Monday, December 2, 2013

Mona Lisa

Consider two scenarios:

A visitor to the Louvre, a lover of art, is contemplating the highlight of his trip to France, the Mona Lisa. Suddenly a woman runs toward the painting and throws an open can of red paint on the priceless portrait yelling, “Down with art!!!”

A visitor to the Louvre, a lover of art, is contemplating the highlight of his trip to France, the Mona Lisa. As he beholds the mystical portrait an employee of the Museum approaches the painting with palette and brush and begins making changes to the painting. When the visitor protests the employee explains, “We’re making changes to the painting so it will be more relevant to this generation. There is no need to present the painting as conceived and executed by Leonardo da Vinci; what matters is what we think of it today, how we interpret it, and how we can better present it.”

Which, I wonder, is the more painful experience? Seeing a priceless work of art desecrated by a vandal or by a well-meaning devotee of art? Suppose art museums the world over began “improving” on priceless treasures, making them more familiar to the contemporary eye? Suppose a new way of thinking permeated the art world that held that all art should be modified from generation to generation in order to meet the expectations of each generation, and that each generation should leave its artistic interpretations on the Mona Lisa and other renowned art treasures?

The vandal’s actions are but the actions of one person, but for the entire art world to adopt a way of thinking that leads to the work of Leonardo da Vinci and other Masters becoming indecipherable – that would be a tragedy of both action and of thinking – that the conservators would become the vandals – no matter how well intentioned – that is almost beyond imagination, akin to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in which the job of firemen is not to put out fires but to burn books.

Thus it is particularly disconcerting when Christians approach the Bible with professed respect but with functional disrespect. It is not the goal of Christians to vandalize the Bible, and yet our approach to the Bible is often one of vandalization, for when a Bible study reads incomplete passages of Scripture, when it fails to take in the Biblical context of a passage, when the readers fail to wrestle with the words and images and ideas presented in passages – and instead force passages into preconceived molds of thought – this is akin to the guardians of the Mona Lisa deciding to improve upon da Vinci’s work. Another way to look at it is that suppose the Louvre decided to only display a portion of the Mona Lisa? Come on Monday and see the lower one-seventh of the painting, come on Tuesday and see another one-seventh of the painting, and so forth. Imagine never seeing the entire portrait at one time? It doesn’t make sense does it? And yet we insist on not interacting with entire passages of the Bible at one time, we insist on not building context and interpreting and experiencing the Bible within its context.

I was once in a study (I have been in many such studies) in which a portion of a Biblical discourse was read and then we stopped reading and the facilitator (a man who dearly loves Jesus and the Bible) started asking questions about the Biblical speaker and the speaker’s audience. Most of the answers were speculative; they were speculative because we stopped reading midway through the discourse. Many of the answers were in the second half of the discourse but since we didn’t read the entire discourse people didn’t have the complete picture, they were viewing fifty percent of the Mona Lisa. This approach to the Scriptures is repeated time after time after time in Sunday schools and small groups and, sad to say, in many sermons. Sound bites do not make a symphony; the Bible is a symphony. A “Top 40” song may last only 3 – 5 minutes, the Bible is not a Top 40 song, it is God’s symphony.

How do we vandalize the Bible? By not submitting to the text but rather insisting that the text submit to us. By not investing time in the text but speeding through it. By not, as a first impression, interacting with the text directly but rather relying on a mediator (the study Bible syndrome!). By not reading the entire text we are working with, but rather reading and interacting with the text piecemeal. By not daily reading and meditating on the Bible in order that, among other things, Biblical thought patterns, contexts, and points-of-reference are formed in our mind, heart, and character.

The Bible is like the wardrobe that leads to Narnia, it is visibly small but it leads to something immense. The outside tells us nothing about what is inside nor where the inside leads to. It may look like other books, but it is not like any other book – for it is more than a book, its passageways lead to ages past and ages future and to the eternal “now”, they lead to the throne of God and intimacy with the Trinity. The Bible is more majestic than all the natural wonders of the world combined…who would be a world-traveler in the Scriptures? Who would be a time traveler? Who would experience the transcendence of the Almighty?

Jesus Christ cries, “Come meet Me in My Word!” And we reply, “Can’t you just send us a tweet?”

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