Dingbats

jim drain fabric art1

Textile art has long been the Rodney Dangerfield of the art world. It gets no respect. But to quote a Bob Dylan song, the times they are a-changin’. Jim Drain’s art exhibit “Zapf Dingbats,” which just ended at Nina Johnson Gallery in Miami, shows the vibrant potential of this medium. Brightly colored fabric installations line the walls and four large sculptures anchor the exhibit, breathing life and hope into an age of uncertainty. The pieces include visual references to Edward Hicks’s painting The Peaceable Kingdom, which depicts a Utopian future prophesied by Isaiah in the Bible. Drain also subtly includes political protest in his art. The title of the exhibition is taken from the symbols printed on sheets of fabric lining the walls. If typed in alphabetic fonts, the symbols would spell out [F-word] Trump! over and over. Drain has created complex, powerful pieces that remain colorful, playful, and optimistic. I’m glad I got a chance to view this exhibition the day before it closed. My visit to Nina Johnson Gallery was the last and best stop on my recent whirlwind art and culture tour of Miami. It will not be my last.

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Uncanny

charles-ray---baled-truck

Baled Truck, 2014
solid stainless steel
30 x 118 x 50 inches (76 x 300 x 127 cm)

There’s a story told about the French philosopher René Descartes. He boards a ship for a voyage over the North Sea with a large wooden box which he insists be handled with such great care that the sea captain’s curiosity is aroused. When Descartes is out of his cabin the sea captain opens the box and is horrified to find a life-sized mechanical girl inside. He’s so shocked he throws Descartes’ “daughter” overboard. (You can hear a podcast about this story here.) This apocryphal story illustrates the fact that our brains have trouble processing fake things that are too lifelike.

This phenomenon, called the “uncanny valley,” was first articulated in 1970 by a Japanese roboticist named Masahiro Mori. The idea is that the closer robots (or wax figures) resemble human beings, the more it freaks us out. My daughter Nadine and I had such an experience this week on a trip Glenstone Museum in Potomac, Maryland.

At Glenstone, there’s an entire room dedicated to the sculpture of Charles Ray (b. 1953).  One large piece called Baled Truck looks just like a vehicle that’s been crushed for recycling. Only, like Descartes’ daughter, it’s a replica. Ray made a three-dimensional scan of a compacted cube of twisted steel, rubber, plastic, and glass, then had over a hundred individual shapes fabricated out of stainless steel. These pieces were painstakingly reassembled, welded together, and painted. It took the artist six years. The final product looks like the original, only the surface is smooth, almost liquid, and it weighs twelve tons. In the same room is an eight-foot-tall female mannequin, uncanny because of her Amazonian size. She looks like any department store mannequin, but on a larger, unsettling scale.

However, the most troubling piece in the exhibit is Ray’s realistic sculpture of a little boy called The New Beetle. Made of stainless steel and painted white, the sculpture depicts a lifelike nude boy on the floor playing with a toy car. The boy is five, maybe six, years old, too old to be comfortable undressed. Yet he is lost in the oblivion of play. His lack of shame is counterbalanced by the viewer’s embarrassment in staring at the boy’s naked prepubescent form. My daughter, who is a pediatric nurse, was upset. “It’s pornography!” she said in an agitated voice. I felt uncomfortable too. Is it porn masquerading as art? There’s nothing overtly sexual in the boy’s posture or expression. What’s the difference between this boy and chubby nude angels in Renaissance paintings? And why do we Americans love depictions of graphic violence in movies and on TV but squirm when confronted by the human body?

I’m not sure how to answer these questions. But like good preaching, good art should leave us with something to ponder long after the experience is over.

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A Light in the Darkness

light-in-the-darkness

The light shines brightest in the darkness. That’s what I thought recently when I read about Jamie Schmidt, a 53-year-old Catholic wife and mother of three, who sang in her church choir at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in High Ridge, MO. By all accounts Ms. Schmidt was a quiet soul. One of her fellow parishioners described her as “very simple, very modest, very quiet. If you ever needed help, she would be there.” On Monday, November 19, 2018, Ms. Schmidt stopped by a local Catholic supply store, perhaps to buy supplies to make rosaries for fellow parishioners, when the unthinkable happened. A gunman entered the store and herded Ms. Schmidt and two other women into a back room. He ordered them to undress, then began raping the women. When he attempted to force himself on Ms. Schmidt, she refused, so the assailant shot her in the head. She died of her wound later that day. This modern-day martyr reminds us that there are saints among us, who will shine like the stars in glory.

On this first Sunday in Advent, the second reading at Mass encourages us “to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones (1 Thes. 3:13).  Advent focuses our attention in two directions: back to the first coming of Christ, which we celebrate on Christmas, and forward to his Second Coming, when “he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” as we confess in the Nicene Creed. In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus warns us: “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap” (Luke 21:34). As the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, we are to watch and pray. If we do this, we too can become lights in the darkness.

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Christ the King

Christ the King

We live in an era of conspiracy theories, fake news, and alternative facts. In the past falsehood competed with truth. Now it’s confusion. We don’t have to be convinced of a lie to be led astray. It’s enough to become cynical and doubt that we can ever arrive at objective, absolute truth. Truth becomes relative and personal: “You have your truth. I have mine.” The person who shouts the loudest seems to get the most attention nowadays. Into this charred, postmodern landscape comes a stranger and alien, Jesus Christ. When he finally got his day in court, the judge wanted to know if he was indeed a king. He was, but he said his kingdom was not of this world (John 18:33-37). This world loves power, not truth. Jesus gave up his power to bear witness to the truth.

“So you really are a king?” Pilate asked.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (v. 37)

Citing other verses in John’s Gospel, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “In Jesus Christ, the whole of God’s truth has been made manifest. ‘Full of grace and truth,’ he came as the ‘light of the world, he is the Truth.” (CCC 2466) In other words, Jesus not only speaks the truth, he embodies it. Likewise, we are called not merely to acknowledge truth, to mentally assent to and affirm it, but also to live it. Again, the catechism says, “Truth as uprightness in human action and speech is called truthfulness, sincerity, or candor. Truth or truthfulness is the virtue which consists in showing oneself true in deeds and truthful in words, and in guarding against duplicity, dissimulation, and hypocrisy.” (CCC 2468). What is most needed in our day, both inside and outside the Church, are people who not only speak truth but live it.

Tomorrow the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe or simply Christ the King. If Christ is our King, then our kingdom is not of this world either. This feast calls us to focus not on earthly power but on heavenly, not on the vicissitudes of human opinions but on divinely revealed truth, and not on shameful behavior but on virtue.

“When once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony.” (Pope Pius XI, Quas Primas 19)

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City on a Hill

5_192014_reagan8201_c0-30-1052-643_s885x516The past few days when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I’ve thought a bit of the “shining city upon a hill.” The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man. He journeyed here on what today we’d call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free.

I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still. (from President Ronald Reagan’s “Farewell Address to the Nation,” January 11, 1989)

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Loving God

7-works-of-mercy-haarlem

The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy by a painter from the Noord-Hollandse school of Haarlem, the Netherlands (1580)

I live in Loudoun County, Virginia, one of the most affluent counties in America. Its rolling hills are dotted with picturesque horse farms and vineyards. While there are pockets of poverty, most residents are financially well off and many are downright rich. Most of us would rather be rich than poor, and that’s understandable. But when I read the Bible, especially the gospels, I realize that riches can have a corrosive effect on the soul. Being financially self-reliant tends to make us less reliant on God.

In today’s gospel lesson, Mark 12:28b–34, Jesus says the first (that is, the most important) commandment is to love God with all our hearts. Who does this? Examples of people in Mark’s gospel who love God include a leper (Mk 1:40-45), a formerly demon-possessed man (Mk 5:18-20), a Canaanite woman (Mk 7:24ff); blind Bartimaeus (Mk 10:46-52), and the widow in the Temple (Mk 12:24ff). They aren’t people like me, who have drawn all the high cards in the game of life (healthy, white, middle-class, educated, male). They are the poor, the sick, and the marginalized. Why is that? Perhaps those who need God most love him most.

The second commandment Jesus articulates is to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mk 12:31). It is easier to love people than to love God, because people are more present and tangible. In fact, Jesus said if we love people, especially those who are in need: the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the prisoner, the stranger (Mt 25:.31-46) . . . if we love them by using our abundance to fill up what they lack, then we are loving Christ by loving them.

If we want to grow in our love for God, we can start by loving the poor and needy.

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Happy Birthday, Mother of God!

619px-giotto_-_scrovegni_-_-07-_-_the_birth_of_the_virgin.jpg

Giotto, Birth of the Virgin (1303)

Today we Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (Happy Birthday, Mother of God!) When I was a Baptist, Marian doctrines were particularly difficult for me. I had been taught and believed “that the sole authority for faith and practice . . . is the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.” Emphasis on the word “sole.” Baptists inherited this doctrine (called “sola scriptura” in Latin) from Martin Luther and have it in common with almost all Protestant churches. How could I believe Mary was born sinless when the Bible says nothing about her birth? Doctrines such as the Immaculate Conception were “unbiblical” because they were extra-biblical. I used to preach and teach we must believe only what we find in Scripture.

As a Church historian, I felt uncomfortable with this principle because many foundational doctrines are not spelled out in Scripture, at least not as clearly as what we were required to believe. (Yes, required. If we didn’t believe them, we’d be considered “unsaved” and headed to eternity in hell.) The Trinity is probably the best example. Although grounded in Scripture, the doctrine developed over time. Here’s how I expressed the conundrum when I was still a Baptist preacher:

“If I didn’t already know the doctrine as it developed over time and as it is expressed in the creeds, and if I had only the Bible to guide me, Would I be able to arrive at the full expression of the doctrine of the Trinity as found in the Nicene Creed?  If not, I am left with one of two unsettling possibilities: either my doctrine of the Trinity is wrong or my doctrine of religious authority is wrong.” (You can read the full blog post here.)

I eventually concluded my doctrine of religious authority was wrong. “The Bible alone” is unbiblical and self-contradictory. The Bible never teaches the principle of Scripture alone. Quite the opposite. St. Paul admonished the Corinthians, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ. Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you” (1 Cor. 11:1-2). Where did St. Paul or any of the Apostles ever say, “All you need to believe is in the Bible”? Where did Jesus ever say that? He didn’t.

Think about that for a minute. Jesus never said, “If you want to know what to believe or how to live, all you need to do is consult written Scripture.” As far as we know, he never wrote anything, and he didn’t tell his followers, “Wait until the twenty-seven books of the New Testament are written and canonized and they will guide you in all truth.” Here’s what he told his disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:1-2). In other words, Jesus told his followers to rely on apostolic tradition.

Most Baptists and other evangelical Protestants believe the Bible is inerrant. Every book. Every sentence. Every word. However, they don’t believe the table of contents is inspired. Ask Protestant ministers why they believe those twenty-seven books are inspired and not other early Christian writings, and they will start sounding very Catholic. They start quoting church synods and councils. In other words, they rely on Sacred Tradition. Why? Because the Catholic Church gave us the canon of Scripture. Baptists and other Protestants wouldn’t even know what books were in the Bible unless the Church had told them. The Reformer John Calvin saw this problem and invented a subjective and individualistic test of Biblical authority called “self-authentication.” It says that when a Christian reads the canonical Scriptures, the Holy Spirit speaks to his heart and reveals that they are true. (You can read a good article on this topic by a reformed theologian turned Catholic apologist here.)

This problem of self-authentication raises a similar conundrum to the one I mentioned earlier about the Nicene Creed. If I have only the Holy Spirit to guide me, could I pick out which twenty-seven books were to be included in the canon out of all the religious literature of antiquity if I didn’t already know which books were part of the New Testament? Hardly! No one comes to believe in the canon this way. Our parents give us a book with the title “The Holy Bible” stenciled in gold leaf on its bonded leather cover. They tell us that it’s God’s book and we should believe what’s in it. It’s given to us by tradition. And we believe it, because we believe those who gave it to us. The Holy Spirit can (and does) confirm the truth we find in Scripture. But the Bible itself is a product and gift of the Church. And we know that because Sacred Tradition works in tandem with, not against, Sacred Scripture. Tradition and Scripture are the two oars that, pulling together, move the Church along.

All that to say, I don’t need a biblical prooftext to celebrate the birth of Mary or believe God kept her free of original sin from her conception. I can celebrate our Blessed Mother’s nativity and believe the Marian doctrines for the same reason I can know and believe the Bible . . . because that’s what Sacred Tradition has taught me.

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