Wikio - Top Blogs - Religion and belief

Saturday, 25 January 2020

Windows on the world (262)

London, 2019


The Traveling Wilburys - Handle With Care.

HeartEdge at Rooted in Jesus 2020

I was in Atlanta, Georgia, this week as the HeartEdge representative at the Rooted in Jesus 2020 conference organised by the Episcopal Church.

HeartEdge was there at the invitation of TryTank Experimental Lab, one of its US partners, who ran a series of workshops on innovative mission at the conference. Together with another US partner, Rev Paige Fisher of Trinity Church Boston, I led a workshop on 'Resourcing Innovative Mission' that introduced HeartEdge and key concepts such as 'being with' and 'renewal from the edge.'

Through the conference I was able to renew existing contacts in the USA and make new contacts not just in the US, but also in Canada.

Rooted in Jesus 2020 was intended to assist the Episcopal Church to take a bold new step into the next decade by talking about discipleship, leadership, evangelism, formation, preaching, and much more, in order to go out and be the Body of Christ. It was an interesting and opportune moment in which to be sharing ideas on mission with new contacts and existing partners in the US.


Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II - The Danger of Worship Without a Conscience.

Thursday, 23 January 2020

Angels, aliens, and annunciations: Sarah Cave and Rupert Loydell in conversation

Here's a guest post from Rupert Loydell:

Aliens, angels & annunications: Sarah Cave and Rupert Loydell discuss their new Shearsman book, A Confusion of Marys, on the Tears in the Fence blog at
Rupert Loydell: So, A Confusion of Marys is finally out. A couple of people have asked about the process, the research, and motive for writing it. I can talk about trips to Italy and being mesmerised by a couple of Fra Angelica paintings, and then following through by looking at lots more annunciations and art and photography about angels, about deliberately [mis]reading works of art and events as annunciations, and a vague idea of something from elsewhere intruding into the human realm, but what's your perception of coming on board as it were? I honestly can't recall how we ended up doing those Joyful Mysteries pamphlets and then the Impossible Songs pamphlet.

Sarah Cave: I grew up a Christian and have been mentally dealing with what that means for the best part of three decades. My long poem in A Confusion of Marys was really my way of trying to understand Mary – a figure of grace – and to draw her for myself; beyond the annunciation, beyond liturgy. I think our conversations about the annunciation and John F Deane’s beautiful sequence of poems about Lydia in Give Dust a Tongue – the woman Jesus meets at Jacob’s well – helped frame how I wanted Mary to emerge in her own right. Also, when Pussy Riot’s ‘Punk Prayer’ was released in a softer form by the Norwegian singer Moddi, I was struck by their pleas, ‘Mary, our hands are tied in prayer / Help us if you’re there!’ and ‘O Holy Mary, be a feminist!’. I was also struck by the way that Maria Alyokhina talked about faith in interviews; faith wasn’t something that belonged to the church but to the individual. ‘Punk Prayer’ is irreligious, it’s rather an intercession begging Mary to dissolve the kyriarchy and free women from society’s oppressive expectations.

I think the two pamphlets we did were a combination of this and some very silly poems about ducks. I’m certain there was an element of irreverent one-upmanship going on there too.

RL: So, what's an autophagy then? And what's it got to do with Mary or the annunciation? Explain yourself!

SC: Autophagy literally means self-eating.

It’s a biological process of cell regeneration – clearing out old cells to encourage regrowth – and I’m interested in the idea of regenerative theology. I was a cradle Anglican and within that tradition Mary is more of a backseat figure – usually appearing in knitted form at crib services – no intercessions etc. I wanted to bring her to the forefront and to understand how, in her all pervasive way, she has shaped my life and the expectations people place on my life – gender, sexuality, politics, mysticism – and the lives of the women around me, and of course, how those expectations must have affected Mary’s own life.

I like that the title, A Confusion of Marys, evokes a sense of the process of writing and re-writing, the Marian annunciation scene as palimpsest. Was this deliberate?

RL: Very much so. I thought of it as a series of variations, accumulations and versions of the same event – including, as you say, some very silly and jokey ideas. I wanted to get away from any idea of theological certainty, I'm much more interested in doubt and myth, symbolism and tangential ideas than anything fixed or final. I like stories that get retold throughout culture, and the annunciation certainly seems to be one that has. I guess the long prose poem that opens the book is an attempt to pile up versions of the story: it could be this, or this, or like that, or what about this?

I confess I'm quite interested in being slightly irreverent, too. I'm not very good at po-faced religion in any shape or form, although I quite like some traditional liturgy. But I abhor those who use their certainty as an excuse for censorship, racism, hatred and abuse.

I enjoyed finding some of the images of angels and annunciations I did. There's a surprising amount of angel imagery, for instance, in contemporary photography, and many abstract paintings use 'Annunciation' as a title. I don't think these tie in to any version of the traditional Mary and angel story, but I was happy to make the link for myself, just as I did with other ideas such as a magician and his assistant, or boys at a fancy dress party.

From what you've said, I'm guessing that your work is actually much more personal to you, and less ideas-driven, than mine is? I'm not suggesting it's autobiography, but more concerned with ideas that are really important to you, whereas mine could be seen as a bit of an intellectual joke?

SC: Yes, they’re ideas that are important to me because I feel part of those stories. I see their patterns in my own life and the books that I read; a kind of cultural pareidolia, the culture I am simultaneously absorbing and rejecting, honouring and dishonouring. But, of course, the sequence isn’t autobiographical, no more than any other post-confessional poetry.

I think humour, play and irreverence are important when talking about theology. Human spirituality is such a beautifully absurd thing and, as you say, there’s nothing worse than po-faced believers, who sit in judgement. It’s the first step to exclusion and ‘theological certainty’ is what makes heretics and heresy is merely an historical excuse for killing people who don’t agree with you. There’s no way either of us would have survived the inquisition!

You don’t have to look much further than the bible for the sense of versioning, which you’re talking about. I love that this weird and supposedly holy text is the best sense the Council of Nicaea could make of the disparate strands of accounts, prophesy and scripture, and gloriously, it still doesn’t make much sense.

Did you have a personal sense of Mary? Where did your interest in her start?

RL: I've always been very resistant to any sense of Marian theology. Saints weren't a thing in the church I was brought up in, and Mary was simply a human being chosen by God. I think I'm mostly interested in the painting and the way people do turn Mary into something else, almost non-human: it's very strange to me. I keep coming back to that moment as the idea of worlds colliding; it's not just me being silly when I wrote about the annunciation as an alien encounter.

Having said that, a lot of the contemporary art I looked at, such as Eija-Liisa Ahtila's video installation and the book of it, is very concerned with female human experience, with exploring the story through Mary's eyes. And of course I've reversioned the story from both the male and female gaze, from lustful angels and desirous Mary, with the idea of the angel turning up via an online dating agency, to Joseph's point-of-view, feeling resentful and sidelined in both the original event and the ensuing art.

It's strange how once an idea starts – and originally my sense of the annunciation was very much to do with Renaissance art and Italy, as well as colour and ekphrasis – one can interpret almost anything through the lens of a particular story or event. At times it feels like an endless and somewhat ridiculous shaggy dog story, but it's become a real way to think about all sorts of stories and encounters in the world, a way of understanding human beings. So, I guess my 'sense of Mary' is not very specific, it's about bewildered, frightened, confused and perhaps empowered humans caught up in strange encounters and activities, sometimes aware they are within a painting, sculpture, film or story.

I can't help thinking about a text I use to teach the first years with, where Gabriel Josipovici talks about how stories die unless they are changed, reinvented, argued over and made new. He also questions the idea of ownership of stories, or even being able to 'ring-fence' them. Perhaps we are just part of a religious and artistic dialogue?

SC: Gosh, yes. The book is undoubtedly part of a wider dialogue. Even in Christianity there are so many different interpretations, the same story manifesting through art, literature and performance; from scratches of fish and crosses in caves, renaissance frescoes, Sunday school cartoons, those strange graphics in JW pamphlets and school plays. I don’t know about you, but one of the first things I was asked to do at Sunday school was to draw Jesus. I love the version of the nativity in Quran, which has Mary give birth to the prophet, while clinging to a palm tree. We’ve come an awful long way in two thousand years with this particular story, considering only half a century ago re-versions by writers such as Robert Graves, Nikos Kazantzakis et al and were met with horror and derision; it’s only forty years since The Life of Brian upset Malcolm Muggeridge and the Archbishop of York. I find Michael Palin’s visible pain at being told the film is irreligious during that debate very identifiable. For me, a sense of irreverence is its own reverie.

In ‘Autophagy’, I’ve tried to create my own Marian theology, based on tracing a matriarchal line of caregiving. By looking at the other women in the bible, such as Sarah and Hagar for example allowed me to draw lines of comparison between different aspects of female experience. Sarah had her own miraculous conception, and, like Elizabeth’s, it went beyond biological expectation. God blesses Sarah but he also causes a rupture between her and her handmaiden Hagar. Women’s relationships are footnotes in the bible and the more we think about them the less clear cut the stories are and the less suitable for the simplistic moral guidance deployed by believers.

© Sarah Cave & Rupert Loydell 2020


U2 - Magnificent.

Come and see

Here's my sermon from last Sunday for the Chinese congregations at St Martin-in-the-Fields:

Seeing is believing, they say. When Thomas was told that Jesus had risen from the dead, he famously said unless I see … I will not believe.

In today’s Gospel reading (John 1.29-42) we hear Jesus saying to those who would become his first disciples, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw … and … remained with him that day. Then they said what they saw, telling Simon Peter, Andrew’s brother, ‘We have found the Messiah.’

The two disciples initially speak to Jesus because John the Baptist has told them to look at Jesus. John does so because of what he has seen: ‘John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’’

At the beginning of his story, the writer of John’s Gospel is telling us to come and see Jesus for ourselves. That is his purpose in writing. What is it that we see when we come and see?

James Allan Francis gives us one understanding when he writes in ‘One Solitary Life’: ‘Here is a man who was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in another obscure village, where He worked in a carpenter shop until He was thirty, and then for three years He was an itinerant preacher. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never owned a home. 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 where He was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but Himself. He had nothing to do with this world except the naked power of His divine manhood. While still a young man, the tide of public 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 to a cross between two thieves. His executioners gambled for the only piece of property He had on earth while He was dying—and that was his coat. When he was dead He was taken down and laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend. Nineteen wide centuries have come and gone and today He is the centrepiece of the human race and the leader of the column of progress. I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, and all the navies that ever were built, and all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, put together have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has that One Solitary Life.

Allan Francis is saying that when we look at Jesus we see an amazing story of incredible influence deriving from one obscure life; a story so amazing that it must be of God, a life so amazing that it must be of God.

But if the story and its influence are amazing, the person that we see is equally so. St Paul describes the character of Jesus in Philippians 2: ‘Christ Jesus … / though he was in the form of God, / did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, / but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, / being born in human likeness. / And being found in human form, / he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — / even death on a cross.’

In Christ’s actions and character we see the most exceptional love expressed in self-sacrifice. Jesus was, as Lord Hailsham once said, ‘irresistibly attractive.’ That is why Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote: ‘I believe there is no one lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic and more perfect than Jesus. I say to myself, with jealous love, that not only is there no one else like him but there never could be anyone like him.’ It is why Bernard Levin poses the question: ‘Is not the nature of Christ, in the words of the New Testament, enough to pierce to the soul anyone with a soul to be pierced? … he still looms over the world, his message still clear, his pity still infinite, his consolation still effective, his words still full of glory, wisdom and love.’ Jesus was ‘Love all lovely, Love Divine,’ as Christina Rossetti noted.

If we say what we see when we come and see Jesus, then we are likely to say with the writer of John’s Gospel: ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth … From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace … No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.’

When we come and see Jesus, we also see God himself. As the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says: ‘God has spoken to us by a Son … He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.’

The next day one of the disciples to whom Jesus said, ‘Come and see,’ repeated those same words to a friend. We read in John 1. 43 – 52 that: ‘Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”’

Philip was giving testimony by saying what he had seen and by encouraging Nathanael to come and see for himself. That is what we are called to do ourselves, once we have seen Jesus ourselves. We don’t need to have theological training. We don’t need to be able to answer every question that others have about the meaning of life or the existence of God. We simply say, ‘Come and see Jesus,’ trusting that when people genuinely see Jesus for who he is, like us, they will fall in love with him and wish to follow him too.

By inviting others to ‘Come and see Jesus,’ we are giving our testimony that he is the most important person in our life and in the lives of all people. We are saying, ‘I could invite you to see all sorts of things and all sorts of people, but I want you to see Jesus because he is the one that is most important to me.

Testimony is what is given by a witness in a trial. A witness makes his or her statement as part of a trial in which the truth is at stake and where the question, ‘What is the truth?’ is what is being argued. The missiologist Lesslie Newbigin argued that this is what is ‘at the heart of the biblical vision of the human situation that the believer is a witness who gives his testimony in a trial.’

Where is the trial? It is all around us, it is life itself? In all situations we encounter, there is challenge to our faith and there is a need for us to testify in words and actions to our belief in Christ. Whenever people act as though human beings are entirely self-reliant, there is a challenge to our faith. Whenever people argue that suffering and disasters mean that there cannot be a good God, we are on the witness stand. Whenever people claim that scientific advances or psychological insights can explain away belief in God, we are in the courtroom. Whenever a response of love is called for, our witness is at stake.

But we are not alone in being witnesses. We are one with millions of others who have testified to the reality and presence of Jesus Christ in their lives. No courtroom on earth could cope with the number of witnesses to Christ who could be called by the defence. That is why the writer of Hebrews says, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

This is what Andrew began by saying to Peter, ‘We have found the Messiah.’ Later, when Jesus asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ Peter gave the answer, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ He had come to see Jesus at the invitation of his brother. By coming to see for himself, he had realised that Jesus was the Son of God and could therefore tell others to come and see and then say what they saw.

We are part of the witness that has been built on that same rock. So let us be encouraged today by the incredible numbers of others testifying to Christ and let us be challenged to add our own testimony in words and actions to those of our brothers and sisters in Christ because every day in every situation we face, we and our faith are ‘on trial.’


Tell Out My Soul The Greatness Of The Lord.

Saturday, 18 January 2020

Betty Spackman: Posthumanism Debates

My latest interview for Artlyst is with Betty Spackman discussing past work and her latest installation 'A Creature Chronicle':

'Life and learning cannot be compartmentalised. One thing affects all things. Different ways of seeing help us all to see more and to see more clearly. Faith and science communities have mainly been at odds and separate and the Christian community, in particular, has resisted seeing past belief systems they think they must adhere to and are afraid to explore new advances in science and technology. They are afraid to question and to learn from science as though God is going to be destroyed by knowledge. Yet faith is not about answers but mystery and awe – about walking in blindness. Science also walks blindly to discover and find their way. I feel we should be walking beside each other as we explore, and the faith community should be offering the questions of how any new thing discovered can be used to love – or not. And the arts? Well, I believe more than at any other time in human history, the arts can play the role of mediators, interpreters, and inquisitors – as well as comforters, and healers. The arts can allow difference without exclusion and controversy without intellectual or spiritual apartheid. I am often frustrated that I cannot be anything but an artist – and yet as an artist, I hope to be able to provide this place of hospitality and humility where the big questions of life can be examined freely and safely.'

My other Artlyst pieces are:



Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Bright Horses.

Beth McKillop - Picturing the Buddha

The British Library has an exhibition Buddhism, curated by Jana Igunma (Henry Ginsburg Curator of Thai, Lao and Cambodian) and San San May (Curator of Burmese) which runs until the 23rd of February, 2020. It is a truly wonderful exhibition with a range of striking items, from illuminated manuscripts and palm leaf manuscripts to sutra incised in silver and gold, covering the whole development of Buddhism across Asia and the three main traditions of Buddhism, alongside items related to Buddhist practices, contemporary productions and evocative soundscapes.

Beth McKillop, senior research fellow at the Victoria and Albert Museum and President of the Oriental Ceramic Society, gave an illustrated talk on 'Picturing the Buddha' at St Martin-in-the-Fields last Thursday, which was a marvellous introduction to the British Library's Buddhism exhibition. The talk discussed depictions of the Buddha included in the exhibition and, more generally, within Chinese Art.


Leonard Cohen - Listen To The Hummingbird

Windows on the world (261)

London, 2019


Brandon Flowers - Dreams Come True.