Nearly 40 years ago, when we still lived in Rome, we spent a few days in the lovely medieval city of Volterra in Tuscany. While there, we took the opportunity to visit Florence and its wonderful Uffizi Gallery.
It was a time when various masterpieces had been recently restored, and we were amazed at the bright colours of works by Botticelli and others. They looked as though they had been finished the previous day and the oil paint was still drying.
I took pictures, but they don’t do justice to the vibrant colours we actually saw during our time there. Wikimedia has a better version…
The restoration process is time-consuming and difficult, but I don’t think anyone in the art world argued that these paintings should be left as they were; that the layers of grime actually protected them and perhaps made them more beautiful; that restoring them would be an insult to their creators; or that to restore these works of art would be tantamount to leaving the world of art for some lesser world, denying the truths of the now-sullied paintings once so beautiful.
On the contrary, much time and effort was devoted to carefully removing the accretions that hid their true glory, and thousands of visitors to the Uffizi, and to other galleries around the world, have been grateful for the restorations that reveal the artists’ original visions.
Of course, there have been a few ham-handed, amateur attempts at restoration that went horribly wrong, but no one argued that this indicated that restoration was an unworthy or dangerous occupation.
Yet, when it comes to the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, the “curators” of that masterpiece decry all attempts at restoration. The layers of man-made doctrine that have been added over the centuries, and in particular recent centuries, supposedly protect and enhance the Gospel.
Ignoring the fact that those doctrines are analogous to the traditions of the elders that Jesus criticised in His day, and that many are based on scant evidence or a mere verse or two that could be understood differently if only we truly knew that God is Love, present-day Pharisees and Scribes – the rulers of the evangelical wing of the church in particular – condemn those who would restore the Gospel to its original glory.
It’s true that we don’t do ourselves any favours when we talk about deconstruction rather than restoration, and there are some who would destroy the Gospel itself and deny its – and our – creator’s existence. That’s regrettable, but we can understand that people who have been hurt – even traumatised in their youth – by such doctrines as Eternal Conscious Torment in hell for those who don’t know God, and Penal Substitutionary Atonement (a wrathful God who poured out that wrath on His own Son on the cross because somehow He could not bring himself to forgive anyone their sins without doing so) – that such people, in rejecting the doctrines, may well reject the institutions that promulgate them and the deity they think is behind them.
This in my opinion – and not mine only, I hasten to add – is like taking a sledgehammer to restore a work of art, instead of small tools such as brushes, tweezers, scalpels and spatulas.
In a blogpost titled “Deconstruction or Restoration” (4-20-16), Brian Zahnd suggested that the imagery of art restoration might serve us better.
He imagines the faith as an ancient icon of Christ, covered in centuries of grime, dirt and soot. A restoration expert is commissioned to restore the icon’s original vibrancy. Among the artist’s tools, you wouldn’t expect to find dynamite. You don’t restore a priceless masterpiece by blowing it up. Brian applies the analogy to our faith:
In our passion to rescue Christian faith from its myriad of distortions, we are not like the Taliban blowing up the Buddhas of Bamiyan, but like the artists who restored Michelangelo’s vandalized Pietá.
In rethinking Christianity, we must always keep in mind that we are handling something enormously precious—faith in Christ. It’s precisely because faith in Christ is so precious that we are committed to the difficult task of restoring it to its original beauty. But we cannot use cheap cynicism and crude mockery in this delicate task. We go about it patiently, reverently, gently, always showing deep respect for the Great Tradition that has sustained Christian faith and practice for two thousand years.Jersak, Bradley. A More Christlike Way: A More Beautiful Faith (pp. 34-35). Plain Truth Ministries. Kindle Edition.
The deity they are rejecting is not the one of whom Jesus said “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” It is a pagan deity of human invention (at best), and we are right to reject it.
Maybe some institutions do need to be thoroughly deconstructed; maybe some are so thoroughly mired in false doctrine and practice that they cannot be restored. Frank Viola in his books on Church and Christian history argues that reform from within the institutional church is now virtually impossible.
A revolution in both the theology and practice of the church is upon us. Countless Christians, including theologians, ministers, and scholars, are seeking new ways to renew and reform the church. Others have given up on the traditional concept of church altogether. They have come to the conviction that the institutional church as we know it today is not only ineffective, but it’s also without biblical merit. For this reason, they feel it would be a mistake to reform or renew the present church structure. Because the structure is the root problem.Viola, Frank. Reimagining Church: Pursuing the Dream of Organic Christianity (p. 15). David C Cook. Kindle Edition.
I will not attempt to write more here, for better men and women than I have written at some length on restoration, deconstruction, man-made doctrines, and related issues.
In fact, Brian’s new book (to be published on 9 November this year) deals specifically with doubt and deconstruction. (https://www.ivpress.com/when-everything-s-on-fire – you can download the first chapter as a PDF from the link above, and pre-order there or from Amazon.)
So please, let us not – to change the metaphor – throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Rather, I would urge careful restoration of the Gospel to its original beauty, sharing that restored Gospel with visitors to the galleries of our lives, so they can enjoy it too.
Posted with permission of the author. This article was originally posted here:
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