A Walk Through Sackler: Ideas of Escape and the Hope of Exodus

Ryan Zhang immigrated to the United States from China in 1999 and currently lives in the Boston metro area. He is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Georgetown University, and he currently serves as a pastoral intern and staff member at Christ the King Presbyterian Church.

The Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., features artwork and artifacts from Asia. It is a relatively unknown and quiet museum on the National Mall, but over the years it has grown to be my personal favorite among the Smithsonian museums, mostly for its tranquility and peacefulness. I had a chance to visit the Sackler Gallery again last week and walked through a special exhibit of artwork from the Ming Dynasty. The ancient 古筝 (gǔzhēng) instrumental music and the dark corridors of the Sackler provided the perfect setting for the exhibit, and these paintings carried me far away to mountains in ancient China, and finally to the gospel in Exodus.

All the paintings in this exhibit portrayed different scenes of nature in China. One of the paintings depicts a scene from a fishing village in which fishermen quietly fish in their boats, some alone and some sitting side by side with one another. Off on the shore a woman spins clothes in her room, while small children play outside. The whole scene reflects a simplicity and tranquility that, in the words of the museum guide, "Portrays an idealized life in a fishing village."

The rest of the paintings in the exhibit are not too different from the one I describe above – some portray old friends visiting each other in mountains, or a sage living peacefully by himself next to a lake, or reflections of moonlight on still water. But paintings like these are not unique to this Wuxi school of art from the Ming Dynasty; there are two paintings hanging in my living room that portray similar nature scenes. A cursory search for "Chinese paintings" on Google would help you catch a glimpse of the types of artwork that I am describing.

Such peaceful, almost transcendentalist escapes into nature have been an important part of the Chinese national psyche. Traditionally, military leaders and emperors searched for advisors and wisdom not in large urban academies, but in the fogs of isolated and mysterious villages. 诸葛亮 (Zhū Gě Liàng) from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is the prime example of a sage living in peace with the world until a sincere political leader persuaded him to come rescue the nation. Legends like these spread across the pages of China's long history. Alternatively, when a poet or scholar grew tired of the corruption of the contemporary political system, they in turn concealed themselves in the countryside. 

The desire to escape into peace and tranquility still resonates very much in the psyche of modern Chinese people. When I asked one of my friends from Beijing if he would like to go visit Washington, D.C., and New York City while he is studying in the US, he quickly retorted, "I am not interested in cities because I came from a big city. I am more interested in nature and the countryside." When I ask my Chinese Christian friends what initially attracted them to Christianity, almost all of them described to me the initial sense of peace they felt as they entered the sanctuary of a church.

It is not difficult to appreciate the Chinese people's preference for peace and tranquility. Living in the most populous nation in the world, many people in China are tired of squeezing through crowded streets or riding in packed buses. Even places of nature like mountains and lakes, or religious spaces like Buddhist temples, are crowded with tourists and the vendors that follow them. Along with the crowd come pollution, noise, theft, robbery, and schemes of various kinds.  Every night my Chinese social media is filled with warnings against the latest schemes in society. As much as I would like to write off these reports as fear mongering, it is undeniable that Chinese society as a whole, with its densely populated cities and milieu of social problems, is a very complex place. In the words of a Chinese expression, Chinese cities are places where dragons and snakes mix together (龙蛇混扎), each with his or her own tricks and skills to deceive and strike.

In this context, there is a sense of nobleness in escaping from such chaos and complexity to seek simpler, more peaceful living. Simplicity and tranquility represent cleansing and restoration. Escapes to nature reflect a willingness to let go of worldly influence and wealth. Even though not everyone in society seeks after such ideals, enlightened individuals can still seek after them by leaving behind the crowd. 

Lest we consider this as only a Chinese attitude, it is also ingrained in the American imagination. We may roll our eyes every time we hear Dorothy sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” but after a few lines we too find our hearts yearning to fly away like little birds. We pine in the words of “Somewhere” from West Side Story: "There is a place for us, peace and quiet with open air, time together with time to spare, time to learn, time to care..." All we are waiting for is someone to say to us: "Hold my hand and I will take you there."

The hope of Christianity for China, and for America, is that someday the Prince of Peace will come back and take us there. During the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples that he is preparing a place for us, and one day he will come back to take us there so that "Where I am you may be also." God, whose first act in the Bible was to create order out of chaos, will one day bring order to our hearts and societies. He will separate chaff from wheat, goats from sheep, or in the Chinese expression, dragons from snakes. He will bring judgment to evil and give peace to the righteous.

But the Christian gospel in Exodus is more than just the ideal of escape. The good news of Christianity is not one of total rejection and escape, but a total transformation. In the Old Testament, God led the Israelites out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt to establish a new nation in the Promised Land. The purpose of Exodus was not an escape to the wilderness. In fact, the forty years in the wilderness – in nature – were just a deviation from the ultimate plan. The purpose was for the Israelites to supplant all the idolatrous cultures of the world by creating a new, righteous culture with the one true God in the center of their worship. Israel was to become a nation through whom "All nations on the earth shall be blessed."

It is certainly recommended that we should withdraw for a period of rest and reflection, but Christ called us not to escape. He called us to be salt and light in the world, because our actions and words should point to a greater Exodus in our Lord Jesus Christ. The God of order did not leave the world in its messiness, but entered into our chaos to lead us out of the bondage of sin. God took on a human body, submitted himself to a specific culture, died under the corrupt political power of Rome in an ancient city, and was raised from the dead with an immortal body. At the end of the age what we have is not a triumphant escape to another heavenly world, but the return of our Lord in a New Jerusalem, and we will dwell with him in this new heavenly city. We will not escape to a new world, but we will be made new.

"We shall not all sleep [or escape], but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality." 

1 Corinthians 15:51-5