The Thai Community Church unveiled a 24 by 4 foot mural of the life of Jesus, by Sawai Chinawong, at their Thanksgiving service on November 20.
What is significant about the 14 scenes in Chinawong’s painting is that they are done in the Thai classical style. All of the biblical characters in the mural have Asian faces and hair styles. Costumes and architecture are all Thai. For example, the stable in which Jesus is born looks, architecturally, like a Thai pagoda. Satan, in the temptation scene, looks very much like one of the statues of mythical monsters found in Wat Pra Kao in Bangkok and is painted green, a color sometimes associated with evil.
An elephant stands watch over the manger scene and the borders of the scenes are typically Thai. Jesus is always dressed in powder blue. In fact, the color scheme of the mural is mainly pastel, the only departure from classical Thai painting. Chinawong explained his decision to use pastels rather than gold, orange and deep green by saying that pastels are more the colors of working people. He found those colors more appropriate for depicting the life of Jesus than the colors of royalty and high culture.
A second significance of his work is that it is that it is not universally accepted in Thailand, nor among the Thai community in the United States. Chinawong, who is the only working Thai Christian artist in the world, grew up Buddhist and was trained to paint in the Thai classical style. When he became a Christian, he found himself fascinated by the stories in the Bible and began painting them in the style with which he was familiar.
Some in the Christian community in Thailand praised the work of this young Christian artist, but some criticized it as being too Buddhist. It was almost as if some in the Thai church equated Thai culture in general with Buddhism in particular. Many churches in Thailand have pictures of Jesus hanging on their walls, but the reproductions are often those of European painters.
The whole issue of how to portray Jesus from culture to culture is sometimes known as “contextualization,” according to Dr. Pongsak Limthongviratn, the pastor of the Thai Community Church. For example, if you attend a service at the Thai Community Church on one of the important Christian festivals, you will most likely see several young women, dressed in beautiful Thai costumes and possibly with long metal fingernail extensions, doing a classical Thai dance to traditional Thai music. The words to the music will be Christian, but the music itself comes from the traditional culture of Thailand.
Pastor Pongsak says that there are twenty-five Thai Christian congregations in the United States, and as far as he knows not one of them uses elements of Thai culture to communicate the Christian faith, at least not to the extent of the Thai Community Church.
“If you visit Thai churches, in general,” he said, “you will not see dance as a part of the service. It is not controversial, but is not popular. We have traditional dancing to make people see and feel that Thai dance can be part of the Christian service.”
Referring to Chinawong’s painting, Pongsak explained that every culture has to make Jesus its own. That’s why Africans will portray Jesus as being black and Norwegians will paint him with blonde hair. “I hope that members and friends of the Thai church will gain more conviction that the Christian faith is universal when they see Ajahn Sawai’s painting,” he said. “We recite the Apostles’ Creed” ‘we believe in the holy catholic, i.e. universal, church.’ Thai Christians should be aware that Thai art has a role to play in making the Christian faith universal.”
So far, the reaction of the members of St. Paul’s, the English speaking congregation which shares the building with the Thai church, has been unanimously positive. There is an appreciation of the work simply as a piece of art. The mural, which hangs along the railing of the balcony in the back of the worship area, has also attracted the attention of younger members who try to figure out the biblical stories behind each scene.
Pastor Pongsak and the Thai church council came up with the idea of commissioning Chinawong to do the mural eleven months ago. They provided him with a return airline ticket and a gift of $1,000. Chinawong is on the faculty of Payap University, which is affiliated with the Christian Church of Thailand and is located in Chiang Mai. He designed the chapel of the divinity school at Payap University and is going to have a book of his work published by Yale University next year.