This week I have been pondering afresh the scandal of the Cross as I read (for probably the fifth time) an article by Wm. Paul Young titled “The Killing House.” He writes about his experiences in visiting men on “death row,” scheduled for execution, most probably by lethal injection. I began to imagine Christ dying on a lethal injection table, eerily similar in shape to a cross. I began playing with such images on Photoshop, superimposing the crucified Christ onto a modern execution gurney. The result felt edgy to me. Jarring enough to show my wife, Eden. She confirmed, “Too edgy.” What was it that was getting under our skin? What exactly makes the lethal injection image more uncomfortable than crucifixion art? Consider and compare:
On the left, Jesus is clothed. there’s virtually no blood, no signs of beating and no evidence of torture.
And yet we felt the sting of the modern piece more deeply. Why?
It seems to me that what provokes a visceral response is the proximity of the lethal injection bed to our own world.
Indeed, both pictures represent state-sponsored capital punishment, but the edginess I feel may be about our discomfort with either (1) the fact that this crime against humanity is occurring right now, this month, at a prison near us. Or (2) we are uncomfortable with our own hesitancy to see the gospel’s poignancy in anything so political as the death penalty. In a world of political polarization and justification, we’d rather reduce the gospel to souls and heaven, rather than risk muddying the lines between church and state. And fair enough, given Christianity’s poor track record of political meddling.
As an alternative to this graphic image, we could instead use an empty electric chair. Notice the fascinating way substituting in an empty electric chair or noose or guillotine reduces the cringe factor:
(1) You remove the “now” element by a few decades, since “the chair” is no longer in use. Thus, no one today is guilty or complicit in the execution. It’s a thing “those people used to do.”
(2) You remove Jesus from the picture, leaving the connection to the reader’s imagination, rather than crying out directly, “This is that.”
In so doing, you remove the scandal–and that, I think, is problematic.
The Cross was a scandal, a gruesome and cruel way for the empire to terrorize an occupied majority. And yet it would become among the most intense subjects in the history of art. Everyone who claims to be an artist of renown must offer their interpretation of the crucifixion.
Some artists emphasized the realism of Christ’s agony, but that often glorified agony rather than glorifying Jesus–some such pieces can feel voyeuristic and sadistic, yet managing to sidestep the gospel itself.
Other artists sanitized the scandal when they prettied up the crucifixion, or made it more abstract, or removed Christ from the rugged wood and turned it to gold. The effect is thus a strange disconnect from the skandalon of the Gospel.
On the other hand, Eastern icons make the same move away from realism to make a theological point. They try to communicate the Cross event as much more than just the evil work of wicked men. Christ is not merely the victim of the murderous church-state conspiracy. The truth is this: the Cross is more than a crucifixion. It represents the glorification and enthronement of the Son of God and his redemption of all humanity. So the iconographers tried (with various success) to retain the image of the cross while also introducing the victory of God into their depictions of the crucified Christ. We see this same hybrid of crucifixion hatred and cruciform Love in the Gospel of John.
Well, back to my pondering. I remembered that people used to say, “If Jesus’ execution were in our era, we’d be wearing jewelry that featured modern forms of execution, such as the electric chair or the guillotine.” And why not? I was never sure if this was meant as a critique.
But in any case, that speculation has become reality!
BEHOLD, now for sale online at Etsy! Should we be disturbed? Enthusiastic?
What do the pieces below communicate? I’ll that to your ponderings, but there it is.
I am, however, left with the powerful, haunting words of Kenneth Tanner:
“The Cross tells us from now on, no one else needs to die for the world to be made right.”