Thursday, May 06, 2004

Is Mel's movie impious?-1

"The making and using of the image of Christ—as born, living, preaching, walking, dying (a crucifix), rising, and ascending—is not unlawful in itself…As Christ was a man like one of us, so he may be pictured as a man.

It is a great part of a believer's work to have Christ's image very much upon his imagination, and so upon his mind—as if he saw him in the man-ger, in his temptations, in his preaching, in his praying, watching, fasting, weeping, doing good, as crowned with thorns, as crucified, &c.; that a crucified Savior being still (as it were) before our eyes, we may remember the price of our redemption, and the example which we have to imitate; and that we are not to live like a Dives or a Caesar, but like the servants of a crucified Christ. A crucifix well befitteth the imagination and mind of a believer," The Practical Works of Richard Baxter (Soli Deo Gloria, 1990), 1:698a.

I. What's all the fuss about?

Most folks who have taken an interest in Mel Gibson's The Passion are aware of the controversy swirling around this film. Secular Jews and lib-eral theologians have attacked it as antisemitic. To a large extent, the film has served as a stalking horse to shoot the Gospels full of arrows.

What many Christians may be unaware of is a tangential controversy within some Reformed circles regarding The Passion. The contention among some is that The Passion runs counter to Calvinism.

Since these objections emanate from within the Reformed community, the impression is easily left that there is one received viewpoint on this general subject and its concrete application to the case at hand. Without alleging that the critics are clearly mistaken, the authors of this essay merely wish to present an opposing and alternative viewpoint.

II. General Objections

One class of objections takes the form of intrinsic theological objections. If applicable at all, they are applicable, not only to The Passion, but to any theographic or Christographic art.

1. The Second Commandment

The film is said to violate the second commandment: "You shall not make for yourself a carved image" (Exod 20:4, ESV). If it is wrong to have images of Christ, as the second commandment appears to entail, then it is wrong to have cinematic depictions of Christ. Hence, the making and viewing of the film violates the second commandment. What is at issue here is not some purported "use" of the film, but the very making and viewing of the film. Hence, we have here an "intrinsic" objection to the film.

But invoking the second commandment raises three central questions: (i) What precisely is prohibited by the second commandment? (ii) How did this commandment apply under the old covenant? (iii) How does the commandment apply under the new?

In the first place, while the second commandment prohibits the making of graven images, God in fact commanded his people to make images with religious significance on several occasions, as is illustrated by God’s command to make the arch of the covenant (Exodus 25:10-17), cherubim of gold (Exodus 25:18-22; 26:1,31), and a brazen serpent (Numbers 21:8). If we suppose that what God commands in these other contexts is consistent with the commandments given to Moses in Exodus 20 and restated in Deuteronomy 5, then the prohibition against graven images cannot be taken in an absolute manner. There must be exceptions.

Second, there is the issue of the relationship between the first and sec-ond commandment, and indeed the relationship between the elements of the second commandment itself, both matters that bear on the interpretation of the second commandment. The question is this: does the second commandment prohibit the mere making of images? Or does it prohibit something more specific: the making of images "as objects of worship"? In the latter case, the second commandment is a further specification, or special case, of the commandment against false gods established in the first commandment.

Since false gods take the form of deified natural objects (e.g., sun, moon, stars) and dei-fied products of man’s own creation or invention, the suggested interpretation does not reduce the second commandment to the first commandment, nor does it render the sec-ond commandment superfluous

The latter interpretation is, of course, the natural one among the Christian denominations that combine the first and second commandments. Lutherans and Catholics combine the first and second com-mandment, whereas Eastern Orthodox and most Protestants separate them. While combining the first and second commandment leads naturally to viewing the prohibition against making images to be more precisely a prohibition against the making images to be worshipped, separating them isn’t sufficient to generate a prohibition against the mere production of images with religious significance. The inclusion of Eastern Orthodox Christians among those who separate the commandments is a case in point. The rationale for this is borne out above in text.

But separating the commandments, as Reformed believers typically do, doesn’t sufficiently eliminate the latter interpretation. Even if the first and second commandments are taken as distinct, it is important not to isolate them from each other in an arbitrary manner. God didn’t give Moses a "numbered" set of commandments. The first table forms an interrelated set of commandments unified under the motif of the true God as redeemer: "I am the Lord thy God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery" (Exod 20:2, ESV; cf. Deut 5:6). In what most Protestants regard as the first commandment, God prohibits worshipping false gods: "you shall have no other gods before me" (Exod 20:3, ESV; Deut 5:7). It might be argued, with some show of plausibility, that the first commandment is programmatic for the first table itself and thus should guide the interpretation of the subsequent commandments. In that case, the second commandment prohibits the "worship" of false gods produced by man’s artistic devices and thus the making of graven images where they are intended as objects of worship.

Moreover, the second commandment itself includes a prohibition against both the making of graven images "and" the worshipping of such images (Exod 20:5, Deut 5:9). Hence the same question that arises regarding the relationship between the first and second commandment arises within the second commandment itself, regardless of how one chooses to group the commandments. How are these elements of the second commandment related? If the two elements of the second commandment are logically connected, one sensible connection would be to view the first element as subordinated to or based on the second. In that case, the second element governs the interpretation of the first. The making of graven images is prohibited in the context of their functioning as an object of worship. What is really at issue is idolatry.

(Incidentally, Calvin (in his commentary on the relevant passages) notes that there are two prohibitions involved in the 2nd commandment, a prohibition against the making of images and a prohibition against worshipping them. How-ever, despite the fact that Calvin says he sees the "connection" between the two elements of the commandment, he doesn't do justice to it. The suggestion above (in the text) is obscured by Calvin since he begins with Exod 20:4 and Deut 5:8 (the prohibition against image-making), thereby omitting the preceding verse in each case, to wit: "thou shalt have no other gods before me."

In the Institutes (1:11:12), Calvin says that "we believe it wrong that God should be represented by a visible appearance, because he himself has forbidden it." But Calvin goes on to say that "only those things are to be sculptured or painted which the eyes are capable of seeing." But the eyes were capable of seeing Christ Incarnate [e.g., 1 Jn 1:1f].)

Now we don’t propose this interpretation as the "correct" one, for the point here is not to argue that the second commandment only prohibits the production of images to be worshipped. Instead, we take it that the above considerations do at least substantially weaken the case for sup-posing that the commandment was intended as unqualified prohibition against the mere making or possession of images with religious signifi-cance.

But let us suppose, along with Calvin and plenty of other Reformed theo-logians that the second commandment does in fact prohibit the "mere production" of "any" physical representation of God. The crucial question now becomes whether we can simply infer from this that any pictorial depiction "of Christ" is prohibited?

And here a preliminary point of theological method is in order. If we just stick with exact wording of the 2nd commandment, it doesn't merely forbid images of God. It forbids any images of anything whatsoever. Taken at face value, it forbids a family photo album, an x-ray, &c.

For the actual phrasing of the prohibition is emphatically unexceptional: You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or "any" likeness of "anything" that is "in heaven above," or that is "in the earth beneath," or that is "in the water under the earth" (Exod 20:4, ESV).

That just about covers it, does it not? Doesn't leave anything out. The technical term for this is a merism, in which opposites denote the totality.

Yet the critics who are so keen to invoke the second commandment against The Passion are not, in fact, committed to anything like such a strong thesis is that. To the contrary, they modify the full verbatim force of the second commandment by reference to Deut 4 and the question of original intent.

And that's a valid move. But if you cross that bridge you pay a toll. For now you've shifted the ground of your objection from the actual wording and absolute formal force of the second commandment to a more narrowly gauged pragmatic objection.

And in making that move, the opponents cease to be in any position to privilege the 2nd commandment. They no longer enjoy an exclusive pur-chase on that text. They themselves have moved away from the strict literality of the text. They have switched their primary prooftext from Exod 20 to Deut 4.

So both sides—supporters and opponents of religious art—are now modulating the apparent sweep and scope of the second commandment by appeal to the stated rationale in Deut 4. Hence, the point of disagree-ment is less over the interpretation of Exodus 20, per se, than over Deut 4, or their interrelation.

So, to reiterate our question: Can we simply infer from this that any pictorial depiction "of Christ" is prohibited? Or must the answer be more nuanced?

First, in the context of the OT this aspect of the commandment is closely connected to the fact that God had not revealed himself in any physical form (Deut 4:12,15). Any attempt by the Israelites to represent God in physical form would be (a) at variance with how God had revealed himself to them, (b) blur the distinction between Yahweh and the false image-gods that abounded around them, and hence (c) inevitably lead to the worship of a false god (Deut 4:16-24). So even if the second commandment as delivered to the Israelites did prohibit the mere making of any physical representation of God, the reasons for this prohibition must be taken into consideration. And remember that both sides of the debate are taking contextual considerations into account.

Secondly, the doctrine of the incarnation has some important implications for the above points. The Incarnation entails that God took on and retains a physical, visible form in the person of Christ. While (a) "was" true, it is "now" false. Prior to the incarnation, any physical representation of God would entail something inconsistent with the revealed-identity of the true God, namely that God has no substantial physical form. But the Incarnation alters this. Moreover, since the true God is now identified with a physical form, (b) must be suitably revised, for it is (now) possible to represent or otherwise signify the true God indirectly by way of a representation "of the physical form" assumed in the Incarnation. In either case, though, we lose our reasons for supposing that (c) is true.

So while the connection between making physical representations of God and worshipping false gods was "tight" in under the old covenant, under the new covenant this connection is not as tight, and it acquires a high degree of looseness when we're discussing putative images of Christ, who is the physical, substantial manifestation of God. Indeed, it would seem that we need to make a distinction between physical representations "of God" and physical representations "of the self-revelation of God in Christ." In that case, "pictures of Christ" would technically not be representations of God. They would be representations of God "as revealed in Christ," or—more broadly—pictorial representations of the truth that God became man.

Technically, absent a theological interpretive context, pictorial representations of Christ only "depict" a human person. It is only the presence of a theological interpretive frame-work that allows such depictions to "symbolically represent" the truth of the incarnation or the life of Christ. Moreover, this also suggests why the notion that Christographic art is, or is at least intended to be, a physical or visible "depiction" of God is not plausible. Christographic art only violates the second commandment if "no physical depictions of God" entails "no physical depictions of a human person that function as a symbolic rep-resentation of Christ."

In terms of redemptive-historical theology, the fact that we're on the other side of the cross is not inconsequential to the shape of covenant theology. There are discontinuities as well as continuities to consider and integrate.

It is, of course, possible for Christographic art to service idolatry. We don’t intend to deny this possibility. This, however, is not objective to the piece of artwork, but a subjective relation on the part of the idolater. He makes the object an idol by making it an object of worship, just as much as another object can become an idol. Now there's no doubt a danger in this. Many worshippers in Catholicism and Anglo-Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Anglo-Orthodoxy are guilty of idolatry. (Indeed, Calvinists can have their own idols). But, of course, idolaters who go to see The Passion are going to bring their idolatry right along with them into the movie-theaters. It isn't going to make idolaters out of them. If we strapped Calvin into a front row seat and forced him to watch the movie against his will, would he come out of the movie-theater a raving idolater, kissing irons or lighting a candle in the Lady chapel? We rather doubt it, however. Maybe some Catholics or former Catholics will be encouraged in this direction.

So the case against the Passion based on the second commandment is seriously inadequate. Indeed, it looks like it is fundamentally mistaken by failing to consider the implications of the incarnation for both the second commandment and the range of physical signs that can function in a religiously meaningful manner.

2. The lies of art

Another objection, related to second commandment objection, is that an artist or filmmaker is guilty of making God in his own image or in some way proliferating falsehoods about Christ since the artist’s depiction is never fully true to the reality he represents, being filtered through his own imagination. Like the second commandment objection, this is intended to be an intrinsic objection against the film as a putative cinematic depiction of the life of Christ.

Now it is surely possible for Christographic art to misrepresent Christ. But that is no less possible in preaching or poetry or hymnody or systematic theology. Moreover, the objection is misleading in another way. For in the Incarnation, God makes himself in our own image (as it were). So if a painter or filmmaker tries to depict Christ, this is not the same thing the second commandment forbids, inasmuch as he is taking the Incarnation as his point of reference and point of departure. It isn't a work of raw, unbridled imagination. We already know what men look like, do we not? And we have a fair idea of what a Palestinian Jew would look like. This isn't like a SF movie with alien make-up.

Here it is also crucial to recall that Christographic art in the West and the East is situated within the context of Biblical revelation, and thus redemptive revelation is already presupposed. The power of Christographic art to reveal any truth supervenes on theological concepts that are derived from Scripture. Indeed, such art is fashioned on the basis of these theological concepts. Thus, such representations are not the product of an individual's fancy or sheer imagination. If an artistic image of Christ reveals anything, it merely re-reveals what has already been disclosed and is part of the consciousness of the believer and the life of the church. Hence, one might regard it as a reminder of redemptive revelation whose form reflects the central truth of redemptive revelation—the Incarnation.

However, some critics will nonetheless contend that any representation of Christ will misrepresent our Lord inasmuch as we don't know exactly what he looked like. But this objection confounds the distinction between a presentation and a representation. No one supposes, at least no reasonable person, that the image in question is a "portrait." This objection imposes a distinctly modern conception of what constitutes an image, based on photographic realism rather than symbolism. There's no problem with symbolically representing God.

It is also erroneous to suppose that Christographic art is proposed as (i) a source of information about Christ and (ii) isolated from their context in the life of the church and its given theological concepts. Such artwork might "remind" people of truth they already know, or be a source of aesthetic appreciation or pleasure. Closely connected, it might engender, sustain, or redirect affections of various sorts. (And we haven't even considered the reasons why someone might create a pictorial representation in the first place). And it is hard to see how these functions are necessarily improper.

(In his article on "Pictures of Christ," John Murray’s arguments against christographic art, popular in some Reformed circles, seems to rest on faulty assumptions at this juncture. Several of his arguments assume that pictorial representations of Christ are intended to convey information as a photograph conveys information. But they are, at most, only intended to convey artistic and theological insight, not hard biographical data.)

Another difficulty with this argument is the relation between the first and second objections. Are these even mutually consistent? There is a serious tension, is not a downright contradiction, between objecting to the film because it violate the second commandment, and objecting to the film because its depiction of Christ is inaccurate. For the second objection implies that if the depiction were accurate, then the film would be licit rather than illicit.

Like the objection putatively based on the second commandment, the deception objection also does not succeed.

1 comment:

  1. A compilation of most if not all our posts on the topic of graven images and the second commandment can be found here.