Monday, 2 April 2007

Death by Chocolate

Hot Cross Reactions
The latest religious
uproar to make news is the chocolate art exhibit cancellation of an anatomically correct (yikes, I'm afraid to ask) replica of the crucified and very naked Jesus, bringing new meaning to the term death by chocolate.

This 200-lb edible artwork, entitled "My Sweet Lord," has caused such a public outcry, particularly amongst the Catholic community, that its Holy Week exhibit, slated for a Manhattan hotel gallery and set to launch today following Palm Sunday, has been cancelled.

The usual comparative religious finger pointing has happened, with some Christian groups protesting that you'd never see this sort of naughty bits chocolate art depiction of the Prophet Mohammed or of Martin Luther King Jr. on his day of honour. And they have a point. Why the artist didn’t see fit to layer a white chocolate loin cloth around Jesus' hips is as much a mystery as his audacious choice of artistic expression.

In the Name of God
No one religion can claim exclusion from controversial artistic portrayals though.

Eastern traditions, notably Hinduism, enjoyed a long history of depicting the swastika in their religion art, (dating back to Neolithic Eurasia and pre Indo-Aryan conflict era), that is, until the Nazi misappropriated the symbol for their own Aryan supremacy purposes. And while the portrayal of nude deities is commonplace and a throwback to its fertility cult roots, even Hindus draw the line at sacrilegious depictions of their deities.

Buddhists, too, have always struggled to remain true to the beliefs of Siddharta Guatama by tempering their idolatrous tendencies, as much as some Buddhist religious art might hint differently.

The Abrahamic traditions share some of the more contentious views of idolatry, however. Judaism has historically walked this controversial fine line between affording itself a creative and abstract religious expression and subjecting itself to base idolatry. Even in recent centuries, Jews have had to wrestle with issues of censorship and controversy, relative to Holocaust art and even more recently, post historical Jesus hype, with depictions of Jesus as an itinerant Rabbi.

And so sacred is Islam's holy trinity - Allah, the Qu'ran and the Prophet Mohammed - that any pictorial depiction or textual translation is considered blasphemous. Hence, the Muslim outcry following the Danish cartoon controversy.

So it's of little surprise that Christians are ready to wage an iconoclastic war against such this secular, Warholish chocolate sculpture of the suffering Jesus. Art is meant to portray the seamless link between Truth and Beauty. Sadly, it does not always do so.

Having said that, the subtle ironies of this controversy are difficult to ignore.

First of all, here we have a faith tradition that began as an underground religious heresy, and built itself literally from the catacombs up.

Its earliest teachings relied as heavily on art and symbolism as they did on the Word or Logos, most especially because a great deal of Christian converts were either illiterate or not versed in Latin. When one thinks of Christianity then, certain Greco-Roman motifs immediately come to mind. Cross, fish, shepherd, sheep, doves - these are all intertextual symbols that owe more to the power of art and architecture to convey the ethos and pathos of Christ than the Gospels themselves.

Secondly, lest we not forget how sacramental Christianity is. When Catholics, for example, receive the host or wafer during Eucharist and/or drink Communion wine, they are, in essence, eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ in commemoration of the Last Supper, or so transubstantiation would have it. It is, arguably, one of the greatest leaps of faith an adherent must take, not to mention one of the most magical, and I think beautiful, examples of the link between myth and ritual.

Food for Thought
So to see Jesus depicted in temporal, culinary form seems fitting, almost. Such a display speaks to the mystery of Jesus the Christ on so many levels. First, we have the whole substance of Christ issue, so prevalent in early-Christianity leading up to the Council of Nicea. All that talk about whether Christ was half human, half divine, fully human or fully divine. Truth be told, it continues today.

What better medium for the artist then, but chocolate to portray both the sinfulness of His humanity and the heavenliness of His Divinity? Chocolate, after all, comes by its rich reputation honestly, for it enjoys a rich religious history. The Mayans revered the Cacao Tree, calling it “food of the Gods.” And the Quakers were some of the first to capitalize on this reality, if the business enterprises of families like Baker, Cadbury, Fry and Rowntree are any indication.

Which leads me to the little matter of paganism in Christianity, and more specifically, Easter.

Christianity, as most everyone knows, owes much to its pagan predecessors. Some would argue Christ Himself is but a mythical lifting from Mithraism, given that both Mithra and Christ share equinox dates with winter solstice birthday and spring (Easter) rites, a virgin birth, a Mediator role, the Messiah label, twelve disciples, the magic touch of healing and miracles, a cave tale, an itinerant lifestyle, persecution, transfiguration and symbolism of the lamb.

But that’s fine. What’s a little syncretism between religions, after all?

Yet factor in the pagan history of Easter, and it is small wonder Easter has become an eclectic mix of religious rites. The word Easter derives from Eostre, the goddess of spring, whose name comes from the root “to illuminate” or “dawn.” As the story goes, Eostre came upon an injured bird in the snow, transformed it into a rabbit to help it survive the winter, but curiously, the rabbit still possessed the ability to lay eggs. In gratitude for this life-saving gesture, the rabbit decorated the eggs as a gift for Eostre.

And so there we have the origins of the Easter bunny. Chocolate confectioners the world over owe a debt of gratitude of their own to the spring rites of pagans who honoured fertility, and celebrated earth’s seasonal cycles as living symbols of birth, growth, bountiful maturity and death.

Of Buns and Bunnies
Given this mixed heritage of Easter weekend celebrations in the sacred-secular mosaic we call 21st century modernity, I cannot help but sympathize with the confusion my daughter feels. She has a hard time making sense that Good Friday is wrapped up in the pathos and crucifixion of Jesus, whereas Easter Sunday is all about the feast and frolic of gorging on hot-cross buns and finding foil-wrapped chocolate in amongst other dark turds in the yard, while Easter Monday then celebrates resurrection and the renewing power of spirit.

It's a crazy, mixed bag, but life and holiday rituals are like that. I can honestly confess I think the artist has captured something rather powerful here, yet much like my daughter on her Easter egg hunt, the observant must be willing to look for the bits of sacred amongst the profane.

Carolyn Walker Bynum, a leading history of religions scholar and author of Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women, notes that eating is “one of the most basic and literal ways of encountering God.”

Indeed, if we consider the Judeo-Christian history, such that Passover honours the Exodus of the Israelites from ancient Egypt and the “birth” of the Jewish nation with a feast of unleavened bread, and that Christian spring rituals involve fasting and feasting (Lent and Last Supper); it is somewhat appropriate this exhibit be edible, albeit in a theoretical sense (eating sweets molded by the sweaty hands of an artist is not my idea of a box of chocolates).

While I’m not suggesting that one should feel tempted to nibble the toes off a chocolate Jesus, I do believe there is much artistic and religious meaning to be garnered from viewing the exhibit and the compassionate message of Jesus through a new hermeneutical lens ~ one large and ecumenical enough to embrace both the heritage and the humanity of religiosity.

Because when it’s all said and done, we’re not all that different a religious animal from Neanderthal man. We still revere life, fear death, cower beneath extremes in the elements, dance around fires in both celebration and imitation of the gods, and praise the Divine when all goes well. We still need myth and ritual to make sense of the cycle between life and death.

And we still don’t like when others mess with our own personal Imago Dei, a reality the artist discovered for himself. All is not lost, though. He can still melt his sculpture down and fashion a bunch of last minute bunnies out of the deal.

Such is the everlasting message of Easter, after all. Death, renewal, hope.

Revolutionary Patience

Go ahead and compare him with other great figures
rosa Luxemburg
he’ll stand the test
it would be better of course
if you compared him
with yourself

# 7
I like as you have noticed
to bring things down to earth
miraculous loaves obedient waves
even the deathbeds of children
lying asleep
they occur
in the stories of ancient peoples

Go ahead cut him down to size take away
the loaves the sea the halt and the lame
you’ll get them back
when you begin
to see with his eyes
every day
cripples start out
for his kingdom
the blind
begin to see

All his miracles
become the most natural thing in the world
if we make them come about
Dorothee Soelle


Hope said...

Interesting to say the least..
You have a great mind.. not to sure if I agree with all you said.. but then that is what makes the world spin.. different thoughts.. ect..'smile'
very well done..
soft hugs Hope

Becca said...

I think that the artist got more than he bargained for don't you? Who knew. But I do understand. I wonder what he does with it now. I have read a lot about it on other blogs this week and the viewpoints are just amazing, from the humorous to the obscene. Eyeopening for sure!

HOLY said...

Hope: the world would be a boring place if we all agreed - especially on an issue as contentious as this....although it would certainly make religion a simpler animal to dissect if everyone agreed with one another... :)

But I like that place of agreeing to agrees with me.

Becca: I think the artist knew full well what he was getting into and got exactly what he bargained the launch for Holy Week was a coincidence...ummm, I don't think has certainly spurred debate tho - good, bad & ugly, as you say. I haven't seen anything on it....quite frankly, I'm a little afraid to go there...but I should find a couple of opposing viewpoints to post - for good measure because God knows, I'm not very good at posturing a balanced take on things!

Anonymous said...

Personally, the idea of the human christ having anatomically expected parts is irrelevant. We all have bodies, and no part is wicked or disgusting. People do more harm withe their tongues than any other part and no one complains about showing jesus' tongue. It smacks of pettiness to me. Let's get real.

If there is a lack of respect, people will be upset, I accept that, but it shouldn't be to do with showing ordinary parts of every human male's anatomy.

c said...

Interesting thoughts. I have to admit that the swastikas in India really threw me off on my first trip. After an explanation it definitely made more since, but was still hard to get past the connotations so firmly in my mind.

Anonymous said...

I find it rather interesting.Although it may be accused of being inpoor tast, (forgive the pun) Statues of Christ on the cross have been artistic works for many centuries.What all the uproar over his nudity is all about astounds me also given all the great art masters had nudes and they are displayed in public parks everywhere.

What really disgusts me about this is that eating the chocolate genitals might be a bit obscene compared to biting the head off a bunny,LOL aplseed

Holy Thought of the Week

"To live fully is to let go and die with each passing moment, and to be reborn in each new one."

~ Jack Kornfield ~