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About the Book

Table of Contents

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI

Part VII



Part VI:  The Place of Art in Worship

Chapter 2

Just How Beautiful are Thy Courts, O Lord?

     WHEN I WAS taking a course in anthropology at university, we had a professor who was virulently
opposed to everything connected with Christianity. His sarcasm indeed added spice to his lectures and consequently he tended to have quite responsive groups of students. At the end of one year, I remember they gave him a "diploma" which, with his name inscribed upon it, was presented to "the most popular iconoclast". His approach had all the appearance of being profound, but one had only to study last year's notes to realize
that it was atrociously repetitive -- jokes, anecdotes, snide remarks, and all! He spent about two or three weeks of lectures dealing with primitive superstitions and emphasizing that civilized man had left these things far behind him. He added, "No intelligent man in his right mind believes any longer, for example, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ." 

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    This was too much for me. When he had paused for a moment, I put my hand up and with some surprise he looked across the classroom and said, "Yes?" I said with considerable trepidation, though I hoped it didn't show, "Just to keep the record straight, I do." There was no laughter, and the professor looked down with a half-smile, then a minute later continued his lecture.
     After the lecture was over, a girl came up to me who was the daughter of one of Toronto's famous hockey players and said, "That was a very brave thing to do." I was a little embarrassed. I suggested that it might not have been a very wise thing to do. A moment later another fellow came up to me and shook my hand warmly and told me his name. He was a student from Leyden University and, as it turned out afterward, a very devout Roman Catholic. Thereafter we always sat together, and he became one of the most genuine friends I've ever had. When I left the university at the end of the year, he gave me a beautiful volume of photographs of his own little church in Holland -- "little" in its external dimensions, but breathtakingly beautiful in its proportions and its adornment. The roof was marked by a long series of flying buttresses on each side, and seated astride each one of these buttresses were four or five life-sized figures. I am convinced that they were real portraits, and they represented every conceivable type of character who might in any way have contributed to the building of this beautiful structure. There are photographs of scores of them, most of them looking up to heaven in adoration. Here are to be found the architect, the mason, the accountant, the bricklayer, the rich man, the poor man, the young man, the dying man, the musicians, those who prayed, the official recorder, men, women, children, and even pets! One of them is evidently a convict who somehow added his contribution. The building is alive with the spirit of all kinds of people. Inside, the adornment is continued with life-sized standing figures, and these too were undoubtedly real people.
     Despite this crowded company and despite the fact that, according to my friend, the photographer spent seven years at government expense taking these photographs, there does not appear to have been any image of Christ. In this I think the designers and planners of this house of God were guided completely aright.
     I am strongly persuaded, though I know it is only a personal opinion, that it is wrong to seek to create any image of the Person of the Lord. How can one know what He looked like? We have no description in the New Testament, and every attempt we make to create an image is invariably an image in our own likeness. It is perfectly true that He was made in the likeness of man, but of what man? Black man? White man? Yellow?

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     We have witnessed in recent years some remarkable and very sad illustrations of this principle. The black novelist James Baldwin was quoted in Time (8 July, 1968) as blaming the black man's plight in relation to freedom on this kind of supposedly worshipful portraiture. He said:

     The Christ I was presented with, though he was born in Nazareth under a hot sun, was presented to me with blue eyes and blond hair; and all the virtues to which I as a black man was expected to aspire had by definition to be white.

      There is reputedly a Christian "prayer room" somewhere in Jerusalem open to the public. On one wall is a beautiful frame, but there is no picture in it. Underneath, apparently, are the words "Whom having not seen, we love." It is possible for any man of any race and any colour to see those words and fill that frame according to his own sense of what is true of the Lord. Surely this is appropriate -- and should be sufficient. We are pampering the flesh with our pictures and being offensive to three-quarters of the people in the world by our sentimental re-creations.
     Again and again one hears of people of other cultures rejecting the message of the gospel, or at least being prejudiced against it at first, because the Lord whom we present to them is presented in the image of a white man -- more precisely, a Nordic -- often with fair hair and blue eyes. How wrong this practice is at heart.
     In recent years, nativity scenes have been painted by nationals in which the figures themselves are all native. I have several which are African (with Negro types), Polynesian (essentially Mongol types), and even a Chinese "Last Supper". And though such pictures may come as a shock to us they are fully as justified and as truthful as our own. The Lord was the Son of Man, not the Son of an Indo-European only. . . .  The "only" is critical here, for the Lord summed up in Himself all types of men, all colours, all races -- all men. Although I cannot logically explain it, I'm quite sure that in the melee of races present in Palestine during our Lord's earthly ministry, people of all colours looked upon the Lord with adoration and did not observe that He was any different from themselves. This is a mystery, of course, and such things cannot be set down in printed form successfully. So while our endless reproductions of the Lord doing various things, many of them beautifully printed and some of them truly moving, satisfy our need for visual representation and stir our imagination, these same illustrations are a stumbling block, indeed a positive barrier, to people of other cultures whose mental image of the Lord must be in terms of their own visual world.

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     Curiously enough, pagan philosophers as well as writers of more recent times with no particular Christian convictions have been more perceptive in this regard than the Christian public. For example, the founder of the Eleatic School, a Greek institution of Southern Italy, whose name was Xenophanes or Kolophon, made the following observations: "Men imagined gods to be born, and to have clothes and voices and shapes like theirs. . . . Yea, the gods of the Ethiopians are black and flat-nosed, the gods of the Thracians are red-haired and blue-eyed. . . . Yea, if oxen and horses and lions had hands and could shape with their hands images as men do, horses would fashion their gods as horses, and oxen as oxen. . . ." (7)   Herbert Butterfield, the Cambridge historian, quoted a marvelous little poem by Rupert Brooke about the kind of heaven fishes must be looking for! (8)        

. . .  somewhere, beyond Space and Time,
Is wetter water, slimier slime
And there (they trust) there swimmeth One
Who swam ere rivers were begun,
Immense, of fishy form and mind,
Squamous, omnipotent and kind;
And under that Almighty Fin
The littlest fish may enter in.

     Comment is hardly necessary. In a paper by Grant Reynard entitled, "Christian Art: A Painter's View," the habit of identifying images of God with ourselves is again underscored. The author wrote: (9)

     Then there are the great painters of Italy -- the primitive authority of Cimabue and Duccio, passing into the early Giotto and Fra Angelico and Piero della Francesa with the coming of tenderness into Christian art without loss of strength, and moving on through Mantegna, Masaccio, to Michelangelo, Titian, Raphael, Veronese, who portray the gamut from the Christ of humility to the regal, lordly Christ of the Venetians; the portrayals of the crucified Lord, the depositions, the pietas of early French painting, northward to the superb Flemish Van Eycks, Rubens, and the Germanic Albrecht Durer. All these almost countless delineations of the Savior bear the stamp of nationality. The Italian, French, Flemish, and German painters make Him one of them. El Greco, despite his Greek origin and Italian training, identifies Christ with a tortured Spanish school.

7. Koestler, Arthur, The Sleepwalkers, Hutchinson, London, 1959, p.24.
8. Butterfield, Herbert, Christianity and History, Bell, London, 1950, p.118.
9. Reynard, Grant, "Christians and Art: A Painter's View" in Christianity Today, 31 January, 1964, p.4.

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Reynard added:

     Strangely, the Bible does not describe in detail the Lord's physical appearance. Yes, He is "a Man of Sorrows" and He weeps; His feelings are disclosed but not His physical features. It is as though God desires that we worship His Son for His Deity and His Saviorhood alone.

     It is all too true. We cannot conceive of God except in terms of ourselves, and by the very nature of our limitations, by the term "ourselves," we mean our racial type -- including skin colour.A few years ago a tremendous stir arose in the United States because of the utterances of a rather short, stocky, black man who called himself Father Divine. Whether he really believed in himself or not is hard to say, but his followers certainly did. Most of his followers were blacks, but not all by any means: and his wife was white. That it should be so very difficult for most of us even to conceive how anyone could ever imagine that God looked like that should be a warning to us that the non-white world may properly take the same attitude toward our representations of the Lord which portray Him so utterly unlike themselves.
     Ethnocentrism is extraordinarily subtle in its influence. In the Song of Solomon, these words appear in almost all English translations: "I am black but comely" (1:5). In view of the fact that the Hebrew here translated "but" is far, far more often translated "and" elsewhere, it might be considered odd that the rendering "but" -- with all the implications it bears -- should be adopted in even the most recent translations (the Revised Standard Version, for example). We introduce this disjunctive particle because we find it difficult to think normally of anyone being beautiful whose skin is so different from our own. What beauty, therefore, can we really expect the Negro to see in the Lord when we portray Him in our image? Or do we expect him to have far greater spiritual understanding than we ourselves have? The issue is not merely a cross-cultural one but even interpersonal, for each of us inevitably creates his own mental image of the Lord. This is a freedom we must be allowed. Thus it is disturbing to see a Christian bookstore with ten or twenty vastly different pictures of the Lord because each one, far from enlarging our view of the Lord, is asking us to accept the artist's conception instead.
     Perhaps there are occasions when some individual is helped by a particular portrait of the Lord, but it seems doubtful if this is sufficient justification for leaving the rest of the world with the kind of impression which non-religious people tend to have, of a Person with very little if any strength of character at all. The Christian message is thus distorted and may even have objectionable connotations to others, just as the idea of Father

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Divine being a representation of God appears objectionable to us -- not primarily because of what he was but because of what he looked like.
      For fear of misunderstanding because of racial tensions which always exist between peoples of different cultures and colours, I should like to restate exactly what is meant here. We are so constituted 
that it is difficult
to seek the Lord without some kind of mental picture of the One we are seeking. Such a mental picture must inevitably be in terms that relate to our idea of what a perfect Person would not only be like but also look like. Inevitably we envision someone who is not greatly unlike ourselves. The man whose skin colour happens to be black does precisely the same thing and with fully as much justification. So our visual images naturally diverge widely and it is impossible to say which one is right, if either. But in the nature of things, we tend to accept our own vision as the correct one and therefore the other man's vision as false. Indeed, we may find his vision not only false, but shocking. From his point of view, he may find ours equally so. Thus, while we are seeking to worship the same Lord, we may find ourselves completely out of sympathy with one another.
     Not only the pictures but the language we use can be a barrier. If we insist that everyone must read the
Word of God in English because we are equating our particular translation with the Word of God, then obviously we would be doing a great disservice to the rest of the world. God must speak to each man in his own symbols, even though it is the same Lord and the same message. One of the extraordinary things about the Word of God is its translatableness -- which certainly cannot be said of the pictorial illustrations sometimes added to elucidate the text.
     There are some who question whether any visual images are necessary or even helpful in enlarging the truths of Scripture. Le Comte du Nouy said:

     Many men who are intelligent and of good faith imagine they cannot believe in God because they are unable to conceive Him. An honest man, endowed with scientific curiosity, should not need to visualize God, any more than a physicist needs to visualize the electron. Any attempt at representation is necessarily crude and false, in both cases. The electron is materially inconceivable and yet, it is more perfectly known through its effects than a simple piece of wood. If we could really conceive God we could no longer believe in Him, because our representation, being human, would inspire us with doubts.

10. Du Nouy, Le Comte, Human Destiny, Longmans Green, London, 1947, p.134. 

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     And it is unquestionable that our representations of the Lord must, in the minds of people of other cultures, often inspire more doubts than faith. Indeed, one might argue that the making of any kind of representation of God in graphic form is a tacit acknowledgment of spiritual immaturity, a kind of "crutch" to help the feeble-spirited. A pure symbol instead might be more justifiable. A quiet chapel with a table instead of an altar, upon which were the simple emblems of a cup and a loaf of bread and perhaps a towel, would be much more telling in certain circumstances than an illuminated statue of Christ, it seems to me.
     It has even been questioned whether pictorial representation of any biblical event is really a gain. P. T. Forsyth put it this way:

     Most of the art which we associate with Scripture narrative only conspires with a thousand other influences to petrify the Bible for us, to turn its dignity into stiffness, its solemnity into pompousness, its sanctity into mere decorum, its beauty into prettiness, its passion into sentiment, its movement into a strut, and its radiance into tinsel. And when we try to escape . . . we rush into the opposite extreme. . . .   We reproduce the exact conditions of life in Palestine; but we only get the statue, we do not get the life and soul. We transliterate but we do not translate.

     Modern technology has so multiplied the means for pictorial representation (cameras, TV, modern printing methods) that we have become "imaginatively lazy". Children still imagine, but they are not children for as long as they used to be. Perhaps as children of God we ought to get back once more to the exercise of pure imagination where the subject matter is really spiritual. And get beyond such picturings. Nevertheless, moderation in all things.
     And I still believe that the beautiful little church of my friend from Holland with its host of memorialized worshippers must make one very much aware of the fact that the worship of God has properly always been a most healthful exercise among men in all walks of life, ennobling even the most ignoble of them . . . also the convict on the flying buttress. 

11. Forsyth, P. T., Religion in Recent Art, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1901, p.77.

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 Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved 

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