Art & Faith: Spare the Son

Arts, Visual Arts — By on July 19, 2011 at 11:37 am

In the last piece “Whose Banner?“, I challenged us to name our loyalties and reveal our hypocrisies. This piece takes us one step further. Not only do we need to consider for whom we do battle but a deeper question must also be raised, “Why fight?”

The philosophical-religious dimensions of art suggest questions that are pertinent in the culture wars and ever divided Protestant/Catholic, Progressive/Conservative, Mainline/Evangelical Christian debates raging in our midst. So we can turn to a Baroque master who reminds us of a crucial Biblical narrative that holds particular poignancy. The divine response to our manmade conflicts and disagreements would seem to be a resounding, “Halt! Spare the Son.”

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Spare the Son – The Sacrifice of Isaac by Rembrandt, 1635

Rembrandt von Rijn (1606-1669) like Peter Paul Rubens before him is a master of portraying the tension in a unique moment of Biblical narrative. The angelic intervention is a mysterious passage that begs so many questions. Why did God ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? Why did he wait until the last minute to stop Abraham? How could Abraham go so far in the attempt? How could Isaac comply? After all he was a strapping young man and his father was elderly. These questions only scratch the surface of this highly symbolic moment of Hebrew drama.

The work itself is masterful. Notice the elongated torso of Isaac with his neck bare. His white flesh exposed in the foreground. Abraham’s knife suspended in mid air, pointing directly toward his son’s bare body. Rembrandt portrays the potential implement of sacrifice in mid-air, heightening the drama of the impending horrific act. The blade creates a line directly toward Isaac’s exposed jugular. Isaac’s face is completely covered by his father’s hand – he is a totally silenced figure. His role as a passive sacrifice is beautifully depicted with his arms bound behind his back.

Abraham’s eyes are intensely focused upon the angel’s. His body blends in with the darkened background. Only the angel’s hand and his face offer points of light in the upper half of the painting. The angel’s right hand stops Abraham in the act so gently and yet so forcefully that the instrument of sacrifice is jolted loose. The intensity between the three figures is even more profound when placed in proper historical context.

The Sacrifice of Isaac appears in the middle of a period in which Rembrandt painted a variety of Biblical scenes. Specifically a series of paintings on the death and resurrection of Christ, which holds particular symbolic significance to our current meditation. He was working on The Raising of the Cross and the Descent from the Cross while finalizing this work.

In his personal life, this work is even more intriguing. Rembrandt’s eldest son Rumburtus died in 1636, shortly after his baptism in 1635. The Dutch master understood the pain of a father’s loss of a son. He must have identified with Abraham’s struggle, only he actually suffered a total loss, not a merely enacted one. Where was the angel in Rembrandt’s case?

Prophetically, the son of Abraham represents a Christ figure whose sacrifice is eminent, solely halted by an angelic being. It foreshadowed the ultimate offering made eighteen centuries later. God’s son, Jesus of Nazareth, would not experience a similar stoppage in the climax of Christian history at Golgotha. Seldom do the painter and his subject converge in such an intimately agonizing way. Rembrandt knew the pain God would feel in the final manifestation of this sacrifice of a son by a father. I can’t help believe that The Sacrifice of Isaac was a prayer. An acknowledgement that he wanted an intervention, but an acceptance of his actual fate. He would later paint The Entombment of Christ, The Resurrection of Christ and most famously The Return of the Prodigal Son, significantly his exploration of Biblical narrative on canvas would not cease despite his personal tragedy.

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In the last piece I asked, “Whose battle are we fighting?” Over the past week I’ve read many with a tone like David as depicted by Peter Paul Rubens. Too many are ready to strike an “enemy.” Only there is little concern for the fact that the enemy is a brother – a fellow Christian. Throughout the Internet words are daggers or even full swords, piercing other Christians. Piercing perceived enemies. We love to be the conqueror, but what about the casualties? Rembrandt’s work holds a profound message to us today. The body of Christ is exposed in the midst of a potential division of epic proportions. Isaac, the figure of Christ, is laid open. The father Abraham ready to strike. I propose our current condition parallels Rembrandt’s tense moment of angelic intervention. Only we need more angels and less Abrahams.

Mark Driscoll has lit the Christian media world (Relevant, PatheosWorldMag.com) on fire with his Facebook remarks. His status update leads a pack of name callers in a contemplation of stories about “effeminate anatomically male worship leaders.” Rachel Held Evans has taken an angelic stand to call it bullying. Thus, a moment of tense intervention. I imagine Driscoll as Abraham ready to strike, believing his actions to be divinely mandated, while Evans flies down and puts an end to the sacrifice.

Driscoll’s remarks have made considerable collateral damage as they have circulated throughout all of the major Christian media outlets. Some fault Rachel for her remarks while others side with her to identify other ways Driscoll has offended the gay community. His recent response is a series on gender and identity, which somewhat misses the central accusation by Evans and others that his propositions are impetuous and hurtful. Once again the body of Christ is divided, giving reason for others to say, “See, they can’t even get along with each other.”

What is important to realize is the issue of privilege. Driscoll’s platform is a gift and should be treated as such. He needs to see that his position transcends his privilege to be punny or cute. Whether it was a joke or not, it is wrong. It is heavy handed. I have been under such leadership before and one thing is certain. It is abusive. His proposition rallies harsh remarks against the gay community or “less than manly Christian men.” Driscoll is walking a thin line here bordering on spiritual abuse.

The message is clear. We need to stop it. We need an angelic halt to our words and actions. More words and more arguments are not the solution. So, drop the knife right now. Whatever your agenda is, whomever your weapons are pointed at, just stop or at least let the angel stop you. Consider Abraham’s case. Ask: Are my actions really mandated by God? The signs may seem like Isaac should die, but God had a symbolic plan. The motions were part of the plan. The bloodshed wasn’t. I propose greater contemplation and pause before we act as Driscoll has. What profit is there in sharing stories about others that we don’t really understand or agree with. Surely this is not part of the divine mandate.

The world needs a humbled Church, a divinely directed Church, a servant Church, a Christ-filled Church. And, I am so elated to present one way that this can occur. Sojourners has called for a Civility Covenant on www.civilitycovenant.org. I’ve signed it and I highly recommend that Burnsiders get behind this, too. It’s not a new movement, but in light of this week’s events it is really important. What we need is not only a counter for the cyberbullies like Driscoll. We need a pledge to communicate Biblically, lovingly and civilly. Lest we wound the body of Christ and sacrifice another Isaac.

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    9 Comments

  • Michael, while I applaud the central point you are making–heck, civility among believers happens to be possibly the single most important issue to me–I see a lot of problems with the way it is being carried out so far. Not the least of these is the fact that Sojourners and Evans have both been guilty of the same thing they’re speaking out against now. Both have demonized conservatives, and done it very recently.

    In fact, many of the Christian authors and leaders who are now saying “can’t we all get along?” have engaged in the Us-vs.-Them silliness that has done so much damage to the cause of Christ.

    Secondly, it’s hard to know where “standing up for what’s right” ends and “quibbling” begins. I mean, take the Rob Bell thing. A few comments toward him were mean. The vast majority were not. They simply saw in his message something they felt was very wrong and even harmful. They expressed alarm. They stood up for what they believed, in blogs and comments and Facebook posts and tweets. for weeks, we heard that these conversations described as “bickering”, but who is guilty? Does Rob Bell not have a right to express his views? Do not those who have concerns about his views also have a right to express theirs? Is this really bickering?

    The Bell excitement is only one example, though. Am I bickering if I comment here, today, some slight disagreement with your post? Would it be best if only those who agreed with the blog post shared their thoughts? Where does unity fit in? Does it mean we all have to agree?

    Thorny questions, if you ask me. Clearly, the answer is that we aren’t going to all agree, because the Book we all claim to base our beliefs on is ambiguous in many ways. So the solution has two parts: (a) how we disagree (a point you make very well in this post; but also (b) how we characterize those who disagree with us.

    I believe the latter is what’s really dragging things down. Being behind a keyboard emboldens us to demonize those who see it differently, and those who fall into a different category than us (theologically or politically), to the point where we make them out to be fully evil, while those who agree with us are fully good.

    I think you’re onto something good, here, Michael. I probably sound like I’m arguing with you, but in fact, I just wish everyone would, well..I wish they’d learn how to get along.

    • Wow, that’s just full of typos. Embarrassing.

      for weeks, we heard that these conversations described as “bickering”, but who is guilty?

      should be

      For weeks, we heard these conversations described as “bickering”, but who is guilty of the bickering?

  • Michael D. Bobo says:

    James, thank you for reading and thoughtfully responding. Your questions are completely in line with my piece. I agree we have to ask fundamental questions. Methodologies are inevitably flawed but necessary to Christian life. No one has the corner on the market.

    I firmly believe that the Civility Covenant and other efforts to moderate our speech are necessary since they address the spirit in which we communicate. If we are led by the Spirit of God we should manifest the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience…).

    So, I humbly suggest the first step is to covenant to communicate in love. If we can’t start there, no matter what camp we’re in then the world is right. We are a pitiable bunch of hypocrites.

    I don’t have the answers to your questions, but I can challenge us all to consider our tone, our motives and our words.

    • Thanks, Michael. I was hoping you’d see my reply not as a disagreement, but as thinking out loud.

    • Michael D. Bobo says:

      Even if you disagreed I’d appreciate your thoughts. I’m a big picture guy who is less concerned about nailing things down to the nth degree. Best to you and your work.

  • Amen, Michael, Amen. Great article.

  • I never knew that much about Rembrandt’s personal life or even his artistic life. Reading about the trauma in his own life brings fresh perspective to his artwork. Isn’t it so often that we wonder, where’s our angel? Where is God in a situation? And yet, as you point out, there comes a time when we work it out — through paint, through writing, through prayer, through faith.

  • Michael D. Bobo says:

    Thank you Kim and Stephanie for reading and commenting.

    This piece has made me think a lot about my temptations to write flippantly or based upon a gut reaction. Words are weapons. Thank you for sharing your words wisely and for Kingdom building.

    I appreciate both Cupcake Countenance and Church Hopping for their well thought and positive messages. That’s what we need more of in cyberspace!

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