Tony Cummings looks at the controversy and accusations of "Yin Yang" content of the painting illustrating this year's Cross Rhythms Festival.
When I first saw a photograph of Jeff 'Dicken' Payne's painting of the Body of Christ I was thrilled by it. Here was a painting that boldly and powerfully brought vivid imagery out of the book of Revelation and spoke of the church in a manner that for me connected deep in my heart. I'd gotten to know Dicken a little through the performance of Lost And Found at last year's Cross Rhythms. I had learnt then that not only was Dicken in the early 70s one-time pop star with Mr Big, he was also an extremely gifted painter. In fact he'd been working on The Body Of Christ for over five years.
I sought and got Jeff's permission to reproduce the picture as the illustration for this year's Cross Rhythms: Destiny Calling festival. After an aborted attempt to spherize the painting, to represent planet Earth, the designers settled for a section of the picture in a circle against a 'space' background. Chris Cole, Jonathan Bellamy and I were all convinced that here was a powerful and apposite image to publicise a festival of Christian arts and ministry. None of us noticed that by placing Christ in a circle, Christ's raised arm inadvertently made a shape similar to the notorious yin-yang symbol of popular mysticism. It was only after the leaflets and posters were dispatched that the first criticisms came to our ears.
"An obvious attempt to portray a yin-yang symbol", "a scary depiction", "reminding me of a Moonie wedding" and "unacceptable New Age imagery" were some of the remarks and eventually letters that we received. Such virulent criticism drove the whole Cross Rhythms team to prayer. And then the "positives" began to emerge. Individuals were challenged to look again at their superstitious and religious assumptions. Many words of praise for Dicken's powerful painting were received. And, though it had never entered our minds, the controversy produced extra publicity with painter Dicken being interviewed on the radio and in the New Christian Herald. Dicken told NCH, "I'd never even heard of the yin-yang until I saw this article. I'm sorry some people were misled by the way my painting was presented. Now when I look at the picture in the leaflet, I just say 'Praise God that Jesus has redeemed the yin and the yang.' This situation should serve to remind people that Jesus has gone into the darkness to bring light. He's the symbol for any New Agers who accept Jesus as their Lord and Saviour."
On a personal level the controversy has led me to think hard about the theology of art and symbol, the occult and church history. It's a subject we will be returning to again soon. And we'll be making a start at the Cross Rhythms Festival an event at which Dicken will be attending to play music, to exhibit his paintings, and to join a public discussion where we'll thrash out further some of the issues the controversy has raised. At that public discussion Dicken will be joined by Chris Cole, CEO of Cross Rhythms, Vijay Panandikar, a pastor and one of Britain's leading authorities on the New Age Movement, Dimitri Tsouris, a West Country artist and administrator of the Cross Rhythms Arts Tent, and myself. Here then are some of my thoughts and insights to get the debate under way.
SYMBOL AS A CARRIER OF TRUTH
As evangelicals we clearly have a high regard for the Bible. Recognising it as the divine blueprint for all of us we (hopefully) examine it, study it and imbibe it. The problem is that many evangelicals, though recognising Scripture as the inspired and infallible word of God believe that doctrine and teachings are presented solely in propositional truth. Propositional truth is so called because it presents propositions - straight-ahead statements about the truth it presents, eg, "the Word was God" (John 1:1) and gives teaching (eg, "Flee youthful lusts" 2 Timothy 2:22).
Many evangelicals would be amazed to discover that propositional truth is NOT the only way truth is taught in the Bible. God has also arranged another mode of communicating his truth that compliments the propositional method: the representational or symbolic method. God has structured reality in such a way that symbols stand at its heart. Romans 1:18 teaches that God's invisible attributes are clearly manifest, seen and known in God's creation; Psalm 19:1-4 teaches that the heavens themselves declare God's glory to the ends of the earth; Genesis 1:26-27 says that man himself was made to bear God's image. In other words, God made all reality together and each part of reality separately, TO REVEAL HIMSELF. This is the primary and highest meaning of everything created: to reveal the glory of the creator God. Everything is a symbol of God, with man, the specific image-bearer, as a special symbol of himself.
Tragically, the Fall and all the devilish doctrines of scientific rationalism and humanism have blinded man's eyes to the potency of these symbols. In Christian conversion mankind begins to see God's glory in creation and created things with the Bible acting as a corrective lens for us to look through and see him in all reality.
Creation itself is a symbol (composed of a myriad of smaller symbols). And often the Bible reveals truth through symbols. The Lord Jesus calls himself "the Door" (John 10:7), "the Light of the world" (John 8:12), "the Good Shepherd" (John 10:11). Each of these symbols reveals something about the Lord Jesus' nature, character or actions.
God has constructed reality in such a way that symbols simultaneously carry multiple meanings. Primarily they symbolise God in one or more of his persons. Secondly, they mean themselves and related meanings (for example, 'a man' means a man, but may also mean a father, son, king, servant, etc). As said already, mankind's ability to rightly interpret these symbols as revealing God was greatly crippled by the Fall. Part of the Christian artist's calling is to help restore the primary meaning of Creation's symbols to men so that they might see God's Glory and turn to his service. This is especially true since artistry is essayed through the use of symbols.
This principal is clearly understood by Dicken. The symbolism of the Body of Christ, where Christ's shimmering robe is actually scores of human beings who make up his body, speaks in vivid power of the reality of the Church.
In the West we live in a post modem age. One of the sad outcomes of this is that mankind has not only rejected God, he now fails to see that God made reality one. All things interlock: all created things, as symbols, point to and reveal God on all levels. Modernity, the modern anti-Christian mindset, atomises - it attempts to split reality apart and say that things mean nothing beyond themselves (and thus, ultimately, nothing at all). So today we have the bizarre spectacle of dance clubs advertising all night raves with pictures of the Virgin Mary or advertisers selling cars to a musical background of the Hallelujah Chorus.
Symbols (and their literary equivalent allegory) should be an essential building block of Christian art. Many aspects and dimensions of the Christian life and the invisible realm cannot adequately be represented unless through symbol. Here of course there is a tension. Evangelicals, with their sometimes over-emphasis on propositional truth and their inability to value symbolism or paradox have long been suspicious or even hostile to oblique symbol or poetic metaphor. For some believers unless, for example, a song lyric is a bald, artless paraphrase of Scripture it is considered a worldly compromise on the part of the songwriter. Such cultural rigidity is a theological misunderstanding of the nature of art and the role of symbol. Songs that paraphrase Scripture and paintings that represent historic scenes from Bible history have validity. But to limit art to the narrow confines of propositional Scriptural truth is to do something to the Bible for which it was not intended.
SYMBOL AS A CARRIER OF LIES
The Greenbelt mainstage performance of Sheffield's Nine O'Clock Service in 1992 created a furore. Organiser Chris Brain, influenced as it was by post modernist thought sought to both celebrate sexuality and worship God but in a series of images - including semi-erotic images and yin-yang symbols - merely showed that the primary meaning of a symbol is both important and powerfully emotive. The wrong-headed idea that Brain expounded, that images can be 'redeemed' merely by mixing them up with traditional religious imagery, was demonstrated to be patently false.
Some symbols have been used for vast periods of time for occult purposes. The hexagram or the swastika (originating from India's elephant goddess) originating from anti-Christian practices and belief have such a close correlation with evil that possibly the best 'redemption' for them is that these ancient geometric designs are allowed to fall into misuse. But the vast majority of signs and symbols have clearly ORIGINATED by God and for his purposes and will ultimately be redeemed by him regardless of their momentary misuse by sinful man.
One of the saddest spectacles in today's current furore about the New Age is to see Christians objecting to pictures of rainbows as a "New Age image". The Devil's unnerving ability to steal goes unchecked if believers blithely allow symbols, even symbols created directly by God's hand like the rainbow, to be stolen by occultists and New Agers.
Christian imagery has been pillaged by the cults since time immemorial. But just because the cults see value of, for instance, the image of a throng of people dressed in white; to call such an image "like a Moonie wedding" completely disregards the powerful images and symbols of Scripture. Christians need to go on the offensive reclaiming and redeeming imagery stolen by Satan.
There are few areas of doctrine where less balance is demonstrated than in matter concerning the occult and New Age. Coloured in their thinking by rationalistic humanism, large parts of the Church pay scant regard to the teachings of the Bible that our reality is affected by demonic forces and spiritual strongholds. They have no effective response to the growth of occult activity. But alongside those who dismiss talk of a demonic realm as a hangover from less enlightened times, there is another swathe of Christians, belonging to the charismatic/Pentecostal arms of the church, who have become over-fascinated with the demonic and who've allowed a healthy rejection of the occult to mutate into fear and suspicion. Seeing demons under the bed they fail to demonstrate any biblical discernment.
Balance - neither disregarding the Enemy's spiritual realm nor giving it more attention and credit than it deserves - is sorely needed in the Body of Christ. The Cross Rhythms Festival is very aware of the dangers of the occult. Some of its volunteer workers have been released from profound satanic bondage and I personally experienced something of the dark side when writing/researching the Evangelical Alliance booklet Doorways To Danger. But to feel threatened by a picture of Christ in a circle because the curve of his arm makes a yin-yang symbol or to feel that a fashion show on the theme of creation is intrinsically "New Age" is to show an immaturity and suspicion from which we need to be set free.
THE CHURCH'S CULTURAL INHERITANCE 1
We need to briefly pause here to recall a little church history. In the middle pre-Reformation church there was a cultural highpoint in religious art. Great timeless oratorios were written, great paintings painted. But spiritual corruption and unbiblical practices within the church were allowed to develop unchecked. These practices included iconography, the veneration and even worship of religious paintings and statues, which was an offence to God and all those who sought to follow him. The misuse of religious art understandably drew forth a vigorous response from the reformers. But in their zeal to deal with the idolatry of worshipping statues and paintings, over-reaction set in. In the name of spiritual reform beautiful artefacts were broken and stained glass windows smashed.
In the waves of reformation, schism and renewal which has subsequently affected the post Reformation Church, there has emerged a powerful strand of non-conformist Protestant ideology. This section of the church viewed the bulk of Christian visual arts as being tantamount to an inducement to idolatry. In many denominations churches were banned from displaying any religious painting, particularly those portraying Christ. This view is still held in most non-conformist churches today. For these believers, church buildings were to be austere, even ugly places with no distractions from the preaching of the word.
The non-conformist aversion to the Christian arts is gradually beginning to change. Banners made by congregation members can now be seen in all kinds of churches. And Christian drama and dance groups have sprung up in many non-conformist denominations. But even today paintings of Christ, acceptable and indeed inspiring to believers in Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, draw suspicion or hostility from many evangelicals and charismatics.
THE CHURCH'S CULTURAL INHERITANCE 2
Having rejected much of the art, and attitudes towards the arts of the pre-Reformation church, Christians seemed reluctant to involve themselves in artistic endeavours, except at times when Holy Spirit revival strikes. It is an irrefutable matter of history that wherever there is a fresh wind of the Holy Spirit there is a sudden escalation of human creativity. But though in Britain God inspired the great hymnody of the Wesleyan Revival by the 19th century scientific rationalism, propelled by Darwin's theory of evolution, had resulted in a crisis of confidence in much of the Western church. It's ability to produce new and relevant art began to wane. The same was true in America. The Great Awakening revival had heralded in the birth of African American improvisational music - the roots of rock 'n' roll - but by the 1920s jazz and the blues had been commandeered by a hedonistic culture ("the Devil stole the beat") and the church was misguidedly spending more time denouncing immoral and ungodly culture rather than pioneering its own arts.
In more recent times, with the rise of evangelicalism, and its efforts to seize back the Scriptures from the reductionist liberal theologians, the Church has slowly begun to drift back into the arts. But the motivation for this move has sometimes been as much to build comfort zones for its embattled believers, by now transparently out of step with a scientific age, than to rejoice in the liberty of God-breathed creativity.
American commentator Franky Schaeffer powerfully critiqued modern evangelicalism's prejudiced, inward-looking and aesthetically debased attitude towards the arts in his powerful book Addicted To Mediocrity. No statement in that book was more telling than the front cover which showed a house painter, complete with evangelical 'fish' patch on his overalls, rolling white paint over Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling!
Schaeffer tellingly ridiculed a Christian mindset that would applaud and support bad art, as long as it had appropriately bold 'Christian' content (a Scripture verse on a photo of a waterfall or some banal Jesus song). Almost two decades on from Franky Schaeffer's book, there is still much in Christian cultural circles, undergirded as it is by a sloganeering utilitarianism, which is still embarrassing and third rate. The plastic trinkets and 'Jesus junk' sold in most Christian bookshops or the puerile bleating of the best-selling Cedarmont Kids albums are grim demonstrations that some 'Christian' art is a manifestation of religious insecurity rather than an effective counter-culture.
The deficiencies of the "cosy Christian subculture" have played a part in driving some Christians to dramatically throw the baby out with the bath water. In both Britain and America we have the sad spectacle of liberal churchgoers and 'post evangelicals' going to great lengths to support the arts, with complete disregard for the message of the art they enjoy. Showing a profound dualism, they take pleasure in the medium regardless as to how contrary to biblical teaching and morality is the message. So we have the bizarre spectacle of a liberal theologian writing in a US arts magazine praising the writings of contemporary novelist John Updike for their spiritual profundities (Updike's books are obscene and profoundly misogynist) or Dave Tomlinson suggesting in his book The Post Evangelicals that music might be enjoyed even though blasphemous.
The quality clearly missing from both the mediocrity-addicted and the discernment lacking worldly is balance.
The use of symbol for good and bad, attitudes about religious art, superstition and the occult, an enculturalised and inward-looking religious worldview - these then are some of the issues I believe all Christians who responded negatively to Dicken's Body Of Christ painting need to consider. But let me end with a footnote. Cross Rhythms has in the past parted company with more than one Christian festival who, priding themselves on 'pushing back the boundaries of Christian involvement in art', or some such, have ridden roughshod over the feelings and sensibilities of many sincere Christians. I will reiterate it was never our intention to be contentious. (And incidentally, we have written personally to everyone who has contacted us with a criticism of our publicity leaflet/poster saying how sorry we were that they were disturbed.) We all carry cultural baggage into the Kingdom of God and none of us are completely free of the ability to cause offence. It is my hope and prayer that the ongoing debate will be carried out in a language and attitude of love and that all those believers who've taken the time and trouble to think through these issues will grow in wisdom.
View all articles by Tony Cummings