If it were possible to put together a museum that would house all of the world’s stolen art, it would be among the greatest collections of all time. In it, we would find 174 Rembrandts, 43 Van Goghs, and over 500 Picassos, as well as works by Cezanne, Renoir, and da Vinci.
One of the more recent art thefts was of Edvard Munch’s painting, “The Scream,” estimated at 75 million, which was stolen in August 2004 in a daylight raid on the Munch Museum in Oslo. Whenever a painting is stolen, conversations about art theft and museum security start up once again. Headlines question the ease with which museums in general seem to make smash and grab jobs possible. “No treasure is truly safe,” read the byline of one magazine. And the thieves tend to agree. “Thanks for the poor security,” read a postcard attached to the empty wall where thieves had stolen a different Edvard Munch painting in 1994.
Treasures displayed outside the security of vaults or safety deposit boxes exist uncomfortably in world of thieves and potential disasters. But this is what museums do; they exist to show the treasures of Munch and Picasso to as many people as possible. To hide the most valuable paintings of the world behind protected vaults and darkened safes would itself be a different kind of theft.
Jesus once noted, “No one lights a lamp and puts it in a place where it will be hidden, or under a bowl. Instead he puts it on its stand, so that those who come in may see the light” (Luke 11:33). When a group of wiggly kids sings proudly of their “little lights” and their determination to “let them shine,” I am encouraged. Of course, they don’t fully understand what they are saying. The daggers often aimed at Christian beliefs and believers are realities that have not yet threatened the shining of their little lights. And yet, the boldness with which they announce, “Hide it under a bushel; No!” is as convicting as it is hopeful. In the mouth of a child, I hear Jesus’ simple logic. Like the great works that hang in museums despite the dangers, light shines because it must.
When treasures are under attack, our tendency is to retreat to the safety of a lockbox. Their value seems to beg for the treasures to be hidden. There have been times when I have felt similarly about my faith; longing to retreat when questions feel threatening.
But today the thought of the imaginary museum of missing paintings reminds me of the great chasm that exists between those who hide treasure and those who display it. In the hands of a thief, a painting is calculated in dollars. But for the true lovers of art, the longing is for art to be seen. As lovers of the one who first called us out of darkness, the same assurance applies. Though we grow weary of holding light, we could no sooner imagine Christ hidden from the world than a world without the sun and stars themselves. The light of the knowledge of Christ is a treasure intended for all to see.