"The story of our salvation is really the only story, and we retell it in endless variations. Even the ancient pre-Christian mythologies echo the story of Christ and His salvific role."
Should a Christian artist paint themes from pagan mythology, other religions, or even fantasy motifs?
Many artists who are deeply grounded in their Christian faith, especially those just starting out in their career, have questions about what is and is not appropriate subject matter. In a previous post I addressed nudity and the Christian artist, today I would like to address subjects that don't seem to have anything to do with Christianity at all.
The story of our salvation is really the only story, and we retell it in endless variations. Even the ancient pre-Christian mythologies echo the story of Christ and His salvific role.
Think of it this way. Imagine time as a slow moving river. All of human history takes place within this river, from the first humans upstream to the present day somewhere further downstream. Each of us live out our lives in a current of this river, overlapping with others.
As humans our perception of time is linear. We look back upstream and see a sequence of events that have led us to where we are now. But God stands outside the river. God stands on the riverbank observing the passage of the stream. To God, all of our history is happening now, at different points along the river.
The birth of Christ was a singular event. God inserting Himself into human history is an event of such magnitude it effects the entire stream of history. If you throw a rock into a slow moving river it will cause ripples in the water, in all directions, both upstream and downstream. The birth of Christ is like a stone thrown into the river of human history, it sends ripples in all directions.
So even pre-Christian religions had a sense of the coming of Christ, a dim understanding of the great story of our salvation. And they explained it through their mythologies as best they could, looking forward to events that had not yet occurred in human history.
Skeptics claim that the Christian story is based on these ancient pre-Christian tales. But the difference is that none of those stories can be placed in our history. They all supposedly happened sometime in the mythic past. But Christ entered into our history at a very specific point, we write our history according to what happened before and what happened after His birth. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis recognized the Christian story as the true source of all the world's mythologies. Tolkien referred to the Christian story as "the myth that really happened." They echoed the thoughts of G.K. Chesterton who put it this way:
“If the Christian God really made the human race, would not the human race tend to rumors and perversions of the Christian God? If the center of our life is a certain fact, would not people far from the center have a muddled version of that fact?… When learned skeptics come to me and say, ‘Are you aware that the Kaffirs have a story of Incarnation?’ I should reply: ‘Speaking as an unlearned person, I don’t know. But speaking as a Christian, I should be very much astonished if they hadn’t."
Take the story of Prometheus for example. Prometheus, a Titan (a Godlike being), creates the human race out of the dust of the earth, breathes life in to him, and gives him fire (the light of Truth). For his efforts he is chained to a rock (crucified) and suffers a terrible wound in his side. From the Christian point of view this is the story of Christ, veiled by time and told by those who lived before the Incarnation, grasping after the Truth as best as they were able to perceive it.
Even our fantasy stories are influenced by what is truly "The Greatest Story Ever Told." Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, is a prime example. And his work has influenced fantasy artists and writers for generations.
So for the artist that is drawn to pre-Christian myths, inspired by ancient stories of Gods and demons, monsters and heroes, I would only advise that you look for the transcendent Truth in those stories and work to convey that Truth in your paintings, stories, poetry, songs, and theatrical productions, whether you are depicting Christ bound to His cross or Prometheus bound to his rock.
this article originally appeared at www.DeaconLawrence.org
Pontifex University is an online university offering a Master’s Degree in Sacred Arts. For more information visit the website at www.pontifex.university
Lawrence Klimecki is a deacon in the Diocese of Sacramento. He is a public speaker, writer, and artist, reflecting on the intersection of art and faith and the spiritual “hero’s journey” that is part of every person’s life. He maintains a blog at www.DeaconLawrence.org