Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Sistine Chapel Plot

(This story appeared in Brio.)

I started dreading art class. It’s weird, because the same things had happened in biology and Civics, but I never expected to enjoy biology, and in political science there was a chance to argue back. It was different in art class; I didn’t expect to debate my faith in there.
I’ve always enjoyed art. I’ve wanted to be a cartoonist for a long time. I liked being able to draw and not get in trouble for doodling. (I can’t tell you all the times Mrs. Alvarez has given me grief for doodling in the margins in English.) I was even enjoying the history part of the class. It was cool getting to see the work of great artists of the past. So you can see how one of my favorite things was getting spoiled. It was like finding dill pickles in my chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream.
The worst thing was, we couldn’t argue back. When I tried to give the other side, Mr. Jeffries would say, “This isn’t the time or place to discuss these issues. This is an art class.” While showing slides from his trip to Europe and lecturing about the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, he did it again.
“This is, of course, the famous image of God creating Adam, their hands touching. It makes one wonder what Michelangelo might have painted today; perhaps a dramatic abstract of the primordial ooze. He was a brilliant man, and surely if he lived today, he would concur with scientists that there is no Creator, that we are not here by plan or design, but we and this world are the result of purely natural and random causes.
“But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Though we can no longer believe the fairy tales this work of art is based on, we can still appreciate its beauty and craftsmanship. Yes, Paige?”
“Mr. Jeffries,” I began, “You can’t talk about scientists as if they have one viewpoint. There are many scientists that believe that God...”
“Paige, this is an art class, we don’t need to go into those issues. Now you will see in this next photograph...”
See what I mean? It’s one thing to hear we’re just a result of monkeys learning to stand in biology class, you expect that. And in Civics, Ms. Daniels talked about the dangers of the religious right, but she gave us Christians in the class a chance to have our say.
Things seemed even worse when I talked to Elizabeth. She’d started going to youth group with me. It seemed like she had been listening during the Bible studies, but she told me she was going to quit going. I asked her why.
“I don’t know, Paige. I’m beginning to think the stuff they talk about at your church is just a load of... You know.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve been thinking about some of the things that Mr. Jeffries talked about. Like about the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition where the Christians killed everyone who disagreed with them, and how Christians have tried to ban great art through the ages. And the stuff he was talking about the other day. How we’re probably just here because of random chance like the scientists say.”
I tried to tell her the other side of it, but she didn’t really seem to hear me. After all, I’m just a student, and Mr. Jeffries has been to graduate school and must know more than me.
That was the last straw. I didn’t like that garbage Mr. Jeffries was saying, but I wasn’t falling for it. But if Elizabeth was, others maybe were too. So I needed to do something. And that’s when I started to get the Idea.
I’m not saying the Idea was a good idea. I’m not recommending anyone do what I did. I’m still paying for it. That’s why I won’t explain how I did what I did, because I don’t want anyone else to do what I did. I’ll say this much. It involved paint and brushes and pencils and charcoal and a ladder and duct tape on a window lock and an alarm clock set to go off early on a Saturday morning. But let’s just jump to Monday morning in Mr. Jeffries’ class, third period.
“Before we get into today’s material, I suppose we must discuss what I’m sure is on top of all your minds, or least above your heads. So everyone may look up.”
Most everyone was already looking up, of course. In section of the ceiling above Mr. Jeffries’ desk was a waterfall scene, with a light fixture as the sun. There were also a couple of cows, an elephant, a lion and a tapir, and a naked man and woman behind strategic bushes.
In the middle of the ceiling there were pencil sketches of a hospital and a college. Next to the hospital was a sketch of Jesus putting his hand on a leper (which, I’ll admit, had a rather graphic depiction of decaying flesh.) And next to the college was a sketch of Jesus talking to a crowd and monks copying a Bible. On the other third of the ceiling there was…nothing. (If you guessed that the vandal became nervous when she thought she heard someone coming, so she took off before finishing…good guess.)
“Now I’m going to ask this once. Does any one know what happened here?”
I gulped, and raised my hand.
“Yes, Paige.”
“I’ve been thinking, Mr. Jeffries, maybe these works on the ceiling are accidents. People paint in here, so maybe paint has just randomly splashed up to the ceiling, and that’s the result. It might just be a cosmic accident.”
“Paige, do you really expect me to believe that random splashes caused this? There was planning and design that went into this graffiti. I believe, Paige, it was your planning and design.”
“Yes, it was. And I’m planning to pay for the damage and doing detention and all that. But I just want to know why you’re willing to admit there was planning and design involved with what’s above us, but not in the world all around us.”
“I see. So you were making a point that the world has a Creator. Obviously the reason you drew the nature scene. How droll. But why the pictures of the buildings?”
“Those are hospitals and universities. A lot of times this year, you’ve mentioned evil things Christians have done, like the bloodshed during the Crusades of the Middle Ages; things that went against Christ’s teaching. But aside from art, you don’t talk about all the good the Church has done through the centuries. A majority of the first hospitals and universities in the world were founded by followers of Jesus.
“I’m sorry for going all Michelangelo on the ceiling. But you’ve made a lot of snide remarks about Christianity this year, and I wanted to respond. And you’ve said we should communicate through our art. That’s what I was trying to do.”
“That will be all, Paige. Now, if we’re finished with religious studies, let’s return to the Renaissance.”
OK, so I didn’t score a lot of points with Mr. Jeffries that day. It probably didn’t help my grade, my bank account took a hit, and I’m just finishing the detentions. But Elizabeth is coming to youth group again.

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