The saying goes, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes”. Our reading this month, My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok, is set in the 1950s. An era with political conditions similar to ours perhaps. Then, like now, we see many in power, from the U.S. to Russia, working dishonestly and sometimes violently to destroy those who speak the truth. And now, like then, questions of identity are central. As Charles Taylor would say, we feel “cross-pressured” as we make our way through this life we’ve received. Who are we to be? What are we to do?
In the story, we follow Asher Lev, the painter of the now infamous “Brooklyn Crucifixion”, as he navigates the oppositional struggles of this world – father v. son, individual v. tradition, art v. religion, etc. As the story unfolds the recurring theme of self-identity is woven with those of suffering and beauty. Like us, beauty draws Asher out into the unknown. Like us, he encounters myriad forms of suffering. And like us, Asher hears a crowd of voices inside and out calling to name him.
As we witness Asher’s journey we’re awakened to the central importance of knowing who you are and whose you are. With this in mind, I share a short talk about identity by Timothy Keller.
1. In the story, Jacob Kahn tells Asher, “As an artist, you are responsible to no one and to nothing, except to yourself and to the truth as you see it.” As artists who follow Jesus what is our responsibility?
2. We see Asher aches for the blessing of his father who grows more ashamed of him the more he embraces his artistry. What do we do when those whose approval we seek don’t understand us?
3. Asher grows up in a Hasidic Jewish community with distinct views on beauty and aesthetic values. Painting nudes or crucifixions is deemed as highly inappropriate and shameful. How do pastors and churches allow artists creative freedom?
4. *Spoiler Alert: In the end, Asher chooses Art (not only does he paint a crucifixion, but it’s his Mother on the “cross”) at the cost of family, tradition, and home. Is this story a tragedy or heroic tale or something else? Why?