Thursday, May 10, 2012

Metaphors be With You

Warner Sallman (1892-1968) was a Christian artist famous for several paintings including “Head of Christ,” “The Lord is My Shepherd,” “Christ at Heart’s Door,” and “Christ Our Pilot.” He grew up in Chicago and showed an early interest in and aptitude for art, especially religious art such as stained glass windows that told Bible stories. He graduated from the Chicago Art Institute and went to New York but didn’t take to the art scene there, so he returned to Chicago and enrolled in seminary. While there, one of his professors wanted to know what an artist was doing enrolled at such a school and Sallman explained that he wanted a deeper understanding of the Bible. The professor then uttered some life-changing words to the young artist. He said, Sallman, I hope that when you paint Christ that you won’t make him the soft in-doorsy portrayal we see so often, but that you will more accurately show him as a rugged outdoorsman he obviously was. So in all Sallman’s depictions, Jesus has a certain tenderness about him, but he is nonetheless rugged. I am fond of “The Lord is My Shepherd” because of the balance between this vigorous outdoorsman’s demeanor and his gentle look as he comforts the lamb in his arms. The painting literalizes the metaphor Jesus himself used to describe his compassion for people. Of course the Lord was never a shepherd but we find Sallman’s realistic painting of Him as such non-blameworthy because it does show an earnest compassion in the character of Christ that may not have been possible in more literal scenes from the Bible. A lot of people even in Jesus’ day took him literally when he spoke figuratively, didn’t they? The woman at the well wanted some of that water that would last forever, thinking Jesus was talking about real instead of spiritual drink. Even the highly educated Nicodemus misunderstood Jesus’ “You must be born again” statement, taking it literally to the absurd. And, you would think the disciples would “get it” when Jesus spoke metaphorically, but they often didn’t. At the well after Jesus had talked with the Samaritan woman, the disciples came up to him and wanted to bring him lunch. He replied that he had food to eat they knew not of, speaking of spiritual food, and they concluded that someone had given him a bite to eat. But it’s fine with me if Sallman wanted to make Jesus into a literal shepherd to express Our Lord’s caring nature. And, it’s fine with me if the artist painted Christ knocking on a literal door with an anticipatory look on his face to show eagerness to gain entrance into people’s hearts. Further, in “Christ, Our Pilot,” Sallman makes up his own parable, creating a scene of a man piloting a ship in a stormy sea with Christ behind him to protect and guide. Metaphors help us understand ideas, concepts and spiritual matters by showing the familiar to clarify the unfamiliar. Sallman certainly succeeded. Anytime I’m tempted to take the figurative language of scripture too literally, I hear resounding in my mind’s ear, “Metaphors be with you.”

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