Maundy Thursday Foot-Washing: Weird but Irreplaceable

Today is Maundy Thursday, the day on which we remember Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.  And while the origin of the word Maundy is debatable, it’s clear that the night of the foot washing included the new commandment to the disciples from Jesus to love one another as He loved them.  In the spirit of that commandment, it’s a moment commemorated at some churches with an actual foot washing ceremony every Maundy Thursday, although it seems to me that most of the meaning of a foot washing has long since departed our culture.

To that end, I wanted to write a blog post detailing some ways to show a similar level of humble service in our 21st Century context – a list of alternate ways to serve, if you will.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t.  Every idea I had proved – upon further reflection – to lack at least one vital parallel with Jesus’ great act of service.  For that reason, and also because everybody likes lists, instead I present to you a list of reasons why there’s no substitute for foot washing.

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1) Washing feet is intensely personal.  The closest parallel I could find for a foot-washing in our culture was to wash someone’s car for them.  It’s practical, it has to be done regularly, and it isn’t a form of service that feels like a strange imposition on our cultural patterns (Also, just in case, mine’s the silver Mazda that looks 6ish weeks overdue for a washing.  And don’t forget the side-view mirrors; they often get overlooked).  But washing my car is nothing like washing my feet, because it’s a kindness that benefits my possession as much as it benefits me – sure it saves me the trouble of doing it myself, but it also preserves the life of my car by removing salt and forestalling rust.  What’s more, it’s something you can do for me, but not to me.  Which brings us to point #2:

2) Hands to yourself, man!  Our culture is pretty touch-averse; in Jesus’ day it wasn’t unusual to greet someone with a kiss, but if you do that in America today – and you aren’t a freshly-arrive European – you’re gambling on a slap or worse.  So while it might not have been normal for Jesus to touch anybody’s feet, it wasn’t unthinkable that he would touch people.  If, on the other hand, I mention a modern spiritual leader has been touching people, your mind is probably going to go to either fraudulent faith healers pushing people over, or – more likely – to priests and altar boys.  So yeah.  I’m gonna say touching your disciples is a bit of a stretch for our culture.  After all, when was the last time you saw two non-evangelicals side-hugging?  We don’t really do touch, which makes a personal substitute to foot-washing hard to find.

3) Shame?  What’s that?  In the Middle East, both then and now, considerable amounts of shame are associated with feet.  Remember when that Iraqi threw his shoes at President W?  It was a cultural expression of extreme contempt.  Even today you don’t sit with the soles of your feet pointing towards a person – that communicates that the person is lower than your feet.  So we need to bear in mind that while we may feel some revulsion at touching a person’s sweaty feet, it’s an interaction far more loaded than our culture really grasps.  If you read my blog regularly, you’ll know that I think American obliviousness to shame habitually obscures the nuances of scripture; this is another example of that, and it means that there’s a symbolism from Middle Eastern foot-washing that can’t be replicated in the USA.

4) This is the land of self-reliance, buddy!  Another problem in trying to find a modern substitute for the foot-washing ceremony is that those of us who aren’t on a Real Housewives franchise aren’t used to having domestic help.  The occasional cleaning service aside, Americans do everything for ourselves.  Which makes it hard to identify any way to serve someone else that won’t immediately seem a little staged.

5) Our hygiene rules are pretty fixed.  Have you ever shown up to a dinner party with any portion of your anatomy sweaty, muddy, covered with possible poo fragments, and in need of a wash?  No.  No you have not, at least not since your mother potty-trained you.  Our culture’s hygiene expectations dictate that you show up to a dinner party as need-free as can be achieved; although you may not expect to be seated the minute you come through the door, you are supposed to be ready, right?  The answer is yes, so there’s no comparable act of service that can help ready you for dinner upon your arrival.

6) Showering showers.  Piggybacking off of #5, do you realize how much simpler showers make hygiene?  Washing feet without running water took time, and there probably wasn’t a direct expectation that all washing would be done in the same small room in which one privately expels bodily waste.  Now, it all happens in the bathroom, and if you’re not a young woman using a public facility, our culture frowns on the whole “bring a friend to the bathroom” thing.  So running water – and the advent of showers – was a game changer.  We don’t wash body parts in public anymore.

7) I don’t owe you anything!  If there’s one part of American culture that I never recognized until I took a college anthropology course, it is the fact that Americans are among worst people on earth at accepting favors.  If someone has you over to their house for dinner, you return the favor.  If someone loans you money, you feel compelled to pay it back, and if you don’t, the relationship will never be the same; in fact, you’ll probably avoid them.  This is not universal.  There are parts of the world where a gift is a gift, and it creates no cultural expectation that you will do anything for (or repay) the giver for it.

At any rate, with respect to American culture, if you do a favor or a service for someone, they have to respond in kind.  Ever been to a foot-washing ceremony/service in which there was no reciprocity?  That’s exactly what happens in John and it’s common in many other parts of the world, but not as common in America.  We’re hard-wired to reciprocate, but it means that if you do me a favor, rather than simply receiving it as love, I’m likely to feel like I owe you, and I might even resent you for putting me in your debt.  That’s the American way, but it can make acts of service seem ultimately self-serving.

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As I said, there’s no substitute for foot-washing.  So if you’re one of the many people weirded out by it, bear in mind that there aren’t exactly a host of better options.  When in doubt, stick with tradition and do what Jesus did.

So, what did I miss?  Feel free to try something new by leaving a comment!

A Curious Evangelical Apathy

Just under 1000 years ago – 959 years, for the sake of precision – the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches concluded centuries of fighting by getting a divorce.  Denouncing one another for a variety of reasons, the final straw was over a few words in the Nicene Creed, but was emblematic of a grander dispute over whether the Pope was the head of the Church, or whether he was merely more honored but no more authoritative than the other Patriarchs and Archbishops of the church.  Neither side would like me saying this, but it was ultimately a fight over power, and as I’ve written, the end was centuries in coming.

I mention this today because last Tuesday, something very historic for the Church happened, only the vast majority of evangelicals couldn’t care less.  The head of the Eastern church – Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople – attended the inauguration of Pope Francis.  This hasn’t happened since the Great Schism, and while it doesn’t signify imminent reunification of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, it’s hard to overstate the symbolic importance of this gesture.  For the first time in history, two of the Church’s major strands (for what it’s worth, I would say there are four, with Coptics and Protestants composing the other two) appear to be reconciling.  Not merely talking about it – that’s been going on for decades – but actually moving towards the real thing.

As I said, evangelicals couldn’t care less.

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This is usually the part of a blog post where I clarify that I’m not trying to offend anyone; I just have a very specific point to make.  Not this time.  Evangelicals can be shamefully arrogant when it comes to other Christians, and I would argue in this instance we are indifferent to an event that heaven is celebrating.  That’s not OK.

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People under 35 never seem to identify with any denomination, even if they attend one.  Viewing the historical disputes that formed denominations as trifles overblown in less enlightened times, people my age see those who care about denominations as relics of a curiously divided era.  I could write an entire post simply explaining why denominations are actually desirable (and sooner or later I will), but what matters for the purposes of this post is the incongruity of non-denominationalism with the besetting pattern of American culture.

The internet has hardened opinions everywhere about everything.  Whereas once the inability to access information rendered it impractical and uncivil to have a strong opinion about everything, today one needs little more than Wikipedia to sound like an expert on any topic.  And while you – like professors everywhere – may rightfully cringe at the idea that Wikipedia offers genuine expertise, you must also admit that we don’t really have experts anymore; in the age of internet trolls, nobody is above challenge, immune to ridicule, or excluded from ad hominem attacks.  It’s not merely that we can all be ‘experts’ on every topic; it’s that our culture reinforces that we are.  The information you need to have an informed opinion is right at your fingertips, so the primary barrier that once prevented the masses from holding strident opinions on every topic has crumbled.

One could describe denominations as the organizational manifestation of strong opinions within religion.  So why, at a time when American culture encourages us to be dogmatically opinionated about every subject we’ve ever encountered, is the American church moving away from them?  Why are younger evangelicals less opinionated about church and more opinionated about everything else?

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It’s cool to care about the environment.  It’s cool to care about human rights.  It’s cool to care about political causes of all kinds, whether that makes you an Occupier or a Tea Partier.  It’s not cool – not even a little bit – to care about church in any scope larger than your own local experience of it.  I get it; trends come and go, and this is the trend now.

In part, I imagine this is one way in which our churches function as refuges from American culture’s incessant bickering.  Non-denominationalism (even among those attending denominational churches) offers a counter-cultural escape from such argument in one vital corner of life.  This is not all bad, and it does allow church members to direct their focus above.

Unfortunately, both the history and the present of the global church lack the placidity of this non-denominational refuge, and it’s hard for me to see it as anything more than escapism.  Catholics, Orthodox, Copts, and all the various Protestants – Anglicans, Mennonites, Presbyterians, Methodists, etc. – emerged out of conflicts.  Their views and traditions are built on the blood of martyrs, and this gives each of them a story of God’s action in history to both preserve them and give them identities.  To grasp their histories is to know what God’s been doing for the past 2,000 years, and why would a Christian want to escape from that?

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During the Olympics, NBC so inundates us with informational backstories about the athletes that the actual Olympic Games sometimes seem incidental to Olympic coverage.  The reason for this, of course, is that we care more about those people whose histories we know.  It’s manipulative, but it works.

Church is the same.  I’ll wager any reader who knew Patriarch Bartholomew’s name also knows a thing or two about the seven ecumenical councils treasured by the Orthodox, as well as the role Byzantium played in the Middle Ages, and the struggle of the Orthodox church to survive after Crusaders ruined Byzantium and the Ottomans overran Constantinople.  Conversely, I’ll bet any reader who didn’t know about that history has never cared about the name of the Patriarch of Constantinople.

We care about those people and things that have a history familiar to us.  And if the rise of non-denominationalism in the United States is an escape from our culture of conflict, it’s also frequently an escape from church history, which makes it an escape from church present too.

Somehow, in this age of opinions, this rejection of church history and present has become one of the only things about which young evangelicals are firmly decided.  Inasmuch as it becomes a matter of pride to lack a perspective on church history, it’s perverse; inasmuch as that same pride alienates American evangelicals from knowing or caring about the rest of the Church, it’s evil.

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Non-denominationalism isn’t the problem in and of itself, but it does lend itself towards indifference about Jesus’ global church, and that’s a major problem.  My assumption is that if more evangelicals knew the history of the Great Schism, and knew where their own theology stands in relationship to Catholic or Orthodox theology, they would be more likely to care about Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew.  Instead, proud of our choice to care only about today and only in our local churches, we’re oblivious to signs that God may be doing something of massive importance: moving His church towards unity.

It’s a shame evangelicals don’t care enough to be included.

Easter Could Be More Fun

I used to attend a church where every Sunday was a celebration, but Easter was so riotous I sometimes wondered if we were planning to overturn and burn cars in the parking lot afterward.  We never did, but don’t read too much into that since I never openly suggested it.

I’ve really only been part of a similarly unhinged public celebration in one other location: at a particular sports-centered wings establishment during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.  I remember in particular the scene one night during Adam Morrison’s senior year, when the restaurant was inarguably more crowded than the fire marshal would ever tolerate, and the standing-room only crowd screamed and brayed in unison as events unfolded on the dozen or so screens broadcasting four simultaneous games around the room.  For every bucket there was a cheer and a groan, but even in the midst of what I assume to have been some gambling-induced disappointment on the part of at least half those present, the room had a sense of community and explosive joy that I hadn’t felt since the raucous Easter’s at the aforementioned church.  We numbered several hundred, but we were together and we were having fun.

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I’ve never attended a church that had anything remotely close to that much joy and enthusiasm about anything since that brief time (I didn’t live there incredibly long), but it’s been on my mind as Easter approaches.  You see, for as much as evangelicals like to talk about putting Jesus at the center of our lives, Easter always make me wonder just a little bit; it seems to me that if Jesus really was the leader and most important person in our religious communities, celebrating Easter would probably be more unhinged and less (for lack of a better word) ‘churchy.’

You know what I mean.  There are different types of celebrations; a wedding reception is (one hopes) as different from an office birthday party as possible.  But if I stipulate that a wedding reception is typically a laughter and dancing filled celebration of two people, whereas an office party is little more than an obligation to exchange pleasantries of indeterminate sincerity while eating cake in the middle of the day without being judged, which picture is more like Easter at many churches?

Optimists will answer, ‘the wedding reception,’ but I have my doubts.  One glaring problem is the nature of the gathering, of course: a wedding reception is spectacularly focused on one thing only, whereas office politics are present even at social events; as a result, wedding receptions function as though there is no tomorrow (and there arguably isn’t for the specific collection of attendees), while the office party is as dominated by yesterday’s power struggle and tomorrow’s meeting as any other work interaction.  But since churches resemble the office gathering in that respect – politics are ever present, and you will all presumably see each other again next week – the results are often similarly restrained.

Another key point of comparison arises in the guest list.  The wedding reception admits only those who have been vetted, approved, and invited by the celebrants, whereas the office party presumably admits any stiff hired by HR.  One is a recipe for friendships and fun, the other begets opportunities for The Office Creep to corner you.  Call me cynical, but in my experience, Jesus calls people with problems, not the well-adjusted and ‘normal’ people you and I would choose; consequently, churches (and thus Easter) are packed with a social menagerie that resembles the guest list at an office party, not a wedding.

I reassert my claim: at many churches, Easter is more like an office party than a real celebration.

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There are major problems in the world.  This is not one of them.  Even so, I hope we can all agree that putting Jesus at the center of church life is of vital importance and a worthy goal; if so, I hope we can also agree that a generally blasé feeling about the commemoration of Jesus’ resurrection – and His resultant ongoing life – runs broadly against that goal.

That’s not the only reason that this matters, however.  Being at that eatery during the NCAA tournament wasn’t at the center of anyone’s existence that night (unless there were some illegal bookies present; for them, maybe it was at the center), but it was one of the most fun experiences of my twenties.  I’d always enjoyed the tournament before that night, but that night changed it for me forever.  I look forward to it each year now more than I did before, and I relish it when it arrives, even if I’m sitting alone on my couch.  One transcendent night has made all the ones since more enjoyable, because each tournament since then reawakens just a little of that joy from within me.

I won’t argue that church should be more fun.  But since I know that it could be, and since I know how long the residual emotional buzz from a particularly fun experience can last, why aren’t we trying a little harder?  Is the idea that people would feel fondly towards a church holiday – and maybe even the faith – seven years after an amazingly fun Easter so terrible?

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Any of you who’ve recently planned – or should I say paid for – a wedding reception, of course, have already identified a crucial parallel between the office party and Easter: the size of the budget for said celebration.   That’s a difference worth mentioning, but not because I think churches should spend tens of thousands of dollars to make Easter fun.  It’s worth mentioning because one thing all that wedding reception money buys – one thing absent from most office parties – is serious planning.  So if my little rabbit trail has started you thinking, permit me to offer that as a suggested starting point: serious planning.

It’s a case that could be made about every Sunday, or about Christmas, or about any one of a number of church dates, really.  But Easter is supposed to be the high point of the Christian calendar, for obvious reasons, so it seems like a logical candidate to me.  So what if the value of Easter was reflected in more intensive planning and more intensive efforts?  Might it be less like an office party and more like remembering the resurrection of Jesus is central to our lives?  I know I wouldn’t mind, as long as it doesn’t end up with people roasting cars in the parking lot.

Worf and the Book of Acts

You don’t often see Klingons apologize.  Sure, Worf does it from time to time, but only in the stilted and awkward manner of someone uncertainly trying to fit into another culture, and even then – tellingly – only at the end of an episode.  So when Star Trek’s main Klingon does apologize, it’s pretty much always an episode-wrapping revelation indicating personal growth.  It is, essentially, un-Klingon, and so while it does happen, it’s rare.

This makes perfect sense.  Apologizing requires admitting one was wrong, and generally speaking, Klingons communicate right vs. wrong with blades, not words.  It’s not like this is entirely without parallel in the real world, either: shame/honor cultures may not typically resort to Klingon-like violence (honor killings notwithstanding), but they don’t exactly major in apologies either.  To admit you are wrong is a difficult step to take for a member of a shame/honor based society (because of the shame it entails), and that’s why Worf does it so rarely.

It’s also why, incidentally, demanding an apology from a Klingon is not done lightly.  In order for the result to be anything other than violent, the Klingon will need to be both convicted of his/her error and enlightened enough to respond with patient humility.  In any other case, honor will be defended by any means necessary.

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If we say that Jesus wasn’t a Christian (which seems fair, since he was Christ, not a follower of Christ, yes?), then we may also say that the very first Christian sermon necessitated precisely the type of response from its hearers that we should think least likely to occur.  Acts 2 relates the events of the day of Pentecost, the day on which the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples gathered in the upper room for prayer.  The text of Acts isn’t entirely clear on what happened between the disciples’ speaking in tongues and the gathering of a crowd outside – did they run outside in their excitement?  Were they shouting so loudly that passers by could hear them? – but whatever took place, it attracted attention.

The details of the interaction that follow are probably familiar to most of the people who read this blog.  The disciples are accused of being blind drunk at 9 in the morning, and Peter rises to defend them, explaining that this is all a miracle from God, and it has been poured out by Jesus, who is the Christ and has risen from the dead.  In the end, 3000 people who hear Peter’s speech are baptized that same day.

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Years ago, MTV always made a big deal about spring break.  Starting in March (if I remember correctly), the VJs would move their set to a sun covered beach somewhere for a few weeks, and the cut scenes between music videos (remember those days?) would feature the VJs and crowds of drunken college kids wilding on the beach.  It always looked so debauched and completely amoral that I was willing to believe any spring break story I head from someone who had been at one of the destinations lionized by MTV – Panama City, South Padre Island, Cancun, etc.  In fact, I once heard a story from a high school classmate involving Daytona, a trunk full of marijuana, a botched police inspection, and a WWE (back then it was WWF) style flying-elbow, and to this day I believe every word of it.  In light of what I saw on MTV, it seemed credible.

I tell you this because I want it to sink in that one story of debauchery I would never have believed even from a Cancun spring-breaker is that a party either lasted so long or started so soon as for everyone to be hammered at 9 a.m.  No way.  But that’s what the disciples were accused of, and that should draw our attention to two things.  First of all, the events were so hard to explain (and so loud, apparently) that this seemed the most plausible explanation.  Never forget how strange that day looked to outsiders.  The second thing, of course, is to note that in an honor-based culture, the disciples were accused of excess so extreme that not even the old MTV could’ve sold it.  This, mildly stated, was shameful, and it was the accusation leveled against the disciples.  Don’t miss that Peter didn’t just give a sermon; it was a defense of the disciples’ honor and integrity.

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That Peter’s defense went well is unsurprising; the Holy Spirit has just arrived on the scene, and there could be little doubt that it would move as Peter spoke.  Even so, it is important to notice that Peter’s defense isn’t merely “we’re not drunk, it’s God.”  No, instead Peter’s defense is more, “we’re not shameful drunks, but you are shameful murderers.”  He absolutely places the blame for Jesus’ death on those who hear him, and in moving from the accused to the accuser, he places the honor of those listening at stake.

The crowd gets it.  They understand that Peter has leveled an accusation against them, and, crucially, they accept the accusation, asking what they should do now.  This is also of monumental significance; for Peter, to accuse the crowd of killing Jesus – a massively celebrated rabbi – is implicitly to acknowledge that they might also kill him.  After all, Jesus himself said that the servant is no greater than the master.  Why shouldn’t Peter’s accusation provoke the crowd and lead to regrettable consequences?

Obviously, if not for the Holy Spirit, it might have.  Instead, however, the crowd asks what is to be done about their guilt, and Peter’s response, “Repent and be baptized,” actually ups the ante.  It’s one thing to decide not to kill Peter for suggesting you’re a murderer; it’s another thing altogether for him to insist on repentance.  Essentially, Peter has told them they’re wrong, they’ve asked ‘so what,’ and his response is to demand a public admission of culpability and an apology, because that’s what repentance amounts to.  It’s not enough that they feel shame; they have to publicly own and renounce their shame.  It’s not technically an apology, but it is fundamentally the same thing, at least (I would argue) from God’s perspective.

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Again, I don’t know exactly what – apart from an explosion of languages – drew the crowd to the apostles that day, but I do have trouble imagining a crowd of much more than 3,000 gathering.  That’s a huge number for a densely-packed ancient city.  The crow was likely even larger, of course, but either way, the text indicate 3,000 apologies.  If Star Trek ran for another hundred years, I doubt you’d see that many Klingon apologies in total.  And that’s a part of Pentecost that I think we miss without Worf’s help.

Picasso’s Minotaurs and Evangelicalism

Last week my wife and I were fantastically disappointed by a Picasso exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago.  The most glaring problem with it was that although the exhibit is called, “Picasso and Chicago,” it turns out that Pablo Picasso never set foot in Chicago.  Or in the United States for that matter.  So while the museum went to great lengths to detail the relationship between Chicago and the Spaniard, the results were predictably thin.

Also – not to denigrate anyone’s passion or specialty – but the overwhelming majority of the display consists of sketches rather than paintings.  There’s nothing wrong with sketches per se, but they don’t interest me.  Or my wife.  We had hoped to be exposed to some new canvasses we’d never before seen; instead, all the paintings on display were already part of the AIC’s collection (and thus we’ve seen them many times), so we saw sketch after sketch and print after print of minotaurs.  Apparently Picasso went through a phase (we’ll come back to this), and that’s what was boring visitors from all over the world.  Drawings of minotaurs.

To be fair – apart from my wife’s and my own innate preference for one medium over another – there was an even more troubling aspect to the exhibit, but it’s one that I think many people missed, because it’s arguably more subtle than the other issues: the exhibit was ahistorical in two very important ways.  It gave no accounting for Picasso’s experiences during and/or reaction to World War I, and it barely even acknowledged the same with respect to the Spanish Civil War.  I’m no art critic, of course, but I’m going to posit that living in Paris during World War I – a circumstance that guarantees Picasso would have been able to hear the war from his home much of the time – had to shape him, and I’ll wager the same for the visceral implosion that followed in the country of his birth.  Any exhibit explaining a man’s life and work to me but omitting those two influences is a sham.

Needless to say, Mrs. Frankenfeld and I learned very little about Picasso from the exhibit.  Therefore, some advice: spend your time elsewhere in the Art Institute of Chicago if you’re going.

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As much as it pains me – as a dedicated history buff to admit – I don’t need to know Picasso’s life story to be moved by The Old Guitarist.  A good painting can communicate an experience so profound as to be spiritual, even if you don’t know anything about the author or the painting’s story; that’s one of the – if not the – points of art, really.

In a way, it’s a metaphor for faith, which is often similarly validated by experience rather than information.  Most people who become followers of Jesus in a moment of spiritual crisis do so without knowing His whole story; they feel Him, they believe, and they go from there.  Much of faith is as experiential as a masterly painting, and just like a profound faith experience leaves a person wanting more, experiencing a great painting always leaves me wanting more.  So while I don’t need Picasso’s personal history to appreciate his paintings (or minotaur drafts), I do crave it.

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I’ve always liked the paintings of Edward Hopper, but a few years ago AIC hosted a traveling exhibit of his work, and after viewing that display, I understood Hopper in a way I never had before.  Before the exhibit, I would never have seen him as being linked to Renoir or Monet; after the exhibit, the connection is clear (Light.  It’s about light.).  I could tell you similar stories about Winslow Homer, Roy Lichtenstein, or others, but the point is, I’ve never gone to an exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago without learning more about the artist in question.  Until now.

Usually, it would be impossible.  If each painting is a spiritual experience of its own, a good exhibition of one artist’s work becomes like a bible.  Each painting is its own story – this one Samson and Delilah, that one Nebuchadnezzar eating grass – but taken together, there are larger stories and themes that emerge.  See enough of one artist’s work in one place, and you learn exponentially more than you ever could from just one painting.  As I said, that didn’t happen this time.

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I’ve already admitted that I don’t know how the wars impacted Picasso, so the theory I’m about to put forward is precisely the type of unsourced speculative drivel that makes the internet such a fun place.  I mentioned that towards the end of his life, Picasso spent a lot of time drawing (and supposedly painting, but again, you’d have to be at a different museum’s Picasso exhibit to know for sure) minotaurs and other mythical creatures.  The AIC exhibit told us they were unable to explain why Picasso did this; they just know he did.

In light of the fact that Picasso was born in the late 19th Century, however, and began his formation as an artist at a time when much of Western Europe was more or less obsessed with mythology and pagan mysticism (putting coins on the eyes of the deceased so they can pay the boatman to ferry them across the River Styx, the publication/popularity of Dracula, etc.), is it possible that the arrival of mythical creatures in his later work is a latent expression of longing for an earlier period of his life?  Maybe Picasso didn’t know what to think about the world after hearing World War One from his home, feeling alienated from his homeland by the Spanish Civil War, being trapped in his studio during World War Two, and backing the less popular side in the Cold War (Yeah, he was a communist.  He was an artist.  Was there ever any doubt?).  And maybe, after watching his world spend half a century tearing itself apart around him, what he wanted was the innocent fascination with myths that he remembered from youth.

Like I said, I don’t know.  I’ll read a Picasso biography one of these days because I really do want to test my little theory.  For now, I’ll just float it on the internet.

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There may be some of you irritated by my theory on Picasso because you know better.  Bear in mind, however, that none of the thousands of people who visit Picasso & Chicago do or will know any better, because the ahistorical nature of the show leaves us all free to draw our own conclusions, however fantastic.

In that way, the Art Institute’s Picasso exhibit had still more in common with evangelicalism than you may realize.  After all, if a painting is like a bible story and an exhibit can be like a bible, isn’t a fragmented and ahistorical exhibition reminiscent of the way many evangelical churches digest their bible stories?  Picasso & Chicago put all the emphasis on the experiential component of a few paintings and a ton of sketches; many churches put all the emphasis on the experiential component of meeting the living Jesus through the Holy Spirit.  But just like I’m sure Picasso’s work would make more sense if I knew more about his experiences and relationship to the great conflicts of his time and place, Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well (John 4) makes more sense if you grasp the history of Samaritans, and Hezekiah’s escape from Assyria makes more sense if you grasp the historical situation too.

In this way, at least, last week’s visit to the Art Institute of Chicago did teach me one thing, or at least it raised one important question.  Why was I so mad that the Art Institute prioritized the isolated experience over the bigger picture, but so complacent when so many evangelicals do the same?  One is obviously a more egregious offense, and – as always in the real world – it’s the one that doesn’t involve minotaurs.