In her book, “Saving Leonardo” Nancy Pearcey questions the sugary niceness of some “Christian” art. She suggests that a peaceful picture of Jesus caring for sheep is not actually true. She calls it a “sugary” message. If Jesus is simply a nice man who lived a good example for us then why was he crucified? It just doesn’t make sense. Clearly he inspired enough hatred to be so hated by the Jews and feared by the Romans.
I am reminded of so many peaceful still lives which portray spoiled fruit, strung up game, flowers laced with bugs. Certainly these portraits display the skill of the masters but they also highlight a cruel irony. They are a quiet and captured moment of both beauty and death. The lemon will be mold tomorrow, the bugs are spreading disease, the duck’s neck is broken.
Perhaps this is what makes oversimplified art so very terrible. We can look at a pretty picture of Jesus but we feel the edge because we are not contained as the image is within the frame. We can look at the prettiness of the lemon and the duck but we will also be there tomorrow when they are rotten. We know that our lives are laced with death and cruelty. If Christ came only to set a lovely moral example for us then wasn’t he a cruel and mocking God? If he came only to stroll among the sheep and pleasant meadows then can we turn to him in the valley of the shadow of death?
We know that we can because he entered into our picture so completely. He became the rotten lemon, the duck with his neck broken. He was a perfect moral example of what we can never do or be and he was a perfect example of innocence slaughtered. But the story does not stop there. Just as everyone was feeling very settled in the gallery admiring the shades of white in the duck’s plumage he spread his wings and flew out of the picture frame.
He did not leave us alone. He sent his life giving spirit within our picture. Death does not have the final say. We don’t need to freeze the frame right before the moment of rottenness in order to preserve beauty. We can submit ourselves to the evil core of death because we know that it has been conquered. If we are in Christ then we will see eternal life, even here and now within our limited picture frame. Only God can bring beauty out of ashes.