Skeuomorphism. Why We Are Never Surprised When Wile E. Coyote Loses.


(This was originally published in 2013 on my other blog, but since it was the only post, I decided to consolidate. I keep telling myself I need to write more, but hey, I’m slow—and that’s all I have to say about that.)

Apparently one of Chuck Jones’ cardinal rules for Roadrunner and Coyote cartoons was, “The audience’s sympathy must always be with the Coyote.” They were largely successful on that count. The guy couldn’t catch a break, much less a running bird. Just an everyman trying to feed himself in a dangerous and unforgiving environment, Coyote always managed to screw up his elaborate schemes to capture and make a meal out of the Roadrunner. With all due respect to PETA, we all know the Roadrunner would have deserved it. But Coyote was always at the mercy of his own ineptitude and the faulty product design of the notorious, ACME Corporation. He was also easily fooled by skeuomorphs. Admit it. You know you’ve yelled at your TV screen a few times, “Don’t do it, Coyote! Don’t do it!”

Skeuomorphism might be the longest word in the average graphic designer’s vocabulary—at least it probably is in mine. And since it has become the common enemy of some who think-about-graphic-design-for-a-living, much of the rest of the design community assumes it must be a bad thing. Apparently the mere existence of skeuomorphism causes indigestion among a certain class of design purists who, like the disciples of Walter Gropius, and Adolf Loos before him, believe they have found the Holy Grail of Design and are now equipped to usher in a Utopian age where all pretense, dishonesty and bourgeois ornamentation can be stripped away to reveal Capital-T-Truth. Well, at least this year’s Capital-T-Truth.

According to Wiktionary, a skeuomorph is defined as “a design feature copied from a similar feature in another object, even when not functionally necessary.” Wiktionary also tells us that use of the word traces back at least as far as 1889, which should serve as a reminder to the design-hipsters cum baristas that they aren’t really on the cutting edge of either art or language evolution. (If you want to jump right in to the deep end and really impress the latte crowd, try this debate over the fundamental meaning of the term. As for me, I am using the term to mean what it has become in the vernacular: Apple looks kitschy.)

So when your screen background looks like a piece of “fine Corinthian leather,” or your Google earth icon has beveled edges, or your iBooks interface looks like a wooden bookshelf, that is skeuomorphism. The horror.

When Apple first popularized a graphic user interface back during the Stone Age, they were attempting to put a face, or perhaps better, a skin on a technology that few people understood. Steve Jobs and crew were creating the “computer for the rest of us” by using visual metaphors that we all recognized in order to enable us to use this new technological marvel. No longer did we need to know the rudiments of programming language or even “C-prompts” on a green screen in order to navigate around the Matrix. Instead we got familiar-looking file folder icons and document icons that emulated dog-eared pieces of paper, a now politically incorrect bomb with a lit fuse, and the ever-dreadful dead Mac icon with the upside down smile and x’s for eyes. We navigated—the term itself is a verbal skeuomorph—through the computer by pointing and clicking at items and buttons on the screen. Pointing, of course, was a violation of the rules of etiquette but we were all familiar with it. The buttons weren’t really buttons, they just looked like it. And clicking, especially with the magical transformation that occurred once you did it, gave the user a sense of power. Admittedly it was power in an alien world, but does it get any better than that? For those of us who were familiar with rubber cement, wax, X-acto knives, t-squares, rubylith, type books, proportion wheels, galleys and the stimulating smell of printer’s ink, getting to use a Macintosh was like being handed the keys to the Space Shuttle. Once they added color and higher resolution, we were no longer merely orbiting the earth. It was infinity and beyond.

Those first Mac icons, largely designed by Susan Kare, were pretty primitive though brilliant for their time, in a way like the guano drawings on the Magura Caves. You do the best you can with what you have. The original Mac had a bit depth of 1, in other words, black or… wait for it… white. As bit-depth/resolution improved it was to be expected that the detail on those original icons would evolve—and clearly they did. So we wound up with beveled edges, sophisticated shadows and color schemes, backgrounds that look like paper, or wood, or marble, or galaxies or whatever in the real world a designer might imagine, all used with the best of intentions. Looking like an actual notepad can be an immediate way to communicate to the user what a virtual notepad is and how to use it. Early iPhone and iPad icons became celebrations of dimensionality bordering on trompe-l’oeil, as did the interfaces within the applications they represented.

Trompe l’oeil is a recognized and celebrated category of art, unlike skeuomorphism, although both are darn near unpronounceable. You can find some astonishing examples here. If you’ve been to Las Vegas and seen the ceilings in the Venetian Hotel or in the Via Bellagio, you’ve seen trompe-l’oeil. Frankly, you could make an argument that the entire Las Vegas strip is a monument to the ersatz—trompe l’oeil and skeuomorphism unabashedly presented as reality. For a more familiar example, but still from a desert in Nevada, think of Wile E. Coyote painting a tunnel on the side of a canyon wall to fool the Roadrunner. When Roadrunner turns the corner and runs into the newly created tunnel, Wile E. tries to follow, with the expected result. He crashes into the canyon painted stone and gets “flattened” against the wall. Despite what ol’ Wile E. may have thought, even the kids watching the cartoon knew it wasn’t a real tunnel. Kids, of course, are smarter than coyotes (and adults for that matter, most of whom think that Las Vegas is a real place.)

Kids are also smarter than many philosophers of design. At least my kids are. They absorb visual metaphors like breathing. They never, ever had to answer the angst-ridden question of “Mac or PC?” They don’t care. If it has a screen they can operate it, and they know without thinking about it that their fingers are not going to slip off a virtually beveled edge. So they are not fooled by skeuomorphic details. Neither are they offended by them. I never had to utter the words, “Son, you know that leather background isn’t real, don’t you?” Had I done so I would have gotten the same look of consternation when I asked my then six-year-old if he realized the magic in Harry Potter movies wasn’t real. “Seriously? Dad? It’s just a movie.”

Apple’s work on interface design ushered in a golden age of ornamentation, perhaps even arresting the Modernist trend to the point where, in 2005, Eye Magazine could declare “The Decriminalisation of Ornament,” (a direct reference to Adolf Loos’ “Ornament and Crime” which argued “The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from objects of daily use.” ) But now, after years of increasingly realistic looking, but fake, bevels, shadows, colors and textures among iPhone visual elements, designers, especially user interface (UI) designers, have scraped themselves off the wall of the virtual canyon and decided they are once again allergic to ornamentation. But these days it is more fashionable to use (or perhaps, misuse) the term “skeuomorphism.”

This issue turns out to be a pretty ancient problem. The guano painter in the Magura cave didn’t have an alphabet and knew nothing of taxidermy that would have enabled the hanging of a stuffed animal as a trophy on the wall. Instead, he or she drew a picture, with sufficient detail to communicate, but no more. You could even argue that those drawings were the very essence of flatness so desired by modern UX design purists. 15000 years later (though still 17,000 years before Jonathan Ive was even born), the artists of the Lascaux cave paintings added color, dimension, perspective and ornamental detail to the mix. I’m guessing the Lascaux paintings were called skeuomorphic by the art critics of the Paleolithic Era. But I doubt the artist or anyone else for that matter, Wile E. Coyote-style, confused the pictures on the wall with actual animals.

Tom Wolfe, in his brilliant skewering of modern art and architecture, From Our House to Bauhaus, reports an exercise by Josef Albers, an early Bauhaus instructor, that clearly explains the purist attitude toward skeuomorphism:

“Albers would walk into the room and deposit a pile of newspapers on the table and tell the students he would return in one hour. They were to turn the pieces of newspaper into works of art in the interim. When he returned, he would find Gothic castles made of newspaper, yachts made of newspaper, airplanes, busts, birds, train terminals, amazing things. But there would always be some student, a photographer or a glassblower, who would simply have taken a piece of newspaper and folded it once and propped it up like a tent and let it go at that. Albers would pick up the cathedra and the airplane and say: “These were meant to be made of stone or metal—not newspaper.” Then he would pick up the photographer’s absentminded tent and say: “But this!—this makes use of the soul of paper. …This!—is a work of art in paper”

At the risk of appearing ambivalent, let may say simply, “BS!” If we were to follow his logic—beyond where even Albers seemed to go—we might reach the conclusion that one ought not make anything out of something else, since the original materials are best suited to be just that, the original materials. Wood is best used for trees, not newspapers or cornices; sand is better suited to remain as sand rather than turned into crystal goblets or the glass facades of Bauhaus Big Box Architecture. In fact, by following Albers’ logic we might eventually do away with all forms of not merely ornamentation, but representational art and even color, as some Bauhaus influenced trend-setters wanted to do. Although the leading edge of smartphone interface design today looks like Ellsworth Kelly color explorations, you just know someone is going to eventually argue for all black and white. Seen the Drudge Report lately?

I do confess to a certain sympathy with the anti-skeuomorphic crowd. (Then again, I tend to root for Wile E. Coyote, too.) I have a visceral disdain for wood-grained laminate countertops and printed faux-wood wall paneling. It seems to me that if you want your countertops to look like wood, you ought to use wood—especially since a chef friend of mine once told me that real wood has chemistry that helps kill the bacteria on its surface. But even at that, I wouldn’t turn down a meal served on a Formica counter. Heretically, I find the iPhone’s icon-oriented interface to be more clutter than order, even as executed in iOS7, and although I am an unrepentant Apple fanboy, all those flat squares in Windows Phone 8 are clean, simple and attractive. How effective they are as navigational tools, I have no idea. And I also know that they are “buttons,” regardless of how preciously flat they appear.

For Gropius and his followers in the Bauhaus this intense desire to eschew ornamentation was about politics. The assumption was that ornamentation was expensive and therefore, only members of the bourgeoisie could afford it. The search for “flatness” became a political, as well as artistic, movement. Roger Scruton describes the modernists and their agenda this way: “They were social and political activists who wished to squeeze the disorderly human material that constitutes a city into a socialist straitjacket.”  So it is not surprising that, in an era when the cultural desire for socialism is in ascendance, we might return to a fear of bourgeois ornamentation.

Such simplification is tempting, and when presented as the manifestation of (faux-) humanizing ideals, eliminating ornamentation takes on a certain (equally faux-) nobility. But just because a group of design philosophers want to protect the masses, whom they presume must be fooled by the painting of a tunnel on a canyon wall, doesn’t mean we have to fall for that sort of reverse-elitism.

René Magritte, made the point back in 1928, with the inscription on his painting “The Treachery of Images.” “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” (This is not a pipe.) We know. We also know that on-screen buttons are not really beveled, the clicking sounds are not mechanical, the calendar doesn’t have a real leather border, the picture of our kids on the lock screen is not really our kids, the cars and trucks in Transformers didn’t really transform, and Skeuby Doo isn’t a real dog. Unless the day comes when we can jack ourselves directly into the Matrix, I imagine that human beings will always prefer a little visual metaphor— maybe even a little kitsch—with our computer interfaces.

God’s Good Order: The Cycle Will Be Broken, Bye and Bye.


(Originally published in the Edge of Faith‘s premiere issue, February 2017)

The path to reconciliation must begin with the act of confession.—Soon-Chan Rah1

In the summer of 1960 I was eight years old and lived in Little Rock, Arkansas. Most summers I would spend a month or more at my grandparents’ house in Wilmar, a small, south Arkansas town in Drew County known as “The Home of Tall Pines and Pink Tomatoes.” The soil was red and sandy, and we were near enough to the Louisiana border to have Spanish Moss lend its distinctive grayish-green mystery as it lurked, hanging from the branches of large, live oak trees. The humidity was always on the edge of bursting into rain; the water was so soft you could never quite dry off or feel clean after a bath. I can still taste the faint combination of salt and pine sap in the air.

Each day I woke to the sound of  multiple roosters crowing. I got out of bed to help my grandmother and great-grandmother feed the chickens; collect the eggs; dust the house; make biscuits, cakes and pies; and look forward to having a Pepsi-and-vanilla-ice-cream-float every day at 10:00 am and again at 3:00 pm. They called it a Tea Party. Sometimes I would roam the gravel pits and the pine woods with my cousins, playing cowboys and Indians or re-enacting famous battles from the Civil War, especially those few battles that the Confederate Rebels actually won. At night I slept in the same lumpy bed in the same room that my father and his two brothers grew up in. I read Tom Swift novels and Hardy Boys mysteries by flashlight under the covers.

Around 5:00 pm every day I would climb in the old Ford pickup truck and ride with my grandfather a couple of miles to the farm so we could feed the cattle. I always took my treasured pocket knife. Cutting the twine on bales of hay stored in the loft and tossing it down to the cattle feeders made me feel like a real ranch-hand, maybe even a real cowboy. Once in a while I would accompany him to the “bank” he owned, although I never felt like a real banker. The word “bank” is in quotes because it wasn’t a real bank. The technical name was “exchange and trust,”  a forerunner of the modern savings and loan. He couldn’t loan money, but he could keep it for people in his cavernous, walk-in safe. I guess he was pretty good at double-entry bookkeeping.

Nonetheless, he was known as the town’s banker, and the water commissioner, and the school superintendent, and I think he was even mayor for a time. Everyone called him Mr. Dick. When he died they found a little pocket ledger with a list of initials and dollar amounts next to them. The best guess is that he did loan money—his own. A stern father to his sons, he must have been generous to a fault with everyone else.

The town was built alongside a single highway that ran east and west. Railroad tracks ran parallel to the highway about fifty yards to the south. They had a Methodist, Baptist and a Presbyterian Church and my grandfather attended all three. They had the “bank,” two general/feed stores, a gas station, a school, a flour mill with a couple of grain silos, a sawmill with endless mountains of pine wood chips, and a United States Post Office.
My grandfather’s brother was postmaster. In a town of 500 people our family was about as privileged as you could get.

There was also the Star Café, one of my grandfather’s less than successful entrepreneurial ventures, which may have been a less than transparent attempt to get my great-grandmother out of the house and keep her busy. A little mother-in-law drama was about all the drama they had. Except for the night when the flour mill burned down there wasn’t a lot of excitement. Idyllic.

500 people. As near as I can tell, about 300 of them were black. Sixty percent. You can do the math. You already know where the black people lived—south of the railroad tracks in little shacks and pre-fabricated houses. Some of the white folks had pre-fab homes as well, and some lived on the other side of the tracks, but they also tended to have acreage around their houses where they could grow tomatoes to sell to the grocery chains and the Campbell Soup folks in the county seat, and pine trees they could harvest every 15 or 20 years for big money. That kind of real estate was rare for black residents, if it existed at all.

One very slow moving afternoon I was hanging out with a couple of the local kids when one of them suggested we play “Chuck Rocks at the N–––––s.” Yes, this was Arkansas, 1960. He used the word.

We gathered our ammunition—small, round, gravel rocks from the driveway. Hiding behind the two-story mother-in-law house in the back of my grandparent’s home, we would quickly sneak out and launch a volley across the railroad tracks onto the roof of the small, pink, pre-fab house on the other side. Quickly retreating to our hiding place we would peek around the corner to check the results. The first couple of times, nothing happened. The rocks all fell short or on the roof and it seemed that nobody noticed.

So we did it again. After a couple of volleys a Very Large Black Man came out on the stoop and looked around. Seeing nothing he went back in. Still, the fact that we had elicited that reaction was success to us. Congratulating ourselves on a mission accomplished we wandered off to other adventures.

The thrill of doing something we knew to be completely wrong was more enticing than eight-year-old boys could stand. Even more thrilling was the fact that we seemed to have gotten away with it. So naturally we did it again. And again. For several days
in a row we played our new game, waiting for the increasingly puzzled (we thought), Very Large Black Man to come out on the stoop, look around and go back inside.
Then we would quit. We never considered what would happen if we broke a window. The possibility that someone might get hurt didn’t enter our minds.

Of course, nobody was fooled. The people in the house figured out what was going on almost immediately. The deep tragedy is that it took several days for them to do something about it. Mr. Dick was known to be “good to the black folks,” but to directly challenge him regarding the behavior of his grandson and two other white kids was a violation of the deeply embedded but unwritten protocols of the existing social order. When white people of the time thought about it—something they seldom did—they merely understood those protocols as the way the world is supposed to be. God’s Good Order. Today we call it systemic racism and that is not too harsh a label.

One afternoon, sitting in the breezeway, likely enjoying a round of Pepsi floats, we saw the Very Large Black Man walking across the railroad tracks into my grandparents back yard, seeming to grow Larger with every step. The game was over. We were busted. Before he reached the back door to ask if he could speak with Mr. Dick, my two co-conspirators made a quick exit out the front door. Hiding, I watched from a distance as the two men talked though I could not hear what they were saying. I didn’t really need to know; even an eight-year-old has a conscience. I braced myself for the consequences.

Aside from a stern lecture from my grandfather, repeated in a slightly gentler fashion by my grandmother, and then repeated again a couple of weeks later when my parents showed up to take me back home to Little Rock, there were no real consequences beyond  being “grounded” for a few days. I have searched my memory to see if, at the very least, they made me go apologize to the Very Large Black Man and his family, but I don’t think so.

Later that year, in December, about a week away from my ninth birthday, my mother, my younger sister, and I were getting gasoline at a little filling station on the southeast side of downtown Little Rock. Southeast Little Rock was “colored,” as they called it in those days, perhaps even intending politeness. The morning was overcast but the haze was beginning to break up. We were only three years removed from the day when nine frightened but courageous black students attempted to integrate Central High School just a few blocks away. The “Little Rock Nine,” as they came to be called, faced an angry mob barring their entrance. They also faced the Arkansas National Guard, which had been called out by Governor Orval Faubus, to “keep the peace.” The Guard was clearly there to support the mob and bar the door to the schoolhouse. The nine black students were turned away. Two weeks later they were admitted, but only after President Eisenhower federalized the Guard and sent 1,200 paratroopers to the campus to escort them up the steps of the school. Paratroopers sounds a little theatrical. I’m pretty sure they showed up in Jeeps and trucks. Either way, Eisenhower made his point.

Sheltered in the growing suburbs of northwest Little Rock—read: white flight—the only knowledge I had of the standoff was overhearing my father on the phone telling my out-of-state uncle that we didn’t really know anything more about it than he did. We got our news from the paper and the Huntley-Brinkley Report just like everyone else in America.

Aside from housekeepers, gardeners and the occasional “lawn-jockey” statue—yes, it was that kind of neighborhood—African-Americans did not exist in my world. The whole environment was a study in Jim Crow reality. Even the more liberal members of the community believed separate-but-equal was an honorable, even Christian, position—reflective of divine intentionality. This filling station was run, and likely owned, by a white man. Black neighborhood. White-owned business. God’s Good Order.

Mom (we called her Nana) pulled up next to the gas pump. The car was a 1955 Pontiac Star Chief, a chrome appointed behemoth with enough presence to herald my father’s arrival into middle management, yet not so garish as to outshine the Rocket 88 Oldsmobile driven by his boss. Status was a finely tuned machine in those days.

Nana and I climbed out of the car while my sister sat in the back seat fascinated with her Chatty Cathy talking doll. Even today Chatty Cathy is described on Wikipedia as a “fanciful depiction of a human being…a five-year-old Caucasian girl…blonde hair in a short bobbed style and blue eyes.” [Italics added.] It was not until 1962 that Mattel discovered there were people of other colors. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that it was not until 1962 that Mattel discovered that there were markets made up of people of other colors ready to part with their hard-earned money. I wonder that rarity does not explain why collectible Chatty Cathy dolls on eBay tend to be perceived as more valuable if they have the “ghostly white” color found on some models from 1964 bearing a “Patented in Canada” marking.

Nana went inside the station and waited to pay while I watched the attendant fill the tank. This was long before the days of self-service at the “convenience” store. Fascinated with the mechanics of fueling the car and secretly enjoying the mysterious fumes of the gasoline, I watched the friendly, grease-covered, Andy Griffith look-alike perform his liturgy. While the gasoline pumped and I tasted the air, he lifted the hood, pulled out the dipstick, wiped off the end, reinserted it into the pipe, pulled it out again, and inspected the now, oil-covered tip. With a knowing nod of the head and a wink in my general direction, he returned the dipstick for a second time to its proper place in the natural order of auto-mechanical physics and lowered the hood. Then he topped off the air-pressure in the tires and cleaned the windshield.

What happened next was completely outside the realm of the natural order for a nine-year-old white kid from Little Rock, Arkansas in 1960. A boy from the neighborhood, about my age, walked up to me and tried to strike up a conversation. It seems it was his birthday. He was nine years old, very proud of that fact, and he asked me if I knew anyone else who was nine years old. I backed away from him in silence trying to avert my eyes, just wishing he would go away. Something about being the same age as this kid was disturbing. I was not usually that shy, but I didn’t respond to his questions.

He was black. The only black people I knew about (aside from the aforementioned service class) were the people from the other side of the tracks in my grandparents’ south Arkansas town. My recent, narrow escape from justice was fresh on my mind. What I did know of black people I knew only from a distance. I had heard stories—stories in which men regularly referred to dark-skinned human beings by using the “N-word” and otherwise genteel women referred to them using the condescendingly polite but equally profane term, “Nigra.” “Don’t let them fool you,” I was told, “they are not the same as us. They’re okay as long as they stay in their own place, on their own side of the tracks, but you definitely don’t want one marrying your sister.”

He persisted. Like a black Chatty Cathy doll that could pull its own string, he continued to pepper me with questions, which I continued not to answer. “What’s your name? How old are you? I’m nine years old. Do you know anyone who is nine years old? Is that your sister in the car? How old is she? Is she nine years old.”

I was pretty certain that the only appropriate response for a child of my “station” was to ignore him. So I did. Nervously and completely unsure of what he might do. You just never know.

Nana watched the whole encounter from the station window.

My mother was raised in east Texas. The word “hardscrabble” was invented to describe her Depression-era childhood. In her poverty she always felt “less than.” She spoke often of the rare treat of going to see a motion-picture with her father. Admission was nine cents. She would pray that her dad did not need to keep the extra penny so she could buy a Tootsie Roll. I was always reminded of that story when I took my sons to see the latest superhero movie and I had to spend over $20 for two drinks and a popcorn. While some poverty is real, some is just a first-world problem.

The outsider mindset solidified when she was fourteen. Her parents divorced and she had to quit school to help support the family. Ironically she took a job in a movie theater. At the time, divorce carried an unredeemable social stigma, not merely for the divorced couple, but also for their children. There were no mommy blogs or support groups for single mothers or classes to help the newly-divorced find their way back to normalcy. Normalcy was for other people. To be touched by divorce in those days was to be diminished as a human being, to be not quite a whole person. She could genuinely empathize with someone who, by popular opinion, political compromise and Constitutional provision, was considered to be only 3/5th of a human person—at least until the chicanery of the 13th Amendment. Besides, she was, or so she believed, part Native American, another aggrieved group. That turns out to be mostly true, but not Cherokee as she hoped. A test of my DNA reveals that she was descended from Mexican ancestry and from Cree Indians—darker-skinned Canadians.

As I backed away from the frightening specter of a smiling, friendly, nine-year old black child, Nana walked up behind me. Bumping into her I suddenly felt trapped. With the Pontiac Star Chief on one side and the gasoline pump on the other, she had cut off my only avenue of escape. Putting her hand firmly on my shoulder, she asked, “Are you going to answer his question?”

I couldn’t get words out of my mouth. I stammered and stuttered in pretty much the same way I had when a few years earlier I had a face-to-face encounter with a garden snake on my grandmother’s front porch. Once my grandmother decrypted my message she took a well-sharpened hoe from the shed out back and summarily dispatched the poor snake.

But my mother was not carrying a garden hoe and this black kid, whatever my misgivings, was no snake. Nana was not coming to my rescue, at least not in the way I hoped. Instead, she struck up a surprisingly genial conversation with this dark, mysterious, and intimidating (at least to me) stranger, this pre-adolescent representative of a tribe that the author of my family genealogy (circa 1952, Blue Mountain, Mississippi) described as the “people of Ham.”  It must be true; it’s in a professionaly printed, hardback book with gold foil embossing on the cover and coated stock on the interior. Although, to be honest, the foil has pretty much worn off now.

That genealogy miraculously manages to trace our family origins all the way back to one of Noah’s sons. Impressive, given the fact that the riches of Internet research did not exist in 1952, much less Yet he was sufficiently persuaded of our roots to write, “When Japheth stepped out of the Ark and his father delivered that prophecy [Cursed be Canaan…God shall enlarge Japheth…and Canaan will be his servant… Genesis 9:24-29], there rose a kind of Gulf stream of history carrying the promise of the gospel, numerical enlargement and superiority over the people of Ham. These latter are the Egyptians, Ethiopians, colored races, etc.”

Don’t be overly troubled by that “superiority over the…colored races, etc.” thing. According to the author, himself a well-educated Presbyterian pastor, at least one prominent member of our lineage “led family worship in his home” and “had a sense of responsibility that extended to his family and slaves alike.”  So I guess that makes it all okay, right? God’s Good Order.

Of course, as a nine-year-old I knew nothing of family history and it was not until many years later that my mother discovered a copy of the will of the first member of my lineage to settle in America in a dusty county courthouse in South Carolina. It is dated February 2, 1837. In the inventory of his property (pictured above) you will find:

1 Negro man, Lewis$1,000.00

Beck & 2 Children$1,506.00

Rose$   475.00

Right there, categorically, yet almost casually listed among the farm implements, the household items, the cows and horses and chickens, the jugs of cider and vinegar, and the lard, are five people. Five human beings. And those dollar values? That is what they sold for at auction. Their original valuation was less than $1100.00 all together. When the folks in the HR department talk about the importance of investing in “human capital” it sends a shiver down my spine.

What I did know at the age of nine was entitlement. Not consciously, it was merely something I inherited from my ancestors and absorbed from the culture of the 1950s in these United States of America, the “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave,” and the southern state of Arkansas, the “Land of Opportunity” for some folks—those fortunate enough to suffer from a modest level of melanin deficiency. Somehow, without even realizing it I had fallen prey, as had much of white America, to the “curse of Ham” myth. There is no truth to, and certainly no Biblical support for, the idea that dark-skinned human beings are that way due to a so-called “curse of Ham.” Yet, thanks to a lot of bad teaching and the endorsement of the once nearly ubiquitous Scofield Bible, this false belief dominated much of American theology of the past two centuries and even persists in a few places today. As Dr. Tony Evans puts it, “Myths don’t need facts, they just need supporters.”2

I didn’t need facts. I didn’t even need conscious awareness of my inherited prejudice.
I just knew there was something unusual about my mother talking with this boy.

Nana smiled at him and offered that I was almost nine years old. Vigorously prompting me at the elbow, she told me to shake his hand, which I did very cautiously. It was no fist bump or interlocking thumbs, “bring-it-in,” kind of “bro-hug.” Instead it was typical of what two nine-year-old boys almost always do—a weak, tentative grip, shy and uncertain. What my father would have called “a limp fish.” It ended as quickly as it began.

But as our hands touched I discovered something I had not known before. Black skin feels like white skin. It’s the same thing. Who knew? Epiphany! Somehow that was comforting to me and although I still couldn’t quite hold up my end of the conversation, I did stammer something about my birthday as we got in the car to leave.

My new-found, black best friend looked at me with warranted suspicion and probably wondered why I had been so distant. We waved at each other as the car pulled out of the gas station and I felt different—somehow forgiven even for the egregious sin of rock-chucking the previous summer. My nearly nine-year-old self knew intuitively that my mother had just given me a gift—a gift that I must pass on to my own children and they in turn, to their children—a legacy of infinitely more value than that cloth-covered family geneaology with the faded gold foil. I felt like I had entered a new world—one in which God’s Truly Good Order was being restored.



1 Soon-Chan Rah, (2009) p. 71, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press

2 Evans, Tony (2015-09-24). Oneness Embraced: Reconciliation, the Kingdom, and How We are Stronger Together Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.

The Arc of the Covenant

Part of a photo series, A Cautionary Tale, by the author which can be found here:

Stories, at least classical stories, tend to follow what people who study stories call a narrative arc. If you took a high school literature class—and stayed awake for enough of it—you may remember the term “dramatic structure.” From the time of Aristotle, a story studier himself, the form was considered to be a beginning, a middle and an end. So maybe you didn’t have to be as smart as Aristotle to figure that out, but nonetheless, he got the ball rolling on the idea of literary analysis.
The version of Aristotle’s idea that your high school teacher taught you is likely the one conceived in the 19th century by a German novelist named Gustav Freytag. Now Gus had his problems. His most famous work was a novel called Debit and Credit which extolled the virtues of the German people (so far, so good) in contrast to Jews and Poles. Oy! But his literary theory—thankfully less anti-Semitic—caught on. It went something like this:
1. Exposition. This section presents the stuff you need to know for the rest of the story to make sense. The setting, the main characters, a little about the back story, etc.
2. Rising Action. This is where a series of unfortunate (or fortunate) events cause conflict, build tension, and lead inexorably toward part three, the climax.
3. Climax. This is the main point of the story. The lead character, the protagonist, steps up, becomes the hero, or maybe just fixes the problem. Sometimes it goes the other way, the lead character fails. That version is called a tragedy. Sometimes the protagonist defeats the antagonist, but the antagonist doesn’t fully realize it yet, which sets up the rest of the story.
4. Falling Action. In this part of the story the protagonist continues to struggle against the antagonist, which may be a person or maybe just an idea. The final outcome may still be in doubt, but the battle continues with varying degress of intensity.
5. Dénouement. You can call it a resolution or a revelation (my favorite). I just always like the sound of the word “dénouement.’ In this part of the story, conflicts are resolved, things either go back to normal in which everyone lives happily ever after or they move on to a new normal, with just enough tension to suggest there is more to the story with hints of a possible sequel.
That’s a pretty simplisitic understanding of a narrative arc, and probably more dependent of modern movie economics, than Gus Freytag. But it is a pretty common way stories unfold.
Even before Aristotle, there were stories. In fact, long before Aristotle, stories were the primary way that historical knowledge was passed from person to person and generation to generation. The Bible, even before it was written down, was that kind of collection of stories. Each of those stories has its own narrative arc, a lot like your high school teacher would have described. (At least if you went to high school back when it was still acceptable to talk about the Bible in class, which kind of raises the question of why, exactly, can we still discuss the notorious anti-semite, Freytag’s theory, but we can barely mention the Bible in a school.)

For the most part the Bible is a collection of stories that go something like this:
Part 1
God does something wonderful for his people. Something like: Creating an entire universe for them to live in;
Putting them in an exquisitely beautiful garden with an even more exquisitely beautiful partner;
Delivering them out of slavery in Egypt by parting the Red Sea; Providing food for them in the wilderness that they didn’t have to grow; Outfitting them with shoes that didn’t wear out in 40 years;
Leading them into a land of milk and honey, which always sounded kind of sticky to me and very likely to attract bees. But if you lived in the ancient near east it probably sounded like the Promised Land to you.
Part 2
They faithfully follow him until they get rebellious or tired or just plain stoopid.
Part 3
God lets them have their way even though he knows things are not going to end well.
Part 4
Bad stuff happens.
Part 5
He calls them back and, often reluctantly, they call on God again.
Part 6
He forgives them, rescues them and takes them back.
Part 7
Finally God sends his own son to die for them, making it possible for them to receive eternal life and a brand new heart, one that loves God and desires to do his will—not out of duty or fear but for the sheer joy of participating in the life of the all good and all beautiful creator and sustainer of the universe.

Repeat parts 1 through 6 as often as necessary until you get it through your skull (and your heart) that God really, really, really loves you—so get over your bad self.

Literally, get over your bad self. That’s where part 7 comes in. It is his major work in you and it is a work in progress. Philippians 1:6 says, “God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.”

To sum that up, here’s the way the story goes: God is good. He does good stuff. We don’t believe it. We rebel. We fail. He calls us back. We repent. He restores. And he is ushering in a kingdom where that restoration is permanent.

That’s my story. And it is probably yours.

I have had opportunity after opportunity to see first hand how God works all things together for good, for those that love him (however imperfectly) and are called according to his purposes. He has taken the gifts he has given me and placed me in situations where he wanted me to use them. Those situations have seldom looked like what I might have expected or planned, but that is just a reminder to me that this story is ultimately not about me, it’s about him.

I look at all the ways I wandered and I don’t really know why God allows that. But to be honest, I’m almost glad he did. It probably has something to do with what Paul talked about in Ephesians 2: “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance as our way of life.”

That may be my favorite verse in the Bible. (It’s pretty hard to pick just one.) I always like to remember that the word “workmanship” in that passage is the Greek word “poiema.” It literally means we are God’s poetry. It makes me think about the book John refers to in Revelation 13:28 and again in 21:27 as “the Lamb’s book of life.” Traditionally, we have tended to think of it as a ledger. Enough credit (good works, right?) in one column and you get to stay in heaven. Too much sin in the other column and you drop through a hole into a lake of fire.

But what if it is a book of poetry?

The Philistines Have Stolen the Ark! A Few Fourth of July Thoughts About the Election

Altenburg_Abbey_Paul Troger Frescoe_Modified

The Ark of the Covenant Returns to Israel. David dances. Uzzah dies. Based on Paul Troger’s Altenburg Abbey Frescoe.

It was a transitional era. After Moses and Joshua, the judges God raised up had done their jobs, more or less, but toward the end things got way out of hand. You and anyone who ever went to VBS knows the story of Samson, at least the PG-rated version. Given his history you might be surprised to learn that he was one of the Judges of the tribe of Israel. He was a wild one, but at least he was a “strongman” and he did deliver Israel from the Philistines—at considerable cost to himself.

Samson was followed by Eli, the high priest of Shiloh. Eli seemed to be a pretty good Judge, but not such a good father. He had two sons, Hophni and Phinehas. (For the sake of the story I was hoping that their names were Joel and Ethan, since Eli, being a priest was known as a “cohen” and so his sons, also priests, would be the cohen brothers. No offense to Joel and Ethan, I love their movies.)

Anyway, Hophni and Phinehas regularly demonstrated their unworthiness to inherit dad’s role as the high priest and Judge. Appropriating to themselves the best cuts of meat from the sacrifices and similarly “appropriating” the women who served at the temple gate are not recommended ways to curry favor with Yahweh. Long story short, the cohen brothers accompanied the Ark of the Covenant into battle against the Philistines and lost it, along with their own lives and the lives of 30,000 others. When Eli heard the news he fell over backwards in his chair and died from a broken neck. Shortly afterward Phinehas’ widow gave birth to a son and named him Ichabod in honor of the lost Ark. Ichabod means “the glory of the Lord has departed,” which is why it rarely makes lists of popular baby names.

Obviously things were not going well in Israel. The priesthood was corrupt. People were chasing after false gods and the Ark of the Covenant was in the hands of their enemy. Israel thought the Ark itself was the source of their strength—as opposed to, say, the One who parted the waters, delivered them from Egypt, provided for them in the wilderness, and brought them to the Promised Land. But as humans tend to do, they conflated the sign of the Covenant with the One who made the covenant in the first place. The Ark was not God. Even as the place where Yahweh chose to meet with Israel it was mostly a tangible, powerful reminder of His presence among them.

By this time Eli’s protege, Samuel, had developed quite a reputation as a prophet, which isn’t that hard to do when you’re getting your information straight from Yahweh himself. So the job of high priest and Judge fell to him. Now Israel had God and they had Samuel, a prophet who had the ear of God, which is what the name Samuel literally means. Under his leadership and God’s well-targeted thunder, they even managed to defeat the Philistines. For the time being. As the story goes, “The hand of the Lord was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel.” But they still didn’t get the Ark back. That comes later.

Samuel did a decent job and he seems to have been a better judge than Eli. But perhaps he, too, was a little lacking in the fatherhood department. He also had a couple of sons—one of whom was actually named Joel—but these cohen brothers were pretty much as despicable as Eli’s sons. In his old age Samuel, in a serious “senior moment” appointed his sons as judges over Israel.

The elders, remembering the previous sons of a Judge, had a different idea. Hoping to make Israel great again, they went to Samuel and reminded him how old he was and how bad his sons were. They told Samuel their big idea: they wanted a king—a strongman—so they could be like all the other nations around them. The word “elder” seems to overestimate their maturity. Their sentiment was more like that of an adolescent who asks mom and dad for a particular brand of jeans so they can be like all the cool kids.

In defense of the elders, pretty much all of the Judges clearly had “issues,” and in human terms, a king would have seemed a better solution. Feeling the pain of rejection like Hillary in 2008, Samuel pushed back. After all, God was King, Samuel was Judge and all should have been right with the universe. But God told him to get over it—It wasn’t him; it was Him—so give the people what they want. Not because what they wanted was right, but because God often gives us our way to set up a teachable moment so we can learn that his way was the right one all along. If only we weren’t such slow learners.

So Samuel said, “It’s all good, man,” and told them all to go home. There is no mention of a nominating convention nor a search committee to vet candidates for vice-king.

Better Call Saul.

The KJV describes Saul as “a choice young man, and goodly: and there was not among the children of Israel a goodlier person than he: from his shoulders and upward he was higher than any of the people.” Goodly? I think that means good-looking. The second part is awkward, because if I break it down it suggests to me that the tallest person in Israel could stand shoulder to shoulder with Saul. But from his shoulders he was higher—so he must have had a big head. I’m no Hebrew scholar but the text also does not appear to describe the size of his hands.

Tall, big-headed, and handsome, Saul was the scion of a rich guy named Kish who is described as “a mighty man of power.” I don’t know if he made his money in real estate but he was at least rich enough to have servants and donkeys, which is how Saul came to meet Samuel in the first place. Apparently a few of Kish’s donkeys had wandered off and he sent Saul and a few servants to track them down. Some helpful folks along the way advised them to go see Samuel, the prophet, or as prophets were called at the time, the seer.

God told Samuel in advance that the king of Israel would be dropping by the next day and guess who shows up. You can imagine the scene. Saul walks up to the seer and asks if he has seen his donkeys. Samuel responds by telling him not to worry about the donkeys, they’ve been found, but… “Oh, by the way, you are about to become the king of Israel.” It probably sounded to Saul a lot like Karl Rove telling George W. Bush he was going to be president while the rest of the kingdom was still off in Florida looking for missing ballots and dangling chads. Both Saul and “W” were probably “astonied”—one of my favorite King James words—but at least their dads were proud.

And so Saul became the first king of Israel. He was chosen by lot the next day. How’s that for coincidence? Saul was something of a strongman, having “slain his thousands” as a hit song of the day proclaimed. He was also not the worst king of Israel in spite of going off his rocker out of jealousy over David who had “slain his tens of thousands.” Same song. And people think rap encourages violence.

Still, Saul was no Indiana Jones since he didn’t bring the Ark back even after the Philistines tried to send it back like a hot potato. It seems the enemy had grown tired of it causing problems for their people, like boils and sores and they were particularly irritated by the way “the Ark” kept knocking over the statue of one of their gods, Dagon, night after night. Even if, as some suggest, that story is a “my God can kick your god’s butt” scribal addition, it always makes me laugh. Suffice to say the Ark did not fully make it back to Israel until David’s reign and the process was not pretty, especially for a guy named Uzzah (Pictured above—on the ground.)

Generally speaking Saul did what kings do, just as Samuel had unconvincingly tried to explain to the elders.

“Here are the policies of the king who will rule over you:
He will conscript your sons and put them in his chariot forces and in his cavalry; they will run in front of his chariot.
He will appoint for himself leaders of thousands and leaders of fifties, as well as those who plow his ground, reap his harvest, and make his weapons of war and his chariot equipment.
He will take your daughters to be ointment makers, cooks, and bakers.
He will take your best fields and vineyards and give them to his own servants.
He will demand a tenth of your seed and of the produce of your vineyards and give it to his administrators and his servants.
He will take your male and female servants, as well as your best cattle and your donkeys, and assign them for his own use.
He will demand a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will be his servants.
In that day you will cry out because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord won’t answer you in that day.”
1Sam 8:11-18

Looks to me like there was a whole lotta takin’ going on. Taking sons. Taking daughters. Taking servants. Taking fields and vineyards and cattle. That’s what kings do. They eat. They drink. They take things. And they break things—starting with campaign promises, of course.

As we celebrate the 4th of July with fireworks, the ritual baby-kissing and handshaking of politicians between bites of roasted ears of corn and barbecued ribs, and the annual festive conflation of the Constitution with the New Covenant in too many churches, we should reverently remember those who sacrificed their lives for our American freedom.

But please keep this in mind as well:

Whether your preferred strongman comes as a hyperbolic rich guy with a self-caricaturing coif, or as a strident woman in a pantsuit who probably overuses ALL CAPS in her email, you might want to pray God isn’t just using your choice as a teachable moment for the nation. Or maybe you do want to pray that way. Like Israel, we still have a lot to learn.

Lois Farrer Reeve McKinstry, 1930-2016

It has been over a year since I added anything to the blog. This seems like a good time to break the drought. It was written for her memorial service.


Ecclesiastes 3:4 says:
“[There is] a time to weep
and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn
and a time to dance.”

This might be a time to do all of those things at once.

If I was any good at dancing, I might even do that. Despite (or perhaps because of) the potential injury to the decorum of this occasion, I think Lois would approve. I suppose I could break out into a weak version of the moonwalk, but as Lois’ told me once of Michael Jackson, “I cannot believe people think he’s a good dancer. That’s not dancing. Give me Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly.” Then she got a dreamy look on her face and slipped into a brief moment of reverie.

I am Lois’ stepson, although I am convinced we are more closely related than that. In many ways she has been more like a true, second mother for which I am very thankful. I have only known her for 15 years since she and my Dad married. Even then I knew her only through email and a few visits to Georgia each year. Most of you know her far better than I do, but in August of 2010 I received a package from her with (in typical Lois fashion) a carefully planned agenda for this memorial service. Knowing full well the risk she was taking, she asked me to speak “a few words of reflection.”

The reason for her planning was that she had been diagnosed with a very serious cancer and having defeated that profane disease three times before, she fully expected this time to be different. In February of 2011 she declared that she was fed up with treatments that kept her feeling worse than the disease and asked Dr. Lahasky to stop the treatment. He did, with the proviso that she might only have a few weeks or maybe a few months left.

She was right, this time was different, you might say the disease finally got her—five years later. But for those of you who know her well it is better to say that she has now defeated cancer four times. After her final diagnosis no one would have blamed her if she had, as it might have been described in the 18th or 19th century, “taken to her bed.”

But not Lois. Not by a long shot.

I remember the first time I met her. She was delightful, intelligent, as charming as any Southern Belle (if she needed to be), romantic but with an edgy sense of humor. Over a couple of glasses of Zinfandel she and I and Barbara–one of her art teachers from Kennesaw State–and my Dad, talked into the late hours about literature, and poetry and art, a little philosophy and even a dash of theology. My Dad, a consummate engineer, with an engineer’s sensibility, said toward the end of the evening that he had no idea what we had been talking about. But he enjoyed it nonetheless.

I learned that evening that her father, a successful surgeon, had dissuaded her from pursuing a career in art. That was also something she and I had in common. I remember after my first couple of inglorious semesters in college explaining to my dad that I wanted to look into going to art school. That turned into our biggest argument ever.

So I was even more delighted that he was marrying a wonderful woman who was also an artist. I thought of it as poetic justice.

Ephesians 2:10 says,
“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Most versions use the word “handiwork;” some use the word “masterpiece.” The Greek word is “poiema.” [poē-āma] That should sound familiar to you. It is the root of the English words “poem” and “poetry.” So you could translate that verse as, “For we are God’s poetry, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Lois is the embodiment of that verse—one of God’s better poems—and that is why she could not simply “take to her bed.” Creatively, the last five years of her life were among her most productive. She continued to do her artwork, focusing on drawing and especially on the beautiful hand-made books and constructions she loved to create, each of which tells a meaningful story. As if those stories were not enough she produced an inspiring book of devotional writings in the Fall of 2010, at the peak of her struggle with the treatment for her cancer. She even published a book of poetry in 2013 and continued to write what might be enough material for another couple of volumes.

Like most artists, despite having won many awards, she was a little frustrated that she did not sell more of her work (but only a little). She looked at much of the art in galleries that does sell today and much of the poetry that does get published and shook her head. I even remember from time to time sending her images of my own work and her response was often, “Very nice, it looks like the kind of stuff that people would want to buy.”

I’m still not sure if that was a compliment or a critique.

If her work was out of step with the contemporary art world it was always in step with God’s true purpose for beauty in the world. One of my favorite contemporary artists, and one that Lois liked in spite of the abstract nature of his work, Mako Fujimura, in his recent book, Silence and Beauty, quotes the Japanese novelist, Yasunari Kawabata:

“When we see the beauty of the snow, when we see the beauty of the full moon, when we see the beauty of the cherries in bloom, when in short we brush against and are awakened by the beauty of the four seasons, it is then that we think most of those close to us, and want them to share the pleasure.”

That is the point of all her work. Lois wanted people to share the pleasure. The pleasure of knowing a loving Creator, in whose image she and every one of you are created. The pleasure of knowing a Creator who spoke so vividly to her in the beauty of his creation. She could, as the poet William Blake described, “see Eternity in a grain of sand; and Heaven in a wildflower.” And having seen that beauty she wanted others to see it too.

In The Message, Eugene Peterson’s poetic paraphrase, Psalm 96: 11-13 says:

Let’s hear it from Sky,
With Earth joining in,
And a huge round of applause from Sea.

Let Wilderness turn cartwheels,
Animals, come dance,
Put every tree of the forest in the choir—

An extravaganza before God as he comes,
As he comes to set everything right on earth,
Set everything right, treat everyone fair.

What she was able to see during her life, even if it was, “as through a glass darkly,” she is able to see clearly now. And that is what she wants you to see.

I could stop here. But if you would indulge me a little more time, I’d like to revisit that verse from Ephesians, especially the part that tells about the good works God has created in advance for each of us to do.

Lois did not fully begin her career as an artist until she was in her fifties. As I understand it, she began a little before she retired from nursing. She had been a good daughter and acceded to her father’s wishes that she not go to art school. Perhaps if she had gone to art school her name might be one of those names we read about in Art History books. Perhaps not. And she would be the first to explain to you why that is not so important.

Medicine is not so far from art as some might suppose. The works that doctors and nurses do are rightfully called the “healing arts.” To nurse someone back to health after injury or sickness is a restorative act, an kind of art that brings one of God’s creations back to the beauty He intended. But to do that requires that you are able to see that beauty even when it is hidden in the moment of illness. Just as she could see the beauty in nature even though we live in a fallen world, marred by sin, she was able to see that beauty in her patients. Perhaps without even realizing it she was always doing those good works God had prepared in advance for her to do.

The following is from her devotional writings; a reflection on Ecclesiastes 9:10.

“The hospital is a place where death is a common visitor. He pays no attention to visitor hours or “No Admittance” signs. Sometimes people are expecting him and he passes them by. Here is a story illustrating that:

Many times on the Orthopaedic floor, there would be a few empty beds available to patients with other health problems. Admissions would then send a patient to that room until a bed opened up on the proper service.

On one occasion the night nurse gave the morning report saying a particular patient had been admitted to the floor with pulmonary problems. They had worked all night trying to help him breathe, but he was in poor condition. After the morning assignments were made, the nurse who received this man as part of her days work, went to check on his condition. She found his family standing by the bed, helpless to do anything and worried about his condition. His physician had seen him earlier and gave the family little hope. He told them he had surgery all morning and would return to see him after he was finished.

His assigned nurse assessed what she might be able to do to alleviate his distress and found that if she used a suction tube every few minutes it would stimulate his breathing until his doctor could return. She sent word to the charge nurse that she would not be able to leave his bedside and to divide the remainder of her assignment to give to others on duty that day.

She stood by his bed holding his lower jaw forward with both hands which opened his airway and then suctioned his throat at intervals. She could not change her position, nor leave him even for a moment. She clearly saw her responsibility and, in spite of her discomfort doing this, she did not waver. After several hours the surgeon returned and newly appraised the patient’s situation. He placed an endotracheal tube in the man’s throat, called for respiratory therapy and had him moved to another service.

Several weeks later, that same nurse was working and heard her name called, summoning her to the nurses’ station. To her surprise, there was the man she had spent so much time with some weeks ago.

He smiled and said, “Do you remember me? I am the man you helped to save and I wanted to say thank you.”

“Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all your might.”
Ecclesiastes 9:10

The nurse in the story is not identified. I never asked Lois about it but I doubt she chose to keep the nurse’s name private in order to avoid a HIPAA violation. I think it was out of modesty.

Lois was proud of her work as a nurse. She was proud of her artwork and her poetry and her friends. She was even more proud of her family, her children, her grandchildren, and even those of us who were blessed enough to have been “grafted in” to her family. But this pride was not hubris. It was more like the innocent pride of a little child who has received a special gift from her father, and in her delight, she wants to share it with everyone.

In being a wife and mother, a friend, a nurse, a poet and an artist, she completely understood the significance of the work prepared in advance for her to do. And she did it all with all of her might.

No doubt she still is.

Sympathy for Zebras, Skeptics and Reprobates as a Clue to Understanding Scripture

Zebras in their natural habitat.

Zebras in their natural habitat.

Almost every year, just as our culture turns its thoughts, however fleeting, to an event that occurred some 2000 years ago that many (myself included) believe to be one of the more important moments in all of human history, the formerly dominant weekly news magazines publish cover stories that attempt to undermine the faith of those who believe the birth, life, death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus are True facts. That’s True with a capital “T.”

This year, right on schedule, comes an article in Newsweek by Kurt Eichenwald, entitled “The Bible, So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.” Please feel free to read it. Without it, much of what follows will make no sense. Though I make no guarantees that what follows makes that much sense even if you do read the Newsweek article.


As is often the case, the article lumps together all believers as homophobic, illiterate, bible-thumping, totalitarian, hate-filled hypocrites. It makes very little distinction between the members of Westboro Baptist Church with their pre-literate scrawls of “God Hates Fags” on protest signs and those educated and committed physicians who willingly risk their own lives to go to western Africa to treat people suffering from Ebola—simply because they believe they were called to do so. Despite his disclaimer, “This examination is not an attack on the Bible or Christianity,” the article could just as well have been entitled, Conspiracy of Fools, to borrow the name from one of Mr. Eichenwald’s more successful books.


After reading his advice and becoming thoroughly enlightened, hypocritical fool that I am, I have decided to repent. Here are nine things, yea ten, I will have to add to my New Year’s Resolutions.


1. I will no longer retain my long-held belief in dragons and unicorns and will immediately excise the entire Book of Revelation, Isaiah 27, Nehemiah 2, Psalm 92, Job 39, Numbers 23 and Numbers 24 from my Bible because of their mention of clearly fantastical creatures. While we’re at it, let’s get rid of Numbers altogether. It was clearly written by a census-taker, some short-term bureaucrat with a clipboard and a clip-on tie who, after waking you up with his earnest knocking, feels duty bound to inquire as to the number of people, rooms, bathrooms, unicorns and dragons in your residence. (The kids are asking if that includes the unicorns and dragons in their video games that are, naturally, quite real to them.)


2. I will no longer read the book of 2 Peter, even though I find it odd that Mr. Eichenwald would simultaneously laud the supposed “almost universally shared” condemnation of the book as a forgery while he would clearly agree with its description of the importance of ferreting out false teachers—something he is trying to do here. I also have an uneasy feeling he would not be disappointed if God chose to mete out the same punishment mentioned in 2 Peter—floods, earthquakes, fire and brimstone— for modern false teachers, i.e. believing Evangelicals. In fact, 2 Peter 3:17, “Be on guard so that you will not be carried away by the errors of these wicked people…” sounds like it could have been written by Mr. Eichenwald himself.


3. I am going to stop using the Internet because all of the URLs are written in the modern equivalent of the scriptio continua of common Greek. For example, could be a site that is promoting window blinds at cheap rates. Or it could be the Web home of a micro-brewery founded by a group of blind guys who have suffered tragic accidents or, worse, self-inflicted blindness as a pagan initiation rite. Or it could be a site related to child trafficking, in this case specializing in blind sons. Obviously URLs are notoriously unclear and therefore should never be used as a guide to anything.


4. I am henceforth going to cease the recitation of either the Nicene, Apostle’s or the interminable Athanasian Creed since, according to “reliable” history they were all written by … politicians. (Visible shudder.)


5. I will no longer trust anything that is handwritten even though that could cause me some serious confusion at the grocery store.


6. I will no longer believe that Joseph and Mary invested the non-existent Magi’s gold in a nice little split-level on the outskirts of Bethlehem with a detached carpenter’s studio while putting the rest of the money in a 529 and an IRA that Jesus could have used, respectively, to finance his rabbinical studies and as a source of retirement income for himself, Mary Magdalen and their descendants all the way to Dan Brown. Instead I will have to conclude that Joe and the purportedly perpetually pristine Missus probably lost it all at the floating casinos in Memphis—Memphis, Egypt, that it is. Given their irresponsibility it is obvious why Jesus had to have been brought up in abject poverty subsequently leading to his well-documented homelessness later in life during which time the only work he could find was as an itinerant preacher and we all know how governments look at those guys. So they crucified him. End of story.


7. I will burn my autographed copies of books by Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee. I will also burn my copy of “Going Rogue” by Sarah Palin, though not without some regret. It turns out she writes pretty well, with little trace of the syntactical travesties that sometimes occur when she speaks. I say that with no animus toward the former governor as I am equally prone to syntactical misadventure in both speech and prose. I imagine there is no need to burn my copy Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope.


8. Since “there is only one verse in Romans about homosexuality and eight verses condemning those who criticize the government” (apparently a statistically significant threshold) I will immediately start a petition calling for a constitutional convention to repeal the Bill of Rights for everyone except homosexuals.


9. I will only read the Bible in Aramaic because that is the language Jesus spoke. The fact that I don’t know Aramaic shouldn’t matter; an awful lot of Catholics didn’t really understand the language of the Mass until after Vatican II.


10. Instead of simply picking and choosing those parts I am comfortable with, I’m going to throw out all of my Bibles since I don’t have the time or the training to sort out the truth from the pseudepigrapha—that’s the word Bart Ehrman suggests is the believing community’s euphemism for lies, redactions, forgeries and mistakes. Now that may put me at some disadvantage in understanding God’s will for my life, but perhaps I shouldn’t be concerned with that anyway. It is extraordinarily difficult to believe in a deity who would entrust his instructions and messages to so many arrogant, scheming, adulterous, murderous, thieving and lying reprobates. Then again, that might not be all that different from my current Bible study group, the members of which I regularly depend on to help me hear, interpret and understand the words of God.


I don’t really believe in unicorns, or that Joseph and Mary squandered the Magis’ gift in the casinos—although I am withholding judgement on the possible existence of dragons. And the guys in my Bible study group have mostly repented of their reprobate ways. (Did I say mostly?) But it frustrates me that Mr. Eichenwald seems to think believers are all just that foolish.


He doesn’t get everything wrong. It is a good thing, as he puts it, find[ing] out which parts of the Bible were not in the earliest Greek manuscripts, which are the bad translations, and what one book says in comparison to another.” And as he says, loving one’s neighbor is a good place to start, although he did kind of jump right over the first part of that verse. You know, the part about loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.


Mr. Eichenwald might have a more balanced view of these issues if he did not rely almost exclusively on the work—useful as it is— of Bart Ehrman, himself the author of one of Newsweek’s Christmas-time “hit pieces” on Christianity (Dec. 17, 2012).  Perhaps he could have consulted with scholars who are not, like Ehrman, self-professed agnostics. I have little doubt that William Lane Craig would have given him a few minutes of his time. (If you have a few minutes you might want to look at Craig’s rebuttal of Ehrman’s approach in general. Or maybe Mr. Eichenwald could have contacted N.T. Wright, who while refusing to call himself an inerrantist (for plenty of good reasons) still manages to take the Bible “utterly seriously” while avoiding the problem of “throwing out the baby Jesus with the bath water.” (Apologies to Ricky Bobby, the Official Theologian of NASCAR.) Try Wright’s book, Scripture and the Authority of God.  Seriously, with a name like N.T. Wright, how could he ever be wrong about anything, at least in the New Testament?


God did, in fact, entrust his words to sinful, fallen and prone-to-error human beings. He still does, because he doesn’t have much choice. If it were necessary that only totally trustworthy, error-free humans should write Scripture, Jesus, as the only person in history qualified for the job, would have spent his entire life writing stuff down in order to correct the record of the Old Testament authors and to give us a trustworthy and authoritative version the rest of us could use after his ascension. Yet we have no record (trustworthy or otherwise) that Jesus ever wrote anything. Drawing a line in the sand as he confronted the Pharisees over the woman caught in adultery doesn’t count as writing, drawing perhaps, but not writing. And besides, if we are to believe Eichenwald and Ehrman, that episode never happened.


So why didn’t Jesus write down what he wanted us to retain as Holy Writ? Surely he could have saved a lot of bickering, heated arguments with your favorite college sophomore around the holiday dinner table, and even—as the article properly notes—bloodshed over “correct” doctrine. Instead, just as with the words of God in the Old Testament, he left it to humans to record—imperfect humans who, at best, may be deeply committed to veracity and truth-telling but can still make or perpetuate inadvertent mistakes. At worst, they may intentionally change the record to accommodate ideological, political or doctrinal agendas. I suspect all of that is possible. In fact, I expect all of that is probable.


I am not a scholar, certainly not a Biblical scholar. My perspective is merely that of someone who would like to understand Scripture and the one who is revealed in it. As a lay person, I, rudely perhaps, can still claim to be as entitled as Bart Ehrman or N.T. Wright to study and have an opinion on Scripture. I will never be as informed as either of them, but if that level of education and knowledge is necessary for understanding and, thereby, admittance into the sweet bye-and-bye, the population of Heaven will be disappointingly small.


Since this is the New Year’s season, a time when we celebrate another of America’s favorite religions—football—consider the following illustration, which I intend to be helpful but maybe I’ve just been watching too much ESPN. A wide receiver catches a well-thrown pass from his quarterback at the one-yard line and is immediately hit by the cornerback and falls. On his way down, the receiver extends his arm in an attempt to have the ball “break the plane” of the goal line before he lands completely out of bounds. Every player, coach, cheerleader, equipment manager, visiting country music star, undeclared presidential candidate, hot dog vendor and ESPN commentator on the sidelines has an opinion about whether it’s a touchdown. Each of the 100,000 rabidly partisan fans in the stadium has an opinion and are likely unaware to what extent partisanship can affect perception. Social psychologists call this the illusion of asymmetric insight and it can be quite an ugly phenomenon.


Add in another 50 million television viewers of various partisan stripes at home, in sports bars and on American military bases around the world and you will find more opinions than you can count, all with a slightly different perspective on “the truth.” In the days before instant replay we had to depend on the presumably “expert” opinion of one or two officials on the field to either lift or choose not to lift their arms toward heaven signifying that the ball, at least, had reached the promised land.
Regardless of whether the official makes the right call, there will always be a significant number of spectators who are convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that the zebras blew it and thereby deserve punishment of Biblical proportions—stoning, smiting, crucifixion, banishment to the desert outside Scottsdale, or something similar up to and including being cast into the outer darkness where there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Given the intensity of emotion associated with football (American or otherwise) it is a real miracle that wars are so seldom started in the modern world based on the officiating—good or bad.


In other words, everyone has an opinion. It is a function of the unique perspective from which each individual views the world. That perspective is based on many things including team affiliation (read: denomination?)  but mostly on the accumulation of experience and knowledge—right or wrong—throughout life right up to the moment the opinion is conceived. That is how we roll—all of us. Roger Scruton, in his book The Face of God, argues, “The self is not a thing, it is a perspective.” Our interactions with the world are always from a given perspective. Our interactions with other people are interactions between and among perspectives. It is said (in polite company) that opinions are like belly buttons, everybody has one. But when it comes to perspectives, everybody is one.


And that is where the problems begin. Whose perspective is correct; whose is the right one; whose is the truth? Let’s go back to the football illustration. It would be absurd to argue (though many have tried) that the truth lies entirely in the mind of the observer. My observation of something does not make it reality. Yes, Virginia, a goal post can fall in the stadium and make a noise even when it isn’t on gameday and no one is around to witness it. It seems reasonable to assume that there is an objective reality at play. Either the football does or does not break the imaginary plane and it happens (or not) regardless of whether my or your individual perspective confirmed it.


Fortunately for the much-maligned officials on the field, we now have instant replay that slows things down to the about the speed of Keanu Reeves dodging bullets in The MatrixUsually that settles the question, but often it just reinforces the problem of perspectives. Typically, technology seems to help, but it is no guarantee. The replay cameras have to be placed at exactly the right spot at the right time. Sometimes they’re in the right place, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes the cameraman is preoccupied with a cheerleader instead of the play on the field. Sometimes there is something in the way of the camera that obscures even its non-blinking perspective.


As a result football officials must resort to the near-parliamentary niceties of legal language saying, “The ruling on the field stands” when there is insufficient video evidence to overturn the call, or, “The ruling on the field is confirmed (or overturned)” when there is (or is not) enough video evidence to make a definitive call. In every case, someone comes away unsatisfied, convinced that they saw something different and equally convinced that their personal perspective is the one that should obtain.


But when it comes to the Word of God we don’t have instant replay. While theologians and historians can make a persuasive case that their perspectives should carry equal, or even greater, weight than that of football officials, the rest of us are not so sure. Especially when the historians and theologians—throw in a few pastors, teachers, evangelists, street preachers, Jehovah’s Witnesses on your front porch and freshly-scrubbed Mormon boys on their bicycles—are so often in conflict with one another. Even when those guys speak the same language, they don’t speak the same language—a result, I believe, of God’s judgement on humanity for the Tower of Babel.


It appears that skeptic Bart Ehrman’s perspective on Scripture might be as valid as committed believer N.T. Wright’s. Perhaps the notorious, late Fred W. Phelps, Sr., might have as valid an opinion as the Pope. You know what? I’m not afraid of that. Because that means that my perspective is also valid. My unique, individual view on Scripture is as valid as that of some of the world’s most famous (and infamous) theologians. Then again, I have to remember that valid does not necessarily mean true. Not for me, Bart, Tom Wright, Fred and—unless he plays that infallibility card he carries in the brim of his brim-less mitre—not for the Pope. Ouch. A little humility can be a humbling thing, as Yogi Berra might have put it. (Although if memory serves, his actual quote was more along the lines of, “It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility.”)


How do we sort this out? Are we just stuck with the heat of billions of opinions about the meaning of Scripture? Isn’t that one of the causes of wars, Crusades, Inquisitions, divorces and church-splits? Isn’t that the definition of relativism? Isn’t that what we see throughout the Old Testament, when, just to set the stage, the writer will throw in a verse like, “… every man did what was right in his own eyes.”? (Deuteronomy 12:8; Judges 21:25; Judges 17:7; Proverbs 21:2; Proverbs 12:15. We could go on.) But that is what the verse means, right? “Eyes” is a metaphor for individual perspective. Each person lives by their own perspective and the Bible is not suggesting that it’s a good thing for everyone to do what is right in their own eyes.


In fact, the Bible tells us something far different. “Come, let us reason together.” (Isaiah 1:18) “Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” (Deuteronomy 19:15 and 2:Corinthians 13:1) “Victory lies in an abundance of advisors.” (Proverbs 24:6) In an abundance of counselors there is safety.” (Proverbs 11:14) Even Paul and Peter had to have a confab in Jerusalem to make sure they were on the same page about the true nature of the Gospel.


The responsibility for the clarity of God’s revelation is his, not mine. I believe I have a duty to diligent and serious-minded examination of Scripture—at least to the extent that I am capable of being dutiful, diligent or serious, for that matter. It was his choice to deliver his word through sinful human beings and I think there is a reason for that.


I’ve always been intrigued by a verse in 2 Peter. Apologies to Mr. Eichenwald for bringing up that purported forgery. 2 Peter 1:18 says,”Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of one’s own interpretation.” No less a qualified Biblical commentator than Albert Barnes wrote in 1834, The expression here used [The Greek for private interpretation is ἰδίας ἐπιλύσεως idias epiluseōs, in case you’re interested. I just like seeing the Greek letterforms.] has given rise to as great a diversity of interpretation, and to as much discussion, as perhaps any phrase in the New Testament; and at the present time there is no general agreement among expositors as to its meaning.” To be fair, this is about a particular class of prophecy and not necessarily about how we ought to read Scripture as a whole, but I still find it wonderfully ironic that a verse that argues against private interpretation is among the most privately interpreted verses in the entire Canon.


So what’s so bad about private interpretation? Not that much maybe, except—in my humble, individual, and certainly not binding on anyone else, opinion—I don’t think that is where God intends for us to learn the full meaning of his words.


Instead, God wants us in community. Scruton suggests that “we regard the experience of community as a preparation for the experience of God, and the experience of God as revelation granted in response to it.” (Face of God. p.157) Certainly there are those of us, perhaps all of us, who have had an experience of God while alone. Sometimes he breaks through and touches our heart and mind with his presence when there is no one else around. Just you and Jesus. But the Apostle Paul, no stranger to the supernatural himself, cautions us not to be fooled by those who go on an on about their visions as they may not be “connected to Christ, the head of the body.” (Colossians 2:19) Connection to the body, and thereby Christ really matters.


Our real knowledge of the word of God is only partially built on what we discern alone. What we learn on our own must be confirmed by others, which is why I go to church, read a lot and have met once a week for almost twenty years with the merry little band of sinners I may have insulted in resolution #10 above. They, as part of the Body of Christ, have the words of life. Those words must be verified as we “compare notes”. We read. We study. We share and take the Scriptures apart together and pray for the grace to receive from it the true Word of God. We pray for wisdom and discernment and we do so with humility. Yogi was right. It ain’t the heat. We recognize the limitations of our individual perspectives. We welcome each other’s insights. We welcome the commentators, Twitter theologians, popular writers and the scholarly researchers, including those who call themselves agnostic or even atheist. We are not afraid of those with whom we disagree. We disagree with each other. Often. We know that in that process which takes place in community, our little group’s study of the Bible is breaking bread together. And we recall who is called both the Living Word and the Bread of Life; the one who calls us to do everything in “remembrance of Him”. And we remember 1 Corinthians 13:2 “…if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing.”


Just like the question of whether the football breaks the invisible plane of the goal line, there is an objective reality to the Word of God. But it’s not the book, it’s the person we encounter through it. I am not denying plenary inspiration; inerrancy; form, textual, source or redaction criticism; Marxist or feminist hermeneutics; God’s breath or any of those other valuable schema we use and abuse to convince ourselves we’re right and someone else is wrong and ought, at the very least, to be denied admittance to our church—if not heaven itself. And I am not denying the value of the writings of Mr. Eichenwald and the research of Dr. Ehrman. Both would be wholeheartedly welcome in our Wednesday morning Bible study group. But the bottom line for me is that without the person of Christ, the Bible is little more than an artifact of history, interesting in the way that Homer, or Plato, or Shakespeare might be, but little more.


Then again, if someone can convincingly argue that Jesus did, in fact, speak King James English instead of Aramaic, when he walked the earth, perhaps I’ll have to rethink a few things. I could be wrong.


Footsteps in the Garden


Footsteps in the Garden —Mixed media, digital image on animal skin, acrylic ink, gold leaf foil, gold leaf wax, black palm wood 25 in x 24 in x 2in



Recently, the church I attend did something that churches don’t do often enough. They issued a call for artists to submit works of art for an upcoming sermon series.There was a time when the words “church” and ”artists” were found in the same sentence with much greater frequency than today.  Of course, few of us are familiar with that time since it was back around the 16th century. To be fair, that is not the only time the church has patronized the arts, but it was definitely a high water mark. Still, in the modern church, art is often considered either a worldly or worthless pursuit—descriptive words that some would consider redundant.

The requested art was to be created out of reflection on what it means to live a life “centered” in Christ. For me, the challenge has enabled me to reconnect with a part of my own calling. I am a graphic designer by trade and I have been reasonably successful bringing my own gifts to the world of selling widgets. Nothing wrong with widgets, they keep the wheels of the economy turning, provide jobs for the employees of the Acme Corporation and food for their children. I even teach students at a local university how to use their creative gifts to sell widgets. But like many people who are more-or-less content, but not quite satisfied in their profession, I have always asked if there was anything more.

This summer, my oldest son was married. He lives out of state and has been a member of an American Orthodox community for some time. I had never been to an Orthodox church service and I had no idea what to expect. What I did know was that their liturgy is purported to be the original way Christians “did church,” and they were the folks with the icons. The unassuming little church building looked pretty much like any other clapboard church building—typical of a small Baptist or Methodist congregation in rural Arkansas. You know the kids hand game where interlocked fingers are turned open while saying, “Here is the church and here is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people.” In this case it was, “Here is the church, and here is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the ART!”

I was completely unprepared for the overwhelmingly visual nature of Orthodox worship. It was not so much the pageantry of the service, which is not that far afield from Catholic or Anglican traditions. Instead, I was struck first by the illuminated brightness of the sanctuary. In an ordinary church that brightness would have merely been a reflection of the white paint on the walls. (If you can’t afford nice wood paneling, then white, or more likely off-white, is the color you choose so as not to offend anyone.) In this case the brightness came from the almost prodigal use of gold leaf, bright gold paint and golden thread in the art that covered almost every square inch of the interior of the building—murals, paintings, tapestries, carvings, fixtures and sculpture.The entire church, especially the interior, is an elaborate, three-dimensional (at least three, probably more) icon.

All I really knew about iconography (apart from that which populates the desktop of my computer) was that icons were images (That is the literal meaning of the Greek word eikon, by the way.) that some Christians in the third or fourth century somehow used in their worship of God. I also knew that some other Christians, who misread the second commandment, zealously attempted to seek out and destroy icons in the late 8th century and again during the early days of the Reformation around 1600. Those folks were known as iconoclasts and should not be confused with the people destroying Christian places of worship in Iraq, or filing lawsuits to have crosses removed from public spaces in America.

So I did a little reading about icons. I must confess that I am not totally comfortable with certain practices related to icons in the Orthodox Church. Forgive me, but kissing an icon just seems, shall we say, yucky. However, veneration, does not disturb me at all, especially since it has been clearly explained that the icon itself is not the object of worship. Contrast that with the prices paid for art today and you could be forgiven for thinking that worship (idolatry?) is an apt description of the art world’s reverence for the works of Cezanne, Van Gogh, Picasso, or even Jackson Pollock. Even as I admire those works of art, I am pointed beyond the art to the marvelous talent of the artists and then beyond that to the glory of the Creator in whose image all those artists were created. From that perspective, admiration and veneration can find the only appropriate object of worship.

There is one thing I have noted regarding icons, and it is true of so much of what we call art. Some art, though not all, can require a specialized vocabulary to understand. Certainly you can look at a painting or a photograph or a piece of sculpture and marvel at its beauty. But at times, it is helpful to understand something about color and composition, rhythm and line, and the vocabulary of a given school of art to grasp all that the artist intends to express. Here is a description by art historian HRR Rookmaker of Rembrandt’s “Christ and the Two Disciples on the Road to Emmaus” that illustrates the point:

When we look at the drawing, at first glance there is nothing special about it. Three men are standing together near a house. Yet we gather that the middle one is most important. Rembrandt has made this apparent by pictorial means, by making the side of the house dark, thus creating a rhythm, man-Christ-man-house, with the downbeat on Christ and the house. He also makes Christ stand out as important by the way he has placed him between the two disciples. Then Rembrandt draws some trees in the distance in such a way that, although there is no halo, yet there is a suggestion of one. In this way the drawing is natural, and yet it is much more than just three men on a road. It brings out the fact which he wanted to get across. (HRR Rookmaker, Modern Art and the Death of Culture, p. 10, Piquant Press PDF Edition, Chapter 5, p. 10)

Rookmaker goes on to explain that it is important to remember that art makes “visible a particular view on life and the world, it expresses deeply-felt values and truths through the way the theme and subject matter are handled.” This is especially true of religious iconography. You can find excellent and brief discussions of the “grammar” of iconography here and here.

Between a newfound curiosity with religious iconography and an assignment to create an explicitly faith-centered piece of art, I wound up creating something like an icon myself. Since I am neither Rembrandt, nor an actual icon painter, I ‘m sure my work will not be confused with either. But I do recognize that a bit of explanation might be helpful. I am not one who believe that the artist’s intent is irrelevant and that the only meaning in art is that which the observer brings to it. So I have written a brief description and posed a few questions for the observer to consider in looking at the piece.

Referencing the iconography of the Orthodox Church, the piece contains a number of symbolic elements intended to evoke reflection on the story told in Genesis, chapter three. Adam and Eve turned away from God, fell, and became mere shadows of their former selves. Adam and Eve are startled. They hear God’s “footsteps” and his question, “Where are you?” Panicked, they scramble to cover their nakedness as their sin has been discovered. The image of God is still evident in them but they find only darkness and chaos as they are estranged from him, from each other, and even from nature, which they had attempted to use—without success—to cover themselves. The rift is severe, but as they turn back, we see clues to the restoration and redemption that had already been graciously prepared through the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world.

What are the symbolic elements?

In iconography gold usually represents the radiance of God. Here the upper right, out of the frame, is the origin of the light and the presence of God. The eyes of both characters contain a glint of that reflected radiance. The stark golden line across the image is a suggestion of how sharp a distinction there is between holiness —found only in God and God’s purposes for us—and the world apart from God. The line is what Francis Schaeffer called “the line of despair.”
The color green is a dominant color here, symbolic of nature. Traditional understanding of the story of the Fall suggests that the couple’s attempt to cover themselves with fig leaves is symbolic of human works as they sew the fig leaves together. Taking that a step further, it is possible to see them conflating their own works with nature, thinking that they are sufficient to cover their own sin. In that way, as described in Romans, Chapter 1, they have mistaken nature for God, who alone has provided a covering for sin.

To their right, there is chaos, darkness and fire as represented by red colors. Turned away from God, chaos, darkness and fire are all that they find. Repentance—turning back to God—represented by looking back over their shoulder. As their gaze is drawn back toward the right, that fire turns from something that consumes to the beckoning radiance of God’s light.

The background image of the couple was created in the computer and printed on rawhide. Rawhide is animal skin. Genesis 3:21 says that God made “garments of skin” for Adam and Eve. He replaced their inadequate fig-leaf costumes with the skin of a sacrificed animal, a symbol of the sacrifice of Christ to come. Note that the edge of the skin is tinged with the color of blood.

The skin is nailed with three spiked nails as a reminder of the nails that held Jesus to the Cross. The horizontal block of wood, representing the Cross is made of black palm wood.

For additional thought.
  1. Why is God not pictured?
  2. Which character is Adam and which is Eve? What would the difference in placement (Adam in front or Eve in front) make in the meaning of the piece.
  3. Why do the characters look so similar?
  4. If the serpent plays such an important role in Genesis 3, where is it?
  5. What is the image in the lower left? Durer’s Cat, or something more sinister?

One more thought that needs to be conveyed. Traditionally, icons must utilize the human form. For me, that is a powerful reminder of Ephesians 2:10 “ For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” There is no more profound work of art than a human being each one uniquely created to reveal something equally unique about God. 1 John 1:12 says, “No one has seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us.” Through his grace we are becoming the full expression of God’s love—even, as Jesus put it, “the least of these.” We are all living icons, visible references to the love of God. Nature gives us His invisible qualities. Other people can reveal Christ’s incarnation.