e-mail us

Inside NCR

Madonna away beyond Bethlehem

The Christmas story didn’t happen as it is written on this week’s NCR cover. The cover was a leap of imagination. On the other hand, the original incarnation was one of the greatest leaps ever of imagination. A shiver happened in the universe. A divine wind blew over creation. Unusual phenomena followed: an extraordinary child, shepherds hearing things, wise men with a tall tale.

It’s there in the Bible. But so little of it is there that we have been drawing, ever since, on our imaginations to flesh it out. On our better days, we hint at the magnificence of the story, the all-time interaction of the cosmic and down-to-earth. Mostly, though, we stumble on the details.

No, Jesus was not born in Shanghai or Chengdu. But neither was he the pale Caucasian kid most of us grew up with. If Christianity is our story of how the divine came calling, then it’s bound to be as diverse as we are, as parochial as we, as nationalistic -- but also it must be as cosmic. One wonder God didn’t work was a photo of the Holy Family. Maybe it’s just as well. This forces us, and gives us the freedom, to imagine and then fall for a divinity not too alien from ourselves.

Thus the history of Christmases past is a version of who we are, every culture and nation writing its own chapter, with its own illustrations. And we didn’t stop with the gospels or the Renaissance paintings; we go on writing that history, year by year and throughout the world.

It is appropriate that our look this Christmas be Chinese. Almost without intending it, we made 1998 an Asia year in NCR. We covered the Synod for Asia widely and deeply, while most Western media largely ignored it, but time will show its stark contrast with the Vatican on the meaning of church will reverberate for years to come.

We also intensified our coverage of the financial and social turmoil of Asia that is being felt around the world, and not least in the United States. The dispatches of Dennis Coday from Bangkok form an important part of the picture of a global village that we need to get to know and be solicitous about. And publisher Tom Fox has just returned from a 17-day visit to China and will soon be reporting at length about church and world in that immense, enigmatic country.

When Hung Liu, born in China 50 years ago and a child of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, paints a Madonna in America in 1992, she is painting fragments of her own history. Liu’s art is a tumultuous, sad, glad personal history writ large. One of the first works painted after her arrival in America in 1988 was “Resident Alien,” in which she wrestles with her identity, a woman steeped in such a unique culture striving to make it in the land of multiculturalism.

A major exhibition of her work, “Hung Liu: A Ten-Year Survey,” is on a six-city tour, including The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Mo. (followed by La Jolla, Calif., Jan. 24 to March 16, 1999; Brunswick, Maine, April 8 to June 6, 1999; Chapel Hill, N.C., Sept. 19 to Nov. 28, 1999). Essentially realistic paintings but embellished by streaky paint and adorned by cigar boxes and other mixed media, these are all based on photographs, suppressed for generations for political reasons by the Communist regime, which Liu rescued on a return visit to China.

Thus the “Madonna” of our cover is modeled on a snapshot of a prostitute taken early in the century. The original photo expresses the yin and yang of East and West that has become Liu’s theme. The woman is holding on her lap a Western statue, which becomes in the context of an American work called “Madonna” the universal Jesus figure. When one recalls the compassion of Jesus for the prostitutes and marginalized of his real-life sojourn, one realizes how this “Madonna” brings the Christmas story full circle.

We at NCR, who plead for peace and justice all year round, pray now for Christmas peace, which is a special, celestial kind of experience, for our readers whom it is our privilege to serve.

National Catholic Reporter, December 25, 1998