The Bleeding Stinking Mad Shadow of Jesus: Part 3, The Shock of a Stinking God
In 1987, the photographer Andres Serrano unveiled his controversial work, a photograph of a crucifix submerged in a mixture of blood and urine. The work broke into public consciousness in 1989, when members of the US Senate expressed outrage that Serrano had received funding from the American National Endowment for the Arts. Senators called the work “filth,” “blasphemous,” and “abhorrent.” One Senator said, “In naming it, [Serrano] was taunting the American people. He was seeking to create indignation. That is all right for him to be a jerk but let him be a jerk on his own time and with his own resources. Do not dishonor our Lord.” Later, in 1997, the National Gallery in Melbourne, Australia was closed when members of a Christian group attacked and damaged Piss Christ.
Obviously, the content of the photograph is offensive, but a lot of the offense is really in the name, the juxtaposition of the word “piss” with “Christ.” What is blasphemous is the contact between something holy and something defiling. Piss contaminates the Christ.
As I describe Unclean, this is an example of the attribution called negativity dominance in judgments of contamination. That is, when the pure comes in contact with the contaminant the pure becomes polluted. The negative dominates over the positive. The power is not with the pure, but sits with the pollutant.
Once you come to understand the emotional logic of contamination, you can sympathize with why the Pharisees judged Jesus as becoming defiled when he ate with tax collectors and sinners. Given the logic of negativity dominance, the pollutant — the tax collectors and sinners — defiles Jesus, the pure. Again, the negative dominates over the positive. The pollutant is the stronger force. Consequently, it never occurs to the Pharisees, because it is psychologically counter-intuitive, that Jesus’s presence might sanctify or purify those sinners he is eating with. Pollution just doesn’t work that way.
Returning to the reactions toward Piss Christ, we can see the same logic at work. In the contact between urine and Jesus in Piss Christ we instinctively judge the negative to be stronger than the positive. Thus the shock. Thus the blasphemy.
But the deeper blasphemy just might be this: That we think urine is stronger than Christ, that God making contact with the disgusting parts of human life would somehow contaminate, demean, and defile God. There is something in us that resists Jesus’ full participation in the human condition. The spiritual, holy, and divine must be radically separated from the messy, bodily, and, yes, stinking aspects of human life.
But consider Beth Williamson’s analysis of Piss Christ:
What are we to make of this work: what are we to understand by it, and how can we interpret it?
Most obviously were enraged by the combination of the most iconic image of Christianity — the Crucified Christ — with human bodily fluid, and felt that this work set out deliberately to provoke viewers to outrage. The artist almost certainly aimed to provoke a reaction, but what reaction?
The fact that urine is involved is crucial here. But was the use of urine simply intended, as some of Serrano’s detractors have claimed, to cause offense? Had the artist deliberately set out to show disrespect to this religious image, by placing it in urine? Some felt this was tantamount to urinating on the crucifix.
I would suggest that, even if some viewers and commentators feel that it was the artist’s intention, or part of his intention, to be offensive, there are also other ways to interpret this work…
The process of viewing the Crucified Christ through the filter of human bodily fluids requires the observer to consider all the ways in which Christ, as both fully divine and full human, really shared in the base physicality of human beings. As a real human being Christ took on all the characteristics of the human body, including its fluids and secretions. The use of urine here can therefore force the viewer to rethink what it meant for Christ to be really and fully human.
In other words, a Jesus that doesn’t stink, isn’t really a human Jesus. Our God is a stinking God, and that’s always going to be a scandal.