The Open Bible
This is a painting by Vincent van Gogh that I had not seen before, and being a big van Gogh fan, I was pleasantly surprised to stumble upon it. As it turns out, van Gogh’s father was a Protestant minister, and some believe that this is his Bible. After his father’s death, van Gogh feverishly finished this painting in one day. The snuffed-out candle to the right may symbolize his father’s death and the fact that the flame would no longer illuminate the Bible.
We know through his letters that van Gogh had a difficult relationship with his family and didn’t always embrace the faith of his father and brother, Theo. Van Gogh had pursued ministry until he failed his academic training, which leads him to become disenchanted with the ministry. He left the church for good at the age of 27.
Below the Bible, van Gogh placed a copy of the book, “La joie de vivre” (“The Joy of Living”) by Emile Zola. This book is a cynical exploration of hopelessness and has been called the “bible” for modern life. It was thought to be a favorite of Van Gogh’s. (It also appears in his painting, “Vase with Oleanders and Books.”) It is understood that van Gogh was depicting the antitheses of his father’s Bible by including this book, as they symbolize two different worldviews.
It is hard to see, but the Bible is open to Isaiah 53 (“Isaie” in French). This prophetic chapter identifies Christ as a “Man of Sorrows.” In verse 3, we read that Jesus would be “…despised and rejected by men. A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” Van Gogh lived a troubled life. He suffered rejection, depression, and sorrow. Perhaps van Gogh finally felt like someone understood what he wrestled with?
Or could he be saying that the novel is more relevant than the Bible? The biblical text is hard to read whereas the novel’s title is legible. As a relic of his father’s generation, the Bible sits in the shadows. A symbol of an extinguished age. But the novel is bright, alive. The Bible seems abandoned, neglected. The novel shows wear and tear from use.
It is hard to get into the mind of van Gogh. While he criticized the Bible, saying it was narrow-minded and depressing, we can hope that he was also able to understand that God knew his suffering because God also suffered, as is evident in Isaiah 53. Christianity is the only religion where God suffers. We don’t have to (and cannot) work our way to him so he came to us, and when he became human, he became vulnerable to suffering.
If you are despised, rejected, sorrowful and acquainted with grief, please know that God does not trade your sorrows for more sorrows but instead became a “Man of Sorrows” for the sake of your suffering.
Being Human connection: God invites you to bring your troubles to him because he understands. And while he might not change your circumstances, he changes you amid your circumstances. While he may not give you relief, he will give you himself. And in the end, that is what we really need.
Featured image: “Still Life with Bible,” Vincent van Gogh, October 1885, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.