Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

On Ashes

March 6, 2019

A colleague posted a question on Facebook the other day asking about why or why not we should or should not engage in the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, particularly in light of Jesus’ teaching Matthew 6:16-18.  There were a great many responses – around 40 the last I checked.  Predictably they ran the gamut of ideas and theological ponderings.  Folks who poo-poo’d the idea because it was just a church tradition, as well as those who made a point of doing the ashes precisely because it is a church tradition.  Those who felt ashes on the forehead are pretentious and therefore a violation of Jesus’ teaching, and those who disagreed.  People who prefer to allow individual conscience to dictate and those who see value in the communal practice.  People shared their various practices – including one I really like of including Holy Communion on Ash Wednesday.  The ashes are imposed at the start of the service, and after confession and absolution and Holy Communion they are then washed off using the water from the baptismal font.  Definitely an idea for next year!

If you want to read to opposing (LC-MS) views on the subject, this is a great summary of two articles.  Another perspective is here.

Traditionally people refer back to the Old Testament as a support for the practice of noting repentance or sorrow with ashes and sometimes fasting.  I thought back to Leviticus 16 (and verse 29 particularly)  which stipulates that every 10th day of the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar is to be a day of solemn fasting and repentance.  Jews today know it as Yom Kippur.  Leviticus stipulates fasting but not ashes.  But it seems a strong starting point with our Old Testament consideration.  God’s people for a long time have shown grief in some particular ways, ways that continued even among believers with a different cultural background from the one it originated with.  And the idea of  a communal day to acknowledge personal and corporate sin goes back to God himself.

Jesus and his disciples undoubtedly followed this command.  What that meant, however, is not clear to me.  The earliest written instructions regarding how to observe the Day of Atonement – other than Scripture itself – are contained in the Mishnah, which was compiled in the early 200’s AD by Yehuda HaNasi, realizing that the Temple wasn’t going to be rebuilt any time soon and that God’s people needed the oral traditions to be written down as they were increasingly dispersed.  In the Moed section of the Mishnah which deals with holy days, in the Yoma section, there are five things prohibited on the Day of Atonement – eating & drinking, wearing leather shoes, anointing oneself with oil, washing, and sex.

Presuming these regulations were in place in Jesus’ day  then, is Jesus in Matthew 6 instructing his disciples not to follow the five prohibitions above, but rather to violate at least two of them?  That seems like a stretch.  Jesus was well known for clarifying Jewish customs, their traditional practices and interpretations of Scripture.  But I can’t think of another place where Jesus is critical of the Day of Atonement practice in particular.  Most of his emphasis seems to be on Sabbath traditions and stipulations.

I’m  comfortable presuming – using an argument from silence – that Jesus and his disciples followed the five prohibitions for the Day of Atonement, and therefore Jesus in his teaching in Matthew 6 does not rule out the idea of public forms of penance or  repentance or the observance of a special holy day.  I presume his teaching to deal with personal, private fasting, aside from public, prescribed days of communal fasting.

How does all of this relate to Ash Wednesday?

Potentially, not at all.

Ash Wednesday is not commanded in the Bible or referenced even in passing anywhere in Scripture.  The closest relative in my opinion is Yom Kippur but they are separated by a rather impressive chasm in Christian perspective.  So Ash Wednesday is not a divinely commanded observance with particular traditions we’ve innovated that may or may not be helpful or correct.  Rather, it’s a tradition.  A tradition steeped in Old Testament language about ashes and sorrow and repentance, (Genesis 18:27, 2 Samuel 13:18-20, Esther 4:1, Job 2:8, Isaiah 58:5, Jeremiah 6:26, Lamentations 3:16, Ezekiel 27:30, Daniel 9:3, Jonah 3:6 – to name a few). to be sure, but only steeped.

Interestingly, there are no New Testament references to the use of ashes for sorrow or repentance.

Roman Catholics trace the tradition of Ash Wednesday (dies cinerum) back to roughly the eighth century and Gregorian versions of  the Roman Missal. FYI, a missal is a book of prayers used by an officiating priest, not something you shoot at someone to blow them up.  Into ashes.  Get it?


There should also be recognition that – likely based on the Old Testament references above – there has existed a long-standing tradition of associating ashes with public penance.  Someone caught or admitting to serious sin of a public nature would adorn themselves with ashes publicly as a sign of their repentance – their repudiation of their sin and their avowal to strive to live by God’s Word.  Some see this as primarily a clerical practice – for church professionals, as it were.  But an Anglo-Saxon priest by the name of AElfric bishop of Eynsham in England, probably born around 955 AD suggested the practice was more widely practiced and not limited to churchmen.

So, to say the least, there is at least a 1000 year tradition of associating ashes with repentance and sorrow, with doing so in a public way, and with doing so particularly on Ash Wednesday.

Do we have to keep doing this, then?  No, of course not.  A tradition is not made anything more than a tradition simply based on how long it’s gone on.  But that being said, there is a depth and richness to long-standing traditions.  There are benefits that can be gleaned from them, even in our day of iPhones and smart watches and self-driving cars.  Are we ever so certain that this tradition of ashes has nothing to do with us, nothing to offer us, and so can be relegated to the ash-bin of history, ecclesial or otherwise?

In a culture where death is so greatly feared and hidden away, might there be something to be gained by someone telling you to your face that you are going to die?  An existential certainty (barring Jesus’ return or another similar miracle on the scale of Enoch or Elijah) we all need to come to grips with, and should do so on a daily basis rather than in a rush at the last minute sitting in the waiting room of the doctor or breathing in the anesthesia before surgery?

I like to think that God gave us senses for a reason, to know things about ourselves and the world around us, and for him to tell us things and remind us things about ourselves and even him.  Our senses were given to us before the Fall.  They’re good, though now corrupted by sin and not nearly as reliable as  before, just like the brain they’re connected to.  Protestants, in moving away from the Roman Catholic Church 500 years ago, lost a lot of the sensory aspects of worship.  Not surprising, happening in the midst of the Renaissance and not long before the Enlightenment.  No surprise that the mind should push itself to the forefront and the other senses be pushed down.  Primitive.  Animalistic.  Lesser.

Maybe not.

Just as we adore music and the visual arts in worship, perhaps there is something to drawing in the other senses as well.  Perhaps this is why baptism uses water and the Lord’s Supper is something you can taste.  More of our senses engaged again in this life of faith rather than just our mind or that less definable aspect of us, the spirit/soul.

I make the ashes each year.  Following the tradition of using a palm from the previous year’s Palm Sunday.  Not because I have to or because it makes Jesus love me more.  But because it is beautiful to me to do this, knowing that children of God have been engaging in a similar practice for nearly a thousand years.  That I, sitting on the bench outside under the shelter of our arched entrance to the Church, protected from the rain a few feet away but able to smell it and feel it  still, using a small gas lighter to turn the palms of celebration into the ashes of mourning, am not so very different from the monk a thousand years ago, sitting outside some monastery listening to the rain drip as he sought to burn palms to  ash as well.  As Normans were making preparations to launch the last successful invasion of England.  As the tribes of Europe fashioned themselves into countries.  As bombs rained down in the world wars.  As the Tesla dealership across the street starts the morning litany of test drives.  Bound together by a simple practice.

Not just individuals doing whatever I personally feel like because that is what my particular culture tells me is more important than anything else.  Doing it with other people.  For other people.  To other people.  The cult of individualism will one day come crashing to the ground into ashes, and from those ashes will arise, I hope, a new sense of the power and need and purpose of community.  Of limiting the self, of seeing membership in the whole as more beautiful than my own personal preferences.

I enjoy the ashes because they are a reminder to me, as I mix and crush the larger pieces into a finer powder before adding oil – this year nard but in previous years myrrh or frankincense – that my sin is my death, but my death is not the end.  That in going to the cross, Jesus took my sin and exchanged it for his righteousness.  Life from death.  Beauty from ashes.  Righteousness from sin.  Change from the past.

These things are what have to be, not the ashes.  I’m free to take or leave the  ashes, and so if you disagree so be it.  Just make sure you know why you’re passing them up.   And be sure you aren’t looking down on those of us who get something from them, a la Romans 14.  And I’ll try not to think less of you as well, as per the same chapter.  Because that, too, is more important than the ashes themselves.  It is part and parcel of the season of Lent that we begin today.

To God be the glory.


Book Review: V for Vendetta

February 11, 2019

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore & David Lloyd

Back a few decades, my best friend started to get into graphic novels.  The genre was really beginning to explode, but it never interested me.  I felt then – and still do – that you either have to focus on the art or the story but it’s difficult to do both.  Inevitably, the visual tends to overshadow the literary, and while some might argue that this is why it is a separate or unique genre, it just doesn’t work for me.

Part of the fun of your children getting older is that as they enter their teens there’s an opportunity for them to begin sharing with you some of the things they’re discovering.  Musically, this can be a challenge as my oldest son really likes rap!  Fortunately though, I grounded him in the classics of rock and roll as well, and so we can talk about what he’s listening to.  Similarly with books.  And while the kids really enjoyed various comic-style books over the years (Asterix & Obelix, Bone, etc.), for the first time I’ve read something more substantive that my son picked up at the library the other day – V is for Vendetta.

I watched a good chunk of the movie without sound on some plane flight at some point, but didn’t realize it came from a graphic novel.  I can’t say that I was overly impressed, and therefore my opinion of graphic novels as a whole remains the same. The story line is interesting, but predictably (to me) the story and character development is rather shallow.

The setting is in the 1990’s in a post-apocalyptic Britain that has become a totalitarian state in the aftermath of atomic warfare that  wiped out most of Europe and Africa.  The titular character – V – is never unmasked in the novel, but wears several different masks, the most common of which is a lightly colored Guy Fawkes mask.  He saves a young woman from police brutality and disciples her in the ways of anarchy.

However it’s a very idealistic anarchy, to say the least.  V is strong, resolute, moral in a brutal sort of way.  He’s literate and enlightened thanks to forced drug therapies at a concentration camp years earlier that probably also contributed to his physical prowess.  He wages a one-man war against the totalitarian government, leading towards a breakdown in control and the beginnings of a popular uprising against the State.  V’s murderous violence is clothed in the righteousness of a holy warrior against a completely evil and unjust State.  He opines that anarchy has two elements, one destructive and one creative, and that the destructive element should be renounced and abandoned as soon as the status quo is overthrown.  But we don’t see that in the book – much as we don’t see it historically or in real life, either.  The truth is it’s hard to put away the bombs and the bombers, as they often find themselves as the new government.  While V does not find himself in this predicament, it’s a historical reality.

There are bad systems that should be raged against, undoubtedly, but the book doesn’t dwell on the reality of the human condition – that I identify as sin – which ensures that no matter how virtuous or benign the ruling system may be, it will inevitably become corrupted and co-opted by people driven to utilize the system to achieve personal ends and needs.

The novel glorifies the fight, and pictures it as inevitably victorious.  But it doesn’t deal with the aftermath and the struggle to replace a corrupt system with something better.  Nor does it deal with the individualistic nature of anarchy, which means that just because one system is overthrown doesn’t mean there will be a mutually agreeable replacement.

I’ve enjoyed talking through the book some with my son and hope to do more of it.  I look forward to his continued explorations in literature and the world around him.

Friday Musings

December 1, 2017

A couple of random, Internet-inspired thoughts today.

The first is just to share two beautiful poems I stumbled across today.  First, a touching picture of divisions within the Church and how they play out in the Christian life.   A book I’m finishing (and will blog about shortly) emphasizes the very real, very actual expectation that Christians will live together differently.  In our homes, in our communities, and most of all in our Churches.  What a horrible, ugly, painful failure it is when we are unable or unwilling to do so.  The second is a poem by Wendell Berry, an author I have been telling myself for years that I will purchase one or more of his books.  I’m always struck by his way of expressing himself and his ideas.  I really need to do that.

Secondly, while I have a great deal of respect and admiration for the Roman Catholic Church, and in particular the way her doctrines of sexuality and marriage interrelate in a way Protestantism frankly disappoints, I don’t agree with other major aspects of her doctrine.  Such as the idea that I owe God particular things in worship participation.  Rather than talking about the blessing of receiving the grace of God in Word and Sacrament as often as possible, this is an example of the legalism that is easy to substitute for such grace.  Worship becomes not a gift of God that we should joy to participate in, but rather a legal obligation – with all the attendant nit-picking about the precise nature of what fulfills  that legal obligation.

I trust there are plenty of Roman Catholics who worship out of joy and in response to God’s love rather than an institutional demand, but I ache for those who are weighed down by the guilt inherent in worship obligations.


Real History

October 8, 2016

People are always reinventing and re-envisioning history.  Sometimes they do so in ways that are challenging and stimulating, not attempts to deny actual history but to get us to think beyond the neat categories and definitions of history.  Other times, they seek to undermine what we believe to be true about history.  Artists participate in these processes as well, and when you throw religion into the mix, things get very heated and complicated very quickly.

So it was that in 1984 there was a great deal of controversy around a female crucifix.  Not Christ on the cross, but rather Christa, as the piece was named.  This was not one of many feminine Christs that were still definitively male, but a definitively female figure hanging on the cross.  The Episcopal bishop at the time ordered the crucifix removed from an Episcopal cathedral in New York City.  Now the figure is being re-displayed, with the defense that times have changed, and the assertion that “Surely we can have a woman on the cross.”

I wonder about it from the artistic standpoint.  I object to it from the religious standpoint.  In an era where the fundamentals of the Christian faith are being eroded or discarded, this seems like another attempt to reduce the death of Jesus of Nazareth to the equivalent of a Greek myth.  Why should it matter who is depicted on the cross if we don’t really believe there was a Jesus on the cross in the first place?  I don’t know if this is the artist’s intent or belief or not, but she should know that, like preaching, artists don’t get to control how their work impacts their audience.

As a historian, I don’t know what the value is of arbitrarily changing the gender of historical figures for artistic purposes.  And I think I would have far less problem with it if the work was being displayed in an art house rather than in a cathedral.  But to place it in a Christian worship environment, that seems deeply problematic, similar to a textbook replacing Hitler with a female rather than male identity.  The artistic impact can muddle the reality of what is supposed to be happening.  When we study history, we want to study facts.  When we worship, we want to worship the reality of the Son of God Incarnate as the man Jesus of Nazareth.

If American Christians were completely clear on the historicity of their faith, this might not be a big deal, although I would still think it inappropriate to be displayed in a church.  But given the great deal of misinformation and ignorance among American Christians, it would be nice to focus on reality and the fundamentals and save the artistic re-interpretations for another venue.


Immersive at a Distance

October 6, 2016

Thanks to Becky for a recent LA Times article covering a play set in a Lutheran congregation and actually playing in Lutheran churches.  I found another generally positive review in the LA Weekly as well.  At first blush it sounds a bit like a Garrison Keillor redux, but in reality it is apparently far more intimate.  The audience isn’t listening to a third-person narrative about what is happening, they become part of what is happening in a theatrical representation of  Lutheran worship services.  The play is being staged in Lutheran congregations around Los Angeles and Hollywood, further blurring the lines between reality and theater.

The premise is a young man who is filling in for his father as his father deals with a health crisis that extends.  It is a series of seven sermons addressing various issues particular to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) including economic hardships as well as the divisive debate about homosexuality in the church.  The play is produced by a Los Angeles-based theater group dedicated to providing exposure for local and emerging playwrights.  It doesn’t appear to be a specifically religious group, but a group committed to a diversity in their productions.

The theater-goers become the congregation, and actually begin with singing a hymn before the first sermon begins.  I think this is a fascinating concept, at least I think I do.  I suppose it depends a great deal on who the audience is.  If the audience is primarily members of these Lutheran congregations, this might be a very interesting form of therapy, a means of addressing and opening up conversations on topics quite relevant and important in the lives of those individuals and congregations.  If the audience is primarily non-church-going folks, then it is more of a curiosity to me.  They come to be immersed in an environment that is not their own, seeking a form of catharsis unrelated to their actual lives.  Intriguing.

Of course, another alternative would be to actually go to church, to actually be engaged and active in a congregation.  The issues addressed might be different depending on the denomination, but the sense of belonging and struggle and the reality of blessing and reconciliation in the midst of sinfulness and brokenness is far realer, far more concrete and immersive than any two-hour play.

I’m no artist by any stretch of the imagination, but it seems to me as if theater can provide the function of giving viewers/participants the illusion of experience.  We become part of another era or another situation for a period of time, experiencing in a condensed fashion what others have or must experience moment by moment.  Resolutions are reached quicker.  Emotional arcs are traversed more economically and without the messiness of time and the frustration of waiting.  We can feast on highlights and epiphanies rather than slog through valleys of irritation and sloughs of self-righteousness.

If you want to know what it’s like to be a Christian struggling to reconcile faith with current issues, go to Church.  Be a part of that community.  Learn it firsthand.  There is no need to settle for a substitute – no matter how sensitively crafted or executed.  Here’s one situation where you don’t have to remain an observer, but can truly be a real participant!

Uncovering Beauty

May 26, 2016

Four years ago almost I was blessed to travel with a group of parishioners to Israel.  Among the many amazing sites we visited was the town of Bethlehem, and the Church of the Nativity.


Of course it’s an amazing place, and as old as it is, there is undoubtedly a constant stream of maintenance, upkeep, and rediscovery that goes on there.


They continue to discover new things under the plaster of the walls, under the floors, literally everywhere.  This article details yet another discovery recently made- part of a series of angelic mosaics.  Beautiful!







Art Is Complicated

October 15, 2015

But some art is more complicated than other art.  Which is why sometimes it is helpful to get some insight into the artists thoughts.

And sometimes, it isn’t.


July 14, 2015

Today was a field trip from my studies.  My professors led the group on a visit to three nearby towns, remarkable for either their artistic treasures or general historical quaintness.  The first stop was Colmar to see this work of art by Mathias Grunewald – the Isenheim Altarpiece:


My profs consider this to be the single greatest depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus.  Ever.  And it is impressive, to be sure.  But what struck me in particular was the youthfulness of the disciple John.  He’s the young man to the left of the cross holding Jesus’ swooning mother, Mary.  Immediately what sprang to mind were Jesus’ words from the cross recorded by John himself in John 19:26-27.

Always before when I heard Jesus’ words to his mother and John, I presumed that John was going to be caring for Mary.  Frankly, verse 27 really leads one to suspect that this is the case.  But of course that creates a host of questions.  Why weren’t Jesus’ brothers taking care of Mary?  Where is Joseph, Jesus’ dad in all of this?  How is it that John can take Mary into his home?  Does he have a home?  Where?  What about his dad, Zebedee?  Lots o’ questions, but my assumption has always been that regardless of the questions, this must have been what happened.

Seeing the painting made me remember and realize again how young John must be at the crucifixion.  He lives almost to the end of the first century.  He might have been a young man indeed – perhaps even a boy on the threshold of manhood.  Maybe he was 13 or 14 when Jesus died.  Maybe this is why he is described as the beloved disciple – he was younger than the rest of the disciples and there was perhaps a paternal love from Jesus towards John.

And if all this were true, what if Jesus’ words to Mary and John were intended to have the opposite effect – that Mary was to look after John.  Of course, it makes the rest of verse 27 curious, but that’s no harder a question than the variety of questions raised by interpreting Jesus’ words the other way round.

I might be off completely in my musings, but it was amazing, that sudden realization that my assumptions about things had informed my interpretation of the text, and that other interpretations might be possible.  I’ll chalk that up to the power of art, and the usefulness of a random field trip now and then!

Pieces of History

July 5, 2015

Today we walked around in the 2nd or 3rd tallest church in Europe – the Minster in Ulm.  As with many churches and cathedrals in Europe, it’s amazing.  In our age of utilitarianism, where everything is measured for return on investment, it’s hard to comprehend the mindset that set out to create an architecture of glory.  Glory, to be sure, of the men and women who financed it and designed it and lived and died to build it, but also the glory of God.  You walk inside and your eyes are drawn inexorably upwards into the heavens, to contemplation of the vastness of God who dwarfs even such magnificent spaces.


What was more amazing to me though, were the bits and pieces.  Those without names and dates, or with names and dates too disfigured by the passing of time and the elements to read.  Simple paintings and carvings that have graced the church for centuries, and yet bear no information and details.  Nothing noted about the creator or the era.  Information that undoubtedly has been lost, compared to the meticulous notations of the wealthy individuals and families who paid for the construction of this massive building (rumored to have been designed to hold up to 22,000 people – the population of Ulm 700 years ago or so – in the event of an attack or other emergency).

Unfinished scrawlings and drawings like this one (where only the face of the person on the far right is completed – perhaps representing the artist himself).


Or I wonder about the churl who had this carved face added to the front of their choir seat.  Perhaps not a fan of the priest/pastor’s sermon?


Bits and pieces of history that far outstrip our entire country’s history lie unattended in the corners of the church or on parts of the wall not adorned by commissioned art.

It’s a fascinating reminder that as much as we all like to think that we are the main characters of our lives, and that our lives are the main point of God’s story, this is hardly the case.  Most of us will disappear under the waters of death without leaving much of a ripple at all.  Very few of us will leave ripples that outlive the lives of those who knew us directly.  The famous and the infamous live on, inscriptions about their successes and failures emblazoned into history texts and Wikipedia for future generations to ignore.  Our lives are not noted to much extent, yet they contribute to the overall glory of God in his plan and his story – a story not about our grandeur but his grace.  We may not top the spires of the towers, we may not be great statuary lining the sides of the nave, we may not be lavishly ornamented coats of arms and other curiosities.  But our lives are contained there just as well.  Without fanfare for the time being.

Yet when we resurface – with the faithful peasants and artists and burghers who built and beautified that church – what fascinating conversations we’ll be able to have with one another.  What surprises when we find out that somebody else was musing on our life’s work, unaware of who we were or when we lived or what we liked to eat for breakfast.  What joy to be able to join hands in praise of God, in glorification of God whose story so far exceeds our feeble attempts at comic strip writing that we don’t even realize that even our own scrawls are in ways we can’t understand his scrawls, in us and through us, and actually us, period.

Truly, to God be the glory, great things He hath done and will do!

Meanwhile, on the Internet…

February 1, 2014

I don’t understand this.  But if I could figure out how to get paid $9000/month to do it, I don’t think I would feel the need to understand.  

On the other hand, this is a cool idea, and were I famous enough to warrant it, I’d definitely participate.  In some respects it’s similar to the television archive that I blogged about a while back.  Posterity is a cool thing to preserve things for.