Monday, December 13, 2010

Purity is in the Eye of the Beholder

The Quaker artist Edward Hicks is well known among the Religious Society of Friends, but less so among others. Though an adept and respected minister in his own faith, it is for his series of paintings that he is now largely remembered. The reverse was true in his own lifetime. One often considers folk artists like Hicks either charmingly unskilled or unforgivably untrained. Detractors see him as the Grandfather of C.M. Coolidge’s Dogs Playing Poker series. Supporters see a self-taught painter who eventually developed a sophisticated technique. That debate aside, his best known work, The Peaceable Kingdom, has 61 different versions, each modifications from paintings prior.

Hicks struggled mightily with a dual calling. While comfortable with his traveling ministry, he was not always comfortable with his art. Living at a time where Quaker doctrine was unusually strict and restrictive, his talent with the paintbrush was not always popular or accepted among his fellow Friends. The Society had long maintained an element of Radical Protestantism, itself a holdover from its founding in 1640’s England. In this context, this was a doctrine that encouraged deliberate self-denial and with it much in the way of self-restraint. As a result, Hicks often found himself in both a financial and personal conundrum. His decorative painting was financially lucrative, but frowned upon by other Quakers.

At first his fellow Quakers looked a bit askance at his profession, and because of this, at one time he gave it up to be a farmer. He was unsuccessful at farming, however, and returned to his brushes. It was honest work, so fellow members of his meeting eventually forgave him, especially since he was becoming a strong preacher, traveling among many meetings. He did agree with them about certain vanities in art and refused to paint portraits, which were too ego-centered.

He worked at the time when both the United States and modern American Quakerism were young. His spiritual beliefs came from...18th Century Quietism, which espoused simplicity, self-discipline, and contact with the Inner Light. Elias Hicks, his second cousin, was a central figure in a religious storm. Edward Hicks was a spokesman, in word and in image, for those who became known as the Hicksites. It broke his heart to see Quakers becoming worldly, with excessive material goods and inflated pride, and leaning towards the creation of a spiritual elite. He felt this corrosion also in the authoritarian control of elders, as mere men, and not as followers of the Inner Spirit of Christ. He had a genuine feeling for the Scriptures, along with hope for a continuing sense of insight open to all.

In the Book of Exodus, Moses goes up to the mountaintop to receive the Ten Commandments from God. He is gone for quite a long time. Desirous of additional information and fearful of abandonment, his people substitute that which had led them out of bondage for the immediacy and surety of an idol made of gold. Moses’ brother Aaron had been left in charge for the duration, so the people came to him with a request.

"Come on," they said, "make us some gods who can lead us. We don't know what happened to this fellow Moses, who brought us here from the land of Egypt."

Still in the middle of speaking with God, Moses is forced to interrupt what he is doing. He descends from the mountain to survey what the Israelites, God’s chosen people, have been up to while he has been hard at work.

…[Moses] turned to Aaron and demanded, "What did these people do to you to make you bring such terrible sin upon them?"

Aaron responds in duplicitous fashion, as he had been in charge of helping people form the graven image in the first place.

"Don't get so upset, my lord," Aaron replied. "You yourself know how evil these people are.” They said to me, 'Make us gods who will lead us. We don't know what happened to this fellow Moses, who brought us here from the land of Egypt.'

In typically Old Testament fashion, God’s first inclination is to destroy everyone. Moses talks him out of it.

The text encourages us to judge these wayward people harshly. I have never been able to do so. Humanity is often fickle, often inclined to get swept up in the moment at the expense of what is sensible. The more I observe patterns of behavior, the less I think it my place to criticize other people for not adhering to a strict standard. This doesn’t mean that everyone is absolved of responsibilities, but rather I see a system based on the logic of rules as limiting. People and circumstances are far more complex than that.

The intention of Friends in the Quietist period was to not become like the worshipers of the Golden Calf. Adherence to a sense of strict religious purity created problems for those whose calling differed from the standard. A desire to read out of Meeting (excommunicate) those who did not comply was also in force. What was left, however, sometimes resembled the worst elements of the Old Testament God: petty, judgmental, impulsive, inclined to act rashly, and to follow the letter of the law, rather than the Spirit. Each of us has had this leaning from time, particularly true for those of us who consider ourselves the keeper of some ideal. It should be noted that speaking out about the perversion of a belief system is not the same as coveting only one particular interpretation, for whatever reason.

I’ve written recently about my struggles with hypogonadism. To further my argument, here is a brief health update. A couple weeks ago, results of an MRI were far slower to arrive than they should have ever been. In the absence of actual news, fear and anxiety led me to conjure up a million unlikely scenarios and rare diseases. I was glued to the Internet for hours at time, reading medical histories and related studies, in the hopes of finding some resolution to my own worries. I noticed then that there is a curiously human comfort to know something tangible, even if it may be wrong or incorrect, than to know nothing at all. The Israelites were not intending to replace God, but instead craved a physical representation of him to assuage their own doubts and impatience. Mysterious ways sometimes means the illusion of separation or absence, and any believer will tell you about the presence of dry spells that test the faith.

That Edward Hicks would have found greater favor for his idiosyncratic visual works rather than his erudite words spoken in worship is a point to ponder. Those of his day might see this as proof of our fallen world. Even someone with profound spiritual convictions and talents can be overlooked for his service to the Lord. It should be noted that most, if not all of his paintings were religious in nature. This way of thinking says that the effort, no matter how beautifully rendered was tainted by worldliness and sin. A different interpretation altogether would be that it is not for us to say where God finds favor or why one person’s skills are emphasized more highly than another’s throughout the passage of time. It may make more sense to appreciate them as the gifts that they are, as they are lain before us.

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