Sunday, June 30, 2019

2 Kings 5.1-14: Something Easy

All Naaman has to do to be cured of leprosy is go wash in the river (2 Kings 5:1-14). You'd think he'd say, "Great! Five minutes and I'm done!" But, no. Naaman first expresses his offense at the sending of a messenger to deliver the cure. Surely Naaman was important enough for some kind of show by Elisha. Then Naaman expresses his disdain for the cure. Naaman needs to learn a lesson about looking a gift horse in the mouth.

And though he doesn't get that lesson, he does hear common sense from his servants. Not the first time servants have faciliated Naaman's cure. Remember it was an Israelite slave girl who first brings the prophet to Naaman's attention (5:2-3). The servants point out that Naaman was ready (eager, even) to do something big and involved to bring on the leprosy cure. Why would he complain about doing something simple?

It's a good question.

We often overcomplicate things. Rube Goldberg was a widely-known cartoonist in his day, popular enough that he was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for his cartoons and sought after as a spokesperson. Today we know him for his machines - wildly complicated inventions that used levers, pulleys, animals, balloons, and more to perform relatively simple tasks. His contraptions were so popular that his name has become synonymous with the idea of making something simple quite complicated. Like wiping your mouth with a napkin.
Rube Goldberg. Professor Butts and the Self-Operating Napkin. Originally published in Collier's, September 26, 1931
In the example above, Goldberg has developed a self-operating napkin. When the soup spoon (A) is raised to mouth, it pulls the string (B) and jerks the ladle (C), which throws the cracker (D) past the toucan (E). The toucan jumps after the cracker and the perch (F) tilts, upsetting the seeds (G) into the pail (H). Extra weight in the pail pulls the cord (I), which opens and ignites the lighter (J), setting off  a skyrocket (K), which causes the sickle (L) to cut the string (M), allowing the pendulum with the attached napkin to swing back and forth, thereby wiping the diner's chin. No effort at all.

Which of God's commands do we overcomplicate?

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook, a three-river throwdown. Click here.
For thoughts on Luke 10:1-20, click here.

Each year there is a Rube Goldberg Machine contest. The task for 2019 was putting money in a piggy bank. The 2020 task is turning off a light. To see this year's winners, click here

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Luke 9.51-62: Where You're Looking

Most state DMVs will tell you the same story: drivers tend to steer in the direction they are looking. If the driver's eyes move to the right, they will subconsciously turn the wheel to the right. Same is true for the left. We tend to go in the direction we are looking. So when Jesus' face is set to go to Jerusalem, well, that's where he is going (Luke 9:51-62). Nothing will stop him...not even the knowledge of what will happen in Jerusalem.
Thomas Hart Benton, Planting (Spring Plowing), 1939, lithograph on paper mounted on paperboard. 
Smithsonian American Art Museum.
So imagine if you are plowing a field. You walk along behind the horse or ox or mule and hold on to the plow. What do you think happens if you let your eyes drift off to the right. Yep, your plow will begin to drift to the right because subconsciously you'll pull the horses to the right.

No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. If you're looking away from the kingdom of God, then you're going to drift away from the kingdom of God. The American Civil Rights Movement song had it right:
                                                     I got my hand on the gospel plow
                                                     Won't take nothing for my journey now
                                                     Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.
                                                     (lyrics attributed to Alice Wine)

This week on Facebook, a look at another part of Jesus' comments in Luke 9:51-62.

For thoughts on II Kings 2:1-12, click here or here.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Luke 8.26-39: A Scene So Terrible

The people were unable to bear the sight (Luke 8:26-39). In the context of this story of healing - where Jesus made whole the man who had been possessed by a "Legion" of demon spirits, this was the moment that the people just could not handle. It was a scene that might have looked like the one below.
Domenico Morelli. Pater Noster, the Sermon on the Mount. c. 1895. 
It seems strange that in this gospel episode a scene like this (people sitting around talking) should be the horrifying scene. The people were quite comfortable when the man was naked and living in the local cemetery. They were fine when he was ritually unclean. Fine when a herd of pigs ran themselves, probably squealing all the way, down the bank into water where they no doubt thrashed around until they were all dead and floating on the lake. Nope. That was all ok.

What they couldn't handle was health. They couldn't deal with a man now in his right mind, sitting calmly, talking with Jesus. Think about that. It was when Jesus brought health and healing that the people became afraid and demanded Jesus leave. What is wrong with these people? And what is wrong with us when we are fine with someone else's oppression, someone else's exploitation, someone else's failure, but we are afraid of someone else's wholeness, someone else's security, someone else's opportunity?

Note: The illustration above is of the sermon on the mount because as far as I know, there are no works that imagine the post-healing part of the story.

This week on Facebook, a look at the really disturbing scenes of Luke 8:26-39. Click here.

For thoughts on I Kings 21:1-15a, click here.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Trinity Sunday: Explaining

How to explain the Trinity. There have been books (with lots and lots of ink spilled) going into minute detail. There have been analogies: the Trinity is like an egg - shell, yolk, white...or the Trinity like a candle - wax, wick, flame. There have been visuals. Some are pictorial - Jesus on the cross, a dove above his head, and an old white guy at the very top of the picture. Some visuals are more diagram - like the shield of the Trinity below. Around the outside of the triangle we are reminded that the Father is not the Son is not the Spirit is not the Father. Moving from the corners to the middle of the triangle we see that Father, Son, and Spirit are all God.
John 16:12-15 is one of the scripture passages where all three persons of the Trinity are mentioned in some kind of relationship. There are others in scripture. But none of those verses offer a definitive explanation of just how the Trinity relates to one another. So theologians have stepped in to try to explain.

Augustine (354-430) was one of those who attempted an explanation. His work De Trinitate (On the Trinity) is not his most well-known work, and, in fact, it was published before it was completed to Augustine's satisfaction. But in it he does try to explain the Trinity to the critics of the doctrine (remembering the issues around the controversy answered in orthodoxy by the Nicene Creed's  assertion of Jesus as "of one substance" or the same substance as the Father) and to remind Christians that they should remember themselves as made in the image of a triune God.

Not surprisingly, undertaking to explain the Trinity could be a daunting task. A legend (based on nothing written by Augustine) says that while Augustine was wrestling with De Trinitate he had a vision. Augustine was by the seashore when he saw a child with a seashell (or a spoon). The child had dug a hole in the sand and was running between the ocean and a pool of water that had gathered in a hole. When asked by Augustine what was happening, the child replied, "I am emptying the ocean into this pool."
     "Impossible!" Augustine pronounced.
     The child, apparently unawed by the learned theologian, replied, "I'll empty the ocean into this pool before you manage to understand and explain the mystery of the Trinity!"
     The legend concludes with Augustine turning around, only to find the child had disappeared. So Augustine was left alone with the mystery of the Trinity.

And in many ways, so are we.

(Left) Botticelli. Vision of St. Augustine (detail from the predella - pictures below the main image - of St. Barnaba Altarpiece). c. 1488. Florence: Uffizi Gallery. 
This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook...alternate depictions  of Augustine's legendary vision. 
For thoughts on Proverbs 8:1-4. 22-31, click here and (in a brief mention) here 

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Genesis 11.1-9: Talk and Tools

You might even have been able to hear them singing as they were building:
The more we get together, together, together
The more we get together the happier we'll be
But not everyone was happier with everybody getting together to build a tower to heaven. So language was confused (Genesis 11:1-9). No one could understand each other any more and building slowed. Slowed. And ultimately stopped. The tower was left to the ravages of time as surely as Ozymandias' vast and trunkless legs. Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! Perhaps the tower builders didn't know the story of Adam and Eve, whose lives were changed when they sought to be like God. Perhaps they knew but believed that their story would be different. 

Perhaps that's just human nature - to want to leave works and legacies and reminders that you walked the earth. That you were here. Pieter Bruegel saw the tendency in 16th-century Antwerp (Belgium). He paired the commercial development and urban sprawl of Antwerp with the Biblical story of the tower of Babel. 

The artist was commissioned to create several documentary paintings of the construction of a canal in Antwerp, so he put his learnings about construction to work in this large composition (approximately 45" x 61"). On the tower you'll see workers pulling boards up by ropes, horses pulling sleds piled with bags of something, workshops for creating building materials and tools, stonecarvers picking away at rock, ladders leaning against walls and boards spanning chasms.

The tower is based at least in part on the Colosseum in Rome, which at the time Bruegel painted was an abandoned and weed-covered ruin. Bruegel was making the point that what the Romans considered a masterpiece of engineering and architecture was now nothing to brag about. Perhaps the same fate awaited Antwerp's great plans for building and expansion. 
Pieter Bruegel. Tower of Babel. 1563. Vienna: Kunsthistoriches Museum. 
Google Art Project allows a really close zoom onto the details of this painting. Click here.
At the lower left, Nimrod has come to check the progress of his tower. Some of the stone cutters have stopped their work, bowing down to the king. One of the cutters has abandoned his tools on top of the stone on which he was working. But he has left the handle of the hammer and several of the spikes facing toward us. All we have to do is walk into the picture, pick up our tools, and help build this remarkable tower. 

Should we? Should we have walked in and picked up those tools if we were in the Biblical story? Should we have done that if we lived in Bruegel's 16th-century Antwerp? What about now? Should we pick up those tools and go to work with people we may not understand? Human language is never unconfused. The miracle of Pentecost isn't one of speech. It's one of hearing: each one heard their own language (Acts 2:6). The Holy Spirit facilitated hearing. The problem of communication remains.

Bruegel created a second (larger!) version of this subject. Look at Art&Faith Matters on Facebook to see what differences you can see.

For additional thoughts on Pentecost, click herehere, here, or here.

Cultural aside: Is it just me...or does the Bruegel painting look more than a little like Minas Tirith in the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies? The source of that structure is supposedly Mont St. Michel, but it feels at least a little bit Bruegel to me.