Jesus standing there with open arms. Ready to receive us, forgive us, embrace us. A big smile. A bright glow.
This is perhaps one of the most familiar images of Jesus in popular culture, as evidenced by the slew of digital prints out there. Here’s what a Google image search turns up.
. . . Eek.
Open-armed Jesus has become such a cliché that it’s hard for the artist to engage that form in a rich, meaningful, sincere way. Though it’s one that obviously resonates with many Christians, it’s just so sugary-sweet, so sentimental, that not much new can be done with it.
Some artists, though, have succeeded in innovating on this form, inviting more robust readings. One of them is Shin Young-Hun.
In a surreal style, he shows Jesus walking along the beach, drawing all kinds of people into a whirlwind of new life. On the far right is a pair of fishermen, I’m guessing—either James and John, or Peter and Andrew—whom Jesus has called away from their boats to follow him. The figure on the left touching the corner of Jesus’s robe is probably the woman who suffered from hemorrhaging for twelve years, who is healed just by touching that hem. These and many others from myriad backgrounds are swept up under Jesus’s gigantic arm span, which opens up wider and wider, forming a horizon. The foregrounded action is Christ’s gathering a community under himself and covering them with an umbrella of love, grace, and protection.
But that’s not all there is to this image; look more closely, and you’ll see that there’s also a challenge embedded in it. I believe that the pointing figure in the middle ground is a second manifestation of Jesus. Whereas in the foreground he brings under and fills up, here he sends out; he points to the vast needs that still exist just across the way. Transformed, made new, we are commissioned to go out into the world as ambassadors of this new and incredible kingdom, and to make citizens.
This image is theology in paint. It tells of how expansive the gospel is, how all-embracing, and reminds us that we are a part of Christ’s mission to bring all people under the headship of God, into the physical, social, and spiritual healing he provides. Drawing on a representational cliché—Jesus with open arms—Shin Young-Hun suggests that the gospel doesn’t just beckon the individual into one great big warm bear hug with Jesus, just you and him; rather, it compels us to reach out to others with the love we’ve experienced in Christ. There’s room for everyone under those arms.
If you have any information about this painting (year of completion, current location, etc.) or know whether the artist is still living or where I can find additional work by him, please let me know.