Moving Beyond “The Obscurity of the Familiar”

“Gleanings from the Life of Jesus:
Insights for Spiritual Formation”
is a Zoe-Life Exploration in which
I engage my years of study and work
with Biblical archaeologist and teacher, Jim Fleming—
filtering it through the lens of spiritual formation
(i.e., our journey unto maturity in Jesus Christ).
(I’ll be leading three such explorations
with congregations in the coming season of Lent.)

A crucial starting point (and a good way to convey the essence of this series) is to engage ancient versus more modern (and popular) conceptions of the Last Supper.  Da Vinci's Last SupperMost modern conceptions of the Last Supper (largely formed by Da Vinci) has Jesus sitting at the center of a straight-line table, his disciples evenly balanced on each side.  (See Figure 1, above.)  (Let’s set aside, by the way, the fact that that Jesus has an Eastern European look in the painting.  Here, I could go on – employing, of all things, a December, 2002 article from Popular Mechanics on “The Real Face of Jesus”.)

Historian's Last SupperTextual cues and first century, middle eastern customs, though, suggest that the Last Supper occurred in a kataluma – a “furnished” upper room in which a triclinium (a three-sided, u-shaped, reclining table) was a prominent feature.  (See Figure 2, above.)  Jesus and company are not seated.  They recline on their left elbow.  (No wonder that John leans on Jesus’ chest to ask him something in John 13:23!)  And Jesus, as host, is seated not at the center but in the seat of the host (second position in on the left side of the U facing out).  Other textual clues give us a good idea of where John, Judas and Peter were all sitting (or reclining), as well.

While we could go on (and will in these explorations), this is enough to posit some essential starting points in this post:

  • That there is, as Ken Bailey has called it, an “obscurity of the familiar” when it comes to a lot of our Bible reading. That is, we are so familiar (or think we are familiar) with the contours of the Biblical narrative that we miss it’s real shape and message.
  • That a lot of this “obscurity” comes from the media to which we are drawn. Here, I am not speaking of news media.  No, the real curriers of the “fake” here are the seemingly innocent artists and greeting card makers and poets and movie makers who shape our understandings and impressions (of the nativity and Holy Week and the teachings of Christ and…).  Unknowlingly, I suspect, Da Vinci (and others) took the norms of his time and shaped them into his understanding of the Last Supper.  16th Century norms shaped his rendering which then informed us in our 20th Century impressions.
  • So that, the first crucial insight for spiritual formation becomes the crucial need for humility in our engagement of the Scriptures (and Tradition)—being open to the blinders and filters we’ve maintained (mostly in unconscious ways) and asking God to assist us unto a clearer view of Jesus, the Gospels, God, self, others,

Though we could leave it here, I can not help add an interesting footnote—related to recent efforts to restore Da Vinci’s Last Supper.  Writes Dwight Pryor:

In 1498 Leonardo da Vinci painted Jesus and the apostles at the Passover Seder in the light of his own Renaissance culture. When, in the latter part of the 20th century, the painting was carefully cleaned and restored using the lat­est scientific tools and techniques, the colors became much more intense, and it was discovered that, over time, some alterations had been made by subsequent artists. Surprisingly, many people were unhappy with the restoration, preferring instead the traditional, faded image of “The Last Supper.” (Behold the Man, p.11)

gleaningsInteresting, to me, that the restored masterpiece (“fake” as it is a rendering of historical reality) shares something in common with the “original” Last Supper.  Both suffer from a syndrome in which the familiar, though murky, is preferred to the original and real! Fascinating, is it not: that there’s something is us humans that can prefer the familiar and “traditional” (no matter how cloudy and inaccurate) over the real and true – so much so that we can bemoan all efforts to see things more clearly.

Jesus reclining at a U-shaped table:
it may not be that radical an adjustment for us to make.
It may not foster much resentment.
It can point to a fuller dynamic, though,
which should unsettle and drive us to prayer:
“Where, O Lord,
am I, are we, holding
onto the familiar–
so much so that the Real
is being obscured and neglected?!”

4 thoughts on “Moving Beyond “The Obscurity of the Familiar”

  1. wendycrom says:

    I have been contemplating and struggling with what heaven is really like and have been asking God for understanding. I readily admit my limited ability to grasp a complete knowledge of something so far beyond my experiences. How can we look at the Bible without using our own frame of reference?

    • Jim Reiter says:

      Wow! There’s a lot packed into a few sentences!

      I, too, struggle with heaven (and death) and what it all looks like. Parker Palmer suggests it’s part and parcel of our aging like we are. Here, I have to resort to a somewhat frustrating (but still true) fallback for me: “the Bible does not contain all I want to know but everything I need to know unto salvation.”

      And, then, the question of how to approach the Bible with anything other than our frame of reference. Won’t surprise you (and others) here that I would and will resort to “paradox” as a foundation for my position. Yes, we can only come with our frame of reference (as 20th Century Americans) but we can also come with a humility that has us praying that the scales would fall from our eyes. I have oft-quoted Alfred North Whitehead: “Seek simplicity but learn to distrust it.” There’s something in that notion of distrust that is essential. Maybe I’d transpose his words for the sake of this reply: “Employ your frame of reference but learn to distrust it (holding it with suspicion).” Somewhere in all this, we have to hold the tension: embracing and appreciating the “flannel board lady” (as Fleming calls her) who gave us faith in our elementary and introductory days of learning the Bible stories… and, yet, growing to the point when/where we cry with Paul that “now that I have become an adult, I have given up childish ways.”

      I add this last line with some hesitation, by the way — as it can sound like I have advanced significantly beyond childish ways!

      As always, dear Lois, thanks for your reply… and the ways you affirm and stir my own reflectings!

  2. wendycrom says:

    Thank you for your response. I am reading through the Bible again this year and will seek expectantly a strong nudge from the Spirit.

    • Jim Reiter says:

      Yes, the Holy Spirit is essential–the primary teacher!

      But, I would add: the essential place of “good curriculum”… and sitting with others in a community of study and holy conversations!

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