At a recent concert, the rap star Eminem shocked even his most jaded fans when he selected a beautiful young woman from the audience and presented her with a $450,000 necklace. The stunned and giddy recipient was said to be delighted.
The suspicion did cross my mind, ever so briefly, that Mr. Eminem might be expecting some sort of quid pro quo, but then I thought, Nah! The guy’s a sophisticated man of the arts. What would a beautiful but unrefined young woman have that could be of any interest at all to a misogynistic rapper?!
Whatever his motives, Eminem’s gift is an apt illustration of the word extravagance: something so far beyond the norm, so over-the-top that we’re left speechless. Our materialistic culture encourages extravagances, and most of us enjoy a few, on a modest scale. Some of my favorite excesses are things that tickle my taste buds—a slice of imported cheese or a piece of rich chocolate—preferably not in the same bite.
Vincent Van Gogh was given to extravagance in his life as well as his art, which is so oddly colored and painted in such an apparent frenzy as to suggest madness. Extravagance was the heart of his unique style. Once you’ve seen a few of his paintings, you will never mistake a Van Gogh for anything else.
Some of Mozart’s jealous contemporaries sniffed that he was an extravagant show- off who filled his music with too many notes. The molto allegro section of his Jupiter symphony is a continual variation on a simple melody. The music swells joyously only to die as the oboes and then the bassoons plaintively take up the line. The key shifts, the pace quickens, the music builds and then dies again while the flutes are given a voice. It is all extravagance and it thrills me to hear it.
A few nights back, my daughter and I climbed to the roof to look at the stars. Saturn was up, that giant planet with its delicate concentric rings. The Milky Way was bright, like a translucent watercolor brushstroke across a dark canvas. Stars twinkled by the thousands, some so faintly they could only be seen in our peripheral vision. A meteor streaked across the sky. It was a beautiful scene.
And I remembered the words of a certain astronomer, who said in essence, “What a waste!” If it should turn out that we are all alone in the universe, if all of this beauty was created by God just for us, what an extravagant waste it is! The heavens, and the nearly infinite variety we see in the flowers and insects and animals and the inanimate world, are used as an argument against the existence of a Creator. How so? Because in creating all of this richness just for us, God, if there is a god, would be guilty of senseless, extravagant waste on a colossal scale!
And yet, when one goes to Paris to see the art museums, there are never any lines at the Pompidou Center, the home of the minimalist painters with their spare, monochromatic canvases and their white on white geometric forms. The long lines are at the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay, where the walls are crowded with the extravagant genius of the masters.
Imagine someone looking at Monet’s paintings of water lilies and complaining, “Sheesh! Water lilies in the morning, water lilies in the evening, water lilies in the spring and summer and fall. Enough with the water lilies, already! Give me dogs playing poker!”
In our human endeavors, extravagance is evidence of genius, of creative exuberance, of passion; it is proof of a joyous intellect that takes delight in the creative process. It seems to me that the extravagance we see in the natural world—what some call “complexity”—is prima facie evidence for the existence of the God of the New Testament.
Unstinting forgiveness is extravagance. Unmerited redemption is extravagance. Unconditional love is extravagance. The plan of God—to rescue us from our sin by sending his very son, to live among us and pay with his own blood for our disobedience—is hyper-extravagance.
My response is to get down on my knees before the Father, this magnificent Father who parcels out all heaven and earth. I ask him to strengthen you by his Spirit—not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength—that Christ will live in you as you open the door and invite him in. And I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all Christians the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God. God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us. —Ephesians 3:14-19, The Message, (the apostle Paul speaking)
The heavens tell of the glory of God. The skies display his marvelous craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known. They speak without a sound or a word; their voice is silent in the skies; yet their message has gone out to all the earth, and their words to all the world. —Psalm 19:1-4, NLT, (A psalm of David)
Tonight, while you’re gazing up at the stars, picking out the ancient constellations, marveling just as men and women have done for millennia, perhaps you’ll see something you’ve never noticed before—the fingerprints of God.