Framing Jesus

My wife and I recently had some maternity/family photos taken by a gifted friend of ours. I have always been fascinated by photography as an art form, particularly by its minimalism. All the photographer really has to work with is the stuff of the external world – he or she can tweak a few colors on a computer afterwards, but photography at its finest is all about taking what is there and portraying it in an artful way. Just through a small shift in framing, a contrasting of foreground and background, or a shift of the weight of the elements, a photograph can make someone look ominous or playful, beautiful or jarringly bizarre (a great difference from my photos, where everyone comes out looking dull and slightly stoned.)

Aristotle, in discussing rhetoric, divides it into three categories – logos (the logic and argument itself), pathos (the emotional feel and depth of the argument) and ethos (the perceived character of the speaker). Without going into the specifics of these categories, one of the key observations underlying them is that the idea itself (logos) is not enough to persuade or engage hearers; indeed, while Aristotle pays the most attention to that first category, he at times hints it is the least impactful and important. At least as crucial as the content is the way the discussion is framed and presented – truths are, in this way, a lot like photographs.

As a recent seminary graduate I’ve spent four years thinking about the content of Christianity. This is all wonderful stuff; books full of footnotes and Greek and Hebrew (and often Latin and German too, which we all pretended to follow), discussions about manuscripts and hermeneutics and theological categories. I love the content, and I don’t at all mean to denigrate its importance.

However, what was missing from the discussion, at least most of the time, was how we wanted to communicate these truths. How we portrayed them; what parts of them we wanted to emphasize. Indeed, at times we are almost hostile to these discussions because they seem somehow disingenuous. However, I think it is crucial to talk about these questions. Like a poor photograph, we can take all the content of Christianity and still manage to communicate it to people in unhelpful or unmoving ways. We can make it look ugly, or uninteresting, or unimportant. We need to think about the art of the message; how the set pieces of the gospel are weighed; how the portrait of Jesus is photographed.

With that in mind, I’ve been seeking to come up with a set of adjectives which I hope I help people feel as I talk with them about Jesus. This is in no way an exhaustive list, and it certainly comes from my own personality and gifts. However, I think these are all important parts of how we communicate Christianity, so I thought I’d offer it here for discussion..

A caveat should be made up front: you will notice I’m choosing not to make one of these emphases that “Christianity is true.” This is not because I consider this of secondary importance, but rather because it stands before everything else. There is no point considering how we picture Jesus if He is only make-believe; I am not interested in a conversation about Photoshop. However, simply stopping at truth deeply harms our ability to communicate as human beings. We need to consider not simply whether we are speaking facts, but whether the way we are speaking them fits the message. With this in mind, I’d like to offer my personal list of the qualities I want to convey as I communicate about Christianity.

First, I want the truths of Scripture to be provocative. This might seem a strange place to start, but I am convinced one of the main reasons people, believers and not, fail to wrestle with Christ and Christianity is because they think they have it all figured out. They cease to be unsettled, intrigued and set aback, and so they cease to be changed.

One of the things that continually intrigues me about the way Jesus talked with people in the gospels is what a moving target He was. Nobody ever knew what to expect, what He was going to say next. I think this was because foundational to Jesus’ approach was a desire to unsettle people, to shake up their worlds. He wasn’t just about the bullet-point truths He wanted to communicate, but was instead equally concerned with using those truths like bullets, aimed right at the comfortable compromise and error of His audience.

Almost everyone I encounter thinks they “get” Christianity. They have wrapped it up in a bundle with a nice little bow. This is the grounds on which some of my friends reject the whole thing, and also the reason some others accept it but make so little of it. It is, as Lewis says, a “tame lion.” But God in Scripture is simply not capable of being so packaged, so tamed. He is, by definition, in the business of toppling our holy cows. I want to constantly seek out the unexpected and uncomfortable in Scripture, both to challenge my own heart and mind and also to challenge those who mistakenly think they know exactly what to expect.

As a side note, this is why I’m so uncomfortable with predictable preaching. Too often when sharing God’s word we settle into comfortable ruts, hammering the same nails of application over and over. The problem is that people, just like Jesus, are also moving targets. They can err in any number of directions. One of the challenges of good biblical preaching is that we need to create the tensions that characterize Scripture itself. We have to, as it were, hit the nail on both ends.

Second, I want to communicate Christianity in a way that is human. Now, this is an emphasis which might at first sound strange. We as Christians often emphasize the centrality of God to our religion, and this is perfectly right. God is the hero of Scripture, the center of the universe, the One to whom all glory and honor belong. We certainly shouldn’t seek to place ourselves on the throne of heaven.

Yet with this important qualifier in place, the Bible is a remarkable human book. It is full of stories about human beings, in human history, doing peculiarly human things. One of the most common causes for confusion I hear from people is just how non-transcendent much of Scripture is. It is full of stories of misguided crusaders, hapless buffoons and struggling saints. What’s more, Scripture spends a huge amount of space dealing with peculiarly human issues. We often draw back from the Old Testament for this very reason, full as it is of discussions about food laws, agricultural regulations and who (and what) you should and shouldn’t have sex with. Yet the New Testament doesn’t part ways with this earthy approach to spirituality either. Paul discusses what kinds of meat we can eat and when, and repeatedly deals with issues of sexuality, marriage, family and vocation. Jesus himself discusses things as mundane as washing hands and as uncomfortably current as government taxation. Like it or not, Scripture is deeply rooted in the humanness of our lives.

This is because, at root, the study of God is unavoidably also the study of humanity. It is we as humans to whom Scripture is addressed, and the point of its story is to teach us how to live as God’s true humanity. The more we say about Divinity, the more we must of necessity be saying about we creatures who bear His image. Theology, therefore, must be deeply practical, and it must be practically applied to the whole of our existence, including all those things like eating, working, marrying and lovemaking which often seem too contaminated with matter to be the focus of “serious” theology.

Taking cues from this, I want to communicate a Christianity which is a voice in this dialog about what it means to be a human being. Too often, in the name of spirituality, we have abandoned this enterprise, communicating to people that we are only discussing some (negligible) subset of life we call “faith.” We need instead to insist that Christianity defies such artificial boundaries. Discussing Scripture is a discussion about sociology and economics and romance and politics and the daily, hourly stuff of our lives. We must reclaim the fact that Christ has come to teach us the truest way to be human, and emphatically not to tell us such concerns are beneath Him.

Third, I want to portray Christianity as something that is freeing. Our cultural perception of religion is something that is repressive and crushing. Now, some of this is mere propaganda – if repression simply means that God asks us to do something more than satisfy our basest appetites whenever the urge takes us, the repressed we ought to be. However, there is a strong history of a Christianity which is grim and lifeless, which traffics much in tears and never in laughter. I have known brothers and sisters so wrapped up in guilt and shame that my soul gains 20 pounds just talking with them.

This dour approach to Christianity misses the foundation of our religion, that of grace. Grace, the great offer of the cross, sets us free from the weight of our guilt. While we weep over our sin, those tears are always mixed with tears of joy at the fact that sin no longer has power over us. We are children of a God we cannot wound, who does not waver and who chooses in every event to embrace us with the same love He showed Christ. As such, as Luther grasped so well, every occasion of sin is also an opportunity for joy – not a joy which makes light of what we have done, but a deep and profound gratitude that God’s favor has not been reduced by one iota though we have sought to profane it.

The Christian life is a life of unbelievable freedom. Now, this seems strange to those of us who were raised with the call to be “slaves of Christ.” Yet the point of this image in Scripture is that the slavery of God is in truth no slavery at all. We inevitably bind ourselves, in this world, to a thousand masters. We are bound by our appetites, by our wealth, by our sin and by the oppression this world mistakes for true power. Our slavery to God is not like these other slaveries. They dehumanize us. They shrink us. They put us on the treadmill chasing promises of fulfillment we can never fulfill. In Christ, Ephesians 5 tells us, we find the only master who loves us without partiality and showers blessings upon us. Christ’s bondage is in truth freedom, and we must learn to relish the freedom of living out the life of joy and flourishing which He calls us to.

To put it succinctly: Christianity is not about repression, but rather rejoicing. True Christianity always sets people free. It sets them free to acknowledge their sin, because it is already dealt with on the cross. It sets them free to falter in their pursuit of holiness, because their growth is a promise of God, not a product of their best intentions. It sets them free to pursue holiness because it holds forth the life of Christ as a model, not of some arbitrary asceticism, but of vibrant and rich living. Christians should be people of honesty as deep as the cross, hope as unexpected as the resurrection, and spirits as light as the yoke of Christ. To communicate these realities with grimaces and scowls is to fail to communicate them at all.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I want to seek to communicate Christianity in a way that shows it is beautiful. Hans Urs Von Balthasar, a 20th-century Catholic thinker I find in turns fascinating, frustrating and incomprehensible (I’ll confess, perhaps more the third than the first two) has challenged me in this area over the last few years. He organizes his discussion of theology around the three fundamental attributes of being – Goodness, Truth and Beauty – and argues that the third, while perhaps the most crucial for our Christian witness, is often the most lacking.

This loss of beauty, according to von Balthasar, leads to a profound distortion of the other two as well. “No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man.” Without beauty, Christian ethics loses its motive power – “the self-evidence of why [the good] must be carried out.” Without beauty, theological (and all other) truths cease to inspire. “[S]yllogisms may still dutifully clatter away like rotary presses or computers which infallibly spew out an exact number of answers by the minute. But the logic of these answers is itself a mechanism which no longer captivates anyone.” (All quotes from von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, Vol. 1 “Seeing the Form” 18-19)

This centrality of beauty strikes the string in my heart missing from the chord of Christianity in much of my upbringing. Truth and goodness were grim, dour forces, and my heart’s failure to embrace them was simply ground away at until I (hopefully) capitulated. However, without beauty, the Christian message is always a distortion no matter how carefully argued and applied. Our Scriptures start with a creation poem; their midpoint is a set of heartfelt songs, and their conclusion a heart-wrending picture of the world to come. If we have not spoken of God in a way that provokes wonder and fear and worship, we have not spoken of Him at all.

There is an error some commit at this point, that of confusing this sort of beauty with mere pleasantness. There are those who want to make Jesus “acceptable” and claim this as a quest for His beauty, but the two quests actually work toward opposite ends. Beauty is transcendent; pleasantness is trite. Encountering real beauty shakes us to our centers, forcing us to realize we are confronting something larger than we are. The quest for a Christianity which is palatable instead makes it something too small to disturb us at all. The central picture of beauty in our faith, and thus the central picture of beauty in our cosmos, is a brutal, wicked crucifixion, a wooden stake soaked with the blood and sweat and emptied bowels of the Lord of the universe. We can rejoice in the beauty of the cross, but it can never be pleasant.

Yet while there are those who seek to replace the complex tones and colors of Christianity with an inoffensive Kincaid painting, this is not the only error we can make. We can paint just as distorted a picture with our charts and figures, our severe black-and-white diagrams of God. We need to seek to help people encounter the glory of the Lord, the wonder of divine love, to show them why their hearts should rise and their souls thrill at the truths we teach. Until I have undertaken this quest, I am convinced any picture of the Savior I seek to paint is at best a caricature and at worst a grotesquerie.

This quest is perhaps most crucial today because our modern world has lost any appetite for true beauty. We hardly recognize it any more. We call women beautiful when we want to have sex with them, cars beautiful when we want our friends to see us driving them, and morals beautiful when they keep other people from interfering with our quest for the first two items. It is this distorted picture of true beauty, more than a lack of practical guidelines or intellectual truths, which short-circuits most of our journeys of faith. Only by having our hearts reshaped and expanded can we see the nobleness of self-sacrificial love, the wonder of divine revelation, and the splendor of a crucified Savior. Only by helping people glimpse the beauty of Christianity can I hope to help them know it at all.

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