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Monday, November 2, 2009

With the Sharks

A few weeks ago I was flipping through channels and I landed on a short documentary on PBS about American painter Winslow Homer (1836-1910).  I couldn't look away.  I'm not hyperliterate when it comes to art, but I had bumped into a Homer work here or there before and liked him.  But there's something wonderful about having a gut-level attraction to something, and you don't know why, and then someone who knows what they're talking about comes alongside and tells you why you like what you like.  That's what this documentary was.  For about 45 minutes, I felt like I had never seen before.

Anyway, one of Homer's greatest works is The Gulf Stream (1899).

Before reading on, just stare at this thing for a bit.  Let your eyes rove over the individual elements, then get the full perspective.  (Click to enlarge.)

This painting is made to disturb.  It is a moment in a story whose beginning and ending we don't know.  It doesn't have an obvious "meaning" and eludes our probing questions (as did the artist himself, if I understand correctly).  But the painting brought to my mind two opposite ways of looking at it, and the Bible speaks to each.

The question I ask every time I look at this is, "What is going through the sailor's head?"  One answer is hopeless resignation.  He's going to die of starvation or thirst or sunstroke or drowning (see the bad weather on the horizon) or shark attack, and he's given himself up to it.  There's a ship a great distance away that can't see him and won't get him, and he turns his head away in a stony, "screw-you" gesture.  This sailor may represent all of us in the face of our inevitable, approaching death, but in particular those who have no hope for rescue—those without the hope of resurrection in Jesus Christ.  (See the book of Ecclesiastes for details.)

But that brings us to the opposite interpretation.  What if the sailor isn't displaying hopeless resignation but the peace that passes understanding?  What if the ship in the distance is the tantalizing mirage of eternal life by earthly means (achievement, being ultra-health-conscious, bearing children, etc.), and the sailor is rejecting it as a chimera, a fantasy?  Instead, he is serene because he knows that his certain death will be followed by an equally certain life.

Obviously I'm reading a lot more into this painting than seems to be there, but I do so today for this point: we are all on a boat that is about to capsize, and we are all going to die, and the difference between facing it with hopeless resignation and incomprehensible peace is salvation through Jesus Christ.

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