This is a guest post by Dr Carlton Johnstone, the Youth Ministry Development Leader for the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand.
Any Photograph is dependent on a series of historical, cultural, social, and technical contexts which establishes its meanings as an image and an object. The meaning of a photograph, its efficacy as an image, and its value as an object, are always dependent on the contexts within which we ‘read’ it. – Graham Clarke, The Photograph, (1997, 119).
The cross, originally a sign of torture and shame, was later to be invested with new meaning by the Christian community. As John Stott explains, ‘every religion and ideology has its visual symbols, which illustrates a significant feature of its history or beliefs’ (1986, 19). The cross and crucifixion are the most powerful and recognisable visual images of the Christian faith. This essay will present a sociological interpretation of two photos of the crucifixion. The first photo is of a muscular Christ taken from a T-shirt print (Coakley 1998, 498). To begin with, this image is an athletic construction of the crucifixion that reflects the dominant ideology of a movement called Muscular Christianity. Furthermore as self-worth becomes increasingly tied to body-image a muscular Christ is invested with new meaning. Following this I will consider how this photo is part of fashion and popular culture. Then I will discuss how Roland Barthes concept of anchorage influences how a person reads this image of a muscular Christ.
The second photo is of a sculptured work called ‘The Tortured Christ’, by Brazilian artist Guido Rocha (Weber, 1979, 41). In stands in striking contrast to the muscular Christ. Like the first image however, its technical reproduction as a photo has enabled it to be placed in situations unobtainable to the original sculpture. Then ‘The Tortured Christ’ as an image that creates a sense of both participation and alienation will be explored. Finally how the image speaks of a suffering God will be discussed.
Jay Coakley argues that, ‘When religious beliefs are combined with participation in power and performance sports, some people try to construct religious images and beliefs to fit their ideas about sports (1998, 498). The ‘Lord’s Gym’ picture of a muscular Christ is one such religious image that reflects the dominant values of a movement that has become known as ‘Muscular Christianity’. During the middle of the nineteenth century the idea that physical training and the condition of one’s body had spiritual and religious significance. Coakley (1998, 485) identifies two main reasons for this. Firstly there was a redefinition of leisure. Recreation was seen as beneficial to production. It was the religious organizations that provide much leadership and the physical setting for mass recreation. Secondly, there was a concern by church leaders that they were not attracting the participation of boys and young men. This resulted in a shift of focus from what they termed ‘feminized’ values (meekness, humility, and submissiveness) to a set of ‘manly values’, which developed into ‘Muscular Christianity’ (Coakley 1986, 357). The muscular Christ certainly has no hint of any such ‘feminized’ values. It does however reflect the central theology of Muscular Christianity that God is glorified best when athletes have dedication, self-discipline, and give totally of themselves in striving for success and victory. As one advocate for Muscular Christianity put it, no athlete, ‘can afford to discredit Jesus by giving anything less than total involvement with those talents that he has been given in this training and competition’ (cited in Sage, 1981, 152). No one builds a body like the muscular Christ without giving total involvement and having dedication and self-discipline.
Art critic Robert Hughes argues that ‘people inscribe their histories, beliefs, attitudes, desires and dreams in the images they make’ (cited in Giannetti 1999, 1). This can be seen not only in how the muscular Christ reflects the beliefs and attitudes of Muscular Christianity, but also in terms of dreams and desires of popular culture in terms of the body. In the 80’s and 90’s we witnessed the supermodel phenomenon. Jonathan Phang of IMG one of the leading model agencies says, ‘Supermodels were created as a response to the need for glamour, fantasy and escapism, like the movie goddesses and Miss Worlds of the past’ (cited in Waller, 2000, 10). But the pursuit of the ‘ideal’ body that is more commonly associated with women is becoming more sought after by men.
The ‘Adonis complex’ is the term used to describe the obsession that men have with their bodies (Cloud, 2000, 50). Adonis is the name of the gorgeous half man half god of mythology. It can be argued that this muscular picture of Christ can be seen to be like, or analogous to Adonis. This is part of the playfulness of images within a postmodern society. Images are recycled, things and events are put to new uses, assigned new meanings – even one’s that the original artist never intended. A study done by some psychologists (Cloud, 2000, 50-51) reveals that male self-worth is increasingly tied to body image. They argue that many men desperately want to look like Adonis because they constantly see the ‘ideal’ steroid-boosted bodies of actors and models and because their muscles are all they have over women today. And so the anabolic steroid testosterone has now become a hot commodity (Time, 2000, 50-51). An image of Christ, then, that looks like Adonis the ‘ideal’ body, is inscribed with people’s current beliefs, attitudes, desires and dreams. This image of a testosterone pumped Christ is worn as fashion on a T-shirt.
Madonna became ‘one of the first entertainers to turn a crucifix into a fashion statement’ (Beaudion, 1998, 60) through her hit video in 1984 ‘Like a Virgin,’ in which she dances in a gondola with a crucifix swinging around her neck and waist. In many respects this brought the religious symbol of the cross into the domain of popular culture and fashion. Cultural critic Douglas Rushkoff insightfully observes that ‘GenX engages in the techniques of recycling, juxtaposing, and reconstructing existing imagery, and doing so with ironic distance’ (cited in Beaudion, 1998, 149). This is what Levi-Strauss has termed ‘bricolage’ whereby ‘objects which already carried sedimented symbolic meanings are re-signified in relation to other artifacts in a new context’ (Baker, 2000, 325). Bricolage is part of what is going on in this fashion statement image of a muscular Christ printed onto T-shirts. The image of Christ is placed within the context of sport, while at the same time can be seen to be re-signified in relation to Adonis and people’s obsession with their body.
Barthes argues that all images are polysemous and therefore ‘in every society various techniques are developed intended to fix the floating chain of signifieds in such a way as to counter the terror of uncertain signs’ (1999, 37). Anchorage, where an image is anchored to a text or caption is one of these techniques. Anchorage enables a person to focus not only their gaze upon an image but also their understanding (Barthes 1999, 37). The image of the muscular Christ is surrounded by such anchorage. I offer a personal reading of how this photo ‘remote-controls,’ me, to use Barthes phrase, ‘towards a meaning chosen in advance’ (1999, 38). The main text, ‘Lord’s Gym,’ creates an athletic interpretation of Jesus’ death. The inscription ‘The Sin of the World’ upon the cross leads me to understand that what Jesus used for his strength training was not weights in a gym but rather the sin of the world. The word ‘Golgotha’ would be meaningless if I did not have any religious teaching to know that this is the place where Jesus was crucified. However, with this understanding I assume that Golgotha is also the geographical location of the ‘Lord’s Gym’. Whether this was the artist’s intention is not only unknown, but in a postmodern reading is irrelevant, especially in Jacques Derrida’s theory of deconstruction. Deconstruction is a method of literary-criticism that is directed towards the interrogation of texts. Deconstruction dethrones the author in favour of the reader. It is the reader and not the author that defines and creates meaning in the text and so it becomes inconsequential to try and discover what the author’s intentions were, what they ‘really meant’. This means that there can be as many meanings as there are interpreters (Dezin, 1994, 189).
The final text ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit’ is given as an instructional text to the reader. It demonstrates another consequence of deconstruction, that there is no independent pure text. Texts are part of other texts. In other words we can never approach the text with a clean slate in some sort of objective disengagement. We always approach a text influenced by other cultural texts and life experiences. ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit’ is a selected part of a verse taken from Zechariah, a book of the Old Testament, chapter 4 verse 6. In its original context this was a word from the God spoken to Zerubbabel, a leader of Israel, to encourage him to rebuild the temple, Israel’s place of worship. So the text has been taken from one particular context and place in an entirely different one which gives it a new meaning and association in relation to this image of a muscular Christ.
The photo of ‘The Tortured Christ’ sculptured by the Brazilian artist Guido Rocha stands in sharp contrast to the picture of the muscular Christ. As such it presents a completely different sociological reading. The ‘ideal’ body, victory and success and any concerns with fashion and the popular seem to be the furthest things from the mind of the sculptor Rocha. The two pictures can also be seen to represent first world and third world projections onto the crucifixion. The Lord’s Gym portrays a body building Jesus, affluent, well feed, in control, conquer of the world. ‘The Tortured Christ’ on the other hand cries out with pain and suffering. It is almost possible to hear the excruciating agony being shouted from the open mouth of ‘The Tortured Christ’. The red lighting enhances the mood of the picture, representing blood, heat, horror.
The image of ‘The Tortured Christ’ ‘draws upon the iconography of poverty’ (Burgin, 1999, 47). The figure is anorexic with a fully exposed and protruding rib cage. Christ hangs on the cross as skin and bone. Such an image is what we expect to see of a starving person in Africa, not of one of the most worshipped figures in the world. Not only is ‘The Tortured Christ’ in a starved state but he also lacks any clothes, both signs of extreme poverty usually connected with the third world. As Victor Burgin explains, ‘the ‘photographic text’, like any other, is the site of a complex intertextuality, an overlapping series of previous texts ‘taken for granted’ at a particular cultural and historical conjuncture’ (cited in Clarke, 1997, 27). The Easter story of the crucifixion, poverty in the third world, torture become an overlapping series of previous texts ‘taken for granted’ in this image of ‘The Tortured Christ’.
On a technical level the reproduction of this photo of Rocha’s sculpture has ‘put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself’ (Benjamin, 1999, 74). The photo placed in this essay is a case in point. A plurality of copies substitutes a unique existence and meets the beholder of the image in their own particular situation (Benjamin, 1999, 74). What surrounds this photo of ‘The Tortured Christ’ will become part of the intertextuality involved in reading this image. To see this image in a church, for example, will bring a deeper religious significance than if this image was seen as part of an exhibition on torture.
The image also creates a sense of participation and alienation at the same time (Sontag, 1999, 87). As Susan Sontag explains, ‘The feeling of being exempt from clamity stimulates interest in looking at painful pictures, and looking at them suggests and strengthens the feeling that one is exempt. Partly because one is ‘here’ and not ‘there’ (1999, 87). ‘The Tortured Christ’ creates this sense of participation and alienation. For those suffering there can be a sense of identification with this image of Christ. This image also captures the sense in which Christ participates in our suffering on a very deep level.
Robert Kolker explains that ‘somehow a thing seen directly, or through a visual representation, brings us closer to some actual reality’ (1999, 2). Rocha has attempted to bring us closer to the suffering and horror of the crucifixion. Theologian Alister McGrath argues that it has become ‘the new orthodoxy’ to speak of a suffering God (1997, 251). This came about immediately after the sheer horror of WWI. The cross of Christ was interpreted in such a way that enabled theologians to speak of a suffering God. It also reflects the changes in society and the questions that are being asked. In the seventeenth century theology was more concerned with questions of sin and how sinful people can be reconciled to a holy God. As such the cross was discussed in terms of reconciliation, justice and freedom (Smail, 1995). However today people are more concerned with questions of suffering than they are with questions about sin. This graphic image of ‘The Tortured Christ’ is a visual response to people’s questions of suffering and how God is not above such suffering but participates in our very suffering itself.
But ‘The Tortured Christ’ creates not only a sense of participation but also one of alienation. There is a definite thankfulness that it is not me experiencing such agony. It also creates a very different sense of participation and alienation from the Muscular Christ. The first image does not convey in any way how God shares in our suffering. In fact it portrays an image of God that is above suffering, and that Jesus death on the cross was an easy thing, or at the most as painful as a hard workout in the gym. It is a much easier image of Christ for people to want to participate in, especially for Christian athletes. And unlike ‘The Tortured Christ’ it does not create any sense of alienation. [ed. I'm not so sure about this!]
The images of a muscular Christ and ‘The Tortured Christ’ both attempt to portray something of the same historical story about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The muscular Christ combines people’s religious beliefs and attitudes with their participation in sport, dreams and desires about the ideal body, to be like Adonis, now to be like Christ. A cool image of Christ, easy to identify with in terms of popular culture’s focus on the body and so it is worn as a fashion statement – ‘Jesus Christ is tough, strong, has an awesome body and I belong to his gym!’
‘The Tortured Christ’ in contrast presents Jesus being crucified in weakness, poverty and complete and utter agony. Such a strong image of suffering creates a sense of participation and alienation at the same time. There is the sense in which Christ participates in our suffering, and those who have suffered or are suffering can find a sense of identification with this image. But there is the sense of alienation, the thought ‘rather you than me’ suffering like that. There is the sense of thankfulness at being exempt.
Although these two images are strikingly different together they present a different reading of the crucifixion that can cause people to come to an old and familiar story with a fresh perspective and added meaning. These two images of the crucifixion contribute to what Diane Arbus (cited in Clarke, 1997, 28) has called ‘the endlessly seductive puzzle of sight’.
Barthes, Roland. 1999. Rhetoric of the image. In Visual Culture: the reader, eds. Jessica Evans & Stuart Hall. London: Sage & The Open University.
Benjamin, Walter. 1999. The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. In Visual Culture: the reader, eds. Jessica Evans & Stuart Hall. London: Sage & The Open University.
Burgin, Victor. 1999. Art, common sense and photography. In Visual Culture: the reader, eds. Jessica Evans & Stuart Hall. London: Sage & The Open University.
Clarke, Graham. 1997. The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Cloud, John. 2000. ‘Never Too Buff’. In Time. April 24th, pp.50-51.
Jenks, Chris. 1995. The Centrality of the eye in Western culture: An Introduction. In Visual Culture, ed. Chris Jenks. Routledge.
Sontag, Susan. 1999. The image-world. In Visual Culture: the reader, eds. Jessica Evans & Stuart Hall. London: Sage & The Open University.
Weber, Hans-Ruedi. 1979. On a Friday Noon: Meditations Under the Cross. Geneva: World Council of Churches.