Modern Art and the Bible (I)

July 15, 2016

I’m in Phoenix and visited the Phoenix Art Museum.  I was struck by the points of contact between modern/contemporary art and biblical interpretation.  So, here is the first in a series of very short comments on some pieces of art and some thoughts about interpretation.

Flowing forms

George Condo, Tumbling Forms

Here’s a piece, Tumbling Forms.  What struck me was the way in which the artist piled gobs of paint in layers.

Here’s an example:IMG_20160714_144026357




Another example:IMG_20160714_143953980

Whatever else this painting is doing, it is calling attention to itself as a painting.  Its caption tells the observer that it depicts something–tumbling forms–but its technique reminds the reader that it is a painting.  It enforces, in other words, a careful distinction between its being a depiction and its being a thing that self-consciously depicts.  By having the gobs of paint turn the painting into a three dimensional object that rises from the surface of the canvas, the artist ensures that the observer is not too deeply immersed in the object depicted, but instead attends to the painting as a painting, as something graphic.

This reminded me of the way in which the Bible sometimes calls attention to itself as writing, even as it directs the reader’s attention to the subject matter that is narrated or discussed.

For instance:

  • Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today. The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain” (Deuteronomy 5:3-4, NRSV).  Deuteronomy knows that the people who met with the Lord at Mount Horeb were all dead and that none of those being addressed in these verses were alive when the covenant was first made.  But it deliberately ignores that historical reality to make the point that the covenant is renewed in each generation.  It thus calls attention to itself as something other than narrative, even as it engages in narration.
  • Consider the preface to the gospel according to Luke.  Here the (implied) author steps out of the text to address the implied reader.
  • Finally, there is this passage in John’s gospel: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah” (John 20:30-31, NRSV).  Here the author drops the pretense of simple narration and tells the reader why the narration exists.

In each of these instances, the Bible directs the reader’s attention away from what seems like a straightforward historical narrative and toward the text as something written–as the creation of a writer.

Like the painting above, the Bible wants the reader to be mindful of the way in which the Bible is a written work, even as it seeks to engross the reader in its subject matter.  In other words, it wants the reader to carefully attend to the scribal, graphic features of the Bible.

A Few Observations about Holiness

SeparationI am teaching a course, The Doctrine of Holiness.  It’s a seminar, so students are presenting.  Since I want someday to write a book about holiness, I decided to keep track of ideas and insights this semester.  Here are some thoughts I’ve had about holiness as I’ve listened to the presentations this week:


The Bible contains a dialog about holiness and separation.  On one hand, there are plenty of texts that assert the importance of separating the holy people of God from the pagan world–think of Ezra demanding that Jewish men divorce their non-Jewish wives (Ezra 10).  On the other hand, there are passages that are less concerned with separation and instead emphasize God’s desire for inclusion.  Ruth, for instance, was from Moab and thus not part of the holy people, yet she plays a vital role in the history of salvation.

This dialog within the Bible insists on two points: 1) God’s people must be ethically separate from and different from their pagan neighbors and 2) God’s project in the world is to demolish walls of separation.

The book of Acts is suggestive in this regard.  It abounds with gratuitous uses of holy: the prophets are holy (3:21), the temple is holy (21:28), angels are holy (10:22), and so on. Holiness in these contexts implies difference and separation.  At the same time, one of the lead items in Acts’ agenda is to erase the distinction between Jews and Gentiles–Peter says that we are to call no one, even Gentiles, unclean or unholy.  So, Acts simultaneously emphasizes holy people and things and their distinctiveness and also subverts the distinction between the holy and the profane, between the clean and the unclean.  Is Acts saying that every person is holy and clean? Is there no distinction between the holy and the profane?

Luke’s gospel has something to say about this as well.  It contains several episodes that involve a reversal of expectation:

  • Take the parable about the person giving a banquet who discovers that none of the invited guests can attend (14:16-24).  Enraged, the host orders his slaves to round up people who would otherwise be unworthy of such a banquet–the poor, the crippled, the blind, and so on.  This parable is about membership in the holy people of God. At the beginning of the story, we assume that the attenders will be those with social standing; but at the end, we realize that it is the unworthy who have been selected. The holy people thus comes to consist of the unworthy, while the worthy folks are de-selected.
  • Or, take Jesus’ harangue against the Pharisees in 11:37-44.  The Pharisees want every Jew to live in a priest-like state of purity; they try as hard as they can to remain pure.  But Jesus declares that they are like unmarked graves–they are an unwitting source of defilement.  Thinking that they are upholding standards of purity, it turns out that they defile anyone whom they contact.
  • In the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (18:9-14), it is the publican who is declared to be righteous, not the Pharisee.

These parables make it difficult to know what separation means.  As the parable of the Good Samaritan shows, knowing who is and who isn’t a member of the holy people can be difficult to determine.

The Incarnational Paradox of the Bible

How does God’s word relate to human words? How does God speak in the Bible?

I am currently teaching two sections of a freshman course, New Testament History and Religion. On Wednesday we covered the portions of Luke’s gospel that deal with wealth and contrasted them with what 1 Timothy 6 says about wealth. Luke’s gospel has an uncompromising stance against the wealthy, while 1 Timothy 6 allows for wealthy Christians but urges them to be generous.

One thing I have noticed in teaching the Bible to undergraduates: there is a twofold challenge:

1. The first is getting students to acknowledge and appreciate the contextual nature of the biblical writings. Students easily see this when it comes to passages such as 1 Cor. 11 (where Paul commands Christian women to wear the veil when the pray) or 1 Timothy 2 (which forbids braided hair for women). But they struggle with the thesis that every passage in the Bible is rooted in its cultural-political context–that the biblical writers were not immune to influences from the culture in which they dwelled.

2. The other struggle is this: once students acknowledge the contextual nature of the Bible, there is a temptation, which is constantly reinforced by the general tendency of modern culture, to regard the Bible as irrelevant for us today because of its contextual nature. The reasoning goes: if what the New Testament says about veils and braids is rooted in its ancient culture, then who knows what else is irrelevant to us today? As a result, it becomes easy for students to ignore Luke’s gospels’ words about wealth precisely because they’ve grasped the contextual nature of these texts.

3. This twofold results from the central paradox of the Bible, which is also the paradox of the incarnation: how does the divine relate to the human? Jesus is not simply God appearing in the world. Jesus is God appearing in the world as a human being. By analogy, the Bible is not simply the Word of God spoken in human history. Just as the humanity of Christ is not merely a vehicle for the appearance of the divinity, so the Bible’s humanity is more than a vehicle for the Word of God. It is the Word of God spoken in and through the human words. As Jesus Christ is the inseparable union of divine nature and human nature, so in the Bible we find the Word of God only in its union with human words. The presence of the Word of God in the Bible does not nullify the humanity of the human words.

4. There is, in other words, no Word of God that floats above culturally conditioned human words. We hear the Word of God only by listening to the human words of the Bible. The Bible is culturally relative. And not just parts of it, but the totality. Whether it is Paul’s words about wearing the veil and not braiding the hair, or Jesus’s words about discipleship, the Bible’s words are immersed in the ancient world.

5. But this immersion does not prevent us from hearing the Word of God, anymore than Jesus’ being a first century Galilean prevents us from seeing him as the son of God. In the case of Jesus, it requires us to see that Jesus’ being is not a zero-sum game, in which the more divinity he possesses the less humanity he possesses. On the contrary, in Jesus the divine and the human do not compete. By analogy, we should not see the Word of God and the human word as competing, as though the more divine the Bible is the less human it is. On the contrary, God’s being embraces human being; God’s word embraces the human word.

6. This Christological meditation on the Bible does not solve concrete questions, such as, “What does Luke’s gospel say to us today about wealth?” But it does mean that this gospel can speak the Word of God while being a culturally conditioned human word.

A Sermon on Encountering the Word of God

Here is a sermon that I recently delivered.  It’s about the circumstances of life in which we can hear God speak.  It’s an exposition of Luke 9:58-62 (let the dead bury the dead) and a story about my encounter with a homeless couple, an encounter that, I think, put me in the same situation as the man who wanted to follow Jesus but just wanted to bury his father first.