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In search of Jesus as an impatient Jew

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

After years of living with the noisy certainties of the Christian right in the United States, it is a relief to be in England where religious intolerance is considered eccentric if not mad. On the other hand, the established church here has an observant population of less than 6 percent, so Christianity struggles in a climate of widespread indifference.

The director of the National Gallery in London, Neil MacGregor, says the Church of England’s fall into desuetude is having some unexpected consequences. People unfamiliar with the language of faith lack the basic theological literacy to understand that part of Western art that is rooted in the Christian narrative.

MacGregor, a Christian himself, is doing his bit to rectify the situation. He has mounted a major exhibition, “Seeing Salvation,” the story of Jesus’ life and death portrayed artistically. I would be surprised, however, if the exhibition had any evangelical impact. The paintings are unremitting in their preoccupation with the morbid aspects of Jesus’ passion and death, his face a mask of mute suffering. The ultimate icon in the exhibition is Francisco de Zubaran’s weirdly literal rendition of Jesus as a lamb trussed up for slaughter.

Paintings of the birth of Jesus also have an unreality all their own. A magical conception and the adoration of the post-mature male infant have the whiff of myth and pagan antecedent. One canvas, though, does have a ring of authenticity, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “The Adoration of the Kings.” Here the Christ child cringes from rapacious men come to worship and appropriate.

To confirm a hunch that what is wrong with a lot of Christian art is its failure to present the vital and prophetic meaning of Jesus’ life -- the same issue that bedevils much of Christian practice -- I went to see El Greco’s “Driving the Traders from the Temple” and the painting next to it, Zubaran’s “St. Francis in Meditation.” The first is a Christian painting, though the second is not. El Greco’s inspiration comes straight from the gospels and shows Jesus in an active role, confronting a world more interested in commerce and the acquisition of wealth than justice. Jesus knows, with absolute certainty, that God is mocked by a human proclivity for pelf and indifference to the welfare of those on society’s margins. So, whip in hand, he unceremoniously evicts the day traders. What follows is a melee. Try envisaging the Rev. Pat Robertson or a cardinal from the Roman curia re-enacting this scene.

The Zubaran painting, completed some time in the 1630s, has no biblical provenance. It is the product of an ugly, Counter-Reformation Roman Catholic orthodoxy. St. Francis, usually thought of as a celebrant of life and nature, is shown kneeling, clasping a skull. His face recedes into the cowl of his habit; the background is flat and darkly somber -- there is no suggestion of life or light. This work is all memento mori and designed to spook us -- to drive the frightened observer into the arms of a fortress church that guards the gate to salvation. The informational plaque reads: “The painting may be based in The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, which advised meditation (hence the skull) ‘in darkness which helps to impress the horror of death upon the soul.’ ”

This preoccupation with death bears no relationship to the world-affirming Jewish faith that galvanized Jesus. Most Christian art simply fails to convey an image of him as a young man full of prophetic piss and vinegar, and the master of colorful invective whenever he was up against corrupt authority, particularly of the religious kind. We should recoil when this vivid exemplar of purposeful involvement with the world gets reduced to a victim, submitting to a hideous death to atone for the bastards (us) who killed him. Christians making those pious mea culpas for Jesus’ torment and crucifixion are on the wrong track. The man portrayed in El Greco’s painting would want us, rather, to take on the hard men on Wall Street -- the moneylenders of our time.

What are we to make of an institutional Christianity that has earned the indifference of so many? The way forward, surely, is the recovery of the meaning of Jesus’ life as an impatient Jewish contrarian who refused any compromise where social sin was concerned. Discipleship must link faith to politics if we are to build the kind of human commitment Jesus urged on us.

Ann Pettifer is publisher of Common Sense, the alternative newspaper at the University of Notre Dame.

National Catholic Reporter, May 12, 2000