(Christian Courier column, September 26, 2016)
How could you miss him? Christ the Redeemer at Rio, tourist attraction, juxtaposed against a kaleidoscope of carnival dancers, in the spotlight as cameras panned the mountains during weather updates. A slim stick high in the sky at the rowing events. A tiny red icon flickering amongst other Olympic graphics when the CBC returned to coverage after the break.
I expected broadcasters to downplay the religious monument, but rather than slighting Christ the Redeemer, respectful attention was the order of the day. Granted, it’s pretty much impossible to ignore the massive work of art, fourth largest in the world after China’s Spring Temple, the Statue of Liberty in New York and Russia’s The Motherland Calls.
The balanced design of Christ the Redeemer is pleasing. Serenity and strength. A triumphant bearing, but still crowned with thorns. Far-seeing eyes that somehow manage to gaze down compassionately upon all. Outstretched arms that include both the cross and an embrace.
It was particularly that deft blend of cruciform posture and warm welcome that led me to reflect on a unique challenge faced by Christianity today, what sociologist Christian Smith calls “moralistic therapeutic deism.” From his research on the religious ideas of American youth, Smith distilled five core beliefs: God exists. He wants you to be happy. He wants you to be nice to others, as taught in the Bible and in most world religions. He doesn’t need to be a central part of your life unless you have a problem. If you are basically a good person, you will go to heaven when you die.
The emerging adults who subscribe to this popular “religion” would expect nothing less from Christ the Redeemer than the enfolding hospitality of those outstretched arms. That those arms embody much more – self-discipline, self-abnegation, self-sacrifice — would not be so readily understood. Moralistic therapeutic deism, notes Smith, “is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of sovereign deity, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, et cetera.”
Pondering Christ the Redeemer in the light of Smith’s conclusions, I realized that what I saw as balance in the statue’s design might not be evident to a generation swathed in a cotton-candy spirituality spun from self-gratification. Clues about the monstrous cost of the crucifixion, clues the original audience would have grasped immediately — Christ’s arms pinned to an invisible cross, the stylized geometric thorny crown – are now too subtle to decipher, subsumed by the streamlined calm of a Jesus who just wants you to be happy.
I thought about author Flannery O’Connor’s assertion that “The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be found to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience.” Perhaps, in similar vein, the incalculable visceral and cosmic suffering that Jesus endured to gain our salvation must be conveyed to contemporary viewers, as O’Connor suggests, in violent and shocking terms – not the composed classicism of Christ the Redeemer, but Guido Rocha’s “Tortured Christ” or Graham Sutherland’s “Crucifixion.” Such horrific Christs might stun the narcissistic spectator at the foot of the cross into sudden clarity about the gnarled and twisted contours of cruciform living. Cross-bearing alongside such Christs portends harrowing self-denial: sticking with an unsatisfactory spouse, forgiving an unspeakable harm, choosing celibacy, giving until the wallet sweats drops of blood. Who knows what comradely sacrifice a shuddering, thirsting, dying Lord might require?
Perhaps this injunction from Frederick Buechner, another incisive novelist, should be carved as caveat into the hemline of Christ the Redeemer: “Remember Jesus of Nazareth, staggering on broken feet out of the tomb toward the Resurrection, bearing on his body the proud insignia of the defeat which is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.”