Tuesday, January 06, 2009

"What did Jesus get for Christmas? A grave!"--Loudon Wainwright

Not quite sure what to make of this:

A statue of the crucifixion has been taken down from its perch on a church in Sussex because it was scaring local children and deterring worshippers, a vicar admitted today.

The Rev Ewen Souter, the vicar at St John's Church in Horsham, West Sussex, ordered the removal of the 10-foot sculpture of Jesus on the cross just before Christmas, branding it "unsuitable" and "a horrifying depiction of pain and suffering".

The 10ft resin sculpture, by Edward Bainbridge Copnall, a former president of the Royal Society of British Sculptors, will be replaced by a more "uplifting" stainless steel cross – to the dismay of more traditional parishioners.

Souter, formerly a cell biologist, said: "The crucifix expressed suffering, torment, pain and anguish. It was a scary image, particularly for children. Parents didn't want to walk past it with their kids, because they found it so horrifying.

"It wasn't a suitable image for the outside of a church wanting to welcome worshippers. In fact, it was a real put-off.

"We're all about hope, encouragement and the joy of the Christian faith. We want to communicate good news, not bad news, so we need a more uplifting and inspiring symbol than execution on a cross."
Well, that last statement is just horrifically bad theology. Since the earliest legitimate letters of Paul, the crucifixion has been at the center of Christian doctrine. Kind of hard to explain Moltmann's "crucified God" without it. Even harder to explain Easter and the importance of the Resurrection without it. And in fact, as Paul said more than once, it was meant to be a difficult symbol to get around. Funny, in fact, that 2000 years later, it's still provocative.

But this seems to be an aesthetic question, as well as a theological and ecclesiological one. The latter would be the "What is church for?" question, which one anonymous parish member answers with this harrumph:

"The crucifix is the oldest and most famous symbol of the Christian church. Pulling it down and putting up something that would look more at home on the side of a flashy modern shopping centre is not the way to get more bums on seats.

"Next they'll be ripping out the pews and putting sofas in their place, or throwing out all the Bibles and replacing them with laptops. It's just not right."
Which is still pretty much a "Because we've always done it this way!" response. Fitting, since the vicar's argument seems to be: "It's ugly and old-fashioned and we have to move with the times!"

Except, as I say, the problem seems to be one of aesthetics. I've certainly seen more graphic and disturbing crucifixes than this one; ones with nails, skin tone, blood, and a crown of thorns that would make your heart stop, not to mention a gaping abdominal wound. Ones, in other words, where the figure is all too human. So maybe it's the modernity of this one, a modern sculpture that creates an immediacy the familiar traditional crucifixes now obscure. And all of this returns us to the question: what is church for? Is it for disturbing people and scaring small children? Or is it to be attractive and draw people in? Should the church practice truth in advertising? Or should it hide the scary and ugly stuff until Lent, and even then only trot it out on Good Friday for the handful who bother to come in?

No, I'm serious.

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