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Sunday, 30 December 2012

Recent exhibitions: Kindred Spirits and Dora Holzhandler

Kindred Spirits was an exhibition by Natalia Dolgova and Peter Whiteman at The NorthLight Gallery  featuring their highly accomplished paintings rich in mythology and spiritual landscapes. The NorthLight Gallery has a mission:
  • To encourage and celebrate creativity, hospitality and the Christian faith.
  • To provide a welcoming space to enrich friendships, families and to develop community.
  • To encourage learning and enjoyment through, the arts and heritage.
  • To honour the original vision for the charity as established by William Brooke in 1912.
Natalia Dolgova was trained in monumental art in Magadan and St Petersburg. Her work has always been inspired by the spirits and legends of the places she has lived from the Chukchi of Siberia via the sophistication of St Petersburg to the calm of northern Denmark and now to the Yorkshire countryside.

Peter Whiteman is best known for his work creating costumes and items in films such as Harry Potter, Gladiator, Braveheart and The Mummy and for his designs for stage and exhibitions. Here he returned to his first love, painting, presenting some 40 works embodying the spirit of music. Each piece is inspired by different music and the "spirit" may be seen as a physical presence in the piece or as an atmosphere visible in the painting.

Sylvester Fine Art recently held a solo exhibition by Dora Holzhandler featuring oils and works on paper.
The exhibition was in association with The Goldmark Gallery and was opened by David J Glasser, Chairman of the Ben Uri Gallery.

Dora Holzhandler, born in Paris in 1928, is acclaimed in Britain and overseas for her enchanting, richly decorative paintings of everyday, often specifically Jewish, life. Rooted in a mystical perception of reality, her pictures are non-academic in perspective and depict the timeless Jewish world, her own childhood in Paris and London, and more general celebrations of humanity: lovers embracing, motherhood, religious contemplation.

Sparkling with innocent humour, her paintings draw no distinction between the sacred and mundane and are renowned for intricately detailed patterns - typically squares and floral motifs - which are reminiscent of Polish folk-art, Persian miniatures and Byzantine mosaics.


Jeff Tweedy - Be Not So Fearful.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

The contemporary magic of denial

There is significant insight into our Western denial of reality in today's Guardian. Giles Fraser is particularly apposite in a comment piece (which has some synergy with my Christmas night sermon) about our continuing belief in magic:

"What do I mean by magic? Forget Merlin. Forget Potter. I mean the belief that there is ever a short cut out of the constituent limitations of our humanity. That there is a way, instantly, with the flick of a wand or a credit card, of changing ourselves from one thing to something else entirely. Abracadabra. Magic is the escape fantasy of those who cannot cope with the fact that we are limited creatures, that we will grow old and die, that we can never have everything, that we will always be dependent on food and oxygen and the love of others, and that, because of this, we will often feel pain and loss. Magic is the belief that there is some other way of dealing with all of this other than simply by dealing with it.

Which is why I think the really dangerous magic – and I believe all magic is dangerous – is out there in the post-Christmas sales. The most insidious magic is disguised as something so ordinary we don't even notice it. In terms of magic, both Christianity and contemporary market capitalism appear under the form of their opposites ...

We buy the new suit or go on a diet to become a new person. We think becoming a pop star will plug the longing within – ignoring the evidence of those many pop stars who tragically take their own life as they realise the Simon Cowell brand of promised magic is a lie. We play the lotto. And every night on our TV screens, advertising offers us the contemporary equivalent of the philosopher's stone (turning lead into gold) and the fabled elixir of life. All of this, at root, is an attempt to escape from something that cannot be escaped from. Escape from the ordinary conditions of life. Escape from the anxiety within ourselves."

Elsewhere, in their 'Worst Ideas of 2012' feature, we read Oliver Burkeman saying (in a section entitled 'Ignoring Reality' and including comment on the Jimmy Savile scandal):

"The horror was hiding in plain sight. But acknowledging it would have meant acknowledging exactly who it was that we'd elevated to the status of national treasure – or perhaps even acknowledging, as Andrew O'Hagan put it in the London Review of Books, "that the culture itself is largely paedophile in its commercial and entertainment excitements"."

He argues that this "refusal to see what we're looking at is surely at the heart of climate-change denial, too," as well as the implacable faith Republicans had in a Romney landslide:

"The annals of psychological research are full of examples of how accomplished we are at not seeing what's there, for many reasons. People given the opportunity to cheat in small ways on tests, for example, don't consciously acknowledge they're dishonest; they'd rather preserve their sense of not being cheats. Or perhaps you've seen that famous basketball video demonstrating the phenomenon of "change blindness": when people are asked to count the number of times the ball is passed between players, they fail to see a person in a gorilla suit walk right across the frame."

Denial, in a broader sense, he notes, "has its benefits: without a dose of it, we'd be unable to overlook our own and others' lapses and faults, and relationships would become impossible. But its pitfalls are enormous, as Romney's aides and media supporters learned. Or did they learn?"

Fraser makes a similar point: "At the end of his seminal work Religion and the Decline of Magic, the historian Keith Thomas states: "If magic is defined as the employment of ineffective techniques to allay anxiety when effective ones are not available, then we must recognise that no society will ever be free from it." That is exactly right. But in an age that prides itself on its rationality, we commonly mask this reality from ourselves." 

Fraser concludes: "The Christian tradition insists on one thing over and over again: that you and I are not gods and that we cannot defy the gravity of our basic humanity. This religion is a process of disenchantment from the persistent belief that we are the centre of the universe. What is the secular equivalent to this admonition? I don't see one. Everywhere, we are told that we can (with what Marx called "the magic of money") be transformed into mini gods – rock gods, sex gods, masters of the universe."


Michael McDermott - Hit Me Back.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

The feast of St. John the Evangelist

The third day of Christmas is the feast of St. John the Evangelist and Malcolm Guite, who has a sonnet for the Gospel written by the Evangelist included in his Sounding the Seasons sequence, finds it fitting that the Gospel writer whose prologue goes so deeply into the mystery of Incarnation, and whose words 'The Word was made flesh' are read at every Christmas Eucharist, should have his feast-day within the twelve days of Christmas. Click here to read/hear Malcolm's sonnet.
At St John's Seven Kings we celebrate our Patronal Festival on the first weekend in October instead of the actual feast day of the Evangelist because of the impracticality of gathering congregation and community together again so soon after the Christmas Day celebrations.
Gungor - Heaven.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

The Hobbit: An Unnecessary Inflation

In The Lord of the Rings films, there is a fine balance struck between the seriousness (within the context of the fictional world created) of the unfolding narrative and the particular responses and stories (often incorporating humour) of the main characters. The main focus is on a state-of-the-universe narrative but the potential portentousness of this big story is leavened and humanised by the humour and humility of the central characters and the parts they play within this meta-narrative.  

The Hobbit was originally written by J.R.R. Tolkien as a children's story complete in it's own right and it only later became a prelude to The Lord of the Rings. Having reached The Hobbit by the opposite route seems to have meant that Peter Jackson is unable to tell the earlier story in its own right and for what it is in and of itself. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first of a three part series which can only tell this the slighter of Tolkien's originally published tales of Middle Earth at this length because of the decision to also tell the story as an explicit prelude to The Lord of the Rings.

This has two implications. First, that The Hobbit films will only make sense to those who already know The Lord of the Rings films as the additional material doesn't progress the story which is actually told in The Hobbit but does fit that story into the bigger story of The Lord of the Rings. Second, the balance between seriousness and humour/humanity found in The Lord of the Rings films is lost here because of the decision to tell both the story of The Hobbit and the story of The Hobbit as a prelude to The Lord of the Rings. The story told in The Hobbit is a lighter, slighter tale which is well told in this film with humour (except when Radagast's distraction of a hunting party of Orcs is turned into the equivalent of a Benny Hill-style sketch) but this is then set against the seriousness of the storyline which explains how the events of The Hobbit fit into the state-of-this-universe narrative that is The Lord of the Rings. Instead of the leavening of seriousness with humour and humanity that is found in The Lord of the Rings films here we get a jarring shuttling back and forth between these two separated styles and stories.

This results, I think, from a lack of trust on the part of the makers in the ability of the story of The Hobbit to communicate in its own right and its own form. Jackson, essentially, does not trust that the seriousness of the tale and its links to The Lord of the Rings would emerge simply by dramatising the tale as told by Tolkien. In the story, as told by Tolkien, these aspects emerges from the lighter, humourous form of the story. It is the reverse of what is achieved in The Lord of the Rings films and it is ironic that Jackson having found for himself a balance between seriousness and humour for The Lord of the Rings films (as this balance is not in the book as written by Tolkien) has then been unable to trust the reverse balance which is naturally found in the original tale as told by Tolkien.

There is much to enjoy in the film and I'll be there with the many who will see all three over the next 18 months and then will watch all three all over again on DVD but, on a first viewing at least, my view is that the story would have been better told by reflecting and respecting the lighter, slighter nature of its form instead of this attempt to inflate it with the expansiveness and seriousness of The Lord of the Rings.


Howard Shore - The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Monday, 24 December 2012

The Word of Love

Abracadabra, Open Sesame. If you’ve hired a children’s entertainer who did magic then you’re likely to have heard those words recently. They’ve been reduced to fun phrases for children but they represent something of our long-term belief in the power of words. If you’ve been watching the climax of Merlin, then you’ve seen Merlin, Morgana and Mordred muttering spells in an ancient tongue before their eyes flash and magic occurs.

Words have power. That’s what human beings believed in the past. We tend now to associate that thought with fantasy and yet it is an indication of the huge power that words actually carry. Each of us each day of our lives use words to make things happen and, while it may not be magic, it is powerful nonetheless.

The Bible teaches us much about the power of speech. Words are creative. In the beginning, God spoke the universe into being. God said, ‘Let there be …’ and life itself came into existence. Words also describe and define what has been made. In the Genesis account of creation, God divides light from dark and names light as ‘Day’ and dark as ‘Night’. Similarly he separates land from water and names the land as ‘Earth’ and the water as ‘Sea’. One of the first things he teaches human beings to do is to name what they see around them.

The creative, defining speech of God is wise. In Proverbs 8 we are told that God created Wisdom as the first of his works and that Wisdom speaks excellent words. God’s words, we are told, always accomplish what he purposes. When he sends them out into the world they never return to him void.

Yet, as Simon Small reminds us in his book ‘From the Bottom of the Pond’: “Thoughts and words are merely descriptions of reality. They can be wonderful, beautiful pointers to truth; they can evoke the experience of truth; and they can mirror the light of truth. Thoughts and words are necessary to help us open to the experience of truth. But they can never be truth itself. Thoughts and words, at best, can only be alarm clocks that wake us up to what was always present.”

Words can be helpful or unhelpful, but they are not ultimately the reality or truth which they describe. In the Prologue to John’s Gospel, Jesus is described as being God’s Word to human beings; he is in himself the message that God wants to communicate to us. This Word is a real person, not simply a description of God or a statement of the truth about God. What this means is that the truth about God is found in a relationship with Jesus and not in a set of statements or beliefs about him. Truth is not a prescription that we can swallow but a relationship in which we live.

When Jesus is described to us in the Prologue to John’s Gospel as being the Word of God, we can see then that John is bringing all these thoughts about speech and words into play. When he writes that Jesus is God’s Word, he means that Jesus is the creativity, the definition and the wisdom of God; all wrapped up and revealed in human form and flesh.

Jesus’ creativity is seen in the new way of being human that he reveals to us. In him, the divine and the human come together enabling us to see all that human beings can potentially be; all that we can potentially become. In him we see the best of humanity because in him we see God fully expressed. The Prologue to John’s Gospel says that: “No one has ever seen God. The only Son, who is the same as God and is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.”

God is love and, in Jesus, we see pure love expressed without reserve and without self-seeking: the way of compassion instead of the way of domination; the way of self-sacrifice instead of the way of selfishness; the way of powerlessness instead of the way of power; and the way of giving instead of the way of grasping.

Therefore to follow in his way is to experience divinity in our lives; to move towards the divine. When we see him call his disciples to follow him that is what occurs; they leave their old way of life behind in order to begin to experience a new and divine way of being human. As the Prologue to John’s Gospel puts it, God himself becomes their Father.

In doing so, he is also the Word of God which describes and defines us. The Prologue to John’s Gospel explains Jesus’ ability to define us in terms of light and darkness. Elsewhere in John’s Gospel Jesus says to Nicodemus (John 3. 19 - 21): “This is how the judgement works: the light has come into the world, but people love the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds are evil. Those who do evil things hate the light and will not come to the light, because they do not want their evil deeds to be shown up. But those who do what is true come to the light in order that the light may show that what they did was in obedience to God.”

In other words, the light of Christ is all about comparisons and transparency. Jesus, through his life and death, shows us the depth of love of which human beings are really capable and, on the basis of that comparison, we come up well short and are in real need of change. In the light of Jesus’ self-sacrifice, we see our inherent selfishness and recognise our need for change.

The light of Christ is also about transparency. God sees all and Jesus, in his ministry, was able to shine a light on the deepest recesses of the human heart. The Samaritan woman said of him: “Come see the man who told me everything I have ever done” (John 4. 29). With Jesus, nothing is hidden, everything is transparent; therefore we need to change if we are to truly live in the light of his presence.

In 1 John 5. 20 we read that “the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we know the true God.” He is, therefore, also the wise Word of God because, through him, we understand and know the true God as he truly is. Not only that but we see and know ourselves realistically as well.

Ultimately, the Word that God speaks to us in and through Jesus is ‘Love’. In 1 John 4. 9 – 10 we read, “God showed his love for us by sending his only Son into the world, so that we might have life through him. This is what love is: it is not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the means by which our sins are forgiven.”

Jesus came into our world as the Word of God to live a life of self-sacrificial love as a human being. He shows us what true love looks like and he shows us that human beings are capable of true love even when most of the evidence around us seems to point towards the opposite conclusion. But he did not come solely as an example or a description of love. He is love itself, the reality of love, and, therefore, as we come into relationship with him we come into a true relationship with love. This why he came, that we might receive him; that we might receive love. He is then in us and in him. Love in us and we in love.

In the beginning Love already existed; Love was with God, and Love was God. From the very beginning Love was with God. Through him God made all things; not one thing in all creation was made without him. Love was the source of life, and this life brought light to people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.

“God is love. And God showed his love for us by sending his only Son into the world, so that we might have life through him. This is what love is: it is not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the means by which our sins are forgiven.

Dear friends, if this is how God loved us, then we should love one another. No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in union with us, and his love is made perfect in us. (1 John 4. 8 – 12).


The Bee Gees - Words.

Windows on the world (225)

Monte Carlo, 2012


John Lennon - Happy Xmas (War Is Over).

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Advent update

Advent to date at St John's Seven Kings has included Advent Reflections, Tamil Carols, Brownies Got Talent, Christingle Service and Nine Lessons and Carols by Candlelight. Today added the Christmas Party for the Downshall Pre-School Playgroup plus Carol Singing around the Parish. Later in the week Downshall Primary School will come for their Christmas Assemblies. We have raised funds for The Children's Society through our Christingle Service and for Haven House Hospice through our Carol Singing. 

The choirs of St John's and St Peter's Aldborough Hatch have led our worship in the Advent Service for the Seven Kings Fellowship of Churches and also at our Service of Nine Lessons and Carols by Candlelight. The two choirs will join forces again this Sunday evening for a Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at St Peters.

The latest creation of our banner group - a cover for our organ with a text from Psalm 57 - was dedicated during our Christingle Service. The dedication prayer we used was:  We dedicate this organ cover to the glory of God in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. We thank you for the gift of music, the abilities of musicians and singers and of those who make and maintain the instruments we use in worship. May this organ cover be both a protection to our organ and a reminder to all of the contribution which music and musicians make to our worship. Amen.

Our church website is currently part way through a significant upgrade. The new format is in place and the next stage is to update the content. We are very grateful to Doug Feather who has maintained our website over a number of years and helped transition to the new format. Also to Senthur Balaji and colleagues for their work in redesigning the look of the site. 


Sufjan Stevens - O come, O come Emmanuel.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Windows on the world (224)

Harlow, 2012


Neil Young - Twisted Road.

Christmas: the centrality of the unregarded

This is my homily from last night's Service of Nine Lessons and Carols by Candlelight at St John's Seven Kings. It is a mash up of One Solitary Life and two of my meditations - Unregarded and Jesus is condemned to death. It ends with Malcolm Guite's sonnet Christmas on the edge which can be found in Sounding the Seasons:

Tonight we retell the story of a man who was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in a town from which no good was known to come. He worked in a carpenter’s shop until He was thirty. Then for three years He was an itinerant preacher.

He never owned a home. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never went to college. He never put His foot inside a big city. He never travelled two hundred miles from the place He was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but Himself ...

In appearance he was reckoned to be without beauty or majesty, undesired. In his life, he was despised and rejected, unrecognised and unesteemed, as, while still a young man, the tide of popular opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. One of them denied him. He was turned over to his enemies. He went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed upon a cross between two thieves. While He was dying his executioners gambled for the only piece of property he had on earth – his coat. When he was dead, he was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.

Two entire Millennia have passed since he first was born in Bethlehem and yet all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that were ever built; all the parliaments that ever sat and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of human beings upon this earth as powerfully as has that one solitary life.

Through his birth, life, death and resurrection all that we once thought marginal to human life has been shown to be essential: the way of compassion rather than the way of domination; the way of self-sacrifice rather than the way of self; the way of powerlessness rather than the way of power; the way of serving rather than the way of grasping.

Christmas sets the centre on the edge;
The edge of town, the outhouse of the inn,
The fringe of empire, far from privilege
And power, on the edge and outer spin
Of  turning worlds, a margin of small stars
That edge a galaxy itself light years
From some unguessed at cosmic origin.
Christmas sets the centre at the edge.
And from this day our world is re-aligned
A tiny seed unfolding in the womb
Becomes the source from which we all unfold
And flower into being. We are healed,                                                                                                  The end begins, the tomb becomes a womb,
For now in him all things are re-aligned.


Evanescence - Lost In Paradise.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Facets of faith: the gospel in modern and contemporary art

My most recent article has been written for the latest edition of franciscan, which is published three times a year by the First Order brothers and sisters and includes articles on Franciscan themes, as well as book reviews and news of the Society. 

My article is called 'Facets of faith: the gospel in modern and contemporary art' and features the work of Ally Clarke, Caroline Richardson and Sergiy Shkanov.

Two other commission4mission members have also written articles on the arts for this edition of franciscan. Steven Saxby has written about Father Andrew the artist - the Plaistow friar who never lost his boyhood enthusiasm for all things artistic - while Helen Gheorghiu Gould's article entitled 'Re-imagining the gospels' includes interviews with Mark Lewis, Henry Shelton and Peter Webb.

To order a copy of the magazine contact the subscriptions secretary at


Gungor - Brother Moon.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant Garde

The Pre-Raphaelites combined realism with symbolism, the developments of early photography with the myth of an idealised medievalism, the hyper-real with fantasy, morality with sensuality, truth to nature with spirituality. These are odd combinations which in the early phase of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were held together in creative tension but which separated, more often than not, in the later work.

The Pre-Raphaelite process of intense looking, as the Tate’s room guide notes, "resulted in a new, distinctively modern, style which absorbed photography’s precision of focus, flattening of forms, composition and radical cropping of the visual field." Modern forms of narratives taken from the Bible, classical mythology, literature or world history were developed in paintings and sculptures by using a realist style which emphasised accuracy of dress and accoutrements.

"As a result, the Pre-Raphaelites painted scenes from the Bible with unprecedented realism. Millais made studies for Christ in the House of his Parents in a real carpenter’s shop, and painted the Holy Family as everyday figures rather than ideal types. This shocked viewers such as Charles Dickens, who found Millais’s Virgin Mary to be ‘horrible in her ugliness’."

"Hunt was so committed to truthful representation that he made the arduous voyage to the Holy Land, where he could paint the actual settings of biblical events." While there he began painting The Scapegoat using a real goat beside the Dead Sea. The painting, while a marvellous tour-de-force, comes up against the limits of a strict naturalism to convey the aspects of the symbolic. Without knowledge of Old Testament laws regarding the scapegoat and of the way in which these inform understandings of Christ’s crucifixion, the redemptive intent of the image is entirely lost in place of, in the words of Peter Fuller, "a terrible image […] of the world as a god-forsaken wasteland, a heap of broken images where the sun beats."

"Around 1860, the Pre-Raphaelites began to turn away from this realist engagement with nature, society and religion to explore the purely aesthetic possibilities of picture-making. Beauty came to be valued more highly than truth, as Pre-Raphaelitism slowly metamorphosed into the Aesthetic movement. In 1855 Millais started creating compositions ‘full of beauty and without subject’, such as Autumn Leaves. But Rossetti was the dominant force in the era of ‘art for art’s sake’ after 1860. After his return to oil painting in 1859 his work became more sensuous in both style and subject. Rejecting sharp outlines and pure colours, he adopted the rich impasto and saturated hues of Venetian art from after the time of Raphael."

"This ‘poetic’ strand is exemplified in the work of Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones where attention is focused on the human figure frozen in a drama." Burne-Jones’s work, in particular, rejects the modern external world in favour of idealised visions of the past. It is ironic that much of this later idealised classical or medieval inspired work was created as part of a socialist project (Morris & Co) which, through its anti-industrialisation stance, meant its work was essentially only affordable by the middle classes.

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant Garde is a fascinating show with a wonderful selection of classic images. As with the Impressionists, work that was considered shocking, even ugly, in its day is now viewed as the very epitome of beauty. At the same time that this exhibition highlights the modern and avant-garde aspects of the PRB it also, inevitably, reveals the tensions which made their revolution unsustainable and which, as their contradictions unravelled, resulted in work that was sometimes unintelligible, sometimes sentimental, and sometimes hopelessly enmeshed in an idealised past.


The Waterboys - The Big Music.

Census figures: Pluralism is here to stay

Yesterday the Office for National Statistics released data for religious populations from the 2011 Census. Angus Ritchie, the Director of the Contextual Theology Centre has posted a very helpful comment on these statistics. 

In his response Angus suggests that:

"In the midst of the debate which these figures will provoke, it is worth getting some perspective. The majority of English and Welsh people identify themselves as Christian, at a time when wider social pressures give less and less encouragement to such identification. There is no room for complacency – and no point in denying that this number has declined substantially in the last decade. But these figures tell of a striking persistence of religious belief and practice. The public square continues to be a place where people of faith and people of no faith coexist in large numbers – with people of faith forming the substantial majority ...

Whatever else we make of the Census figures, this much is clear: pluralism is here to stay, with a growing array of religious and secular worldviews commanding significant allegiance. Whatever challenges this presents to the churches, it is hardly the world the ‘New Atheists’ have been campaigning for. The task for us all is to negotiate and build a truly common life – bearing witness with confidence and generosity to that which we believe most deeply."

The Contextual Theology Centre’s Presence and Engagement Network (PEN) is holding an event in Southwark on Making Sense of the Census on the afternoon of Monday 18th February – before the PEN 2013 Lecture, to be given by the Dean of St Paul’s, the Very Revd David Ison.


Bruce Springsteen - Land Of Hope And Dreams.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The 10 albums that I've enjoyed most in 2012

Here are the 10 albums (in no particular order) that I've got hold of and enjoyed the most in 2012:

Taken from the Latin and literally meaning 'within the walls', Intra Muros is the album of "spooky" Christian music Bryan MacLean was completing at the time of his death. Due to 'the great strength of songs like the amazing Love Grows In Me and My Eyes Are Open', Intra Muros 'stands as fine testament to the ability of a great songwriter.'

The darkness, loss and wandering that suffuse Babel is fused with the transcendent sound and anthemic choruses that Mumford and Sons conjure up with banjo, double bass, guitar, keyboards and vocals.

The Bob Dylan of Tempest, 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall' and so many other songs, is the faithful watchmen who sees the storm of the apocalypse on the horizon and who warns his people before it is too late. Tempest is, therefore, a profoundly religious album.

Bill Fay’s songs on Life is People are simply astonishing - simple and melodic yet with unusual imagery and insights delivered with gravity and grace. 'Cosmic Concerto (Life Is People)' is a highlight from a collection of stand-out tracks; a celebration of the miracle of ordinary life, the infinite variation in each human face, which stirs his soul.

The Laughing Stalk - Woven Hand’s David Eugene Edwards says, 'The myths of our country are in the songs. The untold stories and gaps in history books are in the songs – our recollection is preserved in this music. Those songs as well as the stories that my parents told me, the bible and the books I read, all this is the foundation of my imagination of America.'

The fluid, flowing lines of Aradhna’s Namaste Saté possess the something more that comes from an ability to inhabit and then transcend the spirit of your sources.

Wrecking Ball is a masterful summation of Bruce Springsteen's strengths and an inspirational call to real hope in the face of genuine despair. The album is propelled forward by the anger of its storytelling songs before seguing through 'Wrecking Ball' into songs of hopeful fortitude for which Springsteen appropriates the language of faith and the imagery of the Bible.

Home Again - Michael Kiwanuka, who has been compared to Bill Withers and Al Green, has an "honest, unpretentious and raw style" that "is straight to the matter, unspoilt soul music at it’s best." Alexis Petridis wrote that "Kiwanuka addresses The Lord with such frequency that you picture Him hiding behind the sofa and pretending to be out. At first, it just sounds like a lyrical tic, but by the time you reach I'm Getting Ready – "to believe" – it's pretty clear that it runs substantially deeper than that."

One of the things I love most about the work of Leonard Cohen is his self-deprecating humour. There is real self awareness and humility on Old Ideas combined with the distance and irony of setting many of the lines ostensibly about himself in the third person. Leonard the man speaks to Leonard the persona. All performers seem to need to create a stage persona that is in some way separate from the reality of who the person actually is. On this basis, ‘Going Home’ is to do with the experience of leaving the stage in order to experience reality - "Going home / Behind the curtain / Going home / Without the costume / That I wore."

Gungor’s Ghosts upon the Earth is a set of songs for the jaded in which the phrase "fearfully and wonderfully and beautifully made" sums up much of what is experienced on this album. "All praises to the one who made it all and finds it beautiful". Michael Gungor writes, "As the various vocal parts circle the listener’s head when the band’s last chord fades out, one can imagine hearing the voices of all of these elements of creation (moon, sun, earth, wind, etc.) singing the praises of their creator."


Woven Hand - As Wool.

A different way of doing things

Larry Elliott wrote about Elinor Ostrom in yesterday's Guardian concluding:

"For the most part, the world is not run along the lines suggested by Ostrom. It is overfished, increasingly deforested, ravaged by those who care nothing about resource management and local communities, dominated by dogmatists who think they know best. But there's something heartening about an economist who doesn't claim to have all the answers and who suggests there is a different way of doing things."

Andrew Brown often seems to me to offer a very honest take on the media and his piece on the Royal pranksters is the latest in this vein:

"What's constant in this story is the assumption that we, the public, deserve to see others humiliated. Pity and scorn, it seems, are appetites which everyone has a right to gratify."


Graham Parker and the Rumour - Hey Lord, Don't Ask Me Questions.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Windows on the world (223)

Harlow, 2012


Love - Old Man.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Advent: Time for change

“It’s time for change” was Barak Obama’s slogan in his 2008 Presidential campaign. When we heard in our Bible readings (Malachi 3. 1 - 4; Luke 3. 1 - 6) , “Get the road ready!” “Turn away from your sins!” “Bring the right kind of offerings!” we are being told the same; Advent is a time for change!
These are cries and readings about the need for change because of dissatisfaction with the present. God’s coming does not involve comfort for the complacent but instead is a challenge to change.
Malachi sets out a timetable or schedule for change; first a messenger will come to prepare the way for God himself to come, then the Lord himself will suddenly come to his Temple. Neither coming though will be easy or comfortable.
John the Baptist is the promised messenger and he comes preaching repentance and change as the necessary preparation for the coming of God himself. Turning away from sins and being baptized is the way to get the road ready along which God will come. He calls on the people of Israel to do this, so that the whole human race – all peoples everywhere – will be able to see God’s salvation when it comes in the person of Jesus.
But, as Malachi emphasises, the coming of Jesus is also about challenge and change: “He will be like strong soap, like a fire that refines metal. He will come to judge like one who refines and purifies silver.”
How was this aspect of Jesus expressed when he came? In John’s Gospel Jesus says to Nicodemus (John 3. 19 - 21): “This is how the judgement works: the light has come into the world, but people love the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds are evil. Those who do evil things hate the light and will not come to the light, because they do not want their evil deeds to be shown up. But those who do what is true come to the light in order that the light may show that what they did was in obedience to God.”
In other words, the light of Christ is all about comparisons and transparency. Generally, when we compare ourselves with others we compare ourselves with those we think are worse than or similar to ourselves. On the basis of these comparisons we think we are ok; at least no better or worse than others, at best, better than many others around us. On the basis of these comparisons we are comfortable with who we are and see no need to change. But Jesus, through his life and death, shows us the depth of love of which human beings are really capable and, on the basis of that comparison, we come up well short and are in real need of change. In the light of Jesus’ self-sacrifice, we see our inherent selfishness and recognise our need for change.
The light of Christ is also about transparency. When we think others cannot see what we are doing, our tendency is to try to get away with things we know are wrong and of which we would be ashamed were they public knowledge. We can see this tendency at work in all the recent major public scandals such as phone hacking, libor-rate fixing, MPs expenses, and so on. When we think no one can see what we are doing, we try to get away with murder but when those things become public that we are then contrite. This is why campaigners call for transparency in business and politics and why their calls are often resisted.
Yet God does see all and Jesus, in his ministry, was able to shine a light on the deepest recesses of the human heart. The Samaritan woman said of him: “Come see the man who told me everything I have ever done” (John 4. 29). With Jesus, nothing is hidden, everything is transparent; therefore we need to change if we are to truly live in the light of his presence.
The book I have published was written with Peter Banks, the keyboard player in the rock band After The Fire. One of the best songs by After The Fire is called ‘Laser Love’ and it contains these lines:

“Your love is like a laser burning right into my life
You know my weaknesses, you cut me like a knife
You’re separating all the wrong things from the right
It’s like a laser, laser love.

Your love is like an X-ray there is nothing that can hide
You hold me to the light, you see what is inside
It’s all so clear when it’s there in black and white
Just like a laser, laser love.”

We might wonder what this kind of exposure has to do with love but it is a love which refuses to leave us in the dark and which does everything possible to bring light into our lives. As Malachi states it is a refining love which wants us to become clean and pure.
As the hymn How Firm a Foundation, Ye Saints of the Lord puts it:
"When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply.
The flames shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.”
This is the light and love that we celebrate as coming into the world at Christmas. It is tough love and a searching light. When we light our Advent candles or our Christingles or sing carols by candlelight it is easy to think that what we are celebrating is traditional, pretty, unchanging and sweet. But the reality of Christ’s love and light is tough and searching because it is challenging and because it calls us to change.
At Christmas we often ask the question what will we give but before we can answer that question we need to respond to the question posed by Advent which is, ‘How are we going to change?’ It is once we have been changed by God that we then have something good to give.
So how will you respond to these Advent challenges to ‘Get the road ready!’ ‘Turn away from your sins!’ and ‘Bring the right kind of offerings!’ What will you change about yourself this Advent as you prepare to welcome to Christ who comes at Christmas?
One starting point in thinking this through might be to think of what you would want to change in others and then, as the saying goes, to realise that “When you point one finger, there are three fingers pointing back at you.” Alternatively, you could think of what you would like to see changed within the world and then take on board the challenge of Mahatma Gandhi to “Be the change you want to see in the world”
An inherent danger in thinking about change is our tendency to assume that change begins with someone else.  It is so easy to believe that “we” are doing the right things and that it is “them” that need to change but, as Eric Jensen has said, “The reason things stay the same is because we stay the same.  For things to change, we must change” or, as U2 once sang, “I can’t change the world but I can change the world in me.”
So this year, instead of focusing on Christmas Cheer, let us think of Christmas Change. What will you change about yourself this Advent as you prepare to welcome to Christ who comes at Christmas?


After the Fire - Laser Love.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Evelyn Williams R.I.P.

Evelyn Williams was an artist in whom 'From her earliest drawings, vision, dream and reality combined; she characterised her work as "inner thoughts, other worlds".'

John McEwan wrote that 'In his thoughtful and observant essay [Nicholas Usherwood] warns us against the inadequacy of the words commonly used to convey Evelyn Williams’ art: visionary, feminist, Romantic, apocalyptic, expressionist, Gothic, outsider ... Robust generalisation is peculiarly unsuited to an art of such delicacy of feeling, subtlety of tone and exact observation. As he writes: ‘Peel away all those labels however and Evelyn Williams will, I believe, emerge finally, and not before time, as a painter and sculptor, most fundamentally, of ‘people and their attempts to relate to one another’.'

Fay Weldon described Williams' work as ‘awesome’ – 'if we can get back to the true sense of the word. It fills you with awe.' Williams had created, Weldon thought, 'a body of work, imbued by an unmistakable mixture of grace and greatness.'

She spoke of death in typically consoling terms as a space filled with as much energy as the sky is filled with raindrops in a summer storm: ‘As each drop falls and touches the earth seeds of new energy are released to be recycled again and again.’

Read obituaries from The Guardian and Telegraph here and here.


The Doors - People Are Strange.

New book: Eyes on Jesus

The Dutch book Jezus voor ogen (Eyes on Jesus) has recently been published, with visual meditations and word and image Bible studies for Lent. The visual meditations have all featured previously on the ArtWay website and include the meditation which I wrote on Christopher Clack's Descent II

Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker, who edited the book, writes:

"For us this book is a milestone that marks what ArtWay has been given to accomplish in the past two years. The book will hopefully function as a springboard to a new and broader audience, so that the website and its resources will be used by even more people and churches. We hope that an English version will be published next year.

In Jezus voor ogen the focus is on Jesus. While working on the book it struck me that images of Jesus can start to function as ‘models’ to us. In the book I expressed this as follows:

‘Jesus hangs on the cross as the image of the ideal human being. This is how humans are meant to be: full of love, obedient to the Father, willing to serve and suffer, resisting temptations, putting others above oneself. If we are honest, this is not really our idea of an ultimate hero. For this very reason it is of such great importance to keep on feeding ourselves with this and other images of Jesus. For deep inside of us live all kinds of other ideal images that drive us and that we bow to time and again, because they are our idols. Our ideal picture of our successful self: the slim figure, the imposing house, the fat car, the ideal partner, the golden job, the huge happiness. Christian art can replace these with new ideal images that can help us to become people of unified character: people whose inside corresponds with their outside, whose deeds rhyme with their words – people for whom Jesus on the cross is a source of inspiration for who they want to become and be.’"


Julie Miller - Jesus In Your Eyes

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Sounding the Seasons: Malcolm Guite

With its new battery under the bonnet my little red Nissan sped up the M11 this evening before beginning an increasingly frantic search for parking in a city built for cyclists. Too late, as a result, for the opening reception I arrived at St Edward King & Martyr Cambridge as Malcolm Guite completed his introduction to Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year and began his reading, also utilising the voices of friends and family, of the "profound and beautiful utterance ... patterned but also refreshingly spontaneous" found in the dozen or so sonnets selected from the series that, interspersed with music inspired by the verse, formed the substance of this launch event for the book.

In posts here and here Malcolm has told the story of two musical collaborations inspired by this sonnet sequence. He retold parts of those tales tonight before reading the sonnets which inspired compositions  by Steve Bell and J.A.C. Redford to which we then listened. It is surely somewhat unusual for poems to have such an impact prior to their publication. It was his initial posting of the poems on his blog which helped to build a sufficiently responsive audience to convince Canterbury Press that publication was viable, as well as enabling them to be found by Steve Bell.

Cold ketchup smeared fingers held greasy kebab and chips to my lips as I hurried to retrieve my little red Nissan and return home at a reasonable hour. All well worth it, however, for the experience of allowing Malcolm's images, words, rhythms and rhymes to "fall fresh on the ears, enrich and deepen understanding and open up new resonances":

Concentrated meaning, condensed
and tightly held in phrase and image;
depth charges, coiled springs,
exploding at the sound of speech.
Sprung rhythms sounding
the seasons, scattering ideas,
inspiring musicians and opening up
the lives of emotive readers.
Stories intersperse music and verse.
An object lesson - a parable -
in the bringing to birth
of yearning for learning,
keening for the dawn
of unfound wisdom finding me.

As I flagged up for those at the Seven Kings Fellowship of Churches Advent Service, Advent begins the journey that we undertake each year through the Christian calendar. This is why Sounding the Seasons has been launched and begins in Advent. Why not make it the companion you take on your journey through the Christian Year this year? 


Malcolm Guite - The Role of Poetry in Christian Life.

The Secret Chord: New review

The Secret Chord now has a second review on its Amazon Kindle page. In this review Rod Williamson says:

"The book gives a very thoughtful look at the artist's role, inspiration, challenge and so on. There are many examples and anecdotes from popular and classical fields, and beyond the realms of music. As one who wouldn't know the difference between a D minor and a Morris Minor it kept my attention throughout, but I'm sure it would appeal to the Monsieur Highbrow fraternity."

Peter Banks and I wanted to write a book that would be an accessible interesting read but also with sufficient depth to engage those with an interest in academic and theological study. Rod's review plus the discussions about the book on After The Fire's Forum would seem to suggest that we may have succeeded in squaring that circle!


After The Fire - Sometimes

Monday, 3 December 2012

Speech to launch commission4mission in South London

I spoke tonight at a well attended Private View for commission4mission's Christmas exhibition entitled 'Incarnation'

The exhibition can be seen at Wimbledon Library Gallery (1st floor, Wimbledon Library, Wimbledon Hill Road, London SW19 7NB) and includes the work of 16 artists in media including ceramics, fused glass, paintings and photography. It continues until Saturday 8th December, 9.30am - 7.00pm (2.00pm on Saturday) with access through the Library. A second Private View will be held tomorrow from 6.30 - 9.30pm. 

In launching commission4mission in South London, I said the following:

commission4mission was launched in March 2009 by our Patron, the Bishop of Barking, to encourage the commissioning and placing of contemporary Christian Art in churches, as a means of fundraising for charities and as a mission opportunity for churches.

We aim to:

·                    provide opportunities for churches to obtain and commission contemporary Christian Art for church buildings;
·                    provide information, ideas and examples of contemporary Christian Art and its use/display within church settings; and
·                    raise funds for charities through commissions and sales of contemporary Christian Art. 

In the short time that commission4mission has been in existence we have:

·                    built up a pool of over 30 artists available for Church commissions;
·                    developed a blog profiling our artists and giving up-to-date news of our activities;
·                    completed of 10 commissions;
·                    organised 13 exhibitions, two Study Days, three art workshops, several performance and networking events for members;
·                    created an Art Trail for the Barking Episcopal Area;
·                    worked in partnership with two other arts organisations (Christian Artist’s Networking Association & Veritasse) to create an Olympic-themed art project – Run With The Fire; and
·                    published several sets of images and meditations primarily with a Lenten or Passiontide focus.

We seek to be a proactive organisation for both the artists and the churches with which we work. For our artists we regularly provide information updates and networking opportunities as well as actively promoting their work through our blog, events and exhibitions. This ensures that they feel connected to one another and the wider faith and arts scene as well as benefiting from the support and ideas of fellow members. For churches, we actively provide opportunities to think about the possibility of commissioning contemporary art by seeing and considering the work of our artists and by suggesting ways to overcome some of the barriers which sometimes seem to stand in the way of new commissions such as finances and the differing tastes of church members. 

Why do we do what we do? Fundamentally, I would want to say that there is a Trinitarian underpinning to what we do. Firstly, that we are creative because we are made in the image of our Creator. That, as Dorothy L. Sayers reminded us in her book The Mind of the Maker, to be made in the image of God means that we are most like God when we are being creative. Secondly, that it is the Holy Spirit who gives skill to craftspeople and artists. The first Spirit-filled man in the Bible, Bezalel, was chosen by God to be skilled, knowledgeable and able to teach in all kinds of craftsmanship. So, to be biblically inspired is to make. Thirdly, that because God became truly human in Jesus we can represent his human nature as with any other member of the human race. So that, if we paint a picture of Jesus, we’re not trying to show a humanity apart from divine life but a humanity soaked through with divine life.

Next, I would want to say that the Arts are in many ways foundational to all that occurs in Church. Very briefly, we can say that:

         the Architecture of our churches provides a designed context and stage for the worship that occurs within them;
         we re-enact Biblical narratives through the poetry of the liturgy;
         music in church provides composed expressions of emotions and stories in and through song; and
         images in churches re-tell Biblical narratives and open windows into the divine.

Finally, we would also say that the Arts contribute to the mission of the Church by:

         speaking eloquently of the faith;
         providing a reason to visit a church – something we have tapped with our Art Trail for the Barking Episcopal Area;
         making links between churches and local arts organisations/ initiatives; and
         providing a focus for people to come together for a shared activity.

These then are key reasons why, in commission4mission, we seek to encourage the commissioning and placing of contemporary Christian Art in churches.

I would like to end with a poem by the German kinetic sculptor Heinz Mack who has had much experience of trying to work in and with Catholic chapels in Germany:

“Church art is not always art.
Art that happens to be placed in church, is art in the church,
But not Church art.
Church art that is shown in museums, remains church art in museums.
Art for the Church is not always regarded as art by the Church.
The Church does not always want art.
Art is art without the Church.
Great Church art is art in the church and for the church.”

In seeking to encourage the commissioning and placing of contemporary Christian Art in churches, commission4mission is aiming to be about “art in the church and for the church.”


Switchfoot - New Way To Be Human.