For various reasons I've found myself reading in and around some of the parts of the Bible that were written out of suffering, loss, and the disequilibrium that can unsettle what we thought were the more secure anchorages. Harvey Cox's commentary on Lamentations in the Belief Commentary series is more a commentary on the experiences which generated the text than the text itself; which makes it a brilliant and illuminating companion when wandering through the dark nights of the soul of that text, written with blood and smudged with the tears of those whose world disintegrated before their eyes.
Sam Ballentine's commentary on Job is a masterpiece of theological reflection rooted in the text and nurtured by a faith unafraid of questions, and a sympathy with human perplexity and pain that turns theological erudition into an education in existential courage. And then there is Isaiah, those chapters from 40 onwards, hopefully imaginative, scornful of cynical realism, scintillating both in its visions of the incomparable and transcendent God, and in its demolition of the entire structures of idolatry and imperial power games.
All three compositions are work of the highest art. Which brings me to why I'm writing this. Re-reading the poet Christian Wiman's Ambition and Survival I came across this passage which I marked.
'John Ruskin..writes in Sesame and Lilies:
"the more beautiful the art, the more it is essentially the work of people who feel themselves wrong; - who are striving for the fulfilment of the law, and the grasp of a loveliness, which they have not yet attained, which they feel even farther and farther from attaining the more they strive for it."
There is a sense in which all art arises out of injury or absence, out of the artist's sense that there is something missing in him [or her].'
The connections between beauty and the wrongness of the world, between human losss and incompletion and creativity, are powerful, mysterious and defiant of our best explanations, which makes them often a source of further perlexity. Out of such human turmoil as inspired the poet who wrote Lamentations; out of such personal catastrophe when life's deepest ties are torn apart and explanations merely add to the anguish, comes a masterpiece of world literature like the book of Job; and out of such broken spiritual hopes and national humiliation, when exile in an alien culture is a relentless reminder that hope is suppressed by imperial hegemony, there erupts Isaiah's poetry of passion and power, of liberation coming with the certainty of Divine promise and, renewal envisioned on the scale of the God who is the Eternal and the Creator. Such beautiful art, the distilled essence of faith crushed like grapes for wine, and bearing a hope that springs from the same seeds, to grow again and turn into the wine of God's Kingdom - such beauty from brokenness.
And perhaps, with all our current fascination with words like discipleship and discipling, there is a deep corrective truth to be recovered; from the same root comes the word discipline. There is in Jesus call to discipleship a cross to be borne, a way to be travelled and a sacrifice of self made possible only because the weight of the Cross is more than balanced by the power of the resurrection. And when faith becomes weight-bearing, the great mystery of the Gospel is that our strength to follow the way of the Cross comes from the living Christ, who goes before us, walking on nail pierced feet, but as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith; the living Christ in whom we live and move and have our being; the living Christ of whom Paul wrote "I am crucified with Christ; I live yet not I, but Christ lives within me; and the life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me, and gave himself for me".
The photo is of the Shalom tapestry, a visual exegesis of selected psalms.