-Luke 4:21-30 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.
The truth shall set you free, says Christ. What is truth, says Pilate. You can’t handle the truth, says Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men. What is so elusive about truth? I.
The “Van Gogh Immersion” proved to be more than worth it–have you seen it? I went there feeling very dubious about another high-tech exploitation of one of the most popular of our greatest painters. Touted as a blockbuster event, it was not likely to match the hype. But they got me in there, they got my money. And I wasn’t sorry, because it turned out to be better than advertised. I’ll just say, you should go.
You’ll find light and sound and space serving a reverent purpose. Technology afforded the creators power over your senses, in the service of an homage to another creator and to creativity itself. The agon (the mortal struggle) of van Gogh’s creative process subliminally came through, even had you not known the biography of Van Gogh.
But everybody knows the conclusion of Van Gogh’s famous story too well. (6 movies, a song, etc.) which has overflooded him with pathos. It colors our experience of his painting. Best known are the two turbulent years in Arles in the south of France when he roomed with Paul Gaughin; his failed effort to sell any of the florid, vivid painting which surpassed the imaginations of his impressionist predecessors; and the tragic ending of his life.
But do people know enough of his story to get under or around the tragic ending to realize what he was doing, and what artists do? I find a certain similarity between Van Gogh’s public reception and Christ’s, when Jesus went back home and could not get a hearing there for his message. They would have thrown him off a cliff if they could. They couldn’t handle the truth.
Of course, the gospel is one thing, and Van Gogh, just a painter, is another. I’m not trying to establish any equivalencies here. But I do see a meaningful correlation between the two stories when it comes to truth revealed. Jesus revealed the unlikely power of forgiveness to transform reality–those were the miracles. Doesn’t every artist, too, with skills much beyond our own, open windows for us beyond the limits of our present horizons? Because, the universal human experience is that what we see is not what there is, not nearly all there is. Our vision is limited, although the intensity of eyesight deceives us into believing things are clear. We often contrast truth and falsehood, as in the present politics of the U.S. But an additional kind of problem resides with the contrast between truth and illusion. There we are truly challenged.
II. And how do we react to illusions threatened by truth? Truth at the personal level is painful. We don’t like our illusions exposed. We don’t like exposure to another point of view. We can’t stand to think about what we’ve missed. Basically, we can’t handle the truth. They wanted to stone Jesus. And they scoffed at Van Gogh. Jesus was ultimately murdered. Van Gogh nearly starved to death, before he succumbed to mental illness.
Fortunately, Vincent had his brother, Theo. And even more fortunately, we have Vincent’s entire correspondence with Theo which comes to 1,896 pages in a boxed three volume set, not Theo’s, just Vincent’s part. My paperback copy runs to 500 pages. The letters to Theo run to 3 and 4 and 5 pages in length, handwritten of course, accompanied by sketches that van Gogh regularly included.
The letters convey the spiritual course of his life in great detail. They also chronicle his peripatetic nature, six months in Paris employed by an art dealer, two years in London, some months in Amsterdam first, then Brussels, preparing to take the theological school entrance exam, a six-month tour of missionary duty in Belgium. All the while, he reads voluminously–Shakespeare, George Eliot, Dickens, French authors, historians. He is attracted to an artistic career and returns home temporarily to recoup before taking a room in The Hague while he studies draftsmanship–he’s almost 30 now and still in his artistic infancy. All the while, he is writing to Theo and sharing his aspirations, and Theo is sending him money, books, advice and encouragement. Theo had been working for the original art dealer and gets assigned to the Paris office, at which point Vincent proposes they room together. March 1, 1886.
Now he finally lands in the right milieu, finally at the age of 33, meeting many of the avant garde, absorbing the atmosphere of innovation which corresponds perfectly to his spirit.
III. We learn from the letters from Vincent that, with Christ, you are never alone. He meant this. It was not a pious nostrum–Vincent was not pious. He had reason to believe this because he was always alone. He lost jobs in the workaday world because of his personal appearance. He rationalized, “You can’t tell what goes on within someone by looking at what happens without.”
What mattered to Vincent was within the soul. He had been in and out of love, but always with unattainable women. Young Vincent did not connect easily or for very long, except with his brother Theo. “There may be a great fire in your soul, but no one ever comes to warm himself by it, all that passers-by can see is a little smoke coming out of the chimney and they walk on.”
This is the predicament of every artist, and every human being. But a few artists reciprocated his friendship, and this benefitted Van Gogh immensely. His discovery of painting eventually released and revealed that great fire in his soul.
Wanting to be faithful to his emotional truth, Van Gogh had begun by trying out as a minister of the Gospel. His father, a strict Protestant minister in a Dutch village, encouraged Vincent to study theology, but after some itinerant preaching in Belgium and Holland, he struck out.
The father was furious with Vincent–he couldn’t handle the truth. Vincent was full of God without a way to express it, until he found painting. He staggered from pillar to post, one odd job after another, poverty, penury and occasional homelessness, fueled nevertheless by love of God.
Vincent was on a mission, but it took a while to embrace a medium that suited his truth. And his truth was at base theological. Young Vincent experienced the depth of life through love. “Love leads you to understand God better.” “The best way of knowing God is to love many things. . . But you must love with a sublime, genuine, profound sympathy, with devotion, with intelligence, and you must try all the time to understand God more, better and yet more. That will lead to God, that will lead to an unshakeable faith.” Vincent, the emerging artist, observed his subjects and the world lovingly. With time and guidance, van Gogh established his identity as a painter. His aspiration was to manifest the fully human and the wholly divine within the frame of a single painting.
He believed that “Christ alone of all the philosophers, magicians etc., has affirmed eternal life as the most important certainty, the infinity of time, the futility of death. . .Christ lived serenely, as an artist greater than all other artists, scorning marble and clay and pain, working in the living flesh. This peerless artist made living men immortals.” Van Gogh’s advice was, “Try to grasp the essence of what the great artists, what the serious masters, say in their masterpieces, and you will again find God.” Vincent looked for artists who had “something of the human soul [that precious pearl] in their work, the great, immense, the infinite, Spirit.”
Not many artists would articulate their drive in these terms, or have. But van Gogh’s work and that of so many artists, leaves a record of self-clarification, the evidence of a search for their personal truth. As theological as Van Gogh was, there was never a doctrinal or didactic drive in his art–it was purely spiritual. The art is an active form of meditation. Van Gogh’s story uniquely reveals the close connection between religion and art.
IV. Doesn’t everyone have a “gospel,” a truth, to share? Doesn’t everyone need an art to express it? You see the evidences in those tags people put at the end of emails, and on bumper stickers, and what we tell our grandchildren. But even more is needed–a religion perhaps, an art even.
Churches certainly have a gospel message, and every Sunday we create and share our collective expression of it. But don’t we have to drill down a little deeper today, perhaps, and take account of our truth in 2022, mid-Covid, post-glory days of Eliot Church?
The truth shall set us free. What is that truth? What is so elusive about truth? Can we handle the truth?
Churches have a religious practice to fulfil just as Jesus and Van Gogh both did. How shall we go about it? It is a mystery worth probing, and a risk worth taking.