Sunday, June 28, 2020

Psalm 119.105-112: Lamp and Light

God's word is both lamp and light according to the Psalmist (Psalm 119.105). Lamp and light. One the thing, the other the conveyance of the thing. In scriptural times, a lamp enabled someone to carry fire with them. The lamp could be fed by fuels like olive oil or animal fats. The flame was kept by wicks made of fibers or moss soaked in the fuel. A lamp enables humans to be guided as they move into the unknown. Just like the word of God.

As technology developed, lamps developed in design and materials. The Italian Futurists were interested in progress, in advances, in leaving behind the past. Giacomo Balla's painting "Street Light" is a statement about progress...and the past.
Giacomo Balla. Street Light. 1909. Oil on canvas. NY: Museum of Modern Art.

Balla and the Futurists were interested in making art that reflected the future. In the Futurist Manifesto of 1909, the artists proclaimed that past artistic traditions should be abandoned and the reverence with which Italians viewed the past was misplaced. Modernity was the only thing to be embraced, even if that meant violent revolution. "Set fire to the library shelves! Turn aside the canals to flood the museums!" wrote poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.

In this painting, the street light is a symbol of the industrialization and technological progress in early 20th-century Italy. Rome had just installed these new electric lights, artificially lighting the Eternal City. The crescent moon in the painting symbolizes the past. Humans used to need the moon in order to see at night, but no more. Marinetti even advocated, "Let's kill the moonlight!" because of the moon's association with romance and sentimentality. The street light clearly shines brighter than the moon. 

Balla's painting has both lamp and light, both creation and technology. While for Balla it is either street light OR moon, the language of scripture is lamp AND light. The word of God is both the thing and the way we convey the thing. It is both tradition and modern. It is, as the writer of Hebrews said, "living and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword." (Hebrews 4:12)

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