Many of Alberta’s Christian schools brought students to the exhibit on large tours.
Angela Paskevich, who teaches at Saint Elizabeth Seton School, a Catholic institution in Edmonton, took all 275 of the school’s junior high students. “They responded very favourably to the exhibition. Often, we could barely unglue them from the artwork long enough to get our instruction in! Many students were fascinated by objects no longer common or in use, like the reliquaries and the more ornate chalices; the crosses were also a constant favourite.”
The experience involved much more than art appreciation, she stressed. “The art was often a way into discussing the religious issues — which, sometimes, junior high kids will be reluctant to address. Many students were very interested in the symbolism of the pieces; some were fascinated by the depiction of biblical stories. Saint Catherine and her stigmata were a constant favourite, as well.”
One thing that stood out for Paskevich was “the reaction of the students to the dark colours, and what the kids called ‘gory’ crucifixion scenes. I have to say that, given the amount of violence kids see on TV and movies today, that surprised me. It seems that desensitization has not gotten everything. Those kids were more comfortable with the ‘happier’ scenes.”
“The thing that struck me more than anything else about the exhibit was the absolute devotion that people down through the centuries have always shown toward Jesus,” said Adrian Leske, a professor of religious studies at Edmonton’s Concordia University College. “One of my students said the exhibit made Christ a real person for him; until then, it was just a story told in Sunday school. It showed him that Jesus was a real person with a message for the world.” Many others, he added, “said they had tended to view Christianity as they know it today — and didn’t realize the impact Christ had made as His story travelled through history.”
Variations on the standard biblical story of Christ also fascinated some students. Kathleen Busch, a teacher at Mount Carmel Bible School in Edmonton, took a group of high school students from her Plymouth Brethren congregation. Coming from a denomination which generally allows very little art on church walls, the students were especially drawn to a theme entitled ‘Jesus of the Gospel’ — which featured Eastern Orthodox icons of feast days celebrating such things as The Exaltation of the Cross and The Nativity of the Virgin. The images were accompanied by Bible quotations, and passages from ancient apocryphal books such as The Protevangelion — an account of Christ’s parentage and birth, possibly written by James, the brother of Jesus.
“That led to an interesting discussion,” Busch asserted. “It made us want to look into some of the extrabiblical books, and compare them with scripture.” She added: “A lot of people have gone to ‘Anno Domini,’ who have no idea who Jesus is. This exhibit presents 18 different themes answering that question — and enabling those people to understand Him in ways they never thought of.”
John Howard, dean of faculty at Gardner College, an evangelical school in Camrose, cancelled a day of classes to take all 30 of the school’s students to the exhibit. He was impressed by many things, including “how often Jesus was behind the scenes — even in secular art, Jesus was present.” The display also conveyed “an overwhelming sense of the passion of Christ — his suffering, death and resurrection. It was an affirmation of my faith story.”
“I thought the exhibit was fantastic,” enthused Colin Sturge, one of Howard’s students. “It teaches you something that cannot be taught inside the classroom. What was most memorable was the emotional impact it had on me. I did not expect to be moved that way — but it happened.”
“I was surprised at how many young people were there,” said Doug Harink, a professor of theology at The King’s University College in Edmonton. “They seemed to be deeply interested. I was also impressed again with the power of Jesus over the Western imagination — and the fact that the Gospel still has a lot of power to move people’s hearts and minds.” He concluded: “When I see the impact Jesus has had on the world, it does affirm my faith that there is something real and true here.”
Dan Van Heyst, another King’s instructor, said the 18 themes “made me realize how huge the topic is — I was reminded that we have a big God.” He also found deep spiritual enrichment at the exhibition. “Even though I went on a really busy night, it was a devotional thing to me; I was able to move at a deliberate pace and shut out distractions.”
“It felt like walking into a sanctuary,” marvelled Paul Muir, a teacher with the Rosebud School of the Arts. “I especially liked the fact that they included both Christian and non-Christian theologians and philosophers.” The experience, he said, “was faith-building. So much of what I read at the exhibit, from so many respected people through the ages — each item felt like it was yet one more validation of my faith.”
For many in attendance, some of ‘Anno Domini’s’ thematic portrayals resonated in very significant and sometimes challenging ways.
“Jesus the Jew was the theme that really struck me,” said Van Heyst. “Jesus was described as a rabbi — seasoned in the ways of a rabbi, having the heritage of thorough study and argument from the Old Testament. I began to think of his parables as part of his rabbinical task.”
Leske’s students were also drawn to the Jewish theme. “A lot of them said that they had never thought of Jesus as a Jew; they had not understood fully that he had spoken within a Jewish context, in order to lead the people to understand God’s purpose.”
“Jesus the Jew was interesting to me,” asserted Paskevich. “I liked the references to the religion that formed Jesus. Also, Jesus the Prince of Peace was a special favourite — if nothing else than for the reminder that we are so fortunate to live in a peaceful land. The peaceful teachings of Jesus have always been very powerful for me. Along that same line, Jesus the Liberator was great, too — with the references to Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and the Polish Solidarity movement.”
Doug Harink was notably — and negatively — affected by the theme characterizing Jesus as The King of Kings. “I’m profoundly convinced that Christ taught his disciples a pacifist way. Various things in the exhibit reminded me how quickly the Church left Jesus behind on that score. There are lots of materials depicting a Jesus who is blessing various modes of coercive power.”
“The theme that touched me more than the others,” said Leske, “was The Man Who Belongs to the World — and the way Jesus was depicted by Native Canadians and Mexicans. It reminds one that people in different cultures will put Jesus into that context and culture. Similarly, in our denominations, we tend to feel that we own Christ. But ‘Anno Domini’ reminds us that we simply share Him with other denominations.”
The same theme impacted Busch’s students. “The group I took was all Caucasian. They realized that there’s a lot of cultures who relate to Jesus in ways which we don’t. They’d never really thought about it.”
“The Man Who Belongs to the World made me think of the idea of colonialism, and the fact that Western ideas have been imposed on people,” asserted Florence Enns, an art instructor at The King’s University College. “But it also demonstrated how people have been able to integrate Christ into their life and culture. I found that very encouraging.”
Some Christians were not entirely satisfied with Anno Domini.
Edward Kettner, a professor of systemic philosophy at Concordia Lutheran Seminary, enjoyed much of the art. However, he declared, “since the centre of Lutheran theology is that the Gospel is nothing other than the announcement of the full and free forgiveness of sins won by Christ on the cross, the fact that Christ as Saviour from sin, death and hell was missing from the exhibit was very disappointing. The centre of the Reformation — justification by grace through faith — was missing completely.”
Kettner maintained that ‘Anno Domini’ featured “no mention” of Jesus “as the one who has taken upon himself the sin of the world. This, astoundingly, was missing even from the section which was entitled ‘Christ Crucified.'”
His concern was shared by Gerald Krispin, associate professor of religious studies at Concordia University College in Edmonton. The ‘Christ Crucified’ theme, he said, demonstrated “that the diverse suffering of humanity is personified in the suffering of Christ” — but, for him, this section did not adequately portray the ‘suffering servant’ embodied by Isaiah 53. “I would say that, with all these portrayals of Jesus and the conclusions that would be reached, there are elements that would miss the point that Christ came to suffer and die for the redemption of sinners.”
David Goa maintained that all the crucial elements of the biblical story of Christ were abundantly present in the exhibition. Responding to one observer’s comment that there was no special section celebrating the Resurrection, he asserted: “It’s inherent throughout the entire exhibit; it permeates all the themes.”
Despite his misgivings, Krispin asserted that — in a general sense — ‘Anno Domini’ reflected “the whole gamut of who Christ was for the whole of Christian tradition. These thematic elements helped me look at Christ from these different perspectives, that I might not have otherwise done. All these different vantage points — and it’s all the same Christ.”
Kettner, too, conceded that ‘Anno Domini’ was “very good on a purely intellectual level, as it sets forth the various ‘options’ which the world — and some parts of the Church — have given in answer to [Christ’s] question, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Unfortunately, it applies the post-modern understanding that Jesus really has no ‘content’ — except that which humanity gives Him. And then it seems to say: ‘Here are some options that have been considered. Now, what’s your opinion?'”
Other believers, however, found ‘Anno Domini’s’ various ‘options’ a welcome challenge.
Van Heyst noted the irony that his church’s Calvinist tradition has often had a negative view of the visual arts. He was pleasantly surprised to find himself captivated by images associated with the most ancient Christian artistic tradition. “I found the Eastern Orthodox icons very helpful, in enabling me to have a prayerful time at the exhibit.”
In total, he said, ‘Anno Domini’ “was actually a good reflection of the Christian Reformed view — that Christ is King of all creation, and of all systems of thought. It was very ecumenical; it transcended denominational perspectives.”
“We are virtually symbol-less in our denomination,” said John Howard, a member of the Church of God. “We don’t have the icons; we don’t have the vivid images that remind us of our story.” As he walked through the exhibition, he said, “I was profoundly moved at how important the visual arts are. I realized that there’s a weakness in our worship sometimes; we’ve shied away from the pictorial arts, and I think that’s too bad.”
“I am Roman Catholic myself,” said Angela Paskevich, “and I have to say that this had very little to do with my relation to the exhibit. The exhibition really was easy to view in a Christian way, and did not affiliate itself with any one denomination.”
Doug Harink, who is a Baptist, noted: “There was very little that dealt with any baptistic or ‘free church’ elements.” However, he added, “Baptists are not very historically-minded. What ‘Anno Domini’ gives to Baptists is an opportunity to recover something of the historical roots of the Christian faith.”
The art of evangelism
While all of the people BCCN spoke to agreed that ‘Anno Domini’ had great worth as a cultural presentation, some observers saw it as having only marginal spiritual value.
“I have no doubt that many non-believers will be fascinated by this exhibit,” said Kettner. “About 30 years ago, one of my seminary professors, speaking of Jesus Christ Superstar, said that it was a work by people who had been confronted with the person of Jesus — and who did not know what to do with him. This exhibit gives such people a number of options to choose from, unfortunately without being confronted with the one who is ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ — who is not even presented as an option.”
Asked whether any non-believers would accept Christ as a result of the exhibit, he declared: “The exhibit itself will not bring them to faith, because the heart of the Gospel is not present — and indeed, is studiously avoided. In fairness, we have to remember that this is a cultural, not a religious, exhibit — and that there is no evangelistic intent behind it.”
However, he added, “wherever Jesus is presented — even in an unclear and vague manner — we need to remember that God is at work through the Gospel, even when human beings make every effort to obscure it.”
Others were much more positive about Anno Domini’s evangelical potential. As a result of seeing the exhibit, said Adrian Leske, “a non-believer might say they want to know more about this one person who’s had such an impact on the world.”
“We did have non-Christians in our tours,” said Angela Paskevich. “I think they responded well, both to the art and the spiritual concepts. My guess is that an exhibition like this one can really inspire someone who has let their faith lapse to take another look. It can be a refresher, and rekindle an interest and connection with Jesus.”
“It would be hard for anyone not to be fascinated with the impact of Jesus,” maintained Doug Harink. “Someone going through the exhibit with a spirit of genuine openness and searching could quite possibly come to Christ.”
“For the most part,” said Colin Sturge, “non-Christians would respond openly to ‘Anno Domini.’ I would hope that they would get the truth of Christ’s love from the display. I think the exhibit has the potential to draw people close enough to Jesus that he can save them.”
“I can’t imagine how any non-believers would not be impacted by it,” asserted Paul Muir. “I think it will draw people to an understanding of Christ, whether they’re believers or not — and often, that’s the first step towards belief.”
According to John Howard, non-Christians attending the exhibit “would see Jesus for the political and intellectual force he has been. Even a non-believer can come away and say that Jesus made a difference — and still is making a difference. People are going to at least have to stop and say: ‘What is the effect of this man on my life?’ And that could lead them to faith.”
“Some non-believers would be, frankly, creeped out by it,” said Dan Van Heyst. “It would feel big and powerful and mysterious — and even a little dangerous. Some have probably just trotted through it, without letting any of it in. But I’m sure the Holy Spirit will use this presentation to bring people to repentance and faith.”
Howard concluded: “I had the profound sense that ‘Anno Domini’ was presenting the total Christian story, and the questions that need to be answered. This exhibit was posing the question: ‘Who do you say that I am?’ I believe they answered that question.”
Whatever its spiritual impact may prove to be, ‘Anno Domini’ has been a one-of-a-kind public proclamation of the importance of Jesus to world history and human conduct. Among many other achievements, it inspired a number of secular media outlets to present the figure of Christ respectfully to their audiences.
Perhaps the most eloquent response was provided by Edmonton Journal columnist Christopher Levan, in Legacy magazine’s tribute to the exhibit — entitled ‘Museum Masterstroke.’
“Like a mirror,” Levan wrote, “images of Jesus reflect every human hope and fear . . . The museum invites visitors to take a glimpse in the mirror. Who knows who will look back?” He answered his own question thus: “After 2,000 years of devotion, there are as many images of Jesus as there are human hands to hold the mirror of his countenance. It is the truth of incarnation. Jesus is not a static icon, but a dynamic encounter.”
David Goa has had his own dynamic encounter, as a result of his intimate involvement with this remarkable project. “I’ve been humbled by how many people have said to me — unsolicited — that the Holy Spirit was at work in the exhibition when they went through it. I found that astonishing.”
Asked what he hoped people would take away from ‘Anno Domini’, he said: “I have been concerned to see that — no matter where one comes from in their faith background — that at some place in the exhibition, one would encounter the Jesus that is familiar, and that has spoken to one’s own heart.”
As for Christians, in particular, he asserted: “I hope they will come to appreciate more deeply that Jesus is far greater than what any one church makes of him. I hope they will explore other ways in which the Galilean has been significant in the lives of men, women and children over 2,000 years, and in opening the floodgates of human creativity in the world.”