Truth in art: God and the weather
June 20, 2006
ST. LOUIS (BP) – News reports out of Kenya recently indicated that 10,000 people were left homeless by flooding from the Sabaki River. Too much water in the wrong place and at the wrong time has been the source of devastation throughout history. In 1927, the Mississippi River broke through 145 levees, flooding more land then the entire state of West Virginia.
John Steuart Curry grew up in the Midwest, and witnessed the awesome power of these natural disasters. Painting what he saw, he produced “The Mississippi in 1935”. What is the worldview of “The Mississippi”? Even as it leaves some questions unanswered, it does affirm a biblical worldview of creation, fall and redemption.
First, the painting depicts a recognizable world of water, trees, sky and people. If this seems unremarkable, consider the time period in which Curry painted. Abstract art was all the rage among the cultural elite. Curry, as a participant in the Regionalist movement of American painting, rejected modernist art theories in favor of a new form of realism. While not a perfect theory of art, Regionalism marked a return to creating a recognizable subject. A bowl of fruit looks like a bowl of fruit, not a jumble of triangles, squares and squiggles.
The Mississippi depicts real people – a father, mother, children – expressing the emotions of the moment. The imago dei, the image of God, is found in their depiction. Humanity has not been abstracted away into nothingness.
Having acknowledged the reality of creation, “The Mississippi” goes further to tell us that something has gone terribly wrong. We see a battle between man and nature, and nature appears to be winning. Dark grays and blues swirl around in violent commotion. You can feel the fear of the family. This is no utopian view of the cosmos, denying the curse of sin. Death stands close at hand, hoping to pull the figures into the darkness of the water.
It is at this very point that modern man finds no answer to the ultimate questions of life. When a meteorologist takes the place of a theologian as the voice of truth about reality, who can explain the fury of the flood? Living in the shadow of the Enlightenment, we throw everything under the microscope, looking for an answer that science cannot give.
Christian scholar Hans Rookmaaker wrote about the rise of secular naturalism as follows: “Science had been the way to acquire insight into the structure of reality, into the way this world is built, to find out the greatness of God’s creation. But now it was elevated by the rationalist into the tool to know all truth, the foundation of all knowledge. But the world was no longer open to a transcendent God. It had become a closed box, and man was caught in that box.”
As Christians, are we to remain conformed to the thinking of the world in this area? I am not suggesting that we can know God’s specific purposes for particular weather events. However, when our frightened children curl up in our arms during a thunderstorm, do words about God ever fall from our lips? Are we content explaining meteorology apart from doxology?
If we “read” the painting from left to right, what do we see at the end of the sentence? Curry reveals that we are not “alone in the box,” for the father lifts up hands in prayer to God. The Lord who “sits enthroned over the flood” receives a plea for deliverance. The children look up to their father looking up to God.
Will God save the family? We are not told, and perhaps that is not the ultimate issue. Make no mistake, a worse fate than drowning awaits those who sit high and dry, safe and secure in their unbelief. Perhaps the best thing that ever happened to this family is their getting caught up in the storm. Maybe this very event brought the children to consider the frailty of life and the need of a God who saves.
We, too, should consider such things. As the hymn “I sing the mighty power of God” by Isaac Watts says, “There’s not a plant or flower below but makes your glories known; and clouds arise and tempests blow by order from your throne.” While reflecting on the message communicated by the biblical worldview in “The Mississippi,” allow your heart to be full of doxology even when you think about meteorology. (Scott Lamb is pastor of Providence Baptist Church in St. Louis.)