Wikio - Top Blogs - Religion and belief

Friday, 29 June 2007

Every person is a special kind of artist

A few months ago I had the chance to interview David Hawkins, the Bishop of Barking, about his artistic practice and interests. That interview is being published in two different versions in the July editions of Art & Christianity and The Month. Bishop David had some fascinating observations to make and to give you a taster here is an extract from the interview:

"I think there is a big need to re-engage with the Arts. The Church has had a lengthy and happy marriage with the Arts in the past but this has eroded in recent times. A good example of what can be done is The Last Supper murals I commissioned for the Chapel of St George’s Crypt in Leeds. This is an example of taking ‘high’ art into a project that was for homeless people. We were juxtaposing art with those who are excluded in Leeds society. Steve Simpson, the artist, painted The Last Supper in the round such that the paintings of the Apostles would be on the wall next to contemporary worshippers. He worked from photos of some of the homeless people so there was a sense of the present day inhabitants of the Crypt being points of reference for the Apostles. This is taking art into a public space and enabling daily interaction from those using the space. It was also part of creative writing workshops that encouraged creativity in those using the Crypt.

I agree with Rowan Williams that the Church needs more artists and “that artists are not special people but every person is a special kind of artist.” I think that there is great scope in the Church encouraging creative expression in everyone as this is a way of helping us to be fully human. Where appropriate that flowering of artistic expression can be expressed in Church as, for example, an outflow of worship. We are fellow-creators with God and need to remember that he is creator as well as redeemer."

Steve Simpson's Last Supper murals can be viewed at the St George's Crypt website while information about the public artwork created by Bishop David and two colleagues in Leeds can be found at the Mene Mene website.

Thursday, 28 June 2007

Culture longing for revelation

I received the latest edition of Image today which contains an excellent interview with Godfriend Cardinal Daneels, Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels.

The opening summary of Danneels' career and thought suggests that he "argues for an incarnational model of the relationship between faith and religion, in which God the creator has entered the world integrally in order to divinize it." Danneels has written that "culture becomes a kind of blueprint of revelation: not the object of worship, but of divinization. Creation awaits re-creation and culture longs for revelation, as the stem for the flower."

In the interview Danneels says that "ultimately the one who is the object of our faith can't be fully grasped with concepts. In theology and catechesis there is room for symbolism and poetry, which are means of saying much without pretending to say all." He returns to this theme later in the interview saying that "symbols and narratives ... are not matters of clarity and correctness, but of suggestiveness and waking enthusiasm and appealing to intuition and the senses."

Jesus was the greatest artist, he says, pointing to "something greater, something deeper - to the truth." "Such beauty disarms us when we find it. It shows us our own possibility and opens us to what lies beyond ourselves."

In the interview he discusses the work of four artists that he thinks have this effect on us through their art: Jan Vanriet; Michel Ciry; Father Maur; and Arcabas. Vanriet's, Danneels suggests, is a "purely evocative art" that "suggests everything and shows little." Michel Ciry's work is "intense," "it burns, as in the Emmaus story." "Father Maur," he says, "invites us to see in another way" with the Spirit as "the ordering principle." Finally, Arcabas' works are, he thinks, very accessible, full of warm colours, and reminiscent of the paintings of Fra Angelico.

Monday, 25 June 2007

Monetary Justice

Recently I met Revd. Peter Challen, the son of former St John’s Vicar, Revd. Charles Challen (who interestingly, like me, was both a Vicar at St John’s and a curate at St Margaret’s Barking). Some people at St John's remember Peter as he grew up here, arriving aged nine and leaving aged nineteen.

Peter is now the Chair of the Christian Council for Monetary Justice (CCMJ) and a founding member of the Global Justice Movement (GJM). I met him at a conference on Mission in London’s Economy where he spoke about the way in which the global economy is based on monetary principles that are contrary to scripture and which create injustice for the majority of the world’s population. This affects us all because the work that we do and the things we buy support a system that leaves many around the world in poverty.

Peter says that, "we read the Gospel as if we had no money, and we spend our money as if we know nothing of the Gospel." Yet no aspect of our individual and corporate lives is more crucial in determining human welfare and few subjects are more frequently addressed in our scriptures. “Burdens of debt at personal, corporate, national and international levels and the disregard of biblical teaching on usury,” Peter argues, “are conspiring to create immense social disease.”

What can we do about this? Understanding the issues is a good start. Peter has written a book called Seven Steps to Justice (New European Publications, 2002) or there are articles on the CCMJ and GJM websites. Supporting organisations that address issues of fair trade, both through financial giving and by buying fair trade, helps to make a difference. Campaigning on issues of fair trade, people trafficking etc. by writing to MPs, signing petitions or attending marches are small things in themselves but when large numbers of around the world speak together on these issues then change begins to come. Finally, the Bible calls all to lifestyle changes as a result of our faith and this is where significant change can begin, if we live more simply in order that others can simply live.

Peter’s analysis of global economics has major challenges for all who respond to it but I find it inspiring to know of a previous member of St John’s who is engaging deeply with the issues of our day and want to find out more about his work and the challenges it poses for us.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

Ministerial speeches

At Wednesday's FRF dinner the Minister there, Jim Murphy, gave a relatively unscripted speech that came across, to me, as refreshingly honest and human.

In my past life within the Civil Service I occasionally wrote speeches for Ministers and heard a significant number; most were deadly dull with bullet point after bullet point justifying what we thought Government policy was at the time (we usually thought we had a better grasp on this than the Ministers themselves!). At one point, Ministers recognised the dull nature of the scripts that were being presented with and asked us to find jokes or anecdotes to open speeches; as though we had gone into the Civil Service to be gag writers!

Of course, not all Ministers used what was given to them and their speeches were usually all the better for that! I did some work with Margaret Hodge, when she was Minister for Disabled People, and she had a reputation for never using the speech that she was given. On one occasion though, by putting the whole speech onto powerpoint, she used every word of my prepared speech in order not to stray from the next set of points that were coming up on screen. Margaret Hodge later gave good support to the ESOL courses, Faith Forum, and support groups for Self-Harmers that I was involved with from St Margaret's Barking but I never, in that time, got around to reminding her about that anecdote!

The best speeches I have heard from a politician have been by John Battle in his unofficial (and non-Ministerial) role of link between the Government and faith communities. John would typically share some anecdotes from his constituency and summarise parts of his recent reading before linking these to his presentation of Government policy on faith communities. He'd generally prepare his material himself (often on the train on the way to the event) and his delivery was all the better for being personal and self-prepared.

Saturday, 23 June 2007

On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art

The strange place that James Elkins believes religion occupies in contemporary art is the place of the outsider. Modern religious art, he argues, is most prominent by its absence from museums and books of art history. His purpose in writing is to see whether the separate discourses of contemporary art and religion can be adjusted to make connections and develop ways of speaking about contemporary art that is religious. He begins by setting out working definitions, giving a potted history of the history of Western art and religion and summarising how some scholars have dealt with the question. As all this ground is covered in 27 pages, the emphasis is on the word ‘brief’.

The meat of the book is found in stories of five students each with a different approach to contemporary art and religion. After telling these stories, Elkins further explores the five approaches through the work of established contemporary artists that deal in religious themes and imagery and who feature on the radar of contemporary art discourses. He ends by tentatively suggesting some ideas and words that may enable talk between the worlds of contemporary art and religion. He concludes that wherever modern spirituality and contemporary art meet, one wrecks the other. But don’t let this pessimistic conclusion deter you from reading, as there is much of value to take in along the way.

The five categories that Elkins outlines are: conventional religious art; art that is critical of religion; art that sets out to create a new faith; art that burns away what is false in religion; and art that creates a new faith, but unconsciously. As with the book’s title, Elkins is seeking to be clear rather than the memorable in the labels he creates. The test of their clarity is the ease with which modern artists can reasonably be grouped under each heading. The artists that Elkins features as he expands on his understanding of these categories, (which include, among others, Marc Chagall, Andres Serrano, Odd Nerdrum, Anselm Keifer, and Tacita Dean) were all placed where I would have expected to find them given the categories used and, on a more pragmatic note, I have found his categories of use in helping shape The Big Picture 2, a course on faith and popular culture, that, together with colleagues, I am involved in delivering in the Chelmsford Diocese.

Bearing in mind the generalisations that all categorisation involves, these categories illuminate aspects of the engagement with religion found in the work of many artists and capture a broad range of differing approaches to that engagement. Most helpfully, they provide a vocabulary for discussing and distinguishing between art that celebrates, critiques or creates religion.

Unfortunately, Elkins claims a comprehensiveness for his categories which does not help his cause. He argues “that virtually all attempts to combine art and religion, at least since the end of international modernism around 1945, fall into one of these five categories.” [p.37] I would want to add religious art that critiques contemporary society as, at least, one additional category not covered by Elkins’ five.

Elkins’ arguments suffer somewhat from the brevity of his presentation. This makes the book an easy read but means that much of import in the recent history of religious art is overlooked. Significant figures as Albert Gleizes, Damien Hirst, Mainie Jellett, David Jones, Chris Ofili, Stanley Spencer and Mark Wallinger are completely overlooked while others such as Maurice Denis, Barnett Newman, Emil Nolde, Mark Rothko and James Turrell receive only passing reference.

Elkins seeks to justify such omissions through his assertion that art histories, journals and museums ignore the religious references and inferences of such artists but that claim seems to relate more to the height of modernism than to the plethora of voices we now hear within postmodernism. In this respect, the valuing of neglected voices that characterises postmodernity holds out more hope for religious art in the noughties than Elkins allows for in his conclusion and may provide, for those bold enough to grasp it, the opportunity for the true story of modern religious art to be told and heard.

James Elkins, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art. Routledge, 2004. 136 + xii pp. £14.99. ISBN: 0-415-96989-1

Friday, 22 June 2007

Exciting new artists & designers

On Wednesday before going to the FRF dinner I spent a fascinating afternoon negotiating the labyrinthine corridors of the Chelsea College of Art & Design, opposite Tate Britain.

The Chelsea had billed their Degree Show 2007 as an “opportunity to see work of some of the most exciting new artists and designers.” They weren't wrong as there was some excellent work on show including much that showed a real fascination with philosophical and religious questions. These were the Show's highlights for me:
  • Karl-Oskar Olsson located a film, in which a suited male spoke of his guilt at his middle-class privileged student existence, behind walls that can only be climbed, one at a time, by ladders. Is this not what many of us do with the feelings of guilt that nag away at our privileged Western existence?
  • Jessica Paz Zamora-Turner’s installation sought to provide an opportunity for action by creating a distribution centre for unwanted goods and offering visitors the opportunity to distribute goods as they chose.
    Paul Day’s titles – Tomorrow belongs to no one; How meaningless is your life; and I came from nowhere, and you should go there, among others – seemed to sum up the general sense of existential angst.
  • One of the most effective existential pieces was also the simplest. Umut Yalim used a marker pen on flipchart paper to create a series of works that questioned our perceptions of the work and the world by continually changing aspects of a repeating annotated diagram.
  • Michael Cassidy’s Painting in Green (Green Dimension) was technically complex using painting on two walls plus a camera to create an on screen illusion by which viewers were able to walk into and onto the art.
  • Emma Dalby’s CFO6 attempted to record the changing nature of reality through multiple photos of groups of people at an Archway Bus Shelter taken between 8 and 9 am every weekday over a six month period.
  • Rose Jenner toyed with the existentialism of the black painting but on her canvases, depending on your viewing angle, eerie landscapes of standing stones and forests emerged in dark tones.
    Martin Earle’s video artwork, West of Shannon, featured lovingly shot, meditative black and white images of sea/skyscapes and still lifes set to a soundtrack composed by Fr. Dominic White O.P. Ordinary views and objects made beautiful through sustained attention.
  • Tsuin So focussed on children's faces in her beautiful paintings which are evocative and atmospheric.
  • Amy ONeill structured whitewashed cartons into a descending cityscape with unpainted words picked out on each carton to form a statement about the nature of a work of art: “… our natural and artificial environment is cultivated both by the way we ultize material and by each decision we make in our daily practice …”
  • Helen J. Davison hung 84 sheets of white A4 paper in a regular rectangle using two pins per sheet to create What a Mistkae. Each sheet contained a short piece of typed text raising the question of how to read the work; was it a fragmented or linear narrative? On reflection, it seemed to be like a series of cancelled beginnings; a comment on the difficulty of beginning a work from a blank sheet of paper.

Degree Show 2007, Chelsea College of Art & Design, 16 – 21 June 2007

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Faith Communities Navigator

Last night's Faith Regen Foundation dinner provided the first information about the Faith Communities Navigator; an exciting resource for organisations in the private, public and voluntary sectors that want to know more about the lives, beliefs and values of the UK's diverse faith communities.

The Navigator is a user-friendly 'map and compass' to guide people through the diversity of the UK's faith communities. The availability of Bronze, Silver and Gold editions, makes the Navigator a set of tools available to all, regardless of budget and tailored to specific organisational need.

In these times of increased population movement movement, high media interest, international conflict, increased secularism and, for many, a search for the spiritual, there has never been a more important time to explore, understand and appreciate our faith communities. Faith represents for many people, a guiding set of values and principles by which they live, for others it offers a sense of community and the glue by which disparate social, ethnic, linguistic or economic groups might be held together with a common foundation of ethics and beliefs. In engaging with our colleagues, customers, neighbours and friends, an appreciation of what their faith may mean to them brings potential advantage to all and contributes to increased social harmony.

Celebrating success

Last night I was at a celebratory dinner for Faith Regen Foundation. The evening was a celebration of their recent achievements in projects to reach out to black and ethnic minority communities, support business start-up's, and achieve better futures for unemployed women from these communities. With a varied programme that reflected the multi-faith nature of FRF's work and partners the evening was an enjoyable and inspiring occasion. A gospel choir, a nasheed singer, and a group of young people (on a UK visit from FRF's Bosnia project) each entertained us in turn with music and song.

The keynote speaker was Jim Murphy MP, Minister of State for Employment & Welfare Reform. In an unscripted and engagingly human talk, Jim Murphy reminded us of the opportunity that exists to do away with child poverty and to achieve full employment for all. He spoke about the way in which change can be achieved relatively quickly citing the experience of his family from his grandfather, as a Murphy, facing 'No Irish need apply' signs at the shipyards in Glasgow to today when a Murphy is Minister of State for Employment. He gave examples of individuals that he had met who had brought a spark of life back into the lives of those who had given up hope and said that this is often what people of faith achieve. Success is not about graphs and statistics but about empowering people for changed lives. He wants to expand the involvement of faith groups, charities and voluntary organisations in achieving full employment and ending child poverty through greater opportunities and more resources.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Mavis Staples day

Today is Mavis Staples Day in Illinois; a celebration of one of the world's greatest soul and gospel singers who, as part of The Staple Singers, gave soulful voice to the civil rights movement.

The Staple Singers were inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King. Pops Staples said, “If he can preach it, we can sing it.” And sing it they did! Their vision of peace came out of the heartbreak of real life. I’ll Take You There was inspired when the President of their record company went to the funeral of his younger brother, who had been shot and killed. As he sat on the hood of an old bus in his father’s backyard, this man heard music in his head and these lyrics: "I know a place, ain't nobody worried, ain't nobody crying, ain't no smiling faces lying to the races, I'll take you there." In the place of despair, he had a vision of peace. He heard it and it wouldn't leave, it stayed there and the Staple Singers turned that vision into a call for peace. Theirs was a call for Civil Rights but as part of the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth.

If You're Ready (Come Go With Me) elaborated further as they sang:

“No hatred will be tolerated
Peace & love between the races
Love is the only transportation
to where there’s total communication

No disaster will ever enter there
No wars will ever be declared
No economical exploitation
No political domination

If you’re ready (Come go with me)”

Mavis' wonderful new album, We'll Never Turn Back, is a deeply personal account of her life from childhood days, through the Civil Rights era and on up to her current anger and indignation over the fact that many Americans are still treated as second class citizens. We'll Never Turn Back combines raw, emotional, contemporized versions of some of the freedom songs that provided the soundtrack to the civil rights movement of the 1950s/60s, along with other traditional songs and original songs written by Mavis and Ry Cooder.

She says, "Like many in the civil rights movement, The Staples Singers drew on the spirituality and strength of the church to help gain social justice and to try to achieve equal rights. With this record, I hope to get across the same feeling, the same spirit and the same message as we did then - and to hopefully continue to make positive changes. Things are better but we're not where we need to be and we'll never turn back."

Monday, 18 June 2007

A 'new look' ecumenism

A group of us from St John's Seven Kings joined about 20,000 other Christians at the Global Day of Prayer event in Upton Park on Pentecost Sunday. Highlights from the event can now be viewed by clicking here.

Leaving aside the cold weather on the day and the signalling problems on the District Line, I thought the GDOP was an excellent occasion. Well organised and genuinely inclusive of different traditions, I thought it was a moving occasion which was a real stimulus to prayer. I found the section relating to the slave trade particularly moving and appreciated the section involving prayers in many languages as a real reflection of what Pentecost means.

The Bishop of Barking, who chaired the Event Steering Group, was thrilled by the wide range of Christian traditions represented at the event. He said, “One of my main interests in chairing the steering committee for the London Global Day of Prayer was around encouraging a new expression of ecumenism… It was exciting and very productive to work with such a dynamic group of mixed ethnicity and denomination - the leaders of many of our black majority churches collaborated across the whole range of church life from Roman Catholic to Independent churches.”

He continued, “This broad-based collaboration worked well for the Global Day of Prayer - we all worked hard to ensure the West Ham event was representative of a wide variety of worship and prayer styles - and it may provide a model for achieving much more together in the future – not least a united and influential engagement with the 2012 Olympics and much else besides. “I see this as a hopeful ‘new look’ ecumenism, which seems to be reaching parts that our traditional ecumenical instruments have often failed to reach.”

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Forgiveness and love

Reflecting on today's gospel (Luke 7. 36 - 8.3) for a sermon, I began thinking about contemporary parallels to the experience of the woman who poured perfume on Jesus' feet.

I've had Johnny Cash's Unchained album on this car recently and the song, 'Kneeling Drunkard's Plea', is one possible parallel. This is a song about an alcoholic prompted to cry, ‘Lord, have mercy on me’ through the death of his mother. Johnny Cash, of course, had his own experiences of addiction to overcome - I've also been reading the Steve Turner biography The Man Called Cash (Bloomsbury, 2006) - and, for Cash, returning to his Christian faith was one of the factors that eventually made that possible. The song comes from the series of albums called American Recordings that Cash made towards the end of his life in which he sings honestly and affectingly of sin and the salvation that comes through repentance.

Another parallel story would be that of my friend Mandy Fenn from St Margaret's Barking. By giving her life to Jesus, Mandy has moved from self harming to setting up groups that give support and help to others who self harm. The work she now does is an expression of her gratitude for all that Jesus has done for her.

The story that I eventually used in my sermon is about the artist Peter Howson and his painting, The Third Step. Howson became a very successful painter at a young age but for a number of reasons was not a happy person. An alcoholic and a drug user, he would drink and drug himself into a stupour. One night, when he had done just that, his 13 year old daughter Lucie packed a suitcase, let herself out of the house and for several hours wandered through a Glasgow park frequented by drug addicts and tramps. Howson said, “you have to reach your own personal gutter before you ask for help.” Realising how he had failed Lucie was that moment for Howson.

As part of his rehabilitation he joined Alcoholics Anonymous. In AA, Howson explains, the Third Step comes when alcoholics have “made a decision to turn our wills and our lives over to the care of God as we understand him.” The Third Step, then, is about his “conversion to Christianity and giving up the booze.” In the painting a man has been stripped and is crawling out of a grave towards a church and the light of Christ. The painting shows the moment when a person in torment realises that it doesn’t have to be that way. Like all of Howson’s work it is a dark picture but, while dark, it is a painting of hope, not despair. This is the way of Christ, the way of darkness endured in order to reach the light, the way of salvation.

Friday, 15 June 2007

Enough is Enough!

One of the people that has been a real inspiration and support to many of us in the Diocese of Chelmsford (and beyond) is the current Archdeacon of West Ham, Michael Fox.

Michael is shortly to retire and, as part of his farewell tour of the Diocese, spoke at last Tuesday's Deanery Synod for Redbridge. What he had to say is well worth wider circulation but, before we get to that, his Farewell Service will be held at St Margaret's Barking, the church were he grew up and where his name is carved into a pew (something he did as a child, not an Archdeacon!). This service will be held on Wednesday 4th July at 7.30pm.

Michael told us that the biggest change he had seen over his 40 years of ministry in the Diocese was the global population explosion with its consequent rise in exploitation of the world's resources. He challenged us to think how we could live more equitably in future (contractual convergence being one possible solution) and to think what it will be like to live in a world without resources, like oil, that we currently take for granted.

While in the West we have shifted, he thinks, from denial on issues of climate change. So far we have only shifted to panic mode and are not yet at the point of collectively saying what lifestyle changes we need to make to make a difference. He reminded us of John V. Taylor's book, Enough is Enough, which kickstarted the simple lifestyle movement 20 years ago. That message has still to be fully taken on board; as have the messages of the Church of England report Sharing God's Planet, which in his opinion is still the best short summary of the issues.

Among the reasons why the Church is not further on in its thinking and response to these issues is the fracture between those wanting to find security in a dramatically changing world through a doctrinaire, simplistic faith and those seeking a more profound study of the Bible that reads it against culture, history, context and not as a one-dimensional rule book.

But the picture is, by no means, mainly negative. Much of what happens at the grassroots of church life is actually a real challenge to the public perceptions of what Church is about. Many congregations are genuinely seeking to engage with their local communities in ways that are not confrontational or judgemental. This has been helped by the migration of Christians from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, among others, into our cities; which is revitalising the Church of England in the city.

The presence of people of other faiths and the growth of interest in spirituality are also a positive challenge to us, as Christians, to take our own faith seriously. God, he concluded, has had a remarkable resurgence in the last 20 years; how well equipped are we to be signs of what the Christian spiritual tradition can bring to these issues and to our world?

The Harbour Lights

This year’s Spring Harvest introduced me to The Harbour Lights, a band who merge the English folk tradition with a lusciously gentle pop sensibility. Their first album, Leaving Safe Anchorage uses the imagery of sailing to reflect on the challenges of venturing out on the sea of faith.

Biblically, boats feature as a metaphor for the life of faith in the story of Jonah, the Galilee experiences of the disciples and in the journeys of Paul. Celtic-rock bands like Iona have used the voyages of Celtic saints like Brendan for inspiration (see their album Beyond these Shores for example) while Gaelic-rock band Runrig (in ‘Lighthouse’ from the Mara album) picture our lives as being like a shipwreck with the lighthouse of God’s love being our salvation.

For The Harbour Lights the song of the old sea road comes with the turning of the tide calling its hearers to search for Holy Ground. The call to freedom means leaving safe anchorage and praying for the light of God to lead to the distant shore and guide through the rocks that guard the bay. Leaving Safe Anchorage is both an exhilarating call to venture out upon the sea of faith and a whisper of assurance that we will finally be brought safely to the last port of call.

Also at Spring Harvest and drawing on folk roots to find a similar inspiration was Moya Brennan, a pioneer of Celtic-rock as lead singer with Clannad. Her latest album Signature, which tells the story of her life and conversion, charts similar waters to The Harbour Lights as she sings about travelling on a stormy road to reach a place of beauty, hope and encouragement.

'New day on the job' card for Gordon Brown

Just got the latest Global Action email from Tear Fund suggesting ways of praying for Gordon Brown as he walks through the door of No. 10. Their other suggestion is to send a 'new day on the job' card to Gordon, for opening on 27 June, encouraging him to put the needs of the poor and marginalised at the heart of his government’s policies. If you would like to do the same, click here for details.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Songs & Images

The Meljon Singers are one of London's most accomplished and enterprising chamber choirs. Established in 1990, and with a rehearsal base at St John's Seven Kings, their concerts include music as diverse as Palestrina's 16th century polyphony, Romantic classics like Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem, modern minimalist masters such as John Tavener and Arvo Pärt and the wealth of new choral writing from all over the world.

Their next concert is on Saturday 7 July 2007, 7.30pm, at St Mary's Church, South Woodford. Women of Note will feature music by women composers including Rebecca Clarke, Eleanor Daley and other "Unsung Heroines."

If you follow the link to St Mary's Woodford, check out their Faith & Image forum for all who share an interest in art as a medium of spiritual expression. The group is both ecumenical and inter-faith, and seeks to gain insight and understanding from all art forms, all traditions and cultures. Their next meeting is on Thursday 28th June, 8.00pm, when there will be an illustrated presentation by Luis and Carol Garrido, members of the Blake Society, on 'The Life of Christ through the paintings of William Blake'.

Bob Dylan, biblical imagery & cultural comment

Not too long ago I read Paul William's series of books on Bob Dylan as a Performing Artist. Williams has some interesting things to say about Dylan's work across the three books but when it comes to Dylan's post-conversion work from time to time he fails to understand Dylan's imagery because of a lack of familiarity with the biblical material on which Dylan draws.

Failing to understand or acknowledge our inherited language and imagery from the Bible and from Christendom is a common problem that bedevils much contemporary cultural comment. In a Lent/Eastertide course called The Big Picture that I am involved in running in the Diocese of Chelmsford, together with my friends Philip Ritchie and Paul Trathen, we briefly survey the history of how our culture has inherited much of its language and imagery in this way in order to pose the question of how we can hope to understand our culture without understanding the biblical/Christian language and imagery that informs it. For example, Paul Williams suggests that the Infidels album reveals a lack of sureness in Dylan's Christian beliefs in this period and that there is an absence of "any overtly Christian material on the album."

The period from Shot of Love to Infidels was, as Williams does acknowledge, an exceptional period of songwriting in Dylan's career; although many of the best songs from this period didn't make it onto the released albums. What characterises this period of Dylan's songwriting for me is that his faith comes to inform his imagery/lyrics and is integrated into their subject matter instead of forming the subject matter as occurs in the earlier Slow Train Coming/Saved period when his faith was the sole content of the songs. It is a move from preaching back to poetry but this change doesn't mean that his faith is any less sure or apparent in the songs that he writes.

Throughout his career Dylan has written songs that depict the apathy of humanity in the face of the coming apocalypse. From Slow Train Coming onwards he equates the apocalypse with the imminent return of Christ. The return of Christ in judgement is the slow train that is "comin' up around the bend" and in the face of this apocalypse he calls on human beings to wake up and strengthen the things that remain. Similarly, in The Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar, he sees the apocalypse coming ("Curtain risin' on a new age") but not yet here while the Groom (Christ who awaits his bride, the Church) is still waiting at the altar. In the time that remains he again calls on human beings to arise from our slumber: "Dead man, dead man / When will you arise? / Cobwebs in your mind / Dust upon your eyes" (Dead Man, Dead Man).

In the light of this thread in Dylan's songs throughout this period, it seems to me to be consistent to read Jokerman, from Infidels as another song in this vein; as a song depicting the apathy of humanity in the face of the apocalypse and one which is shot through with apocalyptic imagery drawn from the Book of Revelation. We are the jokermen who laugh, dance and fly but only in the dark of the night (equated with sin and judgement) afraid to come into the revealing light of the Sun/Son.

Jokerman, though, is a greater song that any of those mentioned previously because its depiction of humanity is more nuanced. There is much that is negative: we are born with a snake in both our fists; we rush in where angels fear to tread; our future is full of dread; we are doing no more that keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within; we are going to Sodom and Gomorrah only knowing the law of the jungle (the law of revenge from the Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy - 'an eye for an eye'). But these negatives are not the whole story as we also experience freedom, dance to the nightingale tune, fly high, walk on the clouds, and are a friend to the martyr. We have an inherent dignity and beauty to which only the greatest of artists such as Michelangelo can do justice. In Jokerman Dylan captures well the Biblical portrait of humanity as made in the image of God but marred by our rejection of God with our potential for beauty and compassion perverted into a selfish search for self-aggrandisement.

The final verse comes straight from the Book of Revelation and describes the birth of the AntiChrist who will deceive humanity into following him rather than Christ. The accusation and challenge that Dylan puts to us in the final lines of this final verse is that we know exactly what is happening (after all, it has all been prophesied in the Book of Revelation) but we make no response; we are apathetic in the face of the apocalypse. Our lack of response is what is fatal to us because it is only through repentance and turning to Christ that we will be saved from the coming judgement. These final lines are both an accusation and a challenge because, in line with the prophecy of Revelation, Dylan clearly believes that humanity as a whole will be apathetic and non-responsive but they must also be a challenge because, if there is no possibility that any of us will respond, why write the song at all!

In Sweetheart Like You, also from Infidels, we see the possibility of response through a wonderfully contemporary depiction of Christ's incarnation. The song is written from the perspective of a misogynist male employee in an all-male workplace that is literally a hell of a place in which to work. To be in here requires the doing of some evil deed, having your own harem, playing till your lips bleed. There's only one step down from here and that's the ironically named "land of permanent bliss."

Into this perverted and prejudiced environment comes a woman, the sweetheart of the song's title. She is a Christ figure; a sinless figure entering into a world of sin and experiencing abuse and betrayal (is "that first kiss" a Judas kiss?) from those she encounters and to whom she holds out the possibility of a different kind of existence. Dylan makes his equation of the woman with Christ explicit by quoting directly from Jesus: "They say in your father's house, there's many mansions" (John 14: 2).

The song's narrator is confused and challenged by her appearance. He wants to dismiss her out of hand and back to his stereotypical role for her - "You know, a woman like you should be at home / That's where you belong / Watching out for someone who loves you true / Who would never do you wrong" - but he can't simply dismiss her as she is really there in front of him and so he begins to wonder, "What's a sweetheart like you doin' in a dump like this?" All the time he asks that question there is the possibility that he may respond to her presence without abuse or dismissal.

In I and I Dylan gives an honest depiction of the difficulties of response (based no doubt on his own inability to keep the moral standards that he seems to have perceived God to have expected of him and which, no doubt, his church at the time expected of him). The central character in this song has taken the untrodden path where the swift don't win the race (Matthew 7: 13 & 14 - "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it."). He has looked into justice's beautiful face and yet as we meet him we discover that he has just slept with a strange woman (i.e. he has had sex outside of marriage).
In creation, Dylan sings, we neither honour nor forgive. Instead we take; our nature is the survival of the fittest. When we encounter God, our sinful, selfish human nature encounters the demand for pure perfection - "no man sees my face and lives." I and I is about the difficulty of living between these two poles; of having started out on the untrodden path but then having slipped back. The song is an evocation of the guilt that the protagonist feels; a guilt that forces him to leave the woman, to go out for a walk into the narrow lanes, pushing himself along the darkest part of the road to get himself back on track and then hearing the accepting, forgiving words of Christ in his heart, "I made shoes for everyone, even you, while I still go barefoot."

I and I is again set in the context of the apocalypse: "the world could come to an end tonight." The protagonist is responding in the face of the apocalypse. Even though he has sinned he is leaving that sin behind, pushing himself along the road and listening to Christ in his heart. Another song in which the protangonist becomes aware of the coming apocalypse while being in the wrong place is Tight Connection To My Heart (originally recorded during the Infidels session as Someone's Got A Hold Of My Heart). Here the protagonist grabs his coat because feels the breath of the storm that is the apocalypse. He is in the wrong place with the wrong person having valued the wrong things (lulled to sleep in a town without pity where the water runs deep, it's all been a charade, a big joke that he'll remember to forget) and now, when it may be too late, he is searching for his true love (his "first love" - see Revelation 2: 4). His issue has been that he could not commit: "Never could learn to drink that blood / And to call it wine / Never could learn to hold you, love / And to call you mine." Like the foolish virgins, he may be left outside in the cold when the bridegroom arrives because he was not faithful to his true love at the moment of the second coming (Matthew 25: 1 - 13).

It is not possible to understand these songs without understanding the biblical material on which they draw. Without this, as is the case in much contemporary cultural comment, the work of art is actively misunderstood. This was the case with reviews of Infidels at the time which used Sweetheart Like You as an example of Dylan's supposed misogeny. So these reviewers were using a song that actually critiques and undercuts misogeny as an example of misogeny itself and this fundamental misunderstanding was the result of a failure to recognise and understand biblical references and imagery.

Books that have got useful things to say about Dylan's use of scripture include: Christopher Ricks' Dylan's Visions of Sin (Penguin, 2004), Bob Dylan and Philosophy (Open Court, 2006), Michael Gilmour's Tangled Up in The Bible (Continuum, 2004).

Changing Lives concert

Althea Ifeka, a friend from St Margaret's Barking, will be taking part in a Charity Gala Concert in aid of 'Changing Lives' at St Margaret's Church (Broadway, Barking IG11 8AS) at 7.30pm on Saturday 23rd June 2007.

Althea is an accomplished oboist specialising primarily in the performance of works from the Baroque period and the twentieth century. Based in Barking, she performs widely as a concerto soloist, duo recitalist and chamber ensemble player.

In addition to Althea, the 'Changing Lives' concert will feature: Sarah Drizen (voice and piano); Angela Purll (flute); and Timothy Kwan (organ and piano). Composers featured will include Bach, Bartok, Elgar, Poulenc and Widor, with original compositions for voice and piano by Sarah Drizen.
'Changing Lives' is a charitable organisation which aims to provide humanitarian aid for some of the world's poorest people. Tickets cost £5.00 and are available on the door.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Scripture in rock

The first half of 2007 has seen two mainstream rock albums released dealing explicitly with scripture and its themes.

Neal Morse is a US prog rocker who first made his mark in the band Spock’s Beard and then formed the prog-rock supergroup Transatlantic. Following his conversion to Christianity in 2000, he left both bands and has since produced a substantial and well-regarded body of solo work exploring different aspects of his faith. At the turn of the year, and thanks to Paul Harcourt at All Saints Woodford Wells, some of us in the Chelmsford Diocese were able to be at a service led by Neal. It would be great to see him return when he next tours European Churches. In March this year he released his fourth solo prog rock album Sola Scriptura which, across four tracks and 76 minutes (this is prog rock we’re talking here!), tells the story of Martin Luther and the Reformation. Morse says, “The point of it is to point us … toward the light of God's truth which is laid out wonderfully before us in the scriptures. Of course, this is a lofty goal for a mere CD, but, with God anything is possible!”

The latest album from Rickie Lee Jones, The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard, is directly inspired by the sayings of Jesus. Rickie Lee’s friend and collaborator, US photographer Lee Cantelon, published in the 1990s a thematic collection of Jesus’ sayings called The Words and then followed this up by planning a spoken word edition set to music. Rickie Lee was invited to read one of the spoken word pieces but instead improvised a song to the musical backing and continued improvising until she had the songs that form the current album. Musically reminiscent of the Velvet Underground, this is a challenging listen both musically and lyrically but one that is already connecting with many outside of Church. The in-concert response to the song 'Where I like it best', which riffs on Jesus’ words from Matthew 6. 5-13, has led her to comment that “people are longing to pray” but have been “damaged by their brush with religion.”

Artists and albums like these challenge us to think how our use of scripture connects (or doesn’t connect) with those outside of our congregations.

At the Edge

Chris Brown, a member of the Inter-Faith Issues Group for the Chelmsford Diocese, recently organised an exhibition which brought together art from India and the UK. I asked Chris how the exhibition had come about:

“The exhibition was called At The Edge and was held in St Botolph's Aldgate. The artists were Sunil Vallarpadam from Kerala in India and David Derrick from London. They met through me because for some years I have been doing some work in south India. This has included time in Kerala where, through a friend, I met Sunil."

"Sunil is 36, lives on an island near Cochin, and produces very interesting work. His charcoal drawings are, for me, very impressive. This was Sunil's first visit outside India although he has had several exhibitions in his home state. He was very happy as we sold lots of his pictures!"

"David Derrick is a friend who is a priest and retired head master. He was in Ndia with me in January and completed a remarkable very large wall mural for a school where I usually stay near Madurai in Tamil Nadu. It is the most 'inculturated' version of Palm Sunday ever seen in India! He now lives in Bethnal Green concentrating on his painting and has also had several exhibitions.”

Chris explained that the theme of the exhibition was about: “the meeting of land and water; the meeting of two cultures; the edge of suffering in a series of pictures by Sunil which are of people he has seen in India but which have a wider significance. For me they speak of Guantanamo and the war in Iraq.”

The figures in Vallarpadam’s charcoal drawings of Kerala’s street people, depicted through the minimum of charcoal marks, crouch on the street their haunting expressions speaking of the pain felt by all who are at the edge of human society. Although images of local people in Kerala, they possess a universality that speaks of all who suffer.

In these 'Legacy' drawings colour is excluded and line becomes the means of expression. Elsewhere in the exhibition, Vallarpadam overlays and sets blocks on colour side by side to build up in a semi-cubist style portraits of a 'Golden Girl' and 'Blues Woman'. Here colour is composition and the depth and brilliance of his colours convey the emotions of his characters.

Vallarpadam is an artist of rich creativity who paints in a wider range of styles than is represented by the primarily landscape based art of this exhibition. In this exhibition his best landscape-based work came when he blurred the boundaries between the figurative and the abstract. In 'Liquidity' layer on layer of green brush strokes evokes both the lakes and trees of the Kerala backwaters while the sun blazes through the foliage in a central slash of yellow. 'The Blue Yonder' is a meditation in blue merging air and water separated only by a cobalt line; a raised track on which a cyclist is returning home. These works combine simplicity of design with a lyrical execution to achieve a graceful harmony of colour and emotion.

Through his looking and his "sixth sense" in colours and shade, Vallarpadam seeks to translate small experiences of pure enjoyment into visual images and by the artificial means of oils and acrylic to arrest motion holding it fixed until a stranger looks and it moves again, since it is life itself.

Derrick, who describes himself as a British idiosyncratic colourist, by contrast seeks a greater definition of form and conveys a restraint in light and colour that seems emblematic of European landscapes. In his most effective piece in the exhibition, 'Queen’s House Capriccioso', the edge is that of a contrast between Queens House and Canary Wharf. Fronted by the diversity of the contemporary crowds thronging Greenwich Park this is a painting celebrating an integration of past and present in our heritage and culture.

As a priest, artist-in-residence and formerly as a teacher and head teacher, Derrick has for many years been a facilitator of the talents of others. In his teaching work he developed the principle of using art to teach in all areas of the curriculum by teaching others how to look and see what is really there. His Indian experience has been no different as, through his two visits, he helped De La Salle pupils create a remarkable inculturated mural of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem for their school chapel and has then introduced the work of Vallarpadam to the UK.

At the Edge, as Derrick and Vallarpadam finally conceived it, focussed on the horizon in landscape in which there would be a meeting between the landscapes of Europe and India and between the cultures that formed the art of these two friends. The horizon is the meeting point of land, sky and water; on the edge of our vision, it is the place where meetings occur. The exchanges that Derrick, Vallarpadam and Brown have had exemplify the way in which being at the edge can lead to meetings that bring together what had once been separated or unknown.

Examples of Vallarpadam's work can be viewed at the BobSunArt Gallery site.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Glory Days

“Jump out your bed / Shake your head / Clear the haze. / Step out your house / And prepared to be amazed. / It's just another one of those glory days.”

I wonder how many of us start the day the way Just Jack does in the song ‘Glory Days’? Not too many I’d wager. But why not? When we stop and think about it the world in which we live is an amazing and beautiful place and the people that we meet day by day are unique in their personalities and abilities.

Christians believe that God created the world and human beings and can be seen in someway in both. We have a reason for stepping out of our homes and preparing to be amazed. We can encounter God in the everyday. I wonder how many of us do?

Often we feel too busy or too pressurised to stop and really look around us at the wonder of the world, the uniqueness of other people and to see in both the face of God. Saint Paul tells us to go through life with an attitude of looking out for things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely and honourable and he expects us to find them.

Maybe if we were to adopt that attitude then, like Just Jack, we would step out of our homes and prepare to be amazed - by all that can be seen of God in our world and in the people we encounter.