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Sunday, 31 July 2011

Harry Potter and true myth

Three quarters of our family recently watched Part 2 of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and we are now working our way through the films together from the beginning, noticing more of the clues planted in the early stories which point towards the series end as we do so. Like so many others, we’ve thoroughly enjoyed the shared experiences of books, films and dvds from bedtime stories through books passed around to be read one after the other and shared cinema visits followed by shared evenings in with the dvds.

For me, it has all been another demonstration of the power of story; one that has connected with my experiences as a child reading The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (also The Books of Earthsea and The Chronicles of Prydain). These are stories which enable us to experience and live in other worlds; through the imagination of the author married to our own, such series enable us to inhabit the story over a sustained period of time. That that is so despite there being real weaknesses to each series - Narnia sails too close to allegory; the action in The Lord of the Rings gets bogged down in the marshy detail of Middle Earth; and J. K. Rowling has a rather flat writing style - speaks volumes about the power of story itself and the skill with which C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Rowling weave their plots and realise their characters.

I was wondering what happens next for those of us who have lived in the Potterverse (with the exception of Pottermore) as the books and films have overlapped, in contrast to Narnia and The Lord of the Rings where the films have enabled later in life to revisit the books. There is a real sense now in which living in that story will stop with the release of the final dvd. This brought my thinking to the contrast between living imaginatively in an fictional story and living in a story which encompasses and explains our everyday existence. The Greatest Story Ever Told is such a story and this reminded me of the distinction that Lewis and Tolkien made between myth and true myth:

"Myths, Lewis told Tolkien, were "lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver."

"No," Tolkien replied. "They are not lies." Far from being lies they were the best way — sometimes the only way — of conveying truths that would otherwise remain inexpressible. We have come from God, Tolkien argued, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily toward the true harbor, whereas materialistic "progress" leads only to the abyss and the power of evil.

"In expounding this belief in the inherent truth of mythology," wrote Tolkien's biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, "Tolkien had laid bare the center of his philosophy as a writer, the creed that is at the heart of The Silmarillion." It is also the creed at the heart of all his other work. His short novel, Tree and Leaf, is essentially an allegory on the concept of true myth, and his poem, "Mythopoeia," is an exposition in verse of the same concept.

Building on this philosophy of myth, Tolkien explained to Lewis that the story of Christ was the true myth at the very heart of history and at the very root of reality. Whereas the pagan myths were manifestations of God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using the images of their "mythopoeia" to reveal fragments of His eternal truth, the true myth of Christ was a manifestation of God expressing Himself through Himself, with Himself, and in Himself. God, in the Incarnation, had revealed Himself as the ultimate poet who was creating reality, the true poem or true myth, in His own image. Thus, in a divinely inspired paradox, myth was revealed as the ultimate realism.

Such a revelation changed Lewis' whole conception of Christianity, precipitating his conversion."

Something similar also applies, it seems to me, to the story told within the Bible; a story which is true to life itself and within which one can truly live. This, it seems to me, has been one of the major insights from the writings of Tom Wright where he describes the story of the Bible as a five act play (containing the first four acts in full i.e. 1. Creation, 2. Fall, 3. Israel, 4. Jesus) within which we can understand ourselves to be actors improvising our part on basis of what has gone before and the hints we have of how the play will end:

"The writing of the New Testament ... would then form the first scene in the fifth act, and would simultaneously give hints (Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15, parts of the Apocalypse) of how the play is supposed to end ... The church would then live under the 'authority' of the extant story, being required to offer an improvisatory performance of the final act as it leads up to and anticipates the intended conclusion ... the task of Act 5 ... is to reflect on, draw out, and implement the significance of the first four Acts, more specifically, of Act 4 in the light of Acts 1-3 ... Faithful improvisation in the present time requires patient and careful puzzling over what has gone before, including the attempt to understand what the nature of the claims made in, and for, the fourth Act really amount to."

Wright concludes that he is proposing "a notion of "authority" which is ... vested ... in the creator god himself, and this god's story with the world, seen as focused on the story of Israel and thence on the story of Jesus, as told and retold in the Old and New Testaments, and as still requiring completion."

The story told in and through the Bible is therefore true myth because it is viable to live real (as opposed to imaginary) lives within it. As Lesslie Newbigin has written, this story is understood "as we are in engaged in the same struggle that we see in scripture"; that "is the struggle to understand and deal with the events of our time in the faith that God creates purpose, sustains all that is and will bring all to its proper end."

To accept the story of the Bible as true myth conversion is required because, to quote Newbigin again, "Western culture is outside of the believing community where the authority of the bible is accepted":

"Here a paradigm shift is required whereby the current framework of thought of the culture can be radically understood from the viewpoint of the new (in this case Christian) framework of thought but which cannot be arrived at from any process of thinking within the current framework."

Having said that, it may be that the experience of living imaginatively within the story of a fictional series can provide a parallel enabling some understanding of the way in which the story of the Bible functions as true myth.

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Regina Spektor - The Call.

Xpedition Force (2)






Can you think of a time when you were simply bursting with good news that you had to tell someone else about? That is how the disciples after Jesus was raised from death and after they had been filled with Holy Spirit. There’s a song that by Cat Stevens which says:

“Oh, I can’t keep it in, I’ve gotta let it out,
I’ve got to show the world, world’s got to see,
see all the love, love that’s in me.”

Cat Stevens was singing about his love for another person rather than love for God but the idea is exactly the same. Something had happened to the disciples that was so wonderful that they couldn’t have kept it in even if they’d tried. They had to tell the world and the world had to see the love that God had shown them through Jesus’ death on the cross.

That’s also what God wants for us too. Jesus wants us all to be his disciples, to tell others about him and live the way he told us. You can’t see him but we know he’s near us, giving us strength and courage to talk to others about him. It doesn’t matter if we haven’t know him long or don’t understand everything he did.

To quote another song, this time by Larry Norman:

“When you know a pretty story
you don't let it go unsaid
you tell it to your children
as you tuck them into bed
and when you know a wonderful secret
you tell it to your friends
because a lifetime filled with happiness
is like a street that never ends

Sing that sweet sweet song of salvation
and let your laughter fill the air
sing that sweet sweet song of salvation
and tell the people everywhere
sing that sweet sweet song of salvation
to every man and every nation
sing that sweet sweet song of salvation
and let the people know that Jesus cares.”

When we truly know Jesus’ love and care for us then we are so joyful that the telling of others just overflows from our lives. The key is to know that love deeply, to allow Jesus’ love to flood over us and fill us with his joy and then the telling of what has happened to us comes as naturally as when we share the good news of our love for another person or the birth of our children or any other piece of good news that we simply can’t hold back and simply must share with others.

So let us pray that we will know more of Jesus’ love in our lives today:

Lord Jesus, fill us with an ever deepening awareness of the depth of you love for us. Help to truly appreciate in the very depths of our beings what it meant for you to give your life that we might live. May our lives overflow with your love that the world may see what you have done in us and for us. Amen.

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Larry Norman - Sweet Sweet Song of Salvation.

Friday, 29 July 2011

What I found when I googled myself

It's fascinating what you find when you google yourself. Amongst other things that I didn't know were on the web were the following:
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Lloyd Cole and the Commotions - Why I Love Country Music.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Cocoa traders need to act to stop child slavery

Anti-Slavery's chocolate campaign is continuing to step up action from the cocoa industry to end child slavery in Ivory Coast.

Their recent research on child slavery in the cocoa sector of Ivory Coast, which produces around 40% of the world's supply, found that trafficking continues to blight the country, with children from neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso forced to work without pay on cocoa farms. They also found that despite their vast profits from exporting the crop, multinational cocoa traders were doing very little to end slavery in their supply chains.

Cocoa traders have long avoided the public gaze because their role as a ‘middleman' is seen as removed from the choices of consumers. Anti-Slavery International strongly believes that in order to eradicate child slavery from the sector, these traders, responsible for buying Ivory Coast's cocoa supply and selling it to western chocolate manufacturers, must finally feel the power of public pressure.

This is why they need your action to target cocoa traders - Cargill, ADM and Barry Callebaut - and tell them they must increase their efforts to end child slavery in the industry. Take action by clicking here.

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Tom Waits - Chocolate Jesus.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Xpedition Force





Our annual Holiday Club at St John's Seven Kings began today with capacity numbers and a committed, experienced team of helpers. This is my reflection from our Parish magazine on the theme of this year's Club which is called Xpedition Force:

Xplorers needed to join an Xpedition up a mountain. Should be prepared for adventures and possible danger!

Xpedition Force is this year’s holiday club for 5–11s at St John’s which will be held from Tuesday 26th to Friday 29th July, 10.00am – 12.30pm followed by a Holiday Club service on Sunday 31st July at 10.00am.

Xpedition Force includes crafts, drama, games, bible Xplore, Xpedition units, rations, Xperiencing the five senses, Xroads and much more as children go with Jesus on his journey to the cross. Xpedition Force is a flexible, energetic programme which uses our five senses to explore stories from Matthew's gospel and introduce children to Jesus.
This year’s theme reminds us that being a follower of Jesus is not easy. Jesus, like ancient rabbis, taught his disciples on the move. So life, for every rabbi's students or apprentices, was literally a journey of learning. With a rabbi, the whole of life became a risk taking, active experience, which is why this year’s Xpedition Force theme is so appropriate.

A rabbi's apprentice had one simple goal: to imitate him. Apprentices trusted their rabbi completely, working passionately to incorporate his actions and attitudes, as well as his words, into their lives. An apprentice's deepest desire was to follow their rabbi so closely that they would start to think and respond, to life just like him.

What do you think it means to be a 21st century apprentice of the master rabbi, Jesus? How would you describe the reality of what it means to walk with Christ and not give up? What adventures, potential dangers or risk taking do you experience as one of Jesus’ apprentices?

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Delirious? - King Of Fools.

Monday, 25 July 2011

God is in the multiplication business

The kingdom of God is a place of multiplication. The kingdom of God is a place of exponential growth. The kingdom of God is a place where the tiniest seed can become the biggest plant. The kingdom of God is a place where a grain of yeast can make a whole batch of dough rise. The kingdom of God is a place where a child’s lunch can feed 5,000. The kingdom of God is a place where the salt of our behaviour can flavour the community in which we live. The kingdom of God is a place where the little we can offer can be used to the praise and glory of God.

The Holy Spirit’s presence is shown in us in some way for the good of all. We have been given the abilities we need for our particular service in God’s kingdom. Our lives have meaning and purpose because God has work that only we can do. That is why we are here and that is the message that we have been sharing at St John's Seven Kings over the past 12 months since our Vocations Sunday service last September. What we have been seeking to do over that time is affirm and encourage the calling of the whole people of God; to identify and release the gifts God has given us to be more effectively his church.

As a PCC we believe that to do that fully here at St Johns we need to set up a Ministry Leadership Team. A Ministry Leadership Team is essentially those who lead, encourage and build up the work of the whole Body of Christ on behalf of the PCC and the five people who form the Ministry Leadership Team will each have overall responsibility for one of five key areas in our mission and ministry; Children and Youth, Mission, Pastoral, Peace & Justice, and Worship.

So, for five people in our congregation we believe that God’s meaning and purpose for their lives involves becoming a part of the Ministry Leadership Team here at St John’s. And that is where we come back to the place where we began, as each of us are likely to feel that we don’t have the gifts or the confidence to take on these roles. But God is in the multiplication business and can take the little that we can offer and use to his praise and glory.

Just as in the parable of the mustard seed, our small inputs can have a big effect and, just as in the parable of the yeast, the influence that one person can have can affect a whole church or community. The same can be true in terms of the contribution that the members of the Ministry Leadership Team can make to our church as a whole as they enable each person here to contribute in some way to the mission and ministry of St Johns, however big or small that input may be.
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The Staple Singers - I'll Take You There.

Windows on the world (154)


London, 2011

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Aretha Franklin - Surely God Is Able.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Modern Religious Art

My reflections from the concluding post of my 'Airbrushed from Art History' series of posts have been published on the Modern Religious Art website as 'Modern Religious Art: airbrushed from art history?'
Modern Religious Art  displays and encourages the work of contemporary artists who are in some way motivated by or engaged with the religious. The motivation for the site was driven by artist Christopher Clack's interest in 'religious art' and exploring the possibility of a ‘Modern Religious Art’.

Clack writes:

"The possibility of a religious art in  the modern world will be for many people a complete impossibility, and I can understand why they may think this. One reason is the unpopularity (with some good reason) of formal religion and anything that may seem to support it, but also the development of art itself with its overall tendency to remove all meaning exterior to it,  all meta -narratives. The grand narratives of the old religions taken as ‘ the truth’ would be considered a straight jacket for any contemporary artist.
 
But there are broadly two reasons I do not rule out the possibility. One, I believe the religious impulse will not just go away, and that we need to improve our  understanding of this  impulse, and importantly not confuse it with formal religions.

Two, the nature of art and creativity itself. The way that contemporary art has developed, I would argue, has in fact brought it closer to the origins and nature of the religious impulse ...

In much contemporary art practice we are not given answers, we are given images and word games. Contemporary art attempts to move us away from the everyday, to break down our ideas and preconceptions.

Our artists  in someway expect us to be able to live with their inexplicable contents, to live with the inexplicable.

'What does it mean' is not the appropriate question in relation to contemporary art, but how does it alter my perceptions, does it open things up."
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Elbow - Jesus Is A Rochdale Girl.

Living, breathing soul sermons

There was another excellent Hail, Hail, Rock 'n' Roll piece from Laura Barton in the Guardian on Friday, this time on the Gospel roots of Soul music.
She notes the fact that soul stars such as Solomon Burke, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Percy SledgeAl Green, James Brown, Little Richard, among others, were "raised in the black church [and] weaned on gospel music." As a result, "it was inevitable that something of that upbringing would find its way into these artists' secular work."

In this article, the something on which Barton focusses is, "the delivery, the oratory, the rhythm and drama of the Sunday sermon."  The sermon style of the African-American church, "brings a rhythm that is not so much a meter as a pulse, a sermon that seems not just words on a page but a living, breathing creation."

Otis Redding's version of 'Try A Little Tenderness' is the song which prompted her reflections featuring, as it does, the "funky, secular testifying" of Redding's work in general plus the pulse and presence of a song which "is not so much sung as preached."

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Otis Redding - Try A Little Tenderness.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Airbrushed from Art History (27)

Index to 'Airbrushed from Art History'

1 - Introduction I
2 - Introduction II
3 - Traces du Sacré
4 - Symbolism I
5 - Gauguin and Bernard
6 - Vincent Van Gogh
7 - Maurice Denis
8 - Symbolism II
9 - Jacques Maritain
10 - Albert Gleizes
11 - Sérusier, Severini and Gleizes
12 - Couturier, Régamey, Bell and Hussey
12a - Victor Kenna, Moelwyn Merchant and Bernard Walke
13 - Expressionism I
14 - Expressionism II
15 - Reconciliatory art
16 - Australia and Poland
17 - Abstract art
18 - Ireland and Malta
19 - Divisionism and Futurism
20 - Contemporary artists
21 - Africa and Asia
22 - Icons
23 - Wallspace
24 - Albert Houthuesen
25 - Stained Glass
26 - Self-Taught artists

Comments on the series can be found here, here, here and here. Related posts can be found here, here, here, here and here.

This post brings the 'Airbrushed from Art History' series to a conclusion with some reflections on what I feel I have learnt through the series.

"Sooner or later, if you love art, you will come across a strange fact: there is almost no modern religious art in museums or in books of art history. It is a state of affairs that is at once obvious and odd, known to everyone and yet hardly whispered about ... a certain kind of academic art historical writing treats religion as an interloper, something that just has no place in serious scholarship ... Straightforward talk about religion is rare in art departments and art schools, and wholly absent from art journals unless the work in question is transgressive. Sincere, exploratory religious and spiritual work goes unremarked. Students who make works that are infused with spiritual or religious meanings must normally be content with analysis of their works' formal properties, technique, or mode of presentation. Working artists concerned with themes of spirituality (again, excepting work that is critical or ironic about religion) normally will not attract the attention of people who write for art magazines ... An observer of the art world might well come to the conclusion that religious practice and religious ideas are not relevant to the art world unless they are treated with scepticism."

So writes James Elkins at the beginning of On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art. Yet, as Elkins also notes, these attitudes are odd, because there is a tremendous amount of religious art created. Similarly, Erika Doss has argued that "issues of faith and spirituality were very much a part of modern art in America as artists of diverse styles and inclinations repeatedly turned to the subjects of religious belief and piety." It may be this paradox which leads Timothy Potts to suggest, in Beyond Belief: Modern art and the Religious Imagination, that, “the pervasiveness of broadly religious and spiritual themes in twentieth-century Western art may at first seem to stand in contradiction to the secularization of so many aspects of life and culture during our times.”

The pervasiveness of broadly religious and spiritual themes in twentieth-century Western art can be demonstrated by means of an alternative history of modern and contemporary art focusing on artists, movements and themes that utilised broadly Christian imagery and themes.

The catalytic encounter of Émile Bernard and Paul Gauguin in Brittany in 1888 resulted in Post Impressionist paintings exploring the Catholic soul of Breton peasants. Bernard and Gauguin shared their new style with Paul Sérusier who, together with fellow art students including Maurice Denis, formed the Nabis. Denis became one of the most significant artists in the French Catholic Revival, being prominent in the Nabis, as a Symbolist, and, through his Studios of Sacred Art, contributing to a revival of French Sacred Art. Denis’ influence was felt among Symbolists and Sacred Artists in Belgium, Italy, Russia and Switzerland, in particular.

A second circle of influence within the French Catholic Revival gathered around the philosopher Jacques Maritain. His book Art and Scholasticism was influential and he organised study circles for artists and others including the Expressionist Georges Rouault, the Surrealist Jean Cocteau, the Futurist Gino Severini, the Dadaist Otto van Rees and abstract art promoter Michel Seupher. His writings were also significant for the community of artists which formed around the sculptor Eric Gill at Ditchling, which included the artist and poet David Jones.

A third circle of influence gathered around cubist pioneer Albert Gleizes, including Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone (who played significant roles in the development of modern art in Ireland) and Australian potter Anne Danger.

A fourth circle of influence developed around the Dominican Friars, Marie-Alan Couturier and Pie Régamey, who insisted that the Roman Catholic Church call for the great artists and architects of their day to design and decorate its churches. The involvement of artists such as Marc Chagall, Férnand Leger, Le Corbusier, and Henri Matisse in churches such as Assy, Ronchamp and Vence was proof of the effectiveness of their approach and ministry. A similar approach was taken in the UK by George Bell and Walter Hussey which saw artists such as Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Hans Feibusch and Cecil Collins decorating churches.
Expressionist artists such as Emil Nolde, Christian Rohlfs and Albert Servaes painted biblical scenes with an emotional intensity that was often more than the institutional churches at the time could accept. Georges Rouault added to this expressionist intensity with a compassionate Christian critique of contemporary society. Italian Divisionism and Futurism also included a strong strand of sacred art through artists such as Gaetano Previati, Gerardo Dottori, and Fillia.

Wassily Kandinsky created abstract art by abstracting from apocalyptic biblical images and felt that abstraction was the best means available to artists for depicting an unseen realm. Kasimir Malevich was not only influenced by the tradition of Russian icon painting but also by the underlying principle of icons – the presence of an Absolute in the world – to develop the Suprematist aim of self-transcendence.

Daniel A. Siedell writes that “for these and many other avant-garde painters well into the twentieth century, including Russian immigrants John Graham and Mark Rothko, modern painting functioned like an icon, creating a deeply spiritual, contemplative relationship between the object and viewer.” The influence also went the other way too, as Abstract Expressionist William Congdon converted to Roman Catholicism and used this style to create deeply expressive crucifixions.

Iconographer, Aidan Hart, notes that a revival of traditional iconography occurred in the twentieth century; led in Greece by Photius Kontoglou, in Russia by Maria Sakalova and Archimandrite Zenon, and in Europe by Leonid Ouspensky and Fr. Gregory Kroug. More surprisingly, a Lutheran tradition of iconography has also developed in Scandanavia led by Erland Forsberg.

Evangelicalism found artistic expression through the folk art of the American South with artists such as Howard Finster and Sister Gertrude Morgan gaining significant reputations. Such artists have often been both naive and visionary in their style, an approach that also characterised the work of New Zealand artist Colin MaCahon and British artist, Albert Herbert. Other significant visionary artists using Christian themes and imagery have included Stanley Spencer, F.N. Souza, Betty Swanwick, Norman Adams, Roger Wagner and Mark Cazalet.

In response to the growth of Christian Art on the Asian continent, the Asian Christian Art Association was founded in 1978 to encourage the visual arts in Asian churches. Australia encouraged contemporary religious art through the establishment of the Blake Prize in1951. From that date until the present, its judges have reflected the move in Modern Art from the figurative to the abstract. One special aspect of Polish Art in the 1980s was its links with the Roman Catholic Church. Martial law forced the entire artistic community to boycott official exhibition spaces and instead places of worship hosted exhibitions. This period was marked by a profound interest in the whole question of the sacrum in art characterised by the work of Jerzy Nowosielski with its thoughts on the nature of religious art.

More recently, there has been extensive use of Christian imagery by BritArt artists such as Damien Hirst, Chris Ofili, Mark Wallinger, and Sam Taylor-Wood. In their work, Christian iconography and narrative is often use as a frame for the artist’s critique of contemporary life including politics and culture.

Although not comprehensive, by giving a significant number of specific examples of artists of diverse styles and inclinations from a variety of eras, movements and nations who have repeatedly turned to the subjects of religious belief and piety, this alternative story demonstrates that issues of faith and spirituality have been and continue to be very much a part of modern art. This alternative story involves several of the key modern art movements and artists that were at the forefront of those movements plus artists who played key roles in the introduction of modern art to their nations, as well as including artists and movements that were tangential to the main developments of modern art. Histories of modern art are impoverished by overlooking this story.

Awareness of this hidden history - which has effectively been airbrushed from art history - has led curator and author Daniel A. Siedell to argue, we need "an alternative history and theory of the development of modern art, revealing that Christianity has always been present with modern art, nourishing as well as haunting it, and that modern art cannot be understood without understanding its religious and spiritual components and aspirations." However it should be noted that, while an alternative history of modern art could be written which tells this story and sets it in context thereby adding necessary texture to any history of modern art, it is not suggested that the telling of that story would radically alter the trajectory and arc of modern art history.

There are several perspectives to be considered in establishing the reasons why religious contributions to the history of modern art have effectively been airbrushed from art history.

The first perspective has been articulated recently in articles on art and faith published in freize and Modern Painters. Tyler Green's Modern Painters article demonstrated the art world’s indifference toward religion and concluded: "Given that the American people are conflicted about religion, it shouldn’t be a surprise that our artists and art institutions are too." Dan Fox in his freize editorial wrote “contemporary artists who openly declare affiliation to Judaeo-Christian or Islamic religions are usually regarded with the kind of suspicion reserved for Mormon polygamists and celebrity Scientologists.” Similarly, Erika Doss has argued that, "Until recently, issues of religion were largely overlooked in the social and cultural history of twentieth-century American art because of critical misunderstandings of an assumed separation of modernist avant-garde from religious inquiry and of modernism in general from religion." The more recent statements by Green and Fox indicate that this separation continues to exist and to influence response.

Such attitudes lead both to a downplaying of the input and influence of artists with a religious affiliation and to a reluctance among artists to declare a religious affiliation unless working primarily within a religious context. This feeds directly into the way in which histories of modern art are often written, as the religious work or motivations of many of those artists highlighted above are routinely downplayed by, for example, ignoring their religious work altogether or suggesting that their religious art comes late in their careers after their more radical work has been completed. Given that this has been and to some extent continues to be the case, it is surprising the extent to which issues of faith and spirituality have been very much a part of modern art as artists of diverse styles and inclinations have repeatedly turned to the subjects of religious belief and piety. Countering the suspicions which Green and Fox note is one significant reason for telling this alternative story of modern art.

A second perspective involves the difficulty of defining 'Christian', 'religious' or 'sacred' art. Do we mean by these terms the use of religious iconography or an engagement with the essential themes that lie at the heart of a specific religion or the (un)expressed faith of the artist or are we simply reading our own faith into the artworks we view? “The religious underpinnings of so much Western art before [the twentieth] century – from its subject matter to its sources of patronage and its devotional purposes – are obvious and uncontentious,” Timothy Potts has written, but with the art of the twentieth century the religious dimension becomes “altogether more subtle, often more abstract and inevitably more personal.” Spirituality, while continuing to be pervasive, becomes less obvious and the perception grows that it is “not relevant to the art world.”

These questions of definition often come coupled to an ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ understanding of the artwork which, in its purest form as articulated by the art critic Clement Greenberg, “rejected the notion that there is any higher purpose to art, or any “spiritual” point to its production”:

“Art only does what it does: its effect is limited and small. It is there to be aesthetically “good.” Only the “dictates of the medium” – pure paint and the flatness of the picture plane – were held to be worthwhile concerns for painting. The very idea of content was taken to be a hindrance and a nuisance, and looking for meaning was a form of philistinism. The work is a painted surface, nothing more, and its meaning is entirely an aesthetic one.”

On this basis, the artwork is simply itself, the embodiment of its media, and all discussion of content, religious or otherwise, is interpretation which is extrinsic to the work itself.

A third perspective highlights the confusions and conflicts within Christian or religious responses to modern and contemporary art. W. David O. Taylor has posted that there is a whole ton of arts and faith related initiatives happening but it is "ad hoc and isolated", "parochial, even in the best sense of the term", and with "divergent views of how we should go about promoting the arts" (leading to fierce fights). Responses to the two perspectives above tend to divide along doctrinaire lines which mitigate against understanding between those on either side of the divides. The kind of divides which are commonly found include: local or regional reputations vs national or international reputations; art for the church’s sake vs art for art’s sake; traditional iconography vs contemporary iconography; figurative realism vs abstract or conceptual; popular culture vs high culture; technique vs concept; sentimental or unoriginal imagery vs ambiguous or obscure imagery; popular approval vs academic or establishment approval.

There is essentially no means of arbitration in these debates or in resolving the issues raised by the three perspectives above because there are no universally agreed quality standards for the visual arts, either in or outside of the Church. The technical qualities which underpinned figurative realism have been by-passed by the development of conceptual art and its consequent infinite expansion in the materials and media of art. Similarly, much that was formerly considered ‘outside’ of the fine arts - such as folk art, self-taught art etc - has in more recent years been brought in to the mainstream of gallery and museum exhibitions. Current reputation also offers no sure fire guide to long-term significance within the broader sweep of art history. The story of art is littered with those who were lauded in their own day, either by the establishment or the people of their time, but are considered of minor significance today. Within the Church, priests and theologians have often argued that artists working in and for churches should be subservient to Christian doctrine as understood by its priests but many effective commissions have come through artists resisting such pressure and challenging received understandings and iconography through their personal vision.

In Has Moderism Failed? Suzi Gablik poses the question, ‘Art for Art’s Sake, or Art for Society’s Sake?’, a question which neatly juxtaposes the two key opposed aesthetic arguments of late modern and contemporary art. This is a question which, in a Church context, could be rephrased as ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ or ‘Art for Churches Sake?’ Gablik, in addressing the opposed positions of Socialist Art and aesthetic formalism, suggested that what “is required is some sort of reconciliation – not a fixture at either pole”; in other words, to “find a position of equilibrium between the two extremes.” One such ‘position of equilibrium’ could be found by applying a Trinitarian aesthetic to visual art.

Conceptions of the Trinity have often been expressed in artistic terms and Trinitarian conceptions have been helpfully applied to the Arts and other aspects of society. Both C. S. Lewis and Stephen Verney, for example, have written of the inter-relations within the Trinity as being a kind of dance. Dorothy L. Sayers, within The Mind of the Maker, described the creative act itself in the Trinitarian terms of Idea (Father), Energy (Son), and Power (Spirit). A similar approach - in terms of Plan (Father), Do (Son), and Evaluate (Spirit) - was later adopted by Christian Schumacher for his creative consultancy work of restructuring workplaces.

A different approach to understanding and applying the concept of inter-relations within the Trinity was developed by Colin Gunton in The One, the Three and the Many. Gunton used his theology of creation to identify three concepts that he called (drawing on the thinking of Samuel Taylor Coleridge) ‘open transcendentals’. That is, “possibilities for thought which are universal in scope yet open in their application.” Gunton’s three open transcendentals are: relationality (“all things are what they are by being particulars constituted by many and various forms of relation”); perichoresis (“all things are what they are in relations of mutual constitutiveness with all other things”); and substantiality (all things are “substantial beings, having their own distinct and particular existence, by virtue of and not in the face of their relationality to the other”).

Gunton argues that these open transcendentals “qualify people and things, too, in a way appropriate to what they are.” In sum, he suggests, “the transcendentals are functions of the finitely free relations of persons and of the contingent relations of things.” These are, therefore, notions which are “predicated of all being by virtue of the fact that God is creator and the world is creation.” As such “they dynamically open up new possibilities for thought” enabling Christian theology to make “a genuine contribution ... to the understanding and shaping of the modern world.” If this is so, then art criticism would be one arena in which the concept of open transcendentals could be explored.

Exploring the substantiality of an artwork could involve describing and assessing its distinct and particular existence; what it is as, for example, pure paint and a flat picture plane. We could talk, for example, in terms of ‘truth to materials’, a phrase that emerged from the Arts and Crafts Movement through its rejection of design work (often Victorian) which disguised by ornamentation the natural properties of the materials used. The phrase has been associated particularly with sculptors and architects, as both are able to reveal, in their way of working and in the finished article, the quality and personality of their materials; wood showing its grain, metal its tensile strength, and stone its texture.

Henry Moore wrote in Unit One that, “each material has its own individual qualities … Stone, for example, is hard and concentrated and should not be falsified to look like soft flesh … It should keep its hard tense stoniness.” Juginder Lamba is an example of a contemporary sculptor for whom ‘truth to materials’ is significant. Many of his works began as he searched through piles of joists and rafters looking for salvaged timber that would speak to him of its creative potentialities. His sculptures retain the personality and characteristics of the salvaged wood even at the same time as they are transformed into characters and forms of myth and metaphor.

Exploring the substantiality of an artwork is to recognise that an artwork is an object in its own right once created and, as such, has a life beyond that which its maker consciously intended. Artists sometimes express this sense themselves when they talk about seeing more in the work as they live with it than they were aware of intending during its creation. For some, this is an indication of a spiritual dimension or dynamic at play in the work.

Exploring the relationality of an artwork could involve describing and assessing the many and various forms of relation by which the work was constituted. Among these could be the relationship of the artwork to: the artist who created it; other artworks formed of similar materials or with similar content; the space in which it is being exhibited (both the physical and social space); and those who come to view it.

Artists have their own intentions when creating and are aware of and use (play with) the associations and emotions evoked by the materials and images used in the making. These associations and emotions are as much a part of the work of art as the materials and images (this is particularly so in conceptual and symbolist art, as both begin with the idea or concept) and are present whether the viewer or critic responds to them or not; in the same way that Biblical allusions exist in Shakespeare's plays whether contemporary students recognise them or not. Just as Andrew Motion has argued, regarding Shakespeare, that our understanding and appreciation of the plays is reduced if we don't recognise the allusions, so our understanding of visual art that uses or plays with associations, emotions and ideas is diminished if we fail to respond.

The reality of the art work as an object in its own right once created and, as such, with a life beyond that which its maker consciously intended also hands a creative role to those who view it. Accordingly, Alan Stewart has written:

"An artist will of course set out to say something particular, but once their work becomes public, it assumes its own life. Therefore each fresh encounter will produce a new conversation between the art and the viewer, resulting in a whole host of possible interpretations, none less valid than the other. Appropriating our own personal meaning from another person’s work doesn’t diminish it, if anything it enlarges it. We might even want to say that in re-imagining and re-investing something with new meaning, we may in fact in some cases redeem it or re-birth it."

Interpretation, to have validity, has to fit with and follow the shape, texture, feel, colour, images, content, associations and emotions of the work itself. Richard Davey has a marvellous phrase for the network of relationships which form around any artwork; “respect for the work of art as an object itself made by an embodied human being for embodied human beings."

Exploring the perichoresis of an artwork could be to recognise what the artwork is in its relations of mutual constitutiveness with all other things. Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics - art which takes “as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space” - is particularly helpful here in suggesting that “Art is a state of encounter” and that the role of artworks is that we learn “to inhabit the world in a better way” through participating in “arenas of encounter”, created by the artworks themselves, in which momentary micro-communities are formed:

“Today’s art, and I’m thinking of [artists such as Gonzalez-Torres, ... Angela Bulloch, Carsten Höller, Gabriel Orozco and Pierre Huyghe] as well as Lincoln Tobier, Ben Kinmont, and Andrea Zittel, to name just three more, encompasses in the working process the presence of the micro-community which will accommodate it. A work thus creates, within its method of production and then at the moment of its exhibition, a momentary grouping of participating viewers.”

What such artists produce, Bourriaud argues, “are relational space-time elements, inter-human experiences ... of the places where alternative forms of sociability, critical models and moments of constructed conviviality are worked out.” In other words, such artworks create “relations outside the field of art”: “relations between individuals and groups, between the artist and the world, and, by way of transitivity, between the beholder and the world.”

Critiquing artworks in terms of substantiality, relationality and perichoresis could create a means of reconciling formalist and relational aesthetics. It could form a position of equilibrium between the two extremes and the conflicts/oppositions noted earlier both within and without the Church. It could also form a fascinating and distinctively Trinitarian approach to art criticism acknowledging, as it does so, the spirituality inherent both in work which makes use of religious iconography and that which does not.

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The Innocence Mission - You Chase The Light.

Review: Faith, Hope and Poetry

I've had a second book review published by the Journal of Theological Studies, this time of Malcolm Guite's excellent Faith, Hope and Poetry (Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination. By MALCOLM GUITE. Jonathan Evens The Journal of Theological Studies 2011; doi: 10.1093/jts/flr057).

My review can be read by clicking here. I've also used aspects of Malcolm's book in several posts which can be found by clicking here, here, here and here.

Faith, Hope and Poetry carries a compelling vision, worked out in dialogue with great poetry from across the span of English literature, of ‘imaginative shaping and symbolic apprehension in the discovery of meaning and … truth’.

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Riprap - Saying The Names.

Art talks at Art Festivals




On Monday I heard a fascinating talk by Peter S. Smith on the history and techniques of engraving. Peter is a painter/printmaker working out of a studio in Clink Street on the Southbank in London who exhibits his paintings and prints in the UK and overseas with work in public and private collections as well as teaching workshops in the visual arts. In September 2006, Piquant Editions published a book about his printmaking called “The way I see it….” with an introductory essay by Calvin Seerveld.

An exhibition of his work, including a newly commissioned print to celebrate the completion of a new church roof, can be seen until 24th July at St John's Leytonstone, where his talk was also given, as part of the Leytonstone Festival and Barking Episcopal Area Arts Festival.
Last night two further talks on the arts were also given at Holy Trinity and St Augustine of Hippo Leytonstone as part of the same festivals. Mark Lewis from commission4mission introduced the Art Trail for the Barking Episcopal Area while Dr Graham Gould gave a engaging presentation looking at the commissioning and content of the concrete lintel designed by sculptor Stephen Sykes for the church. Sykes' principal theme was Scenes from the life of St Augustine, although the central panel of the relief is of the Trinity. As well as providing information about Sykes and this commission, Graham took us through the various scenes from the life of St Augustine which Sykes chose to depict before saying that he was unsure about the significance of the final scene. commission4mission member Valerie Dean was able to provide an answer. Having seen other versions of the same scene in Italy, she explained that it related to a legend about Augustine and Jesus in which Christ said that explaining the nature of the Trinity was like trying to empty the ocean with a shell.

Information about the remaining events in the Barking Episcopal Area Arts Festival can be found by clicking here.

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Joan Baez - I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine.

Spiritual Life column

This is my latest Spiritual Life column as published in today's Ilford Recorder:

Richard Baxter has recently had an installation at Southend Museum where each day an unglazed replica of a pot from a different era of human history is submerged in water to be viewed as it decomposes; from the ground you were taken, you are dust and to dust you shall return!


Jesus used the reality of death to teach us about life and the questions he posed include how to live well in the face of the reality of death. The artist Matt Lamb, formerly a funeral director, tells a tale of a man he buried who focused his whole life on working to become a company director only to die of a heart attack at the beginning of his first board meeting in that role. Do those things we are aiming for in this life have meaning in the face of the reality of our death?


Jesus’ crucifixion puts the reality of death (coupled with the promise of resurrection) at the very heart of the Christian faith in a way that is not the case in a society dedicated to prolonging life and avoiding pain. Therefore, one role that we have as Christians is to seek to come alongside people to provide support at times when the reality of death hits home. When we honestly face the reality of death, Jesus’ life, death and teaching say to us, it changes what we value and the way we choose to live in the here and now.


St Paul writes that faith, hope and love remain, while Eugene Peterson paraphrases the final lines of Jesus’ story about weeds and wheat as follows: "… ripe, holy lives will mature and adorn the kingdom of their Father. Are you listening to this? Really listening?"


A version of this piece has also been posted as my latest Gospel Reflection on the website of Mission in London's Economy and can be read by clicking here.


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REM - Everybody Hurts.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Life's big questions

Two of the biggest questions we can ask in life are ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Why am I here?’ Both questions get answered the story of Jesus' baptism (Mark 1. 9 - 15) and the answers that were true for Jesus can also be true for us.

First, ‘Who am I?’ The answer to that question was given to Jesus as soon as he came up out of the waters of baptism. As he did so, he saw heaven opening, the Spirit coming down on him like a dove, and he heard a voice from heaven saying, “You are my own dear Son. I am pleased with you.” As he was baptised, he was immediately affirmed as God’s Son.

It is easy for us to think that that only applies to Jesus. That it was a special word spoken by God the Father especially to him and, on one level, no doubt it was. But, the Bible makes it quite clear that Jesus laid down his life to make us one with God so that, as Christians, we are Jesus’ brothers and sisters, members of the same family – God’s family – and co-heirs with Jesus of everything that he has. Listen to what St Paul says about this in Romans 8:

“Those who are led by God's Spirit are God's children. For the Spirit that God has given you does not make you slaves and cause you to be afraid; instead, the Spirit makes you God's children, and by the Spirit's power we cry out to God, Father! my Father! God's Spirit joins himself to our spirits to declare that we are God's children. Since we are his children, we will possess the blessings he keeps for his people, and we will also possess with Christ what God has kept for him …”

When a child is baptised, God is saying to her, “N, you are my dear daughter/son, you are my child and since you are my child you will possess with Jesus the blessings I keep for my people.” This is true, not just Katie, but for each one of us who have been baptised. Just stop for a moment to hear God saying those words to you, “Linda, John, Katharine, Kristina, Geoff, Margaret, Alan, Jane, Peter, and on and on for each one of us, you are my dear daughter, you are my child and since you are my child you will possess with Jesus the blessings I keep for my people.” Take a moment, to let those words sink into your hearts and minds. You are a child of God, you are a brother or sister of Jesus, you are loved, you are valued, you are blessed. Take it in and say thank you to God your Father for who you are.

The second big question was ‘Why am I here?’ and that too is answered in this reading. After he is baptised, Jesus has a time of preparation in the desert and then begins to preach the Good News from God. He had a God-given task to complete, a reason for his existence and a meaning for his life. The same is true for us. Listen to St Paul again, this time from 1 Corinthians 12:

“There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit gives them. There are different ways of serving, but the same Lord is served. There are different abilities to perform service, but the same God gives ability to all for their particular service. The Spirit's presence is shown in some way in each person for the good of all.”

The Spirit’s presence is shown in some way in each person for the good of all. So, the Spirit’s presence is shown in a child at baptism in some way for the good of all. How will that be? We don’t yet know. It is too early to say. But it is one of the tasks that God gives parents who are bringing children up in the family of God, to nurture their gifts and talents so that it will become clear in what way the Spirit’s presence is shown in lives of their children.

And, again, this is also true for all of us who have been baptised. Doug, Kathy, Bob, Pauline, Tony, Renny, Keith, Charity, and on and on for each one of us, the Spirit’s presence is shown in us in some way for the good of all. Take a moment, to let those words sink into your hearts and minds. You have been given the abilities you need for your particular service. The Spirit's presence is shown in some way in you for the good of all. Your life has meaning and purpose because God has work that only you can do. Take it in and say thank you to God your Father for why you are here.

May we realise afresh the way that our deepest needs - for love and significance – are fully met through baptism into the family of God. Who are we? We are the beloved sons and daughters of our Father God. Why are we here? To use our God-given abilities to do work for God that only we can do. Take moment to truly take it in and then say thank you to God your Father for who you are and why you are here.

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Martyn Joseph - One Of Us.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Poem: The Mark

Begin, begin,
let something be.
Make a blot,
a dash, a stroke.
Make your mark.
Obliterate the anonymity
of the white-blank page.
Intervene
in the seeming
infinite abyss
of nothingness.
From nothing
to something
by means of
mark-making.
Creation waits
to be discovered,
uncovered,
never fully conceived,
growing through
relating.
Follow the trail,
the sign,
one mark
at a time
to a novel,
a poem,
a painting.
Begin, begin,
in the beginning
is the word,
the mark,
the world.
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The Band - When I Paint My Masterpiece.

Windows on the world (153)


Bath, 2011

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Gillian Welch - The Way It Goes.

Unveiling of new local mural




Rev. Ken Nicholls and Cllr Stuart Bellwood unveiled the new mural at Goodmayes Methodist Church on Sunday. A farewell service for Ken Nicholls, who is retiring, will be held on Sunday at 5.00pm and Goodmayes Methodist Chuch.

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Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris - Return of the Grievous Angel.

Review: Wording a Radiance

I have had a review published, in the Journal of Theological Studies, of Wording a Radiance: Parting Conversations on God and the Church by Daniel W. Hardy, with Deborah Hardy Ford, Peter Ochs, and David F. Ford (Wording a Radiance: Parting Conversations on God and the Church. By DANIEL W. HARDY with DEBORAH HARDY FORD, PETER OCHS, and DAVID F. FORD. Jonathan Evens .
The Journal of Theological Studies 2011; doi: 10.1093/jts/flr058)

The book derives from the moment when theologian Daniel W. Hardy was given six months to live. As part of his response he initiated specific conversations with his daughter, Deborah Hardy Ford; his friend and philosopher Peter Ochs; and his son-in-law and theologian, David F. Ford. It is these conversations which form the basis for the book and re-present the final flowering of Hardy’s theology. In what is a fascinating development and summary of Hardy's theology, he seeks to articulate the radiance seen when the divine floods in without inhibition and things and people are knit together in the divine abundance.

My review can be read by clicking here.

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John Rutter - Requiem Aeternam.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

New local mural



Goodmayes Methodist Church has added to the range of church and community art in the Goodmayes and Seven Kings area with a new mural undertaken by students from the graphic design department of Barking College. The mural, which depicts the fruit of the Spirit, has been installed this week and will be officially unveiled on Saturday at 11.00am.
The mural adds to the Downshall Primary School mural and work in churches which is highlighted through our local Church Art Trail. These works will in time be joined by a mosaic and sculpture in the community garden at St John's Seven Kings.

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The Lightning Seeds - Pure.

Meeting Eileen Cooper

It was a pleasure to meet Eileen Cooper this morning when she visited the commission4mission exhibition in the Crypt Gallery of St Martin-in-the-Fields, at the invitation of Sergiy Shkanov.
Over three decades Cooper has developed an "evolving imaginative narrative" expressed through a "highly personal style always reflects stages in her own life that readily associate with archetypal themes and mythologies." Her playful, "tender, stylised paintings of women and couples are concerned with the fundamental human processes of birth, growth and nourishment." Her myth-making places her in a line of artists such as Ken Kiff and Albert Herbert, both of whom she knew. We spoke about her experience of working with Herbert, with whom, at one stage, she collaborated on paintings. 

Cooper is one of the major British figurative artists who emerged in the mid 1980's, many of whom featured in The New British Painting exhibition, organized by the Contemporary Arts Center Cincinnati, which consisted of new paintings from a new generation of English and Scottish young artists. I first came across her work through the Benjamin Rhodes Gallery, where she exhibited from the late 1980s, and have appreciated the development of her work since. She became a Royal Academician in 2001 and exhibits regularly in the Summer Exhibition.

Other artists visiting the commission4mission exhibition have included Geoff Tune, Miriam Kendrick, Christopher Clack, and Chandrakumar Sukumaran, with the latter two becoming new commission4mission members.  

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Carleen Anderson - Mama Said

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Modest Fashion

I recently met up with Professor Reina Lewis, Artscom Centenary Professor of Cultural Studies at the London College of Fashion, who is running a very interesting project looking at Modest Fashion.
Faith-based Fashion and Internet Retail studies the growing market for modest clothing among women of the three Abrahamic faiths: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. With increasing numbers of women who are religiously motivated to dress modestly, online retailing is making it easier for women who dress this way to combine fashion with faith.

For women seeking fashionable ways to dress modestly, like the growing numbers of Muslim women who obtain modest clothing over the web, the internet has been indispensible. Other faith groups that have dress requirements show similar developments in the commercial production and distribution of clothing: observant and orthodox Jews, and some Christian groups like the Church of the Latter-day Saints (Mormons).

Internet marketing has been invaluable for consumers who want specialist items and has reduced overheads for specialist producers and retailers. This has been especially important in clothes marketing, where consumers seeking non-standard items can now shop online to replace or augment the high street. In most cases, internet marketing allows brands to reach beyond their immediate location, serving consumers internationally. Women are now far more likely to be able to dress in line with their sense of piety but still in fashion.

The project has three main aims:

1. To discover if the expansion and diversification through e-commerce of clothes for modest dressing is creating a new retail and style category of 'modest fashion' that has the potential to transcend specific religions and reach out to consumers across faith groups.

2. To explore the extent to which 'modest fashion' is beginning to be recognisable as a form of dressing adopted by women from different faith communities.

3. To evaluate the social and personal impact of modest fashion for the future development of interfaith dialogue and religious/secular community relations.

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Jennifer Warnes - Famous Blue Raincoat.