just make it out below the snake.)  The squiggly curves of the stylized seal are echoed in the similar squiggly curves of the snake and in the curls of Eve’s hair.  Thus, the artist is identifying himself with temptation and with sin.  But those squiggles are also echoed in the vine, laden with grapes, a symbol of Christ (“I am the vine”): specifically, His sacrificial blood as given for us in Holy Communion (“This is my blood of the new testament, shed for you for the forgiveness of all of your sins”).  In the painting, the vine covers Adam and Eve’s nakedness, just as Christ’s blood covers the sinfulness of Lucas Cranach and all of us.

Prof. Martin doesn’t quite understand the Gospel of the evangelical Reformation.  He professes “shock” that a pious Christian would “identify himself with evil.”  Like many people he assumes that being a Christian means being good, rather than facing up to one’s true sinfulness and receiving Christ’s forgiveness.  He is also confused about different covenants and the pre-lapsarian state.  Still, even despite himself,  he discerns Cranach’s ubiquitous theme of Law and Gospel.

J. W. Montgomery on Cranach’s Seal

I heard back from the distinguished scholar John Warwick Montgomery on the symbolism of Lucas Cranach’s seal, the winged serpent device from his coat of arms that he used to sign his paintings and that we have adopted as the logo of the Cranach Institute and this blog.  (See the title heading above.)

I’ve now had an opportunity to research this.  I was particularly helped by the wonderful Cranach exhibit last month at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris.   The exhibit included examples of Cranach’s coat-of-arms and the exhibit description makes the following point:  “En remerciement de ses loyaux services, Luca Cranach se voit remettre dès 1508 des armoiries, un serpent ailé tenant une bague dans sa gueule qui lui servira désormais de signature.”  [In appreciation of his loyal services, Lucas Cranach received in 1508 (from Frederick the Wise) his coat-of-arms–a winged serpent holding a ring in its mouth–which served from then on as his signature]  We are also informed that in 1537, following the death of his son Hans, Lucas Cranach modified the design of his coat-of-arms, “lowering the serpent’s wings” (Cranach et son temps [Paris: Beaux Arts/TTM, 2011], p. 65).

Viewing the serpent as a dragon, one has a strong tendency to see it as alchemical symbolism.  However, contemporary dictionaries of the subject (e.g., the standard Dictionaire hermetique [Paris, 1695]) and modern authorities (Carl Gustav Jung) present the alchemical dragon or serpent very differently:  as the ouroboros which eats its own tail, or as an uncrowned dragon symbolising the element mercury).
It is therefore far more productive to view the coat-of-arms from a straightforward heraldic standpoint.  Rietstap’s Armorial Général (2d ed., 1884) includes a listing for the Cranachs, describing the coat-of-arms as consisting of a crowned serpent with bat’s wings, holding in its mouth a golden ring with a ruby.  A variant (apparently used by later generation Cranachs) consisted of a serpent surmounting a crown of thorns.
But why the particular symbolism chosen or employed by Cranach himself?  Here, we are strongly warned as a general principle in interpreting heraldic figures to avoid simplistic equivalents or easy allegory.  Symbols are often chosen for aesthetic reasons, not with any attempts at profundity or classical/theological reference.  Emile Gevaert’s marvelous L’Héraldique: son esprit, son langage et ses applications (Paris: Editions du Bulletin des Métiers d’Art [ca. 1920]) offers some assistance.  A serpent can symbolise “prudence” and at the same time “desire” (p. 362).  (Here,  I am immediately reminded of the arms of the Aldine printing house in Renaissance Florence, consisting of an anchor and a dolphin, to carry the idea of simultaneous solidity and progress.  Note also that Cranach’s serpent is given wings, making it not just an earthly beast but at the same time a dynamic, heavenly creature.)  One thinks inevitably, as well, of the biblical reference to serpents as “wise” (Matt. 10:16).
As for the addition of a crown or diadem (uncommon on a heraldic serpent), its presence generally signifies that the arms belong to a “household of eminence”–and “a crown surmounting a figure seemingly indicates a power which the bearer does not derive from himself” (Gevaert, p. 210).  In the case of the Cranach arms, the latter point could remind the observer that Cranach received the grant from his prince–or (since any legitimate coat-of-arms results from a grant and is not the personal creation of the bearer) it might represent Cranach’s Refomation belief that he is saved and receives his talents by God’s grace, not through any personal capacity or efforts on his own part.  The golden ring in the serpent’s mouth could perhaps reinforce this interpretation, since a ring, like a circle, represents eternity theologically, and gold is the colour not just of nobility and richness but also of faith and divinity (= God).  The ruby on the ring could represent “the pearl of great price,” i.e., the gospel.
Beyond this I cannot go.  It would be important to check any surviving Cranach correspondence, particularly in the years surrounding 1508 and 1537, to see if by chance Cranach himself  interprets his coat-of-arms–as Luther does in his oft-quoted letter to Lazarus Spengler  (see my Heraldic Aspects of the German Reformation (Bonn: Verlag fuer Kultur und Wissenschaft, 2003).

Color photos of the Depression

Go here for a treasure trove of rare color photos of Depression-era America: Rare Library of Congress colour photographs of the Great Depression | Mail Online.

They are of astonishing vividness.  These here folks are my people:

Let us now praise comic books

Nice article about Stan Lee of Marvel Comics, now 88, whose comic book creations such as Spider Man and now Thor, have gone from cheap pulp paper to the silver screen, making him a rich man:

Stan Lee professes no deep and analytical insight into the human soul. “I’m not a psychiatrist,” he begs off. “All I know is, the good superhero movie has got action, suspense, colorful characters, new angles — that’s what people like.”

The rangy 88-year-old — sitting poised against the leopard-print pillows on the couch in his POW! Entertainment office, several days before “Thor’s” premiere — is a natural at delivering the dramatic angle. Asked to strike a towering pose, he springs to his feet and in a blink is balancing with feline ease atop a chair.

Seventy years to the month after the nom-de-toon “Stan Lee” first appeared in a comic book, “Thor” is similarly perched atop the box office. In one sense, the origin story of Stanley Martin Lieber resembles that of the Norse superhero he co-created, only told backward. Thor is to the godhead born until, because of his impudence, he’s sentenced to a mortal existence. Lee was a mere Manhattan comics-industry mortal for decades until, because of diligence and vision, he was elevated to Marvel Comics demigod, creating — alongside fellow legends Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko — the likes of Spider-Man and Iron Man, the Hulk, X-Men and the Fantastic Four.

All those characters have already appeared in feature films, and the latest wave of Hollywood superheroes is gathering force as it rolls in this summer. “Thor’s” domestic opening last Friday will be followed in short order by “X-Men: First Class,” DC’s “Green Lantern” and Marvel’s “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Meanwhile, casting decisions for the next Superman and Batman films — as well as the Spider-Man reboot and the cinematic assembling of the Avengers — have sparked feverish online speculation and reaction.

The superhero film is still as unstoppable and resilient and globally enduring as, well, Stan Lee himself. . . .

“My theory about why people like superheroes is that when we were kids, we all loved to read fairy tales,” says Lee, beaming behind his trademark tinted glasses. “Fairy tales are all about things bigger than life: giants, witches, trolls, dinosaurs and dragons and all sorts of imaginative things. Then you get a little bit older and you stop reading fairy tales, but you don’t ever outgrow your love of them.

“Superhero movies are like fairy tales for older people,” continues Lee, whose voice envelops the listener with a raspy, lilting warmth. “All those things you imagined — if only I could fly or be the strongest — are about wish fulfillment. . . . And because of that, I don’t think they’ll ever go out of vogue.”

via In a superhero-heavy summer at the movies, Stan Lee talks about genre’s appeal – The Washington Post.

When I was a kid, I was a comic book fan.  Comic books taught me to love reading and sent my imagination soaring.  I liked D.C. comics–Superman, Batman, also Flash and the Atom–better than Marvel, whose heroes were too angst-ridden for my taste, but Dell had some good titles too:  TarzanTurok, Son of Stone.  (Somebody should make a Turok movie!  Indians and dinosaurs!)  I liked Classics Illustrated too.  They really did lead me into great literature.   In fact, I see a direct line from my comic book phase to my literary scholarship!  Comics are an interesting combination of visual art and writing.

Does anyone else have any comic book testimonials?

This blog’s new title heading

In the midst of all of the talk about Redeemed Rambling’s critique of the appearance of this blog, the consensus that this blog has a good design really, the addition of Cranach’s seal with its many variations, the minor suggestions that people put forward, and the tweaks that Stewart implemented, commenter Tom Hering–who knows a thing or two about design–was kind enough to design some other possible headings for the title of this blog.  I really liked the one with quasi-medieval lettering and the colorful version of Cranach’s seal.   I also like how it adds a touch of color–antiquated parchment color–without taking away from the clear black on white posts.  So Stewart put it up.

So what does Cranach’s seal mean?  It’s very simple, if we go by the original intention:  It means Lucas Cranach!  The device of the winged serpent bearing a ring is part of his coat of arms, as awarded by Frederick the Wise.   Knights had their coats of arms on their shields, and Kings used them on their royal seals.   The Kings of England had three lions.  The Holy Roman Emperors had a two-headed eagle.  Shakespeare’s was a shield with a diagonal spear, which presumably could be shaken.  Middle class types, such as Shakespeare and Cranach, could be granted a heraldic seal in recognition of their services or contributions, and they were typically very proud of that sign of semi-nobility and used it everywhere they could.  So Cranach signed his paintings with his device, which existed in many different forms, from the realistic to the abstract.  This one has the most artistic elements, in my opinion.

So the seal simply means Lucas Cranach and was the equivalent of his signature.  What is its derivation?  That is another question, which was discussed in last Friday’s post.  Was it a multi-language pun on his name, as one expert suggests?  Was it based on a symbol for artists, combined with one for speed, as another expert suggests, building on Cranach’s reputation as a really fast worker?  Was it an alchemical symbol?  A symbol for redemption?  I don’t know.  I’m waiting to hear from John Warwick Montgomery, who has agreed to weigh in on the matter and who has  published scholarship on how during the Reformation alchemical symbols for chemical transformations were used to symbolize spiritual transformations.

Anyway, thanks to Tom for the design.   How do you like it?