As the Mississippi River slogs its way through Louisiana and Mississippi, we are reminded once again that too much water in the wrong place and at the wrong time brings destruction, misery, and even death.
In the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the river broke through 145 levees and flooded more land then the entire state of West Virginia. The crisis also put a spotlight on persistent and pernicious racism in the South, as many African-Americans were treated horribly and some lost their lives to the flood on account of the color of their skin.
In a strange bit of historical coincidence, the fall of 1927 saw the initial Broadway production of the now-beloved musical Show Boat, featuring the memorable bass solo, "Ol Man River" (see the video clip below from the 1936 movie version featuring Paul Robeson):
Dere's an ol' man called de Mississippi
Dat's de ol' man dat I'd like to be!
What does he care if de world's got troubles?
What does he care if de land ain't free?
American painter John Steuart Curry produced The Mississippi in 1935. Having grown up in the Midwest, Curry witnessed the destructive power of tornadoes and floods. But more than simply a chronicler of natural events, Curry's painting embodies a biblical worldview of creation, fall, and redemption.
First, the painting depicts a recognizable world of water, trees, sky, and people. Though at the time abstract art was all the rage among the cultural elite, Curry rejected modernist art theories in favor of a new form of realism known as American Regionalism.
The Mississippi depicts real people-a father, mother, children-expressing the emotions of the moment. The painting rightly depicts the imago dei, the image of God, refusing to abstract humanity away into nothingness.
But The Mississippi goes further, showing that something has gone terribly wrong. We see a battle between man and nature, and nature looks to be winning. Dark grays and blues swirl around in violent commotion. You can feel the fear of the family as shadows of death menace. Each lapping wave pulls at their bodies with mindless, yet murderous, intent.
Ol' man river,
Dat ol' man river
He mus'know sumpin'
But don't say nuthin',
He jes'keeps rollin'
He keeps on rollin' along.
It is at this very point that modern man often finds no answer to the ultimate questions of life. When a meteorologist takes the place of a theologian as the voice of truth about reality, who can explain the fury of the flood? Christian scholar Hans Rookmaaker once wrote:
"Science had been the way to acquire insight into the structure of reality, into the way this world is built, to find out the greatness of God's creation. But now it was elevated by the rationalist into the tool to know all truth, the foundation of all knowledge. But the world was no longer open to a transcendent God. It had become a closed box, and man was caught in that box."
As Christians, when our frightened children curl up in our arms during a thunderstorm, do words about God ever fall from our lips? In our rush to explain the meteorology, do we leave off the theology and doxology? It should not be so. "There's not a plant or flower below but makes your glories known," the Isaac Watts hymn states.
If we read Curry's painting from the left to right, what do we see at the end of the sentence? We see the father lifting up his hands in prayer to God. The Lord who "sits enthroned over the flood" receives a plea for deliverance. The children look up to their father looking up to God. The Mississippi reveals that we are not "alone in the box."
Will God save the family from the flood? We are not told the answer, but a fate worse than drowning awaits those who sit high and dry in unbelief. We would never take lightly the suffering caused by natural disasters. But in light of eternity, it is possible to understand a natural disaster as a blessing if it is the very event that led them to consider the frailty of life and the mercy of Christ to save them from the eternal disaster that awaited them.
Let me go 'way from the Mississippi,
Let me go 'way from de white man boss;
Show me dat stream called de river Jordan,
Dat's de ol' stream dat I long to cross.