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.