Sunday, May 4, 2014

On J4J's video and the artwork of Marc Chagall

Like many others, I had a negative reaction to Jews for Jesus's video "That Jew Died for You." I noticed that the website for the video highlights the artwork of Marc Chagall. Since others have also appealed to Chagall's work as a way of understanding the video, I thought the comparison was worth scrutinizing further.
Jews for Jesus's "That Jew Died for You"
First: I don't think anyone believes the video deserves to be compared to Chagall on aesthetic merits alone. Chagall was a brilliant Jewish artist whose work has deeply moved countless people. "That Jew Died for You" is a low-budget film short produced for the internet to drive conversation and scandalize viewers. I understand the comparisons to Chagall as either an implicit defense of the artistic choice to depict Jesus in the Holocaust or as an attempt to associate the video with the power of Marc Chagall's work. In both cases, I think the association fails. Here's why.
Marc Chagall's "White Crucifixion"

One of the things that is immediately striking about Chagall's imagery of Jesus is that it clearly portrays Jesus as a Jew. By making Jesus resemble (both physically and in garb) the Jews from other time periods in history who appear next to him in various tableaus, Chagall presented a startling contrast to traditional Christian depictions of Jesus. By contrast, the J4J video does the exact opposite, portraying Jesus exactly as evangelicals have portrayed him for the last fifty years (down to the colored sash and glowing aura). This befuddling choice undermines the supposed point of the video: instead of being "just another Jew," Jesus is a glowing alien/foreigner from another time and place (and culture?). No tallis or tefillin on Jesus this video, it takes a Nazi to recognize Jesus as a Jew.

Now, to be fair, I don't think Chagall's approach (making Jesus look like any other Jew) would have worked in this medium. After all, in Chagall's work, the primary thing that identifies the individual depicting Jesus as Jesus is the crucifixion itself. This leads me to my next point.

The second thing that I think puts this video at odds with Chagall's imagery is the question of the identification of Jesus's sufferings with the sufferings of the Jewish people. Chagall's works show Jesus being crucified while Jews are being subject to pogroms, etc...equating Jewish suffering with Jesus' suffering. The J4J video shies away from making this equation in the video. Nowhere is this more clear than when Jesus's hand appears from offscreen to help a young Jewish woman who has stumbled. Chagall's work points at that young woman stumbling and says, "Right there--that is Jesus stumbling." This video makes a different claim...which leads me to my third point.

The glowing hand of Jesus is the basis of my third and harshest criticism of "That Jew Died for You." For me, that was the moment at which the video completely shipwrecked itself on an iceberg of religious delusion. The appearance of Jesus' hand helping the girl up deeply betrays the commitment that all true art makes to its viewer, which is to tell the truth. No matter how much Christians might wish that Jesus's hand had reached out to help the stumbling girl headed to Auschwitz, the truth (and the challenge...and the shame) of the Holocaust is that, in the case of the girl at Auschwitz, that is exactly what did not happen. (I say "in the case of the girl at Auschwitz" because there are cases where help DID come from Christians: Corrie Ten Boom's family and numerous other Christians risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust. Their stories deserve and need to be told, now more than as ever.)

Now I don't think anyone would object to a Christian pointing to Corrie Ten Boom's actions and saying, "There, THAT is worthy to be associated with the hands of the Risen One." However, for Christians, the shame (and challenge) of the Holocaust was that this did not happen more...that so many were silent. The imagined hand of Jesus in this video not only fails to acknowledge this, it not-so-subtly denies it, glorifying an alternative reality which is in actuality a complete fantasy. This is not art, this is a parlor trick and is certainly not worthy of comparison to a true artist like Chagall.

I appreciate the desire to say that Yeshua was not ever present with the hand that persecuted the Jewish people throughout history...and that his presence was always with the hand of help. However, Yeshua bound himself to the actions of his disciples in his world, commanding them to be his hands and feet in a world which, for the time being, cannot see him. The fantasy hand of Jesus at Auschwitz promotes an alternative vision, a form of religion which uses Jesus's image as a panacea to try to cover over the pain and suffering which threatens God's reputation in the world as if to say, "We don't have to look at these things as they really are, because really Jesus makes it better behind the scenes." This is not the biblical picture of redemption; it a false image, one which deserves to be soundly rejected.

In conclusion, I do not believe that the producers or writers of this video seriously believe any of these things I am critiquing. I can believe, however, that the video's writers and producers imagined themselves to be doing something in the vein of Chagall's work. That fantasy deserves the same evaluation I assign to the glowing hand of Jesus at Auschwitz: wishful thinking.