Sunday, November 29, 2020

Psalm 126: Those Who Dream...and Give Meaning to Dreams

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream (Psalm 126:1). In Hebrew scripture, dreams are ways in which God speaks to humanity. Joseph's dreams (and the ability to interpret them) are important (Genesis 41). Daniel is Joseph's successor as interpreter of dreams (Daniel 2). Jacob dreams of a ladder, ramp, or stairway to heaven on which God's messengers come and go from one realm to the other (Genesis 28). Solomon asks God for wisdom (a discerning heart) in a dream (I Kings 3).   

By the beginning of the 20th century, however, the perception of dreams has taken a turn. They are still a source of revelation according to Sigmund Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, revealing emotional truths. For the artists we call Surrealists, dream imagery was a major source of their work. Dreams tapped into truth as it was found in their unconscious minds, opposite of rationality and reason. 

How does that compare to the dreams dreamed by the people of God? Are those dreams dreamed in Psalm 126 rational and reasonable? Should they be? Scripture is filled with stories of God's plan (which seems like it can only be a pipe dream*) brought to fruition against all odds. Did those captives in Babylon fear their dreams of returning home and restoring the Temple were "only" dreams? How were their dreams different when they made it back home?

For both Surrealist and scripture, dreams express meaning. The biggest difference may be the intelligiblity of the meaning ahead of time. Surrealists' "automatic" drawings were based on dream imagery and without a preformed plan or idea. The artists simply started working. They themselves had to wait until the work was complete before they knew what it meant. In scripture, dreams are acknowledged as a sign from God. When dreams were unintelligible on their own, someone was provided to help the dreamer understand the meaning. Surrealists aren't especially interested in helping a viewer understand a (not necessarily "the") meaning of a dream-inspired painting.

That means Surrealist paintings are wide open to interpretation. How important is it that we begin to find meaning in our own or others' dreams? There are many "Dream Dictionaries" that want to associate particular dream elements with particular universal meanings? Is that right?  Does a red rose always mean love? Or does each dreamer find individual meaning in the elements of their own dreams?

Presented with the image below, how would you interpret it in light of the subject of dreams and people who dream? Is your interpretation influenced by what you know about God-given dreams? Is this a picture that depicts a God dream like the people mentioned in the psalm? Or is this just a Freudian-influenced painter's world of dreams? You can read one interpretation of the painting via the museum link under the painting, but maybe that's not the best interpretation. What do you understand this painting to mean? 
Rene Magritte. The False Mirror. 1929. NY: Museum of Modern Art. 

*"Pipe dream" refers to the dreams experienced by smokers of opium pipes. What kind of dreams are those? Rational? Real? Surreal? Scriptural?                                                                                                                                                                         

Sunday, November 22, 2020

2 Peter 3.8-15a: A Thousand Years

With God a thousand years is like a day and a day like a thousand years. (2 Peter 3:8) How do you show everything that has happened in the last thousand years? These four books definitely do NOT represent EVERYTHING that has happened in the last thousand years. 

And yet this incomplete history manages to fill:

419 pages (Architecture)
428 pages (Painting)
816 pages (Civilization)
196 pages (English Literature)

That's more than 1800 pages. And you still don't have it all

And it all weighs: 
2.8 pounds (Architecture)
1 pound (Painting)
2.24 pounds (Civilization)
2.6 pounds (English Literature)

That's more than 8.5 pounds. And you still don't have it all.

Now imagine everything that has happened in the world since the year 1020: 
  • the computer
  • amusement parks
  • anesthesia and medical advancements
  • telephone
  • electric light
  • radio and television
  • the development of planes, trains, and automobiles
  • movable type
  • telescopes and astronomical discoveries

Imagine that all of those things have happened in a day. Imagine a single day filled with all those developments. That's how it is with God. God isn't slow about the promise but is patient with us. And in the meantime, we continue to wait for the day of the Lord. 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Psalm 122: Looking Up

To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the LORD. For there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of David. (Psalm 122:4-5)

They go up. Up to the Temple and up to Jerusalem. Up to give thanks to the name of the Lord. What is it about "up"? 

How often do you look up? We probably more often look down in the course of daily life. Down to watch out feet and make sure we don't trip. Down as we tap out text messages on our phones. Down at the computer keyboards on our desks. Down as we prepare a meal on a kitchen counter or stove. When we are ashamed or embarrassed, we tend to lower our eyes. As humans we are bound to the earth. 

So when we have (or take!) the opportunity to look up, or when we are compelled to look up, something different happens to us. When we raise our gaze, we see things differently. Looking up changes the angle of our chin and neck as well as the angle of the eye pupil. Looking up lets more light onto the whites of our eyes. Lifting our eyes (and heads) automatically opens our chest a little more. There is evidence to suggest that raising our gaze, which focuses us beyond the here and now, also gives us a shot of dopamine, that neurotransmitter that is part of our brain's reward system. 
Interior of the Florence Cathedral (Santa Maria del Fiore). 
Detail of Giorgio Vasari's dome (Last Judgement). #iCathedral completed. c. 1357.
Designers of cathedrals may not have known about the dopamine, but they knew that something happened when people walked in to a massive space and looked up at the ceiling or dome. Here, the Florence Cathedral draws your attention upward. In the dome are frescoes painted to look like even more layers of clouds and figures, extending up and up and up like layers of cake and frosting.

Architects of today's giant buildings with massive multi-story foyers understand it. The tops of trees must know it, tempting us as they do to gaze into their uppermost branches, outlined against a blue sky. Around 2014, the American Institute of Architects began a campaign called #ilookup. Viewers were invited to submit images and videos showing what they saw then they looked up: architecture, nature, a mix of the two.

It's too distinct a line to actually draw, but ask yourself if you'd rather be a navel-gazer or a star-gazer. Perhaps it's both. If you've never thought about it and have, by unintentional practice, a navel-gazer, give the stars a try. Just look up. 

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook, even up-per.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Ephesians 1.15-23: The Footstool

God put this power to work in Christ...and...has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Ephesians 1:15-23) On the Sunday we acknowledge the Reign of Christ, the idea of Christ having all things under his feet makes sense. That would make "everything" Christ's footstool.

Cartographers had the opportunity to illustrate this idea as they created maps of the world with Christ enthroned at the top. The top of a map was generally oriented to the East, so Christ sits on those maps at the direction of the rising sun and the resurrection. Cathedrals altars were usually at the east end of the building, meaning that the congregation faced the rising sun...and the rising son. 

Hearing that, then, you might expect that Jesus' figure on a mappamundi (map of the world) would be seated on a throne with his feet resting on the earth like a footstool. After all, the visual is there in Ephesians. You might expect, but it wouldn't necessarily be true. 
The Map Psalter (BL MS Add 28681, fol. 9r (left) and fol. 9v (right). 1262-1300. London: British Library.
Above are two illustrations from the same manuscript. In one (left), the world, mapped out on a circle, blocks the view of the bottom half of Jesus' body. The other illustration (the verso of the left image), has expanded to cover almost all of Jesus. His head is above the world (here a T-O map), and his arms reach out to embrace the world. And there, at the bottom, Jesus' bare feet peek out from the bottom of the circular map. That is not all things under Jesus' feet. That's Jesus' feet under all things.
Hereford Mappa Mundi. c. 1300. Hereford Cathedral. Hereford, England.
By contrast the Hereford Mappa Mundi (c. 1300) shows Jesus in the peak of the map. He is sitting down, and his feet, on which blood flows from nail holes, are visible. The entire map of the world is beneath his feet. Just as was written to the Ephesians.

But the world as footstool is not exclusively in Ephesians. Acts 7:48-50 quotes Isaiah 66:1-2a.: Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands; as the prophet says, “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?” There are other times the footstool is used: the ark of the covenant is called the footstool of God (I Chronicles 28:2), the enemies of the people of God are made their footstools (Psalm 110:1, Luke 20:43, Acts 2:35, Hebrews 1:13, Hebrews 10:13), the earth is God's footstool (Matthew 5:35).

That's quite a bit of attention to a pretty insignificant piece of furniture. Mercifully, Christ is more concerned with his footstool that we probably are with ours. 

Sunday, November 1, 2020

I Thessalonians 5.1-11: Less Than a Minute

For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, "There is peace and security," then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief. (I Thessalonians 5:2-4). You'll be surprised at how quick it comes on you. Quick, like labor pains can escalate. Quick, like the thief sneaking into your house. And that thief can be quick. 
For more about the theft and the recovery of the click here and here
In 1994, thieves broke into Norway's National Museum and stole one of the four versions of Edvard Munch's work The Scream. The piece had been moved to a ground floor gallery in advance of the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics. The thieves leaned a ladder (that ladder in the photo) up against the wall, smashed the window, and in less than a minute they were back out the window and down the ladder holding the artwork with an estimated value of $120 million. It was captured on a security camera. They left behind a postcard. It said: Thanks for the poor security

Less than a minute. That's pretty quick. The day of the Lord will come like that, too.