Making All Things New

Wheat Field with Reaper and Sun
Vincent van Gogh
Date: 1889; Saint-rémy-de-provence, France

CONFESSIONS
Saint Augustine of Hippo

I asked the earth and it answered, “I am not He”; and all things that are in the earth made the same confession. I asked the sea and the deeps and the creeping things, and they answered, “We are not your God; seek higher.” I asked the winds that blow, and the whole air with all that is in it answered, “Anaximenes was wrong; I am not God.” I asked the heavens, the sun, the moon, the stars, and they answered, “Neither are we God whom you seek.” And I said to all the things that throng about the gateways of the senses: “Tell me of my God, since you are not He. Tell me something of Him.” And they cried out in a great voice: “He made us.” My question was my gazing upon them, and their answer was their beauty.

Revelation 21:1–8
All Things Made New

Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. 2 Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. 4 And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”
5 Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” And He said to me, “Write, for these words are true and faithful.”
6 And He said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely to him who thirsts. 7 He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son. 8 But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”


Vincent wanted to be a preacher.  On a pretty Sunday in 1876, he preached his first sermon.  It went well enough, but his eyes only began to sparkle as he described God’s beauty in the world.  He said

I once saw a very beautiful picture: it was a landscape at evening. In the distance on the right-hand side a row of hills appeared blue in the evening mist. Above those hills the splendor of the sunset, the grey clouds with their linings of silver and gold and purple. The landscape is a plain or heath covered with grass and its yellow leaves, for it was in autumn. Through the landscape a road leads to a high mountain far, far away, on the top of that mountain is a city wherein the setting sun casts a glory. On the road walks a pilgrim, staff in hand.

Not much came of Vincent van Gogh’s hopes for ordination. He pursued theological studies in Amsterdam in 1877 unsuccessfully before moving to Belgium to begin a ministry without it. By the end of 1879 he had become convinced that he was a failure and decided to take a break to figure it out.  He thought painting would help him relax until God’s will for his life became clear.

The Creator delights in creation, especially when it occurs in its pinnacle – that which he made in His image.

As Ken Kovacs wrote in his book Out of the Depths:

God loves to take what is old or worn or broken or useless or tired and transform it. God loves to take into Godself all the hate, all the sin, all the excruciating pain and mind-numbing, heart-freezing sorrow of human existence and then do something marvelous and wonderful with it, offering something new in its place. God loves to take all of our tears and our hurts and our regrets, our shame and our guilt and then do something extraordinary with them, transforming them. God takes on every death force in ourselves, in our families and relationships, our communities, nations, and world and decisively redeems and restores. That’s the goal, that’s the purpose, that’s what God is doing now and that’s the direction of God’s time. It’s the promise of the Christian experience.

I invite you to meditate on 21:5, “Behold, I am making all things new,” this week and claim this vision for yourself; ask yourself:

What does this verse mean in this season of your life?

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

 

 

Ken Kovacs
Ken Kovacs

Kenneth E. Kovacs is pastor of the Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Catonsville, Maryland, and has served congregations in St. Andrews, Scotland, and Mendham, New Jersey. Ken studied at Rutgers College, Yale Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary, and received his Ph.D. in practical theology from the University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Scotland. He is also an analyst-in-training at the C. G. Jung Institute-Zürich. Author of The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter & Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011) and Out of the Depths: Sermons and Essays (Parson’s Porch, 2016), his current research areas include C. G. Jung and contemporary Christian experience. Ken has served on the board of the Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, is a current board member of the Presbyterian Writers Guild, and a book reviewer for The Presbyterian Outlook.

Ken’s weekly sermons at CPC can be found at http://kekovacs.blogspot.com/

 

D I G  D E E P E R


You can read all the biographies you want about him, but through it all van Gogh will still not have revealed himself to you. For van Gogh to reveal himself to you, you need to look at his paintings. As the Greek Orthodox theologian Christos Yannaras writes: “We know the person of van Gogh, what is unique, distinct and unrepeatable in his existence, only when we see his paintings. There we meet a reason (logos) which is his only and we separate him from every other painter. When we have seen enough pictures by van Gogh and then encounter one more, then we say right away: This is van Gogh. We distinguish immediately the otherness of his personal reason, the uniqueness of his creative expression.”

The difference between the arts and the sciences now becomes clear. When I see a painting by van Gogh, I know immediately that it is his. But when I come across a mathematical theorem or scientific insight, I cannot decide who was responsible for it unless I am told. The world is God’s creation, and scientists in understanding the world are simply retracing God’s thoughts. Scientists are not creators but discoverers. True, they may formulate concepts that assist them in describing the world. But even such concepts do not bear the clear imprint of their formulators. Concepts like energy, inertia, and entropy give no clue about who formulated them. Hermann Weyl and John von Neumann were both equally qualified to formulate quantum mechanics in terms of Hilbert spaces. That von Neumann, and not Weyl, made the formulation is now an accident of history. There’s nothing in the formulation that explicitly identifies von Neumann. Contrast this with a painting by van Gogh. It cannot be confused with a Monet.

The impulse to create and thereby give oneself in self-revelation need not be grand, but can be quite humble. A homemaker arranging a floral decoration engages in a creative act. The important thing about the act of creation is that it reveal the creator. The act of creation always bears the signature of the creator. It is a sad legacy of modern technology, and especially the production line, that most of the objects we buy no longer reveal their maker. Mass production is inimical to true creation. Yes, the objects we buy carry brand names, but in fact they are largely anonymous. We can tell very little about their maker. Compare this with God’s creation of the world. Not one tree is identical with another. Not one face matches another. Indeed, a single hair on your head is unique-there was never one exactly like it, nor will there ever be another to match it.

The creation of the world by God is the most magnificent of all acts of creation. It, along with humanity’s redemption through Jesus Christ, are the two key instances of God’s self-revelation. The revelation of God in creation is typically called general revelation whereas the revelation of God in redemption is typically called special revelation. Consequently, theologians sometimes speak of two books, the Book of Nature, which is God’s self-revelation in creation, and the Book of Scripture, which is God’s self-revelation in redemption. If you want to know who God is, you need to know God through both creation and redemption. According to Scripture, the angels praise God chiefly for two things: God’s creation of the world and God’s redemption of the world through Jesus Christ. Let us follow the angels’ example.

Global Journal of Classical Theology 1 (1999).

The Pains Of Sleep by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Ere on my bed my limbs I lay,
It hath not been my use to pray
With moving lips or bended knees;
But silently, by slow degrees,
My spirit I to Love compose,
In humble trust mine eye-lids close,
With reverential resignation
No wish conceived, no thought exprest,
Only a sense of supplication;
A sense o’er all my soul imprest
That I am weak, yet not unblest,
Since in me, round me, every where
Eternal strength and Wisdom are.

But yester-night I prayed aloud
In anguish and in agony,
Up-starting from the fiendish crowd
Of .
shapes and thoughts that tortured me:
A lurid light, a trampling throng,
Sense of intolerable wrong,
And whom I scorned, those only strong!
Thirst of revenge, the powerless will
Still baffled, and yet burning still!
Desire with loathing strangely mixed
On wild or hateful objects fixed.
Fantastic passions! maddening brawl!
And shame and terror over all!
Deeds to be hid which were not hid,
Which all confused I could not know
Whether I suffered, or I did:
For all seemed guilt, remorse or woe,
My own or others still the same
Life-stifling fear, soul-stifling shame.

So two nights passed: the night’s dismay
Saddened and stunned the coming day.
Sleep, the wide blessing, seemed to me
Distemper’s worst calamity.
The third night, when my own loud scream
Had waked me from the fiendish dream,
O’ercome with sufferings strange and wild,
I wept as I had been a child;
And having thus by tears subdued
My anguish to a milder mood,
Such punishments, I said, were due
To natures deepliest stained with sin,
For aye entempesting anew
The unfathomable hell within,
The horror of their deeds to view,
To know and loathe, yet wish and do!
Such griefs with such men well agree,
But wherefore, wherefore fall on me?
To be loved is all I need,
And whom I love, I love indeed.

Hear Malcolm Guite read today’s poem

 

Psalm 61:2

From the end of the earth I will cry to You, When my heart is overwhelmed; Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.


Rick WilcoxSamuel Taylor Coleridge is best known for his poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  The poem is the tale of an old sailor and his journey through the self-inflicted consequences of choice. In today’s poem, Coleridge likewise speaks of his own agony from drug addiction, the cruel and ironic outcome of something first taken to relieve pain.  From this depth, Coleridge says his prayers were ‘aloud in anguish and in agony.’

Earnest prayer is difficult and untidy, and we are grateful for the poet’s honesty.  As Malcom Guite writes in The Word in the Wilderness:

One of the reasons why Coleridge can speak very directly to our own age is that he lived in and confronted addiction, and its attendant self-loathing, which seems to be one of the deepest, if most hidden, curses of our own age. In an age which should theoretically offer us greater possibilities of freedom than in any previous generation, we have in fact used that freedom to devise our own trammels and cages, and our entire culture of consumption seems designed at once to promote and conceal addictive and obsessive patterns of behavior. The specifics of the addictions may have changed since Coleridge’s time, but he fearlessly enumerates their real psychological and spiritual consequences…

How has anguish driven you to prayer?

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

 

 

D I G  D E E P E R


Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) was born in Devonshire, England, and began studies at Jesus College, Cambridge, which he then abandoned. In 1795 he met William Wordsworth, with whom he collaborated in literature and poetry. In 1798 he published Lyrical Ballads, which included his famous poem “The Ancient Mariner.” He studied Kant in Germany, and wrote several great poems. But from 1802 his powers declined, probably because he was struggling with his growing addiction to opium. Yet in 1816 he published “Christabel” and “Kubla Khan.” In theology and religion he reacted against the rationalism of his early years, and came under the influence of the Pietist J. Boehme and the pantheism of Spinoza. Many date his “Christian” period from about 1810. He urged the use of imagination and creativity, and attacked rationalistic orthodoxy. As is well known, J. S. Mill described him as, with Jeremy Bentham, one of “the two great seminal minds of England of their age.” Newman and Maurice were also greatly impressed by him.In Coleridge’s thought, Bernard Reardon writes, “The basis of faith, then, is not argument but experience” (From Coleridge to Gore [London: Longman, 1971], 65). As regularly occurs in hermeneutics, he distinguished between reason and understanding. He followed Kant in excluding religion and morality from logic alone. Like Schleiermacher, he understood God as One with whom humankind can hold communion. A Christian creed, he held, should not be as cheerless as atheism. He was also influenced in this period by Schelling and Romanticism. Sin, he believed, is the subjection of the will to an external control. He called for a “new and more perceptive approach to the Bible” (From Coleridge to Gore, 81), and was familiar with much current German NT scholarship. Whatever in the Bible “finds me,” he wrote, demonstrates the witness of the Holy Spirit. Reardon considers him “The first of the great nineteenth century ‘thinkers’ ” (88). Truth, he believed, concerns life, not simply thought.

Anthony C. Thiselton, “Coleridge, Samuel Taylor,” The Thiselton Companion to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 248–249.

See Malcolm Guite’s masterful work on Coleridge here:

Malcolm Guite

Malcolm Guite is poet-priest and Chaplain of Girton College Cambridge, but he often travels round Great Britain, and to North America, to give lectures, concerts and poetry readings.  For more details of these and other engagements go to his Events Page

Photo courtesy Lancia E. Smith

 

 

51vg-xoskvl-_sy346_For every day from Shrove Tuesday to Easter Day, the bestselling poet Malcolm Guite chooses a favourite poem from across the Christian spiritual and English literary traditions and offers incisive seasonal reflections on it.

Lent is a time to reorient ourselves, clarify our minds, slow down, recover from distraction and focus on the values of God’s kingdom. Poetry, with its power to awaken the mind, is an ideal companion for such a time. This collection enables us to turn aside from everyday routine and experience moments of transfigured vision as we journey through the desert landscape of Lent and find refreshment along the way.
Following each poem with a helpful prose reflection, Malcolm Guite has selected from classical and contemporary poets, from Dante, John Donne and George Herbert to Seamus Heaney, Rowan Williams and Gillian Clarke, and his own acclaimed poetry.

ART: Old Man in Sorrow (On the Threshold of Eternity)

Date: 1890; Saint-rémy-de-provence, France *
Genre: portrait
Media: oil, canvas
Dimensions: 81 x 65 cm
Location: Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands

Heaven On Earth

capture

On the parable of the Good Samaritan: “I imagine that the first question the priest and Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But by the very nature of his concern, the good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?

― Martin Luther King Jr., from Strength to Love


When Jesus taught us how to pray, He included this mysterious phrase: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” He taught that our priorities and the direction of our lives should be based on this commandment from Matthew 6:33 –

But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.

If we are to pray for God’s kingdom to advance in this world, how should we then live?  The question can only be answered by understanding the essence of God.  Just who is this King and what is the nature of His kingdom?

The Apostle John states it clearly in 1 John 4:7-11

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.  Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

We celebrate the willingness of God to step into the broken lives of His children. Abandoning heaven, He emptied Himself and embraced the poverty and vulnerability of a manger.  His love is one of inconvenience, commitment and sacrifice.

Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God with all of our being and likewise to love our neighbor as ourselves.  The story of the Good Samaritan was told in response to the question “Who is my neighbor?” and therein we find the essence of God which we are to embrace.

The Good Samaritan was simply going about his business, having a normal day when suddenly he was offered an opportunity to advance the kingdom of God.   Jesus noticed his response.

IMG_0181

Luke 10:25-37

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’

Dig Deeper – The Good Samaritan by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890

One of the most famous depictions of the parable was painted by Vincent Van Gogh in May 1890. It is based on an earlier work by Delacroix in 1852, which shows the Samaritan straining to lift the wounded traveller on to his horse. Delacroix used dark colours, except for the Samaritan’s robe, which is painted in a brilliant red. Van Gogh replaced Delacroix’s dark palette with brilliant light hues, allowing every detail of his active brush strokes to be seen. Our attention is first claimed by the Samaritan himself, and his wounded passenger. Around them, we see a great gorge, through which a torrent of water cascades. Then our eyes stray to the left, where we see the priest and the Levite disappearing into the distance. Van Gogh does not suggest that they are running away from the wounded man. They just pass him by, without a thought, as they proceed on their journeys.

Van Gogh hints at the extent of the care which the Samaritan bestows on his patient through the box to the lower left of the painting. It is fitted with secure fastenings: its contents are precious. The story itself suggests that the box contained ointment and bandages. It now seems virtually empty, its contents having been lavished on the wounded man. The Samaritan has also relinquished his place of relative comfort and safety on his horse to the stranger. As the Samaritan raises the man, single-handedly, on to his horse, we notice his flimsy, loose sandals. The remainder of his journey over the rough, rocky terrain will not be comfortable.

~Alister McGrath, from Incarnation

Admiring Jesus

still-life-with-bible.jpg!Blog

“Christ alone has been the only one of the philosophers, magi etc. to have stamped eternal life, the infinity of time, the nullity of death, the necessity and sense of serenity and dedication, as the most important certainty. He lived serenely, as an artist greater than all other artists.… Try to understand the essence of what the great artists, the serious masters, are saying in their masterpieces, you will recognize God in this. One has written or said it in a book, the other in a painting.”

~Vincent van Gogh, from one of his letters


RickVincent van Gogh painted this work in October of 1885. The Bible belonged to his father, a pastor with whom he had a turbulent relationship up until his death just months before. Vincent struggled with his father’s religion, but admired Jesus as “an artist greater than all the other artists.”

The little book on the table is La joie de vivre (The Joy of Living) by Émile Zola. The novel was published a year before Vincent painted this still life and was a favorite of his. He referred to it as a “bible for modern life.”  In Zola’s book he saw the antithesis of his father’s Bible – a fresh and modern way of perceiving the world.

Today the Church celebrates the feast of the Presentation of the Lord which occurs forty days after the birth of Jesus and is also known as Candlemas. It all begs a question.

Are we, like Vincent, admirers of Jesus, yet looking for something else – something more?

IMG_0181Matthew 11:6

Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.

Dig Deeper

Art: Still Life with Bible by Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890)
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Vincent was always after the “it,” the heart of beauty, which he tried to breathe in and softly exhale onto others through his work. But he could never find it. He didn’t find it in his art or his artist colony or his relationship with his father. None of these could deliver the “it” he so desperately longed for. And there were times when he despaired that what he was looking for even existed.What Vincent didn’t realize was that what he was after all those years was actually the biblical concept of shalom. In Hebrew, shalom is a fourfold concept encompassing peace with God, peace with self, peace with others and peace with the created world around us. This shalom was the thing he most desired. But it could only come from one place, which Vincent couldn’t see.

Literature and Liturgy – Emile Zola and La joie de vivre

La joie de vivre tells the story of Pauline, an orphan girl who comes to live with relatives. Over a span of about a decade, Pauline’s caregivers steal her inheritance and become increasingly hateful toward her. Despite her depressing circumstances, Pauline remains cheerful and optimistic and demonstrates generosity through service to the poorest people of her community.

We get a glimpse of Van Gogh’s relationship with God in this quote from one of his letters: “Christ alone has been the only one of the philosophers, magi etc. to have stamped eternal life, the infinity of time, the nullity of death, the necessity and sense of serenity and dedication, as the most important certainty. He lived serenely, as an artist greater than all other artists.… Try to understand the essence of what the great artists, the serious masters, are saying in their masterpieces, you will recognize God in this. One has written or said it in a book, the other in a painting.”

It is not possible for an author to simply transcribe the objective world in a purely passive way. The author’s beliefs and assumptions keep intruding themselves, actively shaping perceptions and how they are conveyed. A writer may try to be a mirror, but cannot help also being a lamp. If a writer claims to be a realist, we must ask what that writer considers to be real. The rise of Darwinism in the nineteenth cen tury led to a literary movement known as naturalism. According to this view, only nature and nature’s laws are real. The theory of evolution taught that human beings were nothing more than animals, that human life is determined by physical laws outside of the control of the individual, and that life consists of conflict in which only the fittest will survive. This brand of realism, exemplified by Emile Zola, Stephen Crane, and Jack London, was often brilliant in its vivid descriptions, its lifelike evocations of the natural world, and its penetrating lan guage. The atmosphere of their works is generally bleak and hopeless; the characters are swept up by deterministic forces outside their con trol. Although the naturalistic writers accepted a materialistic world view, their spirits often rebelled against its implications, resulting in works of enraged despair at such an empty universe.

Bibliography

Jim Belcher, In Search of Deep Faith: A Pilgrimage into the Beauty, Goodness and Heart of Christianity (Westmont, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013).
Joe Garland, Cindy Garland, and Jim Eichenberger, God’s Word on Canvas, Through Artists’ Eyes: An Exploration of Bible-Inspired Art, 6 Studies (Cincinnati, OH: Standard Publishing, 2010), 20.
Marvin Olasky and Gene Edward Veith Jr., Reading between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990).

Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh (1889)

Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh, Museum of Modern Art, New York City

When I have a terrible need of—shall I say the word—religion, then I go out and paint the stars.


RickIn many ways, it was just business.  Van Gogh made his living by painting so he was sensitive to the market.  He painted at least twenty-one versions of Starry Night because they seemed to sell well.  That is not to say he was uninspired by his subject.  A deeply spiritual man, he found in the stars a great expression of the eternity in his heart, and it just happened to help him to earn a living.

As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know :

Starry Night is one of those paintings so iconic—we’ve all seen it reproduced so many times—that it is difficult to really see. We have to step back and take a careful second look for it to begin to divulge all its wonder. This image of a small town seen from a vantage point on a hill is not so much concerned with the town as it is with the night sky overhead—a night sky that swirls and swells and spins above us. The painting itself feels strangely alive, as though it were itself an object in motion. The moon and the stars shine and shimmer in the midst of this pulsating vision of the sky, and one cannot help but wonder if, as he contemplated this scene, Vincent van Gogh experienced some sort of mystical vision of the eternal realities behind the earthly beauty. For van Gogh, a believing man deeply frustrated with religious institutions, it was in such visions that he discovered his connection with God. As he once wrote, “When I have a terrible need of—shall I say the word—religion, then I go out and paint the stars.”1 And that is precisely what he has done in this modern masterpiece.

The viewpoint in the painting from which the landscape is seen was the view from van Gogh’s bedroom window. He painted no less than twenty-one canvases of this particular landscape, though Starry Night is the most evocative of them all. The village seen in the painting is his invention, not something he could actually see from his window but rather added to the composition. When van Gogh sent several paintings to his brother so that he could try to sell them, he initially didn’t send Starry Night, evidently considering it less marketable than his others. In fact, he considered it a failure. Time, of course, has proven him wrong, as it has become one of his most popular works.

Is it prostituting art to earn a living from it?

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

D I G  D E E P E R


Vincent Van Gogh

 

 

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Vincent van Gogh

(1853–90). One of the four great Postimpressionists (along with Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, and Paul Cézanne), Vincent van Gogh is generally considered the greatest Dutch painter after Rembrandt. His reputation is based largely on the works of the last three years of his short ten-year painting career, and he had a powerful influence on expressionism in modern art. He produced more than 800 oil paintings and 700 drawings, but he sold only one during his lifetime. His striking colors, coarse brushwork, and contoured forms display the anguish of the mental illness that drove him to suicide.

Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853, in Zundert in the Brabant region of The Netherlands. He was the eldest son of a Protestant clergyman. At the age of 16 Van Gogh was apprenticed to art dealers in The Hague, and he worked for them there and in London and Paris until 1876.

Van Gogh disliked art dealing, and, rejected in love, he became increasingly solitary. He began to prepare for the ministry, but he failed the entrance examinations for seminary and became a lay preacher. In 1878 he went to the impoverished Borinage district in southwestern Belgium to do missionary work. He was dismissed in 1880 over a disagreement with his superiors. Penniless and with his faith broken, he sank into despair and began to draw. He soon realized the limitations of being self-taught and went to Brussels to study drawing. In 1881 he moved to The Hague to work with the Dutch landscape painter Anton Mauve, and the next summer Van Gogh began to experiment with oil paints. His urge to be “alone with nature” took him to Dutch villages, and his subjects—still life, landscape, and figure—all related to the peasants’ daily hardships and surroundings. In 1885 he produced his first masterpiece, ‘The Potato Eaters’.

Feeling too isolated, he left for Antwerp, Belgium, and enrolled in the academy there. He did not respond well to the school’s rigid discipline, but while in Antwerp he was inspired by the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens and discovered Japanese prints. He was soon off to Paris, where he met Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin and discovered the impressionists Camille Pissarro, Seurat, and others. Van Gogh’s two years in Paris shaped his personal style of painting—more colorful, less traditional, with lighter tonalities and distinctive brushwork.

Tired of city life, Van Gogh left Paris in 1888 for Arles in the south of France. He rented and decorated a yellow house in which he hoped to found a community of “impressionists of the South.” Gauguin joined him in October, but their relations deteriorated, and in a quarrel on Christmas Eve Van Gogh cut off part of his own left ear. Gauguin left, and Van Gogh was hospitalized. Exhibiting repeated signs of mental disturbance, Van Gogh asked to be sent to an asylum at St-Rémy-de-Province. After a year of confinement he moved to the home of a physician-artist in Auvers-sur-Oise for two months. On July 27, 1890, Van Gogh shot himself; he died two days later.

Despite his deteriorating mental condition, Van Gogh’s time at Arles, in the asylum, and at Auvers proved to be his greatest productive periods. At Arles he painted with great energy the sun-drenched fields and flowers; at St-Rémy the colors of his paintings were more muted, but the lines were bolder and the whole more visionary; in the northern light of Auvers he adopted pale, fresh tonalities, a broader and more expressive brushwork, and a lyrical vision of nature. The sale of Van Gogh’s ‘Irises’ in 1987 brought the highest price ever paid for a work of art up to that time—53.9 million dollars.

Van Gogh’s Starry Religion

Given this brief background, we can understand why the Romantics still considered neo-Platonism a live option for buttressing a spiritualized view of nature. They were especially enamored by the concept of creation as emanation, with its metaphor of a radiating sun or an overflowing fountain. They even applied the same metaphors to the artist’s creativity. Art was a lamp radiating its own inner light onto the world, a fountain of overflowing emotions. Wordsworth defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” The next major movement after symbolism came to be called expressionism.
The expressionists rejected the Impressionist dictum that the artist should paint only what the eye sees. The expressionist painter Alexej von Jawlensky said, “The artist expresses only what he has within himself, not what he sees with his eyes.” Music historian Donald Grout summarizes the difference: Whereas impressionism “aimed to represent objects of the external world as perceived at a given moment,” expressionism “sought to represent inner experience.”

Gauguin’s Vision after the Sermon, featured below, is not intended to show a realistic scene—note the flat perspective, the red background, the lack of any visible light source. Instead it depicts the idea in the women’s minds as they pray. (They have just heard a sermon about Jacob wrestling with the angel.) As Rookmaaker explains, Gauguin wanted “to overcome the extreme naturalism of the impressionists,” finding ways “to include more than the eye can see.”

In Starry Night Van Gogh’s whirling stars and flame-like trees are likewise expressionistic. As a young man, Van Gogh wanted to become a preacher, but he was turned down by the theology school where he tried to enroll. Undaunted, he trained as a missionary and worked as an evangelist in a poor coal-mining district in southern Belgium. Determined to share the miners’ poverty, he gave away his belongings and slept on the floor. Unfortunately, the missionary school did not appreciate his passion, and he was dismissed. Finally Van Gogh realized that art too can be a means of serving God. His swirling stars and writhing landscape express “a vision that ultimately belongs more to the realm of religious revelation than to astronomical observations.”

At times, Van Gogh said, he would try to paint in a more realistic style. But soon he would feel “a terrible need of—shall I say the word?—religion. Then I go out at night and paint the stars.”

Sources and Resources

“Van Gogh, Vincent,” Compton’s Encyclopedia (Chicago, IL: Compton’s Encyclopedia, 2015).

Nancy Pearcey, Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meaning (Nashville: B&H, 2010).

Bernard, Bruce, ed. Vincent by Himself: A Selection of His Paintings and Drawings Together with Extracts from His Letters. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004.
Bonafoux, Pascal. Van Gogh: The Passionate Eye. New York: Abrams, 1992.
Edwards, Cliff. Van Gogh and God. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1989.
Erickson, Kathleen Powers. At Eternity’s Gate: The Spiritual Vision of Vincent van Gogh. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.
Naifeh, Steven, and Gregory White Smith. Van Gogh: The Life. New York: Random House, 2011.
Thomson, Richard. Vincent van Gogh: The Starry Night. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2008.
Walther, Ingo F. Van Gogh. Köln: Taschen, 2000.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

 

Terry Glaspey

 

Terry Glaspey

I’m really looking forward to discussing my book, “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know,” with the members of Literary Life Book Club. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and perspectives on some of the art, music, and literature you’ll discover in the book. I’m interested in how it speaks to you in your life and the ways it inspires, challenges, or maybe even annoys you! I’ll try to share some “deleted scenes” stuff I had to leave out and will tell a few stories about what I experienced while doing the writing and research. Hope that many of you can join us as we look at he stories behind some truly wonderful art.

Let’s explore together!

Terry

Join the discussion with Terry on Facebook HERE

Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.

He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.

He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know:  Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.

Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.

He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.

Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.

Dig Deeper at TerryGlaspey.com

 

Some of the greatest painters, musicians, architects, writers, filmmakers, and poets have taken their inspiration from their faith and impacted millions of people with their stunning creations. Now readers can discover the stories behind seventy-five of these masterpieces and the artists who created them. From the art of the Roman catacombs to Rembrandt to Makoto Fujimura; from Gregorian Chant to Bach to U2; from John Bunyan and John Donne to Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner; this book unveils the rich and varied artistic heritage left by believers who were masters at their craft.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

Order it HERE today.

Suicide Is Never Right

Rick WilcoxKurt Cobain, who ended his own life at 27 years of age once wrote in his journal “I really haven’t had that exciting of a life. There are a lot of things I wish I would have done, instead of just sitting around and complaining about having a boring life.”

Like Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in The Rye, Cobain was aware of his potential but anguished by the despair of a self-oriented worldview.  Unfortunately,  as with many others, death by his own hand became his lasting commentary on his life.

Suicide has been unduly ennobled by literature including historically revisionistic interpretations of the deaths of Socrates, Seneca, Cleopatra, Van Gogh, Virginia Wolfe, Silvia Plath and Ernest Hemingway.  Albert Camus called it the “last great work of art.”  The basis for this position is the premise that individual accountability accrues only to oneself.

In The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger wrote:

The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.

Suicide violates the imago Dei, the image of God with which we are created, and that is simply idolatry.  The deeply satisfying sense of fulfillment we seek as human beings is completely realized when we love God with all of our hearts and likewise love our neighbor as ourselves.

 

IMG_0181

Matthew 22:34-40

But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

D I G  D E E P E R


Suicide

Rick Wilcox

Suicide has been unduly ennobled by literature including historically revisionistic interpretations of the deaths of Socrates, Seneca, Cleopatra, Van Gogh, Virginia Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway.  Albert Camus called it the “last great work of art.”  The basis for this position is an axiology rooted in humanism, and its premise that individual accountability for one’s body accrues only to oneself.  To the humanist, life is individually arbitrary, and therein lies the fundamental basis for a Christian’s opposition to suicide.  The Christian worldview is that suicide fundamentally violates the imago Dei and is, at its core idolatry in that all arguments, however compelling in their pathos ultimately rest on tenets only validated by the good of the individual rather than the glory of God.

As suicide is not expressly forbidden by Scripture, this paper will examine Biblical occurrences where suicide was either committed or considered.  This selection will be representative rather than exhaustive but the exegesis will establish hermeneutic consistency toward general application.  The brevity of this paper will only afford general consideration of the ethical differentiations of the sub-topics of physician assisted suicide, termination of life support, euthanasia, and mental competence but each will be examined for moral relevance to this paper’s fundamental premise. This examination will conclude that the Bible teaches that suicide is an affront to God as it devalues His image in the created person, Christ’s sacrificial death for the lost person and the Holy Spirit’s empowerment of the redeemed person.

The Image of God

Man was created in God’s image, according to His likeness (Gen 1:26).  Nothing else in creation was afforded that unspeakable honor.  The etymology of the imago Dei points to both the concrete and the abstract, and equates “image” and “likeness” as interchangeable. Rather than possessing a list of godly attributes, man’s preeminence in creation reflects his immortal essence.  As the bearer of such, his worth is understood by Scripture to compel our loving God to the point of sacrificing His Son for our redemption (John 3:16).  Any consideration of man’s moral accountability must be based on a foundation of this stewardship in worship and humility.

In her book Total Truth Nancy Pearcey pointed out that the Bible does not begin with the Fall but rather Creation, highlighting man’s value and dignity as God’s image bearer, tasked with functioning as His representative on earth.  God’s acknowledgement of man’s imparted value was reflected by His ordination of capital punishment for murder on the basis of a violation of the imago Dei (Gen 9:6).  Murdering one’s self is murder nonetheless.

In order to understand, at least inasmuch as we can, the significance of the imago Dei in man, we must begin with God and a clear understanding of true reality.  The metaphysics of a Christian worldview is founded on the life giving triune God of Creation.  Genesis describes the Holy Spirit as “breath”, and thereafter our understanding of life is inextricably linked to breath (Gen 1:2).  This breath moved in the body of a humble girl and from God and mankind we received the Word (John 1:1).  Christ was the fullness of God in human form and our example of human life lived in complete harmony with God’s design.  To understand Christ is to understand the fullness of the imago Dei.

Like metaphysics, epistemology is foundational to our quest for sanctification.  The value of life and its accompanying tenets of truth is wholly predicated the goodness of fit between man’s heart and God’s design.  The humanistic devotion to reason may be joined by sophisticated methodology and theory, but it is also critically flawed by sin.  Man’s reasoning, however noble is short of God’s (Isa 55:8) and no altruistic intent can reach a self-achieved and sustained righteousness (Isa 64:6).

The catalysts of suicide may vary but the common thread is the sense that life no longer has value. Absent the understood mandate of animating the gift of God’s image to the betterment of mankind, it is impossible to put suffering in context.  When the disciples questioned Jesus about why a man was born blind Jesus deftly turned the conversation to God saying “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day; night is coming when no one can work” (John 9:3-4).  Our proper context of epistemology is that knowledge is itself informed by action which brings glory to God.  Suicide is therefore precluded in absolute.

Biblical Examples

Since Augustine, the church has consistently held suicide to be equivalent to murder.  The Bible itself does not specifically forbid (nor comment) on suicide, but much may be learned from relevant citations.  The Old Testament addresses six cases of suicide and the only suicide in the New Testament is that of Judas.  While the brevity of this paper precludes an extensive exegesis of each, certain contextual conclusions may accurately be drawn.  A superior understanding comes from other circumstances where suicide was considered but either averted or rejected, specifically the Apostle Paul as noted below.

Suicide Committed

In the Old Testament, suicide was committed by Abimelech (Judg 9:54), Saul and his armor bearer (1 Sam 31:4–5), Ahithophel (2 Sam 17:23), Zimri (1 Kgs 16:18) and Sampson (Judg 16:29–30).  David Jones holds the latter case an exception as divinely approved suicide, but the logic is implicit and in no case does Scripture praise the act explicitly as either holy or acceptable.  The Bible presents each death as an act of self rather than that of a martyr who died at another’s hand for the sake of the Kingdom.  Only the suicide of Judas is mentioned in the New Testament and far from being treated as an act of vindication, Jesus said it would have been better if he had never been born (Matt 26:24).  In contrast, both Judas and Peter betrayed Jesus and each felt remorse, but only Peter reconciled his transgression with Jesus who affirmed that Peter had truly given his life to be lived for the glory of God (John 21:18) while Judas’ self-absorbed remorse led to his self-absorbed death.

Suicide Considered

The most compelling perspective of suicide in context comes from the Apostle Paul.  In his letter to the Philippians, Paul acknowledged a desire to leave this world with its troubles.  In a verse frequently quoted, Paul said “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21) and he provided an additional remark in the following verse that “I do not know which to choose” (Phil 1:22).  The Apostle was in constant peril and was, at the time of this writing imprisoned in Rome.  Acknowledging his dire predicament, Paul presented Scripture’s most compelling argument against suicide.  He wrote that it would be individually better (selfishly) for him to die and be with the Lord, but the greater good would be served by his continued life in service to others for Christ’s sake (Phil 1:24).

Whether Paul was actually considering suicide or employing a rhetorical literary device, his point is clear.  Rather than kill himself as a sacrifice to himself, he presented his body as a living sacrifice to the Lord (Rom 12:1).  As Thomas Aquinas wrote in Summa Theologica, “Therefore to bring death upon oneself in order to escape the other afflictions of this life is to adopt a greater evil in order to avoid a lesser.”  Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God will all of our being (Matt 22:37) and suicide is the ultimate and complete abdication of that cardinal accountability.

Suicide breaks the greatest commandment and it also breaks the second.  Jesus said we are to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt 22:39) and suicide fails in both regards.  Beyond the fact that suicide is not loving oneself (Eph 5:29) it also deprives God of a servant to the world.  As Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “your bodies are not your own, you were bought with a price.  Therefore honor God with your bodies.” (1 Cor 6:20).  Nancy Pearcey introduced an interesting aspect of our interrelationship to our neighbor by linking the Trinity to the imago Dei that is woven into our collective human race.  As Pearcey has it, the collectivism and individualism which exists as a mystery of the Godhead is also present in mankind.  She says “the Trinity implies that relationships are not created by sheer choice but are built into the very essence of human nature.”  The act of suicide breaks the second greatest commandment more profoundly than can ever be fully understood in our life on earth.

Medical Ethical Considerations

Theologically, the establishment of suicide as a sin is relatively easy given its absolute negative juxtaposition to the living image of God which is the fabric of mankind, but advancements in medical science have challenged suicide’s definition.  Examining circumstantial gradation, at a minimum presses consideration beyond the oversimplification of Kant’s Categorical Imperative.  As Mark Coppenger pointed out, the Achilles’ heel of the Categorical Imperative is that it cannot stand alone.  Christian ethicists including John Kilner and Scott Rae have written extensively on the ethics of end-of-life decisions which must be made by loved ones and the medical community which effectively operationalize an individual’s wishes regarding the medical maintenance of life under terminal circumstances.

The relatively immature field of Christian bioethics seeks to provide pragmatic Scriptural guidance in an increasingly nuanced environment.  Euthanasia, or “mercy killing” is of course not new.  The Christian’s new dilemma has emerged from heroic and scientific life extension capacities which were unavailable even a generation ago. Simply put, absent these measures, life would end.  While one is tempted to parse overt death inducing measures like euthanasia or physician assisted suicide from passive measures like withholding treatment, as Rae points out, there is no morally relevant difference between killing and allowing to die.  The dilemma has drawn no clear consensus, even from conservative Christian leaders.  While Kilner holds any form of suicide or assisted suicide as “unthinkable”, Rae writes that “the sanctity-of-life principle does not require that every patient receive indefinitely the most aggressive treatment available.”

Conclusion

Suicide is a sin.  Like every sin, its commission affects many beyond the sinner.  An individual considering suicide might conclude they are acting alone under rightful control of their own person, and a humanistic worldview would agree.  Unfortunately, the same worldview is pervasive in the City of Man which Augustine described, and each of its foundational tenets stand as an affront to God.  Ironically, the humanist worldview might seem conducive to a strong sense of self-esteem given its egocentric construct, but as Albert Mohler points out, the current generation of children raised by its precepts in education and parental guidance are increasingly less capable of coping with psychological stress.  Mohler, the leader of an educational institution observes that college administrators are seeing increased problems including “binge drinking, self-mutilation, and even suicide.”  Empirical evidence is difficult to obtain, but evidence nonetheless abounds.  In his book The Real Las Vegas: Life Beyond the Strip, David Littlejohn writes that the fruit of an unfettered lifestyle of self-indulgence is reflected in Nevada’s grim statistics including the highest incidence of cirrhosis of the liver, the highest rate of abortion and teen pregnancies and a suicide rate which is double the national average.

In his book Suicide, sociologist Emile Durkheim argued that the chief factor in suicide causation was a personal disconnection to society which he termed “anomie”.  According to Durkheim, an individual’s enriched participation in society was key to mitigating an increased isolation conducive to suicide.  While Durkheim’s work has contributed to our collective understanding of the power of extended communities of care, it overlooks the greatest factor of human life stability which is none less than the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.  Regardless of extenuating factors, real hopes begins with an understanding that that root of the horrific problem lies in the spiritual realm where mankind faces an adversary, who as Peter has it is “seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet 5:8).  The answer can only be truly understood to be the Holy Spirit who is greater (1 John 4:4).  Destroying the body annihilates the temple from which the Holy Spirit may empower the individual through any dire circumstances.

An average of 33,000 suicides occur each year in the United States, making suicide among the top five causes of death.  This paper has focused on the sinful nature of suicide, but unlike other sins, suicide affords no opportunity for repentance and restoration.  It is therefore imperative that the church take an active role in understanding and preventing suicide rather than only teaching theology.  Studies of suicide survivors have shown that while no single factor leads to self-inflicted death, the complex causes can be better understood and mitigated by an extended community of care in which the church is ideally positioned.  Christian counseling is most effective when the client has a foundational positive affiliation with the church which existed prior to their crisis.  Clearly it is the church’s responsibility to provide spiritual and emotional triage but all tactical help pales in comparison to the benefits of an individual’s participation in active church family life.

Death is the inevitable conclusion of the human body.  For the Christian, this is not to be feared but rather gladly anticipated knowing to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor 5:8).  Until we die, we are God’s servants, living for His glory, waking every morning knowing we are still on the earth for a reason.  This reason for our existence answers the quest for meaning and the answer may only be found in repentance, the relinquishment of self-worship, and the joy of living under the Lordship of Christ to the glory of God.

The Christian worldview is the theological grid through which every decision of life and death must pass.  The only proper perspective is through the eyes of God who created us in His image and has acted in unspeakable sacrifice to redeem us back to Himself.  Life and death has always been set as a choice before us (Deut 30:15) and it is God’s desire that we should choose life.

Bibliography

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. 2nd ed. Viewforth Great Books Series, 2. Los Angeles, CA: Viewforth Press, 2012.

    Augustine. The City of God. Writings of Saint Augustine,, 6, 7, 8. New York,: Fathers of the Church, inc., 1950.
    Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays. 1st American ed. New York,: Knopf, 1955.
    Coppenger, Mark T. Moral Apologetics for Contemporary Christians : Pushing Back against Cultural and Religious Critics. B&H Studies in Christian Ethics. Nashville, Tenn.: B&H Academic, 2011.
    Durkheim, Emile. Suicide, a Study in Sociology. Glencoe, Ill.,: Free Press, 1951.
    Freedman, David Noel. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. 1st ed. 6 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
    Jones, David W., and Daniel R. Heimbach. An Introduction to Biblical Ethics. B & H Studies in Biblical Ethics. Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Academic, 2013.
    Kilner, John Frederic. Why the Church Needs Bioethics : A Guide to Wise Engagement with Life’s Challenges. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011.
    Kilner, John Frederic, C. Christopher Hook, and Diane B. Uustal. Cutting-Edge Bioethics : A Christian Exploration of Technologies and Trends. A Horizon in Bioethics Series Book. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002.
    Knight, George R. Philosophy & Education : An Introduction in Christian Perspective. 4th ed. Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 2006.
    Littlejohn, David. The Real Las Vegas : Life Beyond the Strip. Oxford ; New York: Oxford Unviersity Press, 1999.
    Melick, Richard R. Philippians, Colossians, Philemon. The New American Commentary, 32. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1991.
    Mohler, R. Albert. Culture Shift : Engaging Current Issues with Timeless Truth. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Multnomah Books, 2008.
    Oden, Thomas C. Pastoral Counsel. Classical Pastoral Care Series, 3. New York: Crossroad, 1989.
    Pearcey, Nancy. Total Truth : Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity. Study guide ed. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2005.
    Rae, Scott B. Moral Choices : An Introduction to Ethics. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2009.
    United States. Congress. House. Committee on Armed Services. Subcommittee on Military Personnel. The Current Status of Suicide Prevention Programs in the Military : Hearing before the Subcommittee on Military Personnel of the Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, One Hundred Twelfth Congress, First Session, Hearing Held September 9, 2011. Washington: U.S. G.P.O, 2012.
 

 

Crisis Of Faith

1024px-van_gogh_-_trauernder_alter_mannLes Misérables
Victor Hugo

“Diamonds are found only in the dark bowels of the earth; truths are found only in the depths of thought. It seemed to him that after descending into those depths after long groping in the blackest of this darkness, he had at last found one of these diamonds, one of these truths, and that he held it in his hand; and it blinded him to look at it.”


Victor Hugo is the most towering figure in French literature.  Though he produced extensive poetry and prose, he is famous popularly for the novels The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Misérables.

Les Misérables is the story of Jean Valjean.  Newly released from prison after serving a long term for stealing a loaf of bread, he is ostracized because of his ex-convict status. Bishop Myriel takes Valjean in and treats him kindly, but Valjean repays him by stealing his silverware. When the police arrive, Myriel claims the silverware was a gift, thereby giving Valjean another chance at a new life. Myriel’s only request is that Valjean become an honest man.

His story is that of a man struggling at once with the brutality of the letter of the law and the yearning for freedom which can only be realized in grace.  Victor Hugo uses imagery from the watery fate of the prophet Jonah to describe Jean Val Jean’s fall into despair. As circumstances begin to drown Jean, “he drinks in bitterness and it is all liquid hatred to him.”

A crisis is that decisive moment when, due to circumstances and the diminished ability to cope, the status quo is no longer sustainable and something must change.  Out of crisis something new must and will emerge—hence the common association of crisis with emergency.

The trajectory of an entire life is often determined by how crisis moments are navigated; such intense junctures (also known as “tipping points”) are pregnant with promise and peril.

The question is never if these moments will come, but whether we turn to One whose grace is entirely sufficient.

IMG_0181Romans 5:1-5

Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

D I G  D E E P E R


Art: At Eternity’s Gate by Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh

At Eternity’s Gate is an oil painting by Vincent van Gogh that he made in 1890 in Saint-Rémy de Provence based on an early lithograph. The painting was completed in early May at a time when he was convalescing from a severe relapse in his health and some two months before his death, which is generally accepted as a suicide.

Literature & Liturgy: Victor Hugo and Crisis

Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo

Between 1822 and 1832 Hugo established himself as a major literary figure in France. He wrote poetry, novels, and plays and became a leader in the Romantic movement.

In 1830 his play Hernani was a spectacular success. By shattering the artificial rules that had previously governed the writing of French drama, Hugo brought new freedom to the French stage. His novel Notre Dame de Paris was published in 1831. Translated as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it became vastly popular in many countries. In 1832 his play Le Roi s’amuse, or The King’s Diversion, on which Giuseppe Verdi later based his opera Rigoletto, was staged. Like so many of Hugo’s works, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The King’s Diversion were criticisms of social and political injustice. Another reason for writing the plays was to provide parts for the young actress Juliette Negroni, who became his mistress in 1833 and was to be his companion for the rest of her life.

In 1841 Hugo was elected to the French Academy, and in 1849 he became a member of the National Assembly. An outspoken political opponent of Napoleon III, Hugo had to flee France in 1851.

He remained in exile until 1870. During that time he wrote some of his finest works. In 1862 appeared Les Misérables, one of the most popular novels of all time. Hugo’s wife died in 1868, and Negroni moved into his home.

After the fall of the empire in 1870, Hugo returned to Paris. There he lived the rest of his life as a literary idol. Huge crowds turned out to celebrate his 80th birthday. Hugo died in Paris on May 22, 1885, and is buried in the Panthéon.

Some forms of recent Christian spirituality have highlighted the punctiliar (that is, it happens in an instant) nature of crisis and the profound urgency of choice. Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish father of modern existentialism, is best known for his haunting interpretation of the enigmatic biblical story of Abraham offering his beloved only son Isaac as a human sacrifice. According to Fear and Trembling (1843), the divine command to kill made no sense to Abraham and seemed to contradict every shard of moral sensibility; yet in that moment, hung suspended in eternity, the man of faith inexplicably chose to obey. He had said “yes” to God. The murder was averted and the crisis passed, but the father would never be the same again.

Building on an existentialist foundation, twentieth-century theologians like Karl Barth developed what was called a theology of crisis. Unlike the immanent God of liberal Protestantism, Barth’s God is altogether transcendent, touching humanity at tiny points of intersection (rather like the pinprick dot between a circle and a tangent), such that the divine reality from on high can never hang around for long or be domesticated or incorporated into anything human (e.g., such as a sacred text or a religious sentiment). Accordingly, God arrives out of nowhere, topples us off our chairs with a glancing touch, and then disappears. But we know that it was God, and we are forever changed.

According to British historian David Bebbington, the evangelical tradition has always been conversion-centered. The life-transforming religious experiences of seventeenth-century Pietists and Puritans, as well as those that characterized the Great Awakening of the 18th century and subsequent revivalism, all centered around the crisis moment of “salvation” in which disillusionment with alternatives, conviction of sin, and fear of judgment intensified until they exploded in the massive joy and relieved assurance of grace and eternal life. Given this historical legacy, it was only natural that the Christian life would often be conceptualized by subsequent evangelicals as a series of crises, beyond conversion itself, through which important added dimensions of a “deeper,” “higher,” or more empowered and Spirit-filled Christian life could be appropriated.

Inevitably the spiritual journey involves crises, though not necessarily a normative set. With these in view, the Scriptures encourage vigilant readiness, the virtues of courage and resilience when everything is on the line, and hope in God who makes all things new. Happy are those for whom the old is gone and the new has come (2 Cor. 5:17).

Bibliography

Glen G. Scorgie, “Crisis,” ed. Glen G. Scorgie et al., Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 381.
Barbour Publishing Inc, Book Lover’s Devotional (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour, 2011).
Louis Markos, Literature: A Student’s Guide, ed. David S. Dockery, Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 98.
“Hugo, Victor,” Compton’s Encyclopedia (Chicago, IL: Compton’s Encyclopedia, 2015).