Context ex nihilo

There’s an Associated Press story today that is equal parts interesting and frustrating. The set-up for “Texas church bans child’s photograph of Passion,” is certainly intriguing:

Some find Jackson Potts II’s photograph of a nightstick-wielding policeman beating a fallen, bleeding child violent and offensive, conjuring images of police brutality and child abuse.

But to Jackson, a talented 10-year-old Houston photographer, and a cadre of art lovers, the disturbing image has religious symbolism.

Jackson shot the photograph for an exhibit depicting the Stations of the Cross, but the show’s organizers rejected it, sparking a controversy some say is overshadowing remembrance of Jesus’ final hours during the season of Lent.

Ok, I’m hooked –tell me more. One of the first things I wondered after reading the first three paragraphs here was — what exhibit is this? For that we have to jump ahead to paragraph nine:

Although Jackson has gone on more than a 100 photo shoots in recent years, mainly working as an apprentice for his father, a professional photographer, the show at Xnihilo (NY’-low) Gallery was to be his first public exhibition.

So the exhibition is at the Xnihilo gallery, got it. But where’s the church that’s mentioned in the headline? At this point, I’d guessed that Xnihilo is clearly a play on the latin phrase ex nihilo, meaning “out of nothing,” and frequently referenced in theological contexts. By this point, I had a hunch this gallery is connected to a church somehow. Knowing more about this church is pretty vital to understanding the context of this story. Ok, now skip ahead to paragraph 14 of the 27 paragraph story, which is found on the second page of the story if you’re reading it on the Washington Post link online:

The fine arts gallery also serves as the sanctuary for the 1,100-member Ecclesia Church, and “a church should be a place where people can feel safe,” Brubaker said.

That’s the only characterization of the church involved. Knowing a little bit about the theology and culture of the church involved in the story would provide some necessary illumination, don’t you think? Statements on the church’s website aren’t of much help. But surely the reporter could find some way to explain the church so the reader can get some idea of where this church is located on the landscape of American Christianity — and by extension, how their beliefs affect how they approach a controversy such as this. In fairness to the reporter, these are often not easy questions to answer. However, a little effort goes a long way.

Now the website for the gallery notes that Xnihilo is part of the “Ecclesia Arts Center” which also houses “a coffee shop, a bookstore, a concert venue, a recording studio, [and] an organic food co-op.” This doesn’t strike me as the kind of button-down church that would shy away from a a little religious controversy. Here’s how a representative of the church explained their decision to ban the photograph:

“Certainly we don’t want to be censoring art or anything like that,” said Jeremy Wells, a gallery board member, church elder and artist. “Artwork being provocative in nature can be beneficial to the church if it’s provocative in the right way.

“We felt it was provocative in the wrong way,” Wells said. “The image, being as graphic as it is, did not draw people closer to the risen Christ.”

That’s interesting but without more context about the church it doesn’t explain much. Especially in light of these details supplied late in the story:

Two of the gallery’s seven board members resigned in protest.

One of them, Jessica Martin-Weber, said she felt Jackson’s photograph was appropriate for the exhibit and parents should decide whether their children could see it. A three-dimensional piece that hung in the show last year, a mannequin “corpse” draped in a blood-soaked cloth, was just as shocking, she said.

At this point, this article raises more questions than it answers. My spidey sense tells me that this tossed of sentence might have much more relevance to the church’s decision than the article suggests:

Elders said they also wanted to be sensitive to a congregation member whose mentally impaired son was fatally shot by police around this time a year ago.

But I’m just taking a stab in the dark here. I don’t know whether it was was the reporting, writing, editing or some combination thereof, but this article could use more clarity and context before we can understand the religious dimension to this controversy.

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  • Joe

    “Certainly we don’t want to be censoring art or anything like that…”

    Heavens no. Anything but that!

    Whether it is this ten year old child or his parents, the level of pretense is simply absurd.

  • Eric

    There is some additional information at that may help answer some of the questions posed in this post.

  • Marc Brubaker

    Thank you for raising this question. I’m the curator of the gallery, and it has been equally frustrating and disappointing for me, as both curator and someone who has worked within the journalism community, to see points like this get glossed over in the reporting.

    Personally, I have not offered up a detailed account of Ecclesia’s theology because I do not believe it is my place. I work in a curatorial capacity, managing the gallery, and am not among their staff in a theological sense – I feel it would be ill of me to speak of the nuances of their church on their behalf.

    However, if you have any questions, I’d be happy to do my best to answer them or to point you to someone who could.

    For a general sense of where in the vast landscape of American Christianity one would find Ecclesia, here’s a brief summation. The church is a non-denominational church with Baptist, Methodist and Catholic roots, having formerly been a part of the Acts 29 network and often termed part of the Emergent Church movement.

    It’s certainly not your button-down, starched collar sort of church. The pastor is Mr. Chris Seay and the worship leader is his brother Robbie. It is a church with an artistic community and one focused on missional work – one of the founding forces behind Advent Conspiracy and a frequent partner of Living Water International.

    I hope that helps.

    – Marc BrubakerCurator, Xnihilo Gallery