Readers who have been to seminary, or had other advanced theological training—as well as those who have not—have probably heard a variety of theological jokes. I’d love to hear from you with your own favorite theological joke. Here, to get the ball rolling, is mine:
What do you get when you cross an insomniac, an agnostic, and a dyslexic?
Someone who lies awake at night wondering if there is a dog.
Kindly submit your own favorite (or favorites) in the comments field. I’ll be delighted to publish my new favorites in a later post.
In the same year that he painted Sunflowers, The Yellow House, and The Bedroom, Vincent van Gogh painted “A Garden of Olives—with a blue and orange Christ figure, a yellow angel—a piece of red earth, green and blue hills. Olive trees with purple and crimson trunks, with grey green and blue foliage. Sky lemon yellow.” But as Vincent wrote to his brother, Theo, “I scraped it off because I tell myself it’s wrong to do figures of that importance without a model” (Letter 637). Seventy-five days later, in another letter to Theo, Vincent wrote,
For the second time I’ve scraped off a study of a Christ with the angel in the Garden of Olives. Because here I see real olive trees. But I can’t, or rather, I don’t wish, to paint it without models. But I have it in my mind with color—the starry night, the figure of Christ blue, the strongest blues, and the angel broken lemon yellow. And all the purples from blood red purple to ash in the landscape. (Letter 685)
And two weeks later:
I mercilessly destroyed an important canvas—a Christ with the angel in Gethsemane—as well as another one depicting the poet with a starry sky—because the form hadn’t been studied from the model beforehand, necessary in such cases—despite the fact that the color was right. (Letter 698)
In Van Gogh’s Ghost Paintings: Art and Spirit in Gethsemane, Cliff Edwards, Professor of Religion in the School of World Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of three previous books on van Gogh, asks,
Exactly what is it about painting Jesus and the angel in Gethsemane that led to this double creation and double destruction during the height of the artist’s creativity? Why had he never composed a scene from the life of Christ before, and why would he never compose such a scene again?
The answer to the mystery of the lost paintings illuminates the relationship of joy and suffering, discovery and creation, religion and the arts in Van Gogh’s life and work. In this fascinating book Edwards solves a long-ignored mystery that provides a critical key to the relation of Van Gogh’s religion and art. Look for the book in late Spring or early Summer.
In the editing world there aren’t any “superstars.” But a new memoir just appeared by Mary Norris, a copy editor and researcher at The New Yorker magazine, titled Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. She tells great anecdotes about working with such luminaries as John Updike, Pauline Kael, and Philip Roth. I have only had a taste of it, but I am anxious to get into to learn from her.
God is like a bar of soap: when we try to grasp hold of him, he slips from our hands. That is my pearl of wisdom for the day. Here is St Ephrem on the same topic.
The divine cannot be named. . . . For no one has ever breathed the whole air, nor has any mind located, or language contained, the Being of God completely. But sketching God’s inward self from outward characteristics, we may assemble an inadequate, weak, and partial picture. And the one who makes the best theologian is not the one who knows the whole truth . . . [b]ut the one who creates the best picture, who assembles more of truth’s image or shadow. (Commentary on the Diatessaron 1.18–19; quoted by S. Brock, The Luminous Eye, 50–51)
Let us give thanks to God, who clothed Himself in the names of the body’s various parts: Scripture refers to His “ears,” to teach us that He listens to us; it speaks of His “eyes,” to show that He sees us. It was just the names of such things that He put on, and, although in His true Being there is not wrath or regret, yet He put on these names too because of our weakness.
Refrain; Blessed be He who has appeared to our human race under so many metaphors.
We should realize that, had He not put on the names of such things, it would not have been possible for Him to speak with us humans. By means of what belongs to us did He draw close to us: He clothed Himself in our language, so that He might clothe us in His mode of life. He asked for our form and put this on, and then, as a father with His children, He spoke with our childish state.
It is our metaphors that He put on—though He did not literally do so; He then took them off—without actually doing so: when wearing them, He was at the same time stripped of them. He puts one on when it is beneficial, then strips it off in exchange for another; the fact that He strips off and puts on all sorts of metaphors tells us that the metaphor does not apply to His true Being: because that Being is hidden, He has depicted it by means of what is visible . . .
A person who is teaching a parrot to speak hides behind a mirror and teaches it in this way: when the bird turns in the direction of the voice which is speaking it finds in front of its eyes its own resemblance reflected; it imagines that it is another parrot, conversing with itself. The man puts the bird’s image in front of it, so that thereby it might learn how to speak. This bird is a fellow creature with the man, but although this relationship exists, the man beguiles and teaches the parrot something alien to itself by means of itself; in this way he speaks with it.
The Divine Being that in all things is exalted above all things. in His love bent down from on high and acquired from us our own habits: He laboured by every means so as to turn all to Himself. (Faith 31; as quoted in S. Brock, The Luminous Eye, 60–62)
This week I was quietly inspired as I proofed David Robinson’s upcoming Cascade volume, Soul Mentoring: Discover the Ancient Art of Caring for Others. In it David reappropriates Gregory the Great’s classic, Pastoral Care. For several hundred years, Gregory’s opus was one of the most admired and reread books in Christendom. Those who have encountered it know that it uses simple but metaphor-rich language to teach about what we now call spiritual direction. For his part, Robinson wants nothing more than to introduce Gregory to pastors, coaches, leaders, and other mentors who haven’t previously discovered him. David does so successfully, drawing on his own wells of metaphors from his own frequent backpacking, gardening, sailing, and other homely but noble endeavors. Here’s an excerpt, a brief chapter on virtue and masking.
Children love dressing up for Halloween, putting on costumes and masks then heading out to trick or treat. In our little beach village, children go from shop to shop collecting candy on Halloween afternoon. Our downtown fills with pirates, goblins, princesses, and fairies. In the evening, all these strange masked creatures gather at the elementary school along with their parents and other townsfolk for a Halloween festival, complete with caramel apples, cakewalks, and carnival games. Then the first day of November comes; kids wake up and head off to school wearing no costumes or masks, instead getting back to the good work of education.
As adults, we still love to wear masks. According to Gregory, we often wear virtuous masks to hide our vices, covering our weaknesses with masks of strength, hoping others will not look behind the surface of our lives. I love the line from The Wizard of Oz, “Pay no attention to the man behind the green curtain.” In the midst of the booming voice of authority and the billowing flames of power, there he is, the bumbling country doctor from Kansas, pretending to be the great and awesome Wizard of Oz. Toto knows better, pulling back the green curtain to reveal the truth. Part of the hard work of mentoring is pulling off masks and pulling back green curtains.
Sometimes vices masquerade as virtues. A stingy person may try to tell you he is frugal, or a wasteful person may pretend she is being generous. Laziness can be rationalized as compassion, while uncontrolled anger is sometimes passed off as zeal. Rash judgment can parade as prompt responsibility, or tardiness as wise deliberation.
What is needed is a watchful heart to see behind outward appearances to inner truth, and thus help a mentee know the difference between vice and virtue. A wise mentor helps a mentee learn to discern. In this way, vices can be kept in check and virtues allowed to grow. Wise mentors do not overlook vices such as greed or wastefulness, laziness or wrath, rashness or tardiness, all of which bring harm. A wise mentor encourages a mentee to develop virtues such as simplicity and generosity, compassion and zeal, responsibility and wisdom.
Mentoring welcomes the wisdom of those who draw back the green curtain. Mentoring involves the boldness to ask for permission to remove a mask and the discernment to understand what lies beneath. This is best done when mutual respect and trust has been established between a mentor and mentee. Without trust, according to Gregory, a mentee may “sin more grievously” by becoming more entrenched in their vices, not allowing virtue to come into the soul. With discernment and mutual respect, masks may be gently removed, and we may begin to allow our souls to be dressed in such authentic virtues as simplicity, generosity, compassion, zeal, responsibility, and wisdom.
I tend to associate certain musical groups and artists with particular periods of my life. New Edition, for instance, makes me nostalgic for middle school. Many of those artists persist in my life beyond that specific period, but their music reminds me of the time when I first began to listen to them. Recently a handful of artists have released albums or individual songs that recall a time in my life not too long ago. I’m not sure how I would label this time. It’s the period encompassing dating and the first few years of marriage, prior to our move to Eugene and my starting work at Wipf and Stock Publishers. It’s that weird period many people experience wherein school wraps up (in my case the final year or so of dissertating) and a job solidifies. Some of my favorites from that period have put out new stuff. I like the new music, but I think I like the memories they evoke even more. Here’s a list of the meaningful albums from that 6 year period and the new stuff out this year. [NB: Links are to artists, albums, and/or songs on Spotify. Also, Sufjan Stevens and Iron & Wine were busy guys during those years!]
In putting this list together, I notice they all have a similar aesthetic. Hmm. Wonder what it was about that time of my life and this style of music?
I want to bring to your attention a really unique narrative voice: Tim Farrington. I’m just now finishing his novel The Monk Downstairs, and I’m blown away. He writes with wit, insight, and deep sense of faith. I am really looking forward to reading his other books:
He also has a nonfiction work I am anxious to find:
Last week I called attention to a couple of new Cascade Companions and the new look of that series. We’ve started to retrofit some of our older volumes, and I figured today would be a good day to call attention to three of my favorite companions and their new look. If you haven’t read these yet, now is a good time to get them with their nice, new design.