I haven't yet visited the new Contemporary Jewish Museum in SF though it is on my list. I have certainly enjoyed the reviews of it.
I also need to get to SFMOMA to see the Frida Kahlo exhibit so a trip to the city is in order, one of these days!
Friday, July 11, 2008
At the new Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, there's an exhibition called "In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis," and a fine exhibition it is. (A fine museum too, come to think of it, that almost didn't get built, and hooray for persistence.) It includes an extremely cool game/art piece called "Playing God," which is kind of like a cosmic slot machine only with video screens. Hard to describe, but you'll find that you'll elbow 12-year-old children out of the way to play a few rounds.
Perhaps you are a nicer person than I am. Perhaps you will be the elbowee. Anyway, big fun.
Included in the show is a really good talking-heads film, "Genesis Now," in which theologians of many persuasions, plus artists and scholars, talk about the nature of the book of Genesis, or rather portions of the first chapter of the book of Genesis. (There's a whole lot of stuff in Genesis - Noah and the flood, Isaac and Jacob, Abraham of Ur, Joseph and his coat of many hues; heck, it's most of the Old Testament. Which is good, because Numbers and Deuteronomy are so very boring.) That's the chapter in which God creates everything.
They have lots of different things to say, and a lot of them are provocative. If there's a common thread running through the remarks, it's this: Genesis raises a lot of questions. It makes us think about these questions. It challenges our powers of interpretation, extrapolation and metaphor-making. It's a room with an infinite number of doors.
That was the theme, over and over. Questions, not answers. Questions are useful; answers less so. Answers have a short shelf life; questions live forever. Both science and theology thrive on questions; answers just make everyone go to the refrigerator for another glass of iced tea. Questions get you through the night; answers leave you sitting on the top step, staring blankly off into space.
I exaggerate, of course. I'm also right.
So as I was eating the quite-good tagine in the museum restaurant, I began to think about politics. It's hard to avoid in this season of the which. Politics are apparently all about answers. Reporters ask questions; candidates provide answers. If a candidate doesn't have an answer, he temporizes, or blusters, or alleges that he already answered that question. He never, ever says, "That's an interesting question. I really enjoy interesting questions."
And he really never says, "So what's your thinking on that, Ms. Reporter? You have any solutions in mind?" Because reporters ask questions and politicians provide answers. Reporters have the better deal.
Now, we know, you and I, sitting separately in our rooms, that there's no "answer" to the situation in Iraq. Even a timetable (which is really not an answer) is bogus. It's all situational; it's all terrible. To whom is our loyalty in this situation? What are our goals? What will 2010 look like, both in Baghdad and in Berkeley? What should the world look like two years from now? Go ahead, you're an expert.
Aw, hell. People who pretend they know the answers are just politicians without power. Ideologues. Boring.
But there are rules. People want a leader to be strong. People want a leader who knows the answer. A politician without the answers is just another citizen, blundering around in the dark hoping to grasp an answer-shaped object. Our best politicians, or course (Lincoln and Jefferson, say) understood that they didn't have answers; they had principles, and they had guesswork, and they had a lot more questions.
Imagine writing the Declaration of Independence, and sitting in the hotel room the next night and thinking, holy Mary Travers, what the hell have I just done? The person who sleeps a deep and dreamless sleep after something like that is the person you need to worry about.
But no, it's solutions all the time. We've got five-point programs - but what if the problem requires seven points? Nine points? No points at all? Doesn't matter; we feel comforted by the five points.
That doesn't mean our confusion in the face of large questions should render us immobile. We gotta do something. It should render us humble, though. It should render us flexible. If man was created in God's image, as it says in Genesis, it should be remembered that God in Genesis was always making mistakes. If we didn't know better, we'd think he was making it up as he went along. When something went terribly wrong, he'd say, "Oh, that was just a test." That excuse hasn't worked since the fourth grade.
"Be fruitful and multiply," God said. You have to wonder if, later on, he sat on the edge of his cloud and thought, holy Mary mother of me, was that the right thing to say? Too late now. Time for more questions.
In the beginning, God created the stairways and the atrium and of course the gift shop, because he needs an alternative revenue stream, God knows.