Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Redemption, re-imagined

The true cultivation of minds in a University happens not in fenced-off fields, but is sown where those coming from distant walks of life find their paths cross, and is enlivened by the bracing winds of cross-fertilization. "A cultivation of minds to what end?", one might ask. The Foundation Stone of the University of Southern California laid in 1879, proclaims that this cultivation is pursuit "dedicated to the search for and dissemination of Truth;to Freedom of Thought and discussion; to intelligent, unbiased analysis of the forces that have shaped the past and will mold the future, to the development of Manhood and Womanhood for Christian service and loyal citizenship".  'Christian' here is treated as synonymous with noble and the culturally contingent choice of the word is unsurprising, considering that the word 'Arya' is a synonym for 'noble' too in many Indian languages, while elsewhere in the world the same word carries alienating racial connotations. What does it mean to be 'Christian'  or for that matter to be noble, what does the Cross stand for and what do the symbols that move millions move them towards, are questions which perpetually seek revisiting and whose answers need to be perennially re-imagined. An apt and recent instance of the commitment of the University to promote 'intelligent, unbiased analysis of the forces' that move us as individuals and societies, is the ongoing art exhibition entitled "The Serpent and the Cross" conducted by the Office of Religious Life.

The call for student submissions for this event was addressed to "All USC students of any or no religious backgrounds", who were invited to, "submit original artistic expressions for consideration for inclusion in a public exhibit to be held in the Fishbowl Chapel of the University Religious Center from April 11-23 (the two weeks before Catholic and Protestant Easter)."  The announcement continued "The artworks can be in any medium and should be between 4 inches square and 3 feet square in size, and able to be displayed on a wall.  Each should be accompanied by a separate written description no more than 150 words in length, including the artist’s name and very brief bio. They should take the form of crosses that illustrate some way in which people today “crucify” themselves or others, individually or as a society.  Examples:  a cross made of pills (illustrating how people try to “save” themselves with drugs, but end up “crucifying” themselves instead), a cross made of bullet casings (illustrating how people buy guns to protect themselves, but sometimes end up causing more violence.)"

The exhibit which began yesterday, features besides the examples listed above, other striking images of contemporary crucifixions, crafted using the unlikeliest odds and ends, like a cross made from a pair of earphones outstretched in a silent lament about how technology that supposedly connects people actually ending up isolating them and a stark armature of crossed barbed wire making a forbidding image of border fences that supposedly guard nations but divide humanity.

(Please click on the images, if you would like a larger view)

A particularly telling exhibit was one in which Rev. James T Burklo, USC's Associate Dean of Religious Life, confronts with the dreaded "Kill or cure?" question the one resort of society that is zealously guarded from the trespass of doubt: Religion. This exhibit,entitled 'Crucified by Scripture" , is a cautionary collage of scriptural injunctions that have been the cause of much oppression, warning society how the most trusted Word can become the most feared war-cry or echo in the most cruel whip-lash.

My own offering for the exhibition was entitled "The Ersatz Credit Card Cross" and accompanied by the following statement: " The 'Ersatz Credit Card Cross' is built from the likenesses of real credit cards, from the reams of promotional junk-mail that we receive. These are cards that promise to deliver us from want by leading us into temptation. They promise that paradise is available for purchase on borrowed earnings. The wages of buying into their delusion of an ersatz paradise, is having to carry the cross of debilitating debt. The credit-card-fueled debt crisis is a monument to human folly, which has been recognized but indulged in for ages , heedless of sage counsel against it.  From one far end of the faith divide,we can hear the critical voice of Epicurus cautioning society against the consumerism of his time, saying that all that money can buy is of little worth compared to what really matters: friendship, freedom and the examined life. At the other end of the faith divide, the New Testament's Parable of the Talents speaks of how a servant who did not gainfully spend the gold entrusted to him, earned the wrath of his master. Worse than that servant, we in today's world end up earning the scorn of society unless we spend gold we don't yet have! "Ours is a story of a people persuaded to spend money we don't have on things we don't need to create impressions that won't last on people we don't care about!", says the economist Tim Jackson. This cross symbolizing the tyranny of consumerism, is placed against a backdrop of the dead-tree business-reply-envelopes which accompany this wholly avoidable paper-intensive marketing spree. Together, they tell a story of how we are living beyond our means, as individuals, as societies and as a species."

While the Romans employed the Cross to devastating effect as an instrument of repression, the early Christians re-imagined and recast it as a symbol of redemption. The contemporary crises we confront as individuals and societies demand a re-imagination of redemption, that is meaningful only if begun with a re-imagination of suffering. By re-imagining our suffering we might find meaning in it, which in itself is a redemption from despair, according to the counsel of Dr. Viktor Frankl who says "In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice." In the words of Albert Einstein, "Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.", and we can take it to mean that a redemption from our present suffering will continue to evade our imagination if it is limited by age-old convention and prejudice, and has the chance of occurring to us only if we dare to re-imagine the commonplace, what we were once numbed to. To imagine anew, needs a change from begrudging numbness to a sprightly innocence, like a childhood that is not reminiscent but relived. Peeping from behind the lines of artistry and the layers of allusions in the exhibits is a welcome childlikeness, where no pebble is just a pebble, no twig is just a twig and no cross is just a cross. "Lawyers I suppose were children once.", says the epigraph of 'To Kill a Mockingbird". So were pastors. So were grad students.


Deepan said...

Sounds really interesting. Where and upto when is the exhibit?

Seeker of Truth said...

The exhibit is on till Easter (April 24) at the Fishbowl Chapel at USC. The wall whose picture features at the beginning of this post, is the entirety of this very local and fairly small-scale event.