March 22, 2010

Image as Insight: Do NOT Climb Every Mountain

Baya Clare, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet continues the conversation about Margaret Miles’ program for engagement with sacred images.

Two weeks ago, I told you that I dislike the Hanssen altarpiece at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church and then, explained what about it I think irrelevant. I stand by that, but if that painting speaks to the heart of someone who looks at it regularly, then who am I to get in the way of the Holy Spirit?

Here’s a piece of so-called art that I do find problematic, even if speaks to someone’s heart: Faith Mountain by Thomas Kinkade.

Kinkade has become somewhat of a Norman Rockwell for our age. He’s known for paintings depicting pristine New England villages filled with brightly-lit, welcoming homes and steepled churches filled with happy, apple-cheeked people. You can almost hear joyous singing emanating from each doorway and smell pie and coffee wafting from fellowship halls. Almost.

Ad copy for Faith Mountain promises that “with each beautifully sculpted scene, you can almost feel Jesus' love, faith and strength.” And so we journey up and up, around and around through Jesus' life; from manger to Passion to resurrection.

We journey past a brightly-lit crèche, a brightly-lit carpentry workshop, brightly-lit 1st-century houses, a brightly-lit Temple scene, a brightly-lit Last Supper, a brightly-lit Agony in the Garden, a brightly-lit Way of the Cross. And have I mentioned Faith Mountain lights up?

So here's the problem, as I see it: Faith Mountain is cute. It’s a simplistic, idealized depiction of events that were pretty much the opposite of cute.

People suffered. They despaired. They were afraid. Dirty, screaming, painful things happened. Not cute. These were not minor nuisances in the bright serenity of an otherwise perfect existence, but horrific events.

Even when Jesus came back and hope became possible again for his friends and followers, human existence still wasn't cute. In fact, everything became a lot more complicated. And although some things became more clear, life still wasn’t all that brightly lit. Just take a closer look at the lives of saints like Paul, Polycarp or Perpetua.

Authentic faith in Jesus isn't cute or pretty. It's not an easy walk up a flowering hill to streaming, glowing glory. Faith is hard work, fraught with uncertainty, often dark. Faith neither precludes nor eliminates suffering. And I say we are not going to “almost feel Jesus' love and faith and strength” from gazing on an idealized, mawkish version of his life.

Feelings provide good information, but shouldn’t be the goal. In fact, I question whether feelings are necessarily signs of authentic faith and believe feelings cannot be the reason we follow Jesus. We follow Christ Jesus because he has called us, and because our experience of him sustains us in our lives and work, our suffering and our joy, in things that are difficult, fearsome and sometimes awe-full. Not cute.

I say don't waste your time gazing on this type of “art.” Would you agree?


Meredith Gould said...

Kinkade stuff gags me and is right up/down there with Precious Moments and even Hummel figurines. I've been known to quickly end budding relationships if those heinous things are part of the decor. Your post gives me a theological rationale for my aversion. Thank you, Baya!

joel said...

Although I Agree with you Completely...there is the other, Mel Gibson side of the Life in Art that depicts the agony of the passion (good olde Xn S&M), the philosophy that life is but a 'veil of tears' each of us must be called to grow in our evolving presence of Jesus in our lives.

Sheila said...

I agree whole-heartedly and share your aversion for 'cute'. Thank you for expressing it so well.