Sunday, February 23, 2020

Genesis 2 and 3: The Tree and The Fruit

Mark Twain (as Pudd'nhead Wilson) had a couple of things to say about the Genesis text about Adam, Eve, the tree and the fruit (Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Lent 1A)

"Adam was but human--this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple's sake--he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent." From Congregationalist (Boston, Massachusetts, 14 June 1894)

"The true Southern watermelon is a boon apart and not to be mentioned with commoner things. It is chief of this world's luxuries. King by the grace of God over all the fruits of the earth. When one has tasted it [he] knows what the angels eat. It was not a Southern watermelon that Eve took. We know it, because she repented." --Mark Twain in Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar.  From Southern Planter (Richmond, Virginia, April 1894)
Anni Snyman, PC Janse van Rensburg, Andrew van der Merwe & friends. 'Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil III' installation to be set up at the Woordfees 2013 Festival. 
Twain is not the only author who borrows from these early stories of Eden. John Steinbeck's novel East of Eden considers the themes of Genesis, especially the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 3 and 4) to tell the stories of Charles and Adam and Caleb and Aron.

South African artist Anni Snyman has used the elements of the Genesis story in this work: the title, the apple (though that's really Milton's contribution rather than scripture and not Twain's preferred watermelon), a tree. But her work is far from the usual combination of those elements. We are used to seeing two figures - a male and a female - usually on opposite sides of a tree on which there  is fruit - usually an apple. Here the fruit encircles the tree, presumably hanging from branches out of the picture space. And there are many apples, enough for everyone to have a bite. 

What does this interpretation of the story say differently than the traditional composition does? Are these apples all low-hanging fruit? What does the red moat around the base of the tree mean? A circle usually symbolizes wholeness or eternity. Why a circle of apples? Why a circular moat? How do you read this installation?

For thoughts about Jesus' temptation in Matthew 4:1-11, click here or in Luke 4:1-13, click here.
Finding Eden on a map, this week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook

Genesis 12.1-4a: Here There Be...

Go, Abram is told. Pack up everything and everyone and set out. I'll let you know where to turn along the way. (Genesis 12:1-4, Lent 2A) Millions of people do this every day. People gather up suitcases or briefcases or totes or plastic bags and fill them with clothes or toys or papers or supplies. They go, not knowing exactly how they will get wherever "there" is but trusting that GPS will guide them, saying things like, "In 500 yards prepare to turn right."

How different GPS is from antique maps. In earlier times, someone had to visit a place for the first time and return with a report before anyone else would be able to travel with even a tiny fraction of certainty. It follows, then, that the country with the strongest explorers and merchants also had the strongest mapmaking business. Those maps with the most information were the most valued.

The truth, though, was that not all the world had been explored, and the empty spaces on maps had to be filled with something. Mapmakers often imagined the creatures that had been described to them by sailors. This might be how manatees became mermaids: Well, it had a tail like a fish and was curvy. No, it didn't have a fin like a shark, but it did have appendages that were like arms. No, it didn't have a long snout like a dolphin; its face was more rounded.

Popular thought says that when mapmakers got to parts unknown, they wrote, "Here be dragons." Actually, though, the words are found only on one map, a globe. The Hunt-Lenox Globe, c. 1510, is engraved with the phrase h(i)c sunt dracones near the continent of Asia.
 Hunt-Lenox Globe. c. 1510. New York Public Library.
Abram's whole journey was unknown to him. But he left his father's house, setting out on the journey knowing that anywhere he went, he could say, "Here be...God." Abram had no voice programmed to speak. Abram trusted that God would indeed speak at the right time. God trusted that Abram would be listening and would obey. For the most part the system worked just fine. Probably still would.

Ash Wednesday: The Art and Craft

Ashes to ashes dust to dust.

The phrase will be used next week, specifically on Wednesday. It's a reminder that human life is fleeting and that our hope is in Jesus Christ. Ashes - traditionally ashes made from the previous year's Palm Sunday palms - will be imposed in the sign of the cross on the forehead of believers as a visible acknowledgment of the reminder and the hope.

But sometimes ash is far from a symbol of faith and hope. During nine hours in May of 1980, an erupting Mount St. Helens covered about 22,000 miles of landscape with approximately 540 million tons of ash. The ash was as deep as 6 inches in some places. That's no small smear on a forehead.
Mt. St. Helens, May 18, 1980.
What do you do with 540 million tons of ash? 

Artists have an answer. It's glass. 

Glass is made from a mixture of sand, ash, and lime. Add in heat...lots of heat...and the mixture melts to create glass. Glassblowers in the Mount St. Helens area used the ash from the volcano to make glass vessels and ornaments.

It's sort of the recipe for Lent. Begin with ashes, add the "heat" of forty days of penitence, and see what sort of transformation happens. Think of the things that are made of glass: drinking glasses, eyeglasses, windows, suncatchers. How can each of these things illuminate the season of Lent? 

Glass can be colored all the way through by adding colorant to the sand mix or stained on the surface by applying a layer of color which is then fused to the glass in a kiln. What is the difference between the two methods if you look with Lenten eyes?
Ashes are imposed with the reminder that we are made from dust and to dust we shall return. Glass artist William Morris created the piece below, "Hunter," in 1988. A glass skeleton, which begins in part with ash, reminds us of the fragility of human life. 
William Morris. Hunter. 1998.
How we observe the days of Lent impacts, at least a little, how we celebrate on Easter. Glass, as a material and a process, may help us develop and experience a deeper Lent. 

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Transfiguration and Sinai: Have You Looked at Clouds This Way?

In Exodus 24: 4-18, Moses goes up on the mountain to receive the law and commandments on tablets of stone. A cloud covered the mountain for six days. In Matthew 17:1-9, the disciples (along with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah) are on a mountain when they are overshadowed by a bright cloud. Did you picture a too-bright white cotton candy cloud for the Matthew reading? And maybe boiling, seething dark clouds flashing with lightning for the Exodus passage?

Clouds are amazing things. Clouds are actually collections of water droplets so light that they can float. Fog is a cloud at ground level, so if you've been enclosed in fog, you've been enclosed by a cloud. When I was growing up my siblings and I looked forward to the "fog machine" driving through our neighborhood about suppertime in the summer. We dashed out the door to be hidden in the fog, running around trying to find - or not find each other, enjoying the temporary thrill of being hidden in the cloud. The fact that the "fog" was actually spraying DDT to control mosquitos...well...
John Constable. Cloud Study, Sunset. c. 1821. Yale Center for British Art.
English painter John Constable studied clouds, creating approximately fifty studies of clouds and sky between 1821 and 1822. He looked at their color and shape, the relative position to the horizon and the land, and the possibility of rain (or not). The studies were painted on thick paper, and the artist wrote meterological data like wind direction and temperature and time of day of the backs of the drawings. They look like the clouds we see in the sky.

Mark Leonard considered those cloud studies and created a geometric interpretation of those very organic clouds. How does your perception of the clouds change when they are twisted into a rope, as below? Could disciples get lost in this cloud? Does the twist image help you better understand God's continuing work through Hebrew scripture (Moses and Elijah) AND Christian scripture (Jesus)?
Mark Leonard, Constable Study I. 2011. Collection of Mark Leonard.
You can see additional comparative images of Leonard and Constable's work here. Do we need fluffy clouds for the stories of Moses on Sinai and Jesus' Transfiguration? 

For additional thoughts on the Transfiguration, click here or here.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Deuteronomy 30.15-20: Choosing

I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life... (Deuternonomy 30:15-20) Two choices. Who wouldn't choose life? Blessings are much better than woes. But it usually doesn't work that easily, does it? Somehow when two roads diverge in a wood, yellow or otherwise, there isn't always a sign that says, "Don't want woes? Take the other way!"  Sometimes the way to woes seems more enticing than the way to blessings. Or maybe we imagine that the way to woes will eventually curve around to blessings, because look how pleasant this way looks. The choice is sometimes harder that it might seem.

The moment of choice is sometimes characterized as standing at a crossroads. With multiple ways to go, which will you choose?
Image from ReMastered: Devil at the Crossroads. Courtesy of Netflix.
Blues musician Robert Johnson (b. 1911) wrote, sang, and played the blues, though not very well at first. Playing for tips on street corners, Johnson sought out musicians like Son House to teach him how to play. In the early 1930s, Johnson disappeared for about a year from the juke joints and house parties that were home to music and musicians playing the blues. When Johnson reappeared, his playing had unnaturally improved. And the legend arose: Johnson had gone to the crossroads* and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to play and sing the blues better than anyone. And he did. By all accounts that midnight choice at the crossroads led to the skill and fame that were promised, but it didn't solve Johnson's problems. Not by a long shot. In 1938 Johnson became a member of the 27 Club.

Life or death. Blessings or curses. Prosperity or adversity. When you stand at the crossroads, which will you choose? Who will you choose?

* Two different crossroads are identified as the site of Johnson's bargain: the intersection of Hwys 49 and 61 in Clarksdale, MS, and the intersection of Hwys 1 and 8 in Rosedale, MS. 

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook, a contemporary photographer takes a look at people at a crossroads. (Yep, those are stormtroopers...) 

For thoughts on I Corinthians 3:1-9, click here.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

New Indexes

Finally! There may be some adjustments still to make, but we have been working on a scriptural index for Art&Faith Matters posts. If you look above the date of this post you'll see tabs for Hebrew scripture, Christian scripture, and the liturgical calendar. The scripture tabs are self-explanatory. The calendar tab is for posts that may look at a particular day in general (multiple Gospel versions of Jesus praying in Gethsemane, for example).

We hope this will be helpful for you.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

I Corinthians 2.1-16: The Mind of God...Maybe

Who has known the mind of the Lord? asks Paul. (I Corinthians 2:16) Paul's question follows comments about wisdom - God's wisdom - and human understanding. Paul's phrasing seems to imply that no one has known the mind of God, though, he says, we have the mind of Christ. How could we human creatures possibly know the mind of God, or imagine that we, with our limited human understanding, could possibly think to instruct God. However, it doesn't stop people from wondering about the mind of God.
Michelangelo Buonorroti. Creation of Adam. Fresco. 1508-1512. Vatican: Sistine Chapel.
Michelangelo Buonorroti might be one of those people who was wondering. We're used to seeing Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes. The hands of Adam and God reaching out to one another have inspired movie posters (think E.T.), coffee mugs, t-shirts, and more. But recently the question as been asked if we've been missing a message left by Michelangelo all those centuries ago.

Does the Sistine Chapel ceiling show us the mind of God? Or at least the brain of God?

Here's a brain.
Do you think the flowing pink fabric behind God is designed and placed in such a way that it echoes the shape of the brain? We know that Michelangelo studied anatomy by dissecting corpses when he was as young as 18. Corpses of criminals were allowed to be dissected, and the artist reportedly received cadavers from the hospital at the Monastery of Santo Spirito in Florence, Italy. He also received special permission for additional anatomical study of cadavers. He probably knew what the brain looked like. Is this the artist's way of letting us see the mind of God active in the days of creation? 

We do see the mind of God in creation, as we see the mind of any artist in the works they produce. What does the creation - here, the creation of human beings - tell us about the mind of God? 
If you want to read more about this idea, search the internet for Michelangelo and concealed neuroanatomy.

For thoughts on Isaiah 58:1-12, click here.
For thoughts about salt in general (not specifically the Matthew passage), click here.
For thoughts on Matthew 5:15-16, see Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.