Art & Faith: Spare the SonArts, Visual Arts — By Michael D. Bobo 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.”
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.
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, Patheos, WorldMag.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.