Sunday, October 25, 2020

Psalm 78.1-7: Things That Our Ancestors Have Told Us

Dotted Horses. Pech-Merle Cave. Cabrerets, France. c. 25,000 BCE. 
(Notice how the prehistoric artists used the natural formation of the rock to shape the image of the right horse's head. Notice also the hand stencils above the horses. Are these the hands of the artist(s)? There are also hand stencils below the horses and to the left of the left horse.)

Among the earliest art work left by our human ancestors are paintings in caves. About 400 caves with paintings have been found, mostly in France and Spain, but also in Romania, England, Argentina, Indonesia, and other countries. New discoveries are still being made. Even as we discover the existence of this kind of work, we still don't know for sure why they were painted. It's the opposite of Psalm 78. In the Psalm, one generation tells another about the deeds of God. The ancestors are commanded to teach their children (Psalm 78:1-7), so that the children will know in order to set their hope in God.

We understand teaching verbally, passing knowledge from one generation to another through stories, myths, legends, personal testimony. But what if things are passed generationally in ways beyond storytelling? Epigenetics literally means "in addition to" or "on top of" genetics. It refers to things that might be inherited outside of or in addition to genetics. If this includes things like trauma and sensitivities, as some scientists suspect, could it also be that people could "inherit" the knowledge of God? 

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. He established a decree in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach to their children; that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and rise up and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments. (Psalm 78:1-7)

Jeremiah relayed God's words: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33). Perhaps in telling the stories of God over and over we can help our children inherit a heart on which God's law is written.

Friday, October 23, 2020

All Saints Day: A Valley in France

Following All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day gives us the opportunity to remember all the saints of God - some who have been officially designated as saints, others who may not be known widely but are saints in our own lives. Near Carnoet, in the Brittany region of France, a valley is filled with statues of Celtic and Breton saints. A reference to the ancient menhirs and megaliths of Brittany, the valley installation is an open-air sanctuary dotted with sculptures of well-known saints like Patrick and Brigit, as well as less-widely known saints like Tugdual and Brieuc. The first statue was placed in 2008, and the hundredth statue several years ago. The only requirements for each statue is that it must be 10 feet tall and represent a saint who was in Brittany between the 3rd and 10th centuries. 
Visitors wandering among these saints keep their stories alive. 

For additional information on the Valley of the Saints, click here or here.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Joshua 3.7-17: Armed

God makes it clear that Joshua is the chosen leader: The LORD said to Joshua, "This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses." (Joshua 3:7) In his series of Bible etchings, Marc Chagall created "Joshua Armed by God" to fall between Moses' blessing over Joshua and crossing the Jordan. 
(Left) Assyrian Archers. c. 700-692 BCE. Southwest Palace, Nineveh. 
(Right) Marc Chagall. Joshua Armed by God. 1956. Etching. 

The title of the print highlights Joshua's attire and weaponry. He wears a semi-conical helmet and textured garment that falls just below his knees. He appears to have wrist-length sleeves on the garment's top. He is barefoot. He holds a knife and wears a scabbard. 

These garments are not unlike those in the relief panel showing Assyrian archers. The helmet shapes are the same as are the textures of the garment. The cross-body belt (perhaps for the scabbard) is also similar. 

Of course, Chagall is working in the mid-20th century, the panel is from more than 2500 years earlier, and the text refers to a still-earlier period. An artist works with the information available, so Chagall appears to have found ancient warriors (there are a variety of relief panels from around ancient Mesopotamia in museums to which Chagall would have had access) and armed Joshua as their equal. 

The fact that Joshua was also accompanied by the presence of God in the form of the Ark was an advantage that all the swords and bows in the world couldn't overcome. 

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Matthew 22.39: Neighbors and Fences

Leviticus 19:18 and Matthew 22:39 say the same thing: Love your neighbor as yourself. A friend once told me that she "translates" that verse to mean that we should love for our neighbor what we love for ourselves. That's a different thing isn't it? More concrete than just assuring oneself and the world that we have warm fuzzy feelings for everyone because we're good people. When we love a luxury car for ourselves, but we love a 1978 Pinto for our neighbor...well, that's not exactly the same thing, is it?

Robert Frost's poem "Mending Wall" is often quoted in discussions of neighbors. One line of the poem is most often pulled out: Good fences make good neighbors. The idea is that neighbors will get along better when there is a clear boundary between what's mine and what's yours and you stay on your side and I'll stay on mine. Frost's poem is a conversation between two neighbors. It is the neighbor who insists - twice - that good fences make good neighbors. The narrator's voice asks why they make good neighbors. Sure, you would need a wall where there are cows - to keep them contained and not wandering into a field with neighbor cows or a neighbor's pasture grass spread out like a salad bar for cows. But where there aren't cows? Why build a fence? The narrator continues:

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.

Artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude had a different idea with their project Running Fence. The project was begun in 1972 and completed in 1976. The actual project was installed for two weeks and then taken down, leaving no reminders of its presence. 

(Top photo) Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76. Photo: Wolfgang Volz. © 1976 Christo. (Bottom photo) Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76. Photo: Jeanne-Claude. © 1976 Christo. 

The project was a 24.5 mile long, 18 feet tall "fence" of nylon fabric panels hung from steel cable between steel poles. The artists battled every step of the way. The 18 public hearings were contentious. They had 3 sessions in California superior courts. It wasn't easy to get permission from all of the 59 ranchers whose land was crossed. They wrote and filed a 450-page environmental impact statement. Over and over they heard that this piece was not art. Christo agreed, or agreed that the fence itself wasn't the whole of the art. Quoted in Brian O’Doherty’s Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Christo asserted, “The work is not only the fabric, the steel poles and the Fence. The art project is right now
here. Everybody here is part of my work if they want it or don’t want it.”

The artists intended for this fence to bring people together, not to separate them. The project visually connected human elements (houses, barns, farms, fences, roads) across the rolling California landscape to the Pacific Ocean at Bodega Bay. Once the project was begun, about 400 people worked on the installation - everyone from art students to Hell's Angels. After two weeks, those same people began taking down the fence. All materials were given to the ranchers. Nothing remained on the landscape.  

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook, loving your neighbor in a quilt story. 

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Exodus 33:12-23 and Matthew 22:15-22: Identity

God says to Moses: I know you by name. (Exodus 33:12)

Jesus says to the Pharisees: Give to God the things that are God's. (Matthew 22:21)

Moses is recognized, known, by God. Moses knows that in some way he belongs to God. Jesus reminds those trying to trip him up that things that bear God's image (like us) belong to God. It's about identity. Knowing whose you are. Knowing who you are. 

Katarina Wong has explored themes of identity and personal migration through installations based on fingerprints. Wong's mother is from Cuba, and her father is from China, so the subject of migration and identity is a personal one for her. In The Fingerprint Project, Wong cast her friends' fingerprints in wax, which makes each individual piece completely unique. The wax casts are installed in patterns that mimic the migratory habits of birds and animals. The wax fingerprints sit on pins above the gallery walls within areas painted light blue. The artist added shadows by hand directly on the wall with sumi ink, traditionally used in Chinese painting, and powdered graphite. 

Katarina Wong. Fingerprint Project: Murmuration Unfolding, 2017. Wax casts of fingerprints, pins, sumi ink, graphite. 84 in. x 16 ft. x 2 in. California African American Museum. Photography courtesy of the artist.

The detail photo above includes the descriptor 'murmuration,' which is the collective noun for a flock of starlings. The artist's design makes visual reference to the shapes created by those birds as they are flying. Think about the fact that each of these fingerprints is one-of-a-kind, like each bird, like each traveler camped at Sinai, like each person made in God's image. Individuals but moving in groups, claiming their identity.

For a look at murmurations of starlings, click here.