Sunday, September 29, 2019

Jeremiah 29.1, 4-7: Doing What God Says

Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens. Eat the food you produce. Raise your children. Have grandchildren. (Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7) In other words, settle in. You are going to be there for a while. So the people do what God commands. And now we know that's exactly what they did.

In 2015 the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem held an exhibition titled "By the Rivers of Babylon." The focus of the exhibit was a collection of clay tablets - not a lot to look at, really - that offered a look at just what the exiles did while they were in Babylon. Written in cuneiform, the tablets gave details of life in the 6th century BCE.
Cuneiform tablet on display in "By the Rivers of Babylon." Bible Lands Museum of Jerusalem.
If your cuneiform is a little rusty (as mine is), I can tell you that the tablets are a civic archive: rental agreements, tax records, and land deeds. The names are Hebrew names (or Babylonian versions of those names). A collection of the tablets are connected to a town called Al-Yahudu (the City of Judah).
"By the Rivers of Babylon" opened at the Bible Lands Museum of Jerusalem in February 2015. 
See below for links to the exhibit. 
God instructed the people to make lives for themselves and seek the welfare of the city where they found themselves. And that's exactly what the people did. Which doesn't mean they weren't homesick for Israel, just that they looked ahead as much as they looked back.

For a virtual tour of the exhibit, click here.
Because of the success of "By the Rivers of Babylon", the core of the exhibition was reinstalled at the BLMJ in an exhibit titled "Jerusalem in Babylon: New Light on the Judean Exiles." For that exhibit, click here.

For thoughts on Luke 17:11-19, click here.
For thoughts on Luke 17:11-19, see Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Lamentations 1.1-6: The Course of Empire

Was it inevitable? That the great city would one day fall? And by the scriptural description, the city has fallen. (Lamentations 1:1-6) Nineteenth-century American landscape painter Thomas Cole created a series of five paintings he called "The Course of Empire." For Cole, civilization seemed to be a cycle (an inevitable cycle?) of appearing, maturing...and collapsing. The artist chose a line from Byron's "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" as the motto for the series:
            There is the moral of all human tales;
            'Tis but the same rehearsal of the past,
            First Freedom, and then Glory -- when that fails,
            Wealth, vice, corruption, -- barbarism at last. (Canto IV, CVIII, line 964ff.)

It isn't especially optimistic. And "Destruction" isn't an especially optimistic image.
Thomas Cole. Destruction of Empire. 1836. New York Historical Society.
"Destruction" is the fourth of the five paintings in the series. The five pictures depict the Savage State, The Pastoral State, The Consummation of Empire, Destruction, and Desolation. "Destruction"  shares the same broad perspective as "Consummation," though it looks more to the right side of the city built around this harbor while the third stage looks at the left. A storm appears in the distance, buildings are on fire, and there is a storm of violence throughout the city. A bridge close to the front of the picture space is broken, eliminating one way of fleeing the carnage, though a makeshift assemblage of some kind is shakily holding what appears to be too many people. The statue (reminiscent of this statue) in the foreground is headless.

It's a far cry from the height of civilization, shown below in "Consummation of Empire."
At the height of its glory and power, the city was shining with classical architectural perfection. A procession, seemingly in honor of a scarlet-cloaked man, has brought people onto the bridge that will be ruined by the next stage of empire.

It's not hard to feel the pain and despair in Lamentations because the text puts us in the middle of the destruction. Cole gives us the luxury of being more distant from events than does the writer of Lamentations. Is that a luxury for which we should hope?

For thoughts on Psalm 137, click here.
For thoughts on 2 Timothy 1:1-14, see Art&Faith Matters on Facebook

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Jeremiah 32.1-3a, 6-15: A Long Time

This is one of my favorite moments in scripture. What a seemingly pointless activity: buying a field when the Babylonian army is at the city gates (Jeremiah 32:8). Why would any intelligent person invest in property just before the cataclysmic event that guaranteed destruction of home and field and livelihood? It makes as much sense as this fence.

The difference is that God is playing a long game. Yes, the Babylonian army is at the city gates. But they won't be there forever. There will come a time when the people are back in the land. They will build houses. They will plant vineyards. They will live on their family lands. God has promised. 

And that makes Jeremiah's real estate purchase look quite forward-thinking. What Jeremiah knows, of course, is that God's promises are true. So Jeremiah buys the field, has the legal papers drawn up, and directs the deed to be put in an earthenware jar so that it will last for a long time...long enough for the Babylonians to be gone and the people to come home. It's apparently a practice that continued long after Jeremiah's time.  
Dead Sea Scroll Jar and Lid. 2nd century BCE. NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In the 2nd century BCE, the people of Qumran and other nearby places put scrolls in jars, and they lasted for a long time. (Re)discovered in 1947, the jars held scrolls in a variety of conditions. Some still legible, others nothing but powder, but the legible pieces have yielded fragments from every book of the Hebrew Bible with the exception of Esther. 

Those scrolls survived more than two thousand years. Long enough for the Babylonian army to be long gone and done with the city of Jerusalem and its inhabitants. 

Two other passages seem to intersect with this passage. The discovery of the jars and scrolls in 1947 is attributed to Bedouin shepherds looking for a lost goat. We should be grateful for the shepherd who went looking for the lost (Luke 15:1-10). And Jeremiah 18 - the trip to the potter's house -has something to say about the role and symbol of earthenware jars. 

Garth Brooks' song "The Change" (1995/Written by Tony Arata and Wayne Tester) centers on actions that may look ineffectual in facing world events. The video for the song features images following the Oklahoma City bombing.

For additional thoughts on Jeremiah 32, see Art&Faith Matters on Facebook
For thoughts on Luke 16:19-31, click here.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Jeremiah 8.18 - 9.1: Wounds

Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician? God's people are inBlogger: Art & Faith Matters - Overview stats need of healing, but none seems to be found. (Jeremiah 8:18-9:1) Having just these verses of scripture - no context other than the word "slain" - I wondered about the extent of the wounds. Could they be cured with a balm? Did  the physician need to be in general practice or a surgeon? How else does scripture talk about wounds? Isaiah's suffering servant is wounded for our transgressions. The man beaten by robbers has his wounds bound up and cared for by the good Samaritan.

Probably the most recognizable are the wounds of Christ and within that broad story, the images of Thomas regarding the wound in Jesus' side is among the most common. Caravaggio's version above is typical. In Caravaggio's depiction, Thomas does actually put his finger into the wound in Jesus' side. The wound itself became the object of regard and an avenue to closeness with Jesus as early Christians claimed Thomas' privilege for themselves. They sought to touch the wounds of Jesus. The sought to be on the same intimate terms with Jesus as were the disciples.

As the wound grew in popularity as an object of devotion, it was inserted into a mandorla (an almond-shaped frame) and depicted on jewelry and tombs and fonts as well as in medieval manuscripts. Christ's wounds were celebrated, reminding the faithful that Christ had indeed been embodied on this year. But no earthly, medicinal balm could cure those wounds. In fact, the wounds were the balm that could cure the ills of the world.

But the ills of the world remain.

Mark Rothko's paintings are among those most open to interpretation (just ask my high school students!). There seems to be no subject matter implied or specified by the painting. No trees or houses. No portraits. No words or symbols. It's just color. Blocks of color. And yet.

Rothko, though not associated with a particular school or movement, painted in the time following two world wars when a  number of artists moved away from identifiable subject matter. Rather than replicating reality, those artists used their work to ask bigger questions about humanity, about what it means to be human, about how we find meaning in this world.

I'm sure it is helped along by the color reference of reds, but the painting here seems to me to speak of open wounds and depths and unknowns. It would be easy to stand in front of the painting and visually fall into it  (it is about 8.5 feet by 10 feet). There seems to be no escape, the only option to move deeper and deeper. This was, essentially, what Caravaggio's Thomas and the followers of the Cult of the Side Wound wanted to do: move into closer contact with the wound of Christ. Perhaps it is only through moving closer that we can come to understand and heal the wounds of humanity.

Of course, that is what Jesus did in becoming human. Move closer to the wounds of the world, bringing healing with him. Is there a balm in Gilead? Who or what is that balm? Or will a balm just not do the work...and do we need a surgeon?

(Top) Caravaggio. The Incredulity of St. Thomas. 1603. Sanssouci Picture Gallery. Potsdam, Germany. (Middle) The Side Wound of Christ. Book of Hours. France, perhaps Verdun and Paris, ca. 1375. MS M.90 fol. 130r. NY: Morgan Library and Museum. (Bottom) Mark Rothko. Four Darks in Red. 1958. NY: Whitney Museum of American Art.

What does Abraham Lincoln have to do with this? See Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.

For thoughts on Mammon in Luke 16:1-13, click here.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Luke 15.1-10: Two

Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? (Luke 15:1-10) Images that incorporate this text usually show just that. One sheep down in a ravine with a shepherd hovering close by, reaching down with a crooked shepherd's staff ready to crook the handle around the sheep's neck and pull it up to the ledge where the shepherd is waiting. So it is with the two paintings here. Neither moves beyond illustration of the setting of the story: shepherd, staff, sheep, clouds in sky, mountain, reaching.

It is when the two paintings get together that something interesting becomes apparent. What do you see?
(Left) Unable to identify artist or collection of this painting. Please email if you can help. 
(Right) Alford U. Soord. The Lost Sheep. Many different versions (including prints) of this painting exist. 
One version is at the Church of St. Barnabas, Homerton, East London.
Though some things are similar, two differences emerge. One is the depiction of the sheep. In the image on the left, the sheep is black, perpetuating the symbolism of the sinner as a "black sheep." The Soord painting does not include that stereotype.

That one lost obvious is that sheep? Does the "lostness" show up on the outside of the animal in addition to the sheep physically being absent? Does the stereotype want us to imagine the shepherd finally finding the lost sheep and exasperatedly saying, "I might have known that you would be the lost one"? 

The second difference is the point of view. In Soord's painting we are looking over the shoulder of the shepherd. We see past the shepherd across the seemingly bottomless valley to the mountains beyond, seeing the bird flying in the the space in between. In the painting on the left, we are parallel not to the shepherd but to the sheep. We are looking up into the face of the shepherd. 

That point of view offers us the thought that perhaps there was another lost sheep. And maybe that other lost us.

For thoughts on the lost coins, click here
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