Thursday, February 25, 2010

Biblical Art, Culture, & Ethnicity

Many of us today recognize the inaccuracies of biblical art today, particularly representation of Jesus as blonde-haired and blue-eyed. Jokes are made and Christianity is often trivialized and ridiculed due to ethno-centric representations of Jesus.

And these are very fair criticisms. They often do take us out of the reality of recognizing that we are not the center of the world nor of the biblical story.

However, I also think there is something quite beautiful and redeeming about ethno-centric artistic representations. The Mosaic Bible has weekly art pieces. And several have biblical stories from other cultures. It was very interesting to see multiple versions of the nativity scene in vastly different cultures, times, and ethnicities. Last week, there was a piece entitle "The Parable of the Lost Son" from Hong Kong. It looks like a traditional Chinese artwork. Without the biblical title, I would not have thought it was a biblical piece.

My initial reaction was, "That's not at all accurate." That's true. However, I then checked myself, remembering that most art is inaccurate. Then I realized and remembered the beauty in the fact that virtually all cultures and ethnicities have wanted to and been able to accept Jesus and the Bible as their own.

Art is a way to help us engage the stories. It can help us understand and relate to scenes that are frankly unrelatable in many ways today. We do this with modernizing analogies of parables and stories frequently today. Why can we not do this with art? The fact that we can shows the timelessness, applicability, and Truth of the biblical story.

Further, as I discovered while taking a course that included an emphasis on Medieval art, benefactors of art pieces and the artists themselves were often put into the scenes. Sure, it could be a narcissistic move. But it can also be a way of helping oneself feel closer to God.

I personally think that's quite beautiful. So I would like to ask for redemption of ethno-centric art, not as cultural insensitivity, but as cultural engagement and emphasizing that God will meet us exactly where we are.

Psychology research suggests we do relate better to people who look like us. Next time you see a Jesus who looks like you, as yourself if you are better able to relate to Jesus because of that in contrast to the "real" face of Jesus.

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