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The Great I AM

February 6, 2009

After a long sabbatical, the evangelical art critic is back!  Plans are brewing for a full-scale analysis of evangelical kitsch.  But for now, I’ve been thinking about the scene in Exodus 3, where YHWH tells Moses that he must go to Pharaoh and demand to him that he let the Israelites go from bondage to freedom.  Moses tries to get out of this task, at first, but to no avail. 

Moses acquiesces and asks YHWH, “when I go, what should I tell Pharaoh when he asks me on whose behalf I am making the request?”  Essentially, Moses is demanding some accountability from God at this burning bush moment of theodicy.  He wants YHWH to reveal himself, in name and in character, but YHWH only replies, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.”  The answer is a non-answer, an evasive refusal to interact with Moses on human terms.  It means something like, “I am what I am,” or “I will be what I will be,” or (even more loosely rendered), “my very being justifies whatever I say.”

The scene is typical of the Old Testament God, a complex, all-to-human figure who cannot be pinned down at any point.  That’s why I’ve always been amazed at the reverence for the phrase I AM.  Here, in this work, titled The Names of Christ, the phrase I AM is exalted above all other names. (I’m not a skilled art critic, but I deduced this when I looked at it and realized that  the I AM stands out). 

 Of course, it’s amusing on one level to think that I AM would appear on a work titled The Names of Christ, especially when it’s the most compelling moment involvingnames-for-god YHWH in the entire Bible.  Yet, the writer of John hijacks this moment and turns it into a christological truth claim by having Jesus tell his Jewish detractors, “Before Abraham was, I am.”  Yet on another level, it’s also peculiar to think that this piece reads Jesus as “the great I AM,” as if the phrase itself connotes some type of completeness and all-sufficiency.

A Christian family blog provides an example of this shibboleth“Sometimes it’s hard to wrap our brains around the idea of the great I AM. For the people of Israel, it was a defining moment in them understanding who their God was. Although He had established His covenant with Abrahm, [sic] Jacob, and Isaac, this was the first time he made His name known to them. (Exodus 6:2-4) Here are some thoughts on what it means to serve the Great I AM: God is eternally existent. . .He laid the foundations of the earth and created all things. God is the Alpha and Omega. . .just as he created all things, He will exist forever. God is unchanging. He is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. When you have a hard time calling on the Lord by name, meditate on the truths of the Great I AM.”

It’s nice that some people can find comfort in the simplicity of YHWH’s answer to Moses.  Yet for those who believe in the same God as Christians do, it can be difficult to interpret the “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh” as anything other than troubling–the polar opposite response this work seeks to elicit.  Just consider the literary critic Harold Bloom, who has good reason to believe that God’s evasiveness in this moment is the first of many divine failures throughout history.  The question becomes, then, how does this work, The Names of Christ, think it can redress these failures?

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