Sunday, July 18, 2010

If Your Favorite "Picture" of Jesus is from a Cult, is it Still Your Favorite Picture?

There are two distinct, but related, questions I would like to discuss in the next couple of blog entries: if you happen to like a sketch, drawing or portrait of the Lord Jesus Christ, does the origin matter to you? Secondly, are all artistic depictions of Christ sinful; in violation of the Second Commandment; or just a really bad idea? Please note much of what I write on this topic is purely subjective, and undoubtedly some of you have given the subject much more thought than I have. I am not extreme in one opinion or the other; this series is simply me thinking out loud. Feel free to disagree, correct, or add your own observations.

Somewhere around 1991-92, my Dad gave me an 8x10" portrait of Jesus, given to him by a Mormon lady that same summer. He had been somewhere - possibly upstate New York - on some sort of business/research trip, and there was a high Mormon population. I think it was Palmyra, NY. Anyway, this kind-hearted lady told my practicing Catholic, self-professing agnostic father all about their "martyr" Joseph Smith, the hills in Cummorah with the Golden Plates, and all things Mormon.

Now, there are two things you need to know about my Dad: one, he is a now-retired history professor. He holds a PhD in American history, has written a couple of books, and probably knew far more about Mormon history than this lady did herself (but I am sure he did not tell her). The second thing you need to know about him is that he cares about as much for religion as I do for quantum physics (which is to say, not a whole lot). His knowledge of ancient and Renaissance history was, in large part, what drove him to despise Romanism, and the papacy in particular (although he faithfully attends Mass each Sunday with my mother. That's actually pretty common among Irish catholic husbands). He thinks my "Luther is My Homeboy" T-shirt (which I always wear to dinner at their house) is a riot, although attempting to discuss theology with him is a dead end.

In short, the Mormon lady made no headway. My father was not a potential convert. However, as a parting gift, she gave him this portrait of "The Savior", which he very thoughtfully passed on to me. I say that in all sincerity - I had become a Christian the year before; my Dad thought, "This lady loves Jesus. My daughter loves Jesus. I bet she'll appreciate this lovely portrait!" Of course, I thanked him; although I instantly recognized the painting as "The Mormon Jesus". I'm sure you've all seen the picture:

That portrait is as recognizable to a Mormon as the Sacred Heart image is to a Catholic (although I believe the artist was a Seventh-Day Adventist). I slipped it back into the brown paper envelope he'd carried it back to Massachusetts in, and put it in my desk drawer. I knew it was supposed to represent the Lord Jesus Christ, just felt funny displaying it. It was The Mormon Jesus. How could I hang a false jesus on the wall? It felt...weird. Mormon Jesus stayed in my desk drawer at my parents' house. I don't know what became of him, but I doubt they hung it up when I moved to Bulgaria.

Now....I told you that story so that I could tell you this one.

A couple of years or so ago, a Christian online friend posted a black and white picture on her blog or MySpace page. I instantly liked it:

I love the message behind it....the embrace of Christ, Who loves us eternally, tenderly, and personally. I believe that Jesus gives hugs (and that God, as the "inventor" of love and affection, is the originator of the embrace). Besides, children were drawn to Christ during His earthly ministry. Pure speculation here, but it's quite possible that He was a hugger. In any event, I really liked the picture.

Except....there was something...disturbingly familiar about it. The style struck me as eerily similar to the artwork I had seen from a certain cult called "The Children of God" (now known as The Family International). I had first encountered CoG/TFI on the streets of Sofia, where they were doggedly pursuing young people with their colorful tracts and message of free love. I won't go into the aberrant teachings or doctrine of this cult as it is so perverse and blasphemous as to put disturbing images into your head, but if you're really curious you can Google them. CoG grew out of the "Jesus Freak" movement of the 1970's, and was led by a delusional guy named David Berg who claimed all sorts of "new revelation" from God.

This lovely drawing of Jesus hugging a girl instantly reminded me of the cult's artwork, so I found the clipart gallery where it was downloadable and e-mailed the owner. He replied that he had no idea who the artist was; he has thousands of images and, after all, it was okay to like it. It's just a picture. I was satisfied with his response, and I even used the image myself to illustrate a posting on my other blog. Recently, a Christian friend of mine started using the picture as her Facebook avatar.

Well, not long ago, I came upon an online forum of ex-Family survivors, and decided to ask. I just could not get it out of my mind that that picture so closely resembled the cult's artwork, although much searching of their online, archived publications had turned up nothing. The moderator agreed that it resembled The Family/CoG artwork, but was unsure as to whether it actually was from the cult. Well, last week, it was confirmed - by a former member of the cult:

Report this postReply with quoteRe: Is this picture Children of God artwork?
by robber » Wed 14-Jul-2010 6:15 am

Hi Marie,
That picture is definitely TFI. It's by an artist who draws for most of their material named Tamar, and I think the pic is from the front of one of their mailings called 'They'll always be mine'.
The Family/Children of God has destroyed many of their more explicit publications and tried to sanitize their image, so I cannot find the publication in question (which is probably just as well). But do you see where I'm going with this? The image, which I (and many other Christian women) like presumably because of the warm, emotional response it's designed to evoke, turned out to have been produced by a cult. A cult which has promoted unspeakable heresies and practices. Ironically enough, The Family Int'l artist who produced this image (and many others) was sued for plagiarism. Not only is she following the doctrine of demons; she's a thief, as well.

So how do you like them apples?

Naturally, there's that initial "ick" factor that makes you remove the image and want to wash your hands. But the real issue runs deeper than that. As Glenn pointed out, cults can produce good (and seemingly innocent) artwork. I just scanned an LDS online gallery, and half (if not more) of their depictions of Christ are also well-known portraits on Christian sites and galleries. One, of the resurrected Lord, I have seen in churches and I swear it's Mormon Jesus in a different robe. Kinda messes with your head, doesn't it?

Not that I'm an extreme iconoclast, mind you. At least, I don't have a history of being such, for reasons I'll get into in tomorrow's post. But artwork, supposedly depicting a realistic image of Christ - symbollic or representational - from a dubious source is...weird. Just...icky somehow. If we think this through to it's logical conclusion, I think we might have to do away with portraits and "devotional" images of Christ. Does the artist's intention or Christology matter? I'm not sure. Since we cannot get into the head of another person, we really don't know what h was thinking - or who the model was, or so forth.

To be continued.....

UPDATE 7/28/10: I received confirmation from The Family International's public affairs office that this artwork is, in fact, theirs. So the "mystery" is solved:

Hello, Marie,
Thank you for your correspondence. The image you are referring to was done by one of our artists, but the art is not entirely original. The girl in the picture was copied from a paperback novel found in a used bookstore many years ago (artist unknown), and our artist added the picture of Jesus. The illustration was used in a publication that was distributed internally amongst TFI membership and is not on a public domain, and so we would not be able to provide a link.

I hope that provides you with the information you need, and let me know if I can be of any further help.

Carol Cunningham,
for The Family International


Glenn E. Chatfield said...

One thing that disturbs me about so many of these false representations of Christ - especially from the Mormons - is that he is so Anglo-Saxon! Often even seen with blue eyes! How can these be any more misrepresentations of Christ? Then there are those black Christs. In order to at least approximate what Jesus probably looked like, he has to at least look Jewish!

Perry Bulwer said...

You wrote: "The image, which I (and many other Christian women) like presumably because of the warm, emotional response it's designed to evoke..."

That drawing is definitely from one of the COG/TFI publications. Your response to it is exactly what that cult hopes for, for you to be subtly influenced by their teachings through their art work, music, performances, etc. I wonder, however, if you would have the same "warm, emotional response" to that cult's artwork found at the following link, which shows some of their posters and covers to publications. I think cult members would love for you to endorse one of their pictures because from their perspective it lends credibility to their message.


That page has the following warning:

DISCLAIMER: Publications by The Family are archived here for educational purposes. We collect them here to document their existence, but some of these images may be considered disturbing or pornographic. This page is not suitable for viewing by minors.

Marie said...

Hi Perry,

Thanks for commenting. Yes, I have seen that page and read up thoroughly on CoG a few years back (WARNING: if you guys check out Perry's link, be forewarned that it is pretty disturbing. The cartoon-type drawings they do are heavily sexual).

You are exactly right re: the response they want to ellicit with this more "innocent" image. Although I have not been able to turn up the original source where this drawing first appeared, you obviously recognized it right away as being from the cult. If you don't mind my asking, were you involved with CoG/the Family at some point?

I don't think the other women I know who like the image have ever heard of The Family, so they don't have a "context" for that picture. It is a very distinctive style, though, so I should have trusted my initial suspiscions!

Marie said...

Perry, I apologize for the unneccesary question. I just visited your website - I'm sorry for what you've been through.

Perry Bulwer said...

Thanks Marie. I'm glad you did some basic research on this group and listened to your intuition. Many people don't, which is how they get sucked in and how a cult like that can continue to operate for so long, even with the advent of the Internet.

Yes, I was manipulated, recruited and indoctrinated by that cult in 1972 when I was just 16, and escaped it's psycho-spiritual hold on me in 1991. I'm very familiar with their artwork and immediately recognized the picture you posted as being one of their's.

It's precisely because of my experiences with that cult that I now monitor the web and try to warn people about them who may get tricked by their deceptive proselytizing. The art work you showed is a fairly innocuous example, but it hides a sinister secret of sexual manipulation. It's a short step from portraying their Jesus as a comforting hugger to a sexual libertarian. But that's how they operate, deceiving outsiders with "the milk of the word", like that innocent looking picture. Only after they feel their target can be trusted, and has been primed by further indoctrination do they offer them the "strong meat" of what they actually believe. Many of those pictures at the link I provided are covers of internal documents, but others, including most of the posters were for the public.

I also included a warning about that page so your readers wouldn't be caught off guard. I should also warn them about my website. They may not like what they find on it, because I am now an atheist as a result of my cult experience.

Any way, thanks for posting that question about whether the origin of a piece of art matters or not, as it goes beyond just religious subject matter. I disagree with the clip art person you contacted who shrugged it off with "a picture is just a picture". Personally, if I saw art work I really liked, but then discovered it was by a serial killer or a neo-nazi propagandist, I would quickly change my opinion about the piece, and begin to ask questions, just as you did.

Jennifer said...

Hey friend! That's amazing. I had no idea that picture was from the COG cult. I thought I recognized the girl from a teen romance I owned and re-read a lot when I was a kid... I guess I was right! LOL

As far as representations of Christ go, they're all wrong. No one knows what Jesus really looked like on earth. All the pics make Him out to be so attractive and inviting, but the Bible says He wasn't attractive or inviting in appearance. I love that about Him, actually. We might be turned off by His appearance if we saw Him on the street today... and yet, He's our Savior and greatest friend.

Anyway, enough chit-chat. Have a beautiful day!

Ma ~ said...

I checked out the link...I can't say I wasn't warned.

"Luther is My Homeboy"

That is too funny.

Marie said...

They should have:
"Spurgeon is my Homeboy" T-shirts. That would be even better!! :)