“Seminar helps artists view the story of Lot’s wife in new light”
Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, Indianapolis Star, February 10 2019
Over the ages, religion and the arts have had a fruitful partnership. For many contemporary artists, however, this connection has been absent. The two disciplines often do not talk to one another. The Religion, Spirituality and the Arts Seminar at the Arts and Humanities Institute at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis may help change that. The seminar helps artists to read Bible stories with fresh eyes and to find new sources of spiritual inspiration in order to produce original pieces of work. Their works will be premiered at 6 p.m. March 7 at the Jewish Community Center and will remain on exhibit through April 30.
This year, 12 artists reread Genesis 19, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and Lot’s wife, and they imagined how this narrative might speak to us at this time and place. In light of the current refugee crisis and the new valuing of women’s speech, the “turning” of a nameless and voiceless woman to “witness the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah,” is especially compelling.
Throughout the seminar, we studied various religious interpretations, musical compositions, poetry and visual art that have, over the years, brought new insights to this iconic narrative. In the famous biblical story, Lot’s wife turns into a pillar of salt when she looks back at Sodom as it is being destroyed, despite a warning from God not to do so.
However, in the seminar, we learned that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was originally a lack of hospitality and that it wasn’t until the 4th century that the motif of homosexuality became dominant. We also discovered that in the first centuries of the Common Era, the early commentators gave Lot’s wife a name — Idit— meaning “witness.” We read poetry that gave her a voice, allowing her to speak through the generations. In art, we saw her as a holocaust witness and a modern refugee looking back with anguish and regret. In music, we heard a cello become her tremulous voice speaking through the generations to our own day. (On April 3 at the Jewish Community Center, we will have the opportunity to hear Maya Beiser play excerpts from her cello opera, “Elsewhere.”)
We asked questions of the text. Did Lot’s wife turn out of disobedience, or out of compassion? We asked ourselves, what is our obligation to bear witness? When are remembering and looking back important, and when do they become obsessions that paralyze us? How does this story help us to talk about our present crisis?
In our approach to these narratives, we take the Bible seriously, not literally. We use the Bible not as the last word but as a text that inspires imagination and contemplation.
The truth is that we have always read the Bible through the eyes of its interpreters. Most of us believe that the Bible tells us that the fruit that Eve eats in the Garden of Eden is an “apple.” Genesis never says so. It wasn’t until the 4th century that the Latin translation identified it as an apple.
Interpretations have serious consequences for social policy.
If the “sin” of Sodom and Gomorrah was homosexuality, then people feel vindicated in their homophobia. But if the “sin” was selfishness and xenophobia, then we must practice generosity and welcome the stranger in order to save our cities.
It has been my good fortune to be able to work with and learn from these gifted artists. The experience has brought artists into dialogue with the sacred story in ways that have enriched us all.