It is common to hear Christians grumble and complain about what they perceive to be “wrong” with the country. Many will reference “the way things used to be” without much explanation of what they actually mean by this. While it is true that the general sense of personal and ethical responsibility has changed in this country during the last 50 years, what else has changed that has made the current state of the country so bad? Perhaps America has become “no country for old men” because the young men that currently hold power continue to use the same tactics to remain in power that got them there in the first place. The “good old days” were only good in our collective memory banks; the men of old were just as corrupt as the men of late—the old men were just better at concealing it.
At times such as these, the idea of escape—either by going into hiding or leaving it all behind—can become an attractive option. When cornered, men can become like little children, threatening to run away from home because nobody listens to them; or they can become the adults they are meant to be, filled with resolve and courage to not only curse the darkness, but do something about it. The romantic notion of being able to leave it all behind and go looking for a “tropic island nest” has a certain flair that can certainly be tempting to those who count themselves among the “old men.” Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh would empathize.
Gauguin was a successful stockbroker who discovered that he had a talent for painting. His disillusionment with material wealth and the business world led him to leave his wife and five children and pursue a painting career in Paris. As a post-impressionist, Gauguin would portray reality in his paintings in a somewhat distorted fashion, while still retaining the overall details that characterized the Impressionists like Renoir, Manet and Pissarro (one of his mentors). With time, Gauguin’s paintings increasingly became an outworking of his philosophy. His last painting, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, was meant to be his masterpiece, his coup de grace. “Of its entirety he said, ‘I believe that this canvas not only surpasses all my preceding ones, but that I shall never do anything better—or even like it.’”1 His search for universal meaning in life led him to the island of Tahiti. He believed that Tahiti held a more primitive lifestyle, one farther removed from the distractions and material trappings of the Parisian culture.
In the sense of absolute freedom upstairs [of the mind], not only is man not to be bound by revelation, but he is not to be bound by society, the polis, either. This concept of autonomous freedom is clearly seen in Gauguin, the painter. He was getting rid of all the restraints—not just the restraint of God, but also the restraint of the polis, which for Gauguin was epitomized by the highly developed culture of France. He left France and went to Tahiti to be rid of the culture. In doing this, he practiced the concept of the noble savage which Jean-Jacques Rousseau had previously set forth. You get rid of the restraints, you get rid of the polis, you get rid of God or the gods; and then you are free. Unhappily, though not surprisingly, this did not turn out as he expected.2
Faced with the knowledge that he had just finished painting the pinnacle of his career—his “gospel” as he called it—and unable to find the simplistic universal of meaning that he sought in tropical Tahiti, Gauguin made an unsuccessful attempt on his own life. The reality of his own nihilistic worldview was more than he could bear.
A contemporary and friend of Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, is another tragic study. His early aspiration was to be a pastor, he wanted to “preach the gospel everywhere.” His desires were not matched by his studies however, and he soon failed out of his theological training. Taking residence with his parents in the country in the early 1880s, Vincent began painting. His style about this time was very impressionistic and grounded in reality. But as Vincent became more depressed and isolated from reality in his own life of recklessness and debauchery, his paintings also began to reflect this attitude. His transformation from Impressionist to Post-Impressionist to Expressionist is very much indicative of where he was as an individual in the various stages of his life. Like Gauguin, he wanted to escape the harsh reality of life and set up a better world—a utopia.
Van Gogh thought to make a new religion in which the sensitive people, the artists, would blaze the trail. For this purpose, he dreamt of starting an artistic community in Arles where he was living. He was joined by Gauguin, but after a few months they began to quarrel violently. Van Gogh’s hope of his new religion was gone and soon after, he committed suicide.3
Rejected by the religion he so desperately wanted to be a part of, Van Gogh sought to create one in his own image. When converts were slow in coming, he decided to become the first martyr for his new religion. Van Gogh’s Starry Night is a perfect example of the beauty of God’s created order, marred by the misplaced emotional zeal of a humanistic worldview. The symmetry and balance that exist in such a scene naturally, are distorted in favor of bringing the Creator down to the level of the artist. Vincent couldn’t escape God but he could foolishly try to cut Him down to size. In the end, Van Gogh found it impossible to escape. Like Gauguin, he came to the conclusion that suicide was the only way out. “He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust” (Matthew 21:44).
The examples of Gauguin and Van Gogh should remind us that we can’t escape or run away from our problems—they will follow us, even into “utopia.” Although Christians should know that their hope doesn’t lie in political candidates or American jurisprudence, we allow ourselves to get too wrapped up in it anyway. Our hope lies in Christ. We have lost sight of this for far too long. We need to retain our focus of God’s sovereign control over everything and quit complaining about how bad everything has gotten. An attitude like this is not only unproductive, it is counter-productive. Instead of retreating into failed utopian hideaways, we need to be rolling up our sleeves (why they were ever rolled down is a mystery to me) and getting to work. While the Gauguin’s and the Van Gogh’s of the world are busy preaching their gospel, we need to be living ours.
- Francis Schaeffer, “He Is There and He Is Not Silent,” The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, Volume One (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1982), 310-311.(↩)
- Francis Schaeffer, “The God Who Is There,” The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, Volume One (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1982), 28.(↩)