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Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Discover & explore: Beauty


“Beauty will save the world.” Fyodor Dostoevsky coined the phrase which was later borrowed by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn ‘to set the theme of his Nobel Lecture in 1970.’ Roger Scruton has written extensively about how aesthetics—and beauty in particular—enlarges our vision of humanity, helps us find meaning in our lives, and provides knowledge of our world’s intrinsic values. Most recently, Gregory Wolfe has used the phrase for the title of his recent book, Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age, the theme of which is the importance of an aesthetic understanding for sustaining a civilized culture.’

Yet the proverb 'Beauty is in the eye of the beholder' suggests that there is a problem with our understandings of beauty i.e. that our understanding of it entirely subjective. Collective ideas of beauty can be formed, yet these can also be iniquitous, as with ’size zero’ in the fashion industry and the way in which that perception of beauty pressurises people into anorexia and bulimia.

The Guide to the Guildhall Art Gallery’s collection suggests that in many respects the Victorian period has defined our contemporary notions of beauty. It notes that: ‘Victorian painters set out to capture and redefine ideals of female beauty. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, founded in 1848, played a central role in promoting a new canon of beauty … Founder member Dante Gabriel Rossetti coined the term ‘stunner’ to describe enchanting women he met and usually convinced to pose for his paintings. From the 1860s, he embarked on a series of ‘subjectless’ sensual depictions of women … developing a new aesthetic of beauty, exemplified by La Ghirlandata (1873). This new style anticipated the Aesthetic Movement which was characterised by a departure from storytelling and a focus on the ‘Cult of Beauty’, sometimes drawing on religious imagery to convey the power of women’s looks.’

The Bible celebrates human beauty in the Song of Solomon and the beauty of creation in Psalms such as 8 and 19, where the sense that the natural world reflects to glory or beauty of God is celebrated. Ultimately, however, a very different perception of beauty is celebrated in scripture as a result of Christ’s incarnation and crucifixion. This different perception can be found exemplified in the history of Christian Art.

‘The most ancient representations of Jesus in human form can be found in the catacombs of Rome and in the church of Dura Europos, a town on the right bank of the Euphrates. There Jesus is represented as a youthful-looking “good shepherd” … with a round face, … beardless, and with short hair … he wears the upper-class clothes of that time … like a young patrician … The fact that he is made to look handsome is sometimes said to be for apologetic reasons.’

However, under ‘the influence of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Francis of Assisi it was the earthly Jesus in his suffering who captured the attention of the devout … The late Middle Ages were dominated by … [images of] the suffering Christ … the Man of Sorrows, who in his suffering became like us … On the Isenheim altar at Colmar, Matthias Grünewald depicted, in a deeply moving and shocking manner, a hideously tormented man on a cross (finished in ca. 1516), which especially calls to mind … contemporary Latin American counterparts, where in numerous instances the tortured are pictured hanging on a cross.’ (A. Wessels, ‘Images of Jesus’, SCM Press 1990)

As part of my sabbatical art pilgrimage last year I visited churches linked to images of the crucifixion by Albert Servaes, Germaine Richier and Graham Sutherland which viewed Christ’s sacrifice as emblematic of human suffering in conflict and persecution. These were controversial as they challenged sentimental images of Christ and deliberately introduced ugliness into beautiful buildings. Servaes and Richier were both affected by decrees from the holy office which led to the removal of their artworks from the churches for which they had been commissioned. Servaes, with his Stations of the Cross and altarpiece for the Carmelite Chapel in Luithagen and Richier, with her crucifix for the church of Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce at Assy.

Their work, like that of Grünewald and contemporary Latin American artists, demonstrates that the centrality of an instrument of torture – the Cross – to Christianity and the perception of the suffering Christ as despised, rejected and unesteemed challenge the perceptions of beauty that we have inherited from the Victorians. In Christianity, beauty is found in the selfless love of Christ expressed most powerfully in the ugliness of crucifixion.

As a result, Christianity can find common ground with contemporary art which finds beauty in the throw-away, the ready-made, the hidden or disregarded. As just one example, American Beauty screenwriter Alan Ball uncovers heart-breaking beauty in garbage with a scene in which a plastic bag dances as it floats in the wind above a dirty sidewalk. His central character says as he views this scene that this beautiful moment made him aware of an ‘incredibly benevolent force’ behind things that wanted him to know that there is no reason to be afraid, ever.

Charles Williams suggests, in The Descent of the Dove, that the incarnation, because it is not simply about God taking on flesh but also about our humanity being taken into God, is the ultimate affirmative act. This is based on the understanding that nothing is lost and everything can be redeemed. All experience and all images are ultimately to be gathered in to God and, in this sense, the beauty found in the selfless giving of the incarnation and crucifixion really will save the world.

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The Hastings College Choir - Fairest Lord Jesus.

Feast of the Transfiguration: Choral Evensong & Garden Party

St Stephen Walbrook is to hold a Festal Evensong on Thursday 6th August at 6.00pm for the Feast of the Transfiguration. The setting for service, sung by the St Stephen Walbrook Choir, will be Stanford in Bb and the anthem will be 'Jubilate Deo' by Benjamin Britten.

The service will be followed by a Garden Party at which wine and snacks will be served and you are encouraged to bring guests with you. There is no charge for the event but, for purposes of catering, we do need to know if you are coming so please let us know in one of the following ways: by email: send an email to office@ststephenwalbrook.net; by telephone: 020 7626 9000; or by post: The Administrator, St Stephen's Church, 39 Walbrook, London EC4N 8BN.

The choir that sings every Thursday for Eucharist at St Stephen Walbrook is a consort of four professional singers led by Choir Director, Emma Corke. They sing an unaccompanied mass setting, generally of the seventeenth century, and a motet (as well as a congregational hymn). Emma Corke joined the choir of St Stephen's in 1997, becoming Choir Director in 2002. She has also sung with the Oratory Choir and the BBC Singers. Our organist, Joe Sentance has been associated with St Stephen Walbrook since 1987 as well as having been Master of Music at the Chapels Royal, H.M.Tower of London and Director of Music at Sherborne Abbey. 

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Benjamin Britten - Jubilate Deo.


Sunday, 26 July 2015

Lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles

The Observer suggests that this summer bigger crowds than usual are set to travel up the long driveway to see the decorated furniture, flamboyant fabrics and wall paintings of Charleston, the Sussex home once shared by artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, where key scenes in the lavish BBC2 drama Life in Squares were filmed. Also on the tourist trail will be Monks House at nearby Rodmell, where Virginia and Leonard Woolf lived, and Berwick church, which the group decorated at the request of Bishop George Bell.

I visited Berwick Church as part of my sabbatical art pilgrimage and my report of this visit can be read by clicking here. This commission was the first time in the twentieth century in the UK that a modern artist of national standing undertook a complete decorative scheme for an historic rural church. Bell and others involved believed that if the project was successful, 'it would stimulate demand for commissions in churches all over the country to alleviate the plight of many artists.'

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Frédéric Chopin - Concerto pour piano n° 2 (Larghetto).

Joseph Cornell: Aesthetic experience as a manifestation of spirit

'From a basement in New York, Joseph Cornell channelled his limitless imagination into some of the most original art of the 20th century.' 

'Wanderlust at the RA brings together 80 of Cornell’s most remarkable boxes, assemblages, collages and films, some never before seen outside the USA. Entirely self-taught, the independence of Cornell’s creative voice won the admiration of artists from Marcel Duchamp and the Surrealists, to Robert Motherwell and the Abstract Expressionists, with echoes of his work felt in Pop and Minimalist art.

Wanderlust is a long overdue celebration of an incomparable artist, a man the New York Times called “a poet of light; an architect of memory-fractured rooms and a connoisseur of stars, celestial and otherwise.”'

When he was in his twenties, Joseph Cornell learned about Christian Science and became a devout follower of the religion, as he believed it had cured him of recurring stomach ailments.

Richard Vine notes that 'the teachings of Christian Science and membership of the Christian Science church "provided Cornell ... with a clarity essential to his sanity and his art - the certainty, despite everyday trials and confusions, of ultimate cosmic harmony within the all-encompassing Mind of God."'

Sandra Leonard Starr writes that Cornell 'begins with the finite reality of the object, proves the unreality of it and our seeing it as such, and arrives at a statement of aesthetic experience as a manifestation of spirit.'

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Al Green - How Great Thou Art.

Discover & explore: Original & peaceful


Here is a selection of the feedback we have received on the 'Discover & explore' service series at St Stephen Walbrook, which has been organised in partnership with St Martin-in-the-Fields and the Guildhall Art Gallery:
  • Both the songs and the reflection were excellent;
  • Beautiful music; the readings were long and meaty! The whole liturgy was good;
  • Everything about the service;
  • Many things – clear and relevant theme, lively pace & variety & beautiful music. Also friendly welcome; 
  • Very inspiring message and hymns;
  • It was like a little jewel with a number of facets drawing us in and lighting our path;
  • I enjoyed the Taize. The music was beautiful. Everything was so carefully chosen for theme of today;
  • Focus combined with brevity – effective and to the point;
  • Thought provoking. Enjoyed the musical part of the service very much and the reflection;
  • The theme and the length and the timing;
  • Spiritual food in the middle of the day. Lovely choir;
  • Beautiful music, as ever, and wonderful readings. I feel strengthened by it. Thank you;
  • Good music and sermon; 
  • Readings – especially enjoyed the first reading, and the involvement of the excellent readers. Music. Reflection. Opportunity to think/engage with the topic;
  • It’s originality;
  • Each part elided into the next, giving a warm whole;
  • That it had a unifying theme. The choir – especially the Rutter piece. The thoughtprovoking sermon.
  • · All the settings;
  • The Choral Scholars and the music and singing;
  • The music was wonderful. The service was also thoughtful; 
  • All of it - peacefulness;
  • The relevance and resonance of the intercessions.

Thanks to Sonia Solicari we also explored the themes through an excellent guided tour of the Guildhall Art Gallery's Victorian Collection.


All are welcome for the final service in the series which is on Monday (1.10pm - 1.50pm) and is on the theme of Beauty. Click herehereherehere, here and here for reflections from previous services on the themes of faith, home, love, work, imagination and leisure.

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Exhibitions at St Martin-in-the-Fields

About A Strand by Lewis Phillips (until Sunday 9 August) is based on the different extremes of life revolving around one of London’s major streets. The Strand is home to some of the world’s most famous landmarks, The Royal Courts of Justice, The Savoy, Somerset House along with elite restaurants and shops.

It is also home to some of the poorest people in the UK including some of the 5,000 people living homeless on the streets of London. This photographic essay depicts the huge diversity of the area from the high flyers to the poor who use the streets as a sanctuary for survival.

The exhibition subjects have shared their stories of success and struggle through their words and photographs. The project is hard-hitting but there it also shows the triumphs of people digging their way out of drug and alcohol abuse, mental health problems and long term unemployment in order to move on with their lives.

In addition, from the 7 August a stunning exhibition of art and photographs by homeless people who use The Connection’s services will be on display in the Crypt at St Martin’s.

It's a show not to be missed, so come down with friends and family and enjoy an immense range of creative talent on display. Some art will be available for sale and proceeds will support The Connection's services.

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Gavin Bryars Feat. Tom Waits - Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Seeking meaning and significance

This was my sermon for last Thursday's Eucharist at St Stephen Walbrook, which can also be heard on the London Internet Church website:

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who is best known for creating a hierarchy of needs. ‘This is a theory of psychological health predicated on fulfilling innate human needs in priority, culminating in self-actualization.’ At the bottom of the hierarchy are the basic needs of human beings; needs for food, water, sleep and sex. Maslow’s model works as a hierarchy because a pressing need must be mostly satisfied before someone will give their attention to the next highest need, which includes our need for our lives to be given meaning and significance.

The stories of the feeding of the four thousand and the five thousand are stories of Jesus meeting the basic needs of the people with him but are also stories about that action having a deeper level of meaning and significance.

The people who were with Jesus had been with him in the wilderness for three days without any significant supplies of food. While some may have brought small supplies of food with them, in essence they had been fasting for much of the time Jesus had been teaching them and, for those of you who have visited the Holy Land, you will know that the Wilderness is unforgiving terrain in which to be without sustenance.

Jesus is concerned for these people and, out of compassion, meets their basic need for food in that testing environment but, just as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests that once our basic needs have been met then our needs for meaning and significance come into play, Jesus’ actions here also have a deeper level of meaning, if we and they are alert to it.

We can see this if we think for a moment about the outline of this story and the extent to which it reminds us of another story. A group of Israelites are in the wilderness and are hungry because they have too little to eat. In response God provides them with bread to eat. That is the outline of the feeding of the four thousand but it is also, in essence, the story of God providing manna in the wilderness to the Israelites when Moses led them from Egypt to the Promised Land. The similarity is deliberate, whether on the part of Jesus or Mark, because through this action Jesus is seen as the new Moses for the people of Israel.

Following the parallels between these two stories through means that the people of Israel are to be seen as being in slavery once again – whether that meant the political oppression of their Roman conquerors or, as St Paul suggests, under the bondage of sin. The Exodus – the salvation of the people of Israel - began with the death of firstborn sons and, in the story of Jesus, our salvation comes through the death of God’s only Son. Jesus leads his people through water – in the original Exodus that was the path through the Red Sea, but, for Jesus’ followers, it is the rite of baptism. They go on a journey through the wilderness – where, as we have seen, they are fed and provided for – and end their journey when they enter the Promised Land – which Jesus spoke about as being the kingdom of God that he initiated but which is still to come in full.

The parallels are plenteous and very close as the people of Jesus’ day were intended to view him as the new Moses. At this deeper level of meaning and significance it is possible, from this one action, to understand the whole of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

God is also at work in our lives to bring and to reveal meaning, purpose, shape and significance to our lives too, if we are alert to this deeper level of life and our not solely focused on the meeting of our basic needs. We all have a need and a desire for there to be more to our lives than simply the survival of the fittest; the scramble to meet our basic needs. As Maslow’s hierarchy of needs recognises, when we are in genuine need and poverty, it is very difficult to think about anything else other than survival. But, when we are in the fortunate position of having our basic needs met, we have the time and space and inclination to look around us to see the way in which God can bring meaning, significance and purpose into our lives; with that purpose including the development of a compassion, like that of Jesus, which sees the needs of those whose basic needs are not being met and responds to that by sharing at least some of what we have.

Your life is not simply about having enough to survive; the meeting of your basic needs. God wants you to see a deeper level of meaning, significance, shape and purpose to your life. Are you open to see the meaning and significance that he brings or does a focus of getting prevent you from seeing and receiving what he is already giving?

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Delirious? - Now is the Time.