As The New York Times reports, “An ‘Evolving’ Episcopal Church Invites Back a Controversial Sculpture.” Ah, the famous Christa! Christ on the Cross as a female figure.
I happened to be at St. John Divine long ago as an undergrad, a year or two after the sculpture was removed. I didn’t know about the removal, and asked at the information desk where I could see it. The woman – clearly trained in the official response – knew nothing about a female Christ, had never heard of it, and perhaps I wanted to see St. Margaret (I think it was Margaret) in the side chapel? I persisted – wasn’t there a female Christ here before, hadn’t I read that in Time? She had no idea what on earth I could be talking about.
In an evolving, growing, learning church, we may be ready to see ‘Christa’ not only as a work of art but as an object of devotion, over our altar, with all of the challenges that may come with that for many visitors to the cathedral, or indeed, perhaps for all of us.
I have mixed feelings about this. There is a particularity about the incarnation, about the Christian faith, that should not be lost. The facts of history matter, for they are the story of how God has dealt with humanity.
But on the other hand – it’s important to look at all sides before letting loose with critique, not to say outrage – the paradox of Christianity is that its particular message is universal. Through the incarnation, Christ is, in a sense, a member of every race and culture, precisely by becoming a man at one point in time. And so it is theologically appropriate to have images of Jesus appearing Chinese or African or European.
And Paul’s words to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” remind us that the historical Jewish male Jesus is the Lord of all peoples of all time and places.
Personally I’m uncomfortable with the Christa image in a church space. It’s so controversial, so open to misunderstanding, that it’s unlikely to foster a deeper understanding of the mystery of the particular and the universal. The place of worship is not the place for such distractions.
Maybe the place for such an image is in a church museum or a space where Christian education takes place. Maybe it would be possible there to explain why such a provocation is meant to expand our theological imagination, while acknowledging the facts of history.
At the same time, I want to hear as much as possible about the intentions of the artists and the exhibitors before jumping to conclusions. I’m not going to assume “Gnosticism!” or any other heresy that surely is not intended.
“Christa” is part “The Christa Project: Manifesting Divine Bodies,” an exhibition including 21 other pieces at St. John’ the Divine.