Sunday, January 31, 2021

2 Kings 2.1-12: Chariots of Fire

The story of Elijah being carried up into heaven is familiar as story and challenging as visual. The story marks the transition from Elijah's service as the prophet of God to Elisha's service in that position. The horses and chariot of fire swoop down (or, as the spiritual sings it "swings low") to gather Elijah and carry him up to heaven. (2 Kings 2:1-12). 

English poet William Blake used the phrase "chariot of fire" in his poem "Jerusalem," and from there it was included in William Parry's choral setting of the poem. You may have heard that hymn in the opening scene of the 1981 movie titled Chariots of Fire, which had to do with runners in the 1924 Olympics. The hymn is also often sung in England for its national connotations. 

The hymn does not encompass the entire poem but does include the lines:

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold:
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

Consider the two Blake images here that include elements of the chariots of fire. We tend to associate the phrase so much with Elijah. Are either of these Elijah?

There is another chariot of fire (which Blake knew) in the pseudopigraphical Book of Enoch: When the Holy One, blessed be He, desired to lift me up on high, He first sent 'Anaphiel H (H = Tetragrammaton) the Prince, and he took me from their midst in their sight and carried me in great glory upon a a fiery chariot with fiery horses, servants of glory. And he lifted me up to the high heavens together with the Shekina. (3 Enoch 6:1) It is reminiscent of Elijah's story: a faithful one lifted up and carried in glory in a fiery chariot.

Is either of these images depicting Elijah? Is either depicting Enoch? What does a chariot of fire mean if it doesn't mean Elijah or Olympic runners? In each of these images, Blake transforms that moment of completion and reward and returning to God for an entirely different purpose. In the upper image (which is from "Jerusalem"), the two defeated figures ride in a "chariot" whose wheels are serpents, with serpents at the front, pulled by creatures with ox-like bodies, faces of men, manes like lions, and single horns growing out of their heads like a unicorn horn but twisted in a spiral. This is not 2 Kings. 

The bottom image was long-believed to be an image of Elijah's chariot, but is this how you pictured the scene? The horse is not fire, the chariot is on the ground. Which figure is Elijah? The etching has more recently been associated with God's judgment of Adam for eating the forbidden fruit. 

When we see chariots and fire, we automatically think of Elijah and of God's gathering up this faithful prophet. Those elements - chariots and fire - aren't always "comin' for to carry us home." If a fiery chariot shows up in your driveway, take a second look before you hop on.  

Top image: William Blake. Jerusalem, Plate 46 ("Bath, mild physician..."). 1804-1820. New Haven: Yale Center for British Art. Bottom image: William Blake. God Judging Adam. c. 1795. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

I Corinthians 9.16-23: Marketing Jesus

Every marketing website, consultant, handbook, and tip sheet will tell you: Know your own message. Know your own audience. You can't be all things to all people. Apparently no one told Paul. Or Jesus. Because Paul, talking about his calling to preach the gospel, says (or writes) out loud, "I have become all things to all people." (I Corinthians 9:22). 

Wow. No pressure. And to be honest, I don't know that Paul really was all things to all people, though he could certainly reach out to particular audiences because of his own experiences. He could talk about being a Jew. He could talk about being outside the law (now). He could talk about being inside the law, actually. But all things to all people? I think Paul might have been optimistic. 

Jesus is another story. The history of art has shown us that Jesus can, pretty much, be all things to all people. Books like Jaroslav Pelikan's Jesus Through the Centuries show us that Jesus has been rabbi, king, monk, sufferer, prince, poet, liberator, and more. Jesus has been triumphant and tragic, universal and particular. All things. Jesus has been perceived (and depicted) as "like us" by all the "us-es" with a pictorial tradition. 

And it hasn't stopped. We continue to find the Jesus we need: Jesus who stands up for the oppressed, Jesus who can love the unloveable. Jesus who bridges gaps, even gaps we didn't know we had. That's the miracle of the gospel. Humans may be (are) wiser not to try to be all things to all people, but Jesus isn't as limited as we are. That's good news.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

I Corinthians 8.1-13: Puffed Up vs. Built Up

 The Corinthians are saying that "all of us possess knowledge." Maybe, Paul replies, but knowledge may not be what you, as followers of Christ, should be striving for. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. It isn't that knowledge is bad, but if it doesn't build up the community (like the love modeled by Jesus Christ), then it isn't in line with the gospel. Love builds up, Paul says. Do you? Are your actions in line with the love modeled for you by Jesus? 

My classmates and I were once told by our theology professor that we "should never let our metaphor take us farther than we want to go." I'm walking on the edge here. 

Take a look at the two structures below. What is similar about them? Both are gray. Both are Gothic in detail (pointed arches, pointed gables, towers with spires). Both have a single entrance with archivolts (the bands of molding within the door arch that echo its shape). 

What makes them different? One is, well...inflated, while the other is built up. 

Now there's nothing to say that an inflatable church can't be useful and/or amusing. It's a meme waiting to happen, though. Something about all the hot air in the church. Or blowhards. Or something like that. But the tabernacle was a moveable worship space, wasn't it? There might be some value in being able to pack up an inflatable church (some have inflatable pews, an inflatable pulpit, even inflatable candles on an inflatable Communion table) and move to another location. 

We know the church is not the building - the children's song reminds us that the church is the people. But which of the "buildings" feels more stable? Which would you feel safer standing in? One pin, and the inflatable church is in danger. There are more things in the world that can bring the puffed up church to the point of collapse. A Swiss Army Knife can make a number of those things available in any pocket. The built church can still fall, of course, but probably not at the hand of a six-year-old with a pair of scissors. And it's clear that the inflatable church wants to look like the stone church. It isn't exploring the possibilities of contemporary inflatable technology. Rather it is mimicking an earlier style.

What kind of church are you creating by the words that you say? What sort of church are we creating by the deeds that we do? Are we puffed up? Or are we building up?

Top: This inflatable church is available from various vendors for $2400 - $10,000. It is also available in pink. Search the internet for additional information. Bottom: Neo-Gothic church. Kylemore Abbey, Connemara, Co. Galway, Ireland. 

Sunday, January 10, 2021

I Corinthians 7:29-31: God Only Knows

 The appointed time has grown short, Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth (I Corinthians 7:29). One of the ways you can imagine this announcement was made (and passed down to us) in a letter rather than in person to the Corinthians (and via transcript to us) is that no one interrupted at this point to ask, "What do you mean by short? Are we talking 5 years? That's certainly shorter than 50 years. Or is it 5 hours? Or possibly 5 minutes? What does short mean, Paul?"

The concept of the appointed time is found throughout scripture. It's phrased in several ways, this idea that God has a time for things that no one knows. That day and hour in Matthew 24:36. The day of the Lord in Jeremiah 46:10 and I Thessalonians 5:2. Even the appointed time is used elsewhere in scripture: Habbakuk 2:3 and elsewhere.

But we don't know specifically what time it means. It's like Surrealist art - recognizable and yet still not understood. Surrealism, which flourished in the second quarter of the 20th century, used the juxtaposition of images to express the subconscious. Which means that the artist may have been trying to communicate meaning through a piece of art, but the artist didn't really care if anyone else understood the meaning of the piece. One of the most famous pieces of Surrealist art is Salvador Dali's Persistence of Memory. We recognize clocks and trees/branches and sky and landscape in the image. But what it all means is largely mystery. The title may or may not be helpful. 

So perhaps a Surrealist painting is the perfect vehicle to convey the appointed time. Kay Sage's painting here is titled just that: At the Appointed Time. I have no information that it is a religious or Biblically-based painting. Still, the title invites us to take a moment and look at the painting with scripture in mind. What do you see in the painting (literally what can you describe...there is a darkening gray sky, there is a horizon line in the middle of the picture, etc.)? What do you think about what you see? What do you wonder about this painting?

Kay Sarge. At the Appointed Time. 1942. Newark Museum.

Is that fabric-draped element the appointed time? Or is that us shrouded in ignorance? Does all of time stretch out inexorably toward the horizon line? Or is the action at left the peeling back of guardrails that indicate some kind of breakdown? Are those vines growing up out of the break? Vines that may leaf out with new growth? Or are they mechanical cables? Is that an eerily waveless ocean? Or do the darkening clouds threaten the future? Or does the sky clear near the horizon line? Can we even see the appointed time? Or is it too far away? Or is that it right in front of us? Surreal.

We know there is an appointed time. We know that God knows when that is. And no matter how many people announce they have figured out exactly when that time is, only God knows. All we can do until then is be intentional about how we live as children of God and followers of Christ. Because the present form of this world is passing away. 

This week's Art&Faith Matters on Facebook looks at a still life titled "Time and Eternity." Click here

Sunday, January 3, 2021

I Samuel 3.1-10: While You Are Sleeping

I Samuel 3 is an exercise in sleeping and waking. Samuel and Eli are asleep. Samuel is awakened, and he wakes Eli. Eli tells Samuel to go back and lie down. Maybe he goes back to sleep? If so, then Samuel and Eli are back asleep. Samuel is awakened, and he wakes Eli. Eli tells Samuel to go back to sleep. Samuel is awakened, and he wakes Eli. This time Eli gets it, and tells the boy Samuel to go back and lie down and wait. So Samuel does, and he hears something he doesn't want to pass along to Eli. The night passes. Whether or not Samuel is able to sleep after that, we don't know, but eventually he relates the vision to Eli after Eli insists. Insists strongly, as a matter of fact. 

One more time, God has spoken to a messenger at night...when the one who would be God's messenger would have expected to be asleep. Jacob with his vision and his wrestling match. Elijah is awakened from sleep by an angel. Even Jesus is awakened from sleep in the boat when the storm arises. It seems that getting a good night's sleep becomes less possible when God needs you to deliver a message. 

I'm sure no one was more surprised than Eli was to be woken up by Samuel. But this seems to be a pattern with God. God shows up and disrupts what looks like it's going to be a regular night's sleep...or a regular life. And the person whose life is disrupted is often not who you'd expect: a not-particularly-skilled public speaker, the youngest of seven brothers, a bunch of fishermen from the sticks, a young unmarried girl. The person called is unexpected. The call is unexpected. It comes at an unexpected moment. 
Bernard Safran. Sleeping (aka Sleeping It Off). 1986. 
For additional information, and a close-up of the brushwork on this painting, click here. Scroll to the bottom and click on the full painting to see the detail. This is a blog post by the artist's daughter.
I do wonder if Samuel was as eager to answer the third time. When he thought it was Eli calling him for assistance, he was eager to help. What did Eli need? Water? Help standing up? A message delivered? But when you know it's God who will be speaking to you...are you a little more nervous about saying "Speak, Lord, your servant is listening." Who knows what God will ask you to do? 

There is an interesting detail that often doesn't show up in depictions of I Samuel 3:1-10. Go to this week's Art&Faith Matters on Facebook to see what it is.