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April 22, 2018

“Can Art Amend History?  Let’s Ask the Good Shepherd.”

Rev. Dr. David A. Kaden

>>Put your hand on our shoulder and point us in the right direction.  Put our hand on someone’s shoulder and let it matter.  Amen.<<

In his book How to Fly a Horse:  The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery, Kevin Ashton tells the story of Percival Lowell, an amateur scientist who claimed to make a groundbreaking discovery.[1]  “In the summer of 1894,” writes Ashton, “Percival Lowell looked through the telescope in his new observatory for the first time.”  He was interested in the question of whether there is life on other planets.  “Lowell watched ice on the south pole of Mars melt in the summer heat.  Other astronomers had seen straight lines crossing the Martian desert.  As the ice melted, the lines changed color, becoming lighter in the south and darker in the north.  As far as Lowell was concerned, there was only one possible explanation [for this change in color]:  the lines,” he said, “were artificial canals [moving water] – an ‘amazing blue network [of Martian-made infrastructure that shows] that one planet besides our own is actually inhabited now.’”  Lowell’s “discovery,” writes Kevin Ashton, “inspired a century of science fiction” that speculated about life on Mars.  But even though Lowell’s observatory “was one of the best in the world” in the late 19th century, continues Ashton, “scientists were [not] convinced” by his conclusion.  In 1965, NASA sent the Mariner 4 to take pictures of the surface of Mars, and those pictures conclusively showed that there were no canals or signs of life on the planet.  “But there was still one mystery,” writes Ashton.  “Whenever other astronomers said they could not see canals on Mars, [Percival] Lowell pointed out that he had a better observatory” than them, which meant that he could see the planet better than they could.  “Few people had access to Lowell’s private observatory while he was alive, but after he died, astronomers were finally able to look through his telescope.  Still, no one could see any canals.  What had Lowell been seeing?  The answer,” writes Ashton, “turned out to be his own eyes.  Lowell was not an experienced astronomer.  He had mistakenly made the aperture of his telescope so small that it worked like an ophthalmoscope, the handheld device doctors use to shine light into the eyes of patients.  The veins on Lowell’s retina were reflecting onto the lens of his telescope’s eyepiece.”  In effect, he was looking at the reflection of his own retinas when peering through his telescope.  And so, the “maps of Martian canals” he thought he was seeing were actually the “mirror images of the tree of blood vessels we all have on the backs of our eyes. … Lowell,” says Ashton, “was looking at a projection from inside his head.”

…This story about Percival Lowell and his telescope reminded me this week of a statement attributed to political strategist Lee Atwater back in the ‘80s:  “perception is reality.”  There’s a large body of research in the humanities and social sciences on the forces that shape our perception – that shape how we see and understand the world; that shape how we peer through the “telescope,” so to speak.  Theorist Karl Mannheim once said that how we think – our “modes of thought,” our “style[s] of thought,” he called them – are shaped by the social forces around us.  Sociologist Peter Berger called it the “social construction of [our] reality.”  Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called this shaping influence the habitus – sort of like an atmosphere that we are born into that shapes our intuitions from the womb.  A system of “structured structures” that “predispos[e]” us, said Bourdieu, to perceive and act in the world in certain ways, and that shape our tastes.  These forces can be constructed by class and race, religion and nationality, the level of education or professions of our parents.  These give us, argued Bourdieu, a certain “feel for the game” of life, a gut-level intuition that shapes how we act – sort of like how a hitter in baseball can intuitively know to swing at a fastball but check at a slider.

When teaching these concepts to first-year students in college, I would sometimes refer to the controversy at the Philadelphia Museum of Art over the statue of Rocky Balboa.[2]  The bronze statue was created by artist Thomas Schomberg for the Rocky films, and then donated to the art museum.  In the films, the statue stands atop the museum’s front steps; but many museum officials viewed the statue as an “ugly ‘movie prop’,” not a piece of art, and so resisted adding the statue to the collection.  Polls at the time showed that residents of Philadelphia were divided over the issue:  some thought the statue was “as important as the Liberty Bell,” while others thought it should be “dumped” in the Schuylkill River.  A compromise was reached in 2006, and the statue was placed on the grounds adjacent to the museum.  After introducing the story to my students, I would give them a project:  I didn’t want them to make judgments about whether a bronze statue of a fictional boxing character from Philadelphia should be considered art; I instead wanted them to analyze the forces like race and class and education-level that drove this debate, and that shaped the tastes of the people involved.

A more recent example of the forces that shape perception is found in a 2017 TED Talk by artist Titus Kaphar.[3]  “One of the things that I do,” says Kaphar, “is I take my kids to the museum.  Recently I took them to the Natural History Museum [in New York].  I had my two sons with me … .  And we [went] into the front entrance of the museum [where] there’s that amazing sculpture of Teddy Roosevelt … , sitting … with one hand on [his] horse, bold, strong, sleeves rolled up. … And on the left-hand side of him is a Native American walking.  And on the right-hand side of him is an African-American walking.  And as we’re moving up the stairs, getting closer to the sculpture, my oldest son, [who was nine at the time], says, ‘Dad, how come he gets to ride, and they have to walk?’  It stopped me in my tracks,” said Kaphar.  “There was so much history that we would have to go through to try to explain that … .  It’s a question that I probably would have never [have] asked [at nine years old.]  But fundamentally what he was saying was, ‘That doesn’t look fair.  Dad, that doesn’t look fair.  And why is this thing that’s so not fair sitting outside of such an amazing institution.’”

Sometimes, it’s out of the mouths of babes, as Jesus once said, that the things we take for granted as adults are questioned.

Within scripture itself there are similar competing gut-level perceptions of reality, competing intuitions, competing voices.  There are the voices that preserve the monarchy and great institution of ancient Israel by referring to God as a king and as a warrior – images of power and prestige that preserve one perspective of Israel’s history – voices shaped by the habitus of those prophets and writers who were close to power.  These voices are preserved in many places, especially in the Psalms:  “The LORD reigns,” says the writer of Psalm 93, “he is robed in majesty”; “the LORD is a great God, and a great King,” says the writer of Psalm 95; “make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD,” says the writer of Psalm 98; the “LORD is enthroned forever,” says the writer of Psalm 102; “the LORD sits enthroned forever as a king,” says the writer of Psalm 29.  But there are other voices in scripture – voices like those of Titus Kaphar’s nine-year-old son, voices with different perceptions, different intuitions, a different habitus.  Voices from the Exodus out of slavery; voices like that of the prophet Amos, who was a humble farmer plowing fields when God called him to speak thunderously of “justice rolling down like waters”; voices like that of the prophet Isaiah who sang of “loosing the bonds of injustice,” “letting the oppressed go free,” “sharing bread with the hungry,” “sharing a table with the homeless poor,” and “clothing the naked”; voices like the voice from the cross (“Father forgive them”) or the voice echoing from the Sermon on the Mount (“blessed are the peacemakers”); voices like the voice preserved in that great and most-famous-of-Psalms, Psalm 23 – today’s Old Testament reading – about the LORD being a nurturing Shepherd, not a warrior-king:  leading and guiding and “shepherding” with rod and staff, not forcing or conquering with spear and sword; voices like that of Jesus and of the writer of the First Letter of St. John – today’s New Testament readings – who spoke not of preserving power through sword and throne, but of giving one’s life in service and sacrifice to others.

The image of Jesus as the “Good Shepherd” is the oldest artistic image in our tradition.  The first representations of Jesus in Christian art can be found in the catacombs of Rome, and depict him as a young, beardless youth carrying a lamb on his shoulders – an image updated recently by artist Daniel Bonnell, who depicts Jesus from behind, arms outstretched in the shape of a cross, standing before a flock of sheep that extends as far as the eye can see on the canvas.[4]  The shepherd instead of the warrior; the staff instead of the sword:  pastoral, gentle, peacemaking.  A tender depiction of God, who, as Psalm 23 says, leads her flock beside calming waters, moistens heads with the oil of blessing, opens her arms in hospitality, lays a lavish table with rich food and cups that overflow with abundance.  An image that casts aside reactivity driven by fear, and works to change the world by changing hearts with inclusive and sacrificial love, transforming the warrior’s sword into the shepherd’s staff.

God-as-Shepherd is such a compassionate image, grounded in divine love, to shield us from the news of the day.  It’s a form of art that, as Titus Kaphar goes on to say in his TED Talk, can “amend history” – calm us as encounter those reactive intuitions in Twitter comments or issuing from the highest office in the land or from talking heads on cable news; disrupt the discrepancy we see between a white president riding proudly on a horse while the “others” walk at his side; break up the atmosphere, the habitus, that takes for granted things we know deep in our souls shouldn’t ever be taken for granted, like splitting up Jesus’ great flock of humanity that he sacrificed himself to save with the arbitrary categories of race and class and identity.  The Good Shepherd, the great flock of sheep – these are different artistic images, emerging from a different habitus – a different set of assumptions and gut-level intuitions.  A Shepherd-habitus that tries to see the world – and helps others to see the world – as a world of possibilities for all God’s children, every single sheep, and not a select few who have the money and bombs and pedigree.

…Let me share a story with you about how one writer, Courtney Sullivan,[5] has tried to cultivate such a world in her life.  “Three years ago,” she writes, “I was a guest at a cloistered Catholic abbey in rural Connecticut.  I spent my days in near-silence, waking before dawn for Mass, working the farm alongside nuns in full habit.  When bells rang at regular intervals, all work ceased so that the nuns could chant in Latin.  In the past 12 months, I’ve found myself returning again and again in my mind.  I long for the quiet, the natural beauty, the sense of timelessness there. … I gave birth to my first child in June,” she writes, “the greatest joy of my life.  But I worry about the world we brought him into.  I wake each morning with a pit in my stomach, afraid to see what new bile [was] tweeted while I slept.  The worst mass shooting in modern American history occurred [in October], and it seems that bad news piles up so fast that we’ve all but forgotten it.  My parents got divorced this year.  A dear friend was handed a cruel diagnosis.  The image of that starving polar bear making the rounds on Facebook will never leave my mind. … [A]nd I didn’t buy Bitcoin in 2015 when my college friend’s cousin’s husband told me to.  At a time when the country is painfully divided, it’s a comfort to cast myself back to the abbey, to the cozy guesthouse where I stayed with a handful of women from all walks of life. … [One nun was] Mother Lucia. … We talked for … hours.  I learned that she was a lover of Shakespeare with a PhD in English literature from Yale, who had first visited the abbey seeking peace, community, social justice.  I liked her instantly and admired her. … During my stay, we followed the Benedictine motto ‘Ora et labora,’ pray and work.  Because the nuns are meant to be silent for most of the day, they can’t always communicate with visitors directly, but they find their ways, slipping guests notes after Mass.  Often the plan for the particular work of the day is communicated to a guest by a tiny note slipped into her hand.  When you work with the nuns, they talk.  I gardened with an older nun as we discussed the fate of bees and the films of Judi Dench.  I rode around on a John Deere Gator with a nun in her early 30s who wore a novice’s white veil, as well as a nose ring. … The abbey’s inhabitants include a former movie star, politicians, businesswomen, artists of all kinds.  Some came in reaction to a moment in time that defied understanding – the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Vietnam War, the acquittal of the police officers who killed Amadou Diallo.  Right now feels like one of those moments to me. … At the abbey, even the smallest act is considered an act of devotion, so that every dish washed or loaf of bread baked takes on heightened importance. … And so,” she concludes, “I sometimes [return to the Abbey in my mind],” “because there is something powerful about being in the presence of faith when you yourself are doubting.”

…When I re-read that story this week, I saw someone trying to cultivate a different habitus – a different way of seeing the world, a different set of intuitions and perceptions.  Courtney Sullivan’s is a “Good-Shepherd”-type of habitus – pastoral, gentle, peace-loving – that looks for signs of faith, signs of the Good Shepherd’s nurturing staff in everyday life:  a table, a cup, the love of family and friends, the honesty of simple prayers and meaningful work.  Small joys that make incremental changes in the world, but are able to transform how we perceive the world.  Amen.


[1] Kevin Ashton, How to Fly a Horse:  The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery (New York:  Anchor Books, 2015), 111-112.

2 Documented here in a poorly written blog:  https://bokunliimaginarycities.wordpress.com/2013/03/26/the-rocky-statue-controversy/

3 https://www.ted.com/talks/titus_kaphar_can_art_amend_history/transcript

4 https://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-good-shepherd-daniel-bonnell.html

5 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/21/opinion/sunday/christmas-nuns-abbey.html?smid=tw-nytopinion&smtyp=cur&_r=0