I have found the cross hard to translate into art because it has been done so many times. How do we look at it in another way? How do we make these familiar things (the cross, thorns, nails, blood) seem unfamiliar and the unfamiliar things (atonement, sacrifice) seem familiar? How can we “survey the wondrous cross” and yet remove it from the pages of those musty old hymnals and set it, as it were, on the front page of the New York Times?
The unbelieving world can be interested in controversial art about the cross if it is controversial in a conventional way. This usually means taking the facts as believe by the church for centuries and messing with them. So Christ becomes a crucified woman, a self-deluded hippy with a band of acolytes or a practicing homosexual. Or the cross is taken and immersed in urine, broken into the shape of a swastika or turned upside down.
None of this is what is meant by the phrase “the offense of the cross. What offends in these cases is the disregard for theology, and the only ones likely to be offended, other than God, are Christians. The true “offense of the cross” is the offense to our pride when we are told that we are sinners in need of salvation and that salvation comes not through our own efforts but through an unattractive looking first-century execution.
The cross presents the artist with difficulties because although it contains complexity, and we never exhaust its marvels or comprehend the depth of its truths, it is unambiguous. Christ didn’t die to teach us lessons about bravery or to encourage us when we face difficulties. He died because that was the penalty demanded by God for sin. Few people would condemn us for making art about the glories of creation or the benefits of forgiveness. Even talking about God can be quite acceptable. There is often very little content to God. He could be your God, my God, or anybody’s God. But Jesus brings definition, and the cross brings even more definition. The Word is one thing.