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Buddha Heads Instead of Crosses?

Further evidence that the veneer of Christian piety is being stripped away from western culture may be found in a recent Religion News Service article reporting on the declining auction prices being paid for paintings and sculptures of the crucifixion.  Curators and dealers attribute this to a variety of factors.  Joaneath Spicer of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, for example, sees a “de-emphasis of art as part of the devotional experience within the Catholic Church,” part of a larger trend in Christian worship in the West that focuses more on PowerPoint words and upbeat music rather than visual images.  The rise of the so-called Prosperity Gospel encourages a piety less interested in themes of sin and suffering.  And in an increasingly pluralistic and secular world, images of a man crucified on a cross can make people uncomfortable. If you’re not religious, suggests an editor of the Jesuit America Magazine, buying a painting of the crucifixion would “be like getting an image of a man strapped to an electric chair.”

The cross has, of course, been under attack from within the Christian theological community for some time among feminist scholars for its alleged portrayal of patriarchal abuse and violence as well as by post-Holocaust scholars for its historical association with anti-Semitism.  But I suspect the loss of the crucifixion’s cachet in the art world has less to do with theological debates than with shifting cultural norms and aesthetic sensibilities. Clearly in the West Christianity commands less and less attention, particularly among the more highly educated who may be more likely to frequent museums and auctions.  And, in a post-9/11 world in which religious excess of all kinds is frequently in graphic view, it may be that fewer and fewer people are interested in any religious themes let alone those that appear to honor suffering and death.   Eike Schmidt of the Minneapolis Institute of Art notes that the interiors found in architectural magazines and furniture catalogues tend to have no religious iconography, “with the odd exception of mass-produced Buddha heads,” which she suspects “have very little to do with Buddhist theology and practice.” 

I’m not sure what’s gained or lost in this trend.  It’s not clear to me that purchasers of art at Sotheby’s are motivated by deep personal piety or that many museum patrons are engaging in profound devotional practices.  A changing aesthetic in the culture may not represent a dramatically changing spirituality among the faithful.  The cross has always been a scandal, even in Paul’s time; it’s not surprising that people might not want it hanging in their home gallery or looming as the center of attention in their living room.   That said, it’s more than ironic that this ancient and uncomfortable symbol of torture and execution is being expunged from a society that continues to tolerate lethal injections and remains comfortable with waterboarding.

For people of faith, however, even those who decry the cruciform symbol for its alleged role in the perversion of Christian theology, not to mention a presumed causal role in the violence that so infuses life today, the absence of the cross also removes a powerful interpretive symbol that can give meaning to the terror that lurks in the streets of Damascus or Chicago, the villages of Congo and Mali, and the prison cells of Guantanamo and China.  If God was prepared to endure the grim realities of Roman terror, surely the same God is not far from the grim realities of today’s terror.  No matter how much we might wish it were the case, this is not a comfortable world and removing crosses from view will not make it so.  I for one would rather be confronted by the mysteries of a God who suffers with us amid the agonies of our human condition than by the impassive face of gods of our own making who presume to avoid or transcend it. 

As for the Buddha heads that are apparently growing popular in the home décor of affluent homes, it is worth noting that this replacement for the cross may not free us from the violence of religious zealots.  Just look at the Buddhist monks in Myanmar who are inciting hatred and violence against Muslims.  It may be that the cross is not really the problem, but rather a compelling response to the problem. 

John H. Thomas
August 1, 2013

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