The War for Christian Imagery
My uncle is a remarkable artist. His paintings live in a number of our extended family homes. As a child I remember walking into my grandfather’s office and staring at the large oil painting of Jesus suffering on the cross. My uncle designed it so Jesus looked right into your eyes. This is one of the first things that comes to mind when I think of the term “Christian art.”
What do you think of? Maybe Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper or Thomas Kinkade’s Cobblestone Bridge. Or maybe the wall decor in Hobby Lobby that always seems to be 50% to 90% off!
I know the term brings to mind different things to different people. But what is Christian art?
As an artist who is a Christian, this question is fundamental, because it speaks to the aim of our work. I’ve found Leland Ryken, Professor of Literature at Wheaton College, quite helpful in answering this question.
I appreciate how Ryken in The Liberated Imagination suggests that we shouldn’t necessarily label art Christian or non-Christian, but that we speak of how the way art engages with the Christian faith (199). And some art engages more with the Christian faith than others.
Ryken, in chapter 7, offers three simple levels, or categories, to distinguish how art interacts with Christianity:
level one -- Christian allusions;
level two -- inclusively Christian;
level three -- exclusively Christian.
In this article, I’d like to focus on the first level: Christian allusions. And since my primary interest is storytelling, I’ll focus on a film.
Allusions and Apes
An allusion is a figure of speech that implicitly calls something else to mind. Storytellers, whether filmmakers or novelists, utilize them regularly.
Many stories in the West contain allusions to Christianity because of how pervasively the Judeo-Christian worldview has influenced it. Sometimes as Christians we get really excited when we see non-Christians using Christian imagery, and sometimes it is a good thing, but sometimes it is not. Sometimes artists use imagery to affirm what it represents and sometimes they use it to critique or overturn what it represents.
War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) is a recent example of a film with lots of biblical imagery. (For a more in-depth analysis of the biblical imagery in this film see Brian Godawa’s article.)
The third installment of The Planet of the Apes re-booted franchise is about the continued war between the humans and the highly intelligent apes. One faction of the humans, led by a Special Forces Colonel (played by Woody Harrelson), is bent on eliminating the apes once and for all. Caesar, leader of the apes, seeks to protect them.
Caesar Leads an Exodus
While watching the film, I realized it is an Exodus story, and Caesar is Moses. As Pharaoh enslaved Israel, so the brutal Colonel captures the apes and forces them into slave labor.
And just like Moses, Caesar witnesses one of the men beating another ape, and just like Moses this event stirs him to set his “people” free. Finally Caesar ushers his apes through a wilderness into a Promised Land.
However, the film doesn’t only use Old Testament imagery, it offers New Testament allusions as well. While the Colonel functions as the Pharaoh, he also seems to embody the Christian God.
The Colonel wears a cross around his neck and has scripture painted around the camp, such as the Greek alpha and omega letters next to the phrase “The beginning and the end” from Revelation 22:13. This is a phrase that God claims applies to himself, since he is eternal -- without beginning or end.
The Colonel frequently punishes apes on makeshift cross-like structures, and in one scene the Colonel stands on a balcony directly above Caesar tied to his cross. He looks in anger at the Colonel as if to present a distorted reflection of Jesus crying out to God the Father, “Why have you forsaken me?”
The crucifixion imagery continues when the Colonel explains to Caesar what he’s had to do to protect himself from the dangerous virus that is making humans deaf and dumb like the apes. Reminiscent of John 3:16, the Colonel says, “I had to sacrifice my only son, so that humanity could be saved.”
As the Villain Goes, So Goes God
The Colonel’s plan ultimately fails and so does the religious worldview he represents. But Caesar delivers his apes to the Promised Land, freeing them from bondage in Mosaic fashion...without the aid of the God of Exodus.
The Colonel not only represents the Pharaoh, but also the God of Exodus. So, the oppressor isn’t just Pharaoh, it’s also God. In the filmmaker's view, the Israelites didn’t really escape slavery, they just traded one master (Pharaoh) for another master (God) (thank you JT Wynn for this point). The message applies to us a viewers of the film as well; we who follow God are but slaves of a cruel master.
But Caesar is different: he’s truly free because he leads his apes from the bondage of both -- goodbye, Colonel; see ya, God. True freedom, then, is found in freeing ourselves from the God of the Bible. Right?
Lest You forget
I’m reminded how easily we forget God, even after he works miraculously. Lest the Israelites forget the one who rescued them from Egypt, God reminds them in the first line of the Ten Commandments, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex. 20:2). In our fallen state, to forget God is to be human.
And Israel would forget, for about ten chapters later after Moses’ absence, Aaron makes new gods for the people, revising history. “These are your Gods, O Israel,” proclaimed Aaron, “who brought you up out of the land of Israel” (Ex. 32:4).
“Oh, that’s right...I thought God brought us out. I can’t believe I forgot that the gods you just made rescued us from Pharaoh.”
Allusions Can Undermine
Despite the beautiful filming and impressive acting, and even sacrificial themes, War for the Planet of the Apes is a film full of biblical imagery that’s present not to honor the faith, but to undermine it. The filmmakers present the God of the Bible as no longer the hero (which Exodus leads us to believe) but the violent, abusive enslaver.
Sadly, many people view the God of the Bible in this way: a deity who carelessly slaps soul-crushing rules on his image-bearers. War for the Planet of the Apes only furthers this misunderstanding.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t see War for the Planet of the Apes -- artistically, it’s quite impressive -- but I am hoping you see that artists can use Christian allusions in an attempt to undermine Christianity! Sneaky.
I’m not saying turn off Netflix or stop going to the movies, I’m saying watch films carefully and discern what they’re communicating, or as Paul says, “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). And maybe you can present to another the true picture of the God of the Bible who is holy and loving and eager to forgive sinners. May Christ be honored in our viewing!
Next we’ll talk about Ryken’s second level in which art engages with Christianity: in an inclusive manner.