Crucifix Controversy Context

From the Daily Mirror, a couple of days ago:

Reverend Ewen Souter has decided the crucifix on his church is “a horrifying depiction of pain and suffering” which scares children and “puts people off”.

The 10ft sculpture has now been unceremoniously yanked from the side of St John’s and in its place, to the anger and bewilderment of some in his congregation, is an ultra-modern stainless steel cross.

One long-standing member of the church in Horsham, West Sussex, who asked not to be named, said: “The crucifix is the oldest and most famous symbol Christianity…”

That’s a bit of a simplification. Robin Margaret Jensen’s Understanding Early Christian Art (2000) notes that depictions of the Crucifixion were rare before the sixth century; a footnote explains the scholarly debate as to why this is the case (p. 204 ,emphasis added):

E. Syndicus, Early Christian Art, 103-4: “Fear of profanation of the holiest many have contributed to this result…the sublime idea of redemption could not be made into the act of execution with which fourth-century Christians were still familiar from their own experience.”… E. van der Meer, Early Christian Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 102-2 suggests that the image was either too horrible, repulsive, or undignified to depict before the late sixth century…

The Littlehampton Gazette now notes:

A DECISION to take down the sculpture of the crucifixion from a Broadbridge Heath church has sparked interest and comment worldwide.

The story, which revealed on January 2, has now been featured on numerous blogs and national news sites, although many refer to it being at Horsham rather than Broadbridge Heath.

Souter’s parish church has meanwhile issued a statement:

Press reports have been very misleading, suggesting that we are somehow dumbing down the message of the cross and undermining the symbol of the cross in an age of political correctness. The reality is, in fact, the complete opposite. It is precisely because we believe passionately in the significance of the crucifixion of Christ that we felt led to have this particular version of the crucifix removed. What will not be clear to readers or radio listeners who have not seen the crucifix in person is the fact that the artist chose to portray Christ’s facial expression as one which indicates despair and hopelessness. While this makes it an interesting piece of art, it also means that this artistic choice made by the sculptor makes this particular crucifix a misleading version of the symbol of the cross, failing to communicate the significance of the crucifixion of Christ as an event which brings eternal and undying hope to this world. Christ did not approach the crucifixion with any sense of despair or hopelessness; he did not suffer on the cross in an attitude of hopelessness; and he did not die in an attitude of hopelessness. Quite the contrary: Christ approached the cross with steadfast courage and determination; he suffered in an attitude of knowing what he was achieving through his death; and he finally faced death with certainty about the significance of his death – the steadfast hope of bringing about the redemption of humankind from the power of sin; the hope of demonstrating the full extent of God’s gracious love and forgiveness; and hope that looked forward to the promise of the Resurrection on Easter morning, when the power of death, sin and evil would be broken.

Theologians and historical Jesus scholars could doubtless argue over some of these confident and rather broad assertions (most obviously, the Gospel of Mark’s “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” suggests human despair); one critique on a Christian blog can be see here.

In 2003 an evangelical African-American pastor, John Kingara of Massachusetts, made a show of removing a plain cross from his church and placing in a dumpster, having been inspired by none other than Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

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