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Immersive Experience

Comparative Commentary
Commentary by
Spike Bucklow

Biblical Wisdom literature has parallels across the ancient Near East, including Egyptian texts that dwell upon issues of human suffering within an encyclopaedic view of nature. Examples include: ‘A Dispute over Suicide’, ‘The Protests of the Eloquent Peasant’, and ‘The Instruction of Amen-em-Opet’ (Pritchard 1969: 405–10, 421–4; Hartley 1988: 6–11). Like them, the book of Job acknowledges that worldly experiences can lead to spiritual insights.

Amidst a story of suffering, chapter 28 starts with an overview of worldly knowledge and skill, celebrating the extraordinary powers of humans, who can even ‘overturn mountains by the roots’ (v.9). It conditionally validates what we might think of today as scientific enquiry into the world; ‘the thing that is hid he brings forth to light’ (v.11). Yet such enquiries are not sufficient: ‘where is the place of understanding? Man does not know the way to it’, because wisdom is not found ‘in the land of the living’ (vv.12–14). Verse 28 suggests that one has to be personally transformed, by ‘fear of the Lord’, in order to see beyond the mere stuff of the world. Such transformative experiences destroy the ‘objectifying’ detached observer, opening possibilities for participative knowledge.

The creation and appreciation of paintings necessarily involve participative knowledge. I have chosen three paintings for their capacity to elaborate Job 28:25—‘he gave to the wind its weight, and meted out the waters by measure’. Two of the paintings focus on the ‘measure’ of water. Ludolf Backhuysen’s painting is representational and full of contrast, whilst James McNeill Whistler’s verges on the abstract and is subtly modulated. These technically different ways of making paintings influence the way we read them, as challenging or relaxing.

Backhuysen depicts water naturally lit by the sky by day, whilst Whistler depicts water artificially lit by humans at night. In the Backhuysen, the tempestuous water is wild and envelops the sailors, whereas in the Whistler, the tranquil water seems tamed and is enveloped by city-dwellers. The contrasts between them reflect the contrasting states—wealth and poverty, sickness and health, etc.—in the story of Job’s afflictions. They also reflect the contrasts in Job 28, between that of which man is capable (vv.1–22) and that of which God is capable (vv.23–27). After all, Whistler’s Garden is London’s Cremorne, not Eden. The Whistler painting celebrates mankind’s apparent ability to channel water, whilst the Backhuysen reminds us of the limits of human power.

Backhuysen and Whistler both establish their moods with water; it is crashing waves that threatened the intrepid mariners and twinkling reflections that entrance the urban stroller. But, critically, in both, what lies below the horizon reflects what is above the horizon—what is happening in the world depends upon the heavens. In the paintings we see violent waves or gentle ripples, but the waters are animated by wind (Greek anemos) which is not seen.

John Constable’s picture, looking towards the heavens, therefore reminds us that ‘He gave to the wind its weight’ (Job 28:25). It also summons the primordial image of the spirit ‘moving over the face of the waters’ (Genesis 1:2). Constable’s study has no dividing horizon line. It is a meditation upon the ceaseless actions above, which, invisibly, impact upon everyone below.

Of course, we can choose how to respond to what happens in the world. So, reflecting the relative powers of man and God contrasted in Job 28, our response to the world can also contrast—we can strive for silver and gold (v.1) or for wisdom that is beyond the price of silver and gold (v.15). Our motives can be superficial or profound, just as our means can be objectifying or participatory.

Waves can be objectively understood through mathematical modelling—this is how nautical engineers calculate the resilience of ships’ hulls and how software engineers make special effects for apocalyptic movies. Alternatively, waves can be known in the manner of the sailor or surfer—as one who joins in with creation: terrifying, exhilarating, or calming, but in every case awe-inspiring. The first approach involves filtering out those parts of the phenomenon that cannot be entered as computer data. The second approach involves complete immersion, whether by accident, as a thrill seeker, or vicariously by the exercise of empathy and imagination. The first treats the Book of Nature as a code to be cracked whilst the second enters into it as the Creator’s autobiography, feeling His wrath in one picture, His mercy in another, and the mystery of His ways in a third. In sailing or surfing terms, wisdom may involve having the courage to ride the wind and waves, wherever they may take us.

 

References

Hartley, John E. 1988. The Book of Job, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), pp. 6–11

Kelsey, David H. 2009. Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology (Westminster John Knox Press), p. 193

Pritchard, James B. (ed.). 1969. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3 edn (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press)