Wisdom and the Arts of Scripture

seamstress handsToday concludes this short 3-part series on wisdom in Scripture for the natural world, in education, and in the arts. Having looked at the first two subjects, we’ll reflect on various kinds of art in Scripture, beginning with overtly religious art.

When a “people” become a “nation” – or as we say today, an “independent state” – all sorts of conditions must be met. It’s not as easy as Frank Zappa is purported to have said: all they need is a bear and an airline! Sorry, Frank. There needs to be, among other things, a territory, a government, and the ability to conduct relations with other nations. When those are in play, a new nation today usually seeks to join the United Nations – that’s big, when the UN recognizes you.

Besides those essential features, another that plays a significant role is the symbolism of national identity, which may be overtly religious or not. The symbolism of the United States, for example, is not overtly religious. Its Declaration of Independence, the language of its constitution, its bald eagle, the Liberty Bell, the design of its flag, its national anthem (“The Star Spangled Banner”), and the Great Seal of the United States (E Pluribus Unum: “one from many”) do not promote allegiance to any religion. Nevertheless, all symbolically suggest values and ideas that helped forge and establish “American” national identity.

This is unlike national identity rooted in religious belief. To give one example, the nation of Iran took on an overt religious identity in 1979. The Emblem of Iran, for instance, with its four crescents and a sword in the shape of a tulip, are meant to stand for the word “Allah,” and its five parts are meant to represent the five main principles of Shia religion. And the language of its 1979 constitution clearly identifies the state as an Islamic Republic.

Whether it is religious or not, a nation’s founding symbolism relies on artistic skill, and in such art we can see the silhouette of a nation’s wisdom. The Bible itself underlines the importance of this in the fascinating narrative surrounding the many and varied symbols representing the religion of Yahwism, which were crafted by the ancient Hebrews during the period of the founding of the nation of Israel.

Gordian knotThis story occupies most of the second half of the book of Exodus. In particular, chapters 28, 31, 35, and 36 acknowledge the aesthetic wisdom of the artisans and craftspeople, both men and women, that created this religious art. In various places, the text explains that Yahweh had told Moses that he (Yahweh) had given the craftspeople wisdom “to make everything” according to the plans. Some of the leading artisans and craftspeople are named, and the specific tasks of all of the artists are carefully delineated according to the areas of expertise.

Some Bible translations use the English word “skill” for the Hebrew word for wisdom (hakam) in these texts, to indicate the top-notch talent. The text identifies many of these men and women: artisans, builders, craftspeople, gold or silver smiths, jewelers, seamstresses, and others. The text leaves no doubt as to the religious meaning of what is under construction. It was to represent a “sanctuary” for Yahweh and a place for the people to come to with their sacrifices and to worship.

Of course there are many kinds of art. And a lot of art, perhaps most art, at least in our day, is what we would call non-religious art. This is true even in Scripture, where we find various kinds of art sans overt religious meaning. I’ll close by noting just several genres briefly.

Drama. Drama is meant to evoke emotions in an audience, feelings of tensions, for instance, of anticipation, of what’s going to happen, how is this going to end? A scene, the way the characters act, the language they use, their moods, and much else besides all contribute to good drama. For me, the story of King David awaiting news about his son Absalom is a very moving mini-set piece that conveys an important dramatic point in David’s loving but deeply troubling relationship with this son.

Literature. The entire book of Ruth tells a story so well written that it has inspired artists down through the centuries. See, e.g., Keats “Ode to a Nightingale.” Goethe has called Ruth “the loveliest complete work on a small scale.”

The play. In the book of second Samuel, chapter fourteen, you will find a carefully scripted one-act play, right down to the costume and make-up of the actor. It’s a piece of fiction, performed with such great skill before King David that it changes the king’s mind about a very sensitive family matter. What I find remarkable is the name of the playwright. It was written and directed by Joab, King David’s top military general.

The fable. Fables tend to be dressed up in images of the astonishing, the fabulous, the fantastic. Think Aesop’s Fables, for instance. Today, fables are not the great literary device they once were. You won’t find many fables in Scripture, but the one found in Judges chapter nine, which is set in a political context, is rather daring, given that it quite publicly, deliberately, exposes a newly crowned king to ridicule. In this, it seems to be appealing to a large constituency’s suspicions of monarchies. (Second Kings chapter fourteen has another fable.)

The riddle. Riddles, like fables, popular in the ancient world, are not so common today, although you will usually find them in great literature, such as in Shakespeare or those between Gollum and Bilbo in Tolkien. Riddles are word-plays that have to be opened up, and they are usually about making guesses to get at a truth, which one person hides and the other must discern. In Scripture they are sometimes called “dark sayings” or “hard questions,” such as those that the Queen of Sheba put to King Solomon to test the superiority of his wisdom. And the Prologue to the book of Proverbs explains that part of the book is understanding the “sayings and riddles of the wise.”

Allegory. This art form works metaphorically. A word, image, or phrase about one person or object is used in place of another to suggest an analogy. The Pilgrims Progress may be the most well known modern example. Augustine, the famous fourth-fifth century North African scholar, expounded Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan allegorically. In Scripture, the dreams of Joseph, and Pharaoh’s dreams, later on in the Joseph narrative, work allegorically and need interpreting. There are a couple allegories in the book of Ezekiel, and the Bible’s apocalyptic literature is typically allegorical.

Poetry. Hebrew poetry in Scripture is not unlike poetry today, with its uses of imagery, language (not unlike allegory), and rhythms, all variously and deliberately chosen and arranged, in hopes of creating for the reader or listener specific kinds of responses. The Hebrew poetry in Scripture is not like much poetry today in that writers of the former offer what life is like in covenant relation with Yahweh.

Also, poets typically want you, the reader or listener, to get what you can from a poem, almost as an “each to his or her own” interpretation. This can disturb the literalists among us. The genius of the poetic ambiguity, however, is that a good poem with its universal imagery speaks beyond its time and to any culture. The Psalms of Scripture, for instance, written 2,500 years ago, still speak to people around the world today. Anyone who thinks Scripture is boring or dated would do well to find a good book that discusses Psalms as the poetry.

The proverb. We may not immediately think of proverbs as an art form, but just try to write a pithy saying, such as a maxim, epigram, or adage – intentionally brief in length, compact in meaning, easily intelligible to their audience, memorable – and you’ll discover how difficult it is to do that.

The parable. The same thing is true about parables – very difficult to invent. In Scripture it is clear that Jesus was a master story-teller, which is the basis of a good parable. And as are most other art forms, parables are also invitational. You’re being invited into an imaginary world, to see and experience what’s going on there. It’s a world where you can make what we might call cost-free decisions about what’s going on, because you’re not directly involved. And of course you can refuse the invitation.

stroytellingAs storytelling, a parable works by inviting the hearer into a hypothetical world where the outward appearances are different but the rules for making the decisions or judgments are the same as in the “real” world. So you are a Jewish religious leader listening to Jesus and you hear the story of a wounded man lying by the roadside, and only one person out of three bothers to look after him. You’re surprised at that, and you are drawn into the situation and begin to make relatively unbiased judgments about it because you are not the person directly involved. You don’t have to do anything about it in your own “real” world.

In Uncommon Sense, John Peck and I write: “The storyteller [Jesus] has for a time set you free in your imagination, free not just to understand some abstract idea about life but to enter into a situation and make fearless, cost-free decisions in it, the sort you know you ought to make in ‘real life’ if your heart were not confused by other interests. As a Jew you find yourself admitting the previously unthinkable: a Samaritan can be a neighbor.”

I’ll close with this final thought. Art in Scripture is meant to initiate people into what experiences of life under God can be like. When it comes to Jesus, wisdom teacher par excellence, what separates his stories from run-of-the-mill is that they are about the counter-kingdom of the God’s in-coming kingdom and rule. Jesus means for there to be a dialogue going on about this between his audiences and his parables. It is a dialogue meant to disorient, dislocate, us in hopes of reorienting, relocating, us to the in-breaking kingdom and rule of God and its effects on and in our lives. That is what makes his listeners, then and now, balk.

Jesus radically challenges traditional, accepted, well-established ways thinking about life, decision making, and human relationships. And he employees all sorts for concrete and universal, everyday images to do this, such as business dealings, finances, treasures, seed time and harvest, family matters, and much more. He is using the things of everyday life deliberately, to show that nowhere along the spectrum of life will the in-breaking kingdom of God not effect radical changes in our thinking and doing.

To those “with ears to hear and eyes to see,” Jesus is revealing the kingdom of God’s normative ways of living. The more we let the art of the Bible speak to us like this, the more discerning we will become of gospel-shaped principles of taste and judgment in art, of whatever kind and wherever we find it. And the more that kind of seeing and hearing constitutes our spiritual DNA, the more intuitive it will become for us to immediately know to reject the countless invitations of art sent our way today to oppose and seek to invalidate God’s wisdom.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Images via Creative Commons. Seamstress hands, by Hernan Pinera. Knot, by crosslens. Storytelling, by Shashi Bellamonda.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

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