En Route

Travel is nearly always an enriching experience, even though it comes with moments of frustration when things don’t go as smoothly as planned. (Travel writer Cameron Hewitt’s apt phrase is “Jams are fun!”) Back in my undergraduate years, while studying at the University of St. Andrews, I spent some time on European railways to see as much as I could. (One memorable “jam” was spending a cold winter’s night on the floor of the Florence train station.) But there were, of course, enlightening moments as well.

One of the great epiphanies of that trip was being in a train compartment with my young, American traveling companions, a compartment we shared with a middle-aged German man who spoke no English. At that point, I’d had a few years of high school German, and so I piped up and offered him an orange. “Möchten Sie ein Apfelsine?” I asked. And I was absolutely gobsmacked when he understood and accepted the orange.

I think one of the things Europeans may not understand about Americans is that it isn’t that we don’t want to speak their language, but that we have so little chance to use it. Simply asking a traveler if he’d like an orange in another language and being stunned by the fact that my German worked was a watershed moment for me. It connected me with someone from another nation, and it did so on their terms. (The possible exception to this is studying Spanish and using it both at home and in nearby nations. )

I know that it is a privilege to travel. I’m even more aware of that because I’m sitting in a business class seat. Hurrah for MileagePlus! I’m also aware of the rare privilege of having sabbatical time to decompress, study, travel, and explore. I am grateful to have this opportunity, and I hope to share some interesting insights.

I’ve also thought that history is somewhat like foreign translation: one has to try and speak another’s language in order to understand. (Certainly, historical figures, art, architecture, and archaeology are not going to speak our language!)

One of the paradigms I’m going to try on Christian art and architecture is one that I learned many years ago from a wise and wonderful professor, Ed Everding. In studying the New Testament, Ed proposed that we use a simple approach in examining a text:


Nice, contemporary Greek calligraphy of the Prologue of John’s Gospel, Basilica of San Zeno, Verona, Italy.

SAYS: In other words, what does the text actually say? What words are on the page? What is its genre? What can we learn from the writing style?
MEANT: What might this writing have meant to the person who wrote it and to those were were its intended audience? What was the purpose of the text?
MEANS: What, if anything, might the text say to us, given that we actually aren’t the intended audience? There is still much to be mined in many, but certainly not all, scriptural writings.

So, here is what I propose to do: Look at Christian art and architecture using that same type of lens.

If I’m looking at a mosaic in Ravenna from the 5th century what does it say, what did it mean, and what might it mean? SAYS Well, we know it is a mosaic, that it was created by amazing artisans, perhaps from Byzantium, that a given panel illustrates the biblical story of Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality to travelers. MEANS At a time when Ravenna was controlled first by Rome and then by Arian peoples coming into the Italian peninsula from the north, we see that they took the Old Testament seriously, which was not a given. The glory of the mosaic means that the creators were willing to invest much time and money in creating this beautiful representation of a biblical story about hospitality. To them, the three visitors may have presaged the idea of the Trinity (an alien concept in the Old and maybe even the New Testaments). MEANS Every mosaic in the sacred spaces of Ravenna tell us that those who created them took their faith much more seriously than many Christians do today. The tremendous investment of capital, both material and human, was phenomenal. Their beauty may move us to tears. They may give us the feeling of connectedness to ancient people who shared our faith, and they might even cause us to consider that ours is one generation in the line of hundreds, and that someday, we may be the ancestors of Christians in another age far in the future.

I invite you to join me, and perhaps do some Google searches for Christian art from any age and try out the SAYS – MEANT – MEANS paradigm and see what you might uncover.

Sarah and Abraham offering hospitality to three “strangers.” A photo from Ravenna, Italy.