Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Image and Incarnation (an orthodox rebel's continued defense of art)

A stir has been raised about this seemingly innocuous cartoon that is meant to contrast the difference between really "following" Jesus and our society's weak understanding of "following". 

What has caused an uproar is not the message of the cartoon but rather the cartoon itself. Christians who read the 2nd commandment as forbidding all representations of Jesus/God are calling foul over the cartoon's apparent graveness. The blokes at Pyromaniacs (being sensible fellows) have decided to weigh in, giving a very common sense response to the whole mess. Unfortunately, they only succeeded in bringing the firestorm to their doorstep. I offered my own two-cents in the ensuing meta-tussle. Whether it is engaged with or not is outside my control. I have decided, however, to copy it here since it sums up (in admittedly negative form) my own thoughts on the nature of art and communication in regards to God's revelation to humanity.

Anyone who says that all representational art depicting Jesus/God is blasphemy are in fact committing blasphemy by espousing logic that is fundamentally anti-revelatory and (consequently) anti-Incarnational.

The primary modes of God's revelation to man (both general and special) are fundamentally imageic:

(1) His word is imageic.

It is completely wrong to say that there is some sort of chasmic distinction between the "verbal" and the "visual" when it comes to Scripture (or any form of literature, for that matter).

Ask yourself something: When you read the very imageic description of Christ in Revelation, does not an image form in your very mind that matches (or attempts to match) those words? What about the imagery of OT prophecies? Or the Psalms? Or the OT historical narratives? Or the Gospel stories about Jesus? Does not your mind form images by the very reading of the words? Of course it does; that his how our minds work: they are image making machines, especially when it reads the imagery that is inherent in language. The Bible is full of imagery, imagery that produces images in our own minds.

Using your logic in regards to images, however, that would make the Bible itself an occasion to sin, since its very words serve to produce images in our very minds. (Remember: the 2nd commandment does not just say "graven images"; it also condemns any "likeness".) Is the word of God now a matter of idolatry, since its very nature as literature leads us to create images in our own minds? According to your logic, it is.

(2) Creation is imageic.

How does your logic about the 2nd commandment square with Romans 1:19-20, which basically says that all of creation is one giant representation of God, "even His eternal power and Godhead"? Is all of creation (from every bird in a tree to every sunset in the sky) now an idol and an occasion to sin? According to your logic, it is.

(3) The Word is imageic.

Jesus is imageic in two ways: First, as a teacher of parables. Parables are basically stories, which involves using imagery, which involves creating images in the minds of the listeners. Was Jesus an idolater, then, giving his listeners an occasion to sin, when he taught his lessons about the Kingdom of God? According to your logic, he was.

Second, in being the "Word made flesh," Jesus is "the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15). The Incarnation itself demonstrates (amongst other things) that God Himself is not adverse to physical representation in that He became His own physical representation in Jesus. According to your logic, however, Jesus (in being an "image of the invisible God") is himself an idol and abomination to God.

That is why your logic is blasphemous: it denies revelation on all counts including Jesus himself.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2010

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Minor Moment Against Spurgeon (an orthodox rebel's defense of art)

The following is a comment I made in response to this blog post at Pyromaniacs. I love reading the Pyros because of there staunch orthodoxy against all the lunacies of both secular and Christian post-modernism. However, on this rare occasion, I find reason to disagree with them; or more specifically, to disagree with one of their heroes: Charles Spurgeon. Every weekend, the Pyros post an excerpt from one of Mr. Spurgeon's excellent sermons. This time, however, his sermon wasn't so excellent. I suggest that you read it (it isn't long) before reading my response below.

Phil [the Pyro who posted the sermon]:

I have to say, as an artist myself (though not a catholic), I completely disagree with what Mr. Spurgeon has said here in regards to the material and the spiritual (except for that last part about God not despising "the tear that drops from a repentant eye"; that was awesome).

My disagreement is a matter of concern and not condemnation. I am concerned b/c Mr. Spurgeon's seemingly complete dismissal of the "material" sounds oddly gnostic in its implications.

I am glad that he enjoys (as we all should) "to hear the swell of organs, the harmony of sweet voices, the Gregorian chant" and to see "the choristers and priests, and the whole show of a grand ceremonial," but his thunderous dismissal of them and all "architecture," "music," and "fine arts" as "vanity" is dangerous. If the material world is so utterly useless in worshiping God, then why have church at all? Why those pulpits and pews? Why those buildings with their lofts and crosses? Why those hymnals and sermons written and spoken in language, a construction of man? Are they too not all equally "material" and thus equally "vain"? What of our bodies? Are they too not grossly "material"? In light of all this, should we not all become aesthetes in desert caves again, contemplating God in a complete spiritual way devoid of any vain and distracting physicality?

Of course, Spurgeon doesn't say that here (or anywhere for all I know), but my point is that I see no reason (given his view of the "material") why he shouldn't think that. That is my concern. His logic seems to lead us to a slippery slope.

I agree with Spurgeon that John 4:21-24 is saying that real worship is a spiritual affair (and thus the time will come when it won't matter which "mountain" that you worship in; vs. 21), but I don't see how Jesus is saying that all material forms of worship are now "vanity". I don't think the text says that. If I may speak a tad boldly about one of my betters, I think Mr. Spurgeon is making it say that for anti-Catholic reasons rather than for reasons of sound biblical exposition.

If all that Mr. Spurgeon is saying is that all our best efforts are filthy rags before God, then that is fine. But that is not all that he is saying (as far as I can tell): he is also saying that efforts in the artistic realm not only pale in comparison to God (something any sane artist would admit) but also that their very existence is a "mockery" to God as well as "vanity". That is where I disagree. As creatures made in God's image, we too are creators (though of a lesser sort); and whenever we create something that rings of truth and beauty, we are reflecting (however imperfectly) the image of God in that creation, truth, and beauty. Such a reflection brings Him glory. I wholly agree that such reflections are nothing when compared with the real thing (i.e., God Himself), but I completely disagree that God regards them as mockeries and vanities. The same God that is supposedly against the artistic flair of "popish ritual" is the same God who adorned His own house with gold and priests. The same God who does not despise the tear of the repentant eye neither despises the painting of the repentant hand.

I'm willing to be wrong about my understanding of Spurgeon's sermon, though it won't rock my world either way. Spurgeon is just a man. A great man, and a great Christian, but still a man all the same. As such, it's no crime to disagree with him, something I know that you know.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2010


Thursday, July 15, 2010

Homily 9: On the Similarity of Christianity and Nihilism (as preached by an orthodox rebel)

"O God, the nations are come into thy inheritance. They have defiled thy holy temple. They have laid Jerusalem in heaps. They have given the dead bodies of thy servants as meat to the fowls of heaven, the flesh of thy saints to the beasts of the earth. They have shed their blood like water round about Jerusalem, and there was none to bury them." Ps. 79:1-3

There is something strong and solid about the Christian Faith. It looks boldly into every fact and facet of reality, including the presence and power of evil. To put it perhaps controversially, there is something manly about the Christian take on evil, something more manly than all the other philosophies and religions of the world, manly in this way: it acknowledges the fact of evil as well as the fact of its defeat. Starting from such grounds, evil is a matter of neither surprise nor despair. The Christian can face any evil with equal parts gravity and levity, furiously engaging evil as a thing to be fought and yet joyously acknowledging that ultimate victory is in the hands of another who has already triumphed (Col. 2:13-15). In that sense, Christianity is not like the childish optimism of some that either spiritualizes evil away as a mere product of the mind or marginalizes it away as a mere bad habit to be kicked rather than an active principle that must be fought. The philosophy of "We are the world" and the religion of "The world is I" are both soft faiths; they regularly shatter against the ragged rocks of our broken world.

Neither is Christianity like the cowardly pessimism of others. We do not blow the trumpet for the triumph of evil, nor do we believe in the ultimacy of impersonal brutality that we are helpless before. We are incredulous towards nihilism. We do not believe that all is lost or meaningless, nor that it is better to be at the right hand of the Devil than in his path. It is exactly in his path that Christianity stands like a rock undaunted. Surrender is not an option; that point must be stressed. Christianity's acknowledgment of evil's reality can make us seem like just another pessimism, which is near the truth (e.g., Original Sin is highly pessimistic) but not quite. There is a difference that needs to be noted. Christianity is similar to nihilism/pessimism on this point: they both stared open-faced into the dark abyss. The difference is, when the abyss stared back, Christianity didn't blink.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2010

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Philosophy of Potatoes (the musings of an orthodox rebel)

"Beware of the man whose god is in the skies." -George Bernard Shaw

Philosophies of the world and worldly philosophies drive me insane. Whether it be the narrow-minded bigotry of scientism or the epistemological bottomless pit of post-modernism, I find them all equally vacuous and (perhaps what is worse) ugly. Of course, there is something awry about a philosophy that is aesthetically neutral (i.e., dull), but there is something incredibly insidious about any philosophy whose aesthetic principles create and encourage an outrageous and offensive ugliness to inflict upon others. Surrealism, with its "art," is a good example of this. When any philosophy makes horror and insanity the standards of aesthetic perfection, you can be sure that it is a divinity of hell.

This is not to discount the equally sinister quality inherent in a philosophy being vacuous. Any philosophy that (while perhaps logically coherent) finds no anchor points in the practical world of existential experience is worse than dead: it is a lie. A philosophy (being an ultimate view of things) is meant to be as practical as potatoes. It is not meant to be isolated abstract reasoning, but rather beliefs about the actual world that affect how you behave in and relate to that actual world. Any philosophy that exists in an isolated, abstracted bubble is deadly; it is of the worst kind of spiritualism (both eastern and western) that views the actual world as (at best) a distraction or (at worst) a cheat. If taken seriously, it creates the hell of solipsism, i.e., the hell of the isolated self. Of course, no one takes such philosophies seriously in the real world. That is the point: they are vacuous and therefore useless.

As a philosopher (which is just another way of saying, "As a human being"), I find that I cannot keep pace with the ridiculous academic gymnastics that passes for modern scholarship these days. I do believe that the lunacies of such men as Foucault and Derrida (and perhaps we could even add Nietzsche and Schopenhauer) are dying out, but it is a slow and messy death; like most empty doctrines, they die hard. Their cheerleaders (those faithful few) will continue to sing their praises while the disillusioned will look elsewhere. I am thankful that I was disillusioned with nonsense long before I every read the philosophers of nonsense, for as a Christian I am always incredulous towards madmen. There is something cowardly and lazy about any philosophy that gives in to despair or ignorance, cowardly and lazy in this way: they are completely impractical and thus of no use to living, breathing men and women of the actual world.

I do not understand how someone can live in the actual world (under the burning blue sky, walking on the tangled green grass) and buy into either extreme notion that human inquiry can figure out everything (the lunacy of scientism) or nothing (the lunacy of post-modernism). Real existence (with actual existential data) cries out in anger at such nonsense, and no philosophy summed up real existence better than the Christian philosophy when its much marginalized philosopher St. Paul said, "For we know in part and prophesy in part" (I. Cor. 13:9). Immediately with that statement we are confronted with two facts: we have knowledge, but it is incomplete. We can know but only partly. Here we avoid the pitfalls of both arrogance and despair; here we are confronted by both the joy that we can know and the humility that we are not all-knowing. We are given truth and mystery, reason and romance, security and adventure. Here, then, is a practical philosophy, probably the only practical philosophy left to men and women.

The Christian philosophy is practical on this point (and all points, if we had time to discuss them) because it speaks to the realities of real people: their desires and circumstances. If we seriously thought about it, we could only conclude that everyone wants to know something, but no one wants to know everything. We want to move forward with both confidence and excitement, with limitless open sky over our heads and limitless solid ground beneath our feet, a paradox only possible if we "know in part." Take away that truth, and mankind loses something precious. If we know everything, then there is no excitement; life and existence are a bore, a tale already told and memorized without the possibility of alteration or the freedom of the unexpected. It is a paralysis of predetermination: there is no movement because there is nowhere left to go. If, however, we know nothing, then there is no confidence; life and existence are a terror, a swirling shadow of meaningless and menacing variables that stalk in the perpetual night. It is a paralysis of chaos: there is no movement because there is no direction. Both of these philosophies of men are untenable and intolerable. They do not satisfy holistically; they leave something out, something of real existence, something whose absence brings the whole edifice crashing to the ground.

Perhaps it is the height of irony (and tragedy) that the majority of worldly philosophies are just no earthly good. They either give a man too much or too little, and in either case they take everything from him. Christianity (with its core doctrine of Incarnation) gives God to men, which is to say that it gives us everything, including the practical necessity of knowing "in part."

-Jon Vowell (c) 2010