Editorial: The Image on Impact

Catherine Madsen
Scott Holland

To study religious imagery is to discover a good many more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our theologies. Metaphor outruns reason; where theology attempts a coherent and defensible statement of our relations with the universe, metaphor produces indefensible and incontestable flashes of insight. The final chorale in Bach's motet Christ lag in Todesbanden begins with a particularly unnerving image:

Hier ist das rechte Osterlamm,
davon Gott hat geboten,
das ist hoch an des Kreuzes Stamm
in heisser Lieb gebraten.

The German habit of putting the verb at the end of the sentence causes the stanza's accumulation of pious detail to turn suddenly utilitarian and shocking in the last line; a literal translation can give some idea of it. Here is the true Easter Lamb, whereof God has commanded, which is, high on the cross's stem, in hot love roasted. "Heiss," in the context, means something more like "ardent" than "hot" would mean to a speaker of American English -- but there are advantages to a narrow vocabulary: there is no absolute distinction between the meanings.

The image of the Lamb of God broiled on a spit, as for souvlaki, is outrageous for any age; in our own age it is unimaginable coming from anyone but a mocker. But for a long time believers produced images like this in all seriousness. Such images are the foundation stones of the Bible: the binding of Isaac, the prophets' equation of idolatry with adultery, the New Testament's "this is my body, this is my blood." In the devotional and mystical texts deriving from the Bible, both Jewish and Christian, the images have multiplied with a profusion that is sometimes hot in every possible sense: God as lover, Jesus as mother, the Torah as the skin of God. Such images arise wherever religion touches the whole personality. They cannot be suppressed without arising in a new place. Their very outrageousness breaks the bounds of decorum; beyond those bounds there remains only intimacy with the divine.

Modern liberal theologies have moved strongly away from images of this kind. Absorbed in the analysis and rectification of damaging power relations, intent on recasting the biblical demand for a just society in contemporary terms, liberal theologians have often shown a generalized aversion to metaphor, or a need to control it. Violent images have been especially criticized as dangerous survivals of patriarchal and authoritarian social forms, whose power is not yet broken and which must therefore be disabled even at the imaginative level. Yet the imagination cannot always manage this self-crippling task. Within every intimacy -- whether with the divine or the human other -- the potential for violence is present and must be confronted. Even if we confront it in order to refuse it, we must still understand its origins in the entanglement of power and helplessness, mutuality and dependency, solace and anguish, in all our ordinary relations.

The contributors to this collection are all firmly situated within liberal traditions: Jews and Christians who mistrust fundamentalist certitudes and who understand both social and theological change as religious imperatives. But many of them also dissent from certain habits of liberal theology, including its incomprehension of troubling images. In these essays they begin to redefine the terms on which we can think of the uneasy relations between religion and violence.

J. Denny Weaver establishes how high the stakes are: he considers the effect of the image of the dying Christ on the politics of crime and punishment. Weaver contends that traditional atonement theology, which casts the substitutionary death of Jesus as a satisfaction of God's honor, has sanctioned retributive justice at the expense of social justice. Through a new reading of the image of Christus Victor, Weaver proposes a christology that may be structurally immune to collusion with institutional violence.

In her challenging correspondence with David R. Blumenthal, Julie Shoshana Pfau subjects theological reasoning to the rigorous scrutiny of private life. Blumenthal's Facing the Abusing God (1993) suggests that we must understand God alternately (not simultaneously) as abusive parent and as object of trust and worship. Pfau's discomfort with this unresolvable tension leads to a strongly worded exchange and an extremely candid view of the ways we construct our working theologies.

Alicia Ostriker's poem-for-performance, "Jephthah's Daughter," anatomizes the profoundly disturbing narrative of misplaced sacrifice in Judges 11. As she faces the bitterness and grief of a wholly unnecessary death, as reported in the laconic biblical narrative, Ostriker considers the ambiguities of collective mourning and the tensions of the human bond with God in a ritual drama that is harrowing, wry and cathartic.

The image-maker's view of the image tends to be very different from the theologian's. Barry Moser's unsparing illustrations to the Caxton Pennyroyal Bible compel the reader to confront the darkness and difficulty of the biblical text. In "Blood & Stone: Violence in the Bible & the Eye of the Illustrator," Moser argues that the representation of violence may be integrative rather than destructive, and that the extraordinarily difficult legacy of biblical imagery can neither be fully accepted nor fully erased.

Feminism has raised the most serious of challenges to violence-as-usual, on every front from the domestic to the military. At the same time, feminist theology is still at the very beginning of its efforts to reconstruct God-language, and has sometimes made simplistic assumptions about the task. Catherine Madsen, in "Notes on God's Violence," argues that male God-language has been too easily dismissed, and that the image of the violent God may have a necessary role to play in feminist thinking.

The painfully contingent nature of our ethical life -- which is dependent on our bare need for food -- informs Alec Irwin's "Devoured by God," a meditation on the life and work of Simone Weil. Weil's fierce opposition to "force" was matched by the violence she inflicted on her own appetites; her life and death raise the question of how far nonviolence toward the other entails violence toward the self. For Irwin, they also raise uneasy questions about the reader's responsibilities to a writer of such demanding conscience.

Talmudic discussion looks at violence and much else with an unflinching scrutiny. Ira F. Stone, in an elegant analysis of the talmudic passage Sotah 2a, examines the nature of the nazirite vows and the ordeal of the wife suspected of adultery, suggesting that both situations have something to say about the intrinsic violence of vows. "The Precarious Ties That Bind Us," in the tradition of the talmudic readings of Emmanuel Levinas, restores an ancient and elliptical form of reasoning to powerful contemporary relevance.

Mary McCarthy once said that religion is only good for good people. The relationship of imagery to action is profoundly obscure; it cannot be predicted with certainty which images will lead to violence and which to mercy in any particular mind. What we may need to understand is how to accept the image as image and not as directive: how to consider it with an artist's judgment and not an idolater's compliance. It has been remarked that the Nazi mentality was incapable of metaphor, that to call people vermin was to commit oneself to exterminating them. That literalism is the mark of an imagination drunk on a sort of intellectual rotgut, like the devotees of the "roasted" Lamb of God who burned people at the stake. An image does demand a kind of obedience from us, but that obedience is not replication: it is attention, confrontation, revision and self-revision. To accept ourselves as the makers of images is already to have the means of their limitation -- the power to distinguish in our behavior between the violent image that integrates and the violent act that destroys.


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Source: Cross Currents, Summer 2001, Vol. 51,  No 2