BLOOD & STONE:
VIOLENCE IN THE BIBLE & THE EYE OF THE ILLUSTRATOR
by Barry Moser

BARRY MOSER published his irreverent take on the Three Little Pigs (Little Brown) just as the term ended at Smith College where he taught, with Karl Donfried, a course on the Bible as art. This fall he will be the Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at the University of Louisville, and the Geneva Lecturer at Queens College, Kingston. (For more on Barry Moser and his engravings.)

Faith, hope, and love may be the cardinal virtues, but the overriding theme of the Bible is blood and stone.

In every beginning there is darkness.
The darkness of chaos seems eternal,
Yet form emerges: light dawns, and life is born.
-- The Sixth Service of the New Union Prayerbook

Art always meditates on death, and thus creates life.
-- Flannery O'Connor

The big bad wolf huffs and puffs and blows down the houses of two little pigs. Pigs who had unwisely built their security of ephemera -- straw and sticks. And as a result of their ill-contrived folly, the Wolf eats them.

Or so he does in the edition I illustrated.(1) In one scene we see the Wolf, resting, full-bellied amidst the ruin and rubble of his gluttony, wiping his sated mouth with the late pig's blue kerchief. We can feel a nap about to come over him as he kicks back in a landscape strewn with sticks, a bucket of picked-clean bones, a roll of paper towels, and empty jars of spicy, "no-cook" barbecue sauces.

This telling is taken from the classic unsanitized version of the tale, the one where the first two pigs are eaten and the wolf prevails -- that is, until the end of the story when his improvidence and gluttony drive him to plunge down the chimney of the third pig's brick house and he becomes not merely scalded, but the main ingredient of a garlicky wolf-stew.

It seems likely that the original teller might have taken his cue from the Bible, given the similarities between the tales of myth and holy writ, and the morals they hold so dear: the clear distinction between good and evil, and the import and value of wisdom. And always, cohort and companion in these mythic or sacred stories, there is the preponderance, the vehemence, of violence.

Consider Second Chronicles 20:24. The writer shows us a landscape strewn with corpses. From a watchtower in the wilderness we see, with Judah, that the inhabitants of Seir have been utterly destroyed. Thousands of dead bodies have fallen to the earth. None escaped. This is but one of myriad biblical events that fulfill the Psalmist's joyous hope of the day when his people's feet will be dipped in the blood of their enemies. Blood, as Zephaniah says, that will pour out like dust (Zeph. 1:17). Blood, as the Psalmist says, that the dogs will lap up (Ps. 68:23).

Only Bible readers who wear the thickest rose-colored glasses can fail to notice all the blood and violence that fill its pages. But if we are observant and curious readers who do notice, how can we help but ask why? Why this abundance of violence and blood in the Holy Writ of two religions whose espoused, primary tenets are peace and good will toward others? Religions that tell us that redemption will come only "when we master the violence that fills our world?"(2)

Jephthah's Daughter
The engraving is from The Holy Bible: King James Version (Barry Moser, Illustrator)
courtesy R. Michelson Galleries, Northhampton, MA, www.rmichelson.com.

 

Ironically, violence plays a mighty role in the birth of both Judaism and Christianity.

Judaism was born out of the violence that is slavery, and subsequently out of the violent deaths of thousands of helpless, order-following foot soldiers in Pharaoh's army, trapped (like the crew of the submarine Kursk) when Yahweh brought the walls of the sea down upon them. Sea water, turbulent, heavy with salt, crushing, rolling with violent undercurrents, ravaging foot soldiers, charioteers, and horses alike, as Moses and his people -- the ones fortunate enough to have made it this far -- escape unharmed into the promised land.

Likewise Christianity was born out of the violence that is the crucifixion, bought and paid for by the tortured body and the disembogued blood of Christ. Flesh and blood that will constitute sacramental sustenance for generations of believers to come.

But all sustenance, even the most common, necessarily begins with violence. We slaughter the steer. We quarter the hog. We pull living roots and vegetables out of the earth. Our common sustenance -- that which feeds our body and sates our pangs of physical hunger -- is born of death and violence. Our spiritual sustenance -- that which sustains the soul and essence -- is also born of violence, but becomes, through transubstantive succor, a way to sate the violent, hungry magma of the self. The ironies of body and soul, of life and death.

Thus since blood & violence and blood & flesh are the paving stones of the Judeo-Christian paths, it should come as no surprise that the writings that underpin these two great religions are rife with ferocity and fury. I can only wonder if they were written that way to remind ancient congregations of the scope and reach of their violent history. Or to remind them of the grand and terrifying violence of which their God was capable. Or perhaps to help them celebrate their own might and power, which subjoined the force of their Yahweh.

Perhaps the answer is simpler than we expect. Perhaps in order to understand and accept the universal presence of the savage and the violent, the ancient writers posited a world of ruin and rebirth: A sense that out of eternal darkness "form emerges. . . light dawns, and life is born. . . [That]. . . Order reigns where chaos once held sway."(3) Perhaps, too, the human mind and heart, somehow able to perceive the very uproar and din of the universe's fierce creation, remembers. And in remembering, they write.

Throughout the Tanakh they write of abuse -- familial and fraternal -- and of violence. In the early pages of Genesis we read the story of Cain and his jealous rage against Abel, his brother. Just how Cain kills Abel isn't known. Perhaps he cuts his throat, which would be a prefigurement of all the blood sacrifices to come. Perhaps he lifted a heavy stone and crushed Abel's skull. This is the scenario I imply in my engraving of "The Death of Abel," where Abel lies dead among stones (Gen 4:8). Murdered, left naked on a shroud, a striped shroud made of fabric recalling the uniforms worn by prisoners in Birkenau, Treblinka, Sachsenhausen, and Buchenwald.

And I could argue here with Mark Twain that the creation of Adam and the events that led to his fall from grace and our inherited despondency of death, was an act of violence toward Adam by God himself. After all, Adam did not know death -- so how could he have fathomed its consequences?(4) Twain takes his contention and contumely one step further, noting that a modern parent who treated a son with such duplicity and contempt would be guilty of child abuse.

Three chapters later God turns truly violent. With righteous wrath and indignation God lashes out against man and all creation. We read that "all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man: all in whose nostrils was the breath of life. . . Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark" (Gen. 7:21).

I think it's curious that we tell old Noah's story to children in Sunday school classes. And that commercial publishers keep printing versions of the ark story, plentifully illustrated with cute pairs of animals, tended by a portly and kind Noah. But -- when the story is truly and honestly visualized, how far into the representation would we get? How real would we make it for the little ones? What would we want them to see? What would we let them see? Thousands of wicked people -- mothers and fathers, children and teenagers, brothers and sisters -- and millions of animals, all being dashed against stones and boulders, being lifted out of their homes and flushed through frenzied, murky, and blood-colored waters, their lungs filling, their eyes bulging, their drowning deaths imminent? Is this what we want to be taken from the story? Or must we sanitize the particulars in order to teach the larger, broader lesson? And if in so doing, do we ultimately enfeeble the true lesson by scrubbing the horrific details from the story?

And consider too how God, further on in Genesis, flagrantly destroys Sodom and Gomorrah with "brimstone and fire." Another Sunday school lesson that is taught with cartoon pictures, a violent story sans the violence. No close-ups, no burned and scorched flesh, no agonized mourners. Just swift, clean, unfathomable justice (Gen. 19:24).

Not long after that old Abraham is prepared to cut the throat of his beloved son, on God's inscrutable orders, intended to make Abraham prove himself. Yet another pervasive and powerful Sunday school lesson devoid of all the implications of what would have happened if God's angels had not stayed Abraham's hand (Gen. 22:9-13).

Sacrifice, a central tenet of Judaism and Christianity, is implicitly violent. A young bullock is killed, its throat slit, its blood drained. The animal struggles until its death-throes cease. Its blood, a source of purification, is sprinkled on the altar. The violence continues as the animal is flayed, quartered, and burnt. Barbecues for a demanding God who seems (according to the Tanakh) to relish blood sacrifices and burnt offerings.

In the Christian Bible we confront the cruel and sanguinary sacrifice of Jesus Christ, God's own son -- the ultimate act of violence. But once again, do we see that blood, that cruelty, and that violence in the images of the crucifixion? Not often. It has been leached off. Pared away. Hidden behind platitudes or the commonplace appearance of a sweet, languid Jesus attached without stress to his cross. Only a handful of paintings have dared show the agony that accompanies death by crucifixion. Death brought on, slowly, by exposure to the scorching sun. Sun that sears and blisters the flesh. Brought on by exposure to scavenger birds, who -- perching with sharp talons on naked and bloodstained shoulders -- peck out eyes, going for brains. Brought on by exposure to scavenger dogs that bite and rip the flesh of the lower legs and feet, mercifully expediting death. And finally brought on by asphyxiation -- breathe in, but can't breathe out. Perhaps, toward the end, it was so horrific that even a battle-forged soldier could stand it no longer and thrust a spear into Jesus' heart bringing His suffering to an end.

So why all the violence? All the blood and burning in the sacred texts?

I think they are warnings to all listeners, readers, and believers of the dire and mortal consequences of sin and disobedience. And I also think they are simple, vivid images that inflate and decorate good yarns, making them more instructive and memorable. Violence adds impulse and vigor to the tales we tell ourselves and to the narratives of admonition and exhortation. Like salt, it adds flavor to bland food, or when rubbed into a wound, burns while it heals.

In an article in Teaching Tolerance,(5) Sara Bullard addressed the question of what makes violence attractive as a recurring theme in art -- from great literary works like Beowulf and Shakespeare all the way to the lyrics of gangsta rap. She concludes that violence in art serves a valuable sociological function, allowing us to recognize the ultimate frailty of human life. And when we create our songs and stories and pictures out of experiences of violence, we are somehow civilizing it, taming it, creating something which becomes a tool, a legacy, to further educate and civilize those who follow us. I believe this is even more true of the Bible, where the violence that rends lives and destroys civilizations, creates in us simple, yet stark and vivid images which amplify and decorate the historical stories, making them all the more powerfully pedagogical and memorable. The biblical reality of blood and death opens a way to greater wisdom and light.

As an illustrator, I am required to imagine these events. Indeed, I am required by the narrative mandate of my art to re-present them. And in doing this I must see them clearly, and with no faintness of heart, no averting of eyes. I cannot allow myself the mummery of fabrication and equivocation. Nor will I, as an artist, allow sweetness and light to burrow in where bitterness and darkness dominate story, plot, and theme. I must remind my audience of exactly what I see in what I read. When I consider the slaughter of the Egyptians in Exodus, I must imagine just how God smote them, how they were attacked, scourged, struck, and killed by God's destroyer. I must behold the horrible ways in which the destroyer killed those innocent children, children who were guilty only by virtue of their birth. My eyes must never fail to see the horrific details -- Were they suffocated? Were they bludgeoned? Were they disemboweled? Were they screaming out for their mothers? Their fathers? (Exod. 12:23).

I have been criticized, and will continue to be criticized, I imagine, for making images for the Bible that are too dark. Criticized for having gravitated so much toward death and blood. It has been said that the exceptionally dark tone of my images is inappropriate for, say, the Pauline epistles that focus so strongly on God's miraculous gift of grace. That by passing over the miracles and parables of the Gospels I missed the critical dimensions that have been central to the Bible's longevity, impact, and meaning for humanity.(6)

And perhaps this is right. I don't know. But I do know that Paul (or Apollos) tells us there is no forgiveness of sins without the shedding of blood (Heb. 9:22). Faith, hope, and love may be the cardinal virtues, and they may be the enduring message, but for me the over-riding theme of the Bible is blood and stone -- the blood of sacrifice and the stone of redemption. It is the eternal and omnipresent conflict between good and evil. The tension between light and dark. And I would much rather bear the burden for descrying and witnessing to the blood and stone I see within those hallowed pages than to be accused of eviscerating the text with piety or betraying it with sweetness and vacuity. The Bible, whether we like it or not, is full of sound and fury, not saccharine fluff. Full of a fire and ferocity that share at least equal time with love and redemption. And reading it we ought not avert our eyes, because by not averting our eyes we come more painfully face to face with the truth and goodness that thrives amidst the fierceness.

Flannery O'Connor once said that moral judgments are part of the very act of seeing(7) and that everything has its testing point in the eye.(8) And so we must use our eyes, our senses, to experience fully the mysterious mix of dark and light in the pages of the Bible. Too many limners (and readers and exegetes) of Holy Writ have shied away from the violence and difficulties of the real text and instead of wrestling with the terrible and eternal verities that are within its pages, have fed us "Bible Lite."(9) A marrowless version sanitized of pointed meaning and significance that is fit only for pallid minds, a watery substitute for the real thing -- a wolf merely scalded, not the main ingredient of a garlicky wolf-stew.

Engravings from The Holy Bible: King James Version (Barry Moser, Illustrator), courtesy of R. Michelson Galleries, Northampton, Mass., www.rmichelson.com.

Notes

1. [Back to text]  Barry Moser, The Three Little Pigs (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 2001).

2. [Back to text]  The New Union Prayerbook, 211.

3. [Back to text]  Ibid., 208.

4. [Back to text]  Mark Twain, The Bible According to Mark Twain, ed. Baetzhold and McCullough (New York: Touchstone Press, 1995), 319-20.

5. [Back to text]  Sara Bullard, "Gangstawulf: Examining the Allure of Violence in Lyric Form," Teaching Tolerance (Spring 1998): 16.

6. [Back to text]  In an unsolicited review of the Pennyroyal Caxton Bible posted on amazon.com.

7. [Back to text]  Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1961), 31.

8. [Back to text]  Ibid., 91.

9. [Back to text]  A term I borrow from the Rev. David Smith, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi.

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