Piss Christ in Prison: An Unlikely Advent Meditation

The fourth Sunday of Advent.

This last week out at the prison bible study I led the inmates through an unlikely advent meditation. Our focus was on Piss Christ, the controversial photograph by Andres Serrano.

As I describe in my book Unclean, in 1987 the photographer Andres Serrano unveiled his controversial work Piss Christ. Piss Christ was 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 $15,000 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.

Beyond the content of the photograph what really offends is 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.

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. 

This is why the Pharisees see Jesus becoming defiled when he eats with tax collectors and sinners. The pollutant--the tax collectors and sinners--defiles Jesus, the pure. The negative dominates over the positive. The pollutant is the stronger force. Thus 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. Because pollution doesn't work that way.

Thus, 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 real blasphemy just might be this: That we think urine is stronger than Christ. That we instinctively--and blasphemously--believe that the defilement of our lives is the strongest force in the universe. Stronger even than God.

It never occurs to us that Christ is stronger than the "piss" of our lives.

I looked at the men in the study and said, This is the scandal of the Incarnation. This is the scandal of Christmas. That God descended into the piss, shit and darkness of your life. And the piss, shit and darkness did not overcome it.

I know, I told the men, that this is so very hard to believe. That Jesus goes into the darkest. most disgusting, most defiling corners of our lives. This, all by itself, is hard to believe. But even harder to believe is that Jesus is stronger than that polluting, shameful, defiling darkness.

That is the scandal of Christmas.
John 1.14a, 5
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
I have no idea what Serrano was trying to do with Piss Christ. He was, most likely, trying to piss off Christians. If so, he succeeded in that.

But the story of the incarnation is more subversive than the most subversive art. It's hard to be more transgressive than Christmas. 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. 
God had a body. That is about as transgressive as you can get. So transgressive that many Christians, now and throughout history, have passionately resisted and banished the thought. It's the same impulse that will cause many to denounce this post.

Christmas is so hard to believe that most Christians don't believe it.

But the Word became flesh. God dwelt among us. And still does. Even in the piss. Especially in the piss.

Immanuel.

I looked at the men in the prison and paused. I wanted them to hear this. Because there is some real darkness in their lives. Darkness we rarely speak about.

I looked at them and said:

The meaning of the Incarnation is that God has descended into the piss and shit of your lives. And that God is stronger than that darkness.

Do you believe this? Because I know it is so very, very hard to believe.

You want to believe that your foulness, all the shit in your life, is the strongest thing there is. The greatest and final truth about your life.

It's so hard to believe what I'm telling you because it feels like blasphemy.

But it's not. It is not blasphemy.

It is the story of the Incarnation. It is the Word becoming flesh. It is the story of God's love for you.

It is Christmas.

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22 thoughts on “Piss Christ in Prison: An Unlikely Advent Meditation ”

  1. Wonderful. Some parallel with the advice I received regarding hanging around "bad" kids when I was younger: if a dog rolls around in the mud, will it get dirty or will the mud become clean? Thankfully it occurred to me that Jesus is not your ordinary dog, so to speak.

  2. It's worth noting that Andres Serrano considers himself a Christian, so if he was intending to piss Christians off, he was doing it as an insider, trying to shake our perceptions.

    I found an interesting interview that has this quote:
    " At the time I did the fluid works I was investigating and exploring
    abstraction in photography and the use of bodily fluids as if it were
    paint. You don’t put a moral judgement on paint and I certainly didn’t
    judge the fluids or put any emphasis on them except as life’s vital
    fluids." http://dirty-mag.com/v2/?p=234

    I think that actually goes to support the interpretation you present here, in terms of challenging our ideas of bodily fluids as unclean and unsacrifiable (if that's not a real word, it should be).

  3. art is a vehicle for allowing people to cruise on a journey wherever the viewers thoughts and feelings carry him...
    thus some may get what the artist felt while others may not, yet may find another reality to them which can also be valuable.
    I imagine the work as Jesus being in every part of our life, good, bad, mundane and His power is not affected but transforms our worst by His grace.He came to give us all grace, not dependent on stuff we got wrong!

  4. urine is actually sterile unless you're really really sick. (ie, there are normally not any microbes in urine.) and it's very high in nitrogen, so, some gardeners dilute is with water (i think 8 or 9 to one, but don't know) and pour it on their plants as extra fertilizer.

    feces does have lots of microbes and potential pathogens in it. but our psychological reaction for urine and feces seems to be similar, despite the fact that urine is quite different from a pathogen perspective.

    (hope the biology isn't too far of a diversion from the theology.)

  5. Once again, you've peeled back the layers and brought forth the beauty and truth beneath. Emmanuel indeed!! Thanks, Richard.

  6. Thank you for this redemptive post. It has come at a time when I feel very much like one of those prisoners you were talking to.

  7. I always love your stories from the prison Bible study, Richard, and this one is an incredibly powerful and passionately beautiful one. The alternate translation of Jn. 1:5 (the darkness did not comprehend it) brings up some thoughts. It feels blasphemous to us because we can't fully comprehend the purifying power defeating the contamination we think is so powerful.

  8. Religion is bullsh*t so Piss Christ is just nonsense added to nonsense. And 99% of art is pretentious, overpriced nonsense.

  9. What a weird respons. Do you think a guy who served 27 years at hard labor wasnt pissed on, spat on, shat on and that his followers didnt think he triumphed over that ddgredation? If you mean his image as a political leader was slso abused, defiled, torn up by his political opponents and that made people angry i guess i think you dont really think much of your god. Is jesus no more to you than a politicsl leader or an effigy? Are you worried about brand loyslty?

  10. Here's the real blasphemy-that you and the Fundies are having this argument at public expense, that the reality-based community has to foot the bill for "prophetic" art.

  11. You missed the point entirely. Nobody believes that Christ can be defiled, but that the intention of defiling Him is sacrilegous and, aye, deserving of death. Satan also failed to tempt Him, but Satan's intention is still evil.

  12. Interesting how folks can venerate an abominable act as a sacred icon and then get offended that it is "defiled" by an artist. Seems like an irony overload.

  13. Richard, not sure if you see comments on old posts, but I returned to this post today, as I plan to do every Advent going forward, and I wanted to let you know that this post saved whatever remnants of faith I still possess. Although I am not sure I believe in the events of Christianity, I believe in the power and truth contained in the story. Thank you. Happy Christmas!

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