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Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Airbrushed from Art History: Peter Fuller

Since seeing the stunning Sutherland exhibition at Modern Art Oxford I've been re-reading material on the Neo-Romantics. This has meant that I have also been re-reading Peter Fuller's art criticism. Fuller championed the work of the Neo-Romantics, while also being able to see shortcomings in their work, because:

"... for all these artists, the pursuit of landscape was always something more than the quest for phenomena, or the appearances of natural and human forms. They were intent upon a transfiguration
of what they saw: often they laid claim to a religious or spiritual vision ..."

Fuller described the journey on which his art criticism had embarked in an autobiographical response to the exhibition entitled The Journey:

"I developed an even deeper sympathy for the romantic, the Gothic, and the spiritual dimensions of art ...

It seemed to me that no ‘materialist’ culture – certainly not the ‘modernism’ so celebrated by Clement Greenberg – had ever remotely approached the aesthetic glories of these churches [the great Gothic cathedrals and the medieval parish churches of Sussex]; and I was very much aware of the fact that their splendours, and their intimacies, were dependent upon a faith which I could not share and which was not shared even by contemporary Christians ...

When, in the early 1980s, I wrote the essays, later gathered together in Images of God, I felt that I was being tremendously daring and even perverse in reviving the idea that aesthetic experience was greatly diminished if it became divorced from the idea of the spiritual. What I responded to in Ruskin, above all else, was the distinction he made between ‘aesthesis’ and ‘theoria’, the former being a merely sensuous response to beauty, the latter what he described as a response to beauty with ‘our whole moral being’. My book, theoria, was an attempt to rehabilitate ‘theoria’ over and above mere ‘aesthesis’; I also tried to communicate my feeling that the spiritual dimensions of art had been preserved, in a very special way, within the British traditions. No one recognised this better that the great French poet and critic, Charles Baudelaire, who, as I have often remarked before, say in 1859 that British painters were ‘enthusiastic representatives of the imagination and of the most precious faculties of the soul’.

In my critical writing, I came to emphasise how British artists appeared to have faced up to the aesthetic consequences brought about by the spiritual dilemmas of the modern age. In particular, I became interested in the links between ‘natural theology’ and the triumphs of British landscape painting. I am still convinced that there is a close correlation between British ‘higher landscape’ and those beliefs about nature as divine handiwork which were held with a peculiar vividness and immediacy in Britain.

The experience of the ‘the long-withdrawing roar’ of ‘the Sea of Faith’ and the exposure of the naked shingles of the world’ created a great crisis for art, as for every other dimension of cultural life. The best British artists of the twentieth century, however, faced up to that spiritual crisis: I interpreted the work of David Bomberg, Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer, Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland as differing responses to the phenomenon of Dover Beach. I argued that all these artists were imperfectly modern, and that this imperfection was a source of their strength. Unlike true modernists, they did not deny the spiritual and aesthetic calamity brought about by the ever present weight of God’s absence; none the less they did not merely tease ‘aesthesis’ but struggled to appeal to ‘theoria’, regardless."

Such views seem to have little place in the contemporary art world and, as Jonathan Jones has written, "this fierce defender of figurative painting and enemy of the avant garde has now been almost erased from the history of British art. His legacy has been reduced to the career of his protegee Sister Wendy Beckett and the annual Peter Fuller Lecture ... Even Modern Painters, the magazine he founded in 1987, officially abandoned his editorial policy ... to become broadly sympathetic to conceptual art ... Fuller has disappeared from the story of British art because that story has been mythicised and thinned out."

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Sam Phillips - Reflecting Light.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Cricket, Churches, Art and Meals





I've had a busy but very enjoyable weekend which began on Friday evening with a testimonial event for Robert Croft in the Long Room at Lords followed by a day trip to Stoke-on-Trent for the licensing service of Rev. Geoffery Eze in the parish of Stoke Minister and then, after morning services at St John's, a trip to Mersea Island to speak at the Learning Supper for West Mersea Parish Church at the invitation of Peter Banks.

My talk on commission4mission and exploring approaches to Christian Art can be read by clicking here.

In the course of the evening I also found out about the work of Jevan Watkins Jones as a firstsite associate artist and the work being done in local schools and colleges by Christian Youth Outreach (CYO). Watkins Jones often uses his art to resensitize our relationship with ' found objects ' whether a narrative or a motif, he offers us a different view defined by its subtlety and beauty. Tim Abbott, Director of CYO, will be the next Learning Supper speaker sharing experiences of prayer from their Sanctum project.

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After The Fire - 1980-F.

Windows on the world (185)


Seven Kings, 2012
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Emmylou Harris - You Never Can Tell.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Covenant of Noah: Conditions for life

What legacy will we pass on to those we leave behind? In what way can we hand on the torch of faith to future generations? What does my life say to others and what do I want it to say? These are all questions from sermons preparing us for Lent and questions that will recur as we study our Lent course ‘Handing on the Torch’ together.
In 2008 the Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks gave some remarkable answers to questions of this sort in an address to the Lambeth Conference based, in large part, on today’s Old Testament reading (Genesis 9. 1 - 17). What he had to say has not been given sufficient attention although it unpacks a neglected part of the story told within the Bible and so I want to share with you today some of what he said.

He began by speaking about power and wealth. The state is about power, the market is about wealth, and they are two ways of getting people to do what we want them to do. One way is to force them to do it – the way of power; the other one is to pay them to – the way of wealth.

Imagine, for a moment, you have total power, and then, in a fit of craziness you decide to share it with nine other people. How much power do you have left?  You have 1/10 of what you began with. Suppose you have a thousand pounds and you decide to share it with nine other people. How much do you have left? 1/10 of what you had when you began.
But now suppose that you decide to share, not power or wealth, but love, or friendship, or influence, or even knowledge, with nine others. How much would you have left? Would you have less than when you began? No, you would have more; and why is that - because love, friendship and influence are things that only exist by virtue of sharing them with others? These are what we can call covenantal goods – covenantal goods are the goods that, the more I share, the more I have. And that makes covenant different from wealth and power.
In the short term wealth and power are zero-sum games. That means if I win, you lose. If you win, I lose. Covenantal goods are non-zero-sum games, meaning, we both win; the more I give away the more I have – we both win. And that has huge consequences.
Because you can see with wealth and power, economics and politics, the market and the state, they must be arenas of competition but covenantal goods are different because they are arenas of co-operation.
And the question is where will we find covenantal goods like love, like friendship, like trust, like influence? You won’t find them in the state, you won’t find them in the market, but you will find them in marriages, in families, in congregations, in communities – you will find them in society, so long as you remember that society is something different from the state. If we're searching for the big society, this is where we will find it.
Another way of thinking about this is to think about the difference between a contract and a covenant. A contract is an agreement between two or more individuals, each pursuing their own interest, and they come together to make an exchange for mutual benefit. So you get a commercial contract that creates the market, and you get the social contract that creates the state.
A covenant is something different. In a covenant, two or more individuals, each respecting the dignity and the integrity of the other, come together in a bond of love and trust, to share their interests, sometimes even to share their lives and, by pledging their faithfulness to one another, to do together what neither of them can do alone.
And that is not the same as a contract at all. A contract is a transaction but a covenant is a relationship or, to put it slightly differently, a contract is about interests but a covenant is about identity. And that is why contracts benefit, but covenants transform. Economics and politics are about the logic of competition, covenant is about the logic of co-operation.
Now let’s turn to our passage from Genesis 9. The world had been almost destroyed by a flood. All humankind, all life, excluding Noah's Ark, shared the same fate. God says to all those who survive, those who will build a new world: “I promise I will never again destroy the world. But I cannot promise that you will never destroy the world – because, you see, I gave you free will. All I can do is teach you how not to destroy the world.” 
How? Well, the answer is found in the covenant about which we read in Genesis 9. 1 – 17, a covenant of human solidarity, which is known as the covenant of Noah or the Noahide covenant.
The covenant of Noah has three essential dimensions. Number one: “If anyone takes human life, he will be punished ... [because] Human beings were made like God”; that is about the sanctity of human life. As creator, God is universal. We are all in God's image, formed in His likeness.

Number two: look carefully at Genesis 9 and you will see that there are five times in that one chapter emphasizing that the covenant of Noah is not merely with humanity alone, but with everything that lives on the face of earth. Five times; the covenant is not just with human beings but with all of nature. So the second element of the covenant of Noah is the integrity of the created world; what today we call the Environment. As human beings, we are fellow citizens of the world God made and entrusted to our care.

And number three: the sign of the covenant is a rainbow; the white light of God fragmented into all the colours of the spectrum  or as Sacks puts in the title of one of his books ‘The dignity of difference’. The miracle of monotheism is that unity up there creates diversity down here. 
And so these three elements - the sanctity of human life, the integrity of the environment and respect for diversity - are the three elements of the global covenant that God made with Noah and still makes with us.
All three elements of this global covenant are currently in danger. The sanctity of human life is being ravaged by political oppression and by terror. The integrity of creation is being threatened by environmental catastrophe. And respect for diversity is imperilled by what one writer has called a clash of civilisations. 
So Sacks says that the call of God in our times is to renew this global covenant, the covenant that began with Noah. We have to honour this covenant now, in our time, in order that future generations will be able to live. To come back to the questions with which we began, Sacks is saying that: we will not have a legacy to pass on to those who come after us; we will not be able to hand the torch of our faith on to others; our lives will not have anything to say to others, if the sanctity and diversity of life is not respected and if environmental catastrophe occurs. The covenant of Noah precedes the covenants made with Abraham and Moses and precedes the New Covenant made through Jesus. This covenant creates the conditions in which life and faith can flourish because before we can live any faith we have to be able to live and this covenant is about the fundamentals of life itself; the sanctity of life in all its diversity. 
Sacks is saying that there are fundamental moral truths that lie at the basis of God's covenant with humankind: that co-operation is as necessary as competition, that co-operation depends on trust, that trust requires justice, and that justice itself is incomplete without forgiveness. Morality is not simply what we choose it to be. It is part of the basic fabric of the universe, revealed to us by the universe's Creator, long ago.
He is also saying that the nature of covenant shows how to fulfil the covenant of Noah: respect for the dignity and the integrity of the other, coming together in bonds of love and trust, sharing our interests and our lives, pledging faithfulness to one another in order to do together what none of us can do alone.
What legacy will we pass on to those we leave behind? In what way can we hand on the torch of faith to future generations? What does my life say to others and what do I want it to say? When we pass on covenantal goods we fulfil the covenant of Noah.

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Peter Case - Put Down the Gun.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Lent: Confronting us with reality

This was my Ash Wednesday sermon, based heavily on materials from Call to Change:

"Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man. The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: 'Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.'

"Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, 'God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.'"

Jesus commented, "This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you're going to end up flat on your face, but if you're content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself." (Luke 18. 9 - 14)

The prayer of the tax man opened him up to reality – the reality of who he really was – while the prayer of the Pharisee was an exercise in unreality because it was designed to make him look better than he was by comparison with others.

This is one of the reasons why Jesus says in Matthew 6. 1 - 6 don’t perform your religious duties in public and don’t pray where everyone can see you. If our religious duties and our prayers are performed to gain the praise of others then they are not opening us up to the reality of who we are, instead they are poses designed to escape from, hide or mask that reality.

God’s judgment confronts us with reality.  His word pierces through our layers of self-deception.  It pierces through the false gods of profit, popularity and status on which we set our hearts, and through our shell of self-protecting cynicism.

Under the loving judgment of God, we see ourselves as we really are.  We see the futility of our self-deception, the emptiness of our false gods and the destructiveness of our cynicism.  Why does God force this painful truth upon us?  For this reason: it is only when we face the reality of our lives that change and growth become possible.

The prayers and practices of Lent exist to open us to reality.  Their words of penitence urge us to face the truth about our sins and their impact on others.  For example, the chastening words of the Ash Wednesday liturgy ‘Remember thou art dust, and unto dust shalt thou return’ force us to face the truth of our mortality.

We won’t go on forever.  The choices we make each day mean there are paths down which we have decided not to travel, possibilities we have shut down, perhaps permanently.  We need to ask what kind of values we will affirm, in our deeds as well as our words.  As we face our mortality, we are forced to ask: what do I want this life to say?

This question needs to be considered alongside an honest examination of what my life currently says.  What would you say my values and priorities were if you looked, not at the beliefs I profess, but at the ways I spend my time and money, the things that preoccupy and vex me, the ways I treat the people around me?

Lent helps us to explore the gap between the answers we give to these two questions: what does this life say? and what do I want it to say?

These are questions we can also ask of our common life.  In The Rock T.S. Eliot asks:

What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle together because you love each other?
What will you answer? ‘We all dwell together
To make money from each other?’ or ‘This is a community?’

Today, many people are asking these questions with a new intensity.  There is a large and growing gap between rich and poor, one which politicians of all parties say they want to see reversed.  And we all live with the ongoing and unpredictable consequences of the global financial crisis for years to come. In the midst of a recession – and the yawning gap between the richest and poorest in our society – there is a growing sense that something needs to change.

So this Lent, two Christian social action charities – The Contextual Theology Centre and the Church Urban Fund – are issuing a Call to Change.  (This is online at www.calltochange.withtank.com and on Twitter at @calltochange.)  It builds on decades of ministry by churches in some of England’s poorest neighbourhoods.  It seeks to draw more people into their work of prayer, of listening and of action for social justice by use of the season of Lent to achieve real change in our local and national life.

The Call to Change is not a call to scapegoat someone else – be they a ‘benefits scrounger’ or a banker.  Each of us is called to open ourselves to reality.  We do this through prayer: as we encounter the ultimate reality of God in Scripture, worship and personal devotion.  We do it too through listening: and in particular, a serious engagement with the voice of England’s poorest communities.

Words are not enough.  They need to take flesh in action.  The experience of churches engaged in their local community points to concrete things every Christian and congregation can do – to tackle poverty, and build an economic system that works for poor as well as rich.

Lent is traditionally seen as a rather gloomy time, when we turn inward in tortured self-examination.  The truth is very different.  The deeper purpose of this season is to draw us outward – into a deeper communion with God and with neighbour. We actually need Lent now more than ever, so that mind, body and spirit can be released from the self-indulgence of a consumerist, individualistic society. The ‘Good News’ of Lent is how much more we believe there is to life than this. This is God’s reality which Lent enables us to encounter.

Lent is mirrored on the way Jesus’ own ministry began: with forty days of prayerful discernment. Only then can our action be part of God’s transforming work. Without prayer, we will not discern God’s purposes or act his power. Without listening, we will not discover our neighbours’ concerns - or be able to harness the power of common action.

Both prayer and listening help us see that Christian discipleship involves a challenge to the values of our broken world. In Lent, we are called to remove the idols of money and power from the thrones they have in our hearts and in our society. In Lent, we are challenged to face up to the reality of our self-indulgence in a consumerist, individualistic society and remember that money and power are to be placed at the service of Christ, and of his Kingdom of justice and of peace.

It is through changes like these, individual and corporate, that we can grow together into ‘life in all its fullness.’ That is the message of Lent. And, more importantly, it is the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, God’s word of love made flesh.

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Keane - Everybody's Changing.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Windows on the world (184)


London, 2012

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REM - Stand.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

A Falling Mantle: What Legacy Are You Leaving?

This Sunday I shared with our congregation at St John's Seven Kings a condensed version of a sermon by Leighton Ford which I found on the internet and which was first preached at Wee Kirk, Linville, North Carolina, on August 13, 2006.

I found the way in which Leighton Ford interwove personal and other stories with the content of his two texts (Mark 4:26-33, 2 Kings 2:1-14) to be moving and profound. I was intrigued by his identification of the biblical story as one of a legacy passed on from generation to generation, in faithfulness to God’s kingdom – and sometimes, tragically, of a legacy wasted. I was challenged by the questions he posed: What do your heirs expect and want from us? What are we called to pass on to them? And will we do it with faith and faithfulness, and confidence in God?

Ford's focus on the passing on of a legacy is of particular relevance to us as we shortly begin our Lent course Handing on the Torch.

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The Barratt Band - Your Love.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Clay as earth and flesh

The following comes from the latest ImageUpdate:


"The late sculptor Stephen de Staebler, whose work will be featured in a retrospective at de Young Museum in San Francisco through April 22, is the subject of a beautiful, substantial new monograph from the University of California Press ... de Staebler is ... an important bridge builder—a connector of different worlds. His art reflects the influence of both traditional figurative art and modern Abstract Expressionism. As Timothy Anglin Burgard says in his brilliant introductory essay, de Staebler’s art synthesized ancient Egyptian “frontality,” the figurative poignance of Michelangelo, and the modern angst of Giacometti. Indeed, Burgard’s essay is aptly entitled “Humanist Sculptor in an Existentialist Age.” As a boy, de Staebler fell in love with clay while playing in the rivers of his native Indiana. For him, clay was both earth and flesh—beautiful but fragile and evanescent. His sculptures (which also include works in bronze) dramatize the paradoxes of the flesh by giving us figures who have been eroded by time and suffering but who nonetheless radiate with dignity. From an early age, de Staebler experienced mortality and physical suffering in his family, so his work always resonates with a heartbreaking pathos that is not the least bit sentimental. While he often claimed to be outside formal religious institutions, de Staebler was deeply influenced by the Western heritage of Christian art. He wrote a thesis on St. Francis of Assisi—that most earthy of saints—and found endless mystery in the figure of the Virgin Mary and angels (though his angels are enigmatic and formidable, not cute)."


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Henryk Górecki - Concerto for piano and strings.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Christendom is on the way out

Responding to the Ipsos-Mori survey of 'census Christians' commissioned by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science UK, Simon Barrow, co-director of the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, has made what is in my view a very accurate and sensible response:
"This opinion survey makes interesting reading as part of a whole web of research on the changing shape and location of Christianity in Britain over the past thirty or more years.

"It shows that 'civic' and 'cultural' Christian self-identification is a very different thing to the deeply-rooted faith held by a much smaller number of people whose believing, belonging and behaving is strongly shaped by regular participation in active Christian communities.

"While we can argue over details, the broad outline of what this survey reveals should not come as any shock or threat to church leaders who have been paying attention to what has been happening in recent decades.

"Top-down and institutional religion is in decline. Trying to restore or maintain the cultural and political dominance of Established religious institutions in what is now a mixed-belief 'spiritual and secular' society is a backward-looking approach.

"Churches have a creative opportunity here. It is to rediscover a different, ground-up vision of Christianity based on practices like economic sharing, peacemaking, hospitality and restorative justice. These were among the distinguishing marks of the earliest followers of Jesus. They have always been part of the 'nonconformist' tradition shared in different ways by Anabaptists, Quakers, radical Catholics, Free Churches and faithful dissenters in all streams of Christian life.

"The mutually reinforcing pact between big religion and top-down authority that we call 'Christendom' is on the way out.

"The kind of conservative religious aggression that claims 'anti-Christian discrimination' every time Christians are asked to treat others fairly and equally in the public square is a threatened response to the loss of top-down religion's social power. So is overbearing 'Christian nation' rhetoric, and the 'culture wars' that some hardline believers and non-believers sometimes seek to launch and win against each other.

"A positive, post-Christendom perspective suggests that Christianity can and should flourish beyond the demise of 'big religion', and that a level-playing field in public life can and should involve both religious and non-religious participants.
"Likewise, while Richard Dawkins may not be a subtle, unbiased or persuasive analyst of religion overall, it would be entirely unhelpful for believers to dismiss this survey because they disagree with its commissioner in other respects. Its content evidently needs further and deeper analysis, alongside other data, than the initial response to it has allowed."
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Al Green - Belle.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Windows on the world (183)



London, 2012

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Leonard Cohen - Amen.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Upcoming talks, exhibitions and poetry readings

I will be speaking on commission4mission and understandings of Christian Art at the February Learning Supper for West Mersea Parish Church (6.30pm, Sunday 26th February). Learning Suppers on Mersea Island include a time of worship, teaching, prayer and a convivial supper of soup, cheese and wine on the 4th Sunday in the month.


Together with Sue Newham and Steve Scott I have written an event planning support pack for the Run with the Fire DVD pack, which also includes a high quality video of the Run with the Fire exhibition and an introduction giving a background to the Run with the Fire project and statements from the artists involved. The 24 sections of the event planning support pack cover every aspect of planning and executing your chosen arts event. Planning, publicity, risk assessment and other templates are provided as appendices.


The Run with the Fire digital exhibition, as well as including 25 original artworks on Olympic/Pentecost themes by artists from eight different nations, includes my latest poem also entitled Run with the Fire. The Run with the Fire DVD pack is available for purchase, to provide creative content at Olympic-themed events in 2012 and beyond, from http://www.veritasse.co.uk/cards-prints/most-popular/run-with-the-fire-dvd-pack/ or by contacting Sue Newham on 01686 626228. A preview of the Run with the Fire digital exhibition can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nFBGZDgFaw4&feature=youtu.be.


I will be exhibiting next at the Pentecost Festival in a show organised by commission4mission as part of which the Run with the Fire digital exhibition will be shown alongside original artworks from commission4mission artists and invited guest artists. The Run with the Fire exhibition will take place at the Strand Gallery (32 John Adam Street, London WC2N 6BP) from 22nd - 27th May, 11.00am - 6.00pm.



Including an eclectic mix of styles and media, this will be a stimulating and exciting show exploring the broad theme of running life's race with passion and spirit. Featured artists include Harvey Bradley, Colin Burns, Christopher Clack, Valerie DeanElizabeth Duncan Meyer, Robert Enoch, Jonathan Evens, Christine Garwood, Jim Insole, Ken James, Miriam Kendrick, Mark Lewis, Glenn Lowcock, Tracy Mcculloch, Henry Shelton, Sergiy Shkanov, Esther Tidy, Mike Thomas, Andrew Vessey, Rachel Watson and Peter WebbOn Saturday 26th May there will be an additional programme of art talks and painting demonstrations.


A Launch Night on Monday 21st May, 6.00 - 8.00pm, will provide the first opportunity to see the exhibition and will also include music and poetry exploring the exhibition theme. I will be reading some of my poems, including Run with the Fire. This is guaranteed to be a special evening because the other performers include singer-songwriter and poet Malcolm Guite, artist-musician Colin Burns, artist-poet Andrew Vessey and performance poet Tamsin Kendrick. Refreshments will be available. Cost - £2.00, pay on the door.


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Malcolm Guite - Love In The Red.

Stalker and Amazing Grace

Two recent books celebrate and explore seminal works of art which are infused with Christian spirituality:

"In Zona, Geoff Dyer attempts to unlock the mysteries of a film that has haunted him ever since he first saw it thirty years ago: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. (“Every single frame,” declared Cate Blanchett, “is burned into my retina.”) As Dyer guides us into the zone of Tarkovsky’s imagination, we realize that the film is only the entry point for a radically original investigation of the enduring questions of life, faith, and how to live."

Gregory Halvorsen Schreck writes that: "The films of the late Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky represent an exceptional Christian vision. His artistic vision was profoundly original and provocative, yet also profoundly Christian. It is impossible to separate his art from his faith. A Russian Orthodox Christian, Tarkovsky stated that his films "are one thing, the extreme manifestation of faith." At the base of his work, at the very conception of his ideas about form, lies his spirituality ... Tarkovsky's films offer a redemptive vision that expresses a solution to society primarily in terms of spiritual regeneration. As he wrote, "The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good." (Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections of the Cinema [Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1986], 43)."

Aretha Franklin's Amazing Grace by Aaron Cohen is "a fascinating and thoroughly researched exploration of the best-selling gospel album of all time":
"For two days in January 1972, Aretha Franklin sang at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles while tape recorders and film cameras rolled. Everyone there knew the event had the potential to be historic: five years after ascending to soul royalty and commercial success, Franklin was publicly returning to her religious roots. Her influential minister father stood by her on the pulpit. Her mentor, Clara Ward, sat in the pews. Franklin responded to the occasion with the performance of her life and the resulting double album became a multi-million seller—even without any trademark hit singles. But that was just one part of the story.


Franklin’s warm inimitable voice, virtuoso jazz-soul instrumental group and Rev. James Cleveland’s inventive choral arrangements transformed the course of gospel. Through new interviews, musical and theological analyses as well as archival discoveries, this book sets the scene, traces the recording’s traditional origins and pop infusions and describes the album’s enduring impact."

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Aretha Franklin - How I Got Over.

Where is wisdom to be found?

‘My child, learn what I teach you and never forget what I tell you to do. Listen to what is wise and try to understand it. Yes, beg for knowledge; plead for insight. Look for it as hard as you would for silver or some hidden treasure. If you do, you will know what it means to fear the Lord and you will succeed in learning about God. It is the Lord who gives wisdom; from him come knowledge and understanding.’ (Proverbs 2. 1 – 6)

The Book of Proverbs encourages us to look for wisdom as hard as you would look for silver or hidden treasure. We should beg and plead for wisdom, it says, because when we find it we will succeed in learning about God. It is God who gives wisdom and God is wisdom. There are two main ways in which we can find wisdom.
In verses 22 – 24 of Proverbs 8 we read that:

‘wisdom is “created” … “at the very beginning of [God’s] work … before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water” (vv. 22-24). Wisdom, according to this remarkable poem, occupies an intermediate place between God and the world of creation. On the one hand, wisdom is a “creature” who is “created” by God. On the other hand, wisdom, the capacity and agency for generating life-giving order, is prior to all creation and all (other) creatures … This second agent of creation has a permanent place in the work of creation and peculiar intimacy with Yahweh in that work.’ (Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament)
As a result, ‘… under the aegis of wisdom … the whole of creation is shot through with the rationality and intentionality of Yahweh, a rationality and intentionality that need not be visible and intrusive because they are inherent in the very character and structure and fabric of creation itself.’
Wisdom, therefore, ‘is common sense that is responsive to [God’s] lordly, generous will for life. It has in it dimensions of acumen and calculation, of trust and willing submissiveness.’ It ‘is a rule, an intention, a discernment, a purpose … something intended by [God], which may be discerned, embraced, and practiced by attentive human agents …’ Those who teach wisdom ‘live very close to concrete, daily reality and give to Israel a sense that [God] is present in, with, and under daily, lived experience.’
Proverbs 1. 20-21 says:

‘Wisdom goes out in the street and shouts.
At the town centre she makes her speech.
In the middle of the traffic she takes her stand.
At the busiest corner she calls out.’

This open proclamation, made above the noise of the market, shows that the offer of wisdom is for the person in the street, it is for the business of living. There is no separation of the public and private or the sacred and the secular when it comes to the proverbs and wisdom in the Bible. The book of Proverbs applies the principles of God’s teaching to: relationships, home, work, justice, decisions, attitudes, reactions, everything we do and say and think.

Wisdom comes as we make a habit of reflecting on daily life recognising that God is to be found there. As David Adam has written:

“If our God is to be found only in our churches and our private prayers, we are denuding the world of His reality and our faith of credibility. We need to reveal that our God is in all the world and waits to be discovered there – or, to be more exact, the world is in Him, all is in the heart of God. Our work, our travels, our joys and our sorrows are enfolded in His loving care. We cannot for a moment fall out of the hands of God. Typing pool and workshop, office and factory are all as sacred as the church. The presence of God pervades the work place as much as He does a church sanctuary.” (Power Lines: Celtic Prayers about Work, SPCK, 1992)
 
Philosophy means the love of wisdom but we are not talking here about a detached, academic or ivory tower style love of wisdom; instead we are speaking of insights which come from hard graft, wisdom from experience tested in the fire. So, for the Bible’s wisdom to really make sense we have to take and use it in everyday life; to apply to our Monday to Saturday lives rather than keeping it bottled up on Sundays alone.
The second source of wisdom is Jesus himself. What is said of Wisdom in Proverbs 8 is also said of Jesus in John 1. James Dunn puts it succinctly: "What pre-Christian Judaism said of Wisdom … Paul and the others say of Jesus. The role that Proverbs … ascribe to Wisdom, these earliest Christians ascribe to Jesus." (Christology in the Making)
‘The New Testament teaches a “wisdom Christology” in various passages, indicating that Jesus is the fulfillment of this portrait of wisdom (see 1 Corinthians 1:24, 30; Colossians 2:3). The connections between Proverbs 8 and John 1 are particularly important: Wisdom is “from the beginning” (8:23), as is the Word that is with God; wisdom is the agent of creation (8:27-31), as is the Word (John 1:3); wisdom is “begotten” by Yahweh (8:24), as is the Word (John 1:18).’ (Peter J. Leithart)

This means that ‘Christians seek and find all the things Wisdom offers in Christ.’ Wisdom makes plans and carries them out. Wisdom helps kings to govern and rulers to make good laws which bring honour and prosperity to their nations because they walk the way of righteousness and follow the paths of justice (Proverbs 8. 11 - 21). Jesus, the Wisdom of God, also enables all these things to happen.
‘Wisdom was [God’s] agent to create the world, and through Wisdom, kings establish boundaries and create worlds (cf. Ecclesiastes 2:1-11); and Jesus is the Wisdom of God who equips us to form our worlds after the pattern of God’s Word and to re-form the whole world after the pattern of His kingdom. Jesus as the Wisdom of God does not rescue us from responsibility for the world, but equips us to be [righteous leaders].’

As we do so, it is important to bear in mind that proverbs are by nature generalisations. They state what is generally true, not invariably true. The writers do not deny that there are exceptions. But exceptions are not within the scope of proverbial sayings. For instance, Proverbs states that those who live by God’s standards will prosper in the world. This is generally the truth (and we have statistical evidence today about the health and general well-being of churchgoers to back this up). But it is not an ‘unconditional’ promise, as the example of Job and the life of Jesus clearly show us.

So, these proverbs are not a set of commands or laws that must be followed to the letter in order that we benefit from wisdom. Instead, they are given to persuade us or tease us into seeing a connection between God’s order in the world and his orders to human beings. The style of the proverbs is to provoke thought, getting under the skin by thrusts of wit, paradox, common sense, and teasing symbolism. They are a bit like the parables of Jesus, something to make us think about life rather than being a set of clear and simple instructions to follow. As a result, it is good to digest or study them a few saying at a time, weighing one saying against another and getting an idea of the general teaching on a particular topic.

Secular philosophy tends to measure everything by human beings, and comes to doubt whether wisdom is to be found at all. But the Old Testament with its motto – ‘the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom’ – turns the world the right way up, with God at its head, his wisdom the creative and ordering principle that runs through every part; and human beings, disciplined and taught by that wisdom, finding life and fulfilment in his perfect will. Knowledge in its full sense is a relationship with God, dependent on revelation or wisdom and inseparable from character or discipline.
So, let us beg for knowledge; plead for insight. Let us look for it as hard as we would for silver or some hidden treasure. If we do, we will know what it means to fear the Lord and we will succeed in learning about God because it is the Lord who gives wisdom; from him come knowledge and understanding.
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The Byrds - Turn, Turn, Turn.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

What is the purpose of creativity and imagination?

Dorothy L. Sayers remarked on the fact that the one thing we know for sure about God at the point that he makes humanity in his own image is that he is creative:

“[H]ad the author of Genesis anything particular in his mind when he wrote? It is observable that in the passage leading up to the statement about man, he has given no detailed information about God. Looking at man, he sees in him something essentially divine, but when we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the “image” of God was modelled, we find only the single assertion, “God created”. The characteristic common to God and man, is apparently that: the desire and ability to make things”. (The Mind of the Maker)

She argues that it is therefore logical to suppose that creativity is a significant aspect of humanity’s being made in the image of God. Similarly:

“In his essay “The Image of God and the Epic of Man,” [Paul] Ricoeur suggests that humans are in the image of God because they too enjoy the power of creativity. Thus the image of God, creativity, gives rise to the images of man, in the sense of the images that man makes. These images constitute “the sum total of the ways in which man projects his vision on things.”” (K. J. Vanhoozer, Biblical Narrative in the Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: A Study in Hermeneutics and Theology)

Within the Biblical Creation stories human creativity is seen in: God’s blessing of humanity which included the tasks of increasing in number, filling and subduing the earth and, ruling over living creatures (Genesis 1: 28); Adam’s working and taking care of the garden (Genesis 2: 15); and, Adam’s naming of the living creatures (Genesis 2: 20). Albert Wolters brings both sociality and creativity together when he comments that:

“Adam and Eve, as the first married couple, represent the beginnings of societal life; their task of tending the garden, the primary task of agriculture, represents the beginnings of cultural life." (Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview)        

These two also sit together because of the development that runs through the stories. Wolters describes this in speaking of Genesis 1:

“There is a process of development and evolution as the earthly realm assumes, step by step, the contours of the variegated world of our experience. On the sixth day this process is completed with the creation of man, and on the seventh day God rests from his labors. This is not the end of the development of creation, however. Although God has withdrawn from the work of creation, he has put an image of himself on the earth with a mandate to continue. The earth had been completely unformed and empty; in the six-day process of development God had formed it and filled it – but not completely. People must now carry on the work of development: by being fruitful they must fill it even more; by subduing it they must form it even more. Mankind, as God’s representatives on earth, carry on where God left off. But this is now to be a human development of the earth … From now on the development of the created earth will be societal and cultural in nature.” 

In addition to the six day development of creation, development is also seen in: God’s blessing of humanity in Genesis 1: 28; Adam’s working and taking care of the garden (Genesis 2: 15); and the two trees that held the potential for god-likeness (Genesis 2: 9, 16 & 17, 3: 22). Wolters says of the world that “[c]reation is not something that, once made, remains a static quality. There is, as it were, a growing up (though not in a biological sense), an unfolding of creation.”

The latter point is worth expanding further. One tree held out the potential for becoming like God in having the knowledge of good and evil, the other in living forever. The former tree was banned for Adam and Eve while the latter is not. One reading of this story is that God intended Adam and Eve to eat from the Tree of Life and become like him in having eternal life. If so, this is another example of development. 

For the stories to have this development dynamic suggests creation is both actuality and possibility and that humanity has the responsibility of actualising the possible. If so, possibilities are, as Ricoeur argues, real, although unactualised. Ricoeur suggests that imagination leads to actualisation and that both are a means of self-understanding for humanity:

“Ricoeur is unwilling to dismiss human projects as unreal just because they have not yet been realized or because their conditions do not yet obtain: “It is by virtue of an unjustifiable reduction that we decide to equate ‘world’ with the whole of observable facts; I inhabit a world in which there is something ‘to be done by me’; the ‘to be done by me’ belongs to the structure which is the ‘world’.” In the case of human willing, the possible precedes the actual, for the forming of a project precedes its realization: “The presence of man in the world means that the possible precedes the actual and clears the way for it; a part of the actual is a voluntary realisation of possibilities anticipated by a project.” Moreover, in determining to do something, I likewise determine myself: “In the same way that a project opens up possibilities in the world, it opens up new possibilities in myself and reveals me to myself as a possibility of acting. My power-to-be manifests itself in my power-to-do …” The “possible” is therefore an essential component in self-understanding. I achieve self-understanding when I grasp what possibilities are open to me." (Biblical Narrative in the Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur)

This can be seen in the Creation stories when God asked Adam to name the living creatures. Names in ancient culture are descriptive of the essence or meaning of objects or people. Therefore, here God was asking Adam to be creative both in imagining the possibilities for each creature and in the forming of a name to reflect those possibilities. However, God was also asking Adam to develop self-understanding because the naming of the living creatures is set in the context of finding a helper for Adam. As Adam imagined possibilities for each creature he was also coming to an understanding of his needs as a human being and rejecting each creature in turn as a suitable helper for him. Therefore, when God creates Eve, Adam had the necessary self-understanding to recognise Eve immediately as the helper for which he had been seeking (2: 23 & 24).     

I am suggesting therefore that the creation stories depict a relational God creating a relational world with which he interacts. Within this he created humanity in his relational image to develop the relational possibilities inherent within creation; these being, as Colin Gunton suggests in The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity, to develop the practical implications of relationality, perichoresis and substantiality through sociality and creativity.

God’s intention was that this task would be undertaken by human beings in relationship with him and with the rest of creation. Not only was humanity created in his image but humanity’s task was to be undertaken in his image, as though he himself were undertaking it. It is this that helps us to understand the meaning of the ban on Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

God, as the source of all things, contains both actuality and possibility. In creation he actualised good, and evil remained only an unactualised possibility. Nevertheless it is real (though unactualised) and can be imagined (either through imagining the opposite of the actual or difference in the actual) and thereby actualised.

God’s intention was then to train humanity for our task of developing creation by assisting us to imagine possibilities as a means to self-understanding. This is what I noted in the story of Adam naming the living creatures. In this way God was acting like a parent telling her child not to put his hand into a fire. The child imagines the pain of being on fire and learns the lesson. God in the creation stories wished to do the same. He wished to introduce human beings to the knowledge of good and evil by imagining, under his guidance, the possibility of evil, as a means of learning the dangers inherent in actualising evil. In this way human beings could have developed into divinity by gradually developing the knowledge of good and evil and then by eating the fruit from the Tree of Life and living forever.

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Van Morrison - Rave On John Donne / Did You Get Healed?

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Community campaigns

Seven Kings & Newbury Park Resident's Association (SKNPRA) organised a recent meeting to review the recent history of community campaigns in the area and to explore ideas for continuing community campaigns in future. The meeting heard four different approaches outlined by representatives of SKNPRA, Take Action for Seven Kings (TASK)Residents Associations in the UK, and The East London Communities Organisation (TELCO).
 
SKNPRA and TASK have undertaken a wide range of influential community campaigns and community improvement activities such as community clean-up actions. The two organisations have supported each other's campaigns but differ in that SKNPRA is a formally constituted membership association while TASK has had a less formal membership and decision-making structure. It was noted that, while the three founding members of TASK are for varying reasons no longer able to take its work forward as they once were, Padraig Floyd hopes to liaise with members to explore how to take TASK forward in future.  
 
Resident's Associations in the UK seeks to link up Resident's Associations as part of a wider network which can provide information, resources and coordination for campaigns. Their website provides much of their information and resources as well as a help desk feature for specific advice.
 
TELCO works with the people who want to transform the world — from what it is to what they believe it should be. Drawing on the proven power of person-to-person organising, their work transforms communities and builds the local power necessary to create local and national change. They challenge people to imagine the change they can accomplish, connect individuals and organisations to multiply their power, and mobilise people by the thousands to make their voices heard.
 
These differing approaches - local campaigns through constituted associations, local campaigns through informal associations, networked associations, and area-wide community organising - together with single issue campaigning represent the main ways of doing community campaigning in the UK.
 
The discussion which followed the four presentations included input from Resident Association organisers and members, Trade Union officials and local Councillors. The discussion emphasised the importance of campaigns being locally focused but also recognised the benefits of shared campaigns and local groups working together in wider networks. Wider networks were more able to deliver training in campaigning or community organising to local people and could present a greater weight of opinion on issues that were shared across a wider area. The issue of disparities between different areas was raised as an aspect of community campaigns - this sense is often a motivator to local people to join campaigns - but it was also suggested that where such disparities became the main focus of campaigns the effect could be counter-productive. The importance of genuinely involving all groups within the local community in local campaigns and the need for greater understanding of how to do so was also noted.
 
The meeting seemed useful as a way of introducing organisations which provide campaigning networks to local campaigners and also as a way of beginning to form links and networks across local campaigning groups.
 
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The Ruts - In A Rut.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Cynicism and grace

For various reasons I've been reflecting recently on aspects of ministry that can be perceived as or predicted to be failures in that there are no tangible positive results from our input (such as, for example, pastoral visits to those with dementia).

It seems to me that investing time, effort and energy in people and situations which do not yield tangible positive results or even where it can be anticipated that such results are unlikely to be achieved is an inevitable element of ministry. This is because ministry is essentially creating or offering an opportunity for grace to be received and, because we have free will, such opportunities are often rejected.

While there is a real sense that discouragement is likely to follow if all we experience is the rejection of those grace opportunities we are involved in creating, nevertheless it seems to me that we cannot pick and choose those to whom grace is to be offered and therefore need to be willing and able to offer opportunities for grace to be received to those whom come our way.

As a result, while seeking to be wise about the motivations of those with whom we come into contact, it seems wrong to me to be cynical about the motivations of others and to withhold ministry and the opportunity for grace to be received for that reason.

I've finally got around to reading Rob Bell's excellent Love Wins, long after the controversy it caused has blown over, and, with the above thoughts in mind, was particularly struck by the following:

"Cynicism we know, and skepticism we're familiar with. We know how to analyze and pick apart and point out inconsistencies. We're good at it. We've all been burned, promised any number of things only to be let down. And so over time we get our guard up, we don't easily believe anything and trust can become like a foreign tongue, a language we used to speak but now we find ourselves out of practice.

Jesus invites us to trust that the love we fear is too good to be true is actually good enough to be true."

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Gungor - Dry Bones.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Handing on the Torch

Christianity is the largest movement our world has ever seen. Nearly one third of the world’s population identify themselves as Christians, making Christianity by far the world’s largest religious group. A recent report on the size and distribution of the world’s Christian population, ‘Global Christianity’, says that 2.18 billion of the world’s 6.9 billion people are Christian, compared with about 600 million of the world’s 1.8 billion people in 1910. This means that “Christians make up about the same portion of the world’s population today (32%) as they did a century ago (35%).”
The report says that 1.3 billion (61%) of Christians in the world live in the ‘Global South’, compared with 860 million (39%) who live in the ‘Global North.’ The study says that about half of the Christians in the world are Roman Catholic, 37% are Protestants, 12% are Orthodox, and the remaining 1% are of other Christian traditions.
Christianity continues to grow at an immense pace – especially in Asia (including China ), Africa and Latin America . At the same time, Christianity in the West struggles to grow and – perhaps – even to survive. In this year’s Lent course - Handing on the Torch - sacred words for a secular world  - we will consider some of the reasons for this and what it might mean for individual Christians, for churches and for Western culture, in a world where alternative beliefs are increasingly on offer.
This course, which has been prepared by York Courses, comes in five sessions:
Session 1 – A Christian Country?
Session 2 – A Secular Society?
Session 3 – A Beleaguered Church?
Session 4 – Competing Creeds? and
Session 5 – Handing on the Torch.
The participants on the course CD are Archbishop Sentamu - the Archbishop of YorkClifford Longley - RC author, broadcaster and journalist and Rachel Lampard - who has responsibility for the Methodist Church 's engagement with political issues. Bishop Graham Cray - Archbishops' Missioner and leader of the Fresh Expressions team - provides the Closing Reflection at the end of each session and Dr David Hope - former Archbishop of York - introduces the course.
As in previous years, this course is being organised by the Seven Kings Fellowship of Churches and can be studied at the local Methodist Churches, St John’s and St Peter’s Aldborough Hatch. Those attending in previous years have greatly appreciated the York Courses that we have used, so, if you want to learn more about the Christian faith, tackle the biggest questions facing humanity, and examine your own beliefs, in fellowship with others, then this course is for you.
The course can be studied at:
* St John’s Seven Kings on Wednesday mornings (from 10.45am) and evenings (from 8.00pm) on 29th February, 7th, 14th, 21st, and 28th March.
* St Peter's Aldborough Hatch on Wednesday mornings (from 11.00am) on 29th February, 7th, 14th, 21st, and 28th March.
* Goodmayes Methodist Church on Thursday afternoons (from 2.00pm) on 1st, 8th, 15th, 22nd, and 29th March. 
A Seven Kings Fellowship of Churches Lent Service led by the Philadelphia Church will bring the course to a conclusion on Tuesday 3rd April at 8.00pm at Seven Kings United Free Church.
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After The Fire - Joy.