Tag Archives: Medium

Art History; History Art; Art, History

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
Romans 1:20 (NIV)

Back in college I was required to take a visual art class as part of my major. Being a lover of history I chose to take Art History II. The fascinating thing about Professor Jeff Thompson’s class was that the text book was not an Art History textbook. It was simply a History textbook.

Professor Thompson began the class with a question: “Does art merely reflect history, or does it drive history?” If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’ll recognize this is a binary, “either, or” question, and the answer to his question that we arrived at was “yes, and.”

What was fascinating in the course of study was the connection between all that was going on during a certain period of time of history (politics, religion, economics, and etc.) and what we were seeing in the important artworks of that period. Not only that, but also the connection between what we saw in visual art (paintings and sculptures) and the other art mediums (music, theatre, architechture, and literature). The art of each period both reflected what was happening and drove history forward.

That class planted in me a seed which has grown over time to bear much fruit of thought. Here is the root of it: In creating art, no matter the medium, artists express themselves through what they create. It cannot be otherwise. It is inherent in that act of creation itself that artists express who they really are, what they see, what they think, what they feel, and how they’ve experienced the world around them. In expressing these things, they influence the world around them and they drive the action of this Great Story.

This morning, in this chapter-a-day journey, we make our way to Paul’s letter to the followers of Jesus living in Rome, heart of the Roman Empire and epicenter of western civilization at the time. Today, art historians flock to Rome to see remnants of the ancient city with its architecture and artwork. The people Paul wrote to were surrounded by it as it was happening all around them, and to them he wrote this:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

The creator revealed themselves in what was created. The Genesis poem says that humans were created in the image of the Creator. Just as Van Gogh painted the unique way he saw light and color, just as Bach channeled his love and understanding of mathematic order and the woven details of the universe into his music, just as Shakespeare expressed the tragedy of everyday humanity in the gilded trappings of man-made royalty, so God the Creator expressed  the light, energy, life, beauty, and power of their person(s) in all creation.

In the quiet this morning I’m pondering how through much of my journey I’ve viewed faith and science as living entrenched in their “either, or” camps like the armies of World War I dug in for the long haul, reduced to hurtling grenades at one another across no man’s land. At least, that’s the perception I’ve had from what has been presented to me by media who like to simplify complex issues into simple binary groups in conflict (it sells more). As I’ve proceeded in my journey I’ve met many fellow sojourners who could be easily labeled as a members of either trench, but who have wandered out into no man’s land. They observe and study and appreciate this cosmic work of art still expanding outward, still creating, still reproducing life, and  they’ve come to a “yes, and” realization, just as we did in Professor Thompson’s Art History class.

That’s where Paul begins his letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome. He starts with the expansive canvas of the cosmos through which the Creator expresses self. From the mystery of the cosmos Paul will dive into the mystery of being human, and how he sees the Creator has interacted with creation in the Great Story.

Popcorn Prayers

Then the king said to me, “What do you request?” So I prayed to the God of heaven.
Nehemiah 2:4 (NRSV)

When you have intimate, long-term relationships with others you find that communication takes a myriad of forms. Wendy and I are together almost all of the time. We live together, work from home together, serve in the community together, and spend most of our free time together. We have layers of communication:

  • Conversations about culture and world events over breakfast and  the news.
  • Brief exchanges from the top of the 2nd floor landing to the bottom of the stairs on the main floor.
  • Text message exchanges.
  • Non-verbal body language cues.
  • Short notes left on stickies on the counter.
  • Emotional rants of aggravation.
  • Nuts and bolts planning and scheduling over calendars.
  • Cell phone conversations when one of us are running errands.
  • Long, intense personal conversations over drinks or a meal.
  • Pillow-talk as we retire for the night.

I have found that my conversations with God have similar diversity of communication. From long, structured, formal give and take to brief exchanges and casual conversations of spirit. There are blurted exclamations of anger, frustration, gratitude, or need. I quiet my heart and open the ears of my spirit to hear what God might have to say during my coffee with God each the morning. I sometimes pour out my heart to God in long, hand written letters. If prayer is simply communication with God, then each one of these mediums is a different, yet legitimate form of prayer used as needed based on the time and circumstance.

In today’s chapter we learn that Nehemiah served the Babylonian king, Artaxerxes, in his court. His heart heavy with the news of the destruction of his hometown Jerusalem’s destroyed walls, Nehemiah cannot help be send non-verbal cues regarding his mood. The king notices and asks him why he looks so depressed.

We cannot fathom today the pressure placed on servants in ancient royal courts like that of Artaxerxes. Kings and Queens held ultimate power and routinely took the mantel of diety upon themselves. Servants in a royal court were expected to always be in a good mood, always serve with joy, and to treat the royals as if they were gods who lived in a higher dimension of being than everyone else. Any slight, mistake, errant word or look could result in an immediate death penalty.

When King Artaxerxes notices the cloud of depression on Nehemiah’s face, his immediate reaction is fear. Nehemiah doesn’t know whether to answer truthfully, beg forgiveness, say “it’s nothing,” or make up some plausible story. One wrong word or move, a simple raising of the King’s ire, and Nehemiah’s a dead man. Nehemiah chooses to tell the truth about his depression over Jerusalem’s walls. Then, Artaxerxes raises the stakes even higher by asking, “What do you request?”

Nehemiah is now in an even more treacherous fix. Ask too much and the king could take it as arrogant insubordination. Blow off the request and it could be perceived as false humility and refusing to answer a direct question. But Nehemiah needs to answer the king and he needs to answer it quickly. What does Nehemiah do?

He throws up a prayer.

Nehemiah had no time for religious ritual. He couldn’t stop the moment to languish in conversation about this situation with God. He could ask the King to spare him a moment while he got on his knees and recited a psalm. Nehemiah threw up what I like to call a “popcorn prayer.”

Like a kernel of popcorn jumping up quickly in the heat to explode into bloom, popcorn prayers pop out of my spirit in a moment and last little more than a breath. Popcorn prayers often get uttered in heated situations. They acknowledge in an instant that God is always present, always listening, always open to listen in all of the diverse ways two beings in an intimate relationship communicate.

There are times for long conversation, and there are times for popcorn prayers. Both forms are legitimate methods of communicating with God. God answered Nehemiah’s popcorn prayer, and the desires of Nehemiah’s heart were about to miraculously be answered via a blurted prayer from Nehemiah’s spirit.

Today, as I quietly listen to what God might be saying to me through the chapter, I hear this: “Keep popping.”

The Language of God

Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
John 10:6 (NRSV)

I taught a class a year ago called The Language of God,  and in the class I and my classmates walked through the Great Story, unpacking evidence that metaphor (something that represents something else) is the medium God incessantly uses to communicate Himself to us. God is Creator. God is an artist. God reveals Himself in creation and in word pictures.

John understood this better than Matthew, Mark, or Luke. In his biography of Jesus, John begins by revealing Jesus as “The Word.” Since then, John has communicated different metaphors that both John the Baptist and Jesus used to communicate who He was…

Lamb of God
Water of Life
Bread of Life
Light of the World
The Gate
The Good Shepherd

John isn’t done. There are more metaphors, more word pictures, to come in the remaining chapters.

I find it fascinating that John records that Jesus used “this figure of speech” or way of speaking, “but they didn’t understand what he was saying to them.” Later in the chapter the religious lawyers even make it more blunt, “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus response: “I have told you.” And indeed, Jesus has been telling them all along. They were so myopically focused on the scribes’ ink on the papyrus of their precious scrolls that they couldn’t interpret the language of metaphor, the living Word, that was being communicated in front of their eyes and in their very own ears.

“Those who have the ears to hear,” Jesus said. Those who can interpret the word pictures Jesus is verbally painting, those who can understand the language of metaphor, they get what He is saying.

Understanding God’s Message is deeper than being able to read the ink on the page. You have to understand the language of metaphor our Creator/Artist God is using in His works of creation and the Great Story He authors.

 

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Super Tom! (Not)

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
Philippians 4:12-13 (NIV)

When historians look back on these times that we are living in, one of the major themes that they will address is how social media has changed the world. Society has changed dramatically in the past ten years and I’m not sure we can fully realize in the moment the breadth and depth of the change.

We live in a Pinterest, Twitter, and Facebook culture in which thoughts are reduced to 140 characters or a 400×400 pixel image. Please do not read in this post what I am not writing. This is not a judgment on social media, merely an observation.

One of the things I observed is that in reducing the message to fit the medium, the context of the message can change dramatically. Take Paul’s words to his friend in Philippi in today’s chapter. The more well known translation is ” I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” Talk about Pinterest quote material.

Yet, in isolating and reducing the message of the verse it appears to be a promise of unlimited potential. I might as well photoshop your face on the body of a comic book superhero to use as the background of my Pinterest post. SuperMe to the rescue. I can do all things!!

But when I read Paul’s words in the context of the previous sentences, the message of that phrase takes on what I believe is a significantly different meaning. Paul’s life journey has taken him to high mountaintops of earthly success and deep valleys of death. He has experienced “the good life” and he has found himself shipwrecked on an island like a real life episode of Lost. When he writes, “I can do all things” he is saying, “I will survive. I will be okay. Whether it’s a good day or bad, I can be content and trust that God will give me the strength to get through.

Today, I’m thankful for context. I’m glad that Paul was not writing an empty promise of superhumanity which does not fit my reality. I may be typing this post in my Batman boxer shorts, but that’s where my super hero capabilities end and I know it. To hear Paul’s encouragement to walk today’s journey knowing that whatever comes my way God will give me the strength to endure…well, that’s a message my heart can really use as I begin my day.

God’s Editorial Metaphor

Taking a person or issue and layering it in a different metaphorical imagery has long been a way we humorously address subjects and issues. In this editorial cartoon Steve Sack cloaks "trans fats" as one of the Biblical four horsemen of the apocalypse.
Taking a person or issue and layering it in a different metaphorical context has long been a way we humorously address subjects and issues. In this editorial cartoon Steve Sack cloaks “trans fats” as one of the Biblical four horsemen of the apocalypse. In today’s chapter, God uses a similar device in delivering a prophetic editorial against the King of Tyre.

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, take up a lament concerning the king of Tyre and say to him: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says:

“‘You were the seal of perfection,
    full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.
You were in Eden,
    the garden of God;'”
Ezekiel 28:11-13a (NIV)

Editorial writers and cartoonists have a very long history of using imagery and irony in the skewering of their political targets. They will often place a person in a different metaphorical context to make a thought provoking point in humorous fashion. No matter which side of the aisle you find yourself, a quick Google search will yield several examples that will tickle your funny bone while your spirit cries a political “Amen!” to the point being delivered. [Note: For the sake of my friends on both sides of the political spectrum I have chosen the benign issue of nutrition for my illustrative example at the top of this post.]

In today’s chapter, God takes up the editorial pen against the King of Tyre. He’s already delivered strong messages against Tyre as a city state (Ezekiel 26), and an even more narrowly targeted message against the merchant class (Ezekiel 27). Now, God whittles His message down to the King of Tyre in an individual rebuke.

God uses irony and imagery, picturing the King of Tyre as Adam in the Garden of Eden before the fall. He figuratively dresses the monarch with the adornments of a high priest. The metaphor is clear. The King of Tyre thinks he’s all that. He believes himself to be human perfection, to be Adam (the first of creation, created sinless in the Garden) and Aaron (the first High Priest, the chosen of God to be the mediator between God and humanity) rolled into one. Apparently, the crown royal of Tyre fashioned himself as a god on Earth as many monarchs did throughout ancient history. God, through Ezekiel, muses on whether the king will feel so divine bowing before those who will kill him.

Today, I’m thinking about the myriad of metaphorical ways in which Creator God layers His messages. I’m thinking about the myriad of metaphorical ways in which we as humans, made in the image of the Creator, can layer our message to individuals, to audiences, and to the world around us. I need and want to continue becoming a better and more effective communicator.

Living Metaphors

"Ezekiel's Wife Dies" by Michael Buesking at http://prophetasartist.com (click on the artwork to be taken to his site)
“Ezekiel’s Wife Dies” by Michael Buesking at http://prophetasartist.com (click on the artwork to be taken to his site)

“Son of man, with one blow I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes. Yet do not lament or weep or shed any tears. Groan quietly; do not mourn for the dead. Keep your turban fastened and your sandalson your feet; do not cover your mustache and beard or eat the customary food of mourners.”
Ezekiel 24:16-17 (NIV)

Last night in my Language of God class we talked about how God specifically uses metaphors in prophecy and through the prophets like Ezekiel. While prophetic messages and metaphors are woven and layered throughout the books of law (Genesis through Deuteronomy), history (Joshua through Esther) and poetry (Job through Song of Songs), the prophets (Isaiah through Malachi) occupy a special time and place in the Great Story that God is telling throughout His Message.

For roughly 400 years (c. 800-400 B.C.) the prophets lived and shared their prophetic messages with the people of Israel and Judah. Their prophetic messages were delivered through an array of mediums including:

  • written word
  • spoken word
  • visual art
  • performance art.

Most fascinating for me, however, is when God called upon the prophets very lives to become a living message and metaphor. God told Hosea to scandalously marry a prostitute who would be unfaithful to him and suffer through the agonies of that marriage so that the prophets very life and marriage would be a living metaphor of how God’s people were being unfaithful to Him. How’d you like to explain that one when you take her home to meet the parents?

What has fascinated me about Ezekiel as we’ve journeyed through his story this time around is the fact that Ezekiel encompasses all of the prophetic mediums in the course of his messages. In today’s chapter, God tells Ezekiel that his very life is going to become a living message and metaphor for God’s people. God informs Zeke that his wife, the delight of his eyes, will be suddenly taken from him. When his wife dies unexpectedly, Ezekiel is instructed NOT to cry, weep or publicly mourn for his wife. God knows that Zeke will be groaning internally, but he is to carry on with his prophetic messages and not let the people see his sadness and grief.

God is creating a living metaphor through Ezekiel’s life experience. Ezekiel is like God. His wife is like the people of Judah who are going to suddenly experience death and be taken away by the Babylonian army. Though groaning inside, God will not openly mourn this event. It is an act of judgement brought on by the corporate sins of the nation.

Today, I am fascinated by the thought of our very lives as word pictures of God’s grace, judgement, salvation, and redemption. While the prophets occupied a very specific time, place and purpose in the Great Story, God continues to use the same prophetic mediums in different ways through those called and gifted in such ways. What message and word picture does my life convey? How does my life convey different messages to different people, and is the message dependent on the person peering at it?

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The Prophet and the Sower

the sower full

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel who are now prophesying. Say to those who prophesy out of their own imagination: ‘Hear the word of the Lord!'”
Ezekiel 13:1-2 (NIV)

I do not believe that we who live in a post-enlightenment age can possibly fathom the religious climate of Ezekiel’s day. A person living in Jerusalem in that day would be familiar with various temples and religious centers catering to a giant web of Canaanite deities. A person living in the time of Ezekiel would be very familiar with mediums, prophets, fortune tellers, and soothsayers. It was a central part of daily life and the economy in the ancient world.

As I read of the prophetic performances God asked Ezekiel and his contemporaries to produce, it is easy to think that they stood out like sore thumbs. However, when I stop to consider the loud cacophony of prophets who catered to popular gods like Baal, Asherah, Dagon, Molech, Lotan, and Chemosh on the streets of Jerusalem, I wonder if Ezekiel’s prophetic performance art caused any more of a stir than a man dressed like Barney the dinosaur would cause in Times Square today.

In today’s chapter God tells Ezekiel to prophesy against false prophets and those sons and daughters of Israel who were profiting from telling people what they wanted to hear and who appear to have mixed themselves and their faith with the practice of other religions. The question I ask myself is whether Ezekiel’s voice could even be heard above the din of the idolatrous crowd.

Today, I find myself mulling over how our culture (even in out post-enlightenment age) both parallels and contrasts the religious atmosphere of Ezekiel’s day. The internet has raised, to unprecedented levels, the cacophony of voices saying anything and everything to anyone and everyone. I am very aware that the voice of my squeaky little posts are lost in the din of information, advertisement, entertainment, opinion, and conjecture. Did Ezekiel feel the same way?

This morning I’m reminded of Van Gogh’s many drawings and paintings of the sower. The sower does not always know where his seed may fall, nor how they might take root, grow, or bear fruit. The sowers job is to cast his seed into the field. The prophets job is to sow his message into the din of contemporary voices.

For the Prophet, “The Play’s the Thing…”

source: seattlemunicipalarchives via Flickr
source: seattlemunicipalarchives via Flickr

The prophet found another man and said, “Strike me, please.” So the man struck him and wounded him. Then the prophet went and stood by the road waiting for the king. He disguised himself with his headband down over his eyes. As the king passed by, the prophet called out to him, “Your servant went into the thick of the battle, and someone came to me with a captive and said, ‘Guard this man. If he is missing, it will be your life for his life, or you must pay a talent of silver.’ While your servant was busy here and there, the man disappeared.”

“That is your sentence,” the king of Israel said. “You have pronounced it yourself.”

Then the prophet quickly removed the headband from his eyes, and the king of Israel recognized him as one of the prophets. He said to the king, “This is what the Lord says: ‘You have set free a man I had determined should die. Therefore it is your life for his life, your people for his people.’” Sullen and angry, the king of Israel went to his palace in Samaria. 1 Kings 20:37-43 (NIV)

I will never forget this one day in an Acting class I participated in college. Students were broken up in pairs and each pair prepared a short scene to perform before the class. My partner and I played our scene and, as we were playing the short scene, something remarkable happened. I have since learned that there are rare moments as an actor when you are on stage and you experience this (perhaps it happens frequently to great actors who are on stage for a living, but I believe it’s rare even then). When it happens you lose yourself in the portrayal and in the moment you are playing. The audience is caught up in it, as well. There’s this thing that happens, which is nearly impossible to describe or explain. I happens in that place at that moment between the actors on stage and between the stage and the audience which is a communal and emotional and spiritual moment experienced by the whole.

The scene ended and there was no polite, golf-clap applause that is traditionally offered to the players by the rest of the class. There was just an “oh….wow” kind of silence. I felt a surge of emotion like I wanted to cry. It was the power of theatre as a medium to relate story and theme experientially. It is that experience which is at the heart of what I love about live theatre.

One of the things I love about the stories of the ancient prophets is the way they used theatre to communicate their message. The prophet in today’s chapter creates a character and a story: A man is commanded to guard an enemy prisoner and is told that he will be sentenced to death if the prisoner escapes, which he does. He develops his character: He asks another to punch him in the face to make it look like he’d been wounded. He then performs his improvised scene: He plays out his part to the unsuspecting King Ahab when the king passes by, and in the playing out of the scene the King’s hypocrisy is revealed.

“The play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,”

– Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2, Line 416-417

I love that God’s Message can be communicated in endless number of expressive mediums from art to poetry to stage to novel to film to graphic design. And, I love that each expressive medium can communicate pieces of God’s truth in powerful ways unique to that medium.

The Medium of the Message Matters

 

Woman of Tekoa before King David (source: wikipedia)
Woman of Tekoa before King David (source: wikipedia)

Now Joab son of Zeruiah perceived that the king’s mind was on Absalom. Joab sent to Tekoa and brought from there a wise woman. He said to her, “Pretend to be a mourner; put on mourning garments, do not anoint yourself with oil, but behave like a woman who has been mourning many days for the dead. Go to the king and speak to him as follows.” And Joab put the words into her mouth. 2 Samuel 14:1-3 (NSRV)

A few weeks ago, while Wendy and I were spending a few days at the lake, we watched the movie 12 Years a Slave. In case you’ve been hiding in a cave this past year and have not heard of it, the Academy Award winning movie is based on a book written during the abolition movement in America and is the autobiography of a free African American living in the north who was kidnapped, smuggled to the south and sold into slavery. His story was so powerful, and so powerfully told, that Wendy and I sat speechless on the couch as the credits rolled, tears streaking down our cheeks. Our hearts had been rent. It was, for me, a history lesson, a parable about the human condition, and a call to continue opening my eyes, my mouth, my pen and my wallet to address similar injustices that still exist in this world today.

One of the reasons I love the arts, and the dramatic arts in particular, is their ability to communicate spiritual truths and move people to action in a way that no other mode of communication does. During one of the final read-throughs of my script Ham Buns and Potato Salad before we went into production this last year one of the female readers, emotionally shaken by the story, exclaimed that we had better have counselors available at the back of the theatre because of the emotions and painful memories it might bring up for audience members. I was taken aback by her strong emotional response after simply being part of a table reading of the script. That’s the power of a story well told. As a writer, it gratified me to know that the story had effectively reached at least one person.

Today’s chapter is one that I studied in depth while pursuing my theatre degree in college. It is, arguably, the only story of acting told throughout the entirety of the Bible. Joab needed to get through to King David. Perhaps he’d seen how Nathan’s story of the rich man stealing the poor man’s only lamb had gotten through to the king. David couldn’t see his blind spot if you tried to reveal it to him plainly, but when you cloaked it in a metaphorical story, he could see his own situation clearly. Joab decides to hire an actor, costume her in mourning clothes, use a little make-up to make it look like she’d been grieving, and gave her a script to follow. She played the part brilliantly. What impresses me is that she took the part and nailed the role knowing that the King, once it was revealed that he’d been conned, could easily have ordered her death for tricking him.

I believe that we don’t give enough thought to how we communicate. Not only on a corporate level, but also on an interpersonal one. Most every human conflict can be traced back to a break down in communication. I believe equally that the hope of redemption and restoration hinges on our ability to communicate, not only clearly, but in multiple channels and mediums. By capably utilizing diverse mediums of communication we can reach each diverse audience member through a medium, perhaps the only medium, through which they can hear and receive the Message.

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