Friday, October 3, 2008

Out of Context

Yesterday I took the Sounder commuter train to Seattle and spent the day there. This day to myself was a gift from my wife for Father's Day (yes, she got one for Mother's Day), and so I finally had the chance to take it. The first half of the day was spent at the Seattle Art Museum. Admission is free the first Thursday of each month, so that was a bonus.

Usually when I go to an art museum, I spend my time in the galleries with paintings, in particular work from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. But this day, I was drawn to the scultptures from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Perhaps it was because I just finished those sections in Paul Johnson's book Art: A New History.

I closely inspected a basalt head of what was thought to be Thutmose III. His successor Amenhotep II may very well have been the pharaoh at the time of the Exodus, depending on which scholar you talk to. It was as if I was travelling back in time, imagining the original artist's hands and tools at work, chipping off pieces of stone, scratching a line here, polishing a rough spot there. At the same time, I imagined the plight of the Israelites in the same land and the same time where that piece was created.

I examined all of the fragments in the gallery ... the heads of pharaohs and caesars, portions of funeral steles, the section of a floor mosaic, the miniature votive figures and amulets. I was amazed at the skill and aesthetic sensitivities of the ancient artists.

Each of these fragments were works of art by themselves. In the gallery setting, it was as if this was the way the artist intended them to be viewed, mounted on walls and pedestals, with labels nearby giving you the title and date of the piece. But this was not the way they were originally intended to be viewed. They were all out of context. The majority of them originally served some religious purpose. The funeral steles had carved images of food that was to accompany the dead individual into the afterlife. The images of pharaohs and caesars immortalized and deified the men portrayed. Offerings and prayers were presented before votive figurines of pagan gods. They were indeed each beautiful works of art, but ripped out of their context, they ceased to serve the purposes for which they were intended.

In a similar way, portions of the Bible are often treated that way. Yes, it's all God's Word. Yes, every word and syllable and jot and tittle is inspired by the Holy Spirit. Yes, it's important to study the original languages to find out the exact meaning of the text ... and we might even marvel at, if I may say so, the "artistry" of the author. You can appreciate the poetry of the Psalms or the rhetoric of the Apostle Paul. But when verses are ripped out of context, the danger is that they will be used for purposes other than the way they were intended. It's so important to deal with the context of a verse, both near and far...the verses immediately surrounding the verse and the book in which they are found. Moreover, it's important that we never lose sight of what Jesus himself said of the Scriptures: "It is they that bear witness about me." (John 5:39) The Bible in its entirety is meant to point us to Christ. If it is used for any other purpose - as a book of rules, as a manual for how to improve your life, or like a fortune cookie where you can just open up and find out what God wants you to do in any given situation - then it's being used wrongly.

Yep ... I got all that out of a visit to the art museum.

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