Recently, I received a bit of an Advent jolt thanks to art critic and theologian Dan Siedell. In his book Who’s Afraid of Modern Art?: Essays on Modern Art and Theology in Conversation, Seidell tells the engrossing story of the controversy surrounding the work below:
The image, created by American artist Andrés Serrano, seems rather innocuous – nothing more than a stylized depiction of Christian iconography. Aside from its overtly religious subject matter, it is unremarkable except for its warm colors and gorgeous lighting. But while the image itself is uncontroversial, the public response to it has been anything but. The controversy stems from the fact that the title of Serrano’s piece is “Piss Christ”; it is part of a series of works called Immersions that he created by suspending objects in various kinds of liquid media – in this case, a small plastic crucifix placed in a plexiglass container of his own urine.
While “Piss Christ“ was initially met with acclaim in the art world, it quickly came under fire from an assortment of outraged critics, ranging from the Archbishop of Melbourne, Australia to Rush Limbaugh. “Piss Christ” was quickly integrated into a culture war narrative that pitted the godlessness of modern art and secular culture against traditional religious values (and that was also used by Senate Republicans to bolster calls to defund the National Endowment of the Arts). Of course, all of these conversations ignored the fact that Serrano, who was raised Catholic and still considers himself a Christian, has stated repeatedly that the piece was never intended to be blasphemous or anti-religious – he was merely commenting on how the mass production of the symbol has cheapened the meaning of the original crucifixion. Nevertheless, the photograph has attracted scores of protesters over the years and in several cases was physically attacked, eventually resulting in the piece being damaged by vandals in 2011.
“Piss Christ” continues to generate fascinating conversations about the proper boundaries of artistic expression and what it means for art to be transgressive – not to mention the usual questions about how Christians relate to the broader culture. But juxtaposed with the arrival of Advent, perhaps the main lesson to be gleaned from Serrano’s work and its subsequent reception is not an artistic one. If we are willing to listen, “Piss Christ” offers those of us who are Christians a desperately needed reminder about who we actually believe God to be.
For my part, I know that despite the fact that I would like to portray myself as a cooly detached cultural critic, “Piss Christ” is nonetheless jarring to me. It forces me to recognize that for all of my pretensions to sophistication, there is a part of me that reflexively recoils upon seeing the two words “piss” and “Christ” so closely associated. And if I am honest, I have to admit that I don’t think my discomfort stems from the purity of my religious devotion. I think it actually has more to do with the fact that my conception of who Jesus is is far more American than it is biblical.
But Advent doesn’t let me get away with this. I want the Christmas season – and Jesus himself – to be all about goodwill, family, peace on earth, and a healthy dose of nostalgia. But that’s not really the point of it at all. For the news that Advent brings is not about comforting carols and bucolic manger scenes. Instead, it is the startling announcement that the Creator and Sustainer of the universe has taken notice of our sorrows, failures, fear, and ruin and has responded by stepping decisively into this ragged space-time continuum; that in the freedom of his mercy, God has in the person of Jesus of Nazareth chosen to associate not only with human waste but with placental blood and moldy hay, cold nights and hunger, the misunderstanding of neighbors and the betrayal of friends, and – above all – loneliness, shame, torture, and death.
The Gospel writers’ claim that the child born in Bethlehem was God in human flesh is a shattering divine contradiction to the assumption held so commonly in our culture that God’s holiness denotes a quality of righteous refinement and removal. Instead, Advent demonstrates that the glory of the triune God of the Old and New Testaments is a glory that deigns to condescend; his is a beauty that stoops, drawing near to our ugliness in transforming love. Advent announces, astoundingly, that this Love has come. And Advent also brings with it the painful reminder of how achingly we need this Love to come once again in finality and fullness.
Just like “Piss Christ,” the beauty that Advent points to does not shore up but rather disturbs our religious sensibilities, a truth captured powerfully by the poet Andrew Hudgins in his equally disturbing poem based on Serrano’s work:
If we did not know it was cow’s blood and urine,
if we did not know that Serrano had for weeks
hoarded his urine in a plastic vat,
if we did not know the cross was gimcrack plastic,
we would assume it was too beautiful.
We would assume it was the resurrection,
glory, Christ transformed to light by light
because the blood and urine burn like a halo,
and light, as always, light makes it beautiful.
We are born between the urine and the feces,
Augustine says, and so was Christ, if there was a Christ,
skidding into this world as we do
on a tide of blood and urine. Blood, feces, urine—
what the fallen world is made of, and what we make.
He peed, ejaculated, shat, wept, bled—
bled under Pontius Pilate, and I assume
the mutilated god, the criminal,
humiliated god, voided himself
on the cross and the blood and urine smeared his legs
and he ascended bodily unto heaven,
and on the third day he rose into glory, which
is what we see here, the Piss Christ in glowing blood:
the whole irreducible point of the faith,
God thrown in human waste, submerged and shining.
We have grown used to beauty without horror.
We have grown used to useless beauty.
This is what Advent holds out to us: an invitation to abandon all of our useless beauty, the beauty that is designed to soothe but that is fundamentally incapable of healing our deepest wounds. In its place, we are offered the beauty of the One who is submerged for us and shining – the One who both names and removes our horror, that our wounds may at last be healed; the One who has come and will one day come again.