Sunday, September 20, 2009

Art museum theology

My mother-in-law renewed our memberships to the local art museum, so we went to see the latest exhibit, entitled: “The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt”.

The place was packed with people – which it hadn’t been before when we’d stopped in to see other collections. Nicely arranged and accessible, with a lot of audio and textual learning tools, the exhibit offers an in-depth look at an ancient people who lived in the days of Abraham, Israel, and Moses.

As I traveled through the galleries, I couldn’t help placing what I was seeing in Bible context. In one room, for example, was a massive hand-carved stone statue of a man. I was amazed at how beautifully it was done – indeed, it was quite a work of art! But it was more than that, because among the words carved around its base was the command, “Pray to me.” And across its surface was the wearing away of actual stone done by thousands upon thousands of hands that did just that.

Elsewhere in the exhibit, one examined other idols – “gods” shaped like baboons, lions, falcons, jackals, and more. The Egyptians, we learned, didn’t worship baboons or other animals – but they did worship the power they associated with the animals. To them, “magic” was a way to gather and control the power they saw manifesting itself in the natural world – including in life and death.

So they mummified themselves, and worshiped gods like Osiris, who (they believed) resurrected himself from the dead each morning with the sun. They built elaborate tombs, covered with magical words and filled with magical images that promised to protect, feed, and guide the dead in the afterlife – into immortality.

I felt a great sadness, going through the exhibit. Here were the lifeless objects they’d left behind.

Here, even, was a human body – precisely
mummified by the most wealthy and powerful people 3,500 years ago – now rotting in a glass box while tens of thousands of strangers come by to stare and enjoy being grossed out by the whole silly idea. Were it not for the wealth of gold and antiquity associated with the various things in the exhibit, most of them would today be thrown into the nearest landfill as garbage. Yet every last bit of it was intended to achieve immortality – and all without having to rely on or bow to the One True God.

God rejected the ancient Egyptians, because they had rejected Him. When He freed the Israelites from Egypt, He gave them a long and complicated law that would train them not to be like the God-rejecting Egyptians they had lived among for so long:
"You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices." (Leviticus 18:3)
"Do not bow down before their gods or worship them or follow their practices. You must demolish them and break their sacred stones to pieces." (Exodus 23:24)
People often misquote parts of the ancient “training” law that God gave the Israelites – parts they then say mean God condemns Gay people. But as I walked through this exhibit, I saw no Gay or Lesbian. I saw blatant God-rejection and demon worship – things that don’t require any particular sexual orientation to fall into.

Sometimes those who want to “help” Gay people try to ignore or reinvent those Scripture passages that some misinterpret as if they condemn us. But I stand firm, as I pray we all do, in saying: “Give me ALL of Scripture, because God left something for all of us in it.” 

What would we miss, for example, if we simply ignored or reinvented the law books like Leviticus? How would we understand how horrible and anti-God the ancient pagan people were (in burning their children alive, and in women having sex with animals, and in incest, and more), if we didn’t read God’s specific prohibitions against the things they did? Some of what God prohibited has been lost to history – we just haven’t known for thousands of years just exactly what some of the prohibitions mean. But we do know that it was all about rejecting pagan practices, and the violent, lustful, greedy, anti-God hearts that practiced them.

The ancient pagans will have achieved an immortality of sorts – but nothing like what they planned on. The religious things they worshiped and bodies they mummified will continue to rot in museums and collections around the world, objects of interest to both side-show gawker and archaeologist alike.

Our own modern human attempts at immortality -- including naming things after ourselves (including ministries), building great things (including religious organizations), and putting anything between us and God (including our "church", "pastor", or Bible translation) -- will also all fail.

What will not fail?

The only thing in the universe that has never failed:

Jesus Christ:
Jesus answered and said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life." [John 4:13-14]
For no one can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. [1 Corinthians 3:11]

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