Sunday, 25 November 2007

Blinded by Art?

"It is astonishing that while Greco-Roman historians have been growing in confidence, the twentieth-century study of the Gospel narratives, starting from no less promising material, has taken so gloomy a turn... that the historical Christ is unknowable and the history of his mission cannot be written. This seems very curious".
Historian Sherwin-White.

How far does art inform us about ourselves and the realities of the world in which we live?

Last night saw the UK broadcasting of part 1 of Matthew Collings 'This is Civilisation' , in which he sought to examine our rationality and religious aspirations through our creation and use of art. The Greeks were clearly favoured in this perspective because of their 'humanizing' of the divine(1), whilst Christianity was viewed as an interloper on true cultural development - a philosophy that essentially arrested and held back rational development for over a thousand years.

Collings makes valid points about the imperialization of aspects of a neo-Christian hierarchy in the Roman and Byzantine empires, but this follows a woefully inadequate and skewed definition of early Christianity itself. The highlights included:

A) Jesus probably never existed historically.
B) Paul invented much of Christianity around 25 years after Jesus' supposed death.
C) Early Christian teaching was so 'other worldly' it had no place for things like the body or art or culture in general.

There is certainly enough serious scholarship around, particularly on the New Testament itself, to well-nigh trash the first point (2). It's also pretty clear that a Christian community - even amongst Gentiles, had begun to emerge prior to Paul's conversion to Christianity, so if the key events recorded in the book of Acts are historical (and there's very little reason to refute this), then Paul essentially built upon, not away from, the cardinal tenants of the Apostolic creed. It's the third point I really want to touch upon.

The programme briskly defines Paul as some kind of mystical ascetic, calling on Hellenists to abandon the Roman world for the salvation of the soul, but this is the myth that so many modern rationalists have to adopt to salvage their beloved Greeks. The reality, of course, is that it was the Greeks themselves who deplored the physical, treated artists as little better than dung, generally viewed women in a similar fashion, and placed 'godliness' far above and beyond the reach of most humans(3). Christianity, unlike most religions, holds as a key doctrine that all of creation, including the human body, is to be redeemed and glorified, and much of Paul's teaching on a range of ethical issues derives from this.

Collings waxes lyrical about how only 'imperialized' Christianity could give us depictions of a Crucified Jesus, whilst entirely ignoring the focal thrust of the text of the New Testament itself - the Gospels give more room to the Crucifixion than any other single event, and I believe it was Paul who so passionately wrote of 'placarding' the message of 'Jesus Christ, and Him Crucified' ~ what he termed the 'folly' of the 'preaching of the cross' before his time.

The views put across in productions like this are so skewed, and it only takes anyone who has read a little to realize you could go to the very same places showed, touch upon the same works of art, and express something very different.

Propaganda is dangerous because it does not allow a more critical voice to be heard.

Tragedy grips us when we contrive darkness to be light.

1. Dr Nigel Spivey's BBC series, 'How Art Changed the World' provides a far more thorough examination of this matter in the programme, 'More Human than Human'.
Web link:

2. A study of Professor Gary Habermas' on line article, 'Why I believe the New Testament is Historically Reliable' goes a long way, from biblical and ancient secular sources, to confirming the historical reality of the person of Jesus Christ.
Web link:

3.Dr Phillip J Sampson's excellent study - 'The Human Body - A Study of Repression' in his IVP Publication, "Six Modern Myths' is a very useful introduction to this subject. The Book is Available through Amazon.

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