Da Vinci's "Last Supper" Already "Coded"

Monday, December 26, 2005

Why all the fuss?

Since Dan Brown's mystery thriller The Da Vinci Code (Doubleday, 2003) first appeared, people have asked a lot of questions, especially regarding Leonardo da Vinci's world-famous painting, "The Last Supper." Is the feminine-looking figure sitting just to the right of Christ really the apostle John, as traditionally believed, or is it instead Mary Magdalene?

The answer may be boring, in that it is drained of mystery and intrigue, but it is nevertheless so obvious that it rings true. The coming of the film version of "The Da Vinci Code," starring Tom Hanks, prompts renewed interest in this subject that should by now have been laid to rest.

The Fresco's Context

Keep in mind that Da Vinci painted this 460x880 cm (15x29 feet) fresco on the wall of the dining hall of the Santa Maria delle Grazie convent in Milan in 1498. His masterpiece is ingenius in many ways, not the least in its dramatic realism, enhanced by the way in which Da Vinci paints the perspective of the background as a continuation of the room in which it resides (see photo below).

Instead of assigning a halo to Jesus, he sillhouettes him by the light entering through a window behind him. Da Vinci groups the 12 apostles in four clusters of three, six on either side of Jesus. Except for the replacement of roman-style dining couches with contemporary table and chairs, Da Vinci closely follows the biblical narrative. His fresco is a snapshot of the moment after Jesus announces a traitor is in their midst. Listen for the click of Leonardo's "camera shutter" in the following excerpt from John 13:21-26:

After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, "I tell you the truth, one of you is going to betray me."

His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant. One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, "Ask him which one he means." [**CLICK**]

Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, "Lord, who is it?"

Jesus answered, "It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish." Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, son of Simon.

The Biblical Context

Da Vinci captures the immediate emotional reaction of the disciples, employing conventional gestures for surprise, interrogation, and perhaps even indignation. We see the disciples reacting to Jesus' revelation in the ways the Bible describes. See also the parallel passages: Matthew 26:21-25; Mark 14:18-21; Luke 22:22-23.

For hundreds of years scholars have agreed that "the disciple whom Jesus loved" (John 13:23; 19:26-27; 20:2-8; 21:7, 20-24) is the way in which the Apostle John refers to himself in the Fourth Gospel. The Apostle John, prominent in the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), is otherwise absent from the Gospel of John, except for an oblique reference to "the sons of Zebedee" in John 21:2. Scholars agree that his self-characterization as "The Beloved Disciple" is not an egotistical claim that he is worthy of an inside track with Jesus, but rather a Christ-exalting expression that though he was entirely unworthy, yet he was showered with the Savior's love. Add to this a few references to "another disciple" (John 1:35-40; 18:15-16; 19:35) which also appear to be autobiographical (John 20:1-9 merges the "Beloved Disciple" with the "other disciple"), and we gain a composite picture of the author of the Fourth Gospel.

Could this "other disciple," this "Beloved Disciple" be, in fact, Mary Magdalene? The biblical evidence is decisive against this hypothesis. In Greek, the definite article, translated into English as "the," has gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter) and number (singular, plural, or dual), in agreement with the nouns, pronouns, or participles they accompany. In all of the verses cited above, the "the" attached to either "the other disciple" or "the disciple whom Jesus loved" is uniformly masculine, never feminine. Furthermore, identifying Mary Magdalene with "the disciple whom Jesus loved" makes nonsense out of John 20:1-18, especially verses 10-11a: "Then the disciples [Peter and the Beloved Disciple] went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying." She cannot go and stay simultaneously.

Why so feminine a figure?

This "Beloved Disciple," obviously a man, in the Fourth Gospel, is the one Peter buttonholes at the Last Supper and demands, "Ask Him which one He means" (John 13:24). Why does he look like a woman in Da Vinci's portrayal of that moment?

A reasonable inference based on John 21:20-24's testimony that John outlived Simon Peter by many years holds that John must have been considerably younger than Peter, or for that matter most or all of the other apostles. The earliest writings after the New Testament indicate that John lived on into the early second century. If he was about 20 at the time of the crucifixion, he would have been around 90 in the year 100. We could allow him to be a little older or a little younger, but not by much either way.

Sitting beside Jesus in the rennaissance master's "The Last Supper" is a figure portrayed as a young man, using the conventions typical of that day: fair features, no beard, and slight body. We find similar depictions of young men in Leonardo's other paintings.

In his two depictions of John the Baptist, for example, painted sometime between 1510 and 1516, we find a beardless youth. Even within "The Last Supper" itself, Da Vinci's portrait of Philip is similarly androgynous.

Want to go deeper? Compare Da Vinci with his fellow artists

A survey of paintings of the Last Supper just before and just after Da Vinci's demonstrates how stereotyped were depictions of John, who is regularly depicted as a young man, nearly always asleep next to Jesus. Once again, breaking with convention, Leonardo depicts him as only very sleepy. Some of these depictions actually label John and the other disciples.

The Place of Mary Magdalene

It is abundantly clear, therefore, that Da Vinci's figure beside Jesus is John, son of Zebedee, not Mary Magdalene. Her place in history, however, is secure. She was the first human being to witness the resurrection of Christ, and responding obediently to the Savior's commission recorded in John 20:17, she served, as one scholar has put it, as "the apostle to the apostles." To make her into something else does not elevate her, but degrades her.

Da Vinci Decoded

Da Vinci's "Last Supper" is certainly coded, not with enigmatic images of a clandestine relationship between Jesus and Mary, but with the pathos of the Night of Betrayal. The hidden meaning that reaches us more than 500 years later is, "Is it I? Am I the one who will betray Him?"

The magnificent fresco pierces our heart and conscience with these probing questions. Are we, like John, hardly even conscious of the Lord's challenge? Will we, with false bravado, join our voices to those disciples who are saying, "I'll never deny You," or like Peter, go even further, "Even if all the others fall away, I never will"? Or, like Judas Iscariot, do we lean back in surprise, grasping tightly to our bag of money?

I believe that Leonardo intended for everyone who sat in that Milan dining hall, and by extension, all of us, to be, not detached spectators, but participants in the Last Supper. This is the true Da Vinci Code, and the mystery of "The Last Supper." What will I do with Jesus?

Steve Singleton, DeeperStudy.com
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Creationism and atheism "by any other name"

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

intelligent design doverThe case of Kitzmiller v. Dover (ruling made on Dec. 20, 2005) concerned whether Intelligent Design (ID) could be mentioned as an alternative explanation to evolution in a ninth-grade biology class. The school board had directed that the following statement be read in the class:

The Pennsylvania Academic Standards require students to learn about Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and eventually to take a standardized test of which evolution is a part.

Because Darwin’s Theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.

Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view. The reference book, Of Pandas and People, is available for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually involves.

With respect to any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the Origins of Life to individual students and their families. As a Standards-driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on Standards-based assessments.

District Court Judge John Jones, himself a regular church-goer, ruled that ID is only Creationism relabeled, and as such is definitely promoting a particular religious view that includes belief in the God of Christianity. Judge Jones noted that the testimony of expert witnesses for the defendants (the Dover Area School Board) confirmed the religious mission of ID organizations. He further pointed out that the 1987 Supreme Court decision in Edwards v. Arkansas has already declared the teaching of "scientific creationism" in public schools as unconstitutional. After Edwards, the editors of the ID textbook, Of Pandas and People merely changed the numerous references to creation and creationism in prior editions to Intelligent Design, with no other change of the content. His conclusion: since the teaching of "scientific creationism" in public schools is unconstitutional, and since Intelligent Design is "scientific creationism" with a new label, teaching in public schools it is also unconstitutional.

Further, Judge Jones said that while ID "may be true, a proposition on which the court takes no position, ID is not science." This is because science by definition "is limited to empirical, observable and ultimately testable data.... [Its] explanations are restricted to those that can be inferred from the confirmable data – the results obtained through observations and experiments that can be substantiated by other scientists. Anything that can be observed or measured is amenable to scientific investigation. Explanations that cannot be based upon empirical evidence are not part of science." Judge Jones agreed with the plaintiffs that selecting a supernatural explanation is a "science-stopper," because "once you attribute a cause to an untestable supernatural force, a proposition that cannot be disproven, there is no reason to continue seeking natural explanations as we have our answer."

No doubt this ruling will serve as precedent for future and pending creation vs. evolution cases throughout the country and will have a chilling effect on attempts by local school boards to introduce alternative explanations to macroevolution and its underlying religion, secular materialism (atheism relabeled). The truth is that as long ago as 1859, Louis Pasteur irrefutably proved that spontaneous generation never occurs. We stake our lives on this truth every time we open a can of peas. To claim that life arose spontaneously in the past when experiments in the present demonstrate it is impossible is not science. It is not testable; it is incapable of experimental disconfirmation.

Yet secular materialism continues, not only to be taught, but in the public school science classroom to enjoy a monopoly sanctioned by court rulings such as Kitzmiller.

Of course, this will not muzzle discussions of Intelligent Design. Several members of the Dover Area School Board who backed use of the above statement lost their reelection bids on Nov. 8, replaced by members opposed to the policy. The president of the new board, Bernadette Reinking, has revealed that the board now plans to remove ID from the science curriculum and place it in an elective social studies class.

Want to go deeper?

To learn more about Intelligent Design and the ID movement, check out the writings of Phillip E. Johnson, the man regarded as the founder of ID:

Also valuable is Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution by Michael Behe.

Steve Singleton, DeeperStudy.com
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Lion, Witch, Wardrobe, and Gospel

Monday, December 12, 2005

The Chronicles of Narnia, a seven-volume saga for children by C. S. Lewis, reveals a world that exists parallel to our own, populated by men and women, dwarves and talking animals, giants and merpeople, centaurs and fauns, and ruled by a kind but awesomely ferocious and gigantic lion named Aslan. Lewis, who died on the same day as JFK, November 22, 1963, combined the three passions of his life—classical mythology, medieval lore, and Christian-based philosophy—to create in Narnia a microcosm of the moral struggles our own world faces.

Characters and plot

Along with Aslan himself, the heroes of the Narnia books are the four Pevensie children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. Taken away from their London home to avoid the Nazi bombings, they are boarded with an elderly bachelor professor in this rambling mansion in the country.

While playing hide-and-seek, Lucy, the youngest at age 8, hides in an old wardrobe filled with racks of overcoats. Moving farther back to escape detection, she pushes her way past the coats, expecting to hit against the back of the wardrobe at any moment. Lucy feels instead the boughs of evergreen trees, hears the crunch of snow at her feet, and sees in the distance the glow of a lamppost just like those she had seen many times back in London.

This marks the beginning of the four siblings' many adventures in Narnia. Each of the books, though loosely connected to the others, can also stand alone. Eventually we learn where the lamppost came from and how the wardrobe became a portal. We also learn more about Aslan, what it takes to be his friend, and who his enemies are.

The deeper meaning

For those who know to watch for it, Lewis has filled Narnia, not only with interesting characters, majestic scenery, and exciting action, but also with Christian allegory. Aslan himself represents Jesus Christ, "the lion of the tribe of Judah" (Revelation 7:14). The Pevensie children eventually become so much at home in Narnia that they see it as their native land and this world as the place where they are visitors. Lewis, in his books on Christian apologetics, describes the spiritual world as existing parallel to the physical one, having the quality of being, not shadowy and insubstantial as compared to physicality, but more real, more colorful, and much, much more alive.

As Paul explains,

...many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.... --Philippians 3:18-20 (see also Hebrews 11:13-16).

The Disney movie

The first book of the seven, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, is now the subject of a major motion picture produced by Walt Disney Pictures & Walden Media and directed by Andrew Adamson. At the climax of the story is a beautiful sacrifice, Lewis's pictures the death of Christ. If you go to the movie, watch for the breaking of the Stone Table, which symbolizes how Christ's death and resurrection brought about the end of the Law of Moses by meeting its demands for blood atonement. Watch also for the role Susan and Lucy play in witnessing the death and revival of Aslan, corresponding to the historical role women played as mourners at Jesus' death and burial and as the first witnesses of His resurrection. The professor helps Peter and Susan to sort through how to receive Lucy's testimony about Narnia: if she's not a liar and she's not crazy, then logically, she must be telling the truth. This corresponds to the testimony Jesus gave about His own identify, and the testimony His follows gave about Him—what Lewis elsewhere describes as the trilemma about Jesus: is He Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?

Another significant parallel is this: Aslan's loyal followers play a significant role in the battle against the White Witch. Like our own spiritual warfare, Christ ensures the final victory, but calls on His followers to engage personally in the fight. For passages relevant to that conflict, see Ephesians 6:10-18; 2 Corinthians 10:3-5; 1 Timothy 1:18-20; 1 Timothy 6:12; and 2 Timothy 4:7).

Plans are for six more movies to follow this first one, in which the rest of the history of Narnia unfolds. If they are as faithful to the books and well-conceived and produced as this one was, all of us diehard Lewis fans welcome them as an introduction of Narnia to a jaded world. We hope that viewers will grasp and appreciate the allegorical features as much as they do the surface story. The goal is not only to know about Aslan and Narnia, but to become His friend and subject and to live in His realm forever.

Want to go deeper?

Here are three papers on the allegory of Narnia:

If you want to purchase and read your own copy of The Chronicles of Narnia, they are available in a variety of editions, from the one-volume edition in softcover to the seven-volume boxed set in either hardback or softcover. Available also is the Official Illustrated Movie Companion for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, with photos from the movie and interviews of the director and cast members, as well as E. J. Kirk's Beyond the Wardrobe: The Official Guide to Narnia. (All of these links give you access to substantial discounts, from 24% to 33% off the retail prices.)

Steve Singleton, DeeperStudy.com
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Imagine with John Lennon

Thursday, December 08, 2005

On this 25th anniversary of the murder of John Lennon, which also happens to be my 54th birthday, I invite you to "imagine" along with John and me: "Imagine there's no heaven, it's easy if you try/No hell below us, above us only sky./Imagine all the people living for today.... You may say that I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one./I hope someday you'll join us, and the world will live as one."

27040X: What if Jesus Had Never Been Born?What would it be like if heaven and hell didn't exist? And if they didn't exist, then Jesus Christ would never have been born; what would the world be like if that were true? Would we be better off? Would the world truly "live as one" if Christ and His religion had never come along?

D. James Kennedy has written an excellent book that explores just these hypotheticals: What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? He explores all of the benefits that Jesus and His followers have brought to the world. These include:

  • Hospitals
  • Universities
  • Literacy and education for the masses
  • Abolition of slavery, both in antiquity and in more modern times
  • Modern science
  • Hospitals
  • The elevation of women
  • Benevolence and charity; the good Samaritan ethic
  • The elevation of the common person
  • The condemnation of adultery, homosexual practices, and sexual perversions of many kinds, which has helped to preserve the human race
  • The codifying and setting to writing of many of the world's languages
  • Greater development of art and music, including the inspiration for many of the greatest works of art
  • The countless changed lives transformed from liabilities into assets to society because of the gospel

Yet Kennedy also doesn't shy away from the tough issues, like the bloodshed of the crusades, the tortures of the Spanish Inquisition, and Christian anti-semitism. It's a good read; I highly recommend it.

For myself, I don't even attempt to defend everything that has operated on this planet under the aegis of Jesus Christ; I freely admit that much of it has been abominable. "Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light," the Apostle has said in 2 Corinthians 11:14. Like Kennedy, I believe we must distinguish between Christianity and "Christendom." The former is defensible; the latter often isn't.

I just wonder, however, can anyone really imagine that the world would be better off without Jesus? Nearly all of the criticism I hear (hypocrisy, greed, sectarian "holy wars," etc.) is against those who aren't really following Him. If you removed Christ and Christian influence from the world, the result would be a nightmare a million times worse than what happens in Frank Capra's film, "It's a Wonderful Life," when the angel shows George Bailey what his town would have been like if he had never been born.

Jesus wants the world to be one, just like John Lennon did. But He recognized that it needed redemption for the unifying process to take hold. John seemed to think that if we de-Godify the world and leave people to their own devices, they would do the right thing and unify in peace, brotherhood, and sisterhood. I don't think so.

Even those who can't bring themselves to believe in God or in His Son have plenty of evidence to believe in the existence of evil. Christianity did not cause it, that's for sure. When people practice the Christianity Jesus announced and the primitive church implemented, the world gets better, more loving, less violent and abusive, brighter with hope.

Maybe if John hadn't been gunned down on December 8, 1980, he would have changed his mind about what causes the world's turmoil, and what dispels it. Jesus said, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid" (John 14:27). A better promise, given by the Prince of Peace Himself, is hard to imagine.

Steve Singleton, DeeperStudy.com
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Sparrow and 4 million dominoes:
Any lessons here?

Thursday, December 01, 2005

You may have heard about the untimely death of a European house sparrow in Amsterdam recently. An exterminator shot it dead with an air rifle as it cowered in the corner of an exposition center. The bird had knocked over a domino after flying in through an open window. Unfortunately for the bird, the domino fell onto another domino, and it hit another, and so on until more than 23,000 dominoes went down.

Actually, the disaster could have been much worse. Employees of the Endemol NV television company had spent weeks with the goal of setting up more than 4 million dominoes in order to beat the world record on 2005 Domino Day, November 18. They only had 200,000 dominoes to go when the bird knocked one (er, 23,000-plus) over.

Fortunately, the team of employees had built into their chains 750 gaps to prevent just such a catastrophes from causing them all to "lose their marbles." After the bird expired, they reset the downed dominoes and added the remaining ones, so that they actually did beat the world record by toppling 4,002,136 dominoes on schedule, breaking their own record from Domino Day last year.

When I heard of this incident, I asked myself, Are there any spiritual lessons in the "Winged Toppler" event? Serious mulling-over time has brought me to conclude that there are.

A chain of moral cause and effect

Like a row of dominoes on end, God has established a cause-and-effect relationship between our moral choices and their consequences. The Bible explains this in a number of passages. The Apostle Paul says:

God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please the flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. --Galatians 6:7-8

Later he wrote, "Don't you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey--where you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?" (Romans 6:16). A few verses later he establishes the two alternate chains: offering your body to sin, which leads to slavery to impurity, then to ever-increasing wickedness; or offering your body to righteousness, which leads to holiness.

We never see it coming

Often when we find our lives disintegrating around us, we are puzzled. To us it seems like just one little thing goes wrong—like the bird landing on the domino—and everything around them starts to topple.

We don't perceive that it is all connected. Drinking too much leads to insulting a stranger in a bar. That leads to a fight in the back alley, which leads to pulling out the K-bar. That leads to a stabbing, which leads to running from a whole gang of the guy's friends. All from having one or two too many. If this is what is going on in your life, don't blame the sparrow (the trigger event). It was all set up beforehand by the choices you made.

People often assume that they lost their job or their marriage ended because of one little thing that happened. That's almost never true. The sparrow didn't knock down all of the dominoes, only one. We are the ones who set them up.

James, the half-brother of Jesus, explains a related set:

Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. --James 1:14-15

Notice in this text that God has built in some safety gaps. Christians are encouraged to learn that: "God is faithful: he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it" (1 Corinthians 10:13). When we recognize evil desire in our heart, we have a chance to stop the reaction before it responds to enticement. We can stop enticement before it develops into sin, and sin before it grows out of control. God put those gaps in the process for our benefit.

Positive chains

In a similar way, we can participate in erecting chains that will have a positive impact on our lives and the lives of others. What you invest in your life will bring returns. This includes how you spend your time, what you purchase with your income, what you choose to think about and talk about. Every one of these things is a domino in the exposition hall of your life. Added all together, they constitute a world-record long chain reaction for good.

And in this case, Jesus Christ himself is the sparrow, or rather He is the master-designer of the toppling dominoes. "While we were still sinners" He loved us and gave Himself up for us, setting off a chain reaction that will continue into eternity, unless we ourselves create the gaps.

The shooting of that house sparrow set off its own chain reaction. Now the company faces a hefty fine; the bird was on the endangered species list.

Want to go deeper?

Contemplation about why God has established such moral cause-and-effect chain reactions ultimately leads to meditation about the cross of Jesus Christ. Just as my sin can have tremendously devastating effects in my own life, in the lives of my family and friends, even in the lives of total strangers or of generations yet unborn, so God has arranged that the willing sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the only perfect human being and God Incarnate, can bring tremendous blessing into the world (study Romans 5:12-19). If you want to explore more about the wacky world of domino toppling, here is the site all about the annual event, "Domino Day."

Steve Singleton, DeeperStudy.com
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