There is a crucified stormtrooper hanging on the wall of St Stephen Walbrook church in the City of London, forming part of a ‘Stations of the Cross’ exhibition. The parish priest, the Rev’d Stephen Baxter, has literally been in situ for a matter of days. He inherits this ‘art’ from his predecessor the Rev’d Jonathan Evens, who is quoted in the Times as saying that the crucified stormtrooper is “designed to provoke thought from artists grappling with their response to the challenge and scandal of Christ’s Cross”.
He added: “For me this image raises similar questions to those CS Lewis raised in his science fiction trilogy, ie that were other artists to exist on other planets, would Christ be incarnated among those races in order to die for their salvation? Lewis’s view, which he sets out in the story, is that Christ would do so.”
You probably want to see a better close-up, don’t you?
Lovely, isn’t it?
Right up there with Leonard’s ‘Last Supper’ and Michelangelo’s ‘Pietà’.
Honestly, have you ever seen such a mass of mediocrity parading as Christian creativity? We know the world is fallen, but church is meant to be a place which leads the mind to transcendence and inculcates notions of spiritual perfection. How could a worshipper possibly sing ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’ with that image twisting itself into the mind? What does it say about God’s character? Are we supposed to be awed by the craftsmanship, or wonder at Christ’s creativity and diversity? ‘Hey, this Jesus guy was so cool he didn’t only die for you and me, but he died for for fictional stormtroopers, too.’
The crucified stormtrooper holds no poetry, no reality, no wisdom, no truth. It is so flat and grey in its perverted meaning (such as may be derived), and an insult to the gift of creativity which the Lord has invested in His image-bearers. Aren’t churches supposed to yield fruit? Isn’t this particular piece rather bitter? Is the Holy Spirit at work through it? Is graffiti sanctified by hanging it in a sacred place? Is a song made sublime simply by intoning crass spiritual slogans over and over again? Is profanity made acceptable beneath a veneer of religiosity?
Churches should, of course, be concerned with aesthetics: the arts are an immensely useful tool in communicating spiritual truth, and art has the power to change civilisations. But not all artists are great, and not all art is worthy of display in a church. When it might offend, confuse, dismay or incite, it plainly transgresses St Paul’s exhortation: ‘..whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things‘ (Phil 4:8).
Art is never neutral: it does something to us. We may read a book, watch a film or play, listen to music or gaze at a painting for pleasure, but they leave imprints on our moral and spiritual lives, even when we are oblivious to the artistic osmosis. The art that glorifies God has the effect of enlightening, inspiring, challenging and feeding our spirits: it changes us for the better. The other sort of art is really anti-art: it corrupts truth and confounds the pursuit of excellence, content, as it invariably is, with mediocrity, banality and baseness. It is ephemeral, fragmented and chaotic. It brings disorder and meaninglessness to our lives, and inculcates the death of God.
If you supplant Christ on the cross with a Star Wars stormtrooper, what are you actually saying about God’s unique sacrifice and the ultimate source of salvation? Didn’t the Rev’d Jonathan Evens bother to ponder that question?
Here’s an idea for St Stephen Walbrook to “provoke thought” about Christ’s universal salvation next year. Let them commission a ‘Stations of the Cross’ featuring Moses, Krishna, Guru Nanak, Buddha and Mohammed. Hang them all on a cross alongside Jesus, and then see what a “scandal” it might cause.