Friday, May 31, 2013

St. Luke--Evangelist and Painter? by Chris White

Black Madonna of Poland
Luke as imagined by a Renaissance Painter
St. Luke, the author of the beloved Gospel that bears his name and the book of Acts, was the traveling physician, missionary, and companion of the Apostle Paul and was eyewitness to many of the events that resulted in the “birthing” of the church among the gentile nations of the Mediterranean world.  In addition to this resume, there is a strong tradition that Luke was one of the first persons in the church to paint pictures of Jesus and His mother Mary.  These stylized depictions were used (and continue to be used in Orthodox and Catholic churches) as a visual form of teaching especially among those who were not learned enough to read (a far more common occurrence until the age of the Renaissance and Reformation).  Some hold this tradition suspect because its principle proponent was John of Damascus who vigorously defended the position that the use of icons was not a violation of God’s prohibition on graven images in worship during a great controversy over this in the 7th century.  Of course John’s view is the one that has prevailed in history (and while a very nuanced position is not an unreasonable one) but the fact remains that when a person has ‘a dog in the fight’ they tend to see evidence in only one light.  But there is additional evidence beyond just this one source.
In Rome today, the St. Maria Via Lata Church stands over the remains of a small apartment that is believed to be where Paul lodged during his imprisonment (see Acts chapter 28 and 2 Timothy 4:11).  It is believed that in this modest home, later used as a grain storage center in Rome, Luke wrote his Gospel/Acts to Theophilus and painted pictures for the church to illustrate for them the people who appear in his book.  One researcher writing at the turn of the 20th century reports that in the Catacombs there is an inscription under some faded paintings which reads one of seven painted by Luke.  While Luke probably didn’t paint in the catacombs, the inscription might at least be attesting that the original by Luke was known and this is what it (more or less) looks like.
 We also know from passing mentions in some of the epistles that Luke knew St. Mark and also there is a connection to the Apostle Peter as well.  With these personal connections the general belief is that Luke traveled to Jerusalem many times and personally knew Mary and other living members of the “holy family” and what he writes in his gospel regarding the nativity (which is quite detailed with inside information) is based on his personal conversations with her.  At the very least, if Luke didn’t paint her picture, he did know what she looked like.
One of the most famous works attributed to Luke is the Black Madonna of Czestochowa (pronounced “Chest-eh-hoe-vah”) in Poland.  It’s story falls along these lines:  it was painted by Luke on boards taken from the table of Mary’s home (and presumably this table was used for family meals in which Jesus, Joseph, James of Jerusalem all would have been present at one time or another) and was housed in Jerusalem.  In the early part of the 6th century it was brought to Constantinople by the Empress Eudoxia.  Mary was considered the protector of their great city despite the fact that they built fortress walls unparalleled in the ancient world.  It was later  moved to Belz Ukraine for a short period before finally coming to reside in Poland at a monastery built on Bright Mountain (“Czestochowa”) where it is visited by millions of pilgrims from around the world every year.  Just as Mary had protected Constantinople for many centuries, she is believed to have protected Poland when they were invaded by the Swedes in the 17th century.  In fact Mary is officially considered the queen of Poland today and this seems to suit most Poles just fine.
The style of this icon is called “hodegetria” or one who shows the way.  Notice  Mary’s hand points away from herself and to her son Jesus and Jesus gives the sign of benediction to the viewer.  The statement expressed is “yes, I am the mother of Jesus, the son of God, but avert your attention to Him, for He is the real source of blessing”.  While my wife shares my enthusiasm for the traditions of the church, she says whatever the black Madonna is painted on, it’s not Mary’s dining room table.  No woman, no matter how holy and revered, is going to let a man cut a piece of her dining room table to make a painting of her.
In Europe through the Medieval and Renaissance, Luke was popularly considered the patron saint of artistic painters.  If you were painter in this time, a good deal of your commissions would likely come from churches and pious individuals wanting pictures depicting Biblical themes.  It was quite natural for them to think of themselves as continuing a tradition that began with St. Luke.
Whether or not Luke was an actual artist, many have rightly noted that his  well-written stories of Christ are so vivid as to be pictures in their own right.  And as such have inspired many a canvas throughout the centuries.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The True Spirit of Athaliah by Chris White

Athaliah is the only  known queen to have sat on the throne of David during the period of Israel’s monarchies (Her story is found in 2 Kings 8:16-11:16 and 2 Chronicles 22-23).  Neither the Bible or known histories say much about her ability as a ruler but  much about the evil she promulgated during her reign.  As far as pedigree is concerned, Athaliah came from the first family of idolatry as she was the daughter of King Ahab and Jezebel who worked tirelessly to lead their subjects away from God and to follow the idol known as Baal.  King Jehoram was fixed up with Athaliah through an alliance between Israel and Judah.  As queen consort she had no real legal power but had the power of example and the power of the womb both of which she used to lead her nation into greater depths of devotion to the idol Baal.  When her husband passed (a terrible disease of his bowels) her son Ahaziah inherited the throne but ruled for only a year when he was cut down in battle as a judgment from the Lord.  With no title to the throne,  Athaliah had all potential successors from the house of David assassinated thus securing the throne of her husband and son for herself.  Unknown to Athaliah was that the nearest relative of her son (still an infant) was hidden from her coup and was secretly raised under the protection of the high priest of Jerusalem Jehoida.  When the child became a young boy, he was brought out of hiding and publicly anointed king.  The trumpets were blown and it was proclaimed from the temple that King Joash was the new and rightful ruler over Judah.  When Athaliah heard the great noise and acclamation of the new king she came out in public and cried out “Treason! Treason!” but was unable to stem the tide of events.  Before the day was over, Athaliah was executed for her crimes and the house of David was restored as the royal family and rightful heirs of the throne.  The irony and lesson of this story is really found in Athaliah’s end.  She who would cry treason was guilty of the same on two counts.  First she used her influence to lead as many people as possible to commit treason against God by following after the local god of prosperity and fertility.  Second she used her power to try and destroy the house of David through treacherous murder.   When we encounter such dark characters in scripture, we are reminded that the story we find ourselves in today includes the forces of evil.  The Bible is clear that God did not create evil or that evil will prevail in the end, but for now evil exists by permission.  I can’t help but see in Athaliah the same spirit that sought to tempt and destroy Jesus.  Was it not the devil working in the heart of Herod the Great that stirred within him a murderous genocide of all male children in hopes of wiping out the most important descendant of King David?  And was it not also the same spirit that sought to lead Jesus astray by offering Him all temporal power if He would only bow down to him who was not God?  This spirit of darkness, the devil continues to lead the nations astray even today, but like Athaliah, he prevails only temporarily and his rule will come to a complete and abrupt end with the appearance of Jesus, the Son of Man and Son of David.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Review of the Strategy of Satan by Warren Wiersbe

Even as I write this there is an ever-so-vague temptation in my mind to act a bit skeptical about a book on detecting and defeating the work of Satan.  After all, I am a reasonably intelligent man and we all know or have seen or have heard of people who are, shall we say, a bit over the top in their fears and anxieties about the prince of darkness.  But, as C.S. Lewis would say, that kind of wild-eyed fanaticism is exactly what someone as subtle as Lucifer would want.  If people associate talk about the devil with crazy, they will disbelieve in his existence: exactly what he would want you to do.  The fact of the matter is I do believe in the existence of the Devil.  Jesus Christ believed in the Devil and was actually victorious over Satan’s greatest efforts to corrupt Him—a feat no other person has ever been able to accomplish.  Perhaps part of the reason many people avoid the topic altogether or say things like “the only devil that exists in the universe is the devil inside” is because if there really is an objective, malevolent spirit like Satan, it is freaking embarrassing how much influence we have given him in our lives.
I’ve never met Dr. Warren Wiersbe, but have long known his reputation for being a sound and balanced teacher of the Scriptures.  When I found his book The Strategy of Satan: How to Detect and Defeat Him I thought it merited my attention not only because I would like to personally be more victorious over the dark influence of temptation but also because Dr. Wiersbe is not one of the “Church-Lady-Crazies” who is looking for the devil in virtually everything.  I was not disappointed and found this to be a sane and biblically sound treatment of a topic many of us would just assume avoid.
There are many great scriptures and lessons presented in the book but I want to interact with a couple of them that I found particularly helpful.  One of the things Wiersbe points out is that Satan may not touch a person without God’s permission but God does permit such things that in disobedience we may be chastened and in obedience we may be proven and strengthened.  I thought it was also interesting that one of the chief times we should be aware and beware of Satan is when things are going particularly well for us or we have gone to great lengths to obey the will of God.  In one case we succumb to pride and the feeling that we do deserve better than we are getting (the thankful-to-God-but-what-have-you-done-for-me-lately syndrome), in the other we are marked by the enemy because we have served God well and he wants to undo things quickly.
According to Wiersbe another of Satan’s great strategies is to tempt us with impatience with God’s will.  Impatience is a mark of great immaturity and the scriptures continually encourage us to patience in all things.  Impatience is an impediment to realizing God’s will.  In the Bible there is a famous story of King Saul who grew impatient with waiting for Samuel the priest to make a sacrifice to God before they went to battle and so thought he would just himself and disobey God’s law entirely.  Sadly, I see this impatience played out in many other ways as well.  The Christian single that grows impatient waiting for God to provide them a spouse and so they take matters into their own hands and make an infernal mess of their lives.  Or the pastor that is so anxious to gain a reputation as a shepherd and leader that he loses patience with those in the congregation that are struggling with sin and he hastily kicks them out without leaving room for them to repent.  To this the author writes: “When you find yourself impatient, you can be sure that Satan and the flesh are at work, and that you are in danger of making a wrong decision.  When the circumstances of life are irritating, that is the time to beware!  When family problems, friends, finances, or feelings are making life uncomfortable, then you can be sure Satan is near, waiting for an opportunity to attack.  But God has given you a defense!” 
And what is this defense?  Making a clear-headed commitment to follow God even if the circumstances in life are not as we would desire.  Finding opportunity to worship and thank God, knowing that all things are working for the good in our lives.  And probably most important, spending much time in the word of God.  As Dr. Wiersbe so aptly points out, if Adam and Eve found they couldn’t talk to Satan without trouble, we need not talk either, but learn and repeat back the truth of the scriptures which are the will of God.
I’d recommend this book as a worthwhile treatment and Bible based study on a topic we could all stand to learn a bit more on.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Let's Keep America Beautiful by Chris White

Several nights ago I was conversing with a young person about his recent trip to Africa.  Like most Americans who travel overseas, they are often shocked by the amount of litter that seems to be everywhere and my friend was no exception.  I explained to him that when I was growing up (during the 1960’s and 1970’s) we had a litter problem that was just about as bad as any place I have ever visited outside the U.S. but we had something that put an end to it: The Keep America Beautiful Campaign.  Night after night, as we sat in the glow of the family television set (only wealthy people had more than one set in their homes) we would see a public service announcement featuring an American Indian from the past paddling his traditional canoe into a present day modern and industrialized but unnamed metropolis.  Everywhere he goes, this man who deeply loves and respects nature, encounters careless and thoughtless people throwing their trash out the window.  The announcement closes with a motorist dumping the remains of his drive-thru hamburger meal right at the feet of this native man and looking directly at the camera we see there is a tear running down his cheek and then we hear the voice-over  admonition that caring for our great land begins and ends with you(if you want to watch the video for nostalgia/or/informational purposes go here:
My young friend was quite surprised about this and asked me if I really believe that one public service announcement had that much power to change the face of America?  “Absolutely”, I told him, “to this very day whenever I throw my hamburger trash out the window, I’m haunted by a vague sense of guilt and the face of an Indian man who is being a big cry-baby about some litter that by the end of the week is going to blow into the next county or will be eaten by a bunch of wild possums.  Never underestimate the power of a good public service announcement.