July 27, 2007

The Church at Auvers

My friend Carol over at Watch Me Paint (which BTW is pretty incredible - watching her take a canvas and convert it into a work of art - WOW!) got me thinking about art. Please understand I am not one who has a great knowledge of art nor have I been exposed to much through my years. I recall 3 visits to art museums in my 40 years. With that disclaimer, there are a few pieces that have spoken volumes to me through the years. This piece by Van Gogh is one.

The Church at Auvers was painted during Van Gogh's last years during a time of serious mental and emotional stress. His life circumstance certainly colored his view of this grand edifice and I think it serves as a message to the church that needs to be heard today. A few things I notice about the painting are...
  1. The church dominates the canvas. Literally, there is no way to avoid it.
  2. There are two paths leading around the church - both happen to lead through the shadow of the church.
  3. Sadly, there is no door into the church.

I'll leave it to you to generate your own conclusions about the message Van Gogh is sending us from 1890. I'd love to hear what you think...


Carol L. Douglas said...

Thanks for your kind comments, John. They are really encouraging.

I stopped by to tell you I did a wee art history thing for you, and you blow me away with this Van Gogh. (Van Gogh absolutely slays me; words can’t express much about him.)

I found this photo of the church at Auvres on line: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ebie/149760237/.

I looked for it because I couldn’t figure out what part of the church Van Gogh was painting. It is the apse so would have no door. It would also be a kind of forgotten place, compared to the front of the church. Since Van Gogh was a failed missionary and preacher it was possible that he was drawn to the “separateness” of the back yard.

I wonder how his life would have turned out had he been allowed to preach. The clergy's loss is the art world's gain, but it does always make me sad to see him turned into a commodity. His highest auction price was something like $82 million US. To me that's obscene when he struggled so hard in life. (We have to hope that heaven is rewarding him completely.)

Gwendolyn said...

Thank you for the introduction to this painting! Since we are looking at the apse of a church, I would not expect a door there... at least not a door for parishioners. (I can't swear that I've never seen a vestry door in such a location on a European church, and I can only think of one vestry door here that leads to the outdoors.)

So, van Gogh's paths both lead through shadow (Psalm 23) to the main doors of the church. Not a bad image of hope! Maybe you hinted at that, but I th

John said...

Carol and Gwendolyn,

Thanks for your thoughtful replies. I was aware that Van Gogh was painting the rear of the church and that most churches do not have a "back door" (not a literal one, though many people find one...). I wonder if perhaps Van Gogh was telling us something by painting this church from this perspective.

Carol your insight about Van Gogh being a "failed missionary and preacher" gives me pause here. Could it be that he felt there was no way into the church for him?

When I look at this marvelous painting I ache for a door. The lady who is about to walk around this marvelous edifice needs a way to enter rather than observe from the outside. So to our society is locked out of the church because there is no door.

I am in a conversation with a young man who is a heavily tatooed Christian. He is a faithful attender of his local congregation and growing in his faith, evidenced by his desire to share Christ with those immersed in the world of "body art". His statement to me speaks volumes, "I am more accepted by the pagan unbelievers in the tatoo shops than I am by the body of Christ." Walking through the shadow of the church but not welcomed inside? I wonder...

Carol L. Douglas said...

Bless this young man. Would it help him to know that he isn’t alone? Show him my picture (nice little grey haired church lady) and tell him I’ve felt that way for two decades.

For a long time that was because my church was very left-leaning politically and I am not. For the past year it’s been because I’m in a more reactionary church (against the mainline denominations) and gender roles are so rigid they border on the absurd.

In my case, I think the problem is partly on my side. I find myself making value judgments about their lifestyles at the same time I assume they are making judgments about mine. For better or worse, we all make judgments based on appearance and it is a real reach for us to see the Christ in others.

I spent some time last weekend talking with a friend about his bisexuality. He seemed to press for acceptance. I said, “The human heart longs for love and will do whatever it takes to get it.” That doesn’t mean I believe homosexuality is fine or that it was great to ordain Bishop Gene Robinson in the Episcopal Church. But I realized during this conversation that, ultimately, our theology is somewhat irrelevant. I know this man well enough to look past his sexuality to see his heart. And it would be counterproductive for me to get hung up on one thing and deflect my witness.

It is God’s business to open hearts, not ours. It’s sometimes hard to look past tattoos; after all, they are meant to convey something about their wearer, just as Jimmy Choo shoes are meant to convey something. (For the record I am more comfortable with the tattoos than the Jimmy Choos.) But in the end we are left with the task of loving others even when we don’t see much of ourselves reflected in them; we are charged with remembering that they ALWAYS have something of God reflected in them.

And I succeed at that about 10% of the time.

GIG said...


What a powerful image of the church. How many people on a regular basis walk though the shadow of our churches and never darken the inside of it. I think legalism is the cause of that.

Philip Yancey in his book, "What's So Amazing About Grace?" tells the story of a prostitute who had a two year old daughter who she would prostitute out and when this broken and poor woman was asked why she hasn't tried asking the church for help, she replied, "Why would I do that. They'd only make me feel worse!"

Legalism, even faint legalism, hurts...

John said...

OK Carol, gotta' tell you the "Jimmy Choos" shoe reference is definitely lost on me. I will have to do some web spelunking on this one. Other than that your comments stimulate more thoughts in my limited cranium.

You stated "ultimately our theology is somewhat irrelevant". I need clarification please. I think I hear you saying that simply holding up a set of doctrines without applying them to life is a useless exercise leaving us with Van Gogh's rendering of a massive church with no door. I think I hear you further saying that the theology is useless unless I put it to use.

Hey Gig!

Thanks for dropping by again and thanks for the spot on comment. Legalism certainly hurts. I struggle with so much freedom sometimes. Reminds me of my favorite Garfield cartoon which I must find and post. I think too much freedom scares us. We prefer the pool to the ocean. We can control the pool. (Forgive me for switching metaphors mid-stride).

Other thoughts on Van Gogh's missive to us?

GIG said...


Thanks for your comments here. They get at exactly what I was thinking. The way legalism works is that we allow our strengths to determine who we love and who we call a sinner and banish. I can stand against divorce because I'm not divorced. I can stand against homosexuality because I'm heterosexual. And the list goes on. Even though I have my own sin life no one knows about I can definitely stand against those sins that don't effect me. Suddenly church is no longer about the grace and love that Jesus gave to all people for their sins, but its about those that sin less or don't sin the really visible sins. Suddenly the legalism that God freed us from has returned in a more vicious way! And as John said, we do have a hard time with freedom. We can't understand infinity and so we put limits on God's acceptance and grace. I'm more of a Christian or more accepted by God because I don't do these things, when in fact we are all accepted by God for nothing we have done. My heart breaks for people who have been hurt by the church!

Carol L. Douglas said...

Jimmy Choo is a brand name of shoes and handbags which matter to a select group of fashionistas. A pair of shoes might be $800-900, a handbag $2000-3000. Fascinating but irrelevant. Sorry.

Back to the question. Our theology as applied to ourselves matters a great deal, but it gets dicey applying it to others. There is a fine line between admonishing a brother who is in sin and alienating someone from the church altogether. And we have to be very careful about describing something as sin in the first place. I have no doubt there are people who believe your friend’s tattoos are sinful and could quote Scripture to support that.

In the case of homosexuality, I have little doubt it’s sinful, but I know born-again believers who disagree with me. I have to leave room in my mind for the possibility that I am wrong, and treat differing opinions with respect. That’s why I’m leery of describing the liberal churches as empty tombs.

There are “facts” which are cultural but which we mistake as truth. Racism is the most profound example of this. It has been pervasive for millennia, and the western democracies deserve plaudits for how fast and hard we’ve worked to erase the problem. During the Civil War, American churches bitterly divided on the question of whether slavery was Biblical. At that time, some people mistook a longstanding, sinful tradition as a Biblical mandate. They misread Biblical references to slavery as Biblical approval of slavery.

(Please don’t think I am being judgmental of southerners. We all have skeletons in our closets—mine happens to be a swastika in my great-grandmother's Bible.)

The way I see it, Paul and Peter were not speaking about specifics; in some places they were using common life as metaphor and in others they were saying that Christianity is not liberation theology. (As an aside, accepting our circumstance doesn’t mitigate our obligation to seek justice.)

Jesus surrounded himself with strong women and expected them to behave with courage. The example that’s been crowding my thoughts recently is Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene as a gardener. Did he tell Mary to go find a man and have that man announce the Resurrection to his followers? No. He put Mary in a central role of the church, which is to proclaim the Resurrection.

Somewhere very early in church history there started to be a conflation of Mary Magdalene with the adulteress in John 8. “Magdalen” came to be a synonym for “prostitute” not only in the church but in popular culture. Magdalen Homes for fallen women sprang up all over Europe. I bet most people—Catholic or Protestant—believe Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, even though there is not one shred of evidence to support that.

This mirrors the image job done to Mary, mother of Jesus. The myth of her perpetual virginity and supernatural power obliterate her real worth and favor in God’s eyes. It distorts what we understand Godliness to be (asexual, non-corporeal). It has made her anathema to some Protestants, even though she had absolutely nothing to do with her cult.

I think both lies were a deliberate twisting of Scripture to give a gloss of Godliness to a too-human impulse toward misogyny. It concerns me when Protestant churches start aping the Catholic Church’s attitudes toward women.

My overall point about theology is: our biases are unconscious; we have no idea how they influence our reading of Scripture. Our only hope lies in prayer and a humble heart.

Carol L. Douglas said...

Exactly, Gig! Your comment posted after I wrote my most recent screed, but you're TOTALLY right, and far more succinct than I will ever be.

John said...


This is obviously something close to your heart. Thanks for opening up for the rest of us.

I must let you know that I do believe there is Truth (please note the capital "T") that can be known and is applicable to all people in all places at all times. That said, Truth doesn't leave me with the option of calling someone's sin something other than sin. The simple and inescapable Truth that we must all face is that we are sinners.

I will readily agree that we need to be most careful in applying Truth to other people's lives. Hebrews states that "the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword." (Heb. 4:12). It cuts both ways so be careful with it! Where we cannot discern thoughts and motives, God most certainly can.

Our theology matters because what believe ultimate shapes how we behave. (For example, I don't walk off too many cliffs). It is equally important to live out what we believe. If that was happening more I think we'd find a few more doors into a few more churches.