Awkward Church Stock Photos: The Scary Cross

Back! Back, I say!

In this regular series, we share innovative practices from the world of stock photo ministry.

One of the most important questions churches have to contend with is how to decorate their worship spaces. Crosses, of course, are the standard ornament—but should they be?

When I first laid eyes on the image above, I confess I was more than a little confused. What was it about this cross bottony that made it so terrifying to our recoiling, mustachioed friend? Had it been used in a Madonna video? Had someone drenched it in Axe body spray? Did he just really prefer Celtic crosses instead? It was impossible to say.

After I thought for a moment, though, it occurred to me that perhaps that look of horror was intended not for the cross, but for something beyond it. Perhaps he was using it to ward off a vampire or some other unholy fiend. (Such, of course, is the peril of interpreting any stock photo—like a Joel Osteen sermon, it gives you no context.)

Whether you’re a vampire or a human, however, the cross actually can be pretty frightening. The Presbyterian church in which I was raised, for instance, took Exodus 20:4’s ban on “graven images” so seriously that it touched off a small controversy when we discussed adding a cross to our sanctuary. (Living in the Christian tradition means you can’t really ever escape the shadow of the Cross, but there are still many of us who try really hard.) We eventually warmed to the idea—but only after agreeing that the cross would be, if nothing else, “tasteful.”

It probably goes without saying, though, that “tasteful” is rarely an appropriate word to apply to a Roman torture instrument. Aesthetics of the Golden Ratio aside, talking about a “tasteful cross” makes about as much sense as talking about a “tasteful guillotine” or a “tasteful iron maiden.” Perhaps our soul-patched, plaid-sporting subject looks horrified, then, because he has only just now thought about what, exactly, his cross means.

I can sympathize. The first time I walked into my current church, I was at least a tiny bit shocked to see a four-foot-high, full-color crucifix hanging at eye level inside the narthex. Unlike the polished, stylized cross from the sanctuary of my youth, it’s not subtle—it demands that you look into the face of a suffering, dying man, count his protruding bones, and watch the blood flow from his hands, his feet, his side. “Tasteful,” it isn’t. What it is, however, is true—unpleasantly so. It’s the sort of thing you want to hold at arm’s length.

But even if Bela Lugosi really is standing on the other side of the camera, I honestly wonder whether he or Captain Goatee is more shaken by the symbol. The rules for the standard horror monsters always seemed so arbitrary to me—why silver bullets for werewolves? why garlic for vampires?—but the vampire’s aversion to the crucifix makes at least a degree of sense. Vampires, after all, find life by taking it from those around them. This is the law of the world. Kill or be killed. Resources are scarce. Take what you can, while you can. The cross, however, demands that they—and the rest of us—gaze into the face of the one who bleeds for us, unreservedly and fearlessly.

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Awkward Church Stock Photos: The Scary Cross