Some faces beg for an explanation. Some, like my younger brother’s, just seem to yell “slap me” during our teen years. Some faces, like my 99-year-old great grandma Kaufman’s, are mysteriously historic. Grand Canyon crevices, leathery feel, random bumps and hairs, and as bold as Alexander the Great’s Bucephalus. Some, like Pat Boone’s, seem pleasantly plastic and genuinely happy. Some, like Jennifer Lopez’s, are porcelain perfect. And others, like Ronald Reagan’s or JFK’s, confident beyond comparison.
I once stood in Pasadena across the grill from Jamie Escalente, the subject of the Stand and Deliver movie, and couldn’t help but notice that even at his backyard cookout his face exuded a deep confidence. He flipped chicken with the same certainty as he approached teaching calculus at Garfield High School.
Our brains are wired to process stories and biographies on one side, and names on the other. They also contain a place that seems only to have one function—to react to facial expressions. Indeed, faces are open books and we read them daily.
But, on occasion, there are those that beg for an explanation—like the woman at the Marathon Station outside York, England. Traveling with my research colleague, Scott Carroll, we looked up from the counter and there greeting us was a facial growth the size of split garden hose. It reminded me of a firework “snake” that you light and watch grow. While trying to be polite I was overly impolite. She must have grown accustomed to hearing gasps and stammering. She had coiled the dark spongy growth and taped it to her face. About a four-inch piece of beautician’s tape kept that thing from attacking me.
Then I experienced something more shocking – a gentleness, a confidence, an understanding and a forgiveness. I swallowed her soft look and we talked for quite awhile. I had met a successful woman, likely straddled with the realities of socialized healthcare that didn’t cover cosmetic surgeries. But there she was, not in the back room, but at the counter. She was special, and I’m the better for meeting her.
But not all odd faces earn our appreciation. I once met a woman in Hong Kong with eyeballs painted on her lids and forehead. She opened her hands and talked through painted lips on her palms. I realized that I had walked into the wrong hotel conference room—it was an international psychic convention.
This week, twenty years after meeting the English woman, I stood again with Scott Carroll in awe and puzzlement at another face—that of Moses as sculpted by Surrealist Salvador Dali. It’s part of “Passages,” an interactive exhibition from one of the world’s largest collection of bibles and related artifacts that Scott directs. It’s part of the Green Collection, which is the basis of the international research program I’m privileged to direct, i.e., The Green Scholars Initiative. The Passages’ debut is in Oklahoma City’s Museum of Art (May 16-October 16, 2011), and Dali’s piece is one of over 30,000 in the collection, but one of only 300 selected to tell the story of the Bible’s impact.
Dali was intellectually mesmerized with the bizarre historical claims of Sigmund Freud in Moses and Monotheism. The Passages crowds were fixated on the Dali cover, especially the face of Moses against the backdrop of the eye of Horus. But instead of praising Moses, Dali’s work represents a bogus Freudian historical construct. Freud’s psychoanalysis of the Jewish “folk story” finds a “national hero” who led them to triumph—a figure invented to give them honor. Not a Jew, argues Freud, but an Egyptian. After all, Freud writes, Moses had an Egyptian name.
It’s interesting to have this Dali masterpiece surrounded by 300 ancient items, including a Dead Sea scroll, that tell a much different story.
In other works, Freud reflects the candid dismissal of Christians’ “slave values” and replaces them with “master values” championed by Friedrich Nietzsche—whom Allan Bloom convincingly argues had a profound influence on Freud (Closing of the American Mind). Nietzsche derides what he calls the Christians’ weakness, manifest in the whole sheep metaphor. In his errant opinion, the demise of western society coincided with this “weak” ascendancy among Judeo-Christian influences. Nietzsche obviously misses a point that would have taken Dali a mile-wide brush to have painted, that the “triumph of Christianity” really did happen, and did so in many ways. Not only was Moses a Jew (Hebrew), he was part of a historic journey of a people. Even Edward Gibbon, another critic of Christianity, admits this in his monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Although Christianity has certainly had its ill turns and dark days, he notes that through the Early Church’s morality, benevolence, structure and belief in the historicity of the resurrection, they won the hearts and hopes of the masses. Nietzsche conversely venerated a “superman” approach to leadership in Thus Spake Zarathustra. In short, that only the strong survive.
Scott Carroll writes that Dali’s cover “illustrates the broad-sweeping cultural impact of the Bible on science, psychology and art representing very different religious experiences. One of [Dali’s] lithographs on display is entitled ‘The Dream of Moses.’ . . . Moses lays asleep and dreams. He dreams of pyramids and a grotesque sphinx. People howl in terror and anguish. In the center is a bull, perhaps representing Hathor or the later Apis in Egyptian religion and maybe even a forecast of the Golden Calf. In any event, it represents the one and only god. It is approached by a Roman Catholic bishop in a miter. A black angel sits on the ruins and watches the spectacle.”
I paused to witness the power of a masterful artist’s ability to put a face on his philosophy. An unforgettable face, though an errant philosophy. But a dazzling sculptured reminder of the power of an amazing biblical story that prompts bold responses.
Though the face of the English woman is grotesque “at first appearance,” or “first face,” (from Latin, prima facie), but it redounds the beauty and confidence within. The face of the psychic in Hong Kong with eyes painted elsewhere is bizarre at first, and even stranger with any deeper observation. The face of Moses, though brilliantly formed, is really the face of another’s philosophy. Faces tend to be transparent, and prima facie, they all tell a story—but what is within reveals the thesis.
Jerry Pattengale is a prolific author and national speaker; recipient of the National Student Advocate Award (USC); and the Director of the Green Scholars Initiative, Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute, Distinguished Fellow at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion, Director of National Conversations, and Assistant Provost at Indiana Wesleyan University. This article is adapted from a version for his “Accidental Author” series for Paxton Media, Chronicle Tribune (May 18, 2011). Used here with permission.