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Sunday, 25 October 2015

Inspired to follow: Moses writing the Book of Genesis

What does it mean to follow Jesus today? How can I deepen my faith in God?

Inspired to Follow: Art and the Bible Story is a programme of hour-long gatherings over three terms which covers the Biblical story from Creation to Apocalypse. It uses fine art paintings that can be found on St Martin-in-the-Fields' doorstep as a springboard for exploring these two questions.

Today I gave the following reflection as part of this series:

JMW Turner was one of the greatest British artists whose desire to paint extreme weather conditions – blazing sun and swirling storm - resulted in Romantic art which also anticipated Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism. His commitment to realism was such that he once had himself lashed to a ship’s mast for four hours in order to observe the actual conditions of a storm. This painting ('Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis') is one of a pair; the first being 'Shade and Darkness - The Evening of the Deluge', also in the Tate’s collection and which depicts the storm on the evening of the Flood.

By contrast this image depicts the calm after the storm in the form of “an explosion of sunlight which brilliantly exploits the warm side of the spectrum.” Turner’s title indicates that he has multiple ideas in mind with this image including colour theories which enable him to depict the sunrise, the Flood imagery that we have just mentioned and Moses writing the Torah (the first five books of the Bible, including Genesis), which is our focus for today. Light, in Turner’s paintings, becomes “a singular, haunting presence,” with the paintings literally drenched in light. The sun, was for Turner, the living core of all of nature, so much so that he is reputed to have said on his deathbed, “The sun is god”.

So, we have a painting in which God is depicted through the medium of light with Moses set within this corona of light whilst writing the Torah. Our readings from Exodus show the appropriateness of this unusual imagery because, after Moses has been in the presence of God on Mount Sinai to receive the Law, his face shines with the light of God; so much so, that he puts a veil over his face whenever he is not speaking with the Israelites. Turner’s painting gives us a sense of what this story suggests; that the experience of being in the presence of God irradiated Moses in a way which meant that he reflected something of God’s light.

At Mount Sinai the Israelites, as a whole, had been given the chance to become a nation of priests enjoying the kind of intimate, direct relationship with God that Moses developed. God offered the opportunity to draw the Israelites as a whole into an intimate relationship with him where they would be able (as happens to Moses in his relationship with God) to debate, argue and influence God and where they are not simply obeying an external set of rules but have internalised God’s framework for life and live freely within it (Jeremiah 31: 33 & 34). God’s vision for the Israelites’ relationship with him (Exodus 19: 6) is that they are all to be priests and, therefore, will be able to come directly into his presence.

He provides the tools to make this happen through the Law (Exodus 20: 1–17). The Law was not intended to be used just in terms of its literal external application but to operate as a developmental process enabling the People of Israel to learn what is the heart and spirit of the Law; that is love (love of God, our neighbours and ourselves). Limits are what parents set while they are teaching their children how to respond to the situations with which life will confront them. When they have learnt, they no longer need the external limits because they have internalised and can utilise these lessons. 

An analogy is that of a child learning to cross the road. Parents firstly lay down strict limits on what the child can and cannot do. Then the child is taught how to cross the road in safety. But when the child has learnt how to judge distance and speed then s/he is free to cross the road wherever s/he judges it is safe to do so and is no longer restricted to recognised crossing places. In the way that both the prophets and Jesus use the Law we see this developmental process in use because in their interpretations of the Law they consistently emphasise the core/the spirit/the fulfilment of the Law, not its external application (see, for example, Amos 5: 21 - 24 and Matthew 5: 17 - 48).

The people of Israel, at Sinai, are offered the opportunity to live in conversation with God, by moving beyond the literal and structure-legitimating application of the Law to the embrace of love that is its essence and core. The people refuse this deeper level of relationship with God whilst still promising to obey him (Exodus 20: 18 – 19). They ask that Moses enters into this intimate relationship with God on their behalf and then reports back. Instead of the intimate encounter they choose a contractual relationship saying to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die” (Exodus 20: 19). This then becomes the pattern for God’s relationship with the people of Israel throughout the Old Testament. They relate to God legalistically and through individual mediators (whether prophets, judges or kings) instead of being in an intimate relationship with God that would cause their faces to shine like that of Moses.

The Bible can then be seen as the record of a conversation between God and a human race which has, as a whole, rejected this conversation but which, in a remnant (mainly Israel and the Church), continues to oscillate between dialogue and independent rejection. This is, finally, why the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is so decisive. Jesus lives fully in this conversation with God and he enables us to enter the conversation too. When we do so, like Moses, our faces also shine with the light of God (2 Corinthians 3. 7 – 18).

Great God, you said, ‘Let there be light,’ and light came into being. Your light is most clearly seen in Jesus, who is the light of the world. Enable each one of us, with unveiled faces, to see his glory as though reflected in a mirror, and be transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. Amen.

Gungor - Let There Be.


Victoria E. Jones said...

This sounds like a great program, Jonathan--using local artistic masterpieces as an entry point into scripture, which, I imagine, draws in folks who may not otherwise attend a church-sponsored class. These two Turner paintings were new to me, and I appreciate your commentary on them. I wish St. Martin's all the best with "Inspired to Follow"! I'm sure it will spark many fruitful conversations.

Jonathan Evens said...

Thanks Victoria. This course is working in the way you describe and we are very encouraged as a result. Glad that you found this reflection of value and that it introduced you to paintings by Turner that you hadn't seen before. We greatly appreciate your good wishes.