Sunday marked the beginning of Advent in Christian churches worldwide, and it’s a safe bet no one is celebrating quite like St. Paul’s Church in Malmö, Sweden.
The church leaders unveiled a brand-new altarpiece (the artwork on display behind the altar in a church) depicting same-sex couples of varying races in the Garden of Eden, dressed in clothes made of fig leaves. The piece is entitled “Paradise,” and a statement from the church explains that it “places gays in God’s creation from the beginning.”
The painter, Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin, is an artist and photographer most famous for her controversial exhibit Ecce Homo, which recreated key events from the life of Christ with a cast of gay men, lesbians, transgender people, cross-dressers, and leather folk.
Originally, “Paradise” was donated to the church in Wallin’s hometown of Skara as an altarpiece for use in same-sex wedding ceremonies, which the church began to solemnize in 2009. Its more permanent installation in Malmö sends an important message of inclusion to a population historically demonized and rejected by virtually every Christian denomination.
The Church of Sweden describes itself on its website as “open to everyone in Sweden regardless of nationality,” but with the inauguration of this painting as an altarpiece, the church is taking concrete steps to assure LGBTQ people in particular that they are welcomed and celebrated:
It is with pride and joy that we receive ‘Paradise’ in St. Paul’s Church. We need images that open up greater inclusion and identification in the church. We are grateful for Elisabeth’s artistry, which enables us to build a credible church that shows that we all, regardless of who we love and identify as, fit into Paradise. [Translated from Swedish]
Naturally, an overt gesture of acceptance for the LGBTQ population has some Christians up in arms. Critics on Twitter complained that the work is insensitive to parishioners “who consider homosexuality a sin,” and that it represents “political activism” rather than true Christian values.
One wonders which version of the Bible they read if they think Jesus was apolitical and indifferent to the marginalized communities of his day.