Janet (my, now, fiancee) and I love art; modern art, to be exact. But the way we love art is slightly different: I love how the colors come together to form one cohesive picture. I love how an abstract piece of modern art can take on various meanings and significances the longer I gaze upon it.
Janet, on the other hand, enjoys getting lost in the piece. Ask her what she loves about art, and she’ll say that she thinks about how the pieces make her feel. She’s sensitive to the emotions and the feelings behind the art. She likely connects with the artist in a much deeper way than I can. She’s a feeler; I’m a thinker.
This past August, Janet and I went to an art exhibit by James Turrell at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Being the day that I was going to propose, I knew a few hours of perusing art would be the perfect way to lead up to the big event.
That day at the LACMA, we came upon the piece pictured to the left. If you’re familiar with James Turrell, you’ll know that he likes to play with light and perception. This particular piece was crafted from an entire room that was rendered pitch black, minus the shades of green and blue light cast onto the walls via a prism.
When we first walked in, my eyes took a while to adjust. It looked just like a beam of light. But the longer I sat there, allowed my eyes to adjust, and studied the piece (well, more so, the light), the more my mind was working to make sense of this artwork. Janet and I sat there for about 3 minutes in silence – she was probably sitting silent in amazement at the feelings she was getting; I was sitting silent in confusion, wondering what I was supposed to be seeing. Then the piece turned me to a memory from my childhood…
Every night as a child, before I would sleep, my dad would come into my room, say goodnight, turn off the lights, then slowly shut my door until there was only a crack of light shining through. I was afraid of the dark, so for most of my childhood years, I needed a little light to help me sleep. The light would shine into the room through this crack and cast an angular shadow onto the opposite wall.
After recalling that memory, that was all I could think about while looking at this piece. The piece and the memory had now become connected; and to me, that became the only logical interpretation of that piece. After Janet had told me what she had thought the piece meant, we both left that room satisfied with our “interpretations” and the personal connections we had made with the artwork.
Art and Devotions
In our modern world, most artists would be pleased if their audiences drew a number of different conclusions and interpretations about their art, indeed, as the name “abstract art” might imply. For modern art, meaning and significance is in the eye of the beholder. The more personally one can connect with a piece, the more one “understands” and can appreciate the artist and his work.
I think many of us today often study the Bible the way we study art. When we gaze at the assortment of verses and chapters in the first 39 books of our Bibles, we immediately scan for what personally captivates us. We read “devotionally” and highlight those things that stand out to us the most. And honestly, with all the strange names like Ezekiel, Dodo (Judges 10:1), or my favorite, Maher-shalal-hash-baz (Isaiah 8:3), our brains like to hone in on things that we can connect with a little more personally, and do a little less contorting of our tongues to figure out, let alone pronounce.
This is how I used to read the Bible as a youth, especially the Old Testament. I would read through a chapter, toss the things that made no sense to me, then highlight or underline the things that jumped out to me, then create an entire devotional thought based on that one paragraph, verse, or even phrase, and carry it with me like a golden nugget throughout the day.
How many of us have approached the Bible like this, with the initial questions, “What does God want to speak to me today?” or “How does this passage or story apply to me?”? Personal connection and application becomes the goal of our Bible study, as well as the litmus test if we actually “understand” the Bible and have “unlocked” these truths for our modern context.
As good or normal as the statements above may sound, if they are not coupled with proper hermeneutics (methods of studying the Bible), we’ll find ourselves lost in the Bible, much how we’re lost in art. We may fumble around, our eyes perusing through the pages of our Bible, looking for some sort of understanding or personal connection. We try to look at it from different angles, twisting and turning things until we can make some meaning and significance for ourselves out of what we see. And after writing down some characteristics of David, making an allegory for the “trees of Lebanon,” and turning Gideon’s story into a life lesson, we close our Bibles and determine that this is what God said to me.
Unfortunately, I fear that far too many of us in modern Christianity have butchered the truths of the Old Testament by doing just that.
The Art of Interpreting the Bible
Though the Bible may be an art form (written in many different artistic literary modes, with artistic language), we cannot interpret it the way we do art. There are not multiple interpretations to any one passage in Scripture – there is only one. And while the Bible indeed still holds significance for anyone in any context, it’s meaning cannot be twisted and contorted to fit a particular time or culture. It’s meaning was communicated through one context, at one time, through one culture; and it wasn’t ours. (though there may be multiple contexts or times or cultures in the Bible, what I mean here is that there was one intended context, time, and culture within which the truths of Scripture were originally communicated).
So where does that leave us? How are we to read the OT for encouragement and devotion? Do we ignore the Laws and leave them in the past? How do we apply these stories of guys like Abraham, Joseph, Joshua, Gideon, Samuel, David, and the like?
The answer begins with remembering that we do not determine the original meaning of Scripture – the author does (both human author and Divine Author). When reading any portion of Scripture, or any portion of literature for that matter, we have to remember that there was an original author, with an original intent in writing/creating, and an original goal he/she had in mind while writing. When we become aware of this, reading the Bible is no longer like looking at art, but is rather an art in itself, one that takes much more hard work and patience than beginning with personal connection and application.
As I mentioned earlier, when I’m looking at art, I enjoy thinking about what was going on in the author’s mind while he was crafting his masterpiece. I like to wonder what motivated him to paint, or sculpt, or craft. I’m fascinated when I think about what the author had originally intended to convey through this piece. And though I might be able to create my own significances out of this piece before me, the “truth” behind the piece only comes with an understanding of the author – what was going on his life at the time? what caused him to start it? what was his inspiration? what was his hope for the piece?
While we may not always (or ever) know the author’s original intent when it comes to art work, we can know (at least, in part) when it comes to the Bible. And when we give ourselves to the hard and patient work of understanding these things about the author, I think we’ll come to have an even greater appreciation – and personal connection/application, for that matter – from deeply understanding the real intended truth behind the text.
(This is Part 2 of my recent blog series, OT Tactics)
Part 1: What are these 39 books for?
2 thoughts on “Corrective Lenses: Reading the Bible like we "read" Art? (Part 2 of OT Tactics)”
Pastor Clark, excellent post and its thought provoking. As an artist and a graphic designer I particularly enjoy what you had written.
I do think the minimum way to approach the bible (both OT and NT) is to take it as a recorded narrative of God's message to us by not over-interpreting as in reading between-the-lines.
To take this further we can draw parallels between an artist and God—both has a repertoire which is not limited to a one-off piece (one hit wonder). To gain a better understanding and perspective on the artists' message and intent, the viewer must take the volume of work in perspective. Even with our wildest imagination we can not accurately picture what the finished 1,000- piece jigsaw puzzle truly looks like while all we do is stare at the fragmented image printed on a single puzzle piece.
Turrell's work is amazing, often in grand scale and site-specific. In similar ways, God's words must not be taken away from their specific “sites” by extracting any given passages out of context.
Wish I can see Turrell's work in person – particularly his work-in-progress at the Roden Crater – as photographic representation does not do the work justice.
When you have time, read this fascinating The New Yorker profile of James Turrell (from January of this year):
Kudos to yours and Janet's appreciation of abstract modernism art.
-Roger (Sunset Church)
Thanks for the comment Roger! I heartily agree! Though I've saved it for a future post, I like the comparison of taking an artist's whole volume of work into perspective to understand his intent and desire to be communicated. Will post later of how all of Scripture is, in a sense, a completed “volume” of God's intended way to communicate his message.
It was great seeing Turrell's installment at the LACMA! You should definitely go if you can. I believe it runs until April 2014. They had an exhibit showing his models and sketches of the Crater project as well. Can't wait til it's finished!
I look forward to reading his profile! Thanks!