In the introduction to my book Freedom of the Self, I open with a story regarding Rembrandt’s famous 1642 painting “the Nightwatch” I heard while viewing it a few years ago in Amsterdam that frames—both literally and figuratively—my concern with the church today and, in particular, a misguided loss of personhood for many faithful people.
Those who have seen many of the 17th century Dutch master Rembrandt Harmenszoon Van Rijn’s works will agree that “the Nightwatch” stands as one of his masterpieces. It is a truly stunning canvas. As you walk to the top of a central staircase, you see this massive work gently illuminated with dappled light falling through the ceiling panels. It depicts a group of city guardsmen awaiting the command to fall in line. Each person is painted with the care that Rembrandt gave to single individual portraits, yet the composition is such that the separate figures are second in interest to the effect of the whole. The canvas is brilliant with color, movement, and light. In the foreground are two men, one in bright yellow, the other in black. The shadow of one color tones down the lightness of the other. In the center of the painting is a little girl dressed in yellow. You cannot take your eyes off the painting as it fills your vision to the periphery. What is striking at first sight is the sheer size and spectacle of the work but within seconds you are drawn to the blending of particular individuals framed as a whole.
Stepping back a bit further, you will note a gorgeous gilded frame around the painting. The story goes that when Rembrandt was commissioned to do the painting, a frame was built in anticipation for the completed work. As things go, the frame was completed months prior to the painting itself. As the painting was placed in relation to the frame, a problem became evident—the length of the frame was 3 feet shorter than the painting itself. To resolve this dilemma, a rather remarkable move was made: cut the painting’s edge by three feet so it can “fit” the frame. There is certainly an air of the apocryphal to this story and the guide at the museum underscored this point, but the sheer possibility sent shivers down my spine.
How could someone standing before such masterpieces ever conceive that choosing the gilded frame over and against the unity of the composition was a viable option?
Yet the fact remains that theology has done this time and time again—favoring doctrinal method and form that delimits and at times violates the very thing that theological method is hoping to adequately “frame” and celebrate.
In Freedom of the Self, I spend much of the time discussing the loss of personhood in new and emergent models of church, where the call to become communitarian and of ‘one body’ can often neglect the call of individuals in those communities to understand their place before God and others as a free person who can call authority to task, yet also can empty themselves of privilege for the sake of God’s kingdom. At the heart of the book is a discussion of Philippians 2 and the model that Jesus offers as a ‘kenotic self’ – one who finds and gives his identity only in losing it, not by gaining more and more knowledge, self-help, adult education classes, books-on-tape, or weekend retreats led by motivational speakers.
This morning I was reading an essay by Gary Laderman in Religion Dispatches that brought back my motivation for writing Freedom of the Self in another form: the slow and steady transformation of the political landscape in America into a strange new religion where the individual ability to seek God apart from political parties is eroding. In his article Republicanity: The GOP Transformation is Nearly Complete, Laderman takes the task and tools of a religion scholar seriously and seeks to locate what is currently at play in the GOP as the rise of a new religion – what he terms ‘Republicanity’. I encourage you to click through to the article and read Laderman’s reflections, which at times are snarky and could certainly distract people from a broader reading of issues and implications. At the heart of this though hits both Republican and Democrat as the next wave of political fervor heats up in the United States. In short, how much does political alignment and allegiance frame and ultimately cut out portions of our image of God? Does adherence to a political party provide the certainty and security that we are following God’s will as well as providing a ‘shibboleth‘ to ferret out who is “with us” and who is “against us” that might prevent us from truly encountering those to whom God is calling us to be brothers and sisters with?
Some questions to muse over:
Can you love God apart from a political party?
Can you hold different views politically with your friends and seek reconcilation with those who hold differing views of government and remain faithful followers of Christ together?
Does your church parking lot have differing political bumper stickers or is there homogeneity?
Do you believe those who vote differently than you are hearing God as clearly as you do?