Whimsical or Not?

My post from last week, entitled Christmas Whimsy, received a comment suggesting that Christmas was not whimsical. Since I like to think of a blog as a dialogue, all respectful comments are welcome and worth pondering. And so I pondered.

Since one definition of whimsical (a secondary definition, according to Webster) is “acting or behaving in a capricious manner“, I can certainly understand, and appreciate, a counter argument that Christmas is not, in this way, whimsical.

Christmas was not born of capricious whim, and so the worthy reader who pronounced “no” to it being whimsical, is, if bound to the secondary definition, most certainly right.

I illustrated my Nativity scene in deference to the first definition in Webster: “playfully quaint or fanciful, especially in an appealing and amusing way“. I shared some of my thoughts about whimsical imagery in that post, and in any number of previous posts. My arguments may or may not be convincing, but since this has been my life’s career and the kind of art I’m bent toward making, I guess I like to try and make its case.

Seriously Playful

Being primarily an illustrator, I have no qualms about what I do. I never pretend I’m making art that will wind up in the Louvre. My calling, if I sense it rightly, is to draw people into the story. I do that best when I let myself get playfully quaint, fanciful, appealing, and amusing (thanks again, Noah Webster).

Being a Christian illustrator, primarily for religious publishers, I face the challenge of defending that whimsy has any place in the expression of serious truth. Playfulness and humor  aren’t readily seen in the pages of Scripture. They are there, but in small doses, and often tinged with sarcasm, culture bound references, and outright mockery, which makes the timid, not to mention the overtly pious, a little more than uncomfortable.

While my magazine cartoons lean sarcastic, my illustrations mostly stay fun and fanciful. I’ll once again make a case for using whimsy to get serious. This time I’ll refer to my painting at the top of this post.

Welcome Home, Prodigal Son

Recently my dear friend Malia commissioned me to do a couple of religious pieces. Subject of my choice. Thanks Malia! I love these commissions that have no directions, no dictates, no micro-management. I’m free to be me, which means playful.

One of my favorite parables is the one about the “prodigal son”, the kid who impatiently asked for his share of his father’s wealth. He received it and then squandered it, and wound up broke, slopping pigs (not a first career choice for a Jewish heir).

Outside the Bible’s record of Jesus’ wonderful story, the next best artistic treatments (in my opinion) of this parable are Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son, hanging in The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Henri Nouwen’s book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, A Story of Homecoming. My treatment drew upon Rembrandt’s basic poses: an embracing father, a kneeling son.

This parable, one of the best known of Jesus’ stories, is the last in a tryptic of parables recorded in Luke 15. All three stories focus on the recovery of lost things. The first involves a lost sheep, the second a lost coin, and the third lost sons. The three parables were a response to the grumbling Scribes and Pharisees who complained that Jesus received sinners and ate with them.

These three parables are about joy. Fancy joy. Playful joy. An appealing and even amusing joy. Extravagant, inexplicable, upside down joy. Bright, colorful, and whimsical.

It goes upside down this way: we think, we’re conditioned to think, that God is exuberant over righteous people. People who are quite happy with their personal goodness think God’s most joyful moments are when he sees them being wonderful.

The Pharisees and Scribes in Jesus’ day (we’re still around, we just don’t call ourselves that anymore) loved being wonderful, and despised people who weren’t. I can relate to that. I can sniff and snort and gripe with the best over those who are the worst. I’m conditioned to think that God is most pleased when he sees me being more wonderful than all those bad people out there.

Jesus told this parable to call out the Pharisees, the Scribes, and me, because in each of these parables the real party begins when the relentless seeker finds the lost thing. “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance”, Jesus told the tax collectors, sinners, and Pharisees.

Sadly, the “welcome home” party for the prodigal son disgusted the older son who never left. He was pretty proud of himself for never going astray. Dutifully serving his father (already regarding himself the miserable, compliant servant his younger brother was willing to become),  he resented his father all the way. The younger son might have played dad for a dupe, the older one pegged him for a tyrant.

The amazing, upside down, and amusing truth is that the father loved them both and spared nothing to celebrate their return. I find great whimsy (the fancy and appealing kind, not the capricious) in these redemptive, celebratory stories.

Christmas is the redemptive and celebratory story. It doesn’t seem quite right at first, that God would bother himself to send his only Son to dirty himself on a cross to reclaim that which was lost. But that is exactly what he did, and when I think about it, it makes me smile, and then laugh, and then worship.

Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. You will show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from the days of old.   Micah 7:18-20.

Prodigal Return ©2015 Ed Koehler