Friday, November 26, 2010

Pleasantly Surprised

For one of my seminary classes this quarter I've had to read The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen. It's essentially an interpretation of the parable of the prodigal son through the lens of a painting of the same name by Rembrandt. The class the for which the reading was assigned is certainly not one of my favorites. In fact, I usually find myself trudging through the four hours of class time each week, watching the clock, until I can leave. The content of the course is a bit to touchy-feely for me. It's got a "connect with your feelings" type of feel, and that's just not my thing, nor do I think it's really a biblical way to go about things, such as spiritual growth.

Before I read the book, I wasn't really looking forward to reading it. I had heard some things about Henri Nouwen that didn't really excite me, and I've read some things by people I have significant theological disagreements with who cite Nouwen in their work. Needless to say, I thought the book would be a bummer at best, and make me angry at worst. I was wrong on both accounts. It was a really good read.

Nouwen presents a lot of biographical information about the artist, Rembrandt, and weaves it into the painting, and also into the parable. Fascinating stuff, really. He makes a lot of great connections that I had never thought of before, probably because I was too familiar with the parable to be able to see them myself (specifically, I thought the connection of the older son to a Pharisaic, legalistic worldview was very interesting, and probably spot on - I'd never heard this interpretation before). If you think you know the parable of the prodigal son, let me assure you, there is always more to learn and new insights to gain. And this book is a great way to do just that.

A few warnings for you, though, should you choose to look at the book: 1) it's always a dangerous thing to try to interpret scripture through something else, such as a particular worldview, political bent, painting, music, etc. It's one step further away from the unadulterated truth. I'm not saying it can't be done, but it should be done extremely carefully, and rarely. Scripture can always speak for itself. It doesn't need anything else to communicate. Nouwen does a good job with this in his book, though, and he notes a few places where the painting is inadequate. 2) There is a section in the book about God as mother that I wasn't too fond of. Thankfully, this section is short and doesn't really influence the rest of Nouwen's work. 3) Much like my class, I think there are times when Nouwen brings too much emotion into the picture, and not enough scripture or theology.

The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen. Check it out.

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