“Rain” or “Enclosed Wheat Field in the Rain,” November 1889
“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”
-Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)
I recently whisked my wife to rainy Philadelphia for a weekend away. We took a half-day walk through the beautiful Philadelphia Museum of Art. We both enjoy art (she comes by it naturally and has discipled me into an appreciation). It’s fun to look at paintings and reflect on the questions, thoughts and feelings one experiences as they stare at the paintings, sketches and sculptures to which they come in contact. The first question for me is why did the artist paint, draw or sculpt this? What was the question in them that they were attempting to answer through their particular medium. My next question is where are my eyes going in this artwork? With paintings in particular, it’s fascinating how our eyes, almost robotically, follow a specific path of examination. The third question, the deepest one I’ve learned to ask of a piece of art, is what is this piece of art naming in me? The third question may be the last asked in a series of questions, but it is the first one with which I subconsciously wrestle.
As I walk through museums like the one in Philadelphia, there are numerous pieces of art to examine. It’s almost maddening the amount of art in one location. I glance at some pieces and move on. Certain ones confuse me. I may stare, but I move on often exclaiming, “I don’t get it!” (Much of modern art falls in this category for me.) Other pieces, however, call to me. They force me to stop, stare, get close, back away, and get close again. Like deep calling to deep, they are enchanting. They mesmerize me as I break from my lap around the exhibit and take a closer look. They name a subconscious stirring in my spirit.
Such was my experience with Vincent van Gogh’s 1899 painting, “Enclosed Wheat Field in Rain.” Van Gogh worked on a group of paintings of the wheat field that he could see from his workroom at Saint-Paul-de-Mausolée in southern France. Saint-Paul was a sanatorium in southern France that he had voluntarily entered on May 8, 1889. The hospital sat just over the mountains from Arles. It was during his time in Arles that Van Gogh had spent the previous winter producing some of his more energetic and moving canvases and where he suffered his most severe mental breakdowns which prompted his hospitalization. From his hospital studio, Van Gogh could stare down on the plot of farm land below and paint a time lapse, of sorts, via twelve paintings of the acreage before him. The stone wall, like a picture frame, helped to display the changing colors and conditions of the wheat field.
The brush strokes are pronounced. Van Gogh utilized a number of textures in the painting to communicate the chaos of a sudden downpour. The wheat field, in each of the twelve paintings, remains in the background. In this specific painting, a well-manicured plot of land is veiled by rain. Where many paintings draw your eye to the background of the painting, providing a dimension of depth and inclusion into the world of the artist, Van Gogh distracts the eye’s journey by keeping the focus on the foreground. This disruption of the eyes’ natural pathway initially frustrates the viewer. You want to go beyond the downpour to see the field behind but you must go through the rain to see the farm and mountains in the distance.
This, my friends, is like our call to the church. The church is intentional chaos. It is a bringing together of many brush strokes into a collective whole. You do not get to see into the background unless you submit your eye to what is in the foreground. The foreground is disruptive. We want to get past the idiosyncrasies of the membership to the essence of the “church” beyond. Like Van Gogh’s painting, however, there is no distinctiveness to the background without the time lapse of the foreground.
Like Van Gogh’s painting, if we take to examining or explaining away the chaos by getting our eyes ever so close to the canvas that we can only see the brush strokes, we’re left with globs of paint and colors haphazardly thrown onto a white background. There is no greater image that emerges. It is only by stepping back, seeing the background through the framing of the foreground, that we see the transcendent beauty of a simple field. Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter cycle through and change the farm land from green, to brown, to white, and to budding with color once again. The foreground and background work together to form a collective whole.
Without the foreground, we have Van Gogh painting the same field twelve times. All twelve paintings may have differences known to Van Gogh, but, by and large, they are paintings of the same field.
Without the background, we have a myriad of conditions and seasons that we can only guess at as we do not have the background to give the foreground meaning. The background is the standard to which the foreground understands itself. We know winter because the wheat field is covered in snow.
The German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) commented on the tendency of Christians to follow their “ideal” of community over against the real community before them. In other words, Christians, then and now, who want the background absent the foreground. His words are direct and challenging to a Christian culture who loves Jesus but only has criticisms for his church (which are different than legitimate critiques made in humble submission to the faith community):
Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial…. They enter the community of Christians with their demands set up by their own law, and judge one another and God accordingly. It is not we who build. Christ builds the church. Whoever is mindful to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it, for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it. We must confess he builds. We must proclaim, he builds. We must pray to him, and he will build. We do not know his plan. We cannot see whether he is building or pulling down. It may be that the times which by human standards are the times of collapse are for him the great times of construction. It may be that the times which from a human point are great times for the church are times when it’s pulled down. It is a great comfort which Jesus gives to his church. You confess, preach, bear witness to me, and I alone will build where it pleases me. Do not meddle in what is not your providence. Do what is given to you, and do it well, and you will have done enough…. Live together in the forgiveness of your sins. Forgive each other every day from the bottom of your hearts.
May we be a people of the foreground and background. Let us cast aside the pipe dream that there exists a “church” beyond the people to whom the Lord is asking us to submit. As we submit, may we help that church realizes that come rain, sunshine, snow or falling leaves, that we are called to a higher standard beyond just the conditions of our frame. May the ordinary witness of the faithful make a plain wheat field something novel, peculiar and beautiful in a world of chronic distrust, unmet expectations, and unbridled individuality. In that pursuit, we can stare at a painting on the wall and see a wheat field in the rain with mountains in the background and have a moment of awe and wonder. A rainy wheat field can call a simple church in Anytown, USA to be something more than the quirkiness of its individual parts.