Sunday, September 16, 2018

Proverbs 31. 10-31: She Can Bring Home the Bacon...

If you are from an old-enough generation, you may remember the tv commercial (I'm assuming it was just a USA commercial, but I don't know...) in which a woman sang, "I can bring home the bacon...fry it up in a pan..." The song was related to "I'm a Woman," written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and sung by Peggy Lee. The song begins, "I can wash out forty four pairs of socks and have 'em hangin' out on the line..." The refrain is "'Cause I'm a woman...W-O-M-A-N! I'll say it again." The woman described in Proverbs 31 begins to take on some of that superwoman aura. She seems to do it all. Home, family, business. Everything she touches turns to gold.

Are all women supposed to be the woman described in Proverbs 31? Can all women be that woman? Can any woman be that woman? Have we turned this aspirational woman into an unrealistic expectation? Even the writer has a sense of that question, asking "A capable wife who can find?" (NRSV) "A good woman is hard to find..." (MSG) If women are required to have all these accomplishments, we might be inclined to echo Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennet when she remarks to Mr. Darcy that she is no longer surprised at his knowing only six accomplished women and rather wonders that he knows any at all.

In response to a culture that advocated for the idea that women could do nothing, Christine de Pizan (sometimes Pisan) wrote a manuscript called The City of Ladies. Written in response to comments about women by writers and philosophers like Matheolus (who wrote in his Lamentations that women were among God's worst creations), The City of Ladies was an encyclopedia of women who countered the stereotypes of women that were being repeated and published. Christine's book honored women for their faith, for their loyalty, for their works, for their learning, and for their intellect.

Christine herself might have been included as more than the narrator of City of Ladies. Married young into an arranged marriage, Christine and her husband had a happy marriage. After her father's death, Christine and her husband Etienne took responsibility for Christine's family. When Etienne died ten years later, Christine became responsible for her three young children and her mother. Christine found patrons for her writing, successfully (and singlehandedly) supporting her family.
 [Christine de Pizan lecturing.] Master of the Cite des Dames and workshop and Master of the Duke of Bedford. The Book of the Queen. British Library. Harley 4431, f. 259v. c 1410-c 1414. The manuscript, known as 'The Book of the Queen', includes Works by Christine de Pizan, assembled for Isabel (Isabeau) of Bavaria, queen consort of Charles VI of France, and produced under the author's supervision. Possibly some passages are in the hand of Christine de Pizan herself. 

Those good women might not be as hard to find as we think.

For thoughts on Mark 9:30-37, click here.

This week's Art&Faith Matters' Facebook post considers biography and photography in light of Proverbs 31.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Proverbs 1.20-33: Wisdom Cries Out

Most of us have probably had occasion to see a street-corner preacher. Speaking loudly and sometimes reaching out toward passers-by, street preachers proclaim the message they have received from scripture. They call people to repent. They tell of God's love. They offer the rewards of heaven and the punishments of hell.

Wisdom is one of those preachers (Proverbs 1:20-33), shouting the consequences that are coming to the people who have turned their backs on her. I tried to tell you, she cries. I reached out to you. But you did not respond. I tried. 

Wisdom is usually portrayed in relation to other virtues or vices. This week's Art&Faith Matters' Facebook post takes a look at one painting's vision of that pairing in a classical setting. Wisdom is poised...usually. Wisdom is calm...usually. Wisdom is strong and good and attractive. She is sure and eternal. But what happens if we change how wisdom looks? What happens if wisdom is frantic in her efforts to reach the people? What happens if wisdom has reached the point of despair because the people just won't listen. Just. Won't. Listen.

In Edvard Munch's iconic work "The Scream" the air has turned to blood and the faces of his friends  became a garish yellow-white. A huge endless scream coursed through nature. I tried. I reached out. I tried. How does our perception of these verses change if the Wisdom who looks more like Munch's work and less like a poised, powerful classical goddess? 
Edvard Munch. The Scream. 1893. National Gallery of Oslo.

This week, Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page considers Wisdom at the crossroads
For thoughts on Mark 8:27-38, click here.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Mark 7.24-37: Not Jesus' Ephphatha

One word. Jesus says one word: Ephphatha. He says it while the man in front of him waiting as he has been waiting. Jesus has touched the man's ears and tongue because the man is deaf and has a impediment to his speech. And with just one word - ephphatha - Jesus changes his life (Mark 7:31-37).

If the healing is the best part, the waiting is the hardest part. Whoever this man was, though, and however long he had been waiting, he was not without people who cared about him. "They" brought him to Jesus and begged that Jesus would lay his hand on the man. And Jesus did.

In his telling of the story Mark records two things that lend a sense of accuracy and detail to what could have been just another story of healing (not that there is ever really "just another healing story").

The first is that Jesus sighs - deeply - before healing the man. The same word is translated groaned in other places (Romans 8:23). Jesus looks up to heaven, groans...sighs deeply...before speaking the one word.

Ephphatha. Here Mark quotes Jesus' Aramaic word and then provides the Greek translation: Open or Be opened. This is not the only place where Mark has preserved Jesus' words in their original Aramaic (Abba in the garden; Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? from the cross). The presence of these words brings us closer to Jesus' voice. It seems so simple. Open.


One of the plants on my patio is a night-blooming cereus, shown at left. Cuttings from the plant were shared several years ago by one of my sister's co-workers. For several weeks there have been two buds on the plant. The top photo is one of the buds from this year. In their earlier stages the buds look like stalks of asparagus. They have continued to grow: the stem has gotten longer and the bud has gotten bigger.

Because the plant blooms only at night (and the bloom lives only one night), I am diligently checking every evening for signs of an impending bloom and every morning to make sure I didn't miss the blooming. But so far...nothing. The flower photos at left are photos of last year's single bloom. One evening this week I even found myself standing on the patio saying, "Open, already!" Just one more way that I know I'm not Jesus and that my words are not Jesus' ephphatha.

Where the man's ears and mouth responded immediately to Jesus' command, this night-blooming cereus is not remotely interested in mine. Where this bloom will last only a night, Jesus' opening of the man's ears and mouth will last a lifetime. No wonder the people paid no heed to Jesus' instructions not to tell anyone.

For a map of exactly where Jesus is wandering in the gospel lesson (Mark 7:24-37), see this week's Art&Faith Matters Facebook post.

For thoughts on Proverbs 22:1-23, click here.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Song of Solomon 2.8-13: Seasons Change

David Bowie says he can't trace time. But the singer of the Song of Solomon can. The winter is past. The rain is over and gone. The flowers are blooming. Turtledoves are calling to one another. Figs are on the tree (clearly there are no squirrels in this world) and the vines are blooming. It is time to sing. (Song of Solomon 2:8-13)

This reading seems oddly placed by the RCL as it is read in August when Spring is just a memory. Where I live, temperatures have averaged over 90 degrees since June. The birds may be singing, but we don't hear them as easily over the air conditioning.

The singer may be implying that when she and her lover are together, it is almost like Eden - when creation was good and as God intended: when things did not fade or die. In other words, an eternal Spring. But I'm not sure I agree that Spring is the only embodiment of God's vision for creation. Perhaps it's because I am in the autumn of my own life, but I find the changing leaves and the pops of yellow and orange and red in the trees is its own kind of "good."

Like the singer, painters note the changes of season by things that are new or new again: landscape colors, the state of natural elements like trees, the presence or absence of flowers and birds.. Here, Georgia O'Keeffe moves from Autumn (left), then Winter and, finally (right), the winter is past and Sprig has come. Colors change. Branches are covered and then exposed and then covered again.
All Georgia O'Keeffe. (Left) Autumn Trees - The Maple. 1924. Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.  Winter Tree III. 1953. Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. (Right) Spring. c. 1922. Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College. Poughkeepsie, NY.
Sometimes those changes are wrought by the forces of nature: changing temperatures, blowing winds, unblinking rays of the sun. At other times, though, the changes come from within - which may be why the developers of the RCL pair this text with Mark 7's exploration of inside and outside. It seems that always when Spring comes, there are a few (literal) hangers-on. Just a handful of leaves that are brown and brittle but have refused to let go of the branches on which they grew. They have survived rain and wind, perhaps even snow and ice. Ultimately, though, those brown and brittle leaves mostly fall, pushed from their branches not by external forces but by small, new green leaves that cannot be held back. Those small leaves do what the forces of nature could not. Jesus' statement is true: what is within a person is more powerful that what is outside a person.

Ch-ch-ch-changes.

For "two turtledoves", see this week's Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page.
For additional thoughts on Mark 7:1-23, click here.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

John 6.56-69: They No Longer Went About with Him

This teaching is difficult. So claim some of Jesus' followers in John 6:56-69. Do they mean difficult as in hard to understand? Or difficult as in it steps on my toes so I don't want to follow it? Or just exactly what?

Whatever it was, it was enough that it made people stop following Jesus. But the disciples remained true. Where else would we go? they asked Jesus. You have the words of eternal life. And the disciples continued following Jesus. Following on the road to eternal life.
American broadside printed by G.S. Peters in Harrisburg, PA. 1830s-1840s. 
But clearly there was another road they could have chosen: a road that led not to eternal life but to eternal damnation. And because those who stopped following (and their fiery, monstrous, deadly fate) are often perceived as a more interesting subject than those who stay the course, there is a clear artistic tradition growing from the choice. There are also overtones here of Matthew 7:14, where Jesus describes gates that are wide and ways that are broad. Many are on those ways, but those ways do not lead to eternal life. The way to eternal life is narrow and, at least in the American broadside here, rocky. 
Georgin, Francois. Three Roads to Eternity. 1825. Cornell University: PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography
As Matthew's gospel indicates, the way away from God is broad and many are on that path. The variations rare similar, but each has not two but three paths. The non-scriptural path is the middle one, which looks like it is going to the new Jerusalem and, indeed, passes in view of the city, but then leads to damnation. The top version has the inscriptions and morals in English, while the center example is in French and the example at the bottomin German. 
G. S. Peters (Printer/Publisher). Die Wege zum ewigen Leben oder dem Ewigen Verderben
Das Neue Jerusalem [The Paths to Eternal Life or Eternal Damnation. The New Jerusalem], 
n.d. Broadside. Free Library of Philadelphia, Rare Book Collection, Philadelphia, PA
As with many images that contrast heaven and hell, the artist seems to revel in the sufferings of those who follow the parade into hell. But when you read Jesus' words to the disciples what tone do you hear? Does Jesus seem to share the interest of the artists in ogling those who have chosen that broad way and no longer go about with him?

For thoughts on Solomon's temple prayer (I Kings 8), click here.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

John 6.51-58: Bread...Again

Have you ever noticed how many times scripture talks about bread? Art&Faith Matters has talked about it here and here and here and here. And just for good measure, there is manna here. There is lots of bread in scripture, and in John 6:51-58 a connecting line is drawn between bread and manna:  This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate...
Master of the Gathering of the Manna. Gathering of the Manna from the Ashburnam Pentateuch
The picture above is exactly what it describes (and the designation/naming of the artist is drawn from this work). What is interesting, I think, is the manner in which people are gathering the manna. Some are picking up the wafer-shaped manna from the ground. Men, women, and children are all engaged in the task. Babies are held in their mother's arms, and people embrace as the miracle occurs. This is clearly a celebration. As it should be. For the coming decades the people will be fed daily with manna and quail.

But there are others who are not waiting for the manna to fall. They have baskets raised in order to collect the manna as soon as possible. Compositionally, it works. The figure at the top center is positioned directly beneath the hole in the sky from which the manna falls. A dark funnel-shaped shadow leads directly to the opening of the vessel being held aloft. The dark shadow also highlights the light-colored manna as it falls. Others in the crowd echo his practice and position.

Jesus identified himself as the living bread that came down from heaven. How do we receive that bread? Do we wait for the bread to fall to the ground before we pick it up? Do we think, "Bread (or manna)...again"? Or do we reach above our heads in order to snag that bread out of mid-air so that we can have it at the earliest possible moment? There's a difference.

For thoughts on Solomon's request for wisdom, click here.
For one tradition's use of bread, see Food&Faith Matters here.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

2 Samuel 18: A Recycled Story.

Absalom's fate is foreshadowed in I Samuel 18:8. The fighting is taking place in the forest of Ephraim. The narrator comments that the forest claimed more victims than the fighting. Sure enough, Absalom's hair is caught in the branches of a tree, allowing Joab and his soldiers to overtake him.

Like many biblical stories (including this one), Absalom has been appropriated for circumstances far beyond David's life in Israel. The embroidery below sets Absalom, Joab and David in pre-Revolutionary America.
Faith Robinson Trumbull (attrib.). The Hanging of Absalom. c. 1770. Silk and metal thread on black satin. 
New London, CT: Lyman Allyn Art Museum.
Rather than being the caring-then-distraught father, David (symbolizing King George III) is here the unseeing king, sitting in his palace playing his harp with no regard for what the people outside the palace (in the colonies) are suffering. Absalom is in the middle of the composition, indeed caught by his hair, his feet off the ground. Joab, David's commander in the scripture story, is wearing the uniform of a British redcoat. Absalom is the patriot, rebelling against an unfeeling monarch. 

The piece is believed to have been created soon after the Boston Massacre. On March 5, 1770, a British soldier was attacked by a mob in Boston. What started as a street altercation ended with the death of five American colonists at the hands of British soldiers. The creator of the piece - or at least the one to whom it is attributed is Faith Robinson Trumbull, wife of Jonathan Trumbull (Colonial Governor of CT) and mother of artist John Trumbull. 
The images of Absalom hanging from a tree can be disturbing, especially in light of the racial terrorist practice of lynching. This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook: a link to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

2 Samuel 11.26 - 12.13: David Has Slain...Two

"Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands." So sang the women as they danced and celebrated David (1 Samuel 18:7). A Renaissance manuscript and this reading from Hebrew scripture (2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a) help us focus on two of the tens of thousands. One is David's most famous instance of killing. The other his most infamous.

It is David's orchestration of Uriah's death that sets in motion the events in the text, which begins with the announcement of his death to David and then to Uriah's wife Bathsheba. She mourns for him, but when the mourning is done, David brings her into the palace as his wife. And Uriah is seemingly forgotten.

Clovio has chosen to imagine a moment after Uriah has been killed. Here he lies on the ground, nude, his horse, perhaps injured(?), beside him. The other soldiers have pulled back, leaving Uriah visible on the ground. David's plan has succeeded. Uriah is dead. David has slain this one.
Giulio Clovio. Farnese Hours (Folio 63v). 1546. NY: Morgan Library.
In the oval grisaille vignette below the central scene, David raises his sword to cut off the head of Goliath. The figure to the left of the central scene is David, wearing a helmet and some kind of armor. In his right hand he holds the severed head of Goliath. To the right of the central scene is David, slightly draped, carrying the sling in his left hand. Three of the four sections of the page are of David's triumphal, almost salvific killing of Goliath. But the central scene is one showing a David who seems hardly a man after God's own heart. The David whose faith in God made the impossible possible seems completely gone.

Nathan seems to think so, too. He calls David to account. Not for the thousands but for the one. 

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook, considering Bathsheba.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

2 Samuel 11.1-15: The Spring of the Year

They really do that? That was my response when I read my nephew's undergrad thesis. I had read 2 Samuel 11 before (Proper 12(17)/Pentecost +10), but the thesis confirmed it. It's right at the beginning of the text. In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle. They really do that. And Americans have in our historic conscious (at least if you were in school around the time I was) an episode that helps illuminate that opening sentence in Hebrew scripture.
Do you know the building in the photo above? Any idea what it is? How about the one below? Any clues?
Does this painting help? Probably.
William T. Trego. The March to Valley Forge. 1883. Philadelphia, PA: Museum of the American Revolution.
We usually refer to it as just "Valley Forge." The winter that George Washington spent at Valley Forge, the Continental Army was in what was called Winter Quarters. According to my favorite historians, it was traditional to stop fighting in late October because the weather got worse. Some soldiers wound up doing low level operations such as raids and foraging for supplies, but for the most part the armies dispersed into winter quarters. Washington led his troops into winter quarters on December 19, 1777. William Trego imagined the scene as you see it above. The winter would not improve.

Around mid-April, after the spring rains died down, armies would come back out to resume their fight. In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle...

Yes, they really do that. 

For thoughts on John 6:1-21, click here.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Mark 6.30-34, 53-56: Or a Dog

Mark's gospel shows us Jesus who has compassion for the people who need him. Jesus encourages the disciples to get away from work and rest for a little while and then he heals people in the crowd who have followed him from one side of the lake to the other (Mark 6:30-34, 53-56; Proper 11 (16)/Pentecost +8). Jesus has empathy for the people because he knows they are sheep without a shepherd. So he takes on the role of shepherd as he moves through the countryside, caring for those in his flock who are sick or injured.

That's what shepherds do. They care for their flock, providing for food and water, for rest, for health, for safety and security. Humans and animals have been the subject of painting since paleolithic artists drew on cave walls. Certainly shepherds and sheep are part of that tradition, from ancient Greece to modern art.

You might ask of these pictures where the shepherd is in relationship to the sheep. Does the shepherd lead from the front? Bring up the rear? Is the shepherd standing in the middle of the flock? Sitting nearby? No doubt an attentive shepherd would be in all those places depending on the task at hand, the time of year, or the current situation. A quick search online will show art that has the shepherd in all those poses.
Camille Pisarro. Shepherd and Sheep. 1888. Private Collection.
But Jesus' characterization of the people is missing something. He refers to them as sheep without a shepherd. But in many (most?) paintings of shepherds and sheep, the shepherd is assisted in his task by a dog. Search images of the annunciation to the shepherds. Many of those images will show the shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night...with the help of a dog.

Herding dogs help shepherds with their work. Responding to commands they work in partnership with the shepherd to herd sheep, cattle...and even the children of their family. To see the amazing (and sometimes amusing) ability of herding dogs, click here. My favorite herder has always been the rough collie.
Jesus has compassion on the people because they don't have a shepherd...OR a dog.

For thoughts on 2 Samuel 7:1-14, click here.
To find out about a tear-inducing (you've been warned) tale of Jesus and a puppy, go to Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Mark 6.14-29: On a Platter

The story of the dance that led to John's execution is in Mark 6:14-29 [Proper 10 (15)B/Pentecost +8]. The plot is well-known and often used as a moral tale. Or rather immoral with regard to Herod's use of his daughter as entertainment for his drunken friends. We know that the upshot of the story is the request for John the Baptist's head on a platter.

Honestly, though, the embroidery of the story is probably more widely known than the actual text. Dance of the Seven Veils. Salome. Neither of those things is mentioned in scripture, but we associate both of them with this story. They are the backbone of Oscar Wilde's telling of the story in his play "Salome."

The play, written in 1896, was banned in England, so Wilde produced it in Paris. The play imagines that John has spurned Salome's affections, leading her to seek revenge. The Beardsley illustration below is titled "The Dancer's Reward." Here Salome has received the requested reward - the head of John the Baptist. It is delivered to her in Beardsley's drawing as demanded in Wilde's stage directions: "A huge black arm, the arm of the Executioner, comes forth from the cistern, bearing on a silver shield the head of Jokanaan (John)."

Beardsley's black and white line block print shows Salome's right hand holds John's hair, tilting up his face so she can see it. The head rests on a platter from which drips John's blood, as Salome draws the fingers of her left hand through it.
Aubrey Beardsley. The Dancer's Reward. 1894. Block Print. London: Victoria and Albert Museum.
At the bottom right are a pair of slippers, presumably hers. It's hard to imagine that this is the holy ground that led Moses to take off his shoes.

For other thoughts on the beheading of John the Baptist, click here.
For thoughts on the reading from Hebrew scripture, click here.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Mark 6.1-13: Clean Feet, Dusty Feet

Jesus goes home in the gospel reading for Proper 9 (14)B/Pentecost+7B (Mark 6:1-13). Home...but it doesn't go well. Jesus then calls the disciples and sends them out with instructions for what they can do if they visit a town and things don't go well. The directions are clear: shake the dust from your feet.

Dusty feet - and making them un-dusty - is a subject that bubbles up in Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Abraham offers water to the three visitors that they may wash the dust from their feet (Genesis 18:4). David instructs Uriah (Bathsheba's husband) to wash his feet when he returns home (2 Samuel 11:8). Several different stories relate when Jesus' feet were washed (Luke 7). And, of course, Jesus washes the disciples' feet (John 13).

The intention of those clean feet is the opposite of the instruction from Jesus in Mark 6. Washing the feet of guests is a sign of hospitality and welcome. What Jesus instructs the disciples to do is to not look back, to take nothing from the town that would not offer them welcome. They are to completely disassociate themselves - and by extension Jesus - with those places.

We are not provided with a list of places on the disciples' "dust-free" towns, but we can imagine that if Jesus' hometown didn't receive him well there would be places where his disciples would be unwelcome. Jesus' experience would give them a guide. Though Jesus didn't literally shake the dust from his sandals as he left Nazareth, he could do no "deeds of power" among them other than curing a few sick people. He took little to nothing of the townspeople with him, and he left way less of himself than he had hoped. As is always the case, Jesus went ahead as the pioneer and then spoke back to the disciples following him.

The painting here is actually an interpretation of the story of the travelers returning to Emmaus. The composition (both of the painting and the story) are not unlike the Mark 6 text: two travelers, the presence (if not the visible person) of Jesus, and a very dusty landscape. There appears to be a structure and an open door through which shines a light warmer in tone than the landscape. It is, perhaps, a light of welcome for Jesus and these two who believe he is the One.
Janet Brooks-Gerloff. On the Way to Emmaus. 1992. Bienenberg Mennonite Study Center, Bienenberg, Switzerland.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

2 Samuel 1.1, 17-27: Killed in Action

David takes time to lament. To grieve for the fallen Saul and his son (and David's friend) Jonathan [2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27, Proper 8 (13)/Pentecost 6B]. Though David is not yet king, the favor of the Lord has fallen on him. So he takes time to lament. To grieve for Saul, who in life tried to kill David more than once. (Think about that...David mourned for the man who was more than once his enemy because that man was part of God's plan.) David addresses Jonathan in his grief. David reminds hearers of the father-son relationship that bound Saul and Jonathan together. But the root of David's lament is grief. A grief that he feels personally and instructs the nation to share.

The news of Saul and Jonathan's death comes to David from the Amalekite who ended Saul's life. When his sons fall in battle, Saul realizes that the fight cannot be won. He falls on his sword but is still alive, so he asks a young Amalekite fighter to end it. The Amalekite does, removing Saul's crown and armlet and taking it to David. David puts the Amalekite fighter to death for killing God's anointed and then begins the lament that forms the reading for this week.

David's bodily reaction to the news that the king and his sons have been killed in battle is to tear his clothing and speak the lament. German artist Kathe Kollwitz offers a different physical reaction to such news. Her print "Killed in Action" shows the reaction of a woman surrounded by her children. She covers her whole head with her hands as if to shut out the news. The children who surround her are probably not even part of her consciousness.
Kathe Kollwitz. Killed in Action. 1920. Lithograph. NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Kollwitz knew this feeling firsthand. Her son Peter was a volunteer in the German Army. He was killed in Belgium in 1914. Her grandson, also named Peter, was killed in Russia in 1943.

Kollwitz used a similar pose in a sculptural piece she began after the death of fellow artist Ernst Barlach. Titled "Lamentation", the relief sculpture reflects her feelings of the loss of an artist she admired. The works of both Barlach and Kollwitz were categorized as "degenerate" by the Nazi government. Barlach died of heart failure after he was forced to resign from the art academies and was forbidden to work as a sculptor. In Kollwitz's work, the left hand covers the left side of the face while the right hand covers the mouth. We see part of the face, enough to know that even the visible  eye is closed as if to shut out the news.
Kathe Kollwitz. Lamentation: In Memory of Ernst Barlach. 1938/cast later. Washington, DC: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution.
Perhaps David's more outward-moving physical reaction can be understood as a manifestation of his public role. He must lead the nation in mourning. Kollwitz speaks for herself in these two works, telling the world that the news of the death of family and friends is unspeakable, unseeable. It isn't just the mighty who are mourned when they fall.

For thoughts on the gospel reading (Mark 5.21-43), click here
For thoughts of other "mighty" things that fall, see Art&Faith Matters on Facebook. Click here.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Mark 4.35-41: Enjoying the Storm

Jesus calming the storm (Mark 4:35-41, Proper 7 (12)B, Pentecost 5B) is a staple of children's Bibles.  Waves crash over a wooden boat set against a dark sky. Jesus is either noticeably asleep or standing in the boat, arms outstretched in a foreshadowing of the crucifixion. The disciples cower in fear, staring at Jesus as they huddle together for protection.

That is the moment most artists choose to depict. Because of the drama.

But maybe we sometimes enjoy the drama of the storm more than we do the calm. The psalmist says that God leads us beside still waters. In the reading from Mark, God made still water where there was none. And yet we are all drawn to the drama of the storm.

Maybe we need more reminders of the "after." Here is one.
John Frederick Kensett. View of the Shrewsbury River, New Jersey.

For thoughts on the reading about David and Goliath (I Samuel 17:1-23, 32-49), click here.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Mark 4.26-34: Only in Parables

Picture an image with a person, a hornets' nest with hornets flying out of it, and a ladder. How did your imagination arrange those elements? Did you make up a story about a person who climbed a ladder and disturbed a hornets' nest? In your mind was the person running away, being chased by a swarm of angry hornets?

Scattered seed. Growth. Stalk. Grain. Mustard seeds. Birds. Nests. We know what all those things are. Probably as you read the list, you imagined the seeds, birds, nests and stalks that you have known. You probably arranged them to tell a story. Seed grows to stalk. Birds building nests. Jesus' audience (Mark 4.26-34, Proper 6 (11)B/Pentecost 4B) knew those things, too. Perhaps even better than we in our technology-driven, less-agricultural world do.

But over and over the hearers don't understand what it means when Jesus has put the elements together as he does. A kingdom is like a seed that's small and then not. Things that make you go hmmm...

Artists do that, too. Or they did after a certain point in history anyway. For centuries (millennia, really), artists duplicated reality. They painted portraits that were ever closer likenesses and landscapes that could be identified as specific places. They depicted human history and the legends of civilization and the stories of the Bible. They painted what their audience would know and understand.

And then artists had another thought. What if art is about expressing truth even if it isn't duplicating reality? And Surrealism was born.

The name of the movement comes from poet Andre Breton. He first used the word when describing a work that combined elements of fantasy with the modern world, creating a "superior reality." Surreal. Though Surrealism isn't a monolithic art movement, there are some continuing threads through the work. One of those threads is the use of recognizable objects put together in ways that are influenced by the unconscious or subconscious.

Contemporary digital artist Maggie Taylor combines individual images into a single composition. Her work below, "The Nest," combines the images listed in the top paragraph of this post. Is this what you imagined those elements would look like when combined?
Maggie Taylor. The Nest. 2010. Digital Art.
What does this image mean? Does it mean anything? Does it have to mean something? What is driving the composition? Elements of design? A narrative? A narrative that is bigger than this single image? Our reaction to Taylor's image may be like the reaction of those who heard Jesus' parables. We can understand the individual elements, but the combination may leave us puzzled.

Mark's gospel tells us that Jesus explained things to his disciples but spoke to the people only in parables. So the answer to the question What is the kingdom of God like? might be, "Surreal."

I Corinthians 5:6-17 reminds us about new creations. Maggie Taylor has created an image titled "Self-Portrait as a Butterfly." What do you think it will look like? Click here to find out.
For thoughts on Matthew's version of the parable of the mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32), click here.
For thoughts on David's anointing by Samuel (I Samuel 15:34-16:13) click here.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Mark 3.20-35: A House Divided

How could Jesus be from Satan? Jesus speaks...lives...against Satan, and any creature or life form that is divided against itself cannot stand. Of course, Jesus' parables will be so obscure that people think he is out of his mind (Mark 3:20-35, Proper 5 (10) B/Pentecost 3B). But the statement is true nevertheless.

Outsider/folk/naive/visionary artist Howard Finster used the theme of a house divided frequently in his work. His artistic work is wildly personal, so while the works may have compositional similarities, the supporting texts and the images used in each incarnation differ. The two black and white images below have verbal commentary filling and surrounding a literally divided house shape. A cross is found in the roof/attic area of the house. Reading the text will help interpret these two versions.
Finster also had simpler, more colorful interpretations of the phrase. The two images here show house-type structures from two points of view. Both have the cross shape in the split of the house that is in the black and white versions. How does color change both the artist's conception and the viewer's perception? Which of the four do you think best captures Jesus' use of the phrase? Which best captures the phrase as you imagine it?
Howard Finster. A House Divided. (Left) Collection of George Felice. Philadelphia, PA.
(Right) Cambridge, MA: Harvard Art Museum.
Sadly, Howard Finster's own family became a "house divided" after his death. Family infighting over the artist's work and legacy left the artist's Paradise Garden in danger. After changing hands several times, the Garden was purchased in 2011 by Chattooga County, GA. The Paradise Garden Foundation was formed to preserve Finster's garden and develop it as a tourism and economic driver. 



This week on Facebook...who is Jesus' family? Click here.
For additional thoughts on I Samuel 8:4-20 (11:15-16), click here.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Mark 2.23-3.6: Who's Watching Jesus?

The image is descriptive. As scripture says, Jesus and his disciples were walking through a grain field. They picked some grain. But it was the sabbath, and picking grain, according to the Pharisees, was work. Forbidden on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-3:6, Proper 4 (9), Pentecost 2B).

But Smetham's work shows no Pharisees. Instead a woman and a child look across the field from the left side of the picture. The woman points at Jesus and the disciples. But no Pharisees.
James Smetham. Lord of the Sabbath. 1681. Etching on Paper.  London: Tate Museum.
What is she saying to the child? Why is she pointing toward Jesus? Is he an example of how she wants the child to live and what she wants the child to do? Or is Jesus being highlighted as a warning and an example of what not to do? 

And what about the birds? Are they doves flying in to symbolize peace? Bringing a meaning beyond the physical setting? Or are they birds flying in to feast on ripening grain as birds do? Are they doing naturally what will get Jesus and the disciples in trouble? Eating grain...even on Sunday?

How do you read this version of the gospel text?

On Facebook this week, a vintage pop culture image meets I Samuel 3. 

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Isaiah 6.1-8: Scale

Isaiah's call story (Isaiah 6:1-8, Trinity B) is full of imagery: seraphim, thrones, burning coals. Artists like Mark Chagall have depicted the call in many ways. The call forms the center portion of Chagall's portrait of the prophet. The seraphim touches the burning coal to Isaiah's lips.
Marc Chagall. The Prophet Isaiah. 1968. Musee Marc Chagall, Nice, France.
Surely that is a dramatic moment, but the artist has put us in a position outside the action. We are spectators watching what happens at a distance. The seraphim is roughly human sized, and the collection of background figures remove the sense of reality. The text, however, gives us a very definite scale of the action. And it isn't this.

The text tells us that the Lord is sitting on a throne and the royal robe is so immense that the hem...just the hem...fills the Temple. The Temple is filled by the hem of the robe. There is no sense of that scale in Chagall's work. which has Isaiah as the largest figure in the composition. Everything is scaled to human proportions.

The difference is important because the scale indicated by the text puts human beings directly in front of the vastness and power of God. And in the face of the hugeness of God, humans understand that they are small. Consider the difference between watching a movie at a movie theater and watching it on a computer. The shipwreck, the space travel, the desert...all of them are more impressive, more immersive, on a theater screen than on a laptop. The difference is the scale of the scene in relation to human beings.

To give you a sense of what a difference scale makes, compare the viewpoint of Chagall's Isaiah with the painting below. The story it illustrates also involves the hem of a garment hem and a touch. It is the artist's point of view and the scale of the painting compared to the viewer that makes us feel small, low, and vulnerable. That helps us understand just how low and vulnerable the woman who sought healing was willing to make herself.
Daniel Cariola. Encounter. 2016. Encounter Chapel, Magdala (Migdal), Israel.
The photo below offers a glimpse of scale from the natural world. Here the Aurora Borealis (Nothern Lights) dance above the Lofoten Islands in Norway. The lights of the town are bright (and probably a little brighter here than they would normally be in order to have a long exposure for the sky), but next to the vastness of the aurora...
Alex Conu. Northern Lights Above Lofoten. 2015. Astronomy Picture of the Day, June 26, 2016.

For additional thoughts on scale, see this week's Facebook post. 
For thoughts on Nicodemus (John 3:1-17), click here.
For Facebook thoughts on the call of Isaiah, click here.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Ezekiel 37.1-14: Bones and Sinews Waiting for Breath

Ezekiel 37 is a visually tempting passage. Just ask J.R.R. Tolkien (and Peter Jackson), who invented his own resurrected army of dead bones in Return of the King. Ezekiel also knows as he stands looking at an expanse of dry bones spread across the floor of  a valley. The idea that life can come from what is clearly lifeless is universally appealing.

Italian painter (and architect and inventor and civil engineer and sculptor and ninja turtle and...) Leonardo da Vinci captured the beauty and function of human bones and sinews in his many anatomy drawings. The importance of the figure in Renaissance art made an understanding of human anatomy a necessity for any artist. Leon Battista Alberti, a 15th-century art theorist, instructed artists that they should understand and paint the human figure as it is in nature: a skeleton and musculature that is covered with skin. For Alberti, drawing an external appearance was not enough. Artists needed to understand how the human body worked - bone to bone with connecting muscles.

Leonardo began his anatomy studies in service to his art, but the subject became a separate interest for him. Over several decades in Milan, Florence, and Pavia, he himself dissected more than two dozen corpses. He developed a process of illustration that represented the parts of the body in transparent layers so that the student could understand not just the look of various bones, muscles, and organs, but their function as part of the whole system of the body. Leonardo never published his anatomical drawings.
Leonardo da Vinci. (Left) Skeleton of the trunk and shoulder. Pen and brown ink with wash modeling over traces of black chalk. Royal Library, London, 19012R. (Right) The muscles of the right shoulder. Pen and brown ink with wash modeling over traces of black chalk. Royal Library, London, 19003V.
But no matter how beautiful, how useful, how instructive Leonardo's drawings are (and they are all three of those things), they can't match the amazing moment when God breathed the breath of life into the bones on that valley floor. Bare bones. Sinews on bones. Yes, we are fearfully and wonderfully made, but what a moment when God breathes on us the breath of life!

For additional thoughts on Pentecost, click herehere or here.
For additional thoughts on Ezekiel and the valley of bones, click here.
For a variety of places to see vast collections of bones, visit the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page here.