Friday, February 14, 2020

Beating Around The [Burning] Bush

The original drawing of Goliath, left, and how it later appeared for publication.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The pendulum may seem to be swinging in the opposite direction from last week’s post, but that really isn't the case. The word “catholic” was thrown around in my previous post, in both the universal and Roman sense. Today the focus is on, hmm, less confessional pieces of art one might find in the church and home.

We might as well start with a sofa-full of “Believe” pillows and offend half the planet in the process. One can find these in just about any home decor department, but they always beg the question, “Believe what?” We could continue with shabby chic wall hangings declaring “Faith. Hope. Love.” or “Family. Friends. Flatulence.,” but I don’t want to lose any more readers at this point.

The fact is: Some church denominations avoid confessional art, and they do it on purpose. This avoidance of imagery is intended to skirt around having graven images. Granted, there isn’t much wrong with having faith, hope, and love in the home, but it does point to a symptom of something far more important when, instead of simple fondness, there is insistence behind the decision.

This is a far more subtle issue, however, than slapping a gem-encrusted crown on the Mother of our Lord and taking issue with it.

Decades ago I was asked to illustrate a reprint of “The First Rainbow,” by John Calvin Reid (Eerdmans, 1991). (Yes, I know: The Author should have been the only necessary clue.) It was an opportunity for me to use my untried illustration skills on a large project with a focus that, in theory at least, was right down my alley.

Things were going swimmingly-well until Goliath came along. I had a blast illustrating the Biblical antagonist. but then was informed that a change was needed in the drawing. I could not figure out what might be wrong with the image, but finally was told that it was a skull in the margin of the illustration – it had to go. I got really confused. Surely, I thought, the publisher had a skull in his head. Surely, the author had one... okay, I did doubt that one a little. The powers that be thought the skull looked “demonic,” at which point I got really, really confused.

The publisher did not want to offend, and THAT pointed to a symptom of something terribly wrong. Scripture clearly indicates that Goliath defied the Lord; that he was therefore indeed demonic. Withholding the truth of the Word for the sake of offense is heresy, plain and simple. This odd unwillingness to fully confess the truth of God’s Word often shows itself in what is NOT seen in many sanctuaries.
"Dirk Willems Rescuing His Antagonist," an etching
from the 1685 edition of "Martyrs Mirror."

I once met a Mennonite gentleman at an art show and our conversation immediately turned to sacred imagery. While he was very accepting of my observations and opinions on what constitutes good confessional art, he eventually revealed his most inspiring image – an engraving of Dirk Willems rescuing his antagonist.

The image, I am sure, is unknown outside of Anabaptist circles, as is Dirk Willems. The engraving shows an incident in which Dirk Willems, while being pursued across a frozen pond, turns back to rescue his foe, who had fallen through the ice. Willems was later recaptured and eventually martyred. While being historically important to Mennonites, I was told the event is also an allegory to what Christ did for us.

The problem with allegory, however, is that it often avoids the greater truth behind it. In this case, it beats around the Divine bush. It is far better to cut to the chase and depict Christ Jesus in the act of rescuing us, than to extract inspiration from a lesser allegory of someone feebly attempting the same and eventually failing.

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