If I may, I’d like to ask a direct and uncomfortable question right out of the gate.
What scandalizes you?
The term snowflake has transformed in meaning over the past few years. It used to refer to freezing precipitation, or as a metaphor for the unique attributes of each person. But now snowflake is a berating insult, weaponized to ridicule folks who are overly sensitive or too easily offended. But here’s the problem – depending on the subject matter, we’re ALL snowflakes. Probably every single one of you are deeply offended by at least one of the following:
- The Wolf of Wall Street, and its over 414 uses of the F-word
- Professional athletes kneeling during the national anthem
- Christians protesting outside of abortion clinics
- Explicit sexual content in songs played at the local gym
- Drag queens reading books to children at public libraries
- Lack of representation for minority groups in business and media
It’s easier to drive across Montana on a single tank of gas than it is to engage in a rational and objective discussion about offensive art. No one can agree on what art is. Everyone has different notions of what’s offensive. Combining the two makes helpful, calm dialogue seem like a pipe dream (with apologies to those offended at the drug reference). Perhaps we’d gain a little headway by narrowing our scope to a discussion of religious offense, so the subject matter is a bit more specific. We’ll take one more step toward a concrete conversation by zeroing in on Christian offense, so that our standard to measure what ought to offend us is no longer left to the whims of our cultural or generational sensibilities, but is constrained by Scripture. From that launch pad, we’ll discover that not all Christian offense at art is created equal – sometimes it is blasphemous malarkey that fails to make anything approaching a helpful point, while there is other truly offensive art that serves to illustrate robust theological principles.
Offensive Art Fit for the Trash Bin
Much could be (and has been) said about art that is sinful because of the intended use for worship. But my focus today isn’t on what constitutes a violation of the 2nd commandment – inherently idolatrous art is worse than worthless, and is the subject for another day. Instead we’re here to discuss so-called “art” that fails to conjure any thoughtful reflection at all and is merely offensive for the sake of the offense itself. This would include films such as The First Temptation of Christ, a lousy attempt at satire by Netflix depicting Jesus as a gay man.
To be clear – art could be made drawing out the truth of Hebrews 4 that Christ has been “tempted in every respect as we are, yet without sin.” Art that explored the mysterious depths of the experience of genuine temptation for a wholly perfect person would certainly be provocative, and most likely even offensive to some. Jesus’ temptations were the real deal. That He was tempted “in every respect” would indicate that He experienced actual sexual temptation. Any sort of poetry, music, painting, or film that dealt seriously with those issues would surely raise some eyebrows among the faithful, while still being worthy of careful reflection and response. But when atheist filmmakers set out with the exclusive goal of giving our faith the shock jock treatment, it isn’t worth the energy to even respond to it (oops).
Offensive Art for Serious Reflection
There’s another sort of offensive art – one where profound gospel truth is imbedded in the distastefulness itself. Be careful little eyes what you see, because I’m about to discuss two pieces of art (one audible, the other visual) that place our God and the word piss in uncomfortable, offensively close proximity. But I’ve come to believe that this art is truly meaningful, and even good. They convey the reality of the stumbling block of our faith with unique and creative potency.
An Offensive Song: Words Depicting the Depth of Depravity
First we come upon the unlikely marriage of a rap song by Timothy Brindle and a puritan work originally published in 1669 by Ralph Venning, The Sinfulness of Sin:
Sin is lawlessness, an awful mess of haughtiness
Sin is not being in awe of His — Glory
But degrading it and trading it for naughtiness
It’s treating God as piss
It’s disregarding that He exists as Sovereign
It’s more sickening than kissing harlot’s lips
Whose breath stinks worse than garbage mixed
With the rawest fish after she gargles spit
Sin’s an awful virus that wants your iris
Clogs your sinus, gives you thoughts of violence
Woe to those who think it’s not inside us
The song maintains the relentless, singular aim to shed a light on the darkness – to exposit the depth and depravity of sin. You may be scandalized by the imagery of the song, or perhaps take umbrage at the bluntly explicit line that insists that your sin is “treating God as piss.” But the point is in the offense itself, because the song’s message hinges on the utter offensiveness of your sin. As flushed as your face may be when you hear those words, the Bible’s depiction of sin and its consequences indicate that you and I don’t come anywhere near to recognizing how offensive our sin is to God. Any poetic language that helps us grapple with the ugliness of our own wayward inclinations is God-honoring, undignified as the words may be.
An Offensive Photo: Image Depicting the Great Exchange
Secondly I’d like to consider a photograph by Andres Serrano, graphically titled Immersion (Piss Christ). The artist filled a jar with his own urine, submerged a crucifix in the liquid waste, got the lighting just right, and took a photo of it.
Aside from the fact that this fellow clearly needs to drink more water, let’s get one thing out of the way immediately – this piece is undeniably and grotesquely offensive. In contrast to the song above, this photo is not the work of a Christian artist and is among many pieces where Serrano employs the use of disgusting mediums (often bodily fluids and, uh, solids) for his desired “artistic” effect. I am not suggesting that the photographer is a noble man or even that he meant well when taking this portrait. It is viscerally nauseating to think about a portrayal of our glorious Lord marinating in filth like that. At first it seems like nothing more than crude, attention-hungry blasphemy on par with the rotten Netflix show mentioned earlier.
But then I think of what actually happened to Christ on the cross, and I realize that perhaps no piece of art has ever more fully expressed the mysterious stumbling block of His atonement than this.
2 Corinthians 5:21
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
“All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.”
“By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh…”
It is good and right to be repulsed at the image and upset by its title. Hopefully the very thought of the Savior being treated with such disrespect makes you shake with anger… Then realize that is exactly what the cross is all about! In order to cleanse you and purify you, Jesus was entirely submerged and soaked in the very worst of who you are and what you’ve done. I assure you, the perfect Son of God bathing in the guilt of your sin while taking on the Father’s wrath that you deserve is MUCH more offensive than any bucket of pee ever could be. If a photograph gets you to realize that, even just a bit, then it is exceptionally effective art. Similar to the way Paul identified pagan idols and poems in Athens as the means by which to ponder on and proclaim the gospel of Jesus, so too can we discover hints of the good news lying within an upsetting depiction of Christ in a jar of urine.