Interpretations of Jesus: A reflection on Matthew 16:13-20

We are connoisseurs of Saturday. There are plenty of things that make for a putrid Saturday, i.e. yard work, house work, work, the flu. But there are a few ingredients that make for a fine Saturday. For me, the first ingredient is what I would call “second sleep.” Second sleep is when everyone wakes up at around 7:00 a.m., my daughters crash the bed, injure their father, drag their mother away as a spoil of battle, and there is calm after the storm. Second sleep comes during that calm. I am not a good sleeper, but for some reason in that second set of Saturday morning sleep I am almost comatose. That is second sleep, a Saturday morning coma that occurs between 7 and 9 a.m., and if I am lucky can last as long as 10.

And then there is breakfast. You cannot have a great Saturday without a great breakfast. Through the week we start the day with cereal, yogurt, pop-tarts, a stick of wood, a jar of glue – anything that has any decent nutritional value that can be consumed in about three seconds. But on Saturday breakfast is a renaissance.

A couple of weeks ago we put together a jewel of a Saturday. Following second sleep we went to The Original Pancake House at Five Points on the Southside of Birmingham, AL. Granted it was almost eleven when we got there, but we realized there are tons of people who practice second sleep and treasure a renaissance breakfast. Following breakfast we went to the Alabama Museum of Art to take in the Pompeii exhibit. Unfortunately, at the museum, we ran into about a quarter of a million people who do not practice second sleep on Saturdays; we were already about six hours behind them in line – no exaggeration. So we decided to visit the free/lineless galleries reserved for Saturday second sleepers.

The first gallery we visited was the gallery of contemporary art. Compared with the historical progression of art I witnessed throughout the museum, my initial conclusion is that the longer we are on this planet, the weirder we get. Contemporary art is a metaphor for the fact that we have almost completely lost our minds. I thought art was mostly paint, clay, and stone – colors, shapes, and figures, but apparently art can also be video – really high-def., plasma, video. On the wall were two monitors, one containing the image of a man (shoulders and head), the other of a woman (shoulders and head). The woman and the man had a blank forward stare, sort of eerie; I uncomfortably stared back. Their staring was only interrupted by very pronounced slow-mo blinks. They would stare and then they would slow-mo blink. Suddenly you realize they are in water because they slow-mo rise out of the water. During the slow-mo rise you notice how water slightly changes the tones, colors, and shape of their skin. And then, they take this slow-mo fall back into the water. The slow-mo makes the disturbance of the fall, the splash and the swirls almost seem chaotic. The chaos of the water makes the man and the woman lose their shape, they are just dark non-descript images beneath the water, no longer distinguishable from one another. The video ends.

I struggle with culture as does any southern fried Georgia bred male, and so this moment for me was a total enigma. I hate feeling stupid, unfortunately it does not take much to get me there – art makes me feel beyond stupid. I like it, but I do not understand it. To add to the level of my discomfort there were several people in the room watching the video art who were not stupid. Every once in awhile the non-stupid people would let out an intellectual grunt, an appreciative grunt. So I tried to fit in and play along, I grunted just after they grunted as if to acknowledge I saw it too. But what did they see grunt worthy? Was it that they appreciated this blink even more than the previous blink? Did they know the meaning of water, what does water mean? Honestly, my first impressions were that these televisions would be awesome during college football season and I can’t wait for the weather to warm up so I too can get in a pool. I knew my grunting was only an intellectual fa├žade, I was looking at the same thing they were looking at, but I was not seeing what they saw.

And so I read the information plaque beside the video art and it told a little bit about the story. Later that week I got on the internet and tried to learn more about what I had seen. It is a piece by an artist named Bill Viola called Dissolution. Dissolution is the last segment of a seven piece movement of videos called Purification. It was inspired by an opera and is an artistic representation of the process of change through purification and sacrifice. In the end the man and the woman meet as lovers in Dissolution. It is an impression of what it is like to love. There were two distinct people, but when they fell into the water they looked the same, they sort of dissolved into images that were strangely similar and non-descript, indistinct from one another. Then it became provocative to me because I saw it like the artist intended it. This is what it is like to love, to lose yourself in someone else. When you find that person who changes you and you can’t imagine your life being defined without them. Your relationship with them changes you into someone else and you have a similar effect on them. In the Bible it is called “the two shall become one flesh”, dissolution.

Dissolution is when you are so in love it makes you want to jump into a pool. Strangely, when I am around my wife I have a subconscious urge to swim.

Art has a way of making something happen inside of us. It provokes thought, captures your imagination, it helps you feel. Artists take intangible concepts and attempt to impersonate them with colors, textures and shapes, images – they take something indescribable and make it tangible: anger, sadness, confusion, joy, melancholy, love, hope, desire, freedom. Artists have a way of connecting with your thoughts and emotions through paint, clay, marble, and video.

You approach the piece with shallow first impressions – it’s a slow blink on LCD, “hmmm, oh yes, very intelligent.” Obviously even though you are seeing what everyone else sees, you are not seeing what everyone else sees, more importantly you are not seeing what is really there. And then you learn of the artist’s intentions, his or her story or background or interpretation of what they wanted you to see. After you get that, you begin to see even more and now you see it differently, in almost a moment. Now that you share the artist’s knowledge it frees you to see even more. You identify with it – yes, this is the way love feels, this is what love does, this is the way love looks, like dissolution.

Our souls desire to make a connection with intangible things:

Forgiveness – what is it like to know you are forgiven?
Love – what is the greatest love? How far can love go?
God – can we really know God? If we can, what is He like? Does He know what just happened to me?
Hope – What’s next? Will it be better than this?
Eternity – Is this life all there is? What will happen to me after I die? Does life end?

Jesus asks His disciples for an interpretation. When you look at me, what do you see? What do you think? Who am I to you? How do you interpret me? He called for all the options. “Who do men say that I am?” After the options were on the table He asked of them personally, “Who do you say that I, the Son of Man, am?”

So what are the options? Who is Jesus?

Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, believes God is bad for man. Religion has inspired men to kill, to persecute, and to brutalize. He believes God is bad for science. There can be no valid science that begins with the idea of God. If science cannot begin with God it will render honest conclusions, namely that there is no God. The story of the Golden Compass echoes this thought that the world would be a better place without God and His church; that people would be better if they were free to experience magic dust and think and act as they feel. The atheist has no room for God, no place for miracles, and no tolerance for Jesus.

Post-modernism, the something and nothing of our culture, is very spiritual in nature, but revisionist in practice. Post-modernism encourages spirituality but discourages definition. The Jesus Seminar is the reputation of the idea and “The DaVinci Code” was the entertaining of the idea. The idea that what we have been led to believe about Jesus may not be honest. The traditional Christ is only an invention of the modern church, a projection of what they wanted Him to be, but never was. To Oprah Christ is one of many valid paths. On the island of LOST Christianity and Hinduism are a potpourri of mysticism that helps us explore the meaning of miracles, forgiveness, prayer, and ultimate reality.

Religion presents its interpretations of Christ. To the Catholic Church it is the institutional Jesus, that through the vehicle of sacraments, papal authority, and the administered graces of the church you will find forgiveness in Jesus. The cultic Jesus says he is not God, but a god. Jesus was a man like you and me who struck gold on a path to deity, an inspiration for the rest of us prospecting for immortality. There is the bubba Jesus, the icon of southern fried culture, the man who will help us believe just enough so that we can escape Hell. Jesus is the moment we fear fire, fear death, but at the same time dread actually changing the way we live our life. We will make a deal so that we will not burn. Jesus is sort of like a booster shot, every couple of years you may need one. I don’t know if you realize this, but almost everyone who dies in the south goes to heaven. At some point in time we have almost all believed in Jesus, we made a deal so that we would not burn.

“Who do you say I, the Son of Man am?” Every person has an interpretation of Jesus. It is sort of like art; we are looking at the same thing, but we are all seeing something different. But are we seeing what is actually there?

Peter interpreted Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Peter was raised in a religious culture. Peter was raised in what I would consider to be the forefather of post-modernism, Roman pluralism. Some people believe that Peter was raised geographically near Jesus; he may have known Jesus his entire life. But now, he saw Jesus in a way he had never seen Him before.

It is when we hear the artist’s story, his or her intention and explanation of the metaphors, of the images, of the colors, of the textures, of the motions, of the shapes, that we begin to see what is really there. When we see what the artist sees it connects us intellectually and emotionally to intangible, sometimes unexplainable, concepts like sadness, joy, melancholy, passion.

Our first impressions can be misleading. The atheist’s interpretation of Jesus is hopeless. The post-modern Jesus is confusing, He is and isn’t. The religious Jesus is lifeless. The southern Jesus is shallow. It is ironic that sometimes we can all be looking at the same thing, but see something completely different. More importantly, we can look at something and not see what is really there. Sometimes our interpretations are biased based on what we want to see; but how can we ignore that which our soul truly craves: to be forgiven, to be loved sacrificially, to have hope, to have a place in eternity, to know life is meaningful, to know God? God has a way of revealing truth to us in grace by making a connection with the cravings of our soul. Jesus said to Peter, “Simon Bar-Jona, flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” Simon, also called Peter, you now see what God sees, this is God’s interpretation, that Jesus is the anointed savior of the soul.

We are constantly presented with Jesus, almost to the point of confusion, very near apathy; and then a moment comes in which God powerfully shows us what is actually there. In a moment He connects our soul to forgiveness, to hope, to eternity, and to Himself through the reality of Jesus. We see Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God. For Simon Peter and for those with whom God makes a connection Jesus is not simply a confession, but He is a revolutionary of the searching soul.

On my next encounter with art I will be hungry to hear the artist’s story, on a desperate search for meaning. Give me a plaque, a pamphlet, a book, a website, something that provides the artist’s interpretation. I realize that on my own, my understanding is limited. I want to see what is there, not what I see. Knowing the artist’s interpretation does not help me see less, but inspires me to connect with the images, colors, curves and textures as a means to experience more. In order to interpret Jesus we must go to the heart of the Father. What does He say about Jesus, what was the meaning of His coming, of His death – how does God interpret the word Christ? What is the message to me?

It is written. . .


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