Noticing…and truth

What do you observe about this painting?

What do you observe about this painting?

(Update: you’d be better off reading the previous post before this one…)

Hands. Many of you noticed his hands, just as many of us did in Marianne’s class 15 years ago.

The story of the picture, as I remember it, goes like this. This painting was commissioned after the man had passed away. The man’s widow gave the painter a picture to work from, and the painter worked to capture his likeness. Nearing completion, he showed the painting to the widow, and asked her impressions, asked if it had captured her husband. Staring at it for some time, she said, “You have to change one thing. You have to do something with his hands. He was a surgeon, and his hands were incredibly important to him, and an essential part of who he was.” The painter re-did the painting, and it became what it is now, hands out and prominent and noticeable. When the widow saw the finished painting, she smiled and said, “That’s it. That’s my husband.”

Marianne reminded us of something. The man had never stood like that; he had never actually, in time and space, stood with his hands out as in the picture. In the photo the painter worked from, his hands were at his side. The painting captured a non-existant moment; it wasn’t “literally true”.

But it was only with the hands that his widow said, “That’s my husband.”

Truth is a difficult thing to define, more difficult than we think it ought to be. I’m not a philosopher, though I’ve tried to wade through many different philosopher’s takes on reality, truth, and such. The truth is, truth is one of the categories where one feels the modern/postmodern tension most. Many people want the bible to be “newspaper true.” We have a belief (erroneous, of course, but we have it none the less) that news is simply reporting the facts. If one could prove, for instance, that hurricane Katrina really made landfall in Texas, that would of necessity make all the news stories we’re reading and seeing “untrue.”

Many critics of the bible love to point out the inconsistencies of fact, the places where there are contradictions in stories, and feel as if they have “proved” the bible to be untrue. Many lovers of the bible work so diligently to find answers, smooth inconsistencies, defend the literal truth of scripture, as if the culture that produced the letters, stories, poetry and apocalypse of the bible held our same newspaper understanding of truth. It’s the wrong battle.

Marianne reminded us that the gospels in particular, the accounts that were written about Jesus’ life, are more like the finished painting of the man above, rather than the literal photograph the widow gave to the painter. They may not have every, exact, literal detail frozen in a Kodak moment. Rather, like the painting, the gospels are framed in such a way that we can say, “That’s it! That’s my Jesus,” in a more “true” way than a frozen moment. Before we freak out too much, remember that all the painter changed was the man’s hands. He didn’t do away with the baldness. He didn’t make him younger looking. He didn’t make him taller and more muscular and more Brad Pitt. It’s an accurate painting based in reality, but the pose has been created to reflect something true and important about who the man was.

All I can say is, when Marianne was finished, fireworks were going off in my head. My questions as I approached the bible changed radically. It’s not a factual news story; I don’t hold it to those standards, I don’t merely ask who, what, when, where, why, and how. Whole new questions arise: “What does it say about who Jesus is to have this event follow that event?” Whole lines of criticism roll away like water off a duck’s back.

When we read the bible, and the gospels in particular, we are getting a true and accurate picture of who Jesus is. We can say with confidence, “That’s my Jesus.”

3 thoughts on “Noticing…and truth

  1. Well now, that makes sense. So he was a surgeon and yes that is true about how a surgeon feels about his hands. So much of a successful surgical outcome depends on the skill and dextrity of a surgeon’s hands as well as their head knowledge of their disclipine. And you’re right. One notices in comparing the gospels that each Apostle kind of narrated events a little differently. I think that is what makes the bible all the more interesting. But it is the Holy Spirit who really makes a persons “light bulb” turn on when they get the gist of what the scripture is saying. Thanks for sharing your and allowing us to participate!


  2. Pingback: Bonus! Deleted Scenes! | Gregg’s Gambles

  3. Pingback: Fiction can be true | Out of doubt, out of dark, to the day's rising…

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