Finding the Cultural Distance
The cluster of curious college students gathered before me in the vestibule of the Chicago Art Institute. This small group of bible college and seminary students had each expressed to me a desire to “learn how to look at art.” They did not actually know what they were asking for, and quite frankly neither did I. Nevertheless, we gathered on a windy Thursday afternoon to initiate our quest.
We stood in the vestibule waiting for everyone. Various tasks seized them: securing tickets, storing coats and preparing to enter the exhibits. I looked around at each of their faces—so many differences. There were different ethnicities, different interests, different styles, and different vocabulary.
I wondered, “Why are they here? What do they want to know? What kind of experience are they looking for?” Then by the nodding queue of my roommate I began our tour. I described the route we would take, the painters we would see, the time periods and the movements we would be whisked away with.
Just before entering the exhibits, I stopped and explained, “When you are approaching these paintings, you are approaching more than a propositional statement. Don’t try to hammer out the meaning, but instead ask a question. Ask the painter a question. Asking the painting a question. Then patiently await a response.” It was then that I warned them of a familiar intruder. “At some point there may be a feeling that will well up within your stomach. At some point you may be tempted to laugh. Don’t. Instead ask yourself why you are laughing. This is a common reaction to discomfort, especially one that you cannot easily escape. Many things could cause this. You may not know how to react to a piece. You may fear your own thoughts. You may feel vulnerable. You may feel too angry, too happy, too free, too sad.”
There is something strangely uncomfortable about looking at one thing for an extended period of time, especially so when no conclusions have been drawn, nor understanding gained.
Twentieth century French philosopher, Paul Ricœur suggests a three-step process in his literary analysis. First is naivety, which is simply taking the words at face value. Second is critical distance, which insists the removal of emotion and induction of skepticism. The last step is an enlightened naivety. This process is not only true within literature. When we approach a piece of art, whether it is a poem, a painting or a choral we travel through three frames. Furthermore, I would like to suggest that Ricœur’s process is reflected in the nature of relationship.
I fear that our fast-paced and comfort-wrought existence has conditioned us nearly incapable of acknowledging this roadblock to understanding and deep interaction. Our relationships lack, including our relationship with God. What my young friends were searching for was the passage through critical distance.
The Hermeneutic of Patience
I would like to suggest that viewing art and learning biblical hermeneutics are generous comrades. One point of contact is the impending stage critical distance. It takes patience to face the withdrawn emotion and infused skepticism that washes ashore behind the crest of naivety. We must learn the hermeneutic of patience.
The science of biblical hermeneutics includes various steps and orders. Whichever process employed places value on the study of the original language, historical understandings of the text, canonical themes, authorship, backgrounds and historical context in which the text was both written and set. Scripture is studied that we might interact with the God of scripture, but indeed he is the author and we must wait for his speech. Here we interact with a piece of art, tactful communication, and the author, the painter of the piece, at once.
Perhaps it is true that the same way we rush at a piece of art, naming and defining every curious feature, is the same way that we rush at scripture and rush at God. In the pursuit of adequate and timely biblical interpretation we jump backwards from the critical distance into the naïve face value and therein forfeit a rich depth that reengages our emotions, mystifies our skepticism and illumines a more holistic understanding of the passage and author.
The Practice of Viewing Art
We are both victims of our cultural mantra of ease and enablers of our embedded resistance to discomfort. These prevent us from involving a hermeneutic of patience in our biblical interpretation. Could the practice of viewing art aid our interaction with Scripture?
Several of the students that partook in that tour of the Art Institute were astounded at the pleasure and fulfillment they acquired from that trip. Beholding a brilliant work of communication and standing before it, patient. First, thrilled at first sight, observing its colors, shapes and recognizable images. Then beholding their enamored soul drain of emotion, and their mind cultivate a strange sourness. But indeed waiting, looking, questioning until at last understanding clothed with emotions, and shod with the questions that once halted any progression returned illumined. Perhaps this was not their journey at every painting, yet their experience of patience with a piece provoked a vision of their lack of patience with moments of critical distance.
Having this kind of experience with one piece of art may communicate something to us, but alas it will not change our natural bent. I must assure you that culture is no enemy; it is not a thief. Culture conducts the symphony of life in a community, and therein imparts to us many benefits. Unfortunately, a hermeneutic of patience is not one of them. It is through incorporating the viewing of art into the liturgy of our lives that will form in us the habits necessary for the hermeneutic of patience. The practice of viewing art provides a concrete and safe environment to practice overcoming the critical distance.