Dave Hunt, in the April 2004 Berean Call newsletter addresses a question about his concern and disapproval of the depiction of Christ in media. Specifically, he concludes that any attempt to portray Christ is like carrying a picture of your spouse in your wallet, but instead of their photo, you’re in fact carrying the picture of someone completely different.
Here’s a snippet:
I have consistently opposed attempts to portray Christ in film and other visual media. My reasons are rather simple. If you carried in your wallet a picture that you took out several times a day to look at in order to remember and honor your wife or husband–but it wasn’t a picture of that person at all, but of someone else–wouldn’t your spouse be justifiably upset?
He goes on to ask if a portrayal of Jesus violates the commandment against setting up graven images.
Moreover, is not Jesus God himself? Tell me why pictures pretending to represent Jesus are not a violation of the commandment not to make an image of God, even in our minds. Is this any better than the Israelites embracing idols as representations of Yahweh? You say you don’t bow before pictures of Jesus. But you do look upon them as representing, do you not? If not, why have them?
I won’t hammer on Dave too much here, as he does end his answer with an appeal to the individual conscience, but I think it’s important to answer his concerns.
Plato talked about the eternal Forms: Good, Truth, and Beauty, Justice. These were concepts of existence beyond the physical; concepts that ARE. In fact, his idea of forms sounds a lot like God’s pronouncement of himself to Moses at the burning bush: “I am that I AM.” God, like Plato’s forms, exists unto Himself. Plato may have stumbled onto the truth of God without realizing it. God says He is love. Not the embodiment, not the idea of it, not the representation of it. He IS love. And it is from Him that all love flows.
While the Bible doesn’t explicitly say so, I believe God is also Beauty, Truth, and Justice. Without Him, beauty or truth wouldn’t exist. Without God, there is no such thing as justice, because justice follows from an assertion of rightness and wrongness, a morality that determines whether something is good or not. That morality can only come from a Source; in fact, the Source is the Form. From Justice flows all justice. From Beauty comes all beauty, and so on.
So what does all this have to do with the depiction of Christ in a movie or in a painting?
The delight of man is in the work of his hands. Among the many gifts God gave to man, one was the ability to create. In a limited fashion, we sense Absoluteness, though we only see that absoluteness “through a glass darkly.” Innately, God has placed the knowledge of Himself in the heart of man, so that he will be without excuse. That knowledge, Scripture tells us, can be seen in three ways: the works of God, ie. His creation, the Word of God, Scripture, and finally His Spirit, which speaks to our hearts.
One outpouring of this inner knowledge of God is what we call Art. Not art (lowercase), but Art, which along with the other two pillars, Science and Religion, are the basic foundation of culture. Art, unlike Science or Religion, doesn’t occupy a set continuum, but is more esoteric and vague. It occupies an aesthetic of sorts, existing in a kind of subjective confine of sensibility; the best way to describe Art, I think, is to identify its purpose.
Quite simply, Art is the glorification of God through the replication of His work and the attempt to capture the essence, if only partially, of that Absoluteness that exists but cannot be measured or identified through sensory perception. This can be seen in something as simple as a painting of a landscape, which exists as a representation of an actual landscape (or an imaginary one, but one that follows the natural order of rules in our physical world), which is in itself a vague shadow of the form of Landscape. The awareness that is in us of these forms enables us to even grasp the physical characteristics of a landscape (lowercase) and thus portray it in a manner that we then call a “landscape.” The artist has created a landscape in the attempt to capture the Absoluteness of the Landscape.
The purpose of Art, then can be seen in the heart and mind of man who creates art. A piece of art reflects either an embodiment of that high-minded ideal or a perversion of it. This isn’t to say that the intent of the artist has to be explicitly good or bad. Many bad people have created beautiful art (and I’m sure that the opposite is also true!). But what is the state of the art being created? Is it a reflection of the good, or a subversion of it?
Exodus 25 contains instructions for creating hammered gold cherubim. 2nd Chronicles 3 is a description of the temple Solomon built for the Lord, detailing the artistic rendering of the interior in gold and silver, with finely braided ropes, statuary of cherubim and seraphim, and other fine objects of craftsmanship. God not only approved of such artistic endeavors, He commissioned them! God is the ultimate patron of the arts…
But is it okay to portray Christ in a piece of art? With regard to Dave Hunt’s concerns about an imperfect realization of who Christ as God really is, I think that Scripture itself is evidence that an artwork such as Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is an extension of Biblical descriptions of Christ. God reveals Himself throughout Scripture using human terms of description. Psalm 18:10, Exodus 6:6, Deut. 1:6, Zechariah 14:4, Genesis 38:7, Numbers 11:1, Psalm 17:8, and many others contain descriptions of God using human terms, or physical descriptions that the human mind can grasp.
Moreover, the descriptions are not placed egregiously, for description’s sake, but is the language of a God who wants people to know Him better, to understand who He is; by illustrating his intangibleness, his infiniteness, his Godliness through human terms, we can grasp, if ever so imperfectly and slightly, the presence and person of God.
In the same way that a painting is a slight representation of the real, so is a depiction of Christ a slight representation of the real Christ. Mel Gibson’s Passion is a depiction of God, yes, but in human terms, in images that humans understand. Just as we must remember that Jesus is God, He was also man, indeed, the perfection of Man. The representation of Him onscreen or in a painting, when done with the intent of praising God and pointing toward God’s, rather than man’s, glory, it is simply a reflection of God’s innate gift of creativity that he has embued into the human spirit.
While I appreciate Dave Hunt’s concerns and can understand where he is coming from, I disagree with him wholeheartedly on the matter. I believe God is honoured when we worship him with the works of our hands. Art is the attempt to capture Beauty, and is the outpouring of God’s creativeness inside us. What could be greater than attempting to capture the Beauty that is God in human form?