Sunday, January 25, 2015

Mark 1.21-28: Conveying Authority

The people in the synagogue at Capernaum were amazed at the authority with which Jesus taught (Mark 1:21-28, Epiphany 4B). They never quantify that authority, never describe exactly what Jesus had that other teachers hadn't had, but they knew authority when they heard and saw it.

Discussion continues to swirl around the concept of authority in the context of preaching. What is it? Do preachers claim it for themselves? Should preachers claim it? How should/do preachers claim it? Instead of claiming any authority, should preachers seek to be just like the hearers of their preaching? As with almost everything else in life, the seeking and shunning of authority ebbs and flows.

Two recognizable items offer a way to talk about authority as perceived, as claimed, as conferred. The first is the Geneva gown (also called a pulpit robe or preaching robe).

This garment is related to academic gowns and infers authority based on learning. Ministers who have earned a doctoral degree may put three bars on the sleeves of the gown. In its original black color, the robe represents dignity, solemnity and authority. The robe also serves to focus attention on the function and activity of the preacher rather than on his or her wardrobe choices or appearance.

A second silent conveyer of authority is the traditional pulpit. The earliest Christian churches did not have pulpits. The bishop preached from his cathedra (throne or chair) or from the altar steps. The ambo, a raised platform with steps on two sides, was developed for the reading of the gospel. The reader was accompanied by candle-bearers and book-bearers, so the steps were wide enough and the platform large enough to hold a crowd. The pulpit is a descendant of the ambo - both are raised platforms that give congregations greater ability to hear the spoken word. The implication of words spoken from a platform is that they are words worth hearing. This, combined with the assent of the hearers, confers authority on the one who is speaking.

The pulpit took an interesting "authority" turn in England, where in the eighteenth century, the preacher moved closer to heaven. The "triple-decker" pulpit has three distinct levels: the bottom level is the parish clerk's desk, the middle level is the lectern for leading the service and reading the gospel, the top level is reserved for preaching. Clearly the construction indicates that the sermon is the thing most worth hearing in the service. What sort of obligation is laid on the preacher who climbs those steps to deliver a sermon? How would it feel to be the preacher whose sermons are literally(!) put on a pedestal?
St. Stephen's Church, Fylingdales, Yorkshire, England. Built 1821.

Chapel of St. John the Evangelist, Chichester, West Sussex, England. Built 1812.

Individuals, congregations and traditions grant varying degrees of authority to preachers and preaching. Individual preachers claim or refuse authority based on individual understandings. But sometimes a custom sneaks up on us and speaks of authority whether we are aware of it or not.

Is this a gesture that indicates authority? Take a look at the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page to find out more.

For thoughts on the Deuteronomy reading for Epiphany 4B, click here.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

New Use for Nets

Immediately they left their nets and followed Jesus. So we hear in this week's reading from Mark's gospel (1:14-20, Epiphany 3B). Jesus' pitch for the new job spoke to who they were and to what they knew - in other words, Jesus knew how to bait a hook. Had his invitation been, "Come, follow me, and I will make you traveling theologians" they might have had second thoughts. But he said, "Instead of fishing for fish, let's fish for people." Apparently they understood his message and the figure of speech. We can imagine that Andrew and Peter's colleagues, and a few steps later Zebedee the father of James and John just sat there, nets unmended and abandoned, as the four former fishermen walked off with Jesus.
Fishing equipment. Shapinsay, Orkney, United Kingdom.

Jesus would, indeed, teach them to cast a new kind of net - a net of love and compassion, a net of teaching and healing, a net of salvation - over the people they met. But it never would have happened if they hadn't left their fishing nets. 

In the 1990s artist Janet Echelman picked up fishing nets. In Mahabalipuram, India, to be precise. Spending a Fulbright year in India, Echelman had shipped her painting supplies ahead of her arrival. But they never arrived. Struck by the art and design qualities of the local fishing nets, she began to formulate what would be a new sculptural language by suspending and coloring the nets.

Her fishing net sculptures are cast over multiple city blocks. They can be a big as a building - hundreds of feet long, hundreds of feet wide and hundreds of feet tall. They register every breath of wind and move and change in appearance depending on the weather, the time of day and the position of the viewer. The fluidity of the materials contrasts with the rigid buildings that often surround Echelman's urban work.

People stand under these nets while they have picnic lunches, while they wonder, while they marvel at these nets. From such intricate laciness  - flimsy, one might think - comes a massive thing that attracts the attention of and speaks to national and even international audiences yet retains an ethereal quality. All from people who understand fishing nets. Who could have imagined.
Upper photo: Her Secret is Patience. 2006. Phoenix, AZ.
Lower photos: Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks. 2014. Vancouver, BC, Canada.
See more of Janet Echelman's work at

Check this week's Art&Faith Matters post on Facebook for thoughts about fishing in Jesus' time. It's not cane poles and crickets for bait.

For thoughts on the Epiphany 3B reading from Hebrew scripture,  Jonah 3:1-10, click here

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Lessons from Almost the Right Picture

The lectionary readings from John's gospel and I Samuel for Epiphany2B are stories that are familiar but are perhaps difficult to depict visually. In both texts the action happens in verbal exchanges. This makes for great reading but perhaps less engaging looking. If you search images for the calling of Philip and Nathanael, most results will be a small gathering of men with a tree somewhere in the scene. This composition could be illustrating any number of biblical passages. A search for images of Eli and Samuel will often return an earlier episode of the story - where Hannah brings her young son to the temple to be placed in Eli's care.

So for both passages, there might be value in asking questions of these texts based on pictures that are "almost" the right picture.

One of the more exotic phrases in the gospel reading is Jesus' concluding remark that Nathanael will "see heaven opened and angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man." An image search based on that phrase will yield picture after picture of Jacob's dream (Genesis 28:12), where, indeed, angels of God are ascending and descending. What might the Genesis text have to say to the John text?

Jacob is dreaming about this path between heaven and earth, so he is asleep. Is Jesus asleep and dreaming like Jacob? Or is Jesus saying that he IS the "staircase", the connection between heaven and earth that Jacob only dreamed about?

In the Tintoretto painting at left (Jacob's Ladder. 1577-78. Venice: Scuola Grande di San Rocco., Jacob is asleep at the bottom of the picture. Angels are moving between Jacob and God, pictured at the top of the stairs. Through his use of perspective and the number of stairs painted, the artist has put God in heaven far away from Jacob on earth. Does Jesus' comment speak to the distance - or rather the closing of the distance - between heaven and earth?

Similarly, the painting by Georges de la Tour at right may help illuminate the story of Samuel's call, though it is generally identified as a different subject. The scene shows a young person standing before an older man whose eyes are closed. In the older man's lap is an open book. The painting is titled "The Dream of Joseph", though some scholars are unconvinced that the identification is correct. They point to the fact that Joseph is usually identified by carpenters' tools. Joseph is rarely (never?) depicted as a man of books. The correspondence of composition, however, might highlight notable differences in the stories.

One of the reasons why the subject attribution seems suspect is that the youth in this picture does not seem to be Gabriel, God's angel messenger. Yet if this is Samuel, he is, indeed, being called to serve God. What does this say about those who are called by God?

Consider, too, the gesture of the left hand of the Samuel/angel figure. What does this gesture say to you? Is it a gesture of waking and warning? Or is it a gesture of confusion or maybe even acceptance - "Here I am..." What title would you give this painting (c. 1640. Musee des Beaux Arts, Nantes, France.

Sometimes the "almost" can help clarify what is, what isn't and what might be.

For thoughts on the Gospel reading for Epiphany 1B, click here.

Who (or what) is THAT? And what does he have to do with the gospel reading? Find out on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page by clicking here on the link below. 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Mark 1.4-11: Which Way You Look at It

The baptism of Christ is either a private, a semi-private or public event depending on the gospel you read. The account in Mark's gospel (Mark 1:4-11) doesn't specify who might have heard the voice or seen the dove. Perhaps it was everyone. Perhaps it was no one beside Jesus - and one wonders how the gospel writer would have heard the story in order to include it. Public or private is just one of the dichotomies that apply to baptism in general and this story in particular. Individuals and communities of faith decide for themselves on the public and/or private nature of the Christian sacrament.

Another polarity that sheds light on baptism (in general and this story in particular) is that of orientation - is baptism horizontal or vertical? Some artists make this scene a sprawling landscape with people and cities and mountains, trees and birds and all manner of things. Annibale Carracci's version below is one of those. Jesus is at the center of the composition with John to the right (as we look at the picture). Large figures clothing and unclothing themselves in eye-catching bright white garments twist and turn at the left, pointing toward Jesus. At the right are other figures wandering into the picture space. Rocky outcroppings and silhouetted trees form both a background and a back drop.
Annibale Carracci. The Baptism of Christ. 1584. Oil on canvas. Bologna: San Gregorio.

With its slightly rectangular composition, the action feels horizontal, though the water is poured down onto Jesus' head. By contrast, the Tiffany studios window in the Baltimore Museum of Art is almost unreletingly vertical.
The Baptism of Christ (Tiffany Studio  on a design by Frank Brangwyn). 1899. Stained Glass. Baltimore Museum of Art.

The two men are constrained by the elongated shape of the window. From shoulder to elbow their arms are glued to their sides, though from Christ's hands come together in a prayer position and John's right hand is raised to pour water. The dove's rays add to the vertical emphasis of the work, and the bottom section with floral forms and a banner add length to the composition.

We can't assume that the choice of vertical-horizontal is a theological statement by the artist. Compositions can be dictated by the shape of the wall or window to be filled, by the wishes of the one commissioning the work, by the medium itself as well as other circumstances. However, we can ask theological questions implied by the orientation of these and other images of the baptism of Christ. How much of baptism is "horizontal" - human to human? How much of baptism is "vertical" - God to human? Does your artistic preference line up with your theological understanding?

This week on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page... a North African baptismal font and a quote from Tertullian.. Get a closer look by clicking here.