The spirit and work of the artist can be a rich means of grace, especially to those of us who lack either the temperament or the ability to “create” as they do. My sister was given all the artistic ability allotted to my family of origin, and so God blessed me with a wife gifted with both the spirit and the abilities of an artist. And, my Christian faith has been refined and enriched through her.
Some artists suggest that they can meaningfully communicate only through their art. Others, like Edward Knippers, can do so through both their art and their written words. (And, there are, of course, also art forms for which the primary medium is words.) I am glad for the opportunity to consider the work of Knippers, and, in light of my above-mentioned limitations, will take my prompts from the latter.
Commendations: Physicality and Hope
Allow me to begin by highlighting and commending three of Knippers’ observations. (And, these commendations are not a polite set-up for negative critique. I happen to fundamentally agree with Knippers’ comments.)
First, “disembodiment is not an option for the Christian.” Disembodiment is not an option because our Creator-God has not made it an option. Disembodiment may occur for the Christian during the interlude between earthly death and eternal redemption, but as theologians point out, this is a temporary aberration. It is unnatural and not the way God planned it. God made and makes and redeems human beings only as enfleshed creatures.
Second, physicality is “messy” and uncomfortable. To be sure, it can be pleasurable and a means of grace. But, because the world and all that is in it is, with a nod to Cornelius Plantinga, not the way it’s supposed to be, physicality is messy and uncomfortable. This is undoubtedly a significant factor in some Christians’ inclination toward a Gnosticized faith (to which Knippers, too, refers). As with many aspects of Christian faith and life, a healthy embrace of physicality is not always easy or pleasant but it is the right thing to do (consider “John comforted in Prison”, above).
Third, physicality is an essential element of the Christian message of hope. As Knippers’ nicely puts it, “we are able to make our bodies a living sacrifice to God because of Christ’s real and complete sacrifice for us.” As we often need to be reminded, the only way to Easter is through Good Friday. Furthermore, as evangelicals rightly emphasize, Easter is not Easter without a bodily, physical resurrection. And, physicality, the body, is part of the means through which God enables us to transcend “the ever-present veil that separates this world from the next,” to which Knippers so personally and poignantly refers. (Ordinarily, I am not a fan of cubist art, but in conjunction with Knippers’ remarks on transcending our “world,” I find his visual rendering of the veil challenging.)
Riffs on Particularity, Continuity, and Eucharist
Having highlighted these points, I will take the liberty to offer some brief riffs on prompts in Knippers’ words and images.
First, one of the abiding challenges to Christian thought and Christian life is the both-and of universality and particularity. Knippers engages this challenge in his art by avoiding, as he indicates, the “cultural trappings” of clothing, of dress. Christianity is always cultural. There is no such thing as a-cultural or culturally-neutral Christianity. This aspect of Christian particularity is a scandal to those who would have us strip-away all sense of, for example, tradition or “denominations” in the effort to create some sort of Christianity which will not present barriers or hurdles to people. This effort is sometimes well intended, but it is, at best, naïve, and, at worst, theologically gutless. Incarnated Christianity – the only kind of Christianity there can be – is particular. And, incarnated Christianity which is deep and rich and complex – like the world in which it is incarnated – will be expressed through, among other means, theology and worship and church-life with is deep and rich and complex, contrary to the minimalism of a supposedly “just plain” Christianity.
By omitting dress, Knippers deftly brokers the challenge of both universality and particularity, for the absence of dress in his human figures removes an excuse for someone to hold the images at a distance, and yet these are particular people. The woman caught in adultery is a particular woman (“Delilah and the Priests”, above). The man with the crown of thorns is Jesus. Not anyone else. The figures amidst “the veil” are not mere images, figures. They are particular human beings — you, and me, and those about whom we care most deeply.
Second, these particular images focus on the physicality of human being. But, for the Christian the embrace of physically is not limited to the human body. Rather, as Knippers alludes, the scope of a properly Christian embrace of physicality extends to nothing less than the cosmos. As noted above, transcending the veil entails physicality. Our hope, our assurance, is framed in the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. And, in a manner analogous to the resurrection of Jesus and to the Christian’s resurrection, this new heaven and new earth will be characterized by both change and continuity with the present created reality (“The Resurrection of Jesus”, right) . The Christian message is a message not of substitution, but of redemption through resurrection. And, this message is not this message without an embrace of physicality.
Third, one’s view of the physicality of the incarnation does and must inform one’s estimate of the importance and nature of the Lord’s Supper (notice the chalace in “The Crowning of Thorns” below).
I will not here “defend” one view of the Lord’s Supper over all others. Rather, I will simply offer the caution against taking the Lord’s Supper far too lightly. Historically, varying views of this Table have been among the most significant points of difference among various traditions of Christianity. And, with good cause, because one’s theology and practice of the Lord’s Supper is never exclusively one’s theology and practice of the Lord’s Supper. It constitutes an embodiment of many theological beliefs-including beliefs about physicality. What place does the Lord’s Table have in the life of your church and mine? What is it’s meaning and significance for the people of your church and mine? Knippers art offers an invitation to think about these questions.
Finally, whenever we focus on physicality, particularly the physicality of human being, we need to remain mindful of non-physicality. Without in any way denying or denigrating the bodily, we need to remember that human beings are complex beings, consisting of both the physical and the non-physical. (As was probably evident before now, I do not accept any of the various monistic views of human being, whether historical or contemporary.) Knippers’ portrayals are significant for what they say about physicality. And, because human beings are complex and integrated, both physical and spiritual, they are also significant for what they say about the human spirit and the Holy Spirit. The human spirit and the Holy Spirit are not bound by nor should they be conceived as “free from” the bodily, from physicality. Incarnation – both the incarnation and incarnation – are inescapably physical. And, because incarnation is realized in and through human being, it is also spiritual.
David Buschart is professor of theology and historical studies at Denver Seminary. Dr. Buschart earned an M.Phil. and a Ph.D. from Drew University, an M.Div. and a Th.M. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a B.A. from Wheaton College. He is coeditor of and a contributor to Scholarship, Sacraments, and Service (Edwin Mellon, 1990) and has published a number of articles, essays, and book chapters. His recent book is entitled Exploring Protestant Traditions: An Invitation to Theological Hospitality (IVP, 2006)