There are no painters more closely associated with Americana than Norman Rockwell, and Grant Wood. Rockwell’s covers for Look, and The Saturday Evening Post, as well as his illustrations are the images in our collective memory. When we remember Rosie the Riveter, and Ruby Bridges we remember his paintings of them. Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” is, undoubtedly, the most recognizable image in American art. Both men also share the experience of being tossed on the heap of the irrelevant and maudlin, only to be reconsidered by later generations for the darkness in their work that had somehow been missed.
Wood is a satirist, and Rockwell a journalist, but both men had serious critiques to make about American society. In Wood’s hilarious and unsettling “Parson Weems Fable,” he portrays the popular and completely fabricated story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. It is blunt-force irony that a story about truth-telling is a lie, and so he paints the story as happening on a stage behind a theatrical curtain. In the painting, little George has the body of a 6-year-old, but the face of the Gilbert Stuart painting on the one-dollar bill. In the background slaves are picking cherries – exposing an even larger lie than Parson Weems’ fib about George’s little hatchet.
In Norman Rockwell’s painting “Freedom from Fear,” part of “The Four Freedoms” series inspired by a Franklin Delano Roosevelt speech, Rockwell paints a couple putting their children to bed. They are a boy and girl, maybe 5 and 7 years old. Mom is tucking in the blanket, and dad is quietly looking down at the kids. The series, painted in 1943, was a vivid reminder of the blessings of being a free people, of why we were fighting. The thing is - the painting is filled with fear. To be a parent is to be afraid for your children, and those fears are clearly on the dad’s face. No wonder – in his hand is a newspaper whose headlines read: “Bombings Kill…./Horror Hits….” On the ground a grey-striped pajama top reminds one of the uniforms Jews wore in the death camps. Even a doll lies on the floor like a corpse. There is no freedom from fear.
Both paintings juxtapose the way things ought to be with the way they are as a protest to their incongruity. That’s fine. We should always take a hard look at the way things are, and strive to make things the way they ought to be. We should never be satisfied with coming up short.
The problem is that we often blame God for this incongruity. The fault is ours. God didn’t invent lying, slavery, or genocide. We did. God makes things the way they are supposed to be. We sin and make them the way they are. When I was a young man preparing myself for ministry I knew I would have to defend the faith (the doctrines of the New Testament), and faith (the existence of God), but I had no inkling that more often than either of these defenses, I would be challenged about the goodness of God.
My only assertion in this little piece is that God is good, and that the way things always fall short of how they ought to be is about us, not about Him. God makes things the way they are supposed to be. We make them the way they are.
Oh taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him. Psalm 34.8 ESV