Jet Engines and Paintings

One summer, Danny and his family visited Washington, DC. One morning, while at the Smithsonian Institute, they spent a few hours puttering around in the Air and Space Museum. They looked with interest at the many fascinating airplanes and rockets. They lingered for a while at an exhibit that explains jet propulsion. This exhibit features numerous models and cross-sectional drawings, all with interesting written explanations and all fascinating to scientific novices who are curious to understand jet engines. The mystery of jet propulsion is explicated logically and historically.

Next, however, the Hays family crossed the mall and visited the National Gallery of Art. What a contrast! No models or rational, scientific explanations are on display here. Only paintings—life conveyed through brushstrokes of color on pieces of canvas. Danny and his son spent the next several hours roaming from room to room, captivated by the paintings and the messages these works of art portrayed. Here they saw the emotions of human life—fear, love, hate, despair, triumph, beauty, and disgust. In the painting entitled “The Repentant Magdalen,” for example, they observed the ex-harlot Mary Magdalene gazing meditatively into a dimly lit mirror (reflecting on her past?). A skull (her past? her mortality?) sits before her on the table on top of a book (the Bible?). The mirror is angled so that the viewer of the painting sees the skull (and the book) reflected in the mirror rather than Mary. Does she also look in the mirror and see the skull? What a fascinating, yet complex work of art! It reached right out and grabbed them as they walked by, pulling them in emotionally and demanding that they likewise ponder the complicated and deeply personal issue of repentance and forgiveness. Does our past haunt us even after forgiveness comes?

The different genres of the Bible are similar to the different museums that comprise the Smithsonian Institute. Moving from New Testament letters to Old Testament poetry is like crossing the mall from the Air and Space Museum and entering the National Gallery of Art. Much of the New Testament, especially the letters, is presented rationally and logically, appealing to our Western minds like the exhibits in the jet propulsion room of the Air and Space Museum.

The genre of New Testament letters tends to focus on propositional truth (see ch. 14). Paul, for example, argues point by point in the book of Romans. He builds his theme logically and propositionally, supporting his main points with subpoints and supporting examples. He appeals primarily to logic and rational thought. The kind of language Paul uses in letters like Romans indicates he is building his argument in such a fashion. Note, for example, the sequence in Romans 1:24–28: “therefore” (1:24), “because of this” (1:26), and “furthermore” (1:28).

The Old Testament poets, however, write much differently from Paul. Like the paintings in the National Gallery of Art, they appeal primarily to our emotions. Furthermore, they do not build complex grammatical arguments, but rather use images (like paintings) to convey their meanings. They paint colorful pictures with words to convey messages loaded with emotional impact. This doesn’t mean that they ignore logic or write illogically. It simply means that they focus on emotional aspects more than on logical aspects. True, Paul is not devoid of emotion in his letters, but his focus is on reasoning.

This comparison can be summed up in the following chart:

Paul and New Testament Letters Old Testament Poets
Appeals to logic Appeals to emotion
Rational arguments are central Images are central
Syntax/grammar are critical to analyze Figures of speech are critical to analyze

One of the problems many Christians today encounter when they tackle Old Testament poetry is that they attempt to interpret these texts with methods that are geared for New Testament letters. These interpretive methods are inadequate, sometimes even misleading, for interpreting Old Testament poetry. If we approach a painting by Raphael and study it by analyzing the light-wave frequencies of the colors he uses, we will most likely miss much of the message he intended to communicate. Likewise, we cannot approach Psalm 51 with the same method that we use in Romans 3. Therefore, we need to handle the interpretation of Old Testament poetry with a method that acknowledges the function of images and the connection these images make to the emotional dimension of our relationship to God and to humanity. Such a method should also incorporate an understanding of the various other elements of Old Testament poetry.

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