Sunday, December 4, 2011

Beauty & the Truth

[Cue apologies for ridiculous lapse in bloggery. I really am trying to be better...]

I started writing this post a few days ago, but every time I came back to it, it became more ranty and tangential. (I'll give you a moment to adjust to a universe in which those words might describe me.)

So I'll simply say this: I find it sad that we think we have to change truths to make them better stories. I say this with a wink at myself, because exaggeration and elaboration are some of my finest skills, but the bottom line remains, whether I'm writing to myself or anyone else: the truth is always better.

I got thinking about this in the National Gallery of Art in D.C. this week. Walking through room after room of Madonna and Childs gets you thinking in that direction, but every painting bothered me. It's not that they weren't beautiful--they certainly were. But I kept seeing this strange alien-angel (the term I adopted at the time) rather than a real, maternal woman.

From the brief scriptural account of Mary, I can imagine her as a wonderful, joyful mother. Certainly scared and nervous as all new mothers are at times, but a woman delighting in her blessings, all the more because she'd been told (how specifically, we can only guess) about them ahead of time. But rather than a woman glowing from loving radiance and humble gratitude, this strange automaton with a halo stared back at me in the Gallery, awkwardly holding this thing that she was evidently responsible for. The expression her eyes held was not, "From now on all nations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me," (Luke 1:48-9) but "...What do I do with this thing?" This woman seems so concerned with being saintly--keeping her halo unmussed, perhaps--that she can't be distracted by mothering. (The photo I snapped below is the most maternal I saw.) And aside from her cold angelicness, the Madonna seen in these paintings is a wealthy gentlewoman--one can easily imagine the servant just off-canvas, ready to take the baby off her hands so she can return to her embroidery. And though I didn't get a picture, type "italian painting virgin reading" into Google, and you'll see the ideas concerning her education.

My problem with all this? It takes away from the truth. It's more powerful to me that God chose a devout but poor girl instead of a king's daughter to raise His Son. It's more meaningful that she reacted with grace and gratitude than with aloofness and sanctity. That she was a normal human being--not sinless and perfect--breathes life into what would be dull and flat. She didn't have to be perfect because, just like the rest of us, Christ would be perfect on her behalf. Find me the translation that reads, "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, except for Mary who was perfect all on her own" (Romans 3:23).

I have the same beef with the whole DaVinci Code deal. I find it comical that the conspiracy is pitched from the angle that the Church has been trying to write women out of the picture. To me, it would be much less significant for Magdalene to be part of Christ's inner circle only because she was His wife; the fact that, in an incredibly patriarchal society, he chose to involve several women in his work speaks louder to the role of women in a faith system than if he happened to be married. Otherwise, it's just Jesus's girlfriend crashing the man meeting.

I love stories--all the more if they're true. And I think it takes something important away from them when they're airbrushed and tweaked and censored. The choosing of both Mary and Mary Magdalene is all the more special when viewed from the truths of who they really were--and all we have of those facts are a few brief verses. I can't wait to hear the whole, beautiful story in person one day. I hope they're both having a good laugh over what we've turned them into.

My story is rough around the edges, and so much the better. No one would be interested in hearing about the perfect girl who skipped to church every Sunday and always listened to her mother and was ever happy and cheerful. That my father left, that I struggled with terrible self-image and self-worth, that I gave suicide more than a passing look, that I've stumbled and made mistakes and continue to bumble around in the dark--these are the things that make my story worth reading. And because Someone showed up to redeem every false step, and to save me from every disaster--well, that's what makes it worth living. We're broken and busted up, and so we need saving from outside ourselves--to mess with Robert Browning a bit, "or what's a Christmas for?"*

Pictured: "Madonna and Child Enthroned." Gentile de Fabriano, c. 1420. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

* A favorite of mine from Mr. Browning: "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what's a heaven for?" (from "Andrea del Santo" -- a poem, coincidentally, written in the voice of a misunderstood classic Italian painter)

1 comment:

  1. Yay, the return of Chandra's blog! Maybe I will be inspired to get crackin' on mine again.
    Tonight I was reading Jacob's story in Genesis. MAN! What a messed up family! Jerry Springer could have had his hands full with that one. I was reading it because I was listening in to Imago's podcast and Rick's sermon series on "Wrestling with God". I'm only 2 sermons into it so far, but it is powerful. He talks a lot about how God writes our stories, but that doesn't make them sanitized. What you wrote reminded me of that. The Old Testament is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. All of these people who are "Bible Heroes" do things that would get them busted on COPS (or make them rich on day time talk shows). And yet, God says that He is going to be with these people.
    I used to be kind of embarrassed when we read the Bible (especially the OT) at college and talked about all the crazy things people did. It felt kind of like if God were endorsing the craziest candidate in a political race and kept putting out, "I'm God, and I approve this message" commercials for people who were clearly often caught doing the wrong thing. I mean, shouldn't God be choosing the A-listers who have their acts together? But then, if He had made a habit of that, what chance would I have? It's a good thing God's been picking one train wreck family after another to advance His kingdom. Maybe we have a shot!
    Anyway, you rock and thanks for posting!