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A Portrait in the Attic

Monday, November 5th, 2012

Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (John 19:31-42) transports me to Oscar Wilde’s Victorian era London, where one of his characters, the artist Basil Hallward, paints a beautiful portrait of a striking young man, Dorian Gray. In this macabre, gothic tale, the youthful and in some ways picture perfect Dorian falls under the influence of Lord Henry Wotton, who convinces him to pursue a life of hedonistic merry-making. Dorian Gray wishes that he could live this life of pleasure without the consequences, and his wish becomes fulfilled, or so he thinks. In some mysterious way, Dorian’s portrait becomes the symbolic representation of responsibility, with his image aging and becoming disfigured as it takes on the culpability for every immoral act he commits, while Dorian himself remains young and unblemished. In one scene, after he commits a murder, he goes to the attic where he keeps the portrait, and finds blood dripping from the canvas. You’ll have to read the novel to find out what happens, but for now, suffice it to say it is a fascinating look at themes of consequence and responsibility, pleasure and guilt, sin and atonement. That all this springs from the pen of Oscar Wilde is especially interesting, given his famous life and the guilty pleasures that led to his trial and imprisonment.

You don’t have to read far into the sacred scriptures to see that it is a fairly gothic tale of God and God’s people, a canvas that at times is dripping blood. Blood is mentioned almost five hundred times throughout scripture. Here in the crucifixion scene, a soldier comes to break Jesus’ legs and quicken his death, but finds him already dead, and pierces his side with a spear. Blood and water flow. The imagery and language of blood, so distasteful to many in our sanitized world of spirituality, is rich with meaning when you are able to step back from literal readings and see the dramatic theological street theatre taking place. Like all good Greek theatre, the action on the stage represents a drama taking place in the larger universe of the otherworld. In this larger world, the principalities and powers, the forces of evil, are alive and well and are animating and captivating the lives of people, wreaking havoc and causing destruction and oppression in the community as people are addicted to the powers in their various forms. Jesus enters the scene as a picture perfect character, straight from heaven. He, unlike Dorian Gray, is not seduced into a life of evil, though. Jesus surrenders to a call to embody the evil of the world, to be like the portrait in the attic, taking on the responsibility of all the destructive forces of the universe and the culpability for all evil and unjust acts. As the prophet Isaiah said, such a surrender, such an embodiment of the sin of the world, greatly disfigures the Suffering Servant. The drama continues, as Jesus becomes the embodiment of all this evil, and then he bleeds and dies. The lifeblood, the animating force of evil and destruction and addiction, drains away, losing all its vitality. The crucified Christ, the picture perfect portrait in the attic, thus represents the destruction of the power of sin and evil and addiction in our lives. When the soldier thrust the spear into the side of the dead savior, and the blood and water flowed, it was the final picture of the principalities and powers of evil losing all their power.

Oscar Wilde, who as a young man studied the classics and theology at Trinity College in Dublin, would late in life pen his own theological treatise while in prison. De Profundis builds on the image of Isaiah’s suffering servant and talks about how the secret of life can be found in suffering. Wilde lifted Jesus up as the rebel hero who could identify with all of the wretched people he shared the daily struggles of life with in prison. Wilde, like artist Basil Hallward in his novel, paints an incredibly moving picture of the drama of good and evil, sin and atonement, in his essay. His canvas, like that of the novel and the gospel writer, drips with blood, and sings of the new life possible as the power of destructive forces loses its grip and attraction. A hundred years before Oscar Wilde wrote this, another alumnus of Dublin’s Trinity College, Augustus Toplady, painted a similar canvas, this time in lyrics that would become one of the most beloved hymns in the English language. Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee. Let the water and the blood, from thy wounded side which flowed, be of sin the double cure, save from wrath and make me pure. In our day and age when destructive wrath seeks to worm its way into the ethos of not only our culture but our faith communities, may we claim the dramatic truth that the very lifeblood of evil has already been drained away, leaving the forces of destruction lifeless and powerless. May we cling to that portrait in the attic, that picture perfect Christ disfigured and pierced in the side, with blood and water flowing off the canvas, reminding us that we are free.

How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.

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Comments

  • November 5, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    I am beginning to question the atonement of Jesus. Writers and theologians such as Mark Heim of Andover Newton Theological Seminary and Michael Hardin have given a new perspective. Stan, I do not believe that God sent Jesus to die on the cross. Jesus died because his insightfulness into God’s kingdom here on earth was a threat to the powers that be in his day. His followers wanted him to be a warlike messianic figure and that in itself was a threat to those in authority.

    Comment by Janet Davies

  • November 5, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    Janet, I have read some of these theologians who question the atonement language. Their critique is based largely I think on ethical problems they have with a literal reading of the atonement. I think they miss the boat; it’s like reading Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray and saying it’s not good on purely ethical grounds, missing the deep and rich meaning of the drama and narrative and the imagery. People were being crucified left and right (literally) every day in Jesus’ day, for being a threat to the empire and the established powers of Jerusalem. I find more meaning in the deeper significance of the event, representing in theatre like fashion a struggle of the powers, and the defeat of the powers of destruction. It’s a liberating image, for me, to know that when it comes to all the addictions to violence and greed, the emperor now has no clothes, is, in fact, a phantom power with no real life.

    Comment by Stan Dotson

  • November 6, 2012 at 5:44 pm

    How could something so simple and offered to so many be missed????? The whole gospel message is that ALL have sinned but God who is faithful sent His son to die on an old rugged cross to pay the sin debt of the whole world and WHOSOEVER BELIEVES IN HIM SHALL, SHALL , SHALL HAVE ETERNAL LIFE. BUT HE WHO DOES NOT BELIEVE THE WRATH OF GOD ABIDES ON HIM ALREADY. THE GLORIOUS GREATEST NEWS OF THE WHOLE WORLD, IN THAT HE WHO KNEW NO SIN BECAME SIN FOR US. AMEN AND AMEN!!!!!!!

    Comment by jim munsey

  • November 8, 2012 at 8:40 am

    I’ve said it before, Jim, and I’ll say it again. That’s a sick, twisted image of God you’ve got there.

    Comment by Jessica

  • November 8, 2012 at 8:56 am

    Stan, do you know or conjecture anything about the lost, undocumented years of Jesus’s life, and do you give any credence to what is discussed in the following article?

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-davids/jesus-lost-years-may-fina_b_179513.html

    Comment by Jessica

  • November 8, 2012 at 4:58 pm

    Jessica, no, that’s all new to me, and I have basis on which to judge its credibility. I’ll send it to a New Testament and early church scholar friend of mine and see what he thinks, and let you know.

    Comment by Stan Dotson

  • November 8, 2012 at 6:57 pm

    Jessica, the beauty of the gospel is intimated from Genesis when Adam and Eve sinned and God provided animal skins to cover them and the theme all the way thru scripture is the blood and nothing but the blood. The pinnacle of the atonement was the shedding of blood by the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world(Jesus)!! All you have to do is receive it, because it is a free gift, it can’t be earned or bought or be good enough to get it. That is called grace! Amazing Grace that saved a wretch like me!! As many as received Him to them He gave them the right or priviledge to become a child of God. But many will not receive Him because they WANT TO COME ANOTHER WAY, but there is no other way! It is Jesus and His finished work on the cross and no other way. Twisted no, beautiful and redemptive YES!

    Comment by jim munsey

  • November 8, 2012 at 8:45 pm

    I’m glad you’ve got a belief system that works for you, Jim, but it’s not for me. No thanks.

    Comment by Jessica

  • November 8, 2012 at 8:47 pm

    Stan, thank you! I am very interested in these missing years!

    Comment by Jessica


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