Monday, March 02, 2015

Recap of the Worship Symposium I Attended Last Month...


A Video Recap of Symposium 2015 from Calvin Worship Institute on Vimeo.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption: A response

When I used to teach marriage conferences with my late coauthor, we drew on John Gottman’s research-based work that identifies the four most damaging patterns in marriage: withdrawal, escalation, invalidation, and negative interpretation. In the case of the latter, “no good deed goes unpunished.” If a husband brings home movie tickets for his wife, she assumes he bought them only because he wanted to see the film. If she buys him a pair of boots, he assumes she did so because she thinks his shoes are ugly.  In the words of my father, “Damned if you do; damned if you don’t.”

Negative interpretation, like the other three communication patterns, is lethal to a marriage. And what negative interpretation is to a marriage, Kathryn Joyce’s book The Child Catchers is to evangelicals in the world of adoption.

That word “Gospel” in the title was clearly chosen for its semantic domain. Indeed, the dust jacket makes the connection overtly: the abusers of the adoption system are the “tens of millions of evangelicals to whom adoption is the new front in the culture wars.”  

Let me state up front that I’m the parent of an adoptee, and I believe in adoption: bias number one. And I’m an evangelical: bias numero dos. Yet while these two truths about me could not help but influence how I read Kathryn Joyce’s book, I agreed with much of what she had to say. So much so that I think those involved in the adoption triand should read her work. The fact is, Christians and adoption could benefit from a course correction.

In my husband’s capacity as East Africa field leader for East-West Ministries—which has a child sponsorship program in Kitale, Kenya—one of his tasks is to find sponsors to help keep kids in school. For children with no living parents, the African nationals who do the work on the ground have seen to it that all orphaned children stay with their extended biological families. The child sponsorships help make this possible for poor people. And parentless children who have no extended families to care for them go to the homes of their local church members. No one goes to an orphanage. And no one comes to America. We are committed to keeping these children in their home communities. Why? No one should lose access to a family member just because that family is poor.

But enter the millionaire do-gooders. They come along and, without consulting the local churches or organizations, erect orphanages and put their names on them. And some nationals see filling those orphanages as a way to get Western funds. So the would-be saviors inflict harm and feel good about it. 

Indeed, often Westerners’ wealth contributes to corruption. Poverty-stricken parents may be told their children have been offered an education program. Only later do these parents learn that the “exchange program” they signed up for legally terminated their parental rights.

About such situations Joyce writes, “Western parents continue to display an incredible willingness to believe the stories of their children’s provenance despite the fact that so many read as remarkably the same: hundreds of children allegedly left on police station doorsteps, swaddled in blankets and waiting to be found—a modern-day version of Moses’ basket among the reeds. In reality, the abandonment of babies is not such a common occurrence.”

Up to this point in the paragraph I agreed. But then she added, “But among Christian adopters lining up, the stories usually go unchallenged” (133). Yet she knows the phenomenon is not unique to Christians. 

Only a few pages earlier, she had written about a birthmother saying that “unless she placed her child for adoption with a Mormon family, she would not get to the highest level of heaven” (124). She lumps in Mormons with evangelicals?

Joyce tells stories of corruption and injustice that include even Angelina Jolie (136), whose efforts the author sees as misguided—a reference that might be fine if the book was broadly about adoption. But it’s about adoption and how evangelicals have messed up.  So basically, the author has gathered all the negative examples she can find and blamed the entire fire in Rome on the Christians. Never mind that many of the people in her stories who suffer at the hands of unethical adoption brokers are Christians themselves.

At times it seems Joyce is driven to bring up every beef she’s ever had with evangelicals. In one chapter she criticizes the campaign to get rid of Kony (what does that have to do with adoption?), likening it to Christian fad advocacy (40). She makes Christians guilty by association (there's lots of guilt by association in this book) with the “Orphan Train” of the Children’s Aid Society (45). She accuses Rick Warren of grandstanding (53) and assigns ill motives to those whose intentions she can’t know. She describes the movement within Christendom toward adoption as “a way for conservatives to demonstrate their compassionate side, making their antiabortion activism seem more truly pro-life (56). She cynically describes microbusinesses as  being “money-making ventures” (150). You get the idea.

If someone does approach adoption in a way that she considers just or right, she uses words with negative nuances to describe the way they dress or wear their hair. She accuses Christians of not helping birth mothers. So the reader might expect that she would applaud the work of Pregnancy Resource Centers (PRCs) with their free services that include sonograms, classes, cribs, and diaper bags. But no Christians get a free pass. Instead, Joyce quotes a critic’s assessment of PRC’s: “They say they want to help people in a crisis pregnancy, but really, they want to help themselves to a baby.” The facts do not bear this out. Adoption discussions are rare in PRCs, which focus on helping birthmothers parent.

Like a good journalist, Joyce interviews people on both sides of a story. But then she always sides with the person criticizing the adoptive parents (e.g., 122). Part of her bias is that she is self-described as “secular and pro-choice”—so much so that she cannot seem to imagine that someone else could hold an opposite point of view from her and simultaneously be a reasonable person.

All this bias is bad. Especially because she says some things we need to hear, and her inability to judge fairly gets in the way of her journalism.  

Still, I committed to sorting through her negative interpretations. And having done so, I found that I agreed with about 70 percent of her analysis. We evangelicals have made some mistakes—some big, huge, gaping-wound ones—in the world of adoption. The following areas are where I had points of agreement with her.

We should be able to assume that Christians have the highest standards of ethics and justice. But believers have often been so focused on rescuing that we've even bent the rules, justifying our behavior by pointing to the desperate kids. In the process we hurt our testimony and provide an incentive for corruption.

Birthparents and adoptees need better advocates. The people in the adoption equation with money are usually adoptive parents, not birth parents. Thus, the laws are more skewed toward adoptive parents’ rights, not birth parents’, and certainly not the adoptees. Because of this power differential, Christians should be on the front lines speaking up for those who can’t speak for themselves (Prov. 31:8).

Money corrupts. Anytime we show up with money in a context of deep poverty, we provide an incentive for corruption. That is not to say we should not show up. But it does mean we should have many checks and balances in place, and we must serve the nationals on the ground who know their subcultures better than outsiders do. And we should never give money to people to do things they could do for themselves.

It is in the best interest of families for them to stay together. We should be more focused on keeping families together than rushing kids into the arms of waiting families. The trauma that comes from having kids taken away, from being ripped away from parents, from losing a community connection—these stay with people for life and leave gaping wounds. We should look to adoption only as a last resort. When nations slow their process of approving international adoptions in order to better investigate the babies' backgrounds, we should be slow to criticize.

We should cry rather than only rejoicing. When a new family is formed by adoption, that pronouncement evidences someone’s brokenness. And this is where human adoption differs significantly from our spiritual adoption. God created us in the first place. So when we become his children through adoption, we are actually twice his. Thus, spiritual adoption is a picture of restoration. Not so with human adoption. While it reflects deep unconditional love and choice on the part of the parent, it still does not picture restoration. Rather, it is sometimes a good solution to a tragic situation. But we often deny the tragedy.

If Jesus is the truth, we should be zealous about truth-telling. That means we stop exaggerating the number of children available for adoption. It also means we go to great lengths to verify that a child actually has no parents when we classify him or her as an “orphan.”

We must stop “caring for orphans” at the expense of widows. We wrongly separate the phrase “widows and orphans” (Jas. 1:27); the two often go together. In many parts of the world, when the dad/husband disappears for whatever reason, the family gets split up. So our compassion to widows should involve fighting to keep that family together rather than guilting destitute moms into giving their kids a “better life.” It is bad enough to lose a spouse; but to lose a child because you lost a spouse…and to lose that child only because you are poor—Christians! We must do a better job of speaking up for the widow! Sending such a child to richer parents is not the best way to care for widows—or orphans.

We need a more accurate understanding of biblical adoption. We say adoption is a biblical concept, but often there’s a big gap between what we mean by “adoption” and what the biblical writers meant. We use Moses as an example of adoption, but Moses is actually an example of a failed adoption. Through his story we see that children never stop identifying with their people—a good reason to keep families together. God used Moses’s tragedy for good, but that does not make what happened to him a beautiful thing. Moses’s separation from his family of origin was a disaster caused by great evil. 

We use Esther as a biblical example of adoption. But Esther was raised by a family member, not strangers.

In all the laws laid out for the people of Israel, everything from instructions about textiles to medical concerns, not one word is written, not one law dictated, about adoption. People dealt with infertility either by resorting to polygamy (e.g., Hannah, 1 Samuel 1) or levirate marriage. People dealt with the death of parents through extended family. In either case the inheritance stayed within the family unit.

  
Before Abraham impregnated Hagar or Sarah, he assumed Eliezer would inherit his goods (Gen. 15:3). At that time, the whole point of adoption was that a man needed a male heir—and he found an adult male if he had no son. The emphasis was on inheritance. It was not about a little child entering a new family and being nurtured as if that child were their own.

Some see adoption in Psalm 2:7: “I will proclaim the LORD’s decree: He said to me, 'You are my son; today, I have become your father.'” The emphasis here is on the Father’s choice. And also on inheritance. Think of this in Messianic terms: The Son who was already the Son inherits all the Father has—the world.

In the intertestament period, Julius Caesar made provision in his will—that is, posthumously—to adopt his great-nephew, Gaius Octavius Thurinus, 19, known to us as Octavian, or more likely, Caesar Augustus. This legal pronouncement made Augustus the heir. Everyone in the world of Paul and John, the two New Testament writers who spoke of adoption, would have known this.

In the New Testament, Paul writes, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery leading again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself bears witness to our spirit that we are God’s children. And if children, then heirs (namely, heirs of God and also fellow heirs with Christ)…  (Rom. 8:15–17). Note the contrast with slavery and the connection of adoption with inheritance.  


Inheritance is not the first thing Westerners think of when we adopt, but it would have been an integral part of the New Testament writers’ perceptions of adoption. 

In Galatians 4:4–5, Paul writes, “But when the appropriate time had come, God sent out his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we may be adopted as sons with full rights.” Notice the emphasis on rights. The contrast would be with slavery, in which a person had no rights, not even to his or her own body.   

In Ephesians 1: 5–6 we read that God “did this [choosing us] by predestining us to adoption as his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the pleasure of his will— to the praise of the glory of his grace that he has freely bestowed on us in his dearly loved Son.” The emphasis here is on God’s choice, not ours. We did nothing.

In short, while biblical adoption is secondarily about love and affection, it is primarily a picture of choice and benefits, especially of inheritance.

Some parents need to rethink the language they use with adopted kids. Parents who view themselves as saving waifs who should be eternally grateful for the gift of parents have it backwards. Yes, children are to honor their parents, but Scripture says “Children are a gift from the Lord” (Ps. 127:3, italics mine). The parents are the ones who should be expressing gratitude. Imagine if Pharaoh’s daughter had communicated, “You are so lucky you got pulled away from those slaves. Here in the palace, you are rich. And loved. Your life is so much better than it would have been. You should act more grateful.” Our kids are better served by our grieving with them about their loss as we express our gratitude to God that he has blessed us with them.

Nobody should adopt a kid to gain gold stars with God. Nor should they speak of adoption as rescuing, doing good works, or as anything remotely associated with charity. That’s insulting. Nor should they assume they will “save” kids spiritually by adopting them.

We should never use the Bible as an Ouija Board. That is—opening the text and getting a “message” that has nothing to do with the context or authorial intent. The author objects to this, and I agree. Some believers she interviewed spoke of receiving messages from God this way. Often they justified their questionable practices because they said God told them to do what they were doing. Certainly God can speak through a donkey, but that does not mean it is his preferred method. Such an approach is not “handling accurately the Word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).

Children with special needs require a lot of extra love and affection. Let me say that again. If the kids have special needs, they require extra love and attention and services. Parents who keep adopting sixteen more kids when they have already adopted some with special needs should do so only in a context of much accountability and counsel. Because in the same way that some people can’t seem to stop having plastic surgery, some can’t seem to stop looking for babies to adopt.  The church and adoption agencies must help them. We have a responsibility to the kids, if not the parents, in such situations.

Sometimes God chooses those who oppose us to help us see the truth. In the ironic story of Jonah, the lost sailors were more righteous than God’s prophet. In the story of Baalam, the donkey—not the person chosen as God’s mouthpiece—spoke the truth. In the case of The Childcatchers, an author who negatively interprets just about everything Christians do still gets some things right.

Our Father twice-over accepts this as pure and faultless: that we look after orphans and widows in their distress and keep ourselves from being unstained by the world. May the apple start to fall a little closer to the tree. 


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Two Articles Worth Reading

Two students from the Writing for Publication class I taught last year got published this week at Converge Magazine. Check out their good work: 

By Nathan Chan

By Shannon Gianotti



Monday, February 23, 2015

Success By the Numbers?

Sometimes big numbers mean hollow people. 
Kader Attia. Ghost. 2008. Aluminum Foil Collection of Centre Georges Pompidou
Musée d’Art National, Paris. Photo: Sandra Glahn
Today I'm happy to welcome Jennifer Callaway, who served as my intern last semester. She now lives in Arizona. My loss. 

Subscribe to any ministry magazine or cultural engagement blog, and you will be inundated with articles that educate, encourage, exhort and admonish you with statistics and studies about why people leave the church, what makes them stay, and what they want in a church. These articles tend to focus on gender, age group, ethnicity or some other marker of a people group. But they all have one goal: bring more people in the door. After all, that is the measure of success, right? Wrong.

I am more and more convinced that our biggest problem in the North American church is head-counting. It's all about bringing in the big numbers; people and dollars. And a church that doesn't attract big numbers is deemed a failure, along with those who lead it.

American business philosophy is running the church. And if the goal is big numbers and big bucks, then it follows that efficiency and marketing to the "right" demographic becomes the strategy for the number-one call and purpose of the church—making disciples of Jesus Christ.

I recently constructed a discipleship strategy based solely on the way Jesus made disciples in the Gospels. His strategy, if you want to call it that, was to call the masses, then challenge them to deeper and deeper levels. If they left, he let them go. And he ended up with 12. Out of that 12 was birthed an even smaller group that went to the deepest level with him. And that small band of people changed the world. It just makes me wonder, how much could a much smaller, but much more committed church accomplish?

What has gone wrong? How have we shifted so dramatically in our focus? Think about it. Deep discipleship is hard. It is inefficient, time consuming, and uncomfortable. It requires focused time with a handful of people rather than a microphone and Power Point presentation. It means getting to know them well enough to not necessarily like them very much. In short, it means denying ourselves, taking up our crosses and following. Every day of our lives.

How did Jesus measure success? Faithfulness, self-denial, sacrifice, and service. This paints a radically different picture than a parking lot full of cars, a rock-concert atmosphere, and a Disneyland approach that has something for everybody.

I think ministry leaders would benefit greatly from a reconstruction of their views about success.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Coptic Church Leader Speaks Out


Egyptians about to be executed

By Dan Wooding, Founder of ASSIST and ASSIST News Service


STEVENAGE, UK (ANS – Feb. 17. 2015) His Grace Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, has issued an extraordinary statement following the brutal murder of 21 Coptic Christians in Libya.

“Our prayers are particularly with the families of these young Coptic men, who were fathers, brothers, sons and friends of many within their tight-knit rural communities, in which their absence will cause significant loss and sorrow. Their families are not only deprived of breadwinners who had travelled to Libya to support them, but of the joy that they bring when they return.

“While it may seem illogical or incomprehensible, we also pray for those who have carried out these horrific crimes, that the value of God's creation and human life may become more evident to them, and in this realization, that the wider effects of pain brought by this and other acts of brutality may be realized and avoided. We pray for an end to the dehumanization of captives who become mere commodities to be bartered, traded and negotiated with.”

He added, “We cannot remember our Coptic brothers without also remembering all those who have lost their lives in equally brutal circumstances: journalists, aid workers, medical staff, religious leaders, a young pilot, and communities that are considered incompatible with a fringe and intolerant element.

“In the midst of this sorrow however, we must continue to dig deeper for the joy that comes from an understanding that this life is but a ‘vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away’ (James 4:14), and that true glory and joy are found in an eternal life prepared for all those who live in and for love and peace.”

He concluded by saying, “It is only through this understanding that we can continue to live according to the words of 1 Peter 3:15 as demonstrated in the life and witness of the Coptic Church and her children over centuries, “...always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you...”

The news of the brutal killings emerged after a video showing the beheadings purportedly of 21 Egyptian Christians who had been kidnapped by Islamic State (IS) militants in Libya.
According to the BBC, the footage shows a group wearing orange overalls, being forced to the ground and then decapitated.

The kidnapped Egyptian workers, all Coptic Christians, were seized in December and January from the coastal town of Sirte in eastern Libya, now under the control of Islamist groups.

The BBC went on to say that the video of the beheadings was posted online by Libyan jihadists who pledge loyalty to IS. A caption made it clear the men were targeted because of their faith.

“Egypt and the whole world are in a fierce battle with extremist groups carrying extremist ideology and sharing the same goals,” President Sisi said.

The beheadings were described as “barbaric” by al-Azhar, the highly regarded theological institution which is based in Egypt.



Ash Wednesday

John August Swanson's Entombment
Used with permission.
Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent—40 days of reflection before Easter. The text associated with this day is Joel 2:12–13: "Even now," declares the LORD, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity."

Lent is a season during which we take inventory of our lives and assess the condition of our souls. In some Christian traditions, people receive ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday. More than forty passages in the Bible associate ashes with mourning and grief. But more significantly, Adam was made from dust, and to dust all humans shall return. The dust reminds us of our mortality and of the fleeting nature of this life.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Mardi Gras

John August Swanson's The Last Supper.
Used with permission
It’s Mardi Gras—and you know what that means. Beyond the party-till-you-drop bead-throw fest in Nawlins and costumes for Carnevale in Venice, the day has spiritual significance. “Mardi Gras” means “Fat Tuesday.” And Fat Tuesday precedes Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent. Lent is the forty-day season leading up to Easter.
Some of us have grown up in traditions that connect Lent and its accompanying practices with legalism. We tend to make only one association with the season—a question: “What are you giving up for Lent?” I can’t really blame them. So many folks flaunt what they give up. I've seen people who plan to give up alcohol get falling-down-drunk on Tuesday. Really, people? Doesn’t that kind of defeat the purpose?
Still, some find meaning in observing a season of penance, prayer, and self-denial during Lent. The reason to give up chocolate or snacks between meals or new purchases or meat or shoes or Facebook on one's phone is to constantly remind our flesh that the Son of God gave up everything for us. In the words of the late Keith Green, “Jesus rose from the dead, and [we] can’t even get out of bed.” It’s this flesh-driven mentality against which we wage war in our Lenten observances.
As my friend Ruth Haley Barton says, "The real question of the Lenten season is how will I clear out the junk and garbage in my life so that I can be restored to God in some fresh way? What are the disciplines that will open up space for God to create a clean heart and new spirit in me?"
Such clearning out and space-opening are worthy goals, regardless of our denominational affiliation. So I offer here some suggestions. Consider these options to help you observe a more meaningful Lenten season.
  • Begin by asking God what needs a clean-out in your life.
  • Consider what non-essential activity sucks the most time from your day and/or money from your wallet. Is it Facebook? Twitter? Words with Friends? Listening to your car radio? Eating out? The mocha latte with whipped cream?
  • Give it up for forty days and use the time and/or money for something meaningful. Give to the poor. Fill the free time with prayer, meditation, or memorization of a portion of Scripture. Do some reflective reading.
  • Check out the “Lent” section in the Book of Common Prayer and follow the meditations leading up to and including Holy Week.
  •  Familiarize yourself with the Ash Wednesday sermons of seventeenth-century English bishop, Lancelot Andrewes. A contemporary of Shakespeare, the brilliant bishop left us a library of great writings, some of which influenced T. S. Eliot to convert to Christianity.  
  •  Fast from using words for a day or part of a day. Take a silent retreat and simply listen.
  • Adopt one of the twenty-five ideas on this list compiled by a group of creative teens, some of whom gave up their beds and in-door accommodations.
Should we feel led to participate in this way, whatever we do, we must draw as little attention to ourselves as possible. In the words of our Lord, “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matt. 6:6). How cool would it be if every follower of Christ give up something truly significant for Lent, like spiritual pride? 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Bioethics in the News



Thanks to the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity for combing through the news and bringing these to the attention of readers:



CHINA OFFICIAL’S MANDATORY ‘TWO CHILDREN’ PROPOSAL DRAWS REBUKE
(Medical Xpress) – China should roll back its one-child policy and instead mandate that all couples have two children, a family planning official has said, drawing criticism Friday from a ruling Communist Party newspaper.   Read More

STEM-CELL TREATMENT BEATS MEDICINE IN SEVERE MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS
(Bloomberg) – Stem-cell transplants were more effective than the standard medicine used to treat people with severe multiple sclerosis, a trial found.   Read More

DYING DUTCH: EUTHANASIA SPREADS ACROSS EUROPE
(Newsweek) – In 2013, according to the latest data, 4,829 people across the country chose to have a doctor end their lives. That’s one in every 28 deaths in the Netherlands.  Read More

CANCER PATIENTS, DOCTOR SUE TO ALLOW PHYSICIAN-ASSISTED DEATH FOR TERMINALLY ILL
(Los Angeles Times) – A group of cancer patients and physicians filed a lawsuit Wednesday to clarify the ability of mentally competent, terminally ill patients in California to obtain prescription drugs from their physician to hasten their death.   Read More


WORLD HAILS UK VOTE ON THREE-PERSON EMBRYOS
(Nature) – Following a February vote in the UK House of Commons, the world may once again look to Britain to push the envelope in fertility treatments, 37 years after IVF was pioneered there.   Read More

Friday, February 13, 2015

Ebola Survivor on DTS Campus This Week


The Writebols were on the DTS campus this week, speaking in chapel and telling about their experience with Ebola. Nancy, who contracted the virus in Liberia and was taken to Emory for treatment, was among the group of Ebola fighters named TIME magazine's Person of the Year. Her husband, David, told of how he had to break the news to her that Dr. Kent Brantly had Ebola—and that she did, too. She challenged those in attendance to memorize Scripture, because we never know when we will be unable to access it. She told of how Ebola affected her vision, making it difficult if not impossible, for her to read. Being in isolation meant lying alone at night, crying out to God and wondering if she would survive. She was unable even to hold the hand of her husband. In those moments, she said, the words of Scripture she had memorized ministered to her—phrases such as "even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, You are with me...."



Art: The 3 Magi Reunited

Botticelli's Mary is "Wow!"
Last month I saw the exquisite Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea exhibit at the Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, DC. They must have some amazing funding, because they had works by Botticelli, Michelangelo, and a Rembrandt. Now the National Gallery in DC has an exciting announcement of their own: 

Washington, DC—This spring three paintings of the Magi, or wise men, by the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) will be reunited at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, for the first time in more than 130 years. On view in the West Building of the Gallery from March 22 through July 5, 2015, Peter Paul Rubens: The Three Magi Reunited also explores the relationship between the artist and Balthasar Moretus the Elder (1574–1641), head of the prestigious Plantin Press, the largest publishing house in 16th- and 17th-century Europe.

Balthasar Moretus, a close childhood friend of Rubens, commissioned these paintings around 1618. Moretus and his two brothers were named after the Three Magi (Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar), thus these works had a special personal meaning for both the artist and his patron. Rubens executed these bust-length images with strong colors and vigorous brushstrokes that bring these biblical figures to life.

"At the time, the Adoration of the Magi was a common subject in art, but these intimate paintings take the kings out of their usual narrative setting," said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. "Rubens conjured them as tangible flesh and blood believers."

About the ExhibitionThe portraits of the old king (Gaspar), owned by the Museo de Arte de Ponce near San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the young king (Balthasar), from the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp, Belgium, were previously on view at the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Wise Men from East: The Magi Portraits by Rubens (November 3, 2014–March 9, 2015). The painting of the middle-aged king (Melchior) was given to the Gallery in 1943 as part of the Chester Dale Collection. As stipulated in the bequest, the work cannot travel or go on view in any other museum. Therefore, this exhibition marks a rare opportunity for visitors to see all three of Rubens' kings together again.

About the MagiThe Gospel of Matthew is the only gospel to mention the Magi, though it offers few details about them, not even their number. Biblical scholars speculated on their appearance and origins for years until eventually the Magi came to be regarded as three kings hailing from the three then-known continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. They came to symbolize the three ages of man: youth, middle age, and old age. They were also given names: Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar.

For 16th- and 17th-century residents of Antwerp, a harbor town and international center of commerce that imported luxury goods shipped from afar, the story of the Magi and their gifts took on a particular resonance. It was not unusual for residents to bear the names of the kings, as was the case with Balthasar Moretus and his two older brothers, as well as a trio of their paternal uncles. Moretus took his affinity for the kings further, incorporating the star of the Magi into printer's marks for the Plantin Press and adopting the Latin phrase stella duce ("with the star as guide") as his motto. Rubens, a deeply pious Catholic, movingly portrayed these regal visitors, who played an essential role in the manifestation of Christ to the world, in an unusual up-close format suited for the private contemplation of his close friend.

One of the Magi, possibly Balthasar (from the Plantin-Moretus Museum)The African king is typically associated with the gift of myrrh, the aromatic resin used in embalming. Symbolically the presentation of this gift foreshadowed the death of Christ, a motif Rubens further exploited by encapsulating the myrrh in a small chest resembling a sarcophagus, from which a light emanates, alluding to the Resurrection. Rubens based the figure in this painting on his copy after a now-lost 16th-century portrait of a Tunisian king.

One of the Magi, possibly Melchior (from the National Gallery of Art)The middle-aged king opens his vessel to reveal frankincense, an aromatic substance derived from the sap of Boswellia trees found in the Middle East, North Africa, and India. Biblical commentators interpreted the gift as representative of sacrifice, prayer, and the recognition of the Christ child's divinity.

One of the Magi, possibly Gaspar (from the Museo de Arte de Ponce)In most Adoration of the Magi scenes, the eldest king kneels closest to the Christ child offering gold, the most precious of the three gifts. Traditionally, this was interpreted as symbolizing Jesus' kingship. The pensive, aged figure in Rubens' portrait wears no crown, but his eminence radiates in the resplendence of both his gold brocade mantle ringed by soft fur and his costly gold scalloped dish filled with coins—a tribute from one king to another.


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