Seeing In The Dark

or Wax Moon Faces and Books with Pores

vangogh-eyes

“It often seems to me that the night is much more
alive and richly colored than the day.”

—Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother Theo in 1888

Last week I had the privilege of viewing seven Van Goghs, all in one room, including Starry Night Over the Rhone, the depth and texture of which has to be seen to be believed.

The impressionists went out of their way not to paint what they saw. They stretched and strained the norms to communicate how it made them feel. They were expounding—explaining—reality. As Jordan writes, made in the image of God, man is the only symbol which is also a symbol-maker. [1]

Our impressions, whether musical, literary or artistic, also portray how we wish to see the world. One of the reasons I find postmillennialism so agreeable (besides the irrefutable biblical evidence!) is that it is optimistic about the work of God in human lives and cultures. That is the world I want. That is the life I want. I’m hungry and thirsty and I am being, and will be, filled. Jesus promised. Now we speak as witnesses and create a new world by our Word.

In a day when pop-culture presents real people as airbrushed angels with smooth and/or sparkly faces, and computer generated aliens have skin pores you can almost smell, one has to ask what reality it is we actually want. Perhaps we desire both the twisted “ascetic” ideal of the modern vampire elite as well as the blue flesh-and-blood-and-grime adventure of the warrior planet. Either way, we seem to want to escape this world for something—anything—different. Sounds like a lot of Christianity. It’s in our heads, our hearts or in heaven—anywhere but here.

Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, understood real life. He appreciated both its lights and shades. The picture he paints for us with words causes us, like any good book or movie, to appreciate the real world and reflect on it in a new way. The Bible opens our eyes to the world as it really is. Like Starry Night Over the Rhone, the promotional collateral for the world, plastered around us as pop-culture, completely fails to do it justice. Modernity—and modern Christianity—is so narrow. Creation is far deeper and richer than we could have imagined, but we need The Book to show us. Jeffrey Meyers writes:

…what better way for a Christian to rediscover the spiritual power in honest evaluations of our twisted world and life than to read and meditate on Solomon’s Ecclesiastes? In Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451, the reclusive Professor Faber explains to the curious Guy Montag the “magic” of books. He is holding a very rare copy of the Bible brought to him by Montag.

Do you know why books such as this are important? Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more “literary” you are. That’s my definition, anyway. Telling detail. Fresh detail. The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies. So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless. We are living in a time when flowers are trying to live on flowers, instead of growing on good rain and black loam. (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 [New York: Ballantine, 1953], 83)

I can’t help but think of the book of Ecclesiastes when I read Faber’s description of a good book. Of course, he is holding the Bible as he makes this little speech. and Ecclesiastes is quoted in the story more than once. Solomon’s book is the perfect example of literature that shows the “pores in the face of life.” The son of David is so honest about the difficulties in life that it scares many Christians, and he trusts God so much he has a bit too much fun—he drinks wine and actually enjoys sex with his wife! This is way too much “fresh detail” for some Christians.

I am convinced that this is one of the reasons why so many commentaries and sermon series are, in effect, massive efforts to domesticate Solomon’s wisdom. His observations, maxims, and advice, we are sometimes told by pious commentators, are the desperate ramblings of a hopeless pagan soul, not the wisdom of a faithful believer. How could a believer be so pessimistic? How could a believer condone such pleasure? So the mantle of a pagan sage is forced on Solomon and the book then becomes simply an apologetic tool to show us that life apart from God is meaningless…

But this is a lot like modern escapist Christmas celebrations. It ignores reality. It is a childish and immature way of handling the harsh realities of life… The mature king invites us to a feast at a table in the mist. At that table we are called to enjoy wine, woman, and song—all gracious gifts of God to be enjoyed by faith. [2]

Doesn’t all this lead us right back to the Garden of Eden? The Knowledge of Good and Evil was not something to be avoided at all costs. It was something to be obtained eventually by obedience. The serpent’s wool threw the Law of God into rich relief. The blood of animals demonstrated the love of God. The loss of paradise created an even greater hunger for the forbidden tree.

We thirst for the colours of both the light and the night; the glorious unknown, the world beyond the veil, a world where we are truly gods. There is a deeper world built deeply into us. We sculpt it, paint it, pointillise it, poem it and pixel it but it ever remains just out of reach.

I don’t believe we will grasp the meaning of Solomon’s writings fully until the end of time. Their strangeness is, like the apostolic hermeneutic, due to our ignorance. The Paradise we lost and are regaining wasn’t and isn’t a Pollyanna world of flowers growing out of flowers. It was a world to be viewed, tasted, inhaled, chewed and heard with sound judgment. It was a world that already knew darkness as night and compost and the sleep of Adam. But that life-giving darkness is now a Holy Place to which we have full access. Redeemed by blood, earth’s blacker hues are no longer a threat. The lie is exposed. We don’t have to save our lives. It is safe to die, to obey His command and commend our spirits to God.

The night now is more richly coloured than the day because it is more blessed to give than to receive; because those who mourn are blessed; because the greatest love is demonstrated in death. Like Moses, we consider the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt.

The darknesses and lights we find in the Bible reveal the flatness of the spectres of Hollywood and the synthetic fragrances of Christian pop-culture. The evil hide in the dark and the good run to what they perceive as light. But for the mature, the error of dualism is corrected in the conquest of Death. Now there actually is Yin and Yang. Adam holds the full reality of good and evil in perfect balance, perfect judgment.

Greater Solomon has passed through the veil and come back to tell about it. Now He beckons us to do the same, to be as deep and rich as He is in both the mundane and the crisis. That other world we desire is now well within our reach. At Pentecost, He exalted us as new lights to rule both the Day and the Night.

Wisdom and maturity, like good wine and fine cigars, are well-rounded, bittersweet tastes to be acquired over time. All history is about man gaining good judgment, individually and corporately, Adam and Eve. [3]

For I want you to know how great a struggle I have on your behalf and for those who are at Laodicea, and for all those who have not personally seen my face, that their hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (Colossians 2:1-3)

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[1] James B. Jordan, Symbolism: A Manifesto. [PDF]
[2] Jeffrey Meyers, A Table in the Mist: Ecclesiastes Through New Eyes, pp. ix-x.
[3] See Sanctification: What It Isn’t.

Thanks to friends Michael and Celia for rescuing me from the office for a trip to the National Gallery.

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2 Responses to “Seeing In The Dark”

  • tysdaddy Says:

    This is a gorgeous observation: “Wisdom and maturity, like good wine and fine cigars, are well-rounded, bittersweet tastes to be acquired over time. All history is about man gaining good judgment, individually and corporately”

    A hearty amen . . .

  • Mike Bull Says:

    Thanks for visiting, Brian

    Yes – but an experienced palate is easier to achieve than mastery of the tough moral dilemmas it symbolises. When it comes to the curved balls our culture keeps throwing–or even the easy pitches–the Western church isn’t doing too well.