Monthly Archives: June 2010

The Naked Gaze


The Brandenburg Gate (1929), Oil on canvas, 120 x 150 cm, Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

The first time I remember seeing a painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) was The Brandenburg Gate (above) on the cover of Mary Fulbrook’s Concise History of Germany. I didn’t even realize it was painted by a famous artist until I saw it hanging in the Städel Museum in Frankfurt a few years after I read the book. Now the Städel has a retrospective exhibit of Kirchner’s art on display and today I went see it. Here’s the official video of the exhibit with English subtitles (WARNING: there is some non-realistic-looking nudity in the video):

Kirchner was one of the founding members of Die Brücke (The Bridge)—a group of expressionist artists founded in 1905 in Dresden, Germany. I’m a fan of German expressionism, but I prefer the works of the other, later group based in Munich—Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), which included such luminaries as Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, August Macke, Gabriele Münter, and Lyonel Feininger.

Kirchner and his friends rebelled against the moral strictures of Wilhelmine Germany and its rule-bound art establishment. They experimented with bright color, primitivism, and eroticism. All of these things had already been done a generation earlier by French artists, but there is a new kind of in-your-face flaunting of rule-breaking the German manifestation. That and more angst. Their goal was not to reproduce nature but to express emotion, hence the name “expressionism.”

As I wandered through the exhibit, I was surprised by the range of subjects and emotions in Kirchner’s art. I was also impressed with his post-1925 “new style,” which employs pastel colors (mint green, Pepto-Bismol pink, and lavender) and abstract forms that look twenty to thirty years ahead of their time. On the other hand, I was bothered by the way Kirchner portrayed women in his art. The odd skin tones (ghost while, burnt orange, periwinkle blue, or puke green) and unnaturally drawn bodies of his female nudes make them hardly titillating, but Kirchner nonetheless objectified women (and girls), making them subjects of his voyeuristic male gaze. There were also some erotic sketches in the exhibit as explicit as any illustrations in the Kama Sutra.

Kirchner’s art is libertine and with it comes all of the good and bad that normally accompanies libertinism: creativity, liveliness, debauchery, and exploitation. In the end, Kirchner became a victim of his own angst. He tragically took his own life just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Maybe it’s a good thing that he didn’t live to see it. The violence war is far more pornographic and corrupting than anything you could possibly experience in a museum.


Blue Nude with Straw Hat (1909), Oil on board, 68 x 72 cm, private collection.

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Swimming in Blue

Yesterday I visited historic St. Stephen’s Church in Mainz, Germany where there are nine stained glass windows made by the famous Russian-French artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985). It wasn’t my first time there, but it never ceases to make an impression. Enter the church and you’re swimming in luminous blue light. Here’s a YouTube video, which doesn’t do it justice but gives you an idea nonetheless:

These windows are an important symbol of Jewish-Christian and Jewish-German reconciliation, because Chagall and his family had to flee Nazi-occupied France during World War II. Chagall’s friendship with the former pastor of the church, Klaus Mayer, induced him to undertake the project, even though he was over ninety years old.

There’s another kind of reconciliation in Chagall’s art, which mixes avant-garde styles with traditional religious belief. Chagall combined the bold colors of Matisse and the cubism of Picasso with biblical themes he knew intimately from his Orthodox Jewish upbringing. Modern art is not inherently atheistic. For those who think it is I have one word of rebuttal: Chagall.

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Squaring the Circle

I believe faith and works both play a role in salvation. Now before you label me a heretic or crypto-Catholic, please hear me out. Since the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, the church in the West has been divided between Protestants, who believe justification (becoming right with God) comes passively by means of faith in Christ alone, and Catholics, who believe that justification is a gift of God’s grace that is received actively by faith and baptism with repentance being a key element. (I know there are other theological differences. I also know that there’s a dispute about whether free-church Christians like us Baptists should be called “Protestants,” but even if not we are related closely to them theologically and historically.) To oversimplify the case, Protestants make good works a product of justification, whereas Catholics see good works also as part of the process of justification. (Never mind that Protestants disagree among themselves on whether baptism is essential for salvation.) However, for both Catholics and Protestants good works are essential, either as evidence (Protestant) or both evidence and ingredient (Catholic) of God’s work of conversion in a person’s life. Neither would say that good works are irrelevant.

An analogy might be helpful. Most would agree that love is a key ingredient in a marriage. In Western cultures we say you need to make sure that you truly love the other person before you marry. Someone who comes from a part of the world where arranged marriages are still common might say that you must love your spouse after you’re married, even if you didn’t love them before. Both agree that love is essential in marriage.

The Bible says, “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us” (Titus 3:5). It also says, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:20). Which do I believe? Both.

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Jesus Played Jazz

There have been a lot of jazz notes played at our house lately as our daughter Natalie practices Samuel Barber’s Excursions for an upcoming piano competition. Okay, so it’s not Jelly Roll Morton but it counts for jazz in our white, middle-class family. Here’s a recording of the piece I found on YouTube:

As part of my ongoing quest to expand my cultural horizons, I’ve discovered I really like female vocalists Norah Jones, Diana Krall, and Nikki Yanofsky. Their delicious fusions of jazz and pop/rock go together like bread pudding and whiskey sauce and are just as sweet. And the new Stacey Kent album is to die for, even though I can’t understand a word of it. (It’s in French.) Much of today’s jazz, including the kind I like best, is so tame it’s hard to imagine how controversial it was in the past.

In its youth, jazz got the reputation of being a wild child. It was considered dangerous music that undermined cultural norms and threatened to topple governments. Although it was the favorite genre of the sexually permissive and carefree 1920s—the Jazz Age; in the 1930s the Nazis banned jazz, because they saw it as degenerate, racially inferior “nigger music.” Its themes of liberation also threatened Nazi ideals of an orderly, controlled society. American fundamentalists preachers (many of whom were also racists) considered jazz the devil’s music—a bastard born in the bars and brothels on Bourbon Street. (Forgive the alliteration; it’s the Baptist preacher in me coming out.) But it wasn’t just fascists and fundamentalists who opposed jazz. Professor Henry Van Dyck of Princeton University called it “not music at all. It’s merely an irritation of the nerves of hearing, a sensual teasing of the strings of physical passion.” Thus, Jazz was seen by many as culturally corrupt and corrupting.

Deeply rooted in the African-American experience, jazz, like other like other kinds folk music, was a form of cultural expression that could not be controlled by whites. Jazz is subversive. It’s the music of the anti-establishment underground. That’s why I think Jesus would approve. Though no libertine, Jesus was a rebel. He hung out with sinners and prostitutes, even racially inferior Samaritans. He broke the Sabbath, tweaked the authorities, preached themes of liberation, and became an of object of revolutionaries’ hopes for political emancipation.

Like jazz, Jesus has been domesticated so much that we forget just how controversial he was in his day. I think I’m gonna listen to some Miles Davis and ruminate on that for a while. Join me?

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Breaking the Silence

Just the facts:

  • 90% of active sex offenders have no criminal record that would show up in a background check
  • 70% of reported sexual assaults involve minors
  • 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before their 18th birthday
  • the average male who sexually abuses minor girls has 52 victims, and the average male that abuses minor boys has 150 victims
  • fewer than 10% of child molestation incidents are disclosed, far fewer are prosecuted or convicted

***

Tim drove to work, sipping his coffee and listening to NPR as he always did during the morning commute. He felt himself getting angry but not at the Southern California gridlock. He was angry at the report of clergy sexual abuse on the radio. By the time he reached his office he was livid, only his anger was directed at the victims who never came forward or who waited years or even decades to report their abuse. “It’s just not right,” Tim fumed to himself. “Those people care more about saving their own embarrassment than protecting innocent kids who could be future victims!” A Bible verse popped into his head: “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin” (James 4:17). Tim asked his administrative assistant to hold all calls, then barricaded himself in his office. He sat staring out the window and tried hard to pray. That’s when it hit him. He was angry at himself. For over twenty years he had been in a state of denial about his own abuse and never before allowed himself to get angry about it.

Unlike most victims of sexual abuse, Tim had not known his abuser. He was a teenager visiting a church in another city when the pastor, a middle aged man, cornered him in a staircase and began to touch him. Tim wanted to run or punch the man. Instead he just froze, paralyzed with fear. Did anything else happen? Tim didn’t think so but doubt nagged at him. He couldn’t remember. Like many victims he experienced missing time.

The Internet is an amazing tool. In just ten minutes Tim found the name and a picture of the man who assaulted him. Now elderly, he was still in the ministry, serving as interim pastor of another church in the same state. “Son of a bitch,” Tim said aloud. With a trembling hand, he picked up the phone. The denominational leader at the other end of the line was kind and helpful. They had disciplinary procedures for dealing with such matters, he explained, and asked Tim to trust the process. Trust the process? That was asking a lot from someone whose trust had been betrayed, and by a church leader no less.

There were many more phone calls: to church employees, to denominational leaders, and to lawyers. Tim learned there had been at least one other victim. A man Tim’s same age had made an accusation against the minister years earlier. The denomination had investigated the allegation, but the whole thing was dropped at the request of the accuser’s family. Tim wanted to see the records of the investigation but was told they were destroyed when a fire broke out in a denominational office. (How convenient!) He asked to speak to the other man who claimed to have been a victim of abuse but the family refused to allow it. Still, just knowing that there was someone else out there who had reported abuse by the same man gave Tim confidence. He wasn’t crazy. He hadn’t made it up. But he thought about the boys who had grown up in that church. Tim was there only once and the pastor assaulted him. What about the kids who were there every Sunday? He started getting angry at the church leaders who knew about it . . . and did nothing.

Tim eventually faced his accuser in a mediation procedure. Everything was handled professionally by lawyers and trained mediators. There were advocates for both the accuser and the accused. In the end the man never admitted his guilt but his lame explanation for what happened that day twenty years earlier made the minister sound guilty as hell. He agreed to retire permanently not have any ministry in the future, which saved him and the denomination the public scandal of a church trial and possible defrocking. As part of the agreement, Tim signed a gag order promising not to go public with his accusation. That’s why this story is fiction.

Edmund Burke said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Is there something you need to do?

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