New York, America, the West: Prodigal Sons

Who’s for the gospel-infused best of Western culture? Korean Christians are. The Museum of Biblical Art is.

At the beginning of October’s first week, Korean evangelist Ock Soo Park spoke at Madison Square Garden, where homegrown evangelist Creflo Dollar often tells listeners to grab as much prosperity as they can. Park examined the New Testament’s parable of the son who scorns his dad, squanders his inheritance, comes to his senses amid poverty and heads home.

Park noted that the prodigal son in the pigpen perhaps thought "he could work hard, get money and go back to the father proudly … but that kind of repentance does not bring change to our lives. The heart must come completely crashing down." Park described the attitude we need: "These ragged clothes, this dirty person, this foolish person, this is me. I’ve tried, I’ve labored, but this is the result."

Park concluded, "So many people today try to decorate themselves before they come before God." Then he added another practical application: "Many Americans have left God. They are filled with their own ambition. We hope that the American people will return to God, that they will awaken from a long sleep."

So the U.S. — perhaps the Western world generally — is a prodigal son. Outside Madison Square Garden that night, I heard the worst of American rap music, with its mantras of murder and misogyny. Inside, framing the sermon, were Korean cellists, violinists and singers communicating to an enthusiastic audience Handel’s gospel message, "Unto us a child is born."

Later last week came the opening of a new exhibit, "The Art of Forgiveness: Images of the Prodigal Son," at New York’s Museum of Biblical Art, 30 blocks uptown from Madison Square Garden. (The exhibit continues until Feb. 17.)

The exhibit includes a Rembrandt etching from 1636, "Return of the Prodigal Son." In it, the father is leaning forward, and the emaciated, almost naked son, with a beastlike face, falls into his father’s arms. Next to the etching is a painting from 1640, with the same title, done by Govaert Flinck, one of Rembrandt’s top students. The father is hurrying to a son who is on his knees and looking away with an expression of shame, unable to make eye contact. Neither Rembrandt nor his pupil prettied up the scene.

Some remarkable works created within the past century are also on display: Christian Rohlfs, Robert Hodgell and Karen Swenholt show sons miserable in sin and fathers yearning in love. A. Malcolm Gimse’s "Prodigal Parent" sculpture powerfully depicts a mother in despair.

Two recent works in the exhibit modernize the story without diminishing it. James Janknegt’s colorful triptych begins with a left panel showing the prodigal in a modern big city sitting next to garbage cans. The middle panel centers on the father in a blue coat rushing to greet the desperate son, while others carry to the prodigal a similar blue coat and a pair of boots. The right panel shows the older son so angry that he’s broken the neck of his guitar.

My favorite recent work at the exhibit is a collage by Texan Mary McCleary, whose materials include painted foil sticks, wire and even lint: "I like the irony of using materials that are often trivial, foolish and temporal to express what is significant, timeless, and transcendent." (Isn’t that what God does with our short-lived frames?)

Her "Prodigal Son" (1996) displays figures in Western garb, boots and all, on a flat terrain under a big sky. The father and the prodigal are reconciling as they sit on metal folding chairs, surrounded by numerous family members and friends — but almost all of them are eating barbecue and partying, not noticing God’s redemption amid this commonplace scene.

I left the museum and walked south, where New York Leather Weekend, filled with prodigal events such as an outdoor fetish festival, was beginning.