by Trygve Johnson
At Hope College, where I serve as Dean of the Chapel, our scripture for the year has been the Gospel of Matthew. Once every four years I like to work through a gospel narrative, so that during a students four year collegiate experience, they will have had opportunity, within the worship and liturgical life of our chapel, to experience first hand one of the primary sources that inspire the mystery of our faith. So as we enter into Lent, Matthew is Hope’s guide into this mystery, as we travel with Jesus towards his cross and resurrection.
The good-news is that I am not traveling alone. I find that the journey of faith is a lot more interesting with companions. I need others who can help me make sense of, explain, and interpret with me Jesus journey. Interpretation is tricky business. I need the help of others to do this work. The reason is I don’t trust my own lens – as it is shaped by my context, conflicting desires, and cultural assumptions. Self-deception is the easiest thing in the Christian life – especially when interpreting the Bible. I tend to see what I want to see – or bend the text to what I want it to say – or what I know others want it to say – rather than trusting what it says.
This is a problem, for when I allow my personal or cultural assumption to be the primary lens of my exegesis, scripture is commandeered by other agendas, other loyalties, and I end up reading and preaching a gospel that too often conforms to this world, rather than the Word that demands the world be transformed by it. I am guessing that I’m not alone in that struggle.
So I need help. I need conversation partners on this journey with Jesus, other voices calling me out of the cul-de-sac of my own experience. I need wise scholars and theologians. I require other pastors and friends. I need the vision of children and the perspective of the elderly. I need the Church and its tradition. I also especially need the help that comes by traveling with artists who are engaged in interpreting the world and scripture.
I need to journey with artists because they understand both the risks and necessities of interpreting life in a particular context. Artists are master interpreters, who help us to see and experience what we assume we know, or thought we knew, with a fresh eye and angle on reality. So as I preach through the Gospel of Matthew during this familiar lent season, I’m trying to keep my interpretive eyes sharp, by traveling with an artist named Otto Dix.
Wilhelm Heinrich Otto Dix (1891-1969) was a German painter and printmaker, noted for his ruthless and harshly realistic depictions of the Weimar society (the German state between 1919-1933) and his art was also a commentary on the brutality of war. He is widely considered one of the most important artists of the Neue Sachlisckeit –a movement in German art that arose in the 1920’s as a reaction to expressionism. Artists like Dix rejected the self-involvement and romantic longings of the expressionists, and instead created art that was a call to arms for public collaboration, engagement, and rejection of romantic idealism.
In 1960, Otto Dix was commissioned to create 33 images from the gospel of Matthew. And in these images, he tells the story of the gospel – but he tells this story while standing the rubble of his own life and life in Germany in the early 20th century. They’re beautifully raw images, that have echoes of his current realities in the characters he drew, the emotions he highlighted, the scenes he chose to portray. He uses the gospel of Matthew to understand Jesus and the world around him.
As we enter into Lent, Dix’s perspective seems to me fitting. Lent is a season when we are invited to resist the seductive self-indulgence that seems to preoccupy the American church experience. When this happens, Lent is to often romanticized as a self-improvement program, or reduced to a weight loss plan in the church. Rather, like Dix’s art, Lent is an invitation to realism – taking a realistic stalk of our self and our culture, so that we can have a critically honest look at reality from the perspective of Jesus journey onto the cross.
So on Sunday’s for the next six weeks, I’ll be posting journey reflections in conversation with a Dix interpretation of Jesus on his way to the cross from a Matthew text. Otto Dix, interpreting Matthew, with the brutality of his homeland ruined by war and folly in the background, is a fitting companion for us because he refuses to interpret a romanticized or idealized Jesus. We see Jesus as deeply human, troubled, and in pain. Dix’s art, like the season of Lent, invites us into a shared humanity, and a moral reflection with Jesus that demands personal and social honesty about sin and its consequences for the soul and society.
Will you travel with me to the cross this season? I’d love to journey with you as we seek to follow Jesus, on that narrow trail, denying ourselves, all the way to the cross, and taking up our cross together, to experience together the deeper mysteries of our faith.