I recently had a conversation with my pastor about how visual art might be used to enhance or possibly expand the congregation’s worship experience at our church. He speaks to us every week, but what if I got up every once in a while to explain my visual interpretation of some of the themes that we’re studying? I already choose or create the artwork for our podcasts, so what if I talked about why I choose what I choose? My pastor thought this sounded like a good idea.
And so this week I spoke about this image (click here to see it full-sized). This is a piece I painted years ago, well before we started going through Genesis, and even though the painting isn’t about Genesis, it is about two of the themes that we’ve been studying. This was the first time I had told anyone what the painting was about, and I want to share it with you as well.
The first theme has to do with autonomy. In a lot of my work I paint objects hanging from threads, things hanging from strings. Here’s a good example of that – leaves hanging by strings from a stick (stick not pictured).
The idea behind this motif is that in our brokenness and sinfulness, living in rebellion against God in this broken world, we humans attempt to fix it as best we can without surrendering our autonomy. We see that the world is broken and we attempt to make it right, but in our own strength. The result, however, isn’t the restored whole that we strive for – instead, it’s a broken version that is really only a pale imitation of the original. Dead leaves hanging by threads from a stick are a far cry from living buds bursting forth from a branch. We can imitate God – but our efforts fall short.
So back to the image I used for Genesis – the sun is suspended from the sky on a thin thread, as are the stars. This is such a fitting image for Genesis because after the Fall, we see our efforts to make our way in this suddenly broken world, but to do so apart from God, in order to cling to our autonomy. Instead of turning back to God, we chose to live in a world that we pretended we had created. And so in this painting I’m communicating, “God made the sun, moon, and stars and suspended them effortlessly in the void, but when we cling to our autonomy, our independence from God, the best we can do is hang them with string.” And the result is not the restored whole that we hoped for.
The second theme deals with memory. God, despite our rebellion and insistence on hanging our own suns, hanging our own stars – our insistence on autonomy and therefore pale imitation – despite all that, God offers a way back to him. He offers us relationship with him. In our rebellion, we chose to forget God and so forgot God… but God did not forget us. After Adam and Eve’s rebellion, God continued to pursue us. He spoke to and had relationship with Enoch, Noah, and Abram. He revealed himself to them and reminded them of who he was.
Genesis is the beginning of the story of our fight to keep our eyes and minds and hearts on God. It’s the beginning of our fight to remember who he is and who we are.
When the children of Israel entered the Promised Land, God had them set up some stones to help them remember who he was and what he had done. He knew their tendency to forget. And so he said, “These will help you remember.” In this painting, I put in a collection of stones on a hill. These stones reference that scripture, that idea of the importance of remembering. And so they fit what I see in Genesis: God allowing and inviting people to know him and come back to him. To remember him.
So in this piece we have two elements, the two sides, of what humanity has grappled with since the beginning: first, our rebellion against God due to our desire for autonomy, and out of that our subsequent efforts to re-create the world without God – this is represented by the hanging sun and stars. But God has provided a way back to him – he invites us to relationship with him, and he invites us to surrender our autonomy. And so the other side is our struggle to remember God, to remember that he is God and we are not – this is represented by the stones on the hill.
These are themes we see in Genesis, but really they’re themes we see everywhere in our world and in our individual lives. I want autonomy; I look inside myself and see that plainly. I don’t want to answer to anyone. But that doesn’t bring about the wholeness that I truly desire. Only God has that. Only God gives that. Only relationship with him can bring that wholeness about. And that begins with and is sustained by remembering; I must constantly look to the stones and be reminded of the Truth they represent.