Archive for March, 2013

Andrew Wyeth

A couple years ago, my wife had business in New York and I came along. One afternoon I walked over to MOMA to enjoy, among other things, the special exhibit on abstract expressionism. I walked through rooms of Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, and Newman, and also enjoyed seeing art by Warhol, Lichtenstein, and others. Still looking at paintings, but also momentarily disoriented with respect to the exit, I wandered through an opening into another room, turned the corner, and realized I was standing in front of “Christina’s World,” which I’d forgotten was located at MOMA. What a change from the expressionists! I’d seen the photos of this painting–which is about 3 feet by 4 feet—many times, of course.

Long before I started writing about “the sense of place,” I enjoyed Andrew Wyeth’s art. In the early 1980s I purchased Thomas Hoving’s Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth (Houghton Mifflin, 1978), in which Wyeth discusses with Hoving his Kuerner and Olsen paintings and his relationship with the two families. Interestingly, Wyeth commented that people wrote him about “Christina’s World,” saying that he expressed their own lives in the picture; and yet those people didn’t notice that Christina was disabled. At the time I lived in a very rural area and I appreciated Wyeth’s ability to artistically depict great, unspoken significance in natural scenery and everyday objects. Wyeth told about his unplanned moments of inspiration, as when his friend Karl Kuerner pulled some homemade sausage off meat hooks on the ceiling. Wyeth, noticing the ugly hooks, used them in the painting “Karl.”

When our local Borders store closed, my daughter and I sadly stopped by and took advantage of sales. (We had loved our Borders in Ohio, which closed several months ago.) I noticed Anne Classen Knutson’s Andrew Wyeth: Memory & Magic (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc, 2005) and purchased it. The book explained well the artistic and subconscious reasons why many of us love Wyeth’s art. In her essay “Andrew Wyeth’s Language of Things” (pp. 45-83), Knutson quotes the historian Wanda Corn that Wyeth’s paintings frequently feature windows, vessels, ajar doors, and womb-like spaces. “In general, the objects he paints fall into three categories: still lifes in nature, vessels, and thresholds” (p. 45). Knutson writes, “Many of the natural and domestic objects that Wyeth foregrounds in his paintings have long been used in western rituals of mourning and death. Flowers, trees, and other organic matter are traditional metaphors for death and the fragility of life, and the enduring properties of granite and other rock symbolize the persistence of memory… Vessels are often used in memorials as metaphors for memory storage, and thresholds suggest transformation, a concept often explored in images of mourning. When Wyeth is not representing the transience of life, he often tries to freeze time in his paintings, just as nineteenth century postmortem photographs were sometimes placed within the face of a stopped clock” (p. 47). His paintings also depict the ephemeral quality of life: the Olsen’s house in “Weatherside”, for instance, seemed to be dying and disappearing (p. 68).

Little wonder that Wyeth’s paintings are attractive and compelling to many of us because memory, death, mourning, and a consciousness of life’s impermanence are universal! Someone could do a phenomenology of Wyeth’s images and symbols via the philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s “poetics of space” and the way (if I recall Bachelard’s argument correctly) those images and symbols are ontologically prior to their expression.

Knutson comments that although Wyeth’s paintings seem realistic, “[h]is realism is magic realism, prompted by drams and imagination rather than observed reality” (p. 47). (The first essay is by Michael R. Taylor, “Between Realism and Surrealism: The Early Work of Andrew Wyeth”.) Interestingly, Wyeth’s paintings are often inspired by but do not depict powerful personal memories. For instance, the painting “Indian Summer”—a nude woman, seen from behind, who is looking into darkness—was inspired by a angel figurine that was a Christmas tree ornament (p. 47). “Winter, 1946,” a hill down which a boy runs awkwardly and uncertainly, has its background in the accidental death of Wyeth’s father, as does “Christina’s World” (pp. 58-59).

Like the latter two paintings, Wyeth often “merges” human figures with the landscape. But compared to some paintings, the Helga pictures are more consistently about vitality and rebirth rather than loss. My family and I visited the Helga exhibit at the Canton (Ohio) Museum of Art in 2004. In those drawings and paintings, Helga becomes a kind of embodiment of nature (Knutson, p. 61). But although as strong and “other” as a landscape—unlike Christina, Karl, and some others, Helga never makes eye contact with the viewer—her significance is not simply landscape. As David Kuspit puts it: in people like Christina Olson and also Wyeth’s African-American models, “[A]gain and again we see Wyeth looking for signs of ego strength in people in whom one doesn’t expect to find it. But Wyeth always takes a lingering, searching second glance, discovering strengths of character in everyday people–a self-respect oddly rooted in respect for the body, whatever its problems” (David Kuspit, “The Meaning of Helga,” Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures (exhibition book), Washington, DC: International Arts & Artists, 2004, p. 9).

Wyeth died in 2009. His obituary in the New York Times gives an interesting overview of his life and career: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/17/arts/design/17wyeth.html

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A while back, I saw a feature on “CBS Sunday Morning” about the artist Ed Ruscha. I was surprised I hadn’t noticed his art before—my own fault. I’d love to have a print of paintings like “Standard Station, Amarillo Texas” (1963) or “The Canyons” (1979) or the graphite “Twentysix Gasoline Stations” (1964) (or the photographic book), or the painting “Noise, Pencil, Broken Pencil, Cheap Western” (1963), and others, and I want to look for his art at the MoMA when we’re in New York next spring.

Born in 1937, Ruscha (pronounced roo-SHAY) is an LA-based artist, photographer, filmmaker, and printmaker. As this article from a recent exhibition in Stockholm indicates, Ruscha has been identified with both pop art and conceptual art, and his work has commonalities with surrealism and Dada, but, according to this article, Ruscha’s art isn’t wholly identifiable with a particular movement(http://www.modernamuseet.se/en/Stockholm/Exhibitions/2010/Ed-Ruscha/Fifty-Years-of-Painting). He is a contemporary of artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein, was influenced by artists like Jasper Johns and Edward Hopper, and was featured in very early exhibitions of pop art. His West Coast subject matter makes him an interesting artist in the pop and conceptual art traditions.

After the “Sunday Morning” report I ordered the heavy retrospective history, Ed Ruscha by Richard D. Marshall (New York: Phaidon Press, Inc., 2003). Leafing through the book, I loved the quality of his art explained in the above Moderna Museet article, “Ruscha’s overarching theme is words and their constantly shifting relationships with context and message. In all his paintings there are tensions and frictions at play: between foreground and background, between text and image, and between how words look and what they mean.”

Unfortunately, the print in Marshall’s Ruscha is small, and gray rather than black—a strain for this middle-aged person—so I’m still dipping into the text as best as I can while enjoying the many reproductions. Meanwhile, I enjoyed an article by Laura Cumming (http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2009/oct/18/ed-ruscha-hayward-baldessari-tate). Cumming notes how Ruscha “painted words out of context, giving them a non-verbal life of their own as figures in a landscape; and he pictured words as images.” “His humour is perennial but it coexists with profundity.”

I found another article, an interview with Ruscha by Martin Gayford (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/6224022/Ed-Ruscha-interview.html). Gaylord writes that Ruscha’s work “gives one the feeling of being on an endless road through an immense landscape, interrupted by puzzling messages on billboards, at once folksy and mysterious, a journey through a wide space the only features of which are logos, gas stations and parking lots. Joan Didion – another literary admirer – wrote that Ruscha’s works ‘are distillations, the thing compressed to its most pure essence’. They are also sometimes surprisingly funny, in a laconic, Marcel Duchamp-meets-Clint Eastwood sort of way. Ruscha invented an entire artistic genre – one of several in his repertoire – that consists of nothing but words and phrases, floating in vaguely defined space: All You Can Eat, ½ Starved, ½ Crocked, ½ Insane, Chicken Rivets, Girls Girls Girls, Defective Silencer Units, Etc, and – especially ironic in the current circumstances – I Don’t Want No Retro Spective, a pastel from 1979.”

As with these other referenced articles, that whole essay and interview are worth reading, with many more insights and discussions that I can summarize. I was interested that Ruscha’s friend, with whom he drove Route 66 to California in the 1950s, was the musician Mason Williams, whose pieces “Classical Gas” and “Baroque-a-Nova” have been favorites of mine for over forty years.

In still another article, http://www.beatmuseum.org/ruscha/edruscha.html, the author writes this: “Born and raised Catholic, Ruscha readily admits to the influence of religion in his work. He is also aware of the centuries-old tradition of religious imagery in which light beams have been used to represent divine presence. But his work makes no claims for a particular moral position or spiritual attitude.” As I dig into the Marshall text in the days ahead, this theme is something I’d like to learn more about.

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partisanA piece from last fall….This week’s “Time” magazine (October 22, 2012) has an essay by Katy Steinmetz (p. 15) called “Unfriending the Enemy.” She notes that “The Pew Research center found that nearly 1 in 5 social networkers has blocked, hidden or unfriended someone over political material that was too frequent or too disagreeable.” One user is quoted, “The final straw for me was a post about how Obamacare requires all Americans to get chips installed in their skin.” Steinmetz writes, “now that many people can count everyone from close friends to crazy uncles to far-flung professional contacts among their Facebook friends, it’s important to keep the whole audience in mind, says consultant Jacqueline Whitmore. The original rule about politics and conversation, after all, was about having consideration or others’ feelings.”

Have you unfriended anyone on Facebook over politics? I’ve unfriended just a few, folks with whom I wasn’t close friends and who annoyed me with partisan postings. (I recall that one was rather sneering about climate change.) I felt foolish and “codependent” afterward, because I do have many friends whose political postings I disagree with, and I’ve friends whose postings, while frequent, are more congenial to my own views. I’ve political views but I’m willing to listen to and appreciate diverse opinions, as long as folks aren’t dogmatic or generalizing or angry. But then I thought, why should I have to get annoyed day after day, with persons to whom I’m not that close anyway? I suppose I could’ve just asked them to stop.

With a few friends I’ve reduced the number of status updates that appear on my “wall.” In some cases, I care about those people very much and don’t want their political views to hurt that caring. For instance, I realized a friend, whom I liked a lot in person, was a real Rush Lindbergh/Fox News fan, neither of which I can tolerate. I walk out on businesses wherein the store’s radio is tuned to Rush. But I don’t want to lose that person’s friendship. So I’ve just reduced such folks’ statuses on my feed, until after the election. I do check their “walls” to make sure they’re doing okay.

I hate judgmental peopleOne time a FB friend and I discussed an issue on FB, concerning an article that I posted and found interesting. My friend took a position I disliked and when we discussed the matter, I felt like I was seeing my friend’s point but not vice versa. We weren’t meeting halfway. But I do tend to find political disagreements exhausting rather than productive. That’s just my nature, like my friend’s nature is to be more vigorous in discussions. So if you’re like me and aren’t really a debater, but you still follow politics and want to be socially engaged, you have to find a sense of genuineness, balance, and caring.

The thing is: I don’t think that Facebook is a really good way to discuss politics, because the lack of face-to-face contact might give you courage to be nastier than you’d otherwise be, and it’s difficult to convey nuance and genuine concern. When you watch candidates and TV advertisements, you may think all Democrats/Republicans are (as my dad would say) damned liars, hell bent on turning the nation into a socialist/fascist wasteland, but some of your friends who are Democrats/Republicans are probably good, solid people who, like you, want the best for the country. But you’re lumping them into the category of the damned, destructive liars!

My mother died two weeks ago, and nearly 200 of my Facebook friends posted prayers, words of encouragement, support, and interest as I announced her loss, made arrangements, and traveled to her funeral and burial services. I feel like the possibility of mutual, real-time support is the outstanding feature of Facebook. I keep that in mind as we s-l-o-w-l-y wind up this difficult political season.

I’ve begun to post articles that I find interesting, not on Facebook but on my blog. Somehow it seems more like a sincere sharing of social concerns, and of things I find interesting on both sides of the political aisle. There are some scriptural admonitions about being kind, gentle, thoughtful, and mutually supportive, and I do want to try to follow these teachings, even on political and justice issues about which I feel really passionate. It’s a struggle to find that balance, but a good one.


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75064_10152401239955587_649944757_nThis week, some of my devotional periodicals contain pieces reflecting on Gilgal stories in Joshua 4: the Israelites’ crossing of the Jordan River, and the construction of a twelve-stone memorial to the event. Those devotions led me to a familiar book, the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary on Joshua.(1) I was going to think about those memorial stones, but my reading took me in a completely different direction.

Robert Coote’s section on that book is fascinating. The book is a portion of the (conjectured) source, the “Deuteronomistic History,” which brought together older sources and which supported the soveriengty of the house of David and the primacy of the Temple of Jerusalem, as Josiah reformed Israelite worship and attempted to regain land that had been part of the original heritage of Joshua’s conquest (pp. 556, 559). Coote’s introduction contains essential information about the reforms of Josiah in the 600s and shows how the Deuteronomistic Historian of Josiah’s time crafted the book of Joshua, giving the Conquest (five or six hundred years before Josiah) an interpretation that brought together many stands of Israel’s history. Coote is also very helpful in drawing connections among Joshua and other scriptures. Here are a few.

* Focusing on the crossing of the Jordan in Joshua 4 and 5: one of the perhaps obvious connections can be made between the crossing of the river, and God’s promises to Abraham. Abraham would have many descendants, and they would live in the land provided by God.

* Psalm 114 connects the splitting of the sea in Exodus and the splitting of the river in Joshua, calling attention to God’s sovereignty not only over Israel but also creation itself (p. 600). So Psalm 114 allows us to trace God’s work in Israel’s liberation with Genesis 1-2.

* Although the Battle of Jericho is well known in Joshua, the splitting and crossing of the river is surely the most influential event in terms of Old and New Testament references (p. 599). But the ritual of crossing the water may have also been a Passover ritual, connecting to the splitting of the sea in Exodus 14 (p. 600). One of the key aspects of Josiah’s reforms would have been the renewal of long-neglected feasts like Passover.

*The Deuteronomistic historian of Josiah’s day wants us to connect the event to the reconquest of the land by the power of God centralized in the ark (p. 599). The event is also referred to in Micah 6:4-5, among God’s mighty works. Verses 1-5 there has a Deuteronomistic tone, Coote writes, in the use of the characteristic phrase “in order to know” the Lord. (p. 599).

* A further link in the Deuteronomistic account is to David. Gilgal was the place where Samuel anointed Saul as king (1 Sam. 11:14-15) and also the place where Samuel rejected Saul (1 Samuel 13:8-15); cf. Joshua 7:1-8:29) and anointed David instead. A key theme of the Deuteronomistic history is the authority of the Davidic monarchy and the centering of the Temple in Jerusalem (p. 606).

* I posted about Jesus’ baptism in a January 2013 piece. His baptism in the Jordan is not just a happy coincidence—rivers have plenty of water for baptism, after all, and the Jordan was handy. No pun intended, but the use of the Jordan River goes deeper than just its availability as a water source. John the Baptist might have set up shop at the Sea of Galilee, after all.

Coote notes that in the early church, Jesus is connected to the suffering and raised servant of Isaiah 40-55. But that suffering servant, in turn, is part of Second Isaiah’s message to the returning exiles: as God redeemed his people in Joshua’s time with the gift of land, so will God redeem his people as they return from Babylonian exile. So Jesus’ presence within the waters of the Jordan fulfills God’s promise to Israel in Isaiah 40-55 and also Joshua 4 (p. 602-603).

* The connection of Jesus to Joshua 4 is further deepened with references in Mark’s Gospel to Elijah. Elijah announces the “day of the Lord” in Malachi 3:1 and 4:5. But Elijah is significant in two more ways: his call of fire down from heaven (2 Kings 1:8-12, Mark 1:6), and Elijah’s own crossing of the Jordan in 2 Kings 2:1-14) (pp. 602-603).

* But a further connection of Joshua 4-5 and the early church, is in the fact that the Israelite men were circumcised as they were camped at Gilgal (Joshua 5:2-9). Coote notes that the early church struggled with whether Gentile male converts to Christianity needed to be circumcised according to the Jewish law. “By making the rite of baptism and the baptism of Jesus a primary basis of his version of the gospel, and by showing how baptism recapitulates the basic themes of the exodus and the crossing of the Jordan under Joshua, Mark lays a basis for understanding the inclusion of the Gentiles in terms of just those scriptural texts that most clearly formed the basis for distinguishing between Israel and the Gentiles. In this sense, the Gospel of Mark represents a radical reinterpretation of the old Joshua in terms of the new Joshua, or Jesus” (p. 604).

* You could certainly also draw the Davidic link between the primacy of King David, affirmed by the Deuteronomistic history, and the new and different kind of king, Jesus of David’s line, who is baptized in the Jordan.

I found all this fascinating, not only because I love discovering links and connections and allusions in the Bible, but also the question of why was Jesus baptized. That’s a topic often raised in Bible study groups: if Jesus was sinless, why was he baptized, and it must’ve been because of his identification with sinful people like you and me. But Coote’s interesting commentary shows that there are numerous significant aspects within scripture to show that Jesus’ descent into the Jordan waters is really tied to the whole history of biblical Israel.

One might also add a popular image from “old time” hymns: that of crossing the Jordan as an image of being with the Lord forever.

I’ve said this elsewhere on this blog; a big interest of mine these past several years has been deepening my understanding of ways the whole Bible fits together. Something at our previous church alerted me to the fact that many, many churchgoers aren’t clear on some essential Bible material, including the Hebrew/Jewish foundation and framework of the New Testament. The conquest of the land under Joshua is a culmination of God’s promise to Moses and, before that, God’s promise to Abraham, “a triumphant finale to the Bible’s foundational epic of liberation” (p. 555). But that epic underlay the affirmation of the Davidic monarchy, the promises to God’s people voiced in Isaiah 40-55, and the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.


(1) Robert B. Coote, “The Book of Joshua,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. II (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), pp. 555-719. In his introduction, Coote also cautions us to understand the violence and mayhem of the book of Joshua. There is the difficulty of verifying the account based on what is known archaeologically of the region, and there is also the fact that the book depicts ancient realities—-Iron Age tribal societies, the importance of land for both nomadic and settled tribes, and settlement shifts in Palestine—rather than our modern ideas of nation-states, nationalism, and civil rights (pp. 556-558).

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A post from my “Journeys Home” blog for Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013. …. I’m thinking about the Baptism of the Lord, which in some churches is celebrated on the Sunday following Epiphany. Of course, Jesus approached John to be baptized, and according to the scriptures the Spirit appeared like a dove and proclaimed the blessedness of Jesus, who came to John not to be served but as a servant.

When I was a kid, my relatives who belonged to a denomination that practices only adult-baptism by submersion saw in this story proof of the correctness of that rite. Jesus came up out of the water; John didn’t sprinkle him!

Also, my relatives cited this verse in Colossians:

…when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead (2:12).

When we’re buried, we’re not buried with a little dirt on our heads. We’re buried all the way under!

I disliked that argument but didn’t know why. I was relieved when a United Methodist pastor pointed out that the thief on the cross was not baptized by any mode and yet was promised salvation. Eventually, I read a little further in Colossians:

[W]hy do you submit to regulations, “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed the appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence (2:20b-23).

While I wouldn’t call baptism a “human command,” the author worries (in this and the whole section 2:8-23) that we need to be careful not to substitute the living Christ for rituals and practices—not to substitute the goal for the means to the goal, so to speak (see also Gal. 5:16-26, 6:14-15).

But my older relatives are long passed away. I’m not sure I could’ve argued doctrine with them anyway, for they were quite set in their views, and I’m not really a debater.

One of my great-aunts expressed mild horror when we joined the United Methodist Church—a “sprinkling” denomination! I wonder what they’d think if they knew I was enjoying an Orthodox Christian prayer book this feast day.

A former Honors College student who is now a Byzantine Catholic nun commented on Facebook about the beauty of prayers in the Eastern tradition. Unfamiliar with that aspect of the tradition, I asked her for a recommendation of a prayer book and she recommended The Festal Menaion. This edition is translated by Mother Mary of the Orthodox Monastery of the Veil of the Mother of God, Bussy-en-Othe, France, and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware of the University of Oxford: South Canaan, PA, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1998. For the past few days I’ve loved exploring this beautiful book with its Orthodox liturgical texts, and praying some of the prayers during personal quiet times.

My most recent post had to do with the symbolism of water and sea, a coincidental serendipity. In Benjamin Britten’s operas, returning to the sea becomes symbolic of the cycles of life, the redemption of returning to waters, the vast unknown into which we’re ultimately cast. As I delved into this prayer book, the-ten-commandmentsI thought more about water—the reality of God’s power over water, God’s presence in the power of water itself, the scriptural connections of water with salvation, and water’s significance in the rites of churches—-as I encountered several readings and tones for the Eastern feast of The Holy Theophany (January 6). These scriptures give me much to reflect upon in the overall context of Christ’s baptism:

*  The power of the sea over the Egyptians, who perished once the split sea returned to natural course (pp. 339-340).

*  The day the Jordan River split, allowing dry ground to form as the Israelites with Joshua crossed over into the land, and they “were passed clean” (Joshua 3:7-8, 15-17: p. 341).

*  The power of Elijah’s mantle that also split the Jordan, allowing him and Elisha to pass on dry ground (2 Kings 2:6-14: pp. 341-342).

*  The story of Naaman, the captain of the Assyrian armies, who through the miraculous power of God evoked by Elisha, could bath in the Jordan and become clean from his leprosy (2 Kings 5:9-14: pp. 341-343.).

*  The saving waters of the Nile that carried the ark containing baby Moses to safety (Ex. 2:5-10: 344-345).

*  The dew that appeared on Gideon’s fleece, signifying God’s favor (Judges 6:36-40: p. 345).

*  The story of Elijah soaking the altar and its trench with abundant water, which would not quench the heavenly fire (1 Kings 18:30-39: pp. 345-346).

*  The healing of the waters by Elisha at Jereicho (2 Kings 2:19-21: pp. 346-347).

*  The blessing of water in the post-exilic prophesies of Isaiah (55:1-13: pp. 349-350).

*  Paul’s connection of the waters of the rock at Meribah in Exodus 17, and Christ the Rock with his spiritual drink (1 Cor. 10:1-14: pp. 350).

After thinking about these readings, I loved this prayer for The Holy Theophany by Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem (pp. 353-355). Here is a portion:

“O Trinity supreme in being, in goodness, and in Godhead, almighty, who watchest over all, invisible, incomprehensible, Maker of spiritual beings and rational natures, innate Goodness, Light that none can approach and that lightens every [one] that comes into the world: Shine upon me Thine unworthy servant….

“Today the glittering stars make the inhabited earth fair with the radiance of their shining. Today the clouds drop down upon making the dew of righteousness from on high. Today the Uncreated of His own will accepts the laying on of hands from His own creature. Today the Prophet and Forerunner approaches the Master, but stands before Him with trembling, seeing the condescension of God towards us. Today the waters of the Jordan are transformed into healing by the coming of the Lord. Today the whole creation is watered by mystical streams. Today the transgressions …. are washed away by the waters of the Jordan. Today Paradise has been opened …. and the Sun of Righteousness shines down upon us. Today the bitter water, as once with Moses and the people of Israel, is changed to sweetness by the coming of the Lord…..

“Today earth and sea share the joy of the world, and the world is filled with gladness. The waters saw Thee, O God, the waters saw Thee and were afraid. The Jordan turned back, seeing the fire of the Godhead descending bodily and entering its stream. The Jordan turned back, beholding the Holy Spirit coming down in the form of a dove and flying about Thee. The Jordan turned back, seeing the Invisible made visible, The Creator made flesh, the Master in the form of a servant. The Jordan turned back and the mountains skipped, looking upon God in the flesh; and the Light of Light, true God of true God. For today in the Jordan they saw the Triumph of the Master; they saw Him drown in the Jordan the death of disobedience, the sting of error, and the chains of hell, and bestow upon the world the baptism of salvation….” (pp. 353-355).

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