How, indeed, do we create into “our own Ground Zero realities?” In his thoughtful response to my review of Art + Faith, Makoto Fujimura stresses the importance of looking forward, not backward. This is a point well taken, and worth emphasizing. It is tempting to romanticize the past! And because there are so many past milieux to identify with, the temptations can seem endless. Over the last several years, political reactionaries have been romanticizing a past, “great” America that probably never existed in the way they imagine it. In the religion news lately, Catholic traditionalists have been sparring with the Pope over the value of embracing pre-Vatican II practices. In my region of the Pacific Northwest, young twenty- and thirty-somethings are striving to live “off the grid,” with lifestyles reminiscent of Little House on the Prairie. In my college classrooms, some brilliant and starry-eyed intellectuals envision a return to the age of chansons, chivalry, and cathedrals.
But there is no going backward, as Mr. Fujimura rightly insists. The whole salvation story is one of forward movement and constant remaking. Nothing ever returns to how it was, though its past is always swept into the onrushing flow. A Messiah comes in unexpected form, and dies, and changes everything. (The social advances wrought by Christianity are too numerous to count.) The Messiah rises again and, as Fujimura stresses, He still bears wounds. The Old Testament, of course, tells of a flood that wiped out the world so that humanity could begin again. But after that, God promised, there would be no more “wiping out.” Everything thereafter would be preserved and gathered into God’s kingdom, bruises and all.
“Modernity” so-called—which we are now well past—claimed to have found “the answers.” The political scientist Francis Fukuyama even wondered, in 1992, if we had reached “The End of History.”1 This sentiment had already been anticipated in the art world, which tends to run in the vanguard: Arthur Danto had published his “End of Art” in 1984, and Hans Belting would publish “The End of the History of Art?” in 1987. None of these authors were apocalyptic, of course. Rather, all of them thought certain, perennial questions had been conclusively answered, and that a kind of stasis had arrived. There was no “new Newness” on he horizon, to use Mr. Fujimura’s phrase. The triumphs of the “modern” seemed poised to abide forever.
The new millennium has shown that this is not the case, politically, economically, and culturally. Just as God’s kingdom is always evolving, always straining to make itself known in new ways, so history marches on. We are postmodern now: consciously part of the new—always new!—resurrection life that Mr. Fujimura describes. We viscerally understand the Christic dynamic of breaking and remaking, with its endless pains and beauties. History, we now grasp, is a succession of “Ground Zeroes”—of ruptures—that usher in new life at the same time they break or destroy. History, in fact, is just like our individual lives, marred by the deaths of loved ones, illness or disability, the loss of livelihood, the vertigo of aging. We are Christ’s broken body, both individually and collectively, treading our “via dolorosas” in a fractal configuration descending from the cosmic to the miniscule.
I am a cancer survivor, and on the day I wrote this response, I received my first “survivorship” brochure (a souvenir of a year being cancer-free). The brochure insisted that life after treatment is not the same; things don’t go back to normal. I can affirm this to be true. There is the matter, of course, of permanent physical wounds or hardships. And on the flip side, there is the matter of applying one’s hard-earned wisdom, integrating suffering and its insights into one’s status as living “kintsugi.” With perspicacity and generosity, Mr. Fujimura invites us to integrate our own, collective, pandemic-era suffering into our evolution toward the new Newness. All of us can deploy the raw wounds of loss, isolation, and fear toward a more compassionate, spiritually expansive engagement with the world. If consumer culture has forced us to operate in “shrunken grounds” of “scarcity,” as Mr. Fujimura relates, then the pandemic has helped us recognize each other there, shoulder to shoulder. May we use these shared experiences to identify with each other’s pain and build bridges of collaboration and empathy.
In my 2018 Image Journal essay “Christ the Chimera: The Riddle of the Monster Jesus,” I explored chimerical, paradoxical representations of Christ in contemporary art. These representations, and the processes that birthed them, have a lot in common with Mr. Fujimura’s call for a “Newness” that incorporates ruptures and wounds. The essay’s conclusion, inspired by the work of controversial artists like Andres Serrano and Chris Ofili, reads in this way:
Like a prism with a million facets, [Christ] continues to reflect new lights. Every new thing that is made will be integrated into him. His chimerical beauty will grow ever more impossible, ever more astounding, ever more riotously complex-yet-harmonious, until the angels can only laugh in astonishment. Satan’s efforts to deform will only launch new, unexpected patterns and harmonies. And so it will be forever and ever, Amen.2
We are facets of the prism that is Christ’s body. May we shine and transform eternally, augmenting the spectrum of God’s glory with splendors ever new.