Light and Shadow, Part Two: How I Learned to Love Harry Truman and Hate the Bomb.

Mushroom Clouds over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right)

Mushroom Clouds over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right)

PART TWO: SHADOW

Yesterday, I posted the first installment of an essay reflecting on a work of art I saw in 1973, and subsequently purchased in 1984—a Japanese woodblock print by Jun’ichiro Sekino, entitled Hara: Rooftop Reflections of Mt. Fuji. It will be helpful, though not absolutely necessary, to read part one first. The theme of part one is that God can and will speak to us authoritatively, in the time and place of his choosing, using anything he desires, including a work of art done by an artist who was most likely a Buddhist and whose work may reflect more than anything else the mindset of a culture seemingly more likely to bow the knee to the creation rather than to the Creator.

In that encounter with the art, the artist, and the One who created the artist, I received a palpable sense of how art can be one of the highest expressions of what it means to be created in the image of God. It can be argued that we bear the image of God in our being and in our works even when we are unaware of it or when that is not our intent.

Sadly, we bear something else in addition to the imago Dei, something dark and evil that rises all too often in an effort to turn the image of God in each of us upside down. For all the positive messages conveyed by Hara, there lurks a dark undertone that is an irreplaceable part of observable reality. Recognizing it is necessary to reveal what Alister McGrath calls the “deeper value and true significance” of the world.

The print does not seem to directly speak of that darkness, but the overall dark grey tones of the piece remind me that for most of us the light is seen only in contrast to the dark. I am also reminded of that darkness each year in August on the anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which occurred on August 6 and 9, 1945.

It is not at all far-fetched that an image of Mt. Fuji, subtly portrayed, but leaving no doubt as to its physical majesty, could reveal and reflect the immanence of God, not just for those who live in its shadow, but also for me, someone whose only direct connections to Japanese culture are a Sony® television and the fact that my father was stationed on Okinawa in August of 1945 waiting to invade the Japanese main island. But like the upside down image of the mountain in Hara, my personal connection to Japan is defined by a disorienting reality. Had Harry Truman not dropped nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I might never have been born.

The assault on Japan was expected to be far worse than the D-Day carnage at Normandy Beach. War planners’ conservative estimates projected that over a million American troops were likely to die in the battle for Japan, perhaps multiple millions among the Japanese. Those numbers are not unrealistic. Over 100,000 people died in the 82-day-long battle for Okinawa, the first island to fall. Given the front-line role my father would have played in the invasion as a sailor on a small craft that carried troops onto the beach, his life-expectancy in the battle probably would have been measured in seconds, not minutes, hours or days. Had the invasion occurred, at the very least I would have a different last name.

The Germans attempted to build an atomic bomb and failed. The United States, in an enormously expensive effort code named The Manhattan Project, successfully developed the capacity to “harness the basic power of the universe…” in order to loose it “…against those who brought war to the Far East.” Once testing confirmed that the bomb would perform as advertised, the Americans sought the unconditional surrender of Japan, which they rejected. There is much historical speculation about the ultimate motivations for using the atomic bomb, but politics notwithstanding, it was used—first on August 6, 1945 on the city of Hiroshima, and second on August 9, 1945 on the city of Nagasaki. It was seen as the most efficient means to accomplish the objective of ending the war, and likely was used for additional purposes, such as serving as a stern warning to a nascent Soviet expansionism.

Japan formally surrendered on September 2, 1945. My father was still safely docked on Okinawa, 350 miles from the main island. It is one thing to thank God for the end of that war and for the grace that brought my father home before I was conceived. But the sobering reality is knowing that so many people died in those two Japanese cities. Estimates vary but the numbers are between 150,000 and 250,000.

For those looking for even more religious irony, while both cities were active in producing materiel for the war effort, Nagasaki was probably the Japanese city with the largest Christian population, having been evangelized first in the 16th century by the Jesuits. Despite struggles over the centuries, a large underground church had flourished, and by the time of the bombing, the community was growing and healthy above ground. Unfortunately that meant above ground-zero.

We try, vainly in my view, to justify the bomb using a familiar calculus in which “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” From that perspective you would try to say it is better that only a quarter million people died instead of the two million who would have perished in an invasion.

In the 19th century, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill elevated that principle into the philosophy known as Utilitarianism. They argued that “the greatest happiness of the greatest number… is the measure of right and wrong.” Happiness is defined as pleasure, or the absence of pain. Unhappiness is pain. Increasing human happiness, or decreasing human unhappiness are both good. Increasing happiness for the most people in a given situation while attempting to minimize the unhappiness of others guides the proper decision-making process for the Utilitarian. We all want more people to be happy and fewer people to suffer, therefore: Invasion bad; bomb good. Sounds reasonable, right? Even logical.

Utilitarianism is only one of the attempts that humans have created in order to decide the difference between good and evil ever since Adam and Eve attempted to steal that job from God back in Genesis 3. You can find an excellent, non-technical introduction to human ethical systems in Steve Wilkens’ Beyond Bumper-Sticker Ethics: An Introduction to Theories of Right and Wrong. The systems we have constructed tend to be based either in reason, like Utilitarianism, or in faith, like Buddhism. (I believe all the systems we have developed are based in faith in something but that is a discussion for another time.)

Utilitarianism may be about as close to Buddhism as a couple of Victorian Era, philosophically-inclined, British gentlemen could possibly get. Both practices seek to diminish suffering. Both place high value on ethical behavior. Significantly, both outlooks wind up diminishing, even negating, the importance of the self or the individual—for the Buddhist as a means to enlightenment, and for the Utilitarian as a logical consequence of a philosophy that ultimately advocates the principle that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

I’m no expert in either Utilitarianism or in Buddhism, and bearing in mind how the main character in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was driven crazy through wrestling with some of these issues, I’ll leave more comparisons between the two philosophies to others. I will say, however, that there is some irony in the fact that Truman’s approach is similar to a principle that underlies the belief system of those who were killed and wounded in the bombings. There must be in that a hint of the universality of the fallen state of human nature.

I am not especially critical of Truman’s decision, and not merely because I am alive, though I admit that is part of it. The truth is I shudder and imagine I would have made the same choice. There are unresolvable issues in this life, situations where every choice is a wrong choice. To rescue most of a group of hostages, some may die. It is a risk we train rescuers to take when negotiations fail. To save the most people injured in an accident, a battle, or a disaster, we perform triage, separating those who cannot be saved from those who can, in order to utilize limited resources more efficiently. We often describe those who must make those decisions as having moral courage and perhaps that is true of some. But the more likely case is that they are only playing what they believe to be the least destructive hand in a game where they are dealt no other cards. The choice to sacrifice the few for the good of the many is always an accommodation to the bitter reality that this is a fallen world and every last one of us is a part of that fallen order.

In John 11:50, the High Priest, Caiaphas, attempts to justify the execution of Jesus by saying, “…it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.” The utilitarian logic here is inescapable. But we ought not believe that God’s reason for allowing Jesus to die for our sins was based in utility. As hard as it is for us to fathom, he sacrificed Jesus in the exact same way that God does everything he ever has done or ever will do, out of love, not in some desperate hope of making the best out of a bad situation.

The idea of making the best out of a bad situation is our natural predicament. It is why we come up with things like Utilitarianism, or Buddhism, or “Galatianism,” or every other form of ethical and religious expression. Our ethics and our religions are, in the end, complete failures. As Isaiah put it, “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6) But underlying that effort is something worth thinking about. That we attempt to define good and evil at all is a tacit recognition that something called good and evil exists. Apart from the Fall, I suspect that even the idea of good and evil might have been entirely God’s domain. We would never have even had to think about it.

But we do think about it. Our desire for the good informs everything we do, though we are mostly unaware of it and our evil desires interfere with it all. Still, desire for the good motivates us to build legal, ethical and religious systems because our hearts long for the good. We seek friendship and community and love out of the same desire. We build homes and buildings and create music and art because we long for the good.

And when, in art, we recognize that universal longing, imperfectly presented though it may be, it moves us, occasionally with the intensity that Sekino’s woodblock print moved me. Art is truly an expression of our role in the universe as image-bearers of our Creator. In the darkness and the shadows of our art, as well as in the sin and darkness of our acts, the image of God is still visible, although in what artists call chiaroscuro, what St. Thomas Aquinas called the via negativa.

When scripture tells us “we see as through a glass darkly” it is not unreasonable to ask what is it that darkened the glass? To me the answer is obvious. Our sin. We continue to contribute to the darkness on a daily basis. But in his mercy, God has given us longing. We long for the time, as in the first two chapters of the book of Genesis, when all was truly right with the universe. And we long for a new Genesis, the time when our encounter with good will once again be face-to-face, all-encompassing, and when all evil—including wars and the hideous weapons of war—will be nothing more than a passing and utterly alien memory, immediately dismissed.

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Light and Shadow, Part One: How A Japanese Wood Block Print Turned My Worldview Upside Down.

Hara: Rooftop Reflections of Mt. Fuji

Hara: Rooftop Reflections of Mt. Fuji

PART ONE: LIGHT

It has been my experience that those moments in which I find myself in an encounter with the eternal are seldom (probably never) the result of my own effort. Instead, the One who is eternal chooses how, where and when to manifest himself on exactly the right frequency to break through the noise in my life to deliver his message to me. God’s effort. God’s presence. God’s message. And most often, that message is at once both bare simplicity and infinite complexity, such as when he said to Moses, “I am that I am.” The simple stuff, I can usually grasp. The complex stuff will take forever.

One encounter happened to me in the Fall of 1973. I was in the student union at the University of Arkansas walking through an exhibition of Japanese wood block prints when I was literally brought to tears by a work of art. I have seen a pretty fair share of “religious art” done over 20 centuries, often in class or study, but many times even in person. Rodin’s Gates of Hell, full-scale replicas of Michelangelo’s David, (decidedly the King of Israel, but perhaps done in secret homage to Paul’s message to the “troublemakers” in Galatia), numerous depictions of the martyrs, endless Madonna and Child paintings, images of the resurrection, etchings of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, Rembrandt’s sketch Walking to Emmaus, icons, Gothic architecture, Dali’s “floating crucifixion” and Last Supper (a pale satire on Leonardo’s Ultima Cena) and even the purportedly inspirational paintings of Thomas Kinkade. All works of art, some exquisite and evocative—some not so much—all capable of inspiring a degree of connectedness to the Almighty.

Many of those works of art were and are quite moving. But in my case, a simple wood block print, created as part of a “traditional documentary and disciplinary exercise” managed to speak more immediately to my spirit about the reality of God’s existence, his presence and his love than any work of art I have ever seen.

The extraordinary contemporary artist, Mako Fujimura, in his commencement address to Biola University graduate students, spoke of Vincent van Gogh’s painting, Starry Night, as a genesis painting. Vincent was a man of faith, despite the mental illness that plagued him throughout his life. The expressions of that faith in his art were as intentional as they were sublime. Here is part of Fujimura’s description:

“The Spirit welcomes you into the margins, into the liminal spaces far away from the doors of the church.  And yet there you will be met by a Shepherd/Artist who will guide you into a wider pasture of culture. He will guide you into the night skies in which the sun and the moon are held together by his hand. Create in Love, as Vincent so loved the world that rejected him, as he so longed to be home in the church, the only building without light.

In such darkness, we may be overwhelmed: but precisely because it is dark, and precisely because we must look up, we experience a genesis moment.”

The work of art that God used to grab my attention that day, could also be considered a genesis print, though not necessarily one with explicit and intentional Christian content. At that time, almost no one would have described me as a Christian and quite possibly the artist was not Christian either. Yet, I am certain that, within my encounter with that artist, through his beautifully created image, I also had a genesis encounter with God.

The print shown above is called Hara. Rooftop Reflections of Mt. Fuji, by a well-known Japanese master named Jun’ichiro Sekino. He worked in the Japanese tradition of sōsaku-hanga (lit. creative prints), a 20th-century offshoot of the ukiyo-e (lit. pictures of a floating world) wood block printing movement. Hara is part of a series entitled 53 Stations of the Tokaido. The Tokaido is a road that runs the length of Japan’s main island. The names of the stations are taken from the 53 Buddhist wise ones visited by an acolyte named Sudhana. Numerous Japanese artists, including Sekino and Hiroshige (the most famous Japanese wood-block artist), have followed the same path, executing some sort of image at each station. The entire process is seen as a metaphor for Sudhana’s—and presumably the artists’—quest for enlightenment.

Given that religious context, it may be safe to assume that Sekino, who died in 1988, was Buddhist. If there is intentional religious expression in the print, it most likely would have arisen out of that world-view. Regardless, I wanted to buy one, but as a “starving” college student I could not afford to buy the print. Eleven years later I ordered one from the artist’s US representative in Seattle. It remains my favorite work of art of any period. Period.

Done mostly in shadowy grays and blacks it depicts the rhythmic lines of a ceramic tile roof on a structure at the base of Mt. Fuji. The print was made in 1964, and has strong, simple and graceful, graphic lines. Subtly reflected on the roof is the faint but easily recognizable image of the mountain—Japan’s most famous geographic landmark—upside down. Perhaps the reflection is due to a light coating of rainwater on the roof, or perhaps it is an artifice of the light itself, manifest on clay tiles.

On first viewing, the image is pleasant, but vaguely disorienting. Mt. Fuji is not immediately apparent, yet one has a mild urge to turn the picture over—it must be hung wrong. Once the viewer recognizes the outline of the mountain, the questions begin. Surely there is no angle from which to view a roof on which Mt. Fuji could be seen upside down in reflection. After some experimenting with mirrors I determined that it is not an optical illusion, but that given the right perspective the image can be seen exactly the way it is presented in the print. The optics are possible solely because the roof is right at the base of the mountain, and because the mountain is gargantuan, dwarfing everything around it.

It is a graphically appealing, nearly abstracted image, but what exactly is it that evoked such an overwhelming emotional and spiritual response in me?

Japan is a nation of perhaps 50-70% atheists. The predominant belief systems are either Buddhist or practices (even among the atheists) that are heavily influenced by Buddhism. Less than 1% are Christian.

Among the religiously inclined, Mt. Fuji is considered sacred. Similar to the way the Greeks regarded Mt. Olympus, Fuji is revered by many as the source of all good that is Japanese. Mt. Fuji is alone not simply in scale but in location. At over 12,000 feet, it is not only the highest mountain in Japan, but no other mountains are even near it. It reigns supreme above the landscape and plays a dominating role in the Japan’s cultural and religious mindset. In the shadow of the mountain are in excess of 1500 religious cults, some offshoots of Buddhism, some Shinto, some peaceful and some exceedingly evil such as Aum Shinrikyo, the doomsday cult that concocted sarin gas in warehouses at the base of Mt. Fuji and released it in the Tokyo subway system in 1995. They killed thirteen people and injured close to a thousand more.

When I first looked at the piece thirty years ago this verse immediately popped into my mind: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12 ) I was in some philosophical turmoil at the time, trying to decide if I was going to be able to become a Christian. By God’s grace I was cautiously beginning to recognize the truth, but like so many people, I was struggling with the issue of how all the rest of the world’s religious experience fit in to the big picture. You know the questions. How can a loving God send someone to burn in the flames of Hell for eternity when they never even had a chance to hear about Jesus in this life? Whose fault was it that they were born in a place where everyone was Islamic, or Hindu, or Buddhist, or atheist and were taught from childhood that those perspectives are the whole truth?

Somehow, in this obscure work of art I heard—apprehended, understood, received knowledge, however you wish to describe it—God speak to me. I received an impression on my heart that the apparently unresolvable conflict of a multiplicity of religious beliefs and practices had been resolved.

But that impression was not a ratification of, or a divine blessing upon, Buddhism or Hinduism or any other “religion,” including, to my surprise, Christianity, at least what Kierkegaard referred to as Christendom. I did not come away from the experience with an eclectic “there are many paths to the top of the mountain” kind of understanding—there is, was and ever shall be only one. Neither was it a message that said, “Don’t worry, you Westerners have it all right.” It was a message that, like the image of Mt. Fuji itself, turned much of what I understood upside down. It was as simple and straightforward as God reminding Moses,  “I am that I am.” Sometimes I have to admit that a more apt comparison may be when God answered Job and his comforters out of the whirlwind with, “Who do you guys think you are?” (Job 38)

The idea of seeing through a glass darkly came through with ironic clarity. Certainly, as Christians we want to believe we have access to the best understanding of these issues, thanks, not to our own reasoning (well, that too) but primarily to the grace of God’s revelation. Yet, even in the face of the marvelous gift of revelation in Scripture, we still see only “as through a glass darkly.” More importantly, and also owing to the grace of God, neither our correct interpretation of Scripture, nor our well-reasoned understandings of theology and doctrine are what saves us.

Instead, our salvation lies in the reality that the One whose throne is the heavens and whose footstool is the earth became a human being and took on himself the punishment for all of our sin—his intervention, not our striving. We are at the mercy of his initiation, just as I believe He initiated a conversation with me, through the medium of an unassuming Japanese wood block print—a conversation that continues even today.

“Our favourite works of art seem to guide us to the truth of the human condition and, by presenting completed instances of human actions and passions, freed from the contingencies of everyday life, to show the worthwhileness of being human.” (Scruton, Roger 2009 Beauty p. 129)

Over the years, reflection on this print has given me many other insights—ideas that might never have occupied the mind of the artist. Consider that the mountain is reflected on a rooftop. A roof is the work of human hands. Human craft, human design, human engineering, human labor. In and of itself, that labor might be even be said to be simply motivated in ego, humanity constructing its own kingdom. But in a way, the water on the roof, which falls beyond our control as Scripture says “on the just and on the unjust,” (Matthew 5:45) becomes a divine element which makes the reflection possible. The print reveals, again as in a mirror, something of the image of God reflected in the efforts of humanity. We can see an affirmation of the value of human effort, of craft, and of art itself as evidence of our role as “image-bearers.”

Consider also that tiles are made of clay, just as human beings were created out of clay. We are, in part, created out of the mud, the baser “stuff” of the universe, and yet it remains possible to see the imprint, or the reflection, of the Creator on that. Consider further that the image is one of a roof. A roof is a covering, protection from the elements. A roof covers a house, forming a place of refuge, safety, and, one hopes, a place where relationship grows. I could go on, but you get the point. There are layers upon layers of revelation in even the most ordinary things, and when art serves its purpose and we are receptive to it, the layers can multiply exponentially.

Such are the exhilarating and joy-creating thoughts this supposedly non-Christian work of art has offered me. In it, I am able to see how, as Alister McGrath, explains, “The natural world thus becomes God’s creation, bearing the subtle imprint of its Maker. We see not only the observable reality of the world but its deeper value and true significance.” (McGrath, Alister, 2009, The Passionate Intellect, p.82)

Joni Mitchell sang, “Every picture has its shadows; and it has some source of light.” Thus far I have written of the light within the print. In deference to the depth of the artistic expression in Hara, as well as God’s artistic expression in the natural world, I will write of the shadows and their necessity if we are to grasp the “deeper value and true significance” of either a work of art or the natural world. As part of that, I will reflect on the 68th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.