Sunday, January 25, 2004

One of the things I find most interesting about my classical & 4th century art class is the way it makes me think about Christian iconography and Christian inspiration. It's not exactly a stretch: Christians were doing this a thousand years before me, which is why the Byzantines so carefully decapitated all those wonderful pagan statues.

To put it simply, I don't like Christian iconography. I won't deny that we've had our share of brilliant artists; I'm not knocking the skill of the Renaissance. But the stuff that people paint in service of Christianity ... well, basically none of it speaks to me. Put it another way: I can look at a statue of Athena and I feel safe. In the shadow of her shield you feel safe, because the Steel-Eyed Goddess is on your side. I look at statues of Artemis or Apollo, the sibling patrons of children growing into adults, I think: yes. Maidens should be wild and free and innocent and pure, and young men should be grave and perilous and stand for beauty and truth. Looking at the Far-Strikers represented on the Parthenon, or in Homer, I feel that deep down in my bones. Or I consider the Iliad: Diomedes, Telemonian Ajax, Menelaus ... men like that just feel good and true. Professor Martin can say all he likes that they aren't "moral" prototypes in the way we think of "heroes" in English, but they do embody something about manhood, I think. Every one of those men, I contend, is andreios, and I am proud to be named that myself.

Now, I'm not saying I wish the Olympians ruled the universe instead of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and I'm not complaining about my God. When you come right down to it I'd much rather have the Lion of Judah on my side than Apollo Far-Striker or Steel-Eyed Athena. But that's just what I am complaining about: nobody (except C.S. Lewis) represents Jesus in art as the Lion of Judah. When we're shown paintings of Jesus, they're never of Iesous Glaukops walking through the angry mob in Galilee or clearing the Temple. Nobody paints the God of the Psalms, with his mighty bow bent on behalf of His children. Who ever saw the God of the Christians contemplating the heroes who fell in the line of duty, as Athena contemplated the Athenians who did just that?

I don't mean to suggest that those aspects of God are the most important ones, and I realize they're apt to be misinterpreted. On the other hand, I think it's important for people (both Christians and non) to realize that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has some teeth and claws to Him (to borrow Archimedes' phrase). And I think it's important to understand what that means. For one thing it's important from an evangelical standpoint, because God does have teeth and claws to Him and it's important for the world to understand that the God whom Moses called a Man of War is not incompatible with the Lamb of God - that, in fact, the one doesn't make sense without the other. For another thing, I think it's important that Christians (especially men) understand that the Jesus they are told to emulate is a "man o' men," not the cosmic Nice Guy. And they need to understand that because there is more to being a man than being a Nice Guy. You must be a nice guy, to be sure: you cannot love if that is not part of your character. If you don't have the compassion, the patience, the empathy, the meekness, the humility that make a Nice Guy, then you won't be much good to your neighbor. You won't be much good to your wife, either, or your girlfriend (this is one of those things that convinces me that, though romantic love and charitable love may differ in practicality, we are right to call them both love. They share an important essence). But you will also be a shell of a man with nothing to offer. It is no accident that when Messiah comes the lion lays down with the lamb; the Lion and the Lamb are the same man, and if Christians don't understand that - if they don't understand the Man who is love and the source of all love - then how can they expect to love themselves? How many marriages would have been saved if Christian men understood that a man "goes to find his strength; he returns to offer it. He tears down the walls of the tower that has held her with his words and with his actions. He speaks to her heart's deepest question in a thousand ways. Yes, you are lovely. Yes, there is one who will fight for you."

If Crusade has given me nothing else, it has given me this understanding by introducing me to John Eldredge's Wild At Heart (from which the above is quoted). I think it would do Christendom some good though if our art were to remind us that the itinerant rabbi whom we're told to emulate has more than a little of the knight in shining armor in him. It is truly said that I find rest in the shadow of His wing - but I also find rest in the shadow of His shield.

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