October 5, 2007

Pictures and Conversations—Part 1

Lewis Carroll's fanciful classic Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, "and what is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversations?"

Alice is probably right, at least about the pictures. Admit it: We love to look at images first, only later, if ever, moving on to text. It's the stuff of waiting rooms and magazine racks. Indeed, it was two decades before I came to appreciate that my father's monthly Trains magazine was in fact full of text to read, not merely about the big glossies I loved to scan as a kid.

Recently stumbling again upon Carroll's humorous opener got me thinking about the Bible in this light. Would young Alice find it engaging or not? On the one hand, the Bible is a big book chock full of provocative conversations (a subject for next week's MwM). So that's useful enough, at least according to her standards.

But on the other hand: no pictures. That's a downer for a little girl. (I say no pictures, but in fact I do possess a "Children's Bible" from my childhood that has artist's renderings of well-known Biblical stories sprinkled throughout it. Looking at it now, it seems so hopelessly stuck in the 60's! Jesus looks more like a washed-out poet from Soho than a first-century Jew.) So alas, dear Alice, the Bible is picture-free. It comes to us unadorned.

And yet: Inspired writing can surely paint pictures in the mind, if nowhere else. Time spent with a Biblical passage—especially stories, parables, or visions—can often create lasting mental images that fuel great faith. And I find it also works in reverse: a glance at a certain scene in a painting, a picture, or in person quickly calls to mind a certain Biblical narrative. This is, admittedly, not quite what Alice (and many others) yearn for, but it is nevertheless worth our while to consider this indirect gift of the Word.

Toward that end, I offer to you this week three examples from my own picture-taking past that have helped me to reflect on certain Biblical motifs. All three were snapped by me and appear here unedited, except for adding a frame. And which came first—the mental or the actual picture—I do not know. All I know is that I have come to appreciate these scenes both for their own beauty and for how they resonate prophetically in me. If nothing else, I pray that a moment lingering over these pictures and ideas will be a reprieve from your otherwise busy day.

 I snapped this photo at Smith Mt. Lake State Park on an overcast day in November. Almost immediately, I thought of what for me is the most provocative line in the Lord's Prayer: … on earth as it is in heaven. When the Bible speaks endlessly about "heaven and earth," I tend not to hear it talking so much about geography as much as I hear theology. Heaven is God's space; the earth, ours. Whereas for generations Christianity has often been assumed to be mostly an escapist religion, Jesus-faith turns out to be rooted firmly in the sod of the here-and-now. His prayer, after all, is not that his followers would be whisked away while Rome burns, but rather that what is already true in God's space—truth, beauty, grace—would in fact become true in ours. We preach neither collusion nor escape; we preach transformation—God in us, God through us (Romans 12:2; 2 Corinthians 3:18). Dark, spindly pine branches bathed in such intrusive light resonate that vision for me. What do you see?

 You have to work to notice the little bystander in the corner of this photo, and maybe that's the point. Snapped on the Outer Banks two years ago, this sky spread out like a rippled blanket always makes me think of Psalm 8. The Message, albeit a bit verbose, renders verses 3-4 nicely:

I look up at your macro-skies, dark and enormous,
your handmade sky-jewelry,
Moon and stars mounted in their settings.
Then I look at my micro-self and wonder,
Why do you bother with us?
Why take a second look our way?

Carl Sagan, certainly no friend to Christianity, once asked: "Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people." Fair enough, Carl, at least from the thin view of pure physics. And I think the psalmist understands you when you speak of our smallness. What is the beach-walker, really, when compared to that expansive, rippling sky? Yet for the psalmist in the Old Testament (Psalm 8:5) and the Apostle Paul in the New (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-31), our obvious littleness in the universe is precisely the punch line of God's unlikely grace. Consider the humor: I snapped the photo, but do not know the man on the beach from Adam. God has created the sweeping heavens and seas, yet knows this stranger better than the man likely knows himself. (Now that's funny.) On this beach, grace seems to me both massive and microscopic. What do you see?

 Finally, looking over this scene of the sun setting at Cadillac Mountain in Maine last summer brings to mind for me the closing chapters of Revelation. The last book of the Bible is surely a perilous one, with its bizarre visions of slain lambs, hell-horses, and expectant mothers clothed in the sun (huh?). Most decent Presbyterians give up by chapter 3. But to those brave souls that endure to the end (indeed—maybe the difficult reading is itself a parable), one discovers in chapter 24 a truly beatific vision. The craziness of apocalypse (such as Revelation 10) yields to the tenderness of hope (Revelation 21-22). John sees a vision of a new city: a new place of work, worship, and wonder. Only this time,

the city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. (21:23)

There are days when such Revelation-hope seems to me like a foolish, embarrassing pipe-dream. There are also many days when my life is so comfortable in the here-and-now that such a bold promise matters very little. But there are just as many days when the vision of a fresh city, a new country, a resurrected time—one brought forth by an Easter-morning-God out of the transformed ruins of our demise—gives me strength and courage to live better than I otherwise would. Would that there be a time soon to come when even the potent sun will be obsolete; God's luminous glory quite enough. This most grand hope, in a descending ball over the hills of Maine. What do you see?

Next week, for Alice's sake, three of my favorite Biblical conversations.