The Many-Faced Painting: A Parable

Reach by Kevin Conor Keller - ordinaryfoxThere was once a grand and beautiful painting created by a genius artist. He gave this painting to his students before departing this world. The students wrote many lessons regarding the deep symbolism of the painting and various sayings of their inspiring teacher. The painting was not only the unification and culmination of their writings, but of all of the cosmos and life itself.

In order to share the image with other countries, duplicates of the painting were made with extreme attention to detail. The written texts continued to be passed down from generation to generation along with copies of the painting. Over the years, the painting was framed in many different ways: sometimes it contained a simple wooden frame, other times its frame was gilded with gold and ornate carvings. Various regions created frames depending on what materials were available to them.

One group that had received a duplicate painting, and had preserved it for many generations, gradually began to change parts of the painting with each generation. They felt that certain aspects of it were more important and so they would enlarge those parts while diminishing others. Many centuries passed and the painting took on a rather grotesque character. While it still possessed some of its original features, several members of this group became disgusted with its deformity.

They consulted the written texts and a handful of them decided to completely scrap the painting and begin anew. They excitedly presented the people with a new painting based solely on their interpretation of the texts. But after a few short years, the people began to disagree with one another regarding how the painting should actually look. They were infatuated with the novel idea that the painting could be redone according to one’s own taste and judgment. That “freedom,” of course, resulted in the formation of hundreds of sects, each of which created a painting based on the ancient written texts they received, and each proclaiming it was identical to the original prototype.

After centuries, the sects numbered in the tens of thousands with as many mutations of this painting floating around. Some people became disgusted with it and gave up on ever knowing how the original painting appeared. Others wrote elegant-sounding books speaking of how all of these thousands of variations and deformities actually brought us closer to the original, which was an argument most people could reasonably see was untrue. Still others taught that humanity was becoming more enlightened, therefore as the painting changed to resemble the modern people painting it, it progressed closer to truth. Therefore, they taught, even if the original prototype were discovered, it should be relegated as a quaint artifact of the past, completely irrelevant to us sophisticated and enlightened people.

Some dissatisfied people traveled to the East where it was rumored the original painting had been painstakingly preserved by devout followers. When the original was discovered, the reactions varied. Some people despised it, saying it looked nothing like the various paintings they were accustomed to seeing in their own country, therefore it couldn’t be the original. Others argued that the frame was far too elaborate, while another group argued that because the frame and presentation changed over time the painting couldn’t be identical to the original. The majority of those who were dissatisfied felt that way simply because the image didn’t appear how they imagined it should look. There were also an unfortunate few who outwardly embraced the original image, but quickly decided it should be re-framed, presenting frames that obscured the painting, damaged it, or did not harmonize with it.

A few, however, shook off their pride and bias and were then able to behold the beauty and majesty of the image for what it was. They could see how it was the culmination of the ancient written texts in their possession. It guided them in their understanding of the texts and unified everything in their daily life and the entire cosmos into one profound narrative.

The Explanation:

The above parable is probably obvious in meaning, but I’ll discuss a few points.

The painting is a symbol for the Church, her theology, and the oral tradition and teachings that have been passed down from generation to generation — all of which are inseparable. They give life and unity to the ancient texts and even our existence. The written texts represent the Bible.

The frame of the painting represents various cultures, languages, and terms used to explain the painting. Not only does it represent cultural groups (Greeks, Russians, Antiochians, etc), but it symbolizes language and terms employed to describe the faith. Some people study Orthodoxy and patristic theology from a “scholastic” perspective and they teach that Orthodox theology has evolved, when often it is simply the vocabulary that evolves while the fathers are truly saying the same things.

The group that changed the painting represents the Roman Catholics, who preserved the image faithfully for several centuries but then gradually corrupted it over time.

The group that broke away from them represents the Protestants who attempted to reconstruct the painting (that is, the church and theology) based on a handful of texts they had in their possession. Because the texts can be interpreted in nearly an infinite number of ways, they quickly fell into schism.

The Eastern Orthodox Church is the group that maintained the original image; those who traveled East are inquirers into the Church. Many feel uncomfortable with it because it doesn’t appear the way they think church should. Those who claim the frame needs to be overhauled are those who, upon joining the Church, desire to bring in their old Protestant or Roman Catholic ideas and merge them with the painting (they could even be “cradle” Orthodox who are heavily influenced by modern culture). They are unable to perceive that the frames which they are creating are crude and only serve to obscure and damage the image.

Those who are eventually able to fully embrace the image for what it is, without attempting to make large changes to the frame, are people who find themselves growing in the beauty of the Church. It is this transformation that should be the aim for us all: that we move toward the divine prototype and allow ourselves to be changed by it, rather than attempting to cast it in our own image.  By doing so we become bearers of the Image itself and enter into the perpetual divine life simultaneously shared by all generations.

Image credit: Kevin Conor Keller

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