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An open letter to artist Dick Detzner

The following letter appeared in the August 20, 2003 edition of the Illinois Baptist

An open letter to artist Dick Detzner

Evanston's Gallery Mornea recently displayed a series of works ("It is Written, So It Must Be True") by Chicago artist Dick Detzner. Each of the ten pieces is a poke at Christian dogma, done up as a magazine cover. Detzner, raised Catholic, says, "Dogma is rigid, and it can be dangerous... Those religious groups that use the Bible to discriminate against women and gays and people of other religions have no authority when that same Bible endorses slavery and stoning and gang rape."

Response to this show was disappointingly weak compared to the splash of his earlier series, "Corporate Sacrilege", which included a piece called "The Last Pancake Breakfast." It played off DaVinci's famous painting, substituting Mrs. Butterworth for Jesus, surrounding him with such characters as Tony the Tiger and Snap, Crackle, and Pop.

Walking home from downtown, I happened to pass the gallery and was reminded of the piece I'd read on the opening in The Summer Northwestern. When I saw the series, it occurred to me it might make for an interesting column. Gallery manager, Richard Davis, was kind enough to make photocopies of the catalogue, particularly helpful since this was the last day of the show. Here is a brief take on the exhibit, in letter form.

Dear Dick,

I'm an Evanston pastor who was intrigued by the in-your-face quality of your recent exhibit. I have to say your approach was pretty clever and the execution was skillful. Having edited a denominational periodical, I especially appreciated the magazine cover format.

I'd like to pitch in on the issues you raised. I'm afraid the space constraints of the column in which this letter appears prevent me from doing you justice, but maybe I can say something helpful with a few words.

First, I would say "touche" to a few of your points. While your "The Last Pancake Breakfast" was awfully flip with a solemn biblical subject, I appreciate your attempt to say that "Americans really worship corporate advertising icons" (or so reports Chris Casacchia of the Evanston Express.)

That being said, I have to say your basic case against what we call "biblical inerrancy" suffers from two fatal flaws. First, you ignore context. Second, you confuse narrative with prescription. If Bible students typically did the same, you would be right to mock them, but they don't. You're attacking a straw man.

Let's start with context. Just because British authorities required blackout curtains during the Blitz, it does not follow that they think that is good standing law for London today. Special circumstances make for special rules. Many of the passages you select feature rules that were peculiar to God's selection and preparation of a people who would bear his revelation to a pagan world. Boot camp is not normal military life; officers don't walk around the Pentagon screaming, "Drop and give me 30!" The issue is not what God told the budding Israel to do in Genesis but what He tells His Church to do in the Gospels and the Epistles (which, by the way, teach that men's and women's roles are complementary, not identical, and which declare homosexuality immoral). We call it "progressive revelation."

Now for narrative. When Thomas Jefferson recounted the sins of King George in the Declaration of Independence, he was not commending them. "Is" does not necessarily mean "ought." The Bible is full of such portrayals; it presents its heroes-- warts and all without airbrushing. Such is part of its verisimilitude.

Those two observations being made, let's take a quick tour of the show with brief reactions to selected cover quotes. (For our readers, let me note that, in each case, I'm naming the magazine, describing the illustration, and repeating a rude headline, including text.)

1. Mary: The Mother of God (standing with hands in prayerful posture) "What to tell your husband when God knocks you up" (Mt. 1:19-25): This is crude language, designed to denote sensual, illicit sex. There is nothing sensual or illicit about the Holy Spirit's conception of the Savior's life in a womb God created. PS: 1. They weren't married; 2. An angel told Joseph.

2. Good Family Living (three smiling youth) "How to steal your brother's inheritance" (Gen. 27:1-35). The Bible reports Rebekah's and Jacob's trickery; it doesn't glorify it. It does, however, condemn Esau for his callous indifference to his birthright.

3. Slavery (man with a woman bearing a price tag) "Be obedient slaves!" (Titus 2:9-10). In the first years after Jesus' death and resurrection, the Apostles could either attempt to overhaul the political and economic structure of the Roman Empire or found a faith that looked beyond temporal empires to a heavenly kingdom. They couldn't do both. Under God's guidance they chose the latter. So they counseled slaves to cooperate, not rebel. Masters would see their integrity and admire their God. Still, in Philemon, Paul pressed a Christian to rethink his own slaveholding.

4. Prostitution (hooker under a street light) "Pimping your wife: tips from Abraham" (Genesis 12:10-20) Manifestly bad behavior by an important man. (Even Pharaoh was disgusted.) You don't throw out the Declaration of Independence if the Sally Hemmings story proves to be true.

5. Stoning: For those who know God meant what He said (cute kids wrestle to pick up rocks as their elders stone someone in the background) "Workaholics...they asked for it!" (Exodus 31:16, 35:3 I'm afraid you have a typo here; the stoning comes in Ex. 31:15, not 16. God really does mean that the Sabbath (now the Lord's Day) should be holy. As for the punishment, see discussion of "context" and "progressive revelation" in the intro.

6. A Woman's Lot (hands reaching out to drag a young woman through the door) "When Dad Offers You Up for Gang Rape" (Genesis 19:6-9). Lot is one of the truly despicable characters in the Bible. It's as though you're mocking "Star Wars" because of Darth Vader's behavior.

7. Moolah (a parishioner with hands upraised, a hypodermic needle held to his neck) "God's Threat: Your Money or Your Life" (Exodus 30:11-15). Early lesson in atonement in a theocratic state; foreshadowed The Atonement of Christ in a non-theocratic state.

8. Weaponry Weekly (knife to screaming man's neck) "When your neighbor's religion is wrong!" (1 Kings 18:40) These prophets of Baal weren't innocuous members of the local ministerial alliance; they worked for the murderous Ahab and Jezebel. And the paganism they enforced would have smothered God's nascent revelation, infant Christianity, in the crib, something God would not permit.

9. Divine Realty (bearded man before a weird Realtor's sign) "Canaan-- only the foreshortened need apply" (Genesis 17:8-12). God made all the land and he can promise it to whom he pleases. As for circumcision, read Romans 2:25-29 for the rest of the story; it's ultimately a symbol of spiritual reality.

10. Holy Cuisine (two men literally dining on Christ's body) "Jesus: The Other White Meat" (John 6:53-57). We Protestants really do recognize metaphors when we see them.

Richard Davis, the gallery owner, said, "I'm really at a loss as to why we haven't engendered some kind of public discussion." (The Summer Northwestern) He asked me what I thought the reason was. Upon reflection, I think it's two things. First, the media beats up on conservative Christians all the time; it's gotten boring. Second, many churchmen in Evanston pretty much buy your liberal critique of the Bible; the rest of us know your blows didn't land.

Look, Evanston is one of the world capitals of political correctness. If you want to make a splash here, don't satirize traditional Christianity. Ridicule gays, feminists, pacifists, or reparationists. Now that would be a show with edge. Then you would have your "public discussion"-- and much, much more.

Until then, let me encourage you to read on in Scripture. You've made a start. Now take things to completion as you begin to see Christ's coming into the world and into your heart in every page. I'd love to talk with you about it.

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