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Lesson And The Arts

Can we read the gospel lesson, the story of Jesus' forgiving the sins of and healing the paralytic in the face of the scribes' murmuring, in the context of the Old Testament reading, in which God through the prophet announces, "See, I am doing something new!" (Is 43:18, NAB)? If we can, we may find a web of interesting, if admittedly odd, literary and theatrical connections.
This web may begin with that class of novels scholars call Künstlerroman (from the German, literally "artist novel"), stories that deal with "the youth and development of an individual who becomes—or is on the threshold of becoming—a painter, musician, or poet."3 Perhaps the best-known example is James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther may also belong to this genre. Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel certainly does. The list could go on, even to include Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City (and stretched to take in the movie made of it).
In these novels, the artist grows up in an establishment that does not understand him. Indeed, he (or she, as in, Miles Franklin's My Brilliant Career) must challenge, and in some way even destroy, some of established society's respectable monuments, if he or she is going to make things new.
The connections continue with one underlying question, "What is an artist, anyway?" This was a question of great interest to the English Renaissance, particularly as "poetry," or "poesy"—both terms refer to any works of the fictive of imagination—came under attack by more puritanical Protestants. Stephen Gosson dedicated his attack, "The School of Abuse," to Sir Philip Sidney, not realizing that Sidney was a poet as well as a fellow-Protestant. The result was Sidney's famous "Defense of Poesy."
In the "Defense," Sidney begins with the role of the poet and the honor the Greeks paid it by naming him (or her) "poet," "which name hath, as the most excellent, gone through other languages. It cometh of this word which is `to make.'"4 And in his making, the poet is not subjected to nature but "freely [ranges] within the zodiac of his own wit." Indeed, "Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapistry [sic] as diverse poets have done…. Her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden."5 But the responsibility of the poet—here Sidney goes to Horace—is "to teach and delight," and to move to virtue.6 It is important to recognize that Sidney means by virtue much more than simple morality: he means excellence in life, something approaching even "abundant life."
One more arcane connection. In the English Renaissance, the conversation moved from the defense of poetry to arguments about what constituted poetry. In the first chapter of George Puttenham's The Art of English Poesy, he rehearses Sidney's description of the poet as maker, but he also wants to make a claim for "who may be worthily said the most excellent poet of our time."7 And the winner is…the queen herself, though not for the poetry she writes but for all she does in the larger world to delight, to teach and to move to virtue.
I'm not suggesting that we re-read Mark as a portrait of the artist as a young rabbi. But these connections may help us understand a bit—granted, only a bit—of what is happening with (and to) Jesus here. He is doing something new. He has already amazed the people, because he does not teach as the scribes (Mk 1:22). His teaching has a new authority (1:27). It is already beginning to overturn old monuments. It challenges established ways—as it does in this Sunday's story. "Child," Jesus says, "your sins are forgiven" (2:5, NAB); and the scribes begin immediately to ask how anyone can think this way. It's so opposed to the normal way of thinking as to be blasphemous.
Moreover, what Jesus does, teaches—from the beginning Mark has been at pains to see Jesus' actions as teachings (1:27)— and, especially, it delights: "He rose, picked up his mat at once, and went away in the sight of everyone. They were all astounded." It even moves to virtue: "and they glorified God, saying, `We have never seen anything like this'" (2:12).
What do we say of the wit, the persistence, the ingenuity of the friends of the paralytic? Are they, too, poets? Perhaps, but it may be more interesting (particularly for younger members of our congregations) to think of them as heroes in an action movie. There is much to dislike in these movies. On the other hand, they show us heroes who are not nonplussed in the face of physical barriers but challenged by them to find quick solutions—often in a team: e.g., James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) and Chinese agent Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh) in Tomorrow Never Dies; or Robert Dean (Will Smith) and the mysterious Brill (Gene Hackman) in Enemy of the State. None of them would hesitate to break through a roof to get a friend to Jesus—and they'd know how to do it, boldly!
Richard Dietrich