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Friday, December 01, 2006 

Monet and Missions

Last week my wife and I took a break from our normal Saturday activities and traveled to the North Carolina Museum of Art. Right now until middle of January there is a special exhibit entitled “Monet in Normandy.” There are in this exhibit over 140 paintings that highlight Monet’s evolving skills as the initiator and leader of the Impressionist movement while living on the Normandy coast in France.

It was an enjoyable, afternoon to be sure. The wife and I got to see a few paintings that had never been in America before. It was neat seeing all the different museums that where credited with loaning their paintings for the exhibit, some as far away as Japan. Yep, it was a fun afternoon. The way I look at, it’s not that often that a slack jawed yokel like myself will ever be able to travel the world to see so many paintings of any artist much less the one in particular credited with founding a “movement.”

But Monet is just not my cup of tea. While I recognize his talent and contributions to the art world, I just can’t get exited over this guy. I know the guy is more talented that I would ever hope to be. I know I could never paint anything remotely recognizable as a landscape. Heck, I have trouble painting a wall in my house properly. For me it’s just a matter of personal taste. I just don’t like Monet, and no it’s not because he’s French. Auguste Rodin was French and I think he was the last great artist, not only of his generation but also of all generations that have followed, period. But when it comes to Monet though, I just don’t get it.

My wife had the same thought viewing Monet’s landscapes. In fact, she hit the nail on the head when she said, “the only way you can enjoy the paintings is to stand really far back.” She went so far as to call the paintings “blurry.” The reason for this observation is Monet’s short brush strokes and dabs of color that build up his paintings. There are no clear lines in Impressionism, only dematerialized outlines of color that give the viewer an impression of the scene, hence the title of the movement. If one stands too close to a Monet painting, the view is one of a jumbled mess of harmonized colors that say nothing to the viewer.

Now contrast a Monet with a Cranach or one of his Italian counterparts. The closer you get to a Renaissance era painting the more detailed the painting becomes. Cranach painted with the skill that allowed a painting to not only be work of beautiful art but also an instrument of education. (That is another whole post that I won’t go into here.)

So what does this have to do with missions? The more I’m involved with missions the more I think all we (laity and our willing accomplices in the priestly caste) want missions that resemble those blurry Monet paintings.

I sit on a mission board and recently was presented with the following statement:
In response to the opportunity presented by this densely populated area, the XYZ Area
Mission would:

a. Be committed to sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with unchurched
b. Focus on reaching the unchurched, providing a welcoming community where formerly
churched persons may return to active participation.
c. Offer a dynamic church home for new Christians and other residents who are newcomers to the area.

I responded with an email to the head and a copy to all members of the committee that stated; I would really prefer the first mission statement in the letter read “a. Be committed to sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ through the Divine gifts of Word and Sacrament.”

I gave two reasons why we should use my proposed change by stating we should highlight what makes us distinctive and backed up those reasons using our confessions. I swear that you would think from the reaction to my proposal that I had just suggested that we elect Baal our new lord.

The more I hear and see how we as a synod do mission work, the more I think we strive for that fuzzy Monet like theology that is no different than the PresbyBaptaMethaCostal neo emergent church in every run down strip mall that rents for three dollars a square foot. Why do we hide what we supposedly confess to believe? For the life of me I can’t understand why we think that the Lutheran Confessions and all the doctrine that makes us distinctive is just some old Germanic or cultural bygone that no longer applies in today’s all too complicated society. To subscribe to that line of thinking is to say St. Paul was only talking to the people of his day when he said in 2 Timothy 3:16; all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness.

Paul was not only talking to Timothy but to us today as well. We should plant missions with the same doctrinal clarity that a Cranach woodcut clearly conveys. If we do otherwise, we only wind up with fuzzy globs of paint that force the viewer to take several steps back to get an understanding of what impression we’re trying to pass off as Church.

You've made the issue so clear in this post. This has been my problem with organized Chrisianity all along - everyone tries to make it plain vanilla and palatable to "the masses", and in so doing they water it down so much that it's barely recognizable as Christianity, unless you "stand back" and view it from a distance.

You sit on a mission board? that's funny!

Nice post. I agree with you that it is a lot easier to look at Christian doctrine from afar and say, "My what nice doctrine we have. Isn't it pretty?" and leave it at that. But to actually dig in, and, if the time comes, to stand by it even if it ruffles feathers, is a lot harder.

But I think the Monet analogy can also be applied in another way to missions. Because we love to hear about what mission work is doing around the world--africa, china, russia, etc. And we love to give money to these kind of projects. The multiple newsletters we get highlighting efforts in these places delights us to no end. "Look at where my money's going--and what a difference it's making." Because, at this distance, it looks great.*

In fact, I think a lot of us rich americans gladly write a check and think, "Well, I've done my part in missions. Now I can get back to the football game." Like a Monet, it looks great at a distance.

But it is different when we look closer to home. Because we can then see the details that a good artist can draw, but we don't often like what we see. Because I have a lot harder time being a Christian in thought, word, and deed towards those I can clearly see around me. Then it gets personal. "Why would I be nice to a brother who has annoyed me since I've been two?" or "There's no way I want to help out that neighbor who blares his stereo too loud, leaves his lawn in a shambles (and making the whole area look bad), and who lets his dog crap in my yard."

Heck, the only time I usually want to get the plank out of my own eye is when I'm sure I can beat the guy in front of me with it.

I think we often look to the far away places and put our dollars there in place of doing what we are called to towards those around us. A sort of even trade in our human way of thinking.

But I think that's when listening to Christ's words become that much more relevant. For the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. Now, we know that as Christians that we are to love everyone, including our enemies. But I also think that this command highlights being good to our neighbor--those who are actually near us.

And how much harder is that? I would bet it's hard like painting a realistic painting compared to impressionistic one.

scott adle

*Now, I don't want to for a minute disparage giving to those in need, even if they be thousands of miles away from us. We're americans. We're rich by any reasonable standard of measure. We should give in abundance because we've been given a great amount. Supplying food and aid to the poor is definitely something we need to be doing. But it is clearly something that is not a trade off. We can't give to missions work across the ocean as a way to avoid acting like a Christian to those around us--who we can see up close, nasty details and all.

Good post and analogy. The convienance of leaving Word and Sacrament out of any statement or mission that our church's adopt seems to be a troubling and reoccuring theme.

Scott, your said "Heck, the only time I usually want to get the plank out of my own eye is when I'm sure I can beat the guy in front of me with it." I love and identify with that statement.

Oh, and I'm really glad your on a mission board. If we're not bringing them the Word and Sacrements, we're not being Christian.

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  • I'm Frank Gillespie
  • From The Haut South
  • Confessional Lutheran
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