By Bob Hiller –
A few weeks back, my son brought me a picture he had colored out of a Bible story coloring book. It was Jesus carrying the cross. My boy had done a fine job of coloring Jesus’ Hulk-like legs yellow, the Lord’s mighty six pack orange, His everlasting arms purple, and the old rugged cross green. Though He was all muscle and rainbow, this burden was not easy for coloring book Jesus. After all, His face did seem a bit uncomfortable having to bear that Kelly green crucifix. Don’t misunderstand me, I was impressed with how well the boy is coloring within the lines, and the color scheme wasn’t all bad. But I have to be honest, I am just a tiny bit uncomfortable with a coloring book page of the our Lord bearing the cross. Maybe I’m being picky, but coloring Jesus on His way to Calvary does seem to take away from the gravity of the Passion.
I’m no iconoclast. I find many artistic depictions of our Lord to be quite edifying. But I have a hard time finding the sanctifying value of a coloring book page depicting the whipped and scourged Jesus. Perhaps we should heed the wisdom of those who suggest that there is a danger in creating images of Jesus. For lack of a better phrase, it will color our view of Christ. I have to wonder, if our early faith formation is shaped by coloring book Jesus, are we teaching our kids to take the Lord seriously? Are we preparing them for the challenges they will face in the future? Or are we teaching them that Jesus is just another cartoon character? More to the point, what does the production of such products say about how seriously we take our faith?
I used to work at a Christian bookstore that was full of kitsch, such as Bible verse bookmarks, t-shirts that took famous product logos and replaced their slogans with Jesus ads (Jesus: The Choice of a New Generation), and poker chips that said “Will you bet on Jesus?” We sold breath mints called “Testamints,” for heaven’s sake! It was a Christianity reduced to commercial clichés and junk plastic. It was the sort of Christianity we sold could hardly be found on the pages of the New Testament, let alone withstand any sort of intellectual challenge.
This was brought to light for me as I recently began listening to the new Father John Misty album, Pure Comedy. Father John Misty is the alias of Josh Tillman, a former evangelical Christian who has walked away from the faith of his upbringing and seems sincerely bitter towards God, religion, western culture, and even himself. At first brush, the album sounded to me like just a bunch of profound whining, But after sharing this comment rather flippantly with some gentlemen who had clearly paid much closer attention Tillman’s laments, I was rightly and thoroughly corrected and driven back to reconsider the album. Upon a further examination, I have found this album too pastorally challenging and completely depressing. Here is a man who has lost his God and is reeling in hopelessness.
In one of the more challenging songs, harshly titled “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay,” Tillman almost invites the return of Christ so He can basically condemn God for creating a place that produces such aimless and hopeless results. It is hard song to stomach for anyone who believes God is good and has created us out of “fatherly divine goodness and mercy.” As a pastor, I’m almost tempted to write it off as just bitter and blasphemous. However, I think Tillman is serious. This creation can be horrifying and hopeless, and God, it would seem to Tillman, is horribly absent.
But before we pop a few “Testamints” and dismiss Tillman as just another devil to lead us all astray or “another white guy who takes himself too godd—m seriously” (Tillman’s words), it’s worth noting that his song finds voice in the Scriptures. Psalm 44 cries out in despair, “Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?” (Psalm 44:23-24). It’s Solomon who lives under the sun only to find “vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). It’s Jesus crying from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). We get uncomfortable with such texts and work hard to theologize our way out from them. But too often, our theologizing is merely an effort to get us out from the fear such cries arouse in us. Joy comes in the morning, the psalmist writes, but sometimes saying that over and over again won’t quiet the weeping that is tarrying in the dark night of the soul.
And it worries me that coloring book Jesus might not have what it takes to combat the dark night’s weeping. In Tillman’s case, it would seem whatever faith he was given wasn’t enough to bring hope when he faced the darkness.
I know I’m sounding bleak, but this album and specifically this song have been haunting me. Personally, having never faced such an agonizing crisis of faith, I worry that my faith isn’t strong enough to face the dark night. Pastorally, I wonder if I preach in such a way that my congregation is prepared for such existential attacks. I’m worried that our cliché-driven evangelical sub-culture doesn’t know what to do with the hard questions and sincere despair. See, coloring book Jesus simply can’t stand up to Psalm 44.
I know these are sort of Lenten questions in the Easter season, but it worries me when I don’t think my Easter sermons have the same gravitas as my Good Friday sermons. Our preaching of hope must be able to meet the despair that cripples our world. What if our preaching is merely cathartic rather than hopeful? Didn’t Marx say something about religion being an opiate for the masses? What if he came up with that after hearing my Easter sermon?
The resurrection is the promise that “all that is sad will come untrue” (Tolkien). The resurrection of Christ is for you in that it offers you the true hope that the tragedy that surrounds you (Father John Misty’s “comedy”) is tragic. And that, though He may seem absent, God too, as David Bentley Hart reminds us, hates this mess and declares it “false and damnable” and finally “will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes.” The coloring book Jesus cannot carry the burden of this world. But the risen Jesus, who always remains the crucified One, has born the dark night of the soul and will pull us through. He alone can carry this weight. It is promised in very red blood.