Today my Bible study group went on a tour of the Seattle Art Museum. We were there to see the “Graphic Masters” exhibit, featuring over four hundred prints and drawings from the last five hundred years. The exhibit, which closes this weekend, was exquisite. We began with the groundbreaking work of German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer. We looked at the intricate work of Rembrandt and the pointedly satirical art of Goya. We had to rush through the Picasso room because of time. But then we arrived at the room I had really come to see.
This was the room that held the over 200 drawings of R. Crumb’s Illustrated Book of Genesis. Crumb, probably most famous for creating the “Keep on Truckin'” character of the late ’60s, had taken over four years to illustrate, in detail, the entire book of Genesis. Genesis is not a short book. It contains 50 chapters, and all kinds of “begat “details that would seem to be tough to illustrate. But somehow, Crumb did it.
I admired his illustrations of the Creation story, his take on the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life, and the serpent who tempted Eve. But the story I examined closely, reading every word, was the one found in Genesis 30:25-43. That is the tale of how Jacob cheated his father-in-law Laban and became a wealthy man.
As the strange little story goes, after years of tending the flocks of his father-in-law Laban, Jacob wanted a flock of his own. He suggested that Laban pay him by giving him the spotted sheep in the flocks, and Laban could keep all the rest. But then Jacob took the best ewes and put spotted and striped sticks by the water trough when they came to drink. The idea was that whatever a sheep is looking at when a lamb is conceived will be reflected in the appearance of the lamb. Sure enough, as happens in legends like these, the trick worked. The ewes that were looking at the spotted and striped sticks when the ram came along all gave birth to healthy, spotted lambs. When the weaker ewes came to the water trough, Jacob took the sticks away, and all those ewes gave birth to weak, unspotted lambs. What a trickster that Jacob was.
Among modern sheep breeds, that story is remembered in the breed known as “Jacobs.” A Jacobs sheep indeed is brown and white spotted, and the rams have beautiful black curved horns. The shepherd’s crook I brought home from Scotland six years ago is made from hazel wood topped with a carved Jacobs ram horn.
Sure enough, J. Crumb had very nicely illustrated this story of Jacob and his sheep. I was satisfied.
If you are still reading all of this detail about the SAM exhibit, and the naming of a very particular breed of sheep, and the Bible story that goes with it, congratulations. I realize that by this point in the blog, I have now completely confirmed that I am both a sheep nerd and a Bible nerd.
By “nerd” I mean someone who gets caught up in a lot of information that the average person doesn’t care much about, and probably isn’t particularly relevant to most people’s lives. One definition calls a nerd “studiously boring.”
I have always known that I am a Bible nerd. But my full realization that I have also become a sheep nerd happened last Sunday night, when I gathered with the group of folks from my congregation who are going to Iona. There are thirteen of us going to visit that sacred Scottish Isle in late September. Over the last months, we have gathered to share a meal and to talk together about the island and the trip. Each participant has done a special research project, and shared the results with the wider group at our different gatherings.
I knew from my two previous trips to Iona that there are a lot of sheep on the island, and they are of various breeds. Some of the breeds I recognized, some of them I did not. I was curious about those sheep, and imagined all of my fellow pilgrims would be curious too. I decided to title my presentation on “The Sheep of Iona.”
But when I googled the topic, I didn’t find much information. Just some references to blogs from others who had been to Iona and commented, “There are a lot of sheep there.” I decided to dig deeper. I contacted the owner of the Iona craft shop on the island.
A fellow named Michael answered my email right away. He listed the several different breeds of sheep on the island, and specifically named the breeds that his shop uses to produce their wool and wool crafts. I eagerly gathered more information on each breed, and I looked through my own pictures from Iona to find examples. I put all of the information together in a little booklet, printed off twelve copies, and eagerly headed off to the Sunday meeting.
I was prepared for an in depth discussion of various sheep breeds, their characteristics, and their uses. So there we sat in a circle. I handed out my little booklet and said, “My presentation is on the sheep of Iona.” I heard a few snickers.
That’s when it hit me. Folks had done presentations on the Abbey on Iona, the nunnery on Iona, Celtic Christianity, the Book of Kells. All of those presentations were thoughtful reflections on spirituality and the nature of pilgrimage.
Now here I was talking about sheep. Not the spirituality of sheep. Actual sheep. What their wool is like. What their ears are like. Different colors of their fleeces. What it means to say this breed is polled, or why this breed is rare, or how when shepherding practices changed in the United Kingdom, this breed increased and this breed declined. I had only gotten to page two of my booklet after I had compared and contrasted three of the seven breeds I was featuring, when I saw that people’s eyes had begun to glaze over. Suddenly I felt like a preacher whose sermon had gone on too long. Using a particularly obscure scripture text. With illustrations that actually did not relate to anyone’s life.
I began to speed up my presentation, cutting here and there, leaving brilliant observations about this particular breed or that particular type unsaid. But when I got to the Bluefaced Leicester I couldn’t resist. I just had to tell the group about the Border Leicester too, cousin to the Bluefaced, and star of the movie “Babe.”
I heard myself explaining that the Texel makes a nice foundation ewe. The Hebridian is a primitive breed with fantastical horns. The ubiquitous Scottie ewe also has horns. The distinctive looking Zwartble is naturally polled – no horns on the ewes or the rams. My breed, the Romney, is also not found on Iona. (And by the way, there are no Jacobs sheep on Iona – at least none that I saw.)
When I finally finished talking, the group sat in a kind of silence. Then we moved on. Inside, I laughed at myself. Yes, I am a sheep nerd.
But then I also agree with the words of John Muir: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” I remember that God is found not only in the places we call sacred, but in the very specific details of the obscure. It’s all hitched, and any deep exploration of the sacred or the mundane leads us to the same place. Robert Crumb, not a religious person, says he began his illustration of Genesis thinking he was creating a satire, But as he got into it, he discovered that the process of looking deeply at the stories captured him in such a way that he set his satire aside. He just focused on the details of the stories themselves, and in doing so produced a masterpiece.
I know that most of us have those nerd places within – those places of specific and detailed knowledge of obscure and often irrelevant information. I also suspect that going deep into any one of those topics might take us deeper into spirituality itself. So I dedicate my booklet on “The Sheep of Iona” to all the nerds out there, and my own nerdiness too. God is right here, even in those “studiously boring” places of our lives.