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Wednesday, 21 March 2018

How does a crucified stormtrooper glorify God?

The blogger Archbishop Cranmer asks the question, ‘How does a crucified stormtrooper glorify God?’ As I see value in exhibiting Ryan Callanan’s ‘Crucified Stormtrooper’ in a church, when he does not, he goes on to assume and assert that I cannot have pondered the question of what this artwork is actually saying about God’s unique sacrifice and the ultimate source of salvation.

The cross was originally a scandal and a stumbling block within the societies to which the Early Church took the Gospel. The Apostles asked their contemporaries to follow a man who had been given a death reserved for the lowest of the low, who had died among thieves, and who was cursed, as was the case, according to the Law of Moses, for anyone who died on a tree.

Christ’s crucifixion is one of the great subjects of Western Art and yet, for the reasons we are been considering, there are very few early crucifixion images as the Early Christians went out of their way to not depict it. We Christians, by contrast, have become so used to speaking about crucifixion that we tend to miss its horror. Instead we have beautiful crosses on or in our churches, in the lapels of our coats, hung around our necks and embossed on our Bibles.

Not only have we tamed the horror of crucifixion in our thinking but we have also tamed the true scandal of the cross; that we are all sinners and that the sinless Christ became sin himself on the cross in order to save us from our sin. In such a context, how do we recapture or represent the true scandal of the cross?

I suggest that one way is to display a crucified stormtrooper in a City church. To do so generates accusations of blasphemy from those who don’t understand that the sinless Christ had to take sin onto himself in order to save us and also the accusation of tackiness from those who seem to think that the beauty of our worship and architecture is what saves us.

In the Star Wars films, stormtroopers are the main ground force of the Galactic Empire, under the leadership of Emperor Palpatine and his commanders, most notably Darth Vader. They are on the dark side in that conflict. That the artist Ryan Callanan chose to create a ‘Crucified Stormtrooper,’ provides Christians and others with the possibility of experiencing something of the sense of scandal that Christ’s crucifixion originally generated.

The imagery of the dark side in the Star Wars films can be seen in this context as equating to the Christian belief that we are all sinners. If we use the imagery opened up for us by ‘Crucified Stormtrooper,’ then we are forced to reflect, much as we dislike the thought, that we are all on the dark side. We are all stormtroopers.

The amazing message of love at the heart of Christianity is that God does something about that situation. God becomes one of us in Christ. He becomes a stormtrooper in order that, through his death, he can take the darkness onto himself and enable us to live in the light. That is the original heartbeat of Christianity, which continues to radically change people's lives on a daily basis around the world when they genuinely acknowledge their own sinfulness. The scandal - the stumbling block - that is the cross, is brought to home to us afresh by including this artwork in this exhibition; particularly to any who view their own assets as the basis for their own self-esteem.

My reflection on the ‘Crucified Stormtrooper’ is unlikely to be what the artist intended when he made the piece. The concept of cross referencing is important in Callanan’s work, taking one item out of its context and splicing it with another to create something that feels familiar but whose meaning is subtly shifted, so he was probably primarily interested in juxtaposing incongruous images. But once he had put the stormtrooper on a cross, he made that reflection possible.

For us to show this work in a church enables that reflection on Christ's love to be seen and shared in a new way and that is why it worthwhile for the Church to show art, especially controversial art, and to explore the questions that it opens up to us. I am interested in putting art exhibitions into churches because I recognise that artists, in their work, are seeking to explore the big philosophical questions in life. Questions like, who am I, where am I, why am I here and is there a God? The Church is also exploring those same questions and, therefore, there is potential for real connection between the Church, artists and those viewing the art in exploring those questions together. We won't all come to the same conclusions or even to any conclusions but exploring the questions and living the questions is a profoundly spiritual thing to do.

Those who have come to the exhibitions I have organised, and many do, generally respond reflectively and with appreciation. Ben Moore, the curator of this exhibition, said that its well-attended Private View was a great success with an atmosphere that had a good warmth and glow about it. In that context, I was able to talk to people, for whom churchgoing is not necessarily a regular feature of their lives, about the art in relation to the love of Christ. That is both a great privilege and opportunity. Ben himself has, as a result of the controversy, written publicly about his faith. He equates the image to the storyline in Star Wars 'The Force Awakens' (2015) where we see ‘a stormtrooper escape from the dark side to come and support the rebellion’ and therefore views 'crucified stormtrooper' as playing into the notion of forgiveness.

In addition, many Christians see no issue with the image. One, who wrote to me, is a collector of Callanan’s work, and stated clearly that it is not offensive. A parishioner, who is thankful that the piece wasn’t removed from the exhibition, has written of how the exhibition has informed his Lenten reading:

‘Like each work on display, individually both ‘Crucified Stormtrooper’ and ‘Dying Slave’ are beautiful and thought provoking. Placed together, they seem to take on an extra dimension - creating a dialogue about our own mortality and relationship with body image - and the extent to which our minds and bodies are a legible witness to our faith. These themes are explored in Chapter 5 of Ben Quash’s Book ‘Abiding’: Wounds that Abide. The reaction of my anonymous friend at church and the subsequent act of moving the Crucified Stormtrooper has meant that all of us, as parishioners and visitors to the exhibition, are bound up in this dialogue.’

I give thanks to God for these and other responses. I think it better by far to engage with these images and discuss the questions they raise, instead of seeking to suppress or censor. I think it important to build relationships with those who are outside the Church but nevertheless grappling with their response to the challenge and scandal of Christ's cross. I think that all these are in play as part of this exhibition and that that is genuinely glorifying to God.


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