The Scream; a universal cry of despair?


AS part of my journey to re-frame and to try to make some sort of sense of my sisters suicide, I came across Edvard Munch’s The Scream. It is one of our era’s most ubiquitous images and is also probably one of the least understood.  Most people think the person in the painting is screaming – but really the image in the painting, the genderless, hairless image is actually the scream itself.  Munch was painting the scream of nature that he felt and heard in his own spirit.  Biographers have pointed out that not far from where this painting is set in Oslo Norway was an insane asylum in which Munch’s manic depressive sister Laura Catherine was incarcerated.  Edvard himself was known to have suffered from panic attacks and anxiety.

The Scream was part of a series of paintings done by Munch entitled “The Frieze of Life.”  The works in the series, produced in oil, lithograph and woodcutting all depict emotions; Despair, anxiety and The Scream and were all different versions of these same works.

Our emotions are inextricably caught up in our mental wellbeing and these artworks by Munch explore the interrelations of pain, emotion and mental health (even if Munch wouldn’t have said so himself).  Much was creating an artistic representation of mental dysfunction that at many levels can be interpreted and drawn out in theological ways.

In the background of The Scream are some buildings off to the right – the tallest of these buildings is the Oslo Cathedral.  I’m using this location of the Cathedral in the painting – as an entry to this works theological story.  The church, as in life in general quite often, is in the background of this painting – almost unrecognisable as playing any meaningful part in the action.  Yet, there it is, almost faded out, blurring into its surrounds, but still being asked to show itself to those who feel life’s pains most ferociously.

My sister was a very spiritual person, she at one time took on the outward appearance of a Muslim when she married a Muslim man; she had a beautiful Quran among her possessions.  She also was an avid reader of self-help and spiritual types of books.  She engaged in conversations with me about God.  I know that she went at least once to a local Catholic Church and that she had many meetings and some time in prayer with a minister from Newtown Mission, Pastor Brian.  She asked for Pastor Brian to conduct her memorial.  Among her possessions, filed away so she wouldn’t lose it, was the business card of a local Anglican minister, Father Dave, the boxing priest.  She had obviously been on a search for answers and for some kind of connection to God for a very long time.  I believe she knew God and that she knew she was loved by him, however for her the church had not provided the answers she was looking for.

At the heart of all mental illness (I’m looking past the biological causes and referring to the theological context here) I believe is the cry that Jesus himself uttered on the cross…”Why Have You Forsaken Me”. Having been in a dark place from which I felt there may be no way out, I have experienced that sense of utter despondency that, as in my sisters case, often leads to suicide.  In one sense we could view Christ’s death as Divine Suicide, as he willingly took part in actions that he knew would lead to his ultimate death.

Augustine famously wrote in his Confessions; “…Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee”  The church needs to come out of the background for people suffering mental anguish – we need to not blend into the background with all the other help that is no help at all – our difference is Jesus…and that is all the difference that is required, for it is only in Jesus that we can ultimately find peace and the assurance to join with Paul in saying “”Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”


12 thoughts on “The Scream; a universal cry of despair?

  1. Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me?

    Do you think we will ever be totally healed?

    I’ve sort of come to the realisation that darkness will always be with me.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts here Greg. I have appreciated reading your thoughts because they are theology lived out. I join my words to others who have expressed condolences regarding your sister.
    I tend to agree that life will have its travails, but look forward to a time when all ills will be healed and I meet my maker.
    The darkness within is the remnants of the Old Adam that rises up within me; each day I must choose to clothe myself in God’s promises for me.
    I agree with your use of Jesus’ words on the cross echoing Psalm 22 (I find this a great psalm of lamentation) and then your follow up use of Romans.
    Thanks for a good post.

  3. Thanks Jason, thank you for your words and for taking the time to stop by, read and comment.

  4. And AGAIN, I say rejoice.

    We who are called by God are continually faced with opposition from evil spiritual forces. No matter how righteous you live you will have to wrestle against evil spirits.

    God’s will for us is to have joy. But it doesn’t always come automatically.

  5. Being an artist myself, this post caught my attention. However, I was totally unprepared for the subject matter, but still feel compelled to at least try to respond, encourage and comfort. God willing.

    I’ve been suicidal several times in my life when things seemed hopeless and I truly believe it’s only by the grace of God that I lived through it all.
    All I know is that we can’t lose sight of the fact that God is sovereign and “knows the end from the beginning.” Although we can’t fully understand these things, we can take comfort in knowing God does.

    He knows all things and His perfect will—WILL be done on earth as it is in heaven, no matter what. We can’t thwart His purposes. Not even suicide can thwart His purposes.

    We don’t know what His purposes where for your sister but we can take comfort in knowing He “works all things together for good, for those who love Him, who are called according to HIS purpose” (Rom.8:28).

    I know it must be hard right now, but try to just focus on God and His sovereign perfect will and purpose.
    I’ll be remembering you in my prayers, God bless.

  6. Hi Godlee4life. Firstly let me thank you for taking the time to read, consider and comment on my post; it has truly been the most difficult and yet life changing four weeks of my life since my sisters death in late September.

    As I mentioned above, I have been suicidal many times in my life – and it has been also only through the grace of God that I am currently still here.

    I truly believe that when you stare into the gaping abyss that is death adn are able to find the strength to move away that you then also ahve an important gift to share with others in similar circumstances. This giftis the knowledge that God does not call us from afar to choose life, but sits there with us, experiencing our pain and draws us with him back into life. Jesus experienced death – God knows what it is like to be where we are; he is no stranger to utter rejectoins, sadness and grief.

    I trust that God has my sister in his arms and that she is at peace – I can only lean on his words; “Come to me all you who are wearly adn heavy laden adn i will give you rest” I can’t consider these words to mean anything only for this life.

    Bless you for interacting.


  7. You’re right Greg, it’s not just us choosing life, but God giving us the power to choose life, especially eternal life. He is just as sovereign in our eternal life as He is in our temporal life.

    “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves, but our sufficiency is of God (2Cor.3:5).

    “That the excellency of the power may be of God and not of us.” (2Cor.4:3-7).

    For it’s not “willpower” that makes believers different, because even as believers we are weak in this area, and can even become suicidal at times (like Job, Jonah, Elijah, etc).

    Only God can give the power to become His (John1:12-13). That’s the power of the gospel.

    Jesus died for His sheep, even those who are suicidal, for His blood didn’t just cover some of their sins, but all of their sins including the sin of suicide.

    “For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom.5:6).

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