Today my world shifted a smidge on its axis. Today, I took in a painting. Really took it in. The painting is “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Stephanie Frostad, and the reason I took it in is that I watched a video where Ms. Frostad described her process in the creation of it. (The interview with Frostad begins 6:45 minutes into the video.)
The painting is named for the Biblical parable about the return of a son who has been away from home, wasting his family's money by living a life of irresponsible debauchery. Upon his penitent return, he is welcomed by his parents, who celebrate by slaughtering the “fatted calf.” The parable is filled with themes near and dear to Christian theologists: the redemption of the sinner, unconditional forgiveness, turning the other cheek, and so on.
Frostad has done something shocking. She has told the story—in painting—from the perspective of the calf, its mother, and the sober, responsible son who has stayed at his post, as a steward of the land and of the animals. The idyllic, pastoral relationship between the mother cow and her calf dominate the painting to such a degree that it appears at first glance to be a portrait of cows. The next most visible figure is what Frostad refers to as the “dutiful son.” In her video, there is a close-up of this figure. He stands aloof, watching the joyful reunion with a poker face. What is he feeling? Anger, ambivalence, resentment, skepticism, disgust?
On the three-month anniversary of the most dangerous nuclear accident on the planet, with radiation continuing to spew into ocean and air, I experienced a paradigm shift as I viewed Frostad’s work and as I listened to her words. The story—the real story, the important story—is the cow and her calf, the sanctity of the innocent. The drama of the disconnected, dissociated son returning home, because he has finally run through his resources and is out of options, seems suddenly small, insignificant, obscene, out-of-focus. Who cares about him? And why should any more of the planet's precious resources be wasted on him? Frostad has finally put the story of the prodigal son in its true, planetary perspective... and along with it, the toxic theology and pedagogy that spawned it. No small thing.
Let's face it: The addict takes focus. Why wouldn't he or she? The addict's actions are dramatically erratic and potentially disastrous, the monstrous selfishness is compelling to watch, the mounting debt and burden of guilt carry their own momentum. It's a plot that fairly writes itself. The storyline of the victims is nowhere near as fun. And the sober citizen? Well....zzzzzzz.
We watch with anguish as these favored "prodigal sons" of patriarchal culture repeatedly betray our loyalty, as they take our resources and squander them on their selfish pleasure. We wring our hands, wondering when they will realize how much they owe us, when they will come back and make amends. And if they do return (invariably for more access to our resources), we are just desperate or self-deceived enough to receive them back with open arms, eager to spare them any humiliation... and pressing upon them more of our already-plundered resources.
But this drama, as Frostad makes so clear has nothing in common with the natural world, its seasons and its cycles. Our investments have been misplaced and we must collectively cut our losses. It is time for the “dutiful son”-- those on the planet who are attempting to live moderate, sustainable, environmentally conscientious lives--to turn away from this tedious drama of redemption, to reject the pseudo romance of reconciliation, to refuse to kill any more fatted calves for this obscene celebration of non-accountability. And it is time for the “dutiful son” to examine destructive loyalties to a family that is so absorbed in that drama that it cannot focus its priorities.
What this painting has done for me is to push me to examine all the ways in which I have internalized the drama of the return of the prodigal as a meaningful narrative. What are the ways I am complicit with it? Am I still susceptible to the romance of redemption, to the paradigm of the mother, eternally delighted to reward the males who show any signs of coming home, thrilled at any return, however meager, of my investment? Am I the father, flush with the power of "forgiveness," sponsoring the prodigal back into the family? Am I the prodigal herself, expecting the world to be waiting for me with open arms when I realize the extent of my profligacy, arrogance, participation in a culture of greed and exploitation?
The parable of the prodigal son is a tale of enabling, and it has always been a luxury. Now, as it has become a planetary imperative for all us to be learn what it means to become "right-sized," we need to flip the parable, as Frostad has done, privileging the narratives of the innocent and of the accountable. We need to shrink the romance of the reformed sinner to a distant memory from a dying planet.