Death, Art & Christian Aesthetics: Part 3, Death and Christian Aesthetics

In my last post I discussed a replication of Landau et. al's study in a Christian population. Specifically, we showed how Christian judgments of Christian art are affected by mortality salience manipulations. Phrased more simply, death anxiety appears implicated in Christian aesthetic judgments. I wondered in that post if death repression might be why a significant amount of Christian art is less challenging and provocative than it might be. That is, a significant amount of Christian art might be created and consumed for existential comfort and solace. That is not a bad thing. People seek out all kinds of things for comfort. But this analysis might help us understand ourselves a bit better.

But surely this analysis can only explain so much. For example, a central subject of Christian artistic expression is the crucifixion. Clearly that subject isn't one that aids in death repression!

Or does it?

Recall some of the posts from my series on The Theology of Ugly. Surf to this post and compare the two pictures of the crucifixion. Also, surf to this post concerning the Isenheim Altarpiece. Surf and come back; I want you to look at the artwork.

If you look at those paintings of the crucifixion you realize that depictions of the death of Jesus can vary markedly in how existentially difficult they are upon us. Some depictions of the crucifixion can almost look peaceful and idyllic. Some can be horrific. Some can be hopeful. Others are devastatingly hopeless. Take, for example, Hans Holbein's Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (click for a larger view):

In Dostoevsky's novel The Idiot he describes Holbein's painting and has a character exclaim: “Why some people may lose their faith by looking at that picture!” (h/t to Kim Fabricius.)

The point here is that Christian art isn't necessarily involved in death repression. The very best Christian art can be very existentially unsettling. Further, there is the whole tradition of memento mori, much of which is motivated by Christian impulses.

Memento mori, a Latin phrase, can be translated "Remember you will die" or "Remember you are mortal." Memento mori is a broad category covering a range of artwork and cultural artifacts that share the common goal of reminding us of our eventual death. A particular subset of memento mori is the Vanitas still life genre where a reminder of death is depicted within a fairly mundane still life. The most overt example is the inclusion is a skull:

Sometimes a hourglass is added:

More subtle still, and my favorite addition, bubbles!

The point here is that, obviously, not all Christians, Christian art, or Christian artists engage with art for existential comfort. In fact, as we've seen, the exact opposite may be the case.

Can we come to understand these differences within the Christian population? Well, one approach that I've taken has been to try to quantify the existential comfort various faith configurations might provide. The tool I developed is called The Defensive Theology Scale (DTS). The idea behind the DTS is fairly simple: Which theological belief is more comforting, the belief that God will protect you from harm or that he won't (relative to others)? Obviously, the more comforting belief is that God is out there protecting you. Now, I have no means at my disposal to determine which belief is, in fact, true. But we can determine which belief is more comforting.

So, what the DTS does is ask about a lot of these kinds of beliefs assessing the degree to which a person subscribes to a whole cluster of relatively comforting beliefs. If you score high on the DTS your faith configuration is very comfortable, existentially speaking, relative to other Christians. Although we cannot know for certain why a person holds this comforting configuration we can guess that existential anxiety is implicated. Why? Because at each turn of faith this person has systematically adopted the most comforting faith positions available. It is reasonable to assume, then, that comfort is implicated in belief adoption for this person.

Now, take these insights regarding the DTS and revisit the experimental design from the last post. What might we expect about high versus low DTS scorers as they approach Christian art after a death prime? Assuming that high DTS scorers are seeking comfort we would expect that, in the face of death, they would prefer the Christian art. And, in fact, that is what we found. By contrast, low DTS scorers appear to eschew comfort. That is, when confronted with a comforting versus uncomforting belief choice a low DTS scorer is likely to choose the discomfort over the comfort. Consequently, in the face of the death prime we would expect these believers to be much less reactive, existentially speaking. That is, they should not show a stronger preference for the Christian art in the face of death relative to the high DTS scorers. And, in fact, that is exactly what we found. Low DTS scorers were much less likely to prefer the Christian art in the face of death when compared to the high DTS scorers.

These findings appear to confirm the typology I've been working with in my research. Sometimes I've used the labels "Defensive" versus "Existential" believers or "Summer Christian" versus "Winter Christian". In short, as I've argued in Freud's Ghost, while Sigmund Freud may have been partly correct that religious faith is motivated by existential fear, there appears to be many Christians who defy that assessment. And we see evidence for this conclusion in the way various Christians approach the world of art.

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3 thoughts on “Death, Art & Christian Aesthetics: Part 3, Death and Christian Aesthetics”

  1. Richard-
    Again, kudos on what I think is a fascinating and important line of inquiry. So pardon me in advance if I muse out loud here! All kinds of questions swirl in my head as I read this. Like: Its easy to understand why the high DTS-scorers chose the comforting art. But why, exactly, did the low DTS-scorers *fail* to choose the comforting art? If it was simply do to the fact that it no longer met a need, one might expect them to choose on other grounds (aesthetic? Or is there such a thing as aesthetic apart from emotional function?), and thus (maybe?) would wind up choosing the comforting art at the level of chance.

    But they didn’t do that. You didn’t present the numbers, but it doesn’t appear as though the low DTS-scorers became neutral or disinterested in which art was better. They seemed to actively avoid the comforting art, or else were actively drawn to the noncomforting art.

    So why? Did they simply find the comforting art to be, well, facile or shallow? Perhaps in the way that, once you have learned to appreciate good jazz, the glam-rock you used to listen to in the 80’s sounds just shallow and juvenile.

    Or did they actively seek discomfort because it felt “truer”? I.e., an ontological judgment that life isn’t pretty and it feels honest to face up to that? Or because it felt more challenging, more evocative – and emotional evocation is something they have come to value and even enjoy?

    Perhaps all of these are intertwined, but my money would be on the last option. Again, I think (based on my own experience, n=1) that part of a defensive ideology involved a kind of emotional constriction. You called it “narcotic” – well put, and I agree. But I believe a key fact of emotional health involves the idea that you cannot narcotize yourself to anxiety, vulnerability, the narcissistic injury of not being special without *also* numbing yourself to the possibility of real emotional joy, ecstasy, love, etc.

    Even more, I tend to think that those who use theology in this way will have a hard time not also “using” other things in life, such as relationships, to accomplish the same ends – i.e., narcissistic self-protection and anxiety-reduction. Again, I think of Yalom’s description of ”need-free love”. I think Eric Fromm and, for that matter, Buber were also talking about the same thing. True love (for another person and, I would think, for one’s God) is motivated mainly by an authentic appreciation of the Other, not by a sense of what emotional function (even an unconscious one) the Other can serve for you.

    In other words, you’re not always approaching an encounter trying to make sure your needs get met. So, in making one’s peace with death, loss, human imperfection and finitude, we become “open” to truly appreciate what in life we have. We can appreciate others for what they are, instead of seeing them through the lens of our own need. We can feel real human joy and the sweetness of life, precisely because we are also open to pain and loss and existential reality.

    One more final question and I will stop: so how can we help people move from a defensive position, theologically, to a less defensive one? (Assuming that its not presumptuous to even try, but I tend to think it isn’t.) I constantly argue with other nontheists about this, esp. the “New Atheists”, who seem to believe that religious belief is strictly and solely a cognitive issue and amounts to what is and is not empirically grounded. Thus, to them, believers are just irrational (b/c the claims are not empirically supported), and debate with such believers thus becomes just a matter of pointing out the alleged fallacies in their thinking. And thus they approach the debate by telling them how irrational their beliefs are (in so many words).

    But telling a defensive person his beliefs are irrational (and thus making him feel stupid) almost never works. A hundred years of psychotherapy have proven that. It just motivates rationalization, which is essentially the whole of conservative apologetics.

    My own suggestion is that what might work, if anything will, is the same sort of thing that works, if anything does, in psychotherapy: one’s own relationship with such “defensive” believers. Specifically, one’s way of relating to them. Its about helping them get these defensive needs met in other ways. But that’s another, long discussion, and Ill put a (merciful) end to this ramble.

    Once more, very nice post!

  2. I would suggest that most Christian art is awful because it is produced by people who are trapped in the reductive control processes of the left side of the brain, which by there very nature prevent anything new emerging. The psychic well-springs of creativity are well and truly cut off.

    By contrast I would suggest that the true artist needs (at the very least) to be in touch with, influenced by, and be capable of freely and consciously participating (the more consciously the better) in the open-ended psychic dimensions of our being, and the World Process altogether, that are accessed by the right side of our brain.

    And that the truly best, and therefore Sacred Art, is produced by those in whom both sides of the brain are in sympathetic resonance, and therefore potentially at least, informed by the wordless Wisdom of the Heart.

    Rollo May once pointed out that Protestants have never produced any great works of Sacred Art.

    In fact there has hardly been any Sacred art produced by anyone since WW2.


    Because Protestanism is a "religion" of the left side of the brain, which by its very nature doesnt allow free psychic participation in the World Process and Reality altogether.

    So too with our "culture" altogether.

  3. Hi,nice collection of art,The point here is that Christian art isn't necessarily involved in death repression. The very best Christian art can be very existentially unsettling. Further, there is the whole tradition of memento mori, much of which is motivated by Christian impulses.

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