Touch, Sight, and Faith #worship

My latest column in the Christian Courier.

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A large wooden crucifix stands toward the front of the crypt sanctuary in St. Joseph’s Oratory, Montreal. While the crucifix is not central within worship, it evidently receives much attention. A striking feature of the crucifix is the worn nature of Jesus’ feet — the paint is worn away and the surface smooth from the many hands that have rested there. Over the years, thousands of hands have been placed on those feet in a posture of prayerful need, of seeking the grace of God.

For those of us in the Reformed or Presbyterian tradition, this devotional attention to a crucifix will likely raise questions — questions as old as the Reformation itself. Doesn’t every artistic representation of Jesus somehow diminish him? Why not turn to the living Jesus in prayer, rather than to a lifeless statue? Aren’t these acts of prayerful devotion tied up with the idea that a human creation (a crucifix) can dispense grace?

Our tradition has been almost entirely word-centered, which means we are suspicious of visual and sculptural representations of Jesus or of God. In terms of the questions posed above, we have wondered whether such representations (idols!) distract us from the free grace of the living God. Our Reformed tradition has created only one narrow opening for such visual representations, in the specific case of those who could not read. In such cases, images (pictures) have been seen as a way to tell the story of Jesus and to share the truth of that story. This allowance for images focusses on their educational and not their devotional use. Continue reading

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Considering Forgiveness…

In January I will be teaching a course in the McGill Faculty of Religious Studies. It is entitled Contemporary Theological Issues, which is to say that the actual content of the course was actually somewhat open-ended.  After considering several possible topics, I landed on the topic of forgiveness and reconciliation.

In the process of considering and exploring this theological question I came across this sculpture by Margaret Adams Parker – commissioned by Duke Divinity School and situated on their campus. It is a remarkable portrayal of the return of the prodigal son – and of the elder brother’s hesitance (refusal?) to welcome his brother home.

This image is from the Duke Divinity School online newsletter from Winter 2006. You can visit Magaret Adams Parker here. The story of the making of the sculpture is here.