What Would You Tear? A Meditation

Has anyone else noticed this? Saturday Night Live has adapted its thirty-plus year tradition of host photographs as segues from commercial to sketch. Instead of one static image, the viewer is now treated to flip animation: Amy Poehler turns slowly to the right and breaks out a staccato smile; Jane Lynch runs a gamut of facial expressions. What once seemed to be a delaying of the inevitable—the commercials are over, the show is back on—is now something of a show of its own.

I’m a word guy. I edit words for a living; I even edit words that other people have already written for my own entertainment. I write three blogs for kicks; I write books whenever a publisher will agree to publish them; I write, word for word, whatever I’m preparing to say in public. So when a static picture shows up on a screen, I tend to tap my feet and wait for something to be said, for something to be written. And yet, there’s something about a moving image—even something so simple as a flowing sequence of photo stills—that can be moving in ways that words strung linearly together simply can’t.

I hesitate to admit that. After all, I make my living off stringing words linearly together. Besides that, my faith—the ground of my being, the lifter of my eyes—is intimately associated with words strung together. To be a Christian is to claim, among other things, a special relationship with at least sixty-six distinct books, bundled together to tell the story of God as well as our own human story. To describe people of Christian faith as “people of the Book” makes sense; “people of the moving image” would seem to be some other communion entirely.

And yet we find these strung-together words in the Bible taking shape in our imagination; we hear the Bible and we see not sentences parsed but sentences carried out; not subject-verb agreement but bloody conflict and merciful reconciliation; not words made into paragraphs but the Word made flesh. So as much as the Bible is a set of words, it’s also kindling for our imagination. And so as much as Christian faith is a matter of words, it’s also undeniably a matter of power.

That, I suppose, is the idea behind Spencer Burke’s “monotations,” in which he combines one word with one image and invites people to reflect on what God might be communicating through the experience. We grow when we’re stretched, I think, and part of the stretching experience is to interact with our environment, allowing our environment to shape us even as we reshape our environment.

I write this and two scenes from the Scriptures come to mind. Both involve sovereign powers interacting with holy writing. Both involve acts of violence (not against human beings, though neither story is far removed from such violence, but rather violent reactions to holy words). One is a cautionary tale, the other is a high-water mark in the history of God’s people.

Imagine a room filled with a handful of men, one sitting, the rest standing. A fire pit heats the room on an otherwise frigid day. Those who are standing are anxious, not sure what to expect in the scene that unfolds. The one sitting is the king, and whatever he says, goes.

The king bids Jehudi to read from a scroll. Jehudi begins to read. And “whenever Jehudi had read three or four columns of the scroll, the king cut them off with a scribe's knife and threw them into the firepot, until the entire scroll was burned in the fire.” What was written on the scroll? An appeal from the prophet Jeremiah to the people of Judah to repent of their wickedness and return to the Lord, and a warning of disaster planned by God for the unrepentant. “The king,” it’s worth noting, “and all his attendants who heard all these words showed no fear, nor did they tear their clothes.”

Now imagine another room filled with a handful of men, one sitting, the rest standing. Perhaps a fire pit heats this room as well, as one man reads from the long-lost and recently rediscovered Book of the Law to the sitting king.

“When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes.” These were the words of God, and the implications were obvious: having not kept faith with God’s commands, God’s people stood condemned. The king repented of his own wickedness, and with it the wickedness of his people, and committed as a nation to return to the Lord. As a result, the king heard more words from God: “Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the LORD when you heard what I have spoken against this place and its people, . . . I will gather you to your fathers, and you will be buried in peace. Your eyes will not see all the disaster I am going to bring on this place.' "

Two scenes, two kings, two acts of violence. One ripped up the words of God and burned them in the fire; the other tore his own robes and wept.

Now imagine your own scene. Whatever you say, goes. Then, all of a sudden, God says something. So . . . what would you tear?


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