April 27th, 2017
Curators have a short list of essential elements for the art galleries they oversee. They need walls on which to hang the art. They need lights to illumine the art. They need white, lint-free gloves to handle the art. They need docents to help people appreciate the art (and keep the toddlers from “adorning” the sculptures with half-eaten Cheerios.)
But curators are also in the market for benches: simple, accommodating, unobtrusive places to sit, distributed liberally throughout the premises. Not because people grow weary in art galleries (except the ones dragged there). But because art requires a different kind of attention–a longer, leisurely, but active looking at what the artist intended, or only hoped to inspire in the beholder. Our legs can’t always sustain us while we give that kind of attention with our eyes–and our heart. So curators see fit to place a spot to sit, so we can let the art have its way with us. You can’t really view the art any other way.
Isaac Ambrose (d. 1664) was an English Puritan who wrote a mammoth devotional book entitled Looking to Jesus. (HT: Fred Sanders). Central to the book’s thesis was the distinction he made between knowing something and considering it, the latter being a looking further into a truth of which the former is a preliminary grasp. You might say it’s the difference between first beholding a work of art as you amble by, and sitting down in one of those furnished benches to draw out the subtleties and intricacies of the artist’s work.
The importance of understanding that distinction is proportional to the object of one’s attention. The better the art, the more it demands your patient gaze–if only to ascertain and reflect upon the truth to which it points.
But if we’re talking about theological truths meant to guide, convict, or console, then the responsibility to “consider” them is all the greater. Listen to Ambrose’s sense of a believer’s responsibility in just listening to sermons:
It is not enough to know a saving necessary truth, but it is required farther that we digest truths and that we draw forth their strength for the nourishment and refreshing of our poor souls. As a man may in half an hour chew and take into his stomach that meat which he must have seven or eight hours at least to digest, so a man may take into his understanding more truths in an hour than he is able to digest well in many.
What good those men are like to get by sermons or providences who are unaccustomed to this work of meditation, I cannot imagine. It is observed by some that this is the reason why so much preaching is lost amongst us; why professors that run from sermon to sermon and are never weary of hearing or reading have notwithstanding such languishing starved souls; because they will not meditate.
And therefore God commanded Joshua not only to read the law but to consider of it and dwell upon it; “This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth but thou shalt meditate therein day and night” (Joshua 1:8).
Why, this is the duty that I am now pressing to, if thou knowest these things, consider, ruminate, meditate, ponder on them again and again. And because this work requires enlargedness of heart and spirit, therefore take it into parts and consider of each of them apart by itself…
We think we know an art piece by a minute-long glance of its basic contours and textures. We think we know a theological truth from a 30 minute listen to a sermon. But Ambrose would say neither is true. Just as our food requires more than our ingestion to draw out its nourishment, so, too, the truths upon which we’re called to feed require more than what our initial appraisal yields.
In case you missed it, Resurrection Day just happened. That central tenet of our faith, that day we spent 40 days preparing for, the miracle that didn’t just overturn the sorrow of the crucifixion but validates its truth–that doctrine we devoted a grand total of one hour to. Shame on me?
Just consider: few who make the pilgrimage to The Louvre in order to view first hand da Vinci’s Mona Lisa are unfamiliar with that work. But the numberless admirers know that the famous work deserves more than what a cursory glance can gather. There’s more to her serene gaze than what you can sense by staring at its image on Wikipedia.
If that piece warrants an unhurried form of reflection expectant of finding more with time and attention, how much more ought we give to the doctrine of the resurrection?
So we’re inviting you to practice what Ambrose preached. And we’re furnishing you with a kind of “bench” to take in the object of our attention by way of a short sermon series.
From this Sunday through Memorial Day, we’re going to listen to but one chapter of the New Testament: 1 Corinthians 15. No chapter gives greater or more patient attention to the doctrine of the risen Christ and the death of death. For fourteen chapters, Paul has sought to quell divisions, root out distortions, retrieve lost ground. But he cannot end his letter without reminding them of the main thing. False rumors and misunderstandings had already crept in to the church at Corinth. So Paul launches into a meditation on the Resurrection to remind them of its centrality.
Resurrection Sunday came and went; it has the “last word” in all things.
But have we already moved too quickly past the grandeur of that truth, like an art patron whose too brisk pace prevents her from seeing what mustn’t be missed?
We’re bringing the bench and placing the object of your attention before you. Will you be willing to sit and stare–until you rise and rejoice?
Interlude: Oh, and lest you forget, we’re sitting a spell with each other this Sunday immediately following worship (weather permitting!). Details on what to bring, both culinary and recreational, can be found here. (And in case you’re not yet registered on our City site, feel free to contact our site administrator Jonathan Raikes to get you established there. It’s one way we keep apprised of our common life together.)
We end this short Backstory where we began: looking for the resonances between art and prophetic truth. Remember last year’s conversation between Bono and Eugene Peterson? Well, David Taylor couldn’t let U2’s frontman get away with just one frank dialogue about faith, art, and the Psalms. So here’s one of several snippets from that longer sit-down. You’ll be hearing more from this series in weeks to come.