Crucifying Christian Art

The Good Shepherd

Guest Post by Ben Larson

What do you think of when you think of Christian art? You probably picture enormous cathedrals, sculptures and paintings by Michaelangelo, and crucifixes. LOTS of crucifixes. And crosses. And stuff built in the shape of crosses.

Somewhere along the way the cross became the chief artistic representation of Christianity. It connotes power: omnipotent power over death, spiritual power over sin, and for centuries the political power of the church. It’s become the Christian’s Skull and Crossbones. It sends a message: this is God’s house, so don’t mess with us. We have a monopoly on truth. God is on our side. We’re RIGHT.

I think the cross’s connotation might have a lot to do with the way the cross became a symbol in the first place. The legend of the cross’s cultural ascension goes like this: before the Battle of Milvian Bridge in AD 312, the Roman Emperor Constantine had a vision of a cross in the sky, accompanied by the words “By this, win!” He told all of his soldiers to put crosses on their shields, and from then on they won every battle. Sounds like a symbol of power, doesn’t it? Right from the very beginning!

You probably know the rest of the story: under Constantine Christianity became the official religion of the empire, making the church a political institution for the first time in its history. Finally, Christians could live out their faith without the fear of persecution.

Fast forward to today: the cross has become a global symbol of Christianity, which might make you think it’s always been that way. But, in fact, Christianity was around for over two centuries before Constantine chose to elevate the cross. When I found that out I got REALLY curious: what was the great symbol for Christianity before Constantine, when Christians were being persecuted? The answer might surprise you: The Good Shepherd.

The catacombs below Rome contain the oldest Christian art in existence, and by far the most common theme is The Good Shepherd, a picture we find in both the Old (Psalm 23) and New Testament (John 10). That shocked me. I would have chosen something else to represent God if I was being persecuted. Maybe the “strong tower” from Proverbs 18:10. Maybe the warrior from Exodus 15:3, Isaiah 42:13, and Zephaniah 3:17. Maybe the victorious Judge and King from Revelation 19.

But not a shepherd. Shepherds lead. Shepherds guide. I would want to believe that God was working on his plan for delivering me and destroying my enemies. I wouldn’t want to believe that God had led my bruised, broken body to be eaten by lions in the Roman Coliseum. What kind of Good Shepherd does that?

I’m an American. I want to win. To be on the winning team, a soldier in the winning army. I don’t want to suffer, and I REALLY don’t want to think that God wants me to.

But maybe my picture of God is wrong. Maybe Christianity isn’t a badge I put on my weapons to make them more effective. Maybe it isn’t a political institution protecting me from suffering, error and doubt. Maybe it isn’t the secret sauce I put on my life to make it successful.

Maybe true Christianity has always been a quiet, faithful obedience to the Shepherd’s voice. And maybe we artists should recapture that in the way we represent it.

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