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A View From Paris, Part I: Seeing One's Own Land and Faith From a Distance

The Photography of Dorthea Lange and the Lessons of Islamic Art

Ironically, it sometimes takes a trip abroad to gain a fresh perspective upon one's own culture. This, at least, was my impression during a recent week I spent in Paris.  Perhaps the most striking illustration of this was my experience in visiting a retrospective exhibit of the work of American photographer Dorthea Lange. Some of Ms. Lange's most powerful work was done during the Great Depression. Her famous photograph of the migrant mother and children taken in Nipoma, California, in 1935, captured the pathos of an entire generation of migrant farm workers. It has functioned, in fact, like a religious icon, a painting or sculpture of Mary, the mother of Christ, embracing the body of her crucified son. Though we would perhaps like to forget such images, and dwell upon the bright side, always looking at our country through the flattering lens of campaign rhetoric -- "It's Morning in America" -- it sometimes takes the artist, the photojournalist, or the prophetic preacher to remind us that the divisions of race and class, the scars of poverty or violence, and the environmental waste left in the wake of a booming economy, are problems that will not easily pass away. Dorthea Lange's migrant mother, is not a relic from the past, it remains a symbol of the fact that for many of our people, the suffering is real and the danger present.

Additional information about Dorthea Lange:

The Dorothea Lange exhibit at the Richmond, CA museum of history

Dorothea Lange at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC

For more informaton about the Lange photograph of the migrant mother

 

Then too, there were the more expected sights, the churches and cathedrals, the museums and galleries, walks along the Seine. I spent some time in the Louvre visiting an extensive exhibition of Islamic art. This, too, made me take a fresh look at some of my own preconceptions. Within much of the Islamic world, the Old Testament commandment, "Thou shalt not make unto thyself any graven image...," is taken quite literally.  With the result that Islamic art is almost totally lacking in paintings that attempt to depict God, let alone the prophets who speak for God.  There are works of art in which the text of the Qu'ran is rendered in beautiful color and design, but the sight of a crucified Christ or a martyred saint would be wholly out of place here. 

icon.jpg (60432 bytes)islam tiles


When one considers the problems that arise when Christians begin to take their images of God literally, one begins to suspect that there is some wisdom in heeding the biblical warnings about graven images, idols and the like.  Still, who would ever suggest that all that stained glass, the statues, the paintings of Christendom are to be dismissed or denigrated.  Better to combine the wisdom of both readings of the biblical tradition and learn that human images can never do justice to the mystery that is God. Better to heed the biblical warning that both our religions share: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me."

Continue to A View from Paris: Part II

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Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.