Piss Christ and defending the deity

Courier article

In 1987 the American artist Andres Serrano created a photograph that caused much controversy in Christian circles. The image was of a small plastic crucifix suspended in a glass of the artist’s own urine and it was, naturally, called ‘Piss Christ’.

When I first heard about this, and saw the image, my initial reaction was ‘yawn – someone else trying to get shock value from appearing radical’ and to move on to more interesting things. I didn’t think much more about it until I made a passing reference to Serrano’s ‘delinquency’ in an article. This provoked a conversation with a friend that made me look closer at the image and the levels of meaning that it contains.

After all, suspending a crucifix in piss is a rather apt image for the way that secular culture treats Christianity. The culture doesn’t take Christianity seriously enough to want to attack Christians with physical violence, so it just pours scorn upon it. The dominant culture feels that it has won the argument against Christianity and so doesn’t feel the need to engage with Christian claims at any depth. Christianity is simply something to be excreted along with the other rubbish that the body politic has digested.

More deeply than this, however, is the sense that the photograph can be seen as presenting a profound theological truth. That is, Christians claim that Jesus was the Son of God. The crucifixion, therefore, and everything associated with it – the beating and flogging, the insults and spitting, along with the execution itself – tells us something important about the nature of God, and how we human beings relate to the divine. What the crucifixion says (amongst many other things!) is that God cannot be equated with human glory. There was no more shameful way to die than crucifixion, and this presented a huge problem to the early church. How can the promised Messiah be someone hung up to die on a tree? Yet this is precisely the mysterious wonder at the heart of Christian faith – that our own notions of what is glorious are what need to be re-examined. We preach Christ crucified, a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.

One of the most important implications that flow from this is that God doesn’t need to be defended. If God can be glorified even in the cross, then what is left that God needs to be protected from? The whole notion is absurd. It would be rather like putting a giant wall up in space to defend the sun from attack by nuclear missiles. The Sun is perfectly capable of protecting itself.

Hence, for the first few hundred years of the Christian faith, when it experienced its greatest growth and ended up converting an entire Empire, there simply was no ‘defence’ of Christianity in any physical sense. The early believers allowed themselves to be thrown to the lions in the Roman arena rather than deny their faith – and taking up arms would itself be such a denial. Those early believers were called martyrs, a word that simply means ‘witness’, because they were pointing to the truth of the faith, a faith that did not, indeed could not, be advanced by force of arms.

This has had profound consequences for Christian culture, not least in terms of providing room for the growth of free speech. If a dominant religion does not need protection from being insulted – for it was born out of the greatest insult that human beings could offer – then there is no need to exercise such control over free speech that insults represent. A mature faith can simply laugh it off and move on, regarding it as like the babblings of a toddler, just beginning to appreciate the effects of words.

Wittgenstein once wrote: “Humor is not a mood but a way of looking at the world. So if it is correct to say that humor was stamped out in Nazi Germany, that does not mean that people were not in good spirits, or anything of that sort, but something much deeper and more important.”

What the Christian understanding of glory – and truth, and witnessing, and violence – allows for is room to laugh. Room for satire and absurdity, room for all the ways in which we can transgress and play, all the ways in which we can be queer and eccentric and odd – dare I say, room for the religious to wear silly dresses and make up and prance around on a stage? At the heart of the Christian claim is the faith that God has acted in the world to put things right, that we have been saved. The natural consequence of such salvation is joy and laughter, a release from an obligation to take things too seriously, for fear that if we don’t, those things that are precious to us will be taken away.

Which leads, of course, to the question that needs to be put to those of another faith, which may not have such confidence. Is it possible for a faith that was established through violent military victories, and which experienced its greatest growth as part and parcel of those military victories, and which raises up as the ideal man someone who was violent and led such military victories – is it possible for such a faith to co-exist with satire and absurdity, with comedy and pantomime? Is it possible for such a faith to detach itself from the identity that was formed and established through military victories in such a way that it can live in peace with those that it has not conquered? Or is it true what the Ayatollah Khomeini said, “There is no room for play in Islam . . . . It is deadly serious about everything.” Rather a lot depends upon the answer.