A great Gothic cathedral is not just a beautiful building, but a miniature cosmos replicating the worldview of medieval Christendom. It is as though the universe as described by Thomas Aquinas’s Summa or Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy had been realized in three-dimensions.
Modern science has now claimed the cosmos and repeatedly rewritten its narratives afresh, with little or no acknowledged help from sacred tradition. Human civilisation constructs ever taller buildings, many of them striking in their bold ingenuity, but lovers of Scripture can no longer impart a theocentric vision to the world they inhabit—or to its ongoing history—with the simplicity of that former age. Reading today’s world through the world of Scripture involves as much loss as it does gain, as much exile as homecoming.
Contemporary British artist Roger Hiorns evokes the frailty of this past by rendering two paradigmatic Gothic edifices, the Cathedrals of Chartres and Notre Dame, in thin, fragile cardboard. These great testaments to a past civilisation appear on close inspection to be delicate and transient. A sense of their inevitable disintegration seeps out in the copper sulphate growths that overpower their hosts and threaten to consume them. These crystalline ‘tumours’ speak of the blind and insurmountable force of nature in a scientific age. Yet the blue also seems luridly unnatural in this context, suggesting that modern humanity’s reverence for science can breed a jarring grandiloquence of its own—much more confounding than anything from the ‘primitive’ past.
Today’s lover of Scripture is caught between capitulating to the architectonic pressures bearing down on the text, or a retrograde denial of twenty-first century complexity. Speaking down the centuries, Psalm 88’s continued lamentations in the darkness seem to give voice to the interpenetration of loss and gain that emerges from living at the intersection of these worlds.
Psalm 88 is not easy reading. It has no comfortable resolution nor easily perceived sense of hope. The Psalm could even be read as a moment within Scripture that describes the text’s own undoing, and which thus offers a juncture peculiarly analogous with living by Scripture in the fact of our apparently inexorable, contemporary void.
88O Lord, my God, I call for help by day;
I cry out in the night before thee.
2Let my prayer come before thee,
incline thy ear to my cry!
3For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
4I am reckoned among those who go down to the Pit;
I am a man who has no strength,
5like one forsaken among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom thou dost remember no more,
for they are cut off from thy hand.
6Thou hast put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
7Thy wrath lies heavy upon me,
and thou dost overwhelm me with all thy waves. Selah
8Thou hast caused my companions to shun me;
thou hast made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
9my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call upon thee, O Lord;
I spread out my hands to thee.
10Dost thou work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades rise up to praise thee? Selah
11Is thy steadfast love declared in the grave,
or thy faithfulness in Abaddon?
12Are thy wonders known in the darkness,
or thy saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
13But I, O Lord, cry to thee;
in the morning my prayer comes before thee.
14O Lord, why dost thou cast me off?
Why dost thou hide thy face from me?
15Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer thy terrors; I am helpless.
16Thy wrath has swept over me;
thy dread assaults destroy me.
17They surround me like a flood all day long;
they close in upon me together.
18Thou hast caused lover and friend to shun me;
my companions are in darkness.