Generic person of God (or gods) busted for selling fake art

So, if you read a news report about a politician who did something really stupid or really bad — illegal even — what is the first question that would leap into your mind?

Right. You’d want to know what kind of politician, what brand of politician, the story was talking about. Ditto for all kinds of other cultural figures, from scholars, to musicians, to business people or to any other kind of work frequented by a wide variety of people who believe a wide variety of different things.

Thus, a former GetReligionista emailed us the URL for an interesting New York Times piece, but it’s a piece with a rather strange hole in the middle of its facts. The headline:

Pastor Who Tried to Sell Fake Damien Hirst Paintings Is Sentenced to 6 Months

Nothing all that unusual there, methinks. But let’s move on to take a look at the top of the story:

A Florida pastor who was convicted of trying to sell fake Damien Hirst paintings to an undercover police officer was sentenced on Monday to six months in jail and five years of probation.

Justice Bonnie G. Wittner of State Supreme Court in Manhattan said a jail sentence was warranted because the pastor, Kevin Sutherland, had chosen to sell the works to a person he believed was a New York collector shortly after the Sotheby’s auction house said one of the paintings could not be authenticated.

Nothing usual so far, right?

But before we proceed, let’s pause and ask — for unenlightened folks who live far from New York City — a relevant question: Who is Damien Hirst and why is the term “enfant terrible” so frequently attached to his name in modern-art circles? And, oh, what is the postmodern theological statement attached to that dead Tiger Shark at the top of this post?

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Baltimore Sun looks at art and religion, but not really

From the beginning of this weblog, your GetReligionistas have urged mainstream newsrooms to do a better job of covering liberal religious believers — as RELIGIOUS believers.

Far too often, believers in liberal institutions are covered as if there is nothing to their lives and beliefs but politics.

The same thing tends to happen to African-American churches, even if — doctrinally speaking — these churches are quite conservative. Far too often, it seems that journalists simply assume that these believers are basing their lives on political and cultural motivations, period.

Well, the newspaper that lands in my front yard just served up a story that I kept thinking was going to avoid this syndrome. Why? Because this story focused on a Baltimore project that focused on cooperation linked to religion and art, as opposed to being exclusively about religion and politics.

Trust me, I know that the high arts have become just as politicized in our culture as the popular arts. In fact, because of their connections to government funding and academia, the high arts are even more politicized.

However, this Baltimore Sun story still had the potential to ask some spiritual questions linked to progressive religious institutions and an arts institution, with the added benefit of the involvement of some more traditional African-American churches. Here is the overture:

The old arched red wooden door to the Seventh Metro Church is less that two blocks from the modern glass-and-steel panel that floats in front of the Maryland Institute College of Art’s newest exhibition space. They bring to mind two different eras and seem designed to be used by two dissimilar groups of people: spiky-haired artists and church ladies wearing fancy hats.

But when a white art student in her 20s met a middle-aged African-American pastor, they discovered that both doors opened into sacred spaces where people look for answers to the same big questions.

Caitlin Tucker and Ryan Preston Palmer became acquainted through an innovative program that brings together two of the seminal institutions that have helped transform the Station North neighborhood — the Maryland Institute College of Art and a group of local churches.

“This program has been a catalyst for bringing together the whole neighborhood,” Palmer says. He admits that until recently, he had never set foot in MICA, though he himself is an artist. For her part, neither Tucker nor Bashi Rose, an artist assigned to the Seventh Metro project, had previously crossed the church threshold.

First, let me make a picky comment about Associated Press style. Why does the Sun continue its strange practice, when dealing with the black church, of ignoring AP style for the titles of ministers? In this case, we are talking about “the Rev. Ryan Preston Palmer,” on first reference. Yes, the story calls him a pastor in the previous sentence — but that does not cancel out the guidelines of AP style. I do not think I have ever seen the Sun them ignore this rule with a white clergy person.

Moving on. It’s clear, from the list of participating churches, that this project combines the work of modern artists with the culture of liberal white churches and the style and folk art of more traditional black churches. Here’s the participants list, in urban Station North: Seventh Metro Church, St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, the New Second Missionary Baptist Church, St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church and the Spiritual Empowerment Center.

Tucker states the thesis of the story:

“There’s sometimes an assumption that there’s a divide between artists and communities of faith,” Tucker says. “Not a lot of members of our class identify as religious. The students at MICA who practice a faith have said in campus surveys that they feel discriminated against. But historically, there’s a strong connection between art and religion.”

Now, that is a promising statement, one that I truly hoped would be fleshed out in this story.

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Do Nativity scenes owe more to artists than historians?

I am blessed to be a member of an absolutely wonderful congregation. It’s a healthy mix of people who work together to keep the mission of our congregation going and thriving. Our regular focus on the Divine Service inspires all of our mission work, including a parish school and community programs.

I had to say that before pointing out this one tiny … issue. See, we have this 100-year-old Nativity scene we set up each year. The older folks in the congregation have let us know that this must always happen. Somehow over the years it got mixed with both another Nativity scene and with a Noah’s Ark scene. It’s ridiculous. In with the oxen and cattle and camels are pairs of zebras and rhinos and elephants. There is some theological beauty in combining these two scenes, but it’s kind of a train wreck.

I thought of that when I read this great story by Tim Townsend in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. For all the importance that Nativity scenes have in the lives of Christians in America and throughout the world, it’s interesting how little coverage we get of them in news stories. For many, it might be difficult to write an interesting or newsy story about them.

When the duke of Urbino in Italy needed a gift for the queen of Spain, he turned to his friend, the painter Federico Barocci.

Barocci, a devout Catholic, worked during the Counter-Reformation, and in 1597 he had painted his version of one of the most recognizable images in all Christendom.

And as Christians mark Jesus’ birth today, they will do so with imagery that owes less, perhaps, to historical accuracy than to artists such as Barocci and thousands of others who preceded him for 1,000 years.

The hook is that Barocci’s Nativity is on display at the St. Louis Art Museum. But Townsend uses this as item to write an interesting story exploring the theology and artistry of the scene:

Historians and theologians say it is that sense of family intimacy, coupled with the humbling circumstances of Christ’s birth as told in the Gospel of Luke, that has resonated with Christians for centuries.

Many Christians hang a crucifix or cross — a symbol of the resurrection — in their homes, “but the other pillar of Christianity is the incarnation,” said St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson. “When the savior of the world was born, he wasn’t born in a palace, he was not born as a king. He came as a defenseless child.”

And, of course, Luke made Christ’s vulnerability even more stark by placing Mary and Joseph in a stable. When the time came for Mary to deliver the child, she “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn,” wrote the author of Luke’s Gospel.

There is a ton of history packed into the story as well as interpretations of same, making it a rare, meaty story in the midst of a lot of fluffy stories. You should read the whole thing.

The whole thing reminded me of the stir over Pope Benedict’s writing that the Gospels don’t mention any animals at the manger. Townsend mentions it toward the end of the piece, which concludes:

Eventually manger scenes became a feature in many Christian homes throughout the world. Carlson said that when he was growing up, he loved to play with the creche figures in his parents’ house.

“What got me into trouble was that I also had these little toy soldiers,” he said. Did he ever mingle the two? “Never,” he said, smiling.

Carlson has 14 creches decorating the archbishop’s residence on Lindell Boulevard at this time of year. He keeps two of them up year-round. One, a gift from a family in South Dakota made of wood and dating to the 19th century, sits on a mantle directly across from the desk in his home office. He looks at it every day.

“To me,” he said, “it’s just a simple reminder that God loved us so much that he sent his son to be with us.”

Our house currently has three manger scenes: a toy one for the children, a nice ceramic one my mother sent me this year and the one my Dad picked up when he was studying in Israel. It’s such an obvious point but it’s nice to see something so important to me and my family in the news. What’s more, it’s nice to learn more about the history of their development and their significance throughout the ages.

Nativity image via Shutterstock.


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