Evolution of a Painting
The day after the election I was a basket case (as you might have figured from previous posts on this blog). A professor of mine once suggested that our most prolific times would usually be times of emotional stress or poor mental health. He said it matter-of-factly, not even alluding to art therapy.
I remembered this advice (or admission) and decided that I needed to create something.
On the first day, my grief for my country was so deep all I felt that I could paint was what I felt. As Frida Kahlo once said, ” I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.” So this is what I painted:
I’d been teaching about the New York School. Action painters who emphasized the process as a cathartic, meditative experience and color-field painters who created pieces intended to invoke a contemplative mood in their viewers. It was very satisfying.
It wouldn’t leave me alone. It called out to me. This past Summer I’d read a biography of Lutheran theologian and WWII resistance member Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This Fall I re-read his reflection on Christian fellowship, ‘Life Together.’
Bonhoeffer refused to compromise genuine Christian discipleship to mollify the demands of the Third Reich. First this meant pioneering the “confessional” church movement and underground seminaries, but eventually he was recruited by the Abwehr (a German intelligence agency which pre-dated the rise of NAZI power) and thereby a number of assassination plots against Hitler.
He was For a year and a half, he was kept in a military prison, then to the Gestapo’s high-security prison, then to Buchenwald concentration camp, and finally to Flossenbürg concentration camp where he was hung in April of 1945 days before German surrender.
So I attacked my muddy brown canvas with black, then built an almost ghostly face with stark white. The under-painting began taking shape.A ghost in a concentration camp. Certainly not the prophetic voice of hope which I had met in his writings. But definitely a product of my own angst.
I thought I remember reading somewhere that angst is the combination of anger and anxiety born from the inability to control a situation or effect change. This is certainly how I feel about the election of Trump; a hateful, unprepared, unqualified, angry, entitled, demagogue.
There it stood on my easel for a week. Students commenting that it looked like me- perhaps an indictment of my melancholic disposition. To me it felt like Poe’s raven, constantly reminding me of the death of equality, liberty, justice and any hope of any kinds of peace at home or abroad. A dour ghost haunting my classroom.
I experimented in Photoshop with blending the original photo with my under-painting. The image was exciting and moving, but still ghostly. For me it evoked the spirits of Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank, Corrie ten Boom and Viktor Frankl, not just Bonhoeffer.
Finally this week, I resumed painting. Like the prophet Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, I attached flesh to the bones. But alas, dry ache became weeping sorrow. But at least students told me, “now it’s finally starting to look like him instead of you!”
Yesterday I made a great deal of progress, although I think it looked more like a cross between William H. Macy and Philip Seymour Hoffman than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Now I felt like it had some indignation and resignation rather than just depression and despair. Somehow I hoped to add some sense of hope or faith, since these are the things Bonhoeffer demonstrated most to me.
Today, I feel like I gave it a great deal more dimension and solidity. I feel like it looks more realistic and closer to finish. This may be prejudiced somehow, but I think it even looks German or at least European- although I’m not quite sure it looks like Bonhoeffer exactly. I’m also not sure how to capture any hope. It may be too late for that.
It’s hard to imagine a martyr with any hope or joy- but that is what is so amazing about Bonhoeffer’s story- witnesses claim that they were amazed by his warmth and encouragement for his fellow prisoners and his amazing composure and bravery even in his final moments.
I haven’t decided whether or not I’m finished with it. Perhaps if I live with him for another week, he will tell me again. But I do like it. Of course, I liked that ghost-like mummy from the second and third days too.
To check that I had the spectacles in the right place, I held my canvas up to the projector on the SmartBoard in my classroom and projected the original photo onto the painting. I loved what I saw so much, I had to take a picture of it. It seems to me still sorrowful, but challenging as well. “What are you prepared to do, Ted? For democracy? For authentic Christianity?” Would I have the faith or the courage to make the kinds of sacrifices he did?
I pray I’ll never have to. One biographer notes that while he wrote treatises and essays and devotions and letters, he never really wrote much poetry until he was imprisoned. But I have to say, one of his poems is one of the most amazing pieces of reflective existential art that I’ve ever run across.
Once you read it, look back over the various stages of my painting’s development and imagine them reciting it to you.
Who Am I?
by Deitrich Bonhoeffer
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As thought it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectations of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.
Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!
Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing
Both Aesop and Jesus warned of wolves in sheep’s clothing. Too be sure, people who are selfish predators will try to fool us into thinking that they’re “one of us.” Witness the billionaire politician who claims to care about the working class. And Satan himself started as an angel of light (Lucifer, means light bearer). Temptation doesn’t look like a frightening monster, it looks like everything we want & think we need.
But I’d like to talk about reversing the metaphor- what Existentialist psychologist Viktor Frankl called being a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Frankl meant it as a way to encourage therapists following his style/philosophy of psychoanalysis/therapy to be open to adopting some of the ideas and methods of other “schools of thought” without completely abandoning his principles or adopting ALL of others.
But I see it as a perfect image of Christians being in the world, but not OF it (John 17:14-15 & Matt 10:16).
What does it mean to be a sheep in wolf’s clothing? Does it mean to pretend to be worldly and hide your faith? No. Although there is value to being humble, authentic and approachable- rather than inflexible, proud or judgmental, in other words, to be “all things to all people” as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. But no, it doesn’t mean to compromise your principles or to try to look cool.
I feel that being a sheep in wolf’s clothing means to be shrewd as serpents (Matt 10:16). It means as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would say, being strong minded and soft hearted rather than soft-minded and hard hearted. It means not being so caught up in being right or reforming or controlling others that you fail to see how you can help others and encourage others.
Recently a friend shared a striking statistic, abortion rates dropped by 43% in a city which offered free birth control. This would be an example of loosening one’s grip on trying to enforce God’s rules in order to advance God’s ways. If it sounds like I’m promoting relativism or situation-ethics, I’m not- not exactly. But let’s face it, the spirit of the law is more valuable and effective than the letter of the law. This gets to the root of living by faith rather than works.
Lutherans often make a joke out of Luther’s famous quote, “Sin Boldly,” as if it gives us license to drink beer that Baptists and Methodists avoid. But that’s not the meaning, purpose or context of the quote. It doesn’t mean cheap grace, it doesn’t mean license to sin because Jesus already died for our sins. In part, it means that we don’t live in a sinless world yet, so unfortunately sometimes we can’t let perfect become the enemy of the good.
Mostly it means that we have free-will. God is not a tyrant. He created us with the liberty AND responsibility to make decisions for ourselves.
During the Protestant reformation, churches which had broken with Rome were sometimes paralyzed with fear of doing something wrong once they were freed from the tyranny of human tradition and dogma. Should priests get married? Should churches be spartan or elaborately decorated?
Luther wrote a letter to his friend Phillip Melanchthon in 1521 explaining how we should trust God to forgive us if using our best judgement and trying to serve Him, we unintentionally or inadvertently sin.
“If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (Sin Boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign….”
This Summer I read a biography of German pastor and WWII resistance conspirator Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was recruited to become a member of the Abwehr, German military intelligence organization, within which he participated in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. How can a pastor deliberately engage in lying, undermining the government and planning murder? Aren’t those all sins? Didn’t that make him a hypocrite? I would argue, wouldn’t being complicit in the idolatry of nationalism, racism and militarism and genocide also have made him a sinner and a hypocrite?
Sometimes choosing the lesser of two evils is indeed not only a permissible choice for Christians, but the best choice available. I could start getting into philosophy and how Leibniz was right and Hegel, but this post has gotten out-of-hand long already. My children and students are always telling me “too-many-words!”
So let me just finish by sharing two great quotes from Bonhoeffer that speak to being a disciple, following the footsteps of Jesus Christ, rather than just a dumb sheep, blindly following a church or human leaders, clergy, televangelists, demagogues or others:
“Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”
“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”