Neighbours, Enemies, Friends

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Bob Booth, I am Your Neighbour, 2010. Oil on canvas.

The story of the Good Samaritan is a familiar one, so much so that its very mention tends to celebrate a comfortable kind of religion as listeners reassure themselves of their place in the story. We should be reminded that in its original context it was a story that was utterly shocking to its first hearers. It dramatically crossed boundaries that were simply inconceivable for those listening. If this parable had been taken seriously, it would have upended cultural and religious conventions that had been carefully policed and reinforced. It is a story that has drawn many artists to re-invigorate in fresh ways both its attraction and its threat. For artist and priest Bob Booth it is a story worth the effort of exploring its potential to upset allegiances and to re-examine values and ethical actions in the contemporary world we inhabit.

Booth takes us into the drama of the story by placing the viewer just above the action, taking in the injured figure, helper and the passers-by. The composition allows our eye to sweep around the scene taking in both human actors and the compressed space of the landscape. Our eye comes to rest, after making this aerial survey, firstly on the hand of the fallen man and then to the hand of the ‘Samaritan’ with a finger decidedly pointing in our direction. We are drawn in, complicit, involved viewers, who are close enough to lend a hand and yet remaining fixed outside the picture plane. It is both a simple and yet complex composition that has been carefully crafted to include us in its sweep. The brush strokes and coloration serve to heighten its dramatic focus and its sensual textured surface emphasises a tender and compassionate moment. This painterly seduction only heightens the tension the viewer feels about a decision on whether to get involved.

The fallen man is somewhat reminiscent of a Christ figure, partly naked with a white cloth over his legs. What is utterly unfamiliar is the facial features of the helper and the skull cap that marks him out as a follower of Islam. Muslim men will often wear the white Taqiyah (Arabic for skull cap) as a sign of respect. This is worn especially during the five periods of prayers required each day. Bob Booth comments: ‘Had the parable of the Good Samaritan been presented in Australia today, I think that there would have been every chance that a Muslim would have taken the title role. I sometimes wonder how we manage to read this parable in church without causing a riot!’ The shock of this painting is appropriate to its original intentions to cross over the sharp divide of social enmity found between Jews and Samaritans. While they shared common ancient traditions, they were passionately divergent about the physical location of the most holy place to worship. Such enmity is echoed in contemporary ways as we have witnessed the terrible acts of violence in New Zealand and then in Sri Lanka during the first half of this year.

Underlying the disturbing shock of this story of hospitality and compassion is the boundary-breaking words and actions of Jesus in upsetting the religious conventions of his day. In the material actions of touching the untouchables, speaking to women in public, challenging religious leaders, breaking the Sabbath, feasting rather than fasting, Jesus enacts a more passionate and generous vision of who God might be. Bob Booth takes this as evidence that Jesus had his eye not on the rules and regulations of religious formalism but on something completely in opposition to such strictures. ‘It seems to me that Jesus was intoxicated with an audacious thought of goodness and beauty, a joy that was set before him for which he would endure anything’. This familiar story is therefore not so much about kindness or the virtues of middle-class niceness, but rather a way of seeing other human beings as being made in the image of God. It is in the encounter with strangers, or even perhaps with enemies, that we find our heart expanded and we see the possibilities of God’s grace at work in the world.

Reposted from ArtWay.

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ROD PATTENDEN IS AN ARTIST, ART HISTORIAN, AND THEOLOGIAN INTERESTED IN THE POWER OF IMAGES. HE LIVES AND WORKS ON AWABAKAL LAND.

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