Matt. 2:18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
This is a week of Peace. That is perhaps surprising news in light of recent events: armed gunmen in a Connecticut elementary school or the recent Israeli Hamas conflict. Yet in the season of Advent this week is one marked by the topic of peace. This is the week we remember that God is quite interested in overhauling the world geopolitical order; restoring justice for those who often find themselves at the mercy of the powerful and violent.There is a line in a new song by the artist JJ Heller that is echoing in my mind as I write this “sometimes life doesn’t make any sense, it’s full of war and pain and accidents. We’re singing I don’t know…I don’t know what you’re doing. But I know who you are.”
Looking around the world today I confess I see no easy fix. For instance there was an article in the New Yorker advocating for more stringent gun control laws in the wake of the tragedy in Connecticut. This struck me as ludicrously naive; the gunman intentionally went to an elementary school with the intent of killing people. There is no rational explanation for his attack, these children could not have slighted him, there is no misunderstood vengeance at work. His actions were in a word, Evil- naked and unprovoked. No amount of legislation could have halted so sinister a plan. Gun control laws are indeed valuable and may prevent some rash violence- this shooting does not fit that characterization. If there were no guns on the face of the earth this person would have found some way to slaughter children. You may be sure that actions like this imply “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.”
There is an old story about the birth of Jesus that seems pertinent to today’s events. It comes from the end of the second chapter of Matthew, commonly referred to as “the slaughter of the innocents.” It is a morbid story about how the local king (Herod) felt threatened by rumors of a new king in Bethlehem and decided to kill all boys under the age of two as a preventative measure. Such violence in the world and in scripture often troubles me. I struggle to understand why God does not show up in such moments, terrible and grand and flashing with fire and lighting to the defense of innocents.
Yet I am reminded of the fact that the story of Jesus birth includes such a story for a reason. God does not stand far off from humans in the midst of their violence. He does not wait at a distance for us to get our act together, for the end of rape, infanticide, our general callousness toward each other etc. True in the gospels we don’t read that God acted supernaturally from distance to end suffering. Instead he walks right into the midst of our suffering. He trusts a poor Jewish couple with his Son at a time that it wasn’t safe to be a child in Palestine. He isn’t squeamish about our tendency toward destruction but instead becomes one of us that he might show us the way out. This is why his birth was announced with news (and a prayer) of “peace on earth and goodwill toward all people.” God is drawing the world toward himself in Jesus, drawing the world toward peace. The pull is as imperceptible as the tides but no less real. Thus it is not with an awareness of the apparent irony that I say, with complete sincerity, “this is a week of peace” and at the same time “deliver us O Lord from such evil men, and bring peace to the families of those who grieve!”
This is a work by a young Leonardo Da Vinci and his master Andrea Del Verrocchio. “The Annunciation” as it is often called is the moment when Mary learns from an angel that she is going to conceive and give birth to Jesus. This all happens despite the fact that Mary is a virgin. Now, whatever your opinions on the virgin birth or the existence of angels, you’d have to admit that this would be incredible news; This is an emotion which the understated title “Annunciation” does not adequately capture. Many artists throughout time have depicted this moment, and because they tend to be religious, they often obscure the surprise, dismay and fear that I expect Mary would have experienced. Often the Annunciation shows a regal, calm Mary treating the angel (Gabriel) very much like a common household servant. So many of them (at least in my humble and uninformed opinion) don’t seem to take the reality of the situation into account. This painting is better than most. Since Verrocchio painted the majority of the scene with lead paint and Da Vinci painted the angel the angel is literally of a different substance than the rest of the painting (under x-ray the angel disappears). The visitor to this heavy reality is lighter and brings otherworldly but nonetheless real news. Mary and Gabriel are about on the same plane, though the angel is bowing to Mary, the superiority of her position is slight. In other words, she functions more like a real person and less like someone used to dealing with angels. The angel seems in earnest to share the news but there is significant distance between the figures. The desk between them is another obstacle which further implies that this news may not be the most welcome, and certainly unexpected. Yet despite all this she seems willing to listen. Often in the world we live in news about God working in the world is disconcerting. Hearing such news frequently puts people at a distance from the messenger yet there is something about the message that seems to keep people listening. Mary was the sort of person who was willing to listen to what God is up to in the world and participated in it. This is why many sects of Christianity hold her in such high esteem.
This is Rembrant’s depiction of the Adoration of the Magi. I find it interesting that since the beginning of Christianity wise men have wanted to get to know Jesus. Even today wise men and religious leaders (Buddha, Mohammed, Ghandi etc etc etc) are interested in the words of and about Jesus. There is something about this man that was captivating from the beginning. Consider the fact that since its collection into a single work the Bible is the most read book throughout history and Jesus is it’s central character. Regardless of your opinion of Christians or religion in general, you would join the ranks of many wise people by investigating the story of Jesus.
The definition of “Art” has been problematic in a Postmodern age. This is particularly true in light of earlier definitions which are Modern in their roots. I had a professor once who told me that “Good art challenges people. Otherwise it isn’t art.” While I’m not sure I agree with the latter part of his statement the former seems solid.
I have a friend who is an organist and he takes great exception to the idea that the organ is a boring instrument. His argument is that the organists (not all but the majority) who are boring. He says that the organ is an instrument of almost infinite complexity; it is built to challenge and create. The problem is that somewhere along the way organists became “curators” instead of “innovators.” “They were so concerned with losing precious traditions that they stopped trying to move people” (there is a metaphor here for mainline Christianity).
I have had many conversations recently about a band called Mumford and Sons. There are quite popular with the demographic that I do ministry with, and I like their music. Mumford has a tendency to use biblical themes in their music and it baffles people. From Rolling Stone to a mediocre Christian blogger people have been speculating on whether or not the band is a “Christian” one. This is the wrong question, largely because it obscures the content of the album. The question should be: “Is this good art?” If the definition of “Good art” is that it is both 1) aesthetically pleasing and 2) that it challenges people then I would argue that it is. The album “Babel” makes almost constant use images and themes from Genesis 1-11. Several people I have talked to have claimed that I am imagining this, others believe that it is an accident and that the lyrics are bewildering rather than deep (this may be true as well). Folks outside my faith group have asked many questions about my opinions of the album. Mumford for their part has said “the only thing we feel evangelical about is music” and I am sure they mean that- many Christian labels produce a remarkably low amount of good art.
Yet, despite their objections, it is obvious that growing up in the Vineyard UK has had a profound impact on these musicians. As a result they are producing some very good art. People are trying to put a box around the music (something which tends to happen to challenging art) because for the several years now Christians make Christian music and the rest of the community makes music. Yet like U2 before them they are wrestling with Christian themes in a far deeper way than non-Christian musicians are capable of. The pastor in me loves listening and wondering what exactly they are trying to say with lyrics like
…We will run and scream You will dance with me They’ll fulfill our dreams And we’ll be free
And we will be who we are And they’ll heal our scars Sadness will be far away So as we walked Of fields of green As the fairest sun I’d ever seen And I was broke I was on my knees But you said yes as I said please… (Below my Feet see Revelation 21:22 and following)
…Touch my mouth and hold my tongue I’ll never be your chosen one I’ll be home, safe and tucked away You can’t tempt me if I don’t see the day … And oh, my heart was flawed I knew my weakness So hold my hand, consign me not to darkness. Crawl on my belly ‘til the sun goes down I’ll never wear your broken crown I took the road and I (expletive) it all away. Now in this twilight how dare you speak of grace…. (Broken Crown see Genesis 3:1-14)
There is definitely a challenge here, and the fact that we as listeners are allowed to view this wrestling match is intentional. The artist has effectively baited my curiosity and I have, as yet, to find an answer to my questions. However I have found many people who are interested in talking about the album and I am thoroughly enjoying the conversations.