Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Obscenity and the Cross

I received a letter from my friend R the other day. In his letter, R was reflecting on a number of things that really sparked my interest. R is a writer and he was raising questions about morality, especially as it weighs on his work as a writer. He wrote to me:
My writing is irreverent, and at times that I feel are necessary, it is what some would call obscene or even pornographic. The moral question comes up often as I go through the manuscript now, but I feel the rest of the weight fall from me when I decide to let it stand as it is. The simple explanation is that I write about people and how they interact, and to explore this fully, no stone can be left unturned.
Part of R's questions were arising from interacting with me as a person of faith, who lives much of her life in the world of the Church. R grew up Catholic, he wrote, and realized long ago "that my rejection of the Catholic Church should never be misplaced on Jesus himself, nor should my rejection of the common misuse of Jesus." The universe of R's concerns seemed to revolve around the following words: Christianity, morality, ethics, obscenity or pornography, the individual, and writing. I am interested in these words as well. And found myself weaving them into the following reflections which I wrote in my response to R. I share them with you now with R's generous blessing . . .

I think I see the concern about morality to be more individualistic and ethics to be more communally oriented. I think the concern about morality is overrated and a cop-out, especially among religiously-minded folks who cannot face the larger issues of dealing with social injustices. Too many Christians (way, way too many) are so deeply concerned about their own sins (moral questions) that they are blinded to systemic Sin that keeps the poor, poor; the hungry, hungry; the uneducated, uneducated; women, silent; and suffering, invisible.

As a writer, the occasional necessity to include scenes that may be deemed obscene or pornographic reminds me of Milan Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being. In this novel, there is a character named Sabina who is a painter. Living in communist Czechoslovakia, Sabina is forbidden from painting anything abstractly. Only realism is allowed. ("Art that was not realistic was said to sap the foundations of socialism.") But she subverts this in a series of paintings she calls "Behind the Scenes." It happened quite by accident the first time. Sabina says:
'Here is a painting I happened to drip red paint on. At first, I was terribly upset, but then I started enjoying it. The trickle looked like a crack; it turned the building site into a battered old backdrop, a backdrop with a building site painted on it. I began playing with the crack, filling it out, wondering what might be visible behind it. And that's how I began my first cycle of paintings. I called it, "Behind the Scenes." Of course, I couldn't show them to anybody. I'd have been kicked out of the Academy. On the surface, there was always an impeccably realistic world, but underneath, behind the backdrop's cracked canvas, lurked something different, something mysterious or abstract.'

After pausing for a moment, she added, 'On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth.'

For me, morality is the intelligible lie. It is the depiction of the world as an ordered world. A place for everything and everything in its place. Nothing more intelligible than that.

And this is why obscenity becomes like the splash of red paint on the ordered world. it is the unintelligible truth.

I see the cross of Jesus in much the same way. What is more obscene, even pornographic, than the murder of the God-Human set out like a spectacle on the hill, with people jeering all around? All in an attempt by an imperialist government to show its power and might. Nothing ran quite so efficiently as the Roman Death Machine. Crucifixions were a dime a dozen. It was all quite well-ordered. It was the most intelligible lie.

But the God-Human's spectacular death was the splash of red that made the ordered world only a backdrop. The God-Human's refusal to meet violence with violence, order with order, is the utterly unintelligible truth.

Christians have been trying to tame that truth nearly since the beginning. Mel Gibson's Passion is one of the latest, most obvious attempts. His depiction of the cross is pure pornography in its most unredemptive sense. He focuses on the red paint out of context of the rest of the painting. And this suggests a wholly different intelligible lie in which violence itself seems to be redemptive. Personal morality once again reigns supreme. God submits to murder because violent sacrifice is the way to restore order.

Despite Gibson's massive failure, I believe the artist/writer and the theologian have very similar tasks: to be willing to drip the red paint on the ordered world. This means opening oneself up to the reality of the obscene, the pornographic. And, no less so, to the beautiful.

The beautiful is as much the splash of red paint as the obscene. The beautiful disrupts, disturbs into meaning. I don't quite understand it yet, (may never), but I think it's for this reason that the cross, in all its obscenity, is also beautiful.

1 comment:

Katherine said...

This is such a rich piece. I'm going to print it out and read it again and revel in how you put words together and what you say with them.

(I think you should submit this to The Christian Century or something of that ilk.)