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Sunday, 30 January 2011

The Big Society

Last week Paul Trathen and I were at the Big Society – what does it mean for the Church? conference on 'The Big Society' organised by the London Churches Group, Mission in London’s Economy and the Diocese of Southwark Public Policy Group.
We began with some excellent input and debate from Andrew Stunnell, Jon Cruddas and Debra Allcock Tyler. Jon Cruddas was, as is usually the case, particularly good value. He supported several initiatives with which I was involved in Barking & Dagenham, including the launch of the Faith Forum. More recently, of course, was the General Election campaign in the borough and in his remarks he paid tribute to the involvement of the churches in the Hope not Hate campaign which contributed to the defeat of the BNP.

These are some highlights from what he said:
  • Big fan of the Big Society which could become the cornerstone of a new politics; the new centre ground? But a somewhat elusive concept.
  • Irish Catholic, working class, Labour background -communitarian disposition. Therefore, Big Society not new.
  • Change in Dagenham. Church has been central - held the line in tensions of change.
  • Big Society - sphere between ineffective markets and over-heavy state. Notion of 'good' society fundamental critique of market-led economy. More than earning and money.
  • Big Society - critique of statism. Labour has become statist and secular as opposed to being, in Dylan Thomas' phrase, "parochial and magical".
  • Aristotle spoke about the release of virtue - just institutions that allow human flourishing.
  • People in the community are currently struggling because of the withdrawal of 'safety nets'. the least well off are paying the price for the recession. Where the axe is falling is making the Big Society less likely.
  • This is a radical Government, although I disagree with their decisions. It could be a vehicle for ther unfinished business of the Thatcher era. An exercise in economic and cultural disenfranchisement.
  • "Aspire not to have more but to be more." - Oscar Romero.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Mass art burn and off-site Gallery

Josh Young, who blogs at Propagandology, has sent information about a couple of projects that he's working on. The first is Manchester Artists' Bonfire this Friday where he is responding to the invitation to burn an artwork. The second involves the five person artist collective Archipelago, of which he is part. They have been commissioned to do a project by Cornerhouse which is happening in February and March.

The Manchester Artist’s Bonfire happens at Islington Mill on Friday 28th January from 7-9pm. A plethora of artists working in Manchester will join in a mass art burn. Artists, like Josh, have submitted a pledge to take part with a paragraph of writing related to their thoughts, feelings, responses about and reactions to this event. The pledges collected from Manchester artists will frame the event and provide the context in which we burn the art. The rule is that artists must burn some of their own artwork.

The intention is to join in a festival of flux and celebrate it on their own terms with this defiant symbol of dissatisfaction acting as a catalyst for change. The Artists’ Bonfire is unapologetic about the more obvious connotations such as; strike, destruction and renewal but it is also open to new interpretations, be they political or personal or both.

A collection of extended pieces of writing will be published online and in print post event ranging from new theoretical writing to reflective accounts of the experience, providing a unique cross section of Manchester’s art scene in words. All printed material will then be expected to make its way back to the bonfire the following January where they will all start again and where it will meet its end - or its beginning depending on how you look at it.

Manchester-based artist collective Archipelago are to present an exhibition that will take place both in a retail space at the Triangle Shopping Centre and in the non-gallery spaces of Cornerhouse from Thursday 24 February to Wednesday 9 March. They will set up a ‘Consulate of Cornerhouse’ - acting as Cornerstone's official off-site gallery “on foreign soil”. Exploring participation in artistic practice and its emancipatory potential, they will create a fabrication of the Director’s office, complete with programming plans for future projects Cornerhouse could or should be working on.

Archipelago will work to realise one of these plans; that of memorialising the current Cornerhouse staff with face casts, which will then be displayed in the “real” Cornerhouse from Thursday 24 February. Also watch out for the approaches of the self driven official / unofficial market researcher, as well as the chance to be editor of a screen based web link visible from the street outside.


Maria Mckee - Absolutely Barking Stars.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

TASK Newsletter 24

It has been a busy start to the year for TASK, to say the least, as we discovered that the Council member for Culture Cllr Suzanne Nolan has earmarked Goodmayes Library as the single branch site for closure across the whole borough. Meaning that if her plan goes through, the staff working there will lose their jobs, the site will almost certainly be sold to a property developer for more high density housing and the community will lose a vital facility. For ever.

And where will the 100,000 annual users of Goodmayes Library be expected to go under Nolan's masterplan? You guessed it. Seven Kings Library, the small and temporary shopfront on the High Road which barely accommodates 20 people in a single sitting. At every level, it is a plan with fundamental flaws which seems to operate against the Council's own mantra of protecting frontline services.

Unsurprisingly, it has generated shock and outrage and anger, which is now being focused around a huge campaign of opposition involving every section of the local community. For more details, please see the brand new Save Goodmayes Library website and sign up for its dedicated facebook page.

TASK is clearly concerned about the loss of amenity in Goodmayes and the pressure on services in Seven Kings, and frankly worried that if Goodmayes goes, the way is still open for Cllr Nolan to close Seven Kings in future rounds of cuts. Leading to a cruel double whammy of closures in the south of the borough.

Council leader Cllr Keith Prince- the man whose intervention was decisive getting our new Seven Kings branch open- was at last night's area 5 meeting at Barley Lane school from 715pm , when we made our case against closure and offered some fresh thoughts. Thanks to everyone who turned up to support the Save Goodmayes Library campaign, momentum behind which grows daily. We are confident the case for keeping it open was well made and will be maintaining the pressure over the weeks up until the budget is decided in early March.

If you have yet to do so please go to the dedicated website and sign the petition online - - and remember that the politicians told us we would never have a new Seven Kings library, which we do only because of the huge public support last time. We need to mobilise that level of support again now to Save Goodmayes Library.

We will be holding our first TASK meeting of 2011 on Tuesday February 1 from 7-8pm at a new venue, Gizem Bakers on the High Road Seven Kings- near the junction with St. Alban's Road. We are grateful to the owners for their generous support.

Hope to see many of you there,

Chris Connelley


Stiff Little Fingers - At The Edge.

Windows on the world (138)

Coventry, 2011


Sex Pistols - Holidays In The Sun.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Becoming places of deep exchange

The churches of the Seven Kings Fellowship of Churches (SKFC) signed a new covenant tonight during our Unity Service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The new covenant was discussed and agreed by the church committees of Seven Kings Methodist Church, Seven Kings United Free Church, St John's Seven Kings, St Peter's Aldborough Hatch and St Teresa's Newbury Park during 2010. The covenant, which was originally the idea of Methodist minister Rev. Ken Nicholls, was signed by clergy and lay members of the five churches.

The Unity Service was hosted by St John's Seven Kings and attended by members of each of the five SKFC churches. The service was led by Revd. Geoff Eze and used materials prepared for this year's Week of Prayer for Christian Unity on the theme of All Things In Common. I preached using an excellent sermon prepared by Revd. Bob Fyffe, General Secretary of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, in which he said:

"The starting point for our Christian witness is for the Church to become that expression of unity, that model of acceptance and welcome and hospitality that is rooted in God. Where these hopes and dreams are bound together, communities become places of deep exchange, where together we become all that God intends for us. To BE the whole people of God."

It is our hope that this new covenant will provide a foundation for our shared activity in future and will also take us further in our church communities becoming places of deep exchange, where together we become all that God intends for us. Our covenant reads as follows:

We, the Seven Kings Fellowship of Churches (SKFC), give thanks to God for the unity we experience among us in the Lord Jesus Christ. We acknowledge our common heritage in the faith and profess together our belief in the one God, the Father, Creator of heaven and earth; the Son who dwelt among us, was crucified for us, and was raised from the dead for our salvation and the Holy Spirit who leads his church into all truth.

We regret past misunderstandings between Church denominations and traditions, and recognise that each of our churches has its own distinctive witness and tradition. We honour these traditions standing before one another in charity and praying for a deeper understanding and reconciliation

We undertake to explore together our doctrinal differences and our understanding of the church in the light of existing dialogues at national and international level, so that we may understand one another better and make a contribution to the reconciliation of the churches at those levels

On the basis of our existing unity in Christ, we commit ourselves to one another in love and charity to promote common worship, fellowship, witness and service to the community of which we are a part

In particular we commit ourselves to:

1. To declare our unity as the people of God in this community in whatever practical ways possible.

2. To maintain our common practices of worshipping together, and to seek to develop them further

3. To begin a process of co-ordinating our individual activities, as far as possible.

4. To seek to grow in understanding of the grace and love of God, and of each others traditions. To develop joint prayer and study of each other’s traditions, as well as of our Christian faith and its applications in daily life.

5. To listen to the local community, to become aware of its needs and aspirations and to develop a co-ordinated programme of service and outreach to it.

6. Thoroughly to review our Christian resources of buildings, people, money and ministry, and to develop proposals for sharing them to the best advantage for the church and the community.

We, as SKFC members, undertake to review this covenant at an annual service and then to renew and review it in five years time


Iona ~ Edge of the World.

Laurie Green: Hearing the voice of the people

Yesterday, the Diocese of Chelmsford said goodbye to Bishop Laurie Green who has been the Area Bishop of Bradwell since 1993, serving an extremely varied region of South Essex. We were reminded during the presentations at the end of the farewell service of Laurie's very significant contributions in affirming ministries, encouraging community engagement, and bringing us into the heart of the mystery that is God. He has also had a much wider ministry throughout his ordained ministry and his time as Bishop of Bradwell including chairing the Church of England’s Urban Strategy Consultative Group and of the ecumenical National Estate Churches Network. Laurie has also had a significant ministry in encouraging the application of theology to life. We were reminded that his seminal book is called 'Let's do theology' and not let's talk theology or let's read theology.

I first encountered Laurie through his support of the Voice of the People Trust, a charity formed by my father Phil Evens as a seed bed for inner city community engagement. Laurie wrote the following in support of Voice of the People which I think sums up some of the main thrusts of his ministry:

"When the Church report, 'Faith in the City', was published, the Government ran wild with fear and even managed to accuse the Church of England - yes, the Church of England - of producing a Marxist report. It seemed to me that what made them so anxious and made them want to scupper the report was that it asked a very basic question - Why can't ordinary people make decisions about their own lives? Why should inner city people not be allowed to voice their own concerns and be given the wherewithall to do something about them? It was this simple question which seemed to scare the powers that be. Those in power in our society are very willing to raise a bit of money for projects which ease the plight of inner city people but they are still not prepared to learn from the voice of those who have an altogether different experience of society from theirs - the voice which comes from experiences of the joys and the oppressions of the inner city. The 'Voice of the People' is a realistic response to those questions in the Report and comes from a deeply felt Christian concern that since all of us are made in God's image, then we should all be listened to - all God's children should have an equal voice. 'The Voice' [the Trust's newsletter] tries to act as a vehicle for working-class values and working-class culture to be expressed and for working-class Christians to have a say. The powers that be will learn a lot from listening to the Cry of the City just as in the Bible, time and again, it was the cry of the people at the bottom of the pile that was the voice that God listened to and upon which God acted.

But I can't blame big business for not wanting to follow that more radical path of listening and learning from those who on the face of it can only be recipients of their gifts. But wouldn't it be great if as well as gifts flowing from the rich to the poor, the rich would also be prepared to receive the gift that the poor have to give to them - the voice of experience - the experience of being vulnerable and unprotected from society. The rich are protected from the harsh realities of our society and so they are in no position to understand it - because they don't see it. I welcome projects like 'Voice of the People' and wish there were more of them so that those in power could hear what things are really like in the society they control and so that ordinary men and women can share their hopes, aspirations and Christian beliefs."

It was a great joy to us as a family that I was ordained Deacon by Laurie and we wish him every blessing in the challenges of what will, no doubt, be an active retirement through which he continues to engage with these same issues.


Martyn Joseph - He Never Said.

Guidance for future ministry

This morning I preached at St Albans Ilford, at the invitation of Fr. Stuart Halstead with whom I trained at NTMTC. It is good, having shared aspects of training together, to then be able to share aspects of ministry together within the same Deanery:

Am I in the right place? Following the right path? In the right work? What is God’s will for my life? What is my vocation? These are just some of the questions prompted by Matthew 4. 12-23, as we read of Jesus, those who heard him, and his first disciples all making key decisions about their future direction of travel. Hopefully, we shall see some of the factors which play a part in their decision making.

Jesus hears that John the Baptist is no longer able to continue his public ministry because he has been imprisoned. As John was his predecessor, the one who was preparing the way for Jesus' own ministry, Jesus judges that the time is now right for his ministry to begin. So circumstances seem to provide the trigger or opportunity for Jesus’ ministry to begin and can play a part in our lives too. Jesus seemed able to read circumstances well, we not always able to do that as well as he did and sometimes only understand what was happening to us at the time when we look back.

As a teenager, I didn’t get the grades needed to get into University and felt like dropping out of education altogether. I was persuaded to go through clearing however and got a place at Middlesex Polytechnic, so came to London instead of Leicester, where I’d been intending to study. As I was applying late, there was no accommodation available in Halls and so I had to find somewhere to live off site. Once I’d settled in, I started going to the Parish Church which was where I met Christine, who became my wife. I thought at the time that doing less well in my A levels was a disaster, but without that happening I would not have had the marriage and family that I now have. I was being led through circumstances to something wonderful but had no idea that that was the case at the time.

While circumstances played a part, Jesus also allowed scripture to shape the form that his ministry would take. The Gospel writer includes a quote from Isaiah 9, a passage which is often read at Christmas, to explain what Jesus was doing. A key theme of the prophecies collected in Isaiah is that of Israel as God’s servant. Jesus takes this servant role assigned to Israel in prophecy as his ministry template or job description and so, guided by scripture, he chose to begin his ministry in Galilee.

We can also base our lives and ministry on a template or job description. Our template is Jesus himself - so, for example, the letter to the Philippians talks about knowing Christ in order to become like him. Christlikeness should be our goal as Christians; not that we ever attain in this life. Our job description is essentially Jesus’ own manifesto taken from the Book of Isaiah and read at Nazareth near the beginning of his ministry: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to … bring good news to the poor … proclaim liberty to the captives … recovery of sight to the blind … set free the oppressed … and announce that the time for salvation has come.

Jesus’ message to those who listened to his preaching was that Israel was on the wrong path and must turn around and move in the opposite direction. Tom Wright writes that, “Jesus believed that his contemporaries were going in the wrong direction. They were bent on revolution of the standard kind: military resistance to occupying forces, leading to a takeover of power … The problem with all these movements was that they were fighting darkness with darkness, and Israel was called - and Jesus was called - to bring God’s light into the world. That’s why Matthew hooks up Jesus’ early preaching with the prophecy of Isaiah that spoke about people in the dark being dazzled by a sudden light … Jesus could see that the standard kind of revolution, fighting and killing in order to put an end to … fighting and killing, was a nonsense. Doing it in God’s name was a blasphemous nonsense.

But the trouble was that many of his contemporaries were eager to get on with the fight. His message of repentance was not, therefore, that they should feel sorry for personal and private sins (though he would of course want that as well), but that as a nation they should stop rushing towards the cliff edge of violent revolution, and instead go the other way, towards God’s kingdom of light and peace and healing and forgiveness, for themselves and for the world.”

What do we as a nation need to turn away from in order to turn towards God? William Butler, chief economist at the investment banking giant Citigroup, has been quoted as saying that we have lived beyond our means year after year and the nation collectively has to consume less while Janice Turner has argued that consumerism has become like a religion to us leading us to believe that living standards would keep being upgraded like mobile phones. Can we as a nation stop rushing towards the cliff edge of consumerism, and instead go the other way, towards God’s kingdom of light and peace and healing and forgiveness?

Maybe, if we catch once again a vision of Jesus as he really is, we can. The integration of Jesus' message with his personality and actions was so attractive for his first disciples that they left their livelihoods to be with him doing the things that he did and becoming part of his mission bringing the rule of love in the kingdom of God. Why did they give up the security which they had to follow a wandering preacher? “The answer can only be in Jesus himself, and in the astonishing magnetism of his presence and personality. This can be known and felt today, as we meditate on the stories about him and pray to know him better, just as the first disciples knew and felt his presence 2,000 years ago.”

So, are we able to demonstrate in some way the kingdom of God where we work or live? Is what we do currently contributing to the coming of Jesus' revolution of love? Do we need to turn around and leave what we are currently engaged with in order that we might be engaged with the kingdom of God or do we need to listen to circumstances and scripture in order to understand how to live under the rule of love in the place where we are right now?

These are just some the questions which arise from the varying ways in which see Jesus, his disciples, and those who heard his preaching, making decisions about their future direction in life. Lead us, Lord, in your ways that we may live under your rule of love revealing your kingdom where we live and work. Amen.

An edited version of this sermon can also be found on the website of Mission in London's Economy as the Gospel Reflection for Sunday 23rd January 2011.


King's X - Send A Message.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

The Million Dollar Quartet and the Godmother of Rock 'n' Roll

Yesterday's Independent had a feature on the Million Dollar Quartet, in the light of the new musical of that name which opens at the Noel Coward Theatre on 28th February.

The musical is inspired by the fabled Million Dollar Quartet of 4 December 1956, when Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, all enjoying the first flushes of success, found themselves in the same studio. The show imagines these fathers of rock'n'roll and country bashing out hits including "Blue Suede Shoes", "Folsom Prison Blues", "That's All Right", "I Walk the Line", "Great Balls of Fire", "Hound Dog", "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and many more.

But as the article points out that wasn't what happened at all. The truth is less immediately satisfying but much more interesting. There is no evidence that they played any of these songs – none are on the tapes. Instead, there are fragments of gospel and standards, with a smattering of rock'n'roll.

What this demonstrates is the extent to which rock and pop music emerged out of the Church. The early stars of Rock 'n' Roll, like Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, drew on a shared background of Spirituals, Gospel, the charismata of Southern Pentecostalism and all faced anxiety over their decision to substitute secular words and movements for sacred songs and mannerisms.

This influence formed the centrepiece of Mick Csaky's BBC biopic, The Godmother of Rock & Roll: Sister Rosetta Tharpe. During the 40s, 50s and 60s Sister Rosetta Tharpe played a highly significant role in the creation of rock and roll, inspiring musicians like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. She may not be a household name, but this flamboyant African-American gospel singing superstar, with her spectacular virtuosity on the newly-electrified guitar, was one of the most influential popular musicians of the 20th century.

Tharpe was born in 1915, close to the Mississippi in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. At the age of six she was taken by her evangelist mother Katie Bell to Chicago to join Roberts Temple, Church of God in Christ, where she developed her distinctive style of singing and guitar playing. At the age of 23 she left the church and went to New York to join the world of show business, signing with Decca Records. For the following 30 years she performed extensively to packed houses in the USA and subsequently Europe, before her death in 1973.


The Million Dollar Quartet - Just A Little Talk With Jesus.

The Book of Eli

The Book of Eli is a well shot and scripted apocalyptic road movie with the King James Bible at the centre of its story, making it an interesting film to watch and possibly study in the Year of the Bible.

Eli walks alone in post-apocalyptic America. He heads west along the Highway of Death on a mission he doesn't fully understand but knows he must complete. In his backpack is the last copy of a book that could become the wellspring of a revived society. Or in the wrong hands (those of Carnegie), the hammer of a despot. "We walk by faith, not by sight," quotes Eli.

An essential question raised by the story is what contributes to building a civilization. As much as Eli believes the Bible will serve as the basis for a new, just and equitable society, a chance to start over and avoid the errors of the past, Carnegie sees the same text as a means to controlling people and expanding his dominion. The two might agree on the inherent power of the words between the covers of this book but have diametrically disparate views on how that power should be used.
Allen Hughes, who directed the film with his twin Albert, says: “What we’d like people to take away from ‘The Book of Eli’ is an appreciation of life and how precious it is. It’s a story that touches on universal themes of faith, commitment, sacrifice and, ultimately, hope. These are the elements that originally attracted us and we tried to do them justice.”
Al Green - How Can You Mend A Broken Heart.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Licence to kill

"Now he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool
And when he sees his reflection, he’s fulfilled
Oh, man is opposed to fair play
He wants it all and he wants it his way

Now, there’s a woman on my block
She just sit there as the night grows still
She say who gonna take away his license to kill?"

Bob Dylan - 'License To Kill'


Richie Havens - License To Kill.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Windows on the world (137)

Hoddesdon, 2011


Chagall Guevara - Escher's World.

Monday, 17 January 2011

From the Abundance of the Heart

Today I've been with colleagues in Redbridge Deanery at our annual Deanery Residential. In addition to having some Q&A input from our new Bishop, Stephen Cottrell, we have also been reflecting on his book From the Abundance of the Heart: Catholic Evangelism for All Christians. In the session which I led, I shared the following material on contact, welcome and nurture from the book before leading into group discussion of the mission process commended by Bishop Stephen:

“There is a fantasy about evangelism: people hear the gospel, repent, and look around for a church to join. Then there is the reality: people come into contact with the church, or have some inkling of the possibility of God, and enter into a relationship with the church, either through its activities, its worship, or just friendship with its members. In the loving community of these relationships faith begins to grow. Or to put it more succinctly: belonging comes before believing. Therefore, right at the heart of any effective evangelistic ministry must be a warm and generous attitude to those who are currently outside the church community and a place of welcome and nurture within it.

Nurturing a generous attitude of welcome to newcomers is something that needs to be worked at over many years … Welcome is not just what we do when someone comes through the door. It is an attitude which seeks to get inside the shoes of the other person so that they can be welcomed and accompanied at every point of their journey.”


Key question: How can we serve the people with whom we have contact in such a way that the gospel is intriguing, challenging and appealing?

1. List the ‘people groups’ with whom you have contact

2. Selecting one or two groups list their interests and the issues they face.

3. List aspects of the gospel that speak to this group of people and their issues.

4. Think of an event at which you could gather this group of people together and, as a way of serving them, begin to address the issues and share something of the gospel.

5. Work out all the practical arrangements for putting on this event, as far as possible collaborating with the people you are inviting so that it is their event as much as yours.

6. Produce a response sheet and decide how you are going to use it.

7. Make sure there is a next step in place.


• An evening for parents called ‘Questions children ask’;
• An evening focusing on Christ is represented in art for members of a local Art Club;
• A book club meeting on a book which raises spiritual questions;
• A course on Christian prayer and meditation as part of the local programme of adult education;
• An invitation to renew marriage vows at a mass service to all who were married at the church in the past fifty years;
• A party for all who have been baptised in the last five year;
• An evening called ‘Stress, Stress, Stress’ with a secular speaker on stress management and a church member on prayer and meditation;
• An evening at which the Christian ethos of church school was explained and commended to parents of children beginning at the school.

“Becoming a Christian is not just learning about the Christian faith: it is about becoming a member of the Christian community, and it is about relationship with a God who is himself a community of persons. Therefore, right at the beginning of the journey, people need to experience what it means to be part of a pilgrim church. Before people can become pilgrims themselves they need to feel happy to travel with us and be open to experiencing life from a Christian perspective.

The place of nurture needs to be a safe place, where people are at ease, where they can bring their questions, and where they will feel challenged, but not pressured. People need to feel comfortable: they need to feel that their questions and concerns are taken seriously.

I like to use the term ‘Travellers’ to refer to people who are beginning to explore the Christian faith, because it describes those who are on the way. They may not yet be coming to church, but they are committed to taking the next step. For many people the best next step is a course of enquiry where they can enter into dialogue with the Christian faith in the company of other Christian people.”

Possible courses include: Alpha, Emmaus, Faith on the Way, and Start!


Alison Krauss & Robert Plant - Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Random album

I picked this up from Morag. If you’ve got a few minutes to while away, try creating a random album.

1 - Go to Wikipedia & hit random. The first article you get is the name of your band. 2 - Go to & hit random quotes. The last 4 or 5 words of the very last quote of the page is the title of your album. 3 - Go to flickr and click on “explore the last seven days”. The 3rd picture no matter what it is, will be your album cover. 4 - Use photoshop or similar ( is a free online photo editor) to put it all together. 5 - Post it with this text in the "caption" and share with your friends


U2 - Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me.

Faiths in the workplace

Yesterday I contributed to a residential weekend for curates in the Diocese of Chelmsford on Presence & Engagement organised by the Greater London Presence & Engagement Network. This is what I had to say as my introduction to a panel session exploring non-institutional approaches to Presence & Engagement:

Prior to ordination I worked in the Civil Service for Jobcentre Plus. What I found there was that the multi-faith nature of urban Britain combined with the diversity and equalities agenda meant that those working in employment and training services needed to understand their customers and employees who were part of faith communities. This development provided an opportunity for me to work on the development of a Faith Communities Toolkit for Jobcentre Plus which provided information for staff on the nine world religions (including Christianity) represented in the UK and ideas and guidance on contacting and working with people of faith. Since ordination, through consultancy work for the Muslim-led multi-faith agency Faith Regen Foundation, I have also been involved in preparing similar resources for staff at Sainsbury’s, Calder UK Ltd and the learning and skills sector, more generally.

Based on these experiences, I want to say two things initially. Firstly, all workplaces have to address engagement with people of faith because of equalities legislation, multi-faith workforces and/or a customer/supplier base that includes those who belong to a faith community. Therefore, every person in your parish, wherever that parish is located, who has a job is engaging with people of other faiths. This means that there is no longer any validity to the argument that, because my parish is not located in a multi-faith area, I do not have to engage with the issues raised by Presence and Engagement. If you are to actively support your parishioners in their daily lives making connections between their faith and their work, you must engage with inter-faith issues.

Secondly, equalities legislation (including the Regulations on Religion and Belief) represents a huge opportunity for Christians and the church in the UK, because it legitimates the raising of faith-related issues at work. This legislation, for example, says that you can ask your employer what provision they will make for people to pray during the working day. An employer has to address that issue if it is raised. They don’t have provide a prayer room or time for prayer unless it is reasonable for them to do so, but they do have to consider the issue, respond, and give reasons (which can then be discussed and debated) if they choose not to act.

So, I want to encourage you – on a one-to-one basis and in parish discussion or study groups – to encourage people to talk about workplace issues and engaging with people of other faiths at work. Two resources that will help with that are, firstly, the Living with other faiths materials from PEN which start by getting people to list where and when they encounter people of other faiths and then explore ways of turning casual encounters into a more active engagement and, secondly, the Christians in the Workplace materials from the Diocese of Chelmsford which include a list of workplace issues that have links to faith and discussion of what people meant by workplace spirituality.

My experience of engaging with these issues in the workplace is firstly, that it is possible to do it; secondly, that it provides a platform for people of all faiths to legitimately speak about their faith commitment in the workplace; thirdly, that relationships with colleagues deepen through knowing more about each others’ underlying motivations; and fourthly, that your own faith deepens as you come to know more about the way in which others practice their own faith. I see these four things as linked to the Parable of the Good Samaritan which is a story about relating to people of other faiths and which challenges us to show care for those who are of other faiths but which also goes beyond that to challenge us, as it is the Jew in the story who receives help from the Samaritan, to receive from those of other faiths. The workplace is a key context in which such encounters and engagement can occur.


Sixpence None the Richer - The Melody of You.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Re-interpreting and questioning iconography

The Hay Hill Gallery in Cork Street is this month featuring the paintings of Patrice Valota and Aigana Gali. Both artists explore the religious values, iconography and the alpha and omega of life through very different techniques, from the pigmented wax of Valota and the mixed medium oil and photographic art of Gali. Their exhibition features restful and powerful paintings interpreting the universe around us and our own beliefs.

Valota is a multi-facetted artist. In parallel to painting, he is also a successful actor and has appeared in international films. It was at the age of 38 that he finally decided to become a painter and three years later had his first one-man show at the Lavignes Gallery in Paris. The Hay Hill gallery is presenting his first show in London.

Valota has chosen wax as his main medium and paints with the flame of a blowtorch, mastering the fusion of melted matter and pigments to obtain a glowing surface. Wax sets off a very special light and gives a unique depth of colour to his work. With both classical and contemporary influences, he plays on contrast, offers abstract and figurative works, and mixes natural references with geometric lines. His 'Arborescence' series focuses on trees as the alpha and omega of life. For Valota, trees are like the cosmos, constantly regenerating themselves and the space around them.

Thoughtful painting, classical composition, Renaissance palette and unique photographic technique symbolise Aigana Gali's works. Relics and modern representations at once, her paintings evolve from re-interpreting and questioning Christian iconography. Christianity has always depicted its saints and even God with a human face. On the contrary, Islam forbids any pictorial depiction of holy characters. This has always fascinated Aigana since she was brought in a family where a religious mix of an Orthodox Christian mother and a Muslim father has provided her with endless themes for contemplation - the nature of God within human beings.
Gali was born in 1980 in Almaty (Kazakhstan) of Georgian/Kazakh descent and was raised in Kazakhstan, which is the ancient crossing on the Great Silk Road, where Asia and Europe mix to give the world a unique blend of culture. She has worked as an artistic director in a theatre and has featured in three main roles in Kazakh films. In 2009 she was nominated as a “Discovery of the Year” as an actress at the Eurasia Film Festival.


Paul Simon - Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes.

Undervaluing and undercutting the Third Sector

Earlier in the week I chaired the AGM of the Downshall Pre-School Playgroup, as Chair of Trustees. 09/10 has been another very successful year for the Pre-School Playgroup where, as part of delivering our core business of enhancing the development and education of children under statutory school age by encouraging their parents to understand and provide for the needs of their children, we have organised a visit from the Road Safety Roadshow, held International Lunches for parents and children, hosted a Redbridge Institute of Adult Education 'Play and Learn' course for parents, held weekly cookery sessions for children, regularly visited the Mobile Library, and held our annual picnic in Seven Kings Park and Christmas Party with visits from Mr Zippy and Father Christmas.

However changes to funding and to funding structures are making the delivery of successful and high quality community-based and charitably run childcare settings like Downshall Pre-School Playgroup increasingly difficult to sustain. The problem is essentially that the Government and local authorities increasingly wish to treat such settings in the same way as schools by operating the same funding structures. As a result, the funding process for childcare settings has become increasingly complex and bureaucratic imposing an additional administration burden on these settings at the same time that funds overall are becoming tighter.

This, in itself, is part of a wider problem with the way in central and local government tend to engage with the Third Sector generally. Good intentions about tapping the skills of volunteers and the contacts of community groups are undercut by the reluctance of local authorities and government departments to bear the cost of monitoring and managing lots of small contracts with lots of small organisations. Instead, the tendency is to tender with larger organisations or consortia which while they may be Third Sector organisations do not possess the grassroots confidence, contacts and volunteers which community groups possess and ministers wish to tap.

Sometimes, as with childcare currently, everyone gets swept up into a process designed for large organisations while on other occasions the large organisation gets the contract with the bulk of the funding and then sub-contracts the work to smaller groups at considerably less viable rates. These approaches improve the efficiency of the department running the contracts but removes or reduces the ability of genuinely community-based organisations to deliver. The current funding structures for childcare are running this risk at a time when demand for childcare remains high and in many areas is rising.


Stevie Wonder - Isn't She Lovely. 

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Romantic Moderns

I recently saw an episode of Escape to the Country where the mystery house was of a modernist design. The reaction of mother and daughter to this interior was typically British in that they loved its clean lines and open spaces but couldn’t see themselves feeling at home living within its spotless minimalism.

In her Afterword to Romantic Moderns, Alexandra Harris tells a similar story of visiting the V&A for its landmark exhibition on Modernism and moving:

"past cabinets full of competitively patterned tributes to man’s ornamenting instinct, and then – silence. A heavy mahogany door swung shut and I was in an immaculate world of suspended spirals, steel tubes, and slick, shiny architectural models. Manifestos, neatly typed, occupied the walls in orderly agreement about the aims of design in the twentieth century: ‘espousal of the new’, ‘rejection of history and tradition’, ‘embrace of abstraction’, the desire to ‘invent the world from scratch’.

There were few English contributions on display because the curator saw Englishness and modernism as being antithetical; modernism was cosmopolitan and English art was pastoral.

Harris’ book is a sustained plea for a more nuanced look at English responses to modernism than was the case in the V&A’s exhibition. The book is an expansive overview of architecture, art, conservation, cookery, criticism, gardening, literature, music, religion, restoration, topography and tourism which enlists modernists such as T.S. Eliot, John Piper and Virginia Woolf in a modern English renaissance celebrating the particularity of the English climate, localities and homes.

The career of Piper in some senses is illustrative of this story with an early milestone being his involvements with the modernist 7 and 5 Society and Axis, the modernist journal edited by his wife Myfanwy. Yet he moves from the creation of purist abstracts to celebrate and record, in forms that are both romantic and modern, an English provincial world of old churches and stately homes. Harris’ book provides the wider context into which Frances Spaldings’ magisterial biography of John and Myfanwy Piper sits and the reading of both will illuminate this fascinating period of English cultural life.

Ultimately, Harris’ book reads more as an elegy for a passing period of privilege than as a manifesto for a national engagement with modernism. The continuing influences of the English renaissance which she documents seem primarily to lie in the fields of conservation, restoration and tourism while not all the initiatives she notes are followed into their present manifestations.

This is certainly true of the revival of the commissioning of art for churches where in the chapter entitled ’Parish News’ Harris summarises the achievements of George Bell and Walter Hussey. Their legacy, however, does continue into the present as has recently been documented by the Commission exhibition and book; an engagement with contemporary art which still to some extent negotiates between the romantic and modern.

At the end of the ‘Parish News’ chapter Harris quotes Stephen Spender as saying that Piper and Eliot among others were linked in their commitment to the ‘idea of the sacred’. This perception is not developed further, however, meaning that a mystical strand of Romantic Modernism, as seen for example in the exploration of spirituality through imagined landscapes and worlds (which can be found in the paintings of Cecil Collins and David Jones and in the writings of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams), is not explored.

More surprising still in terms of omissions are the minimal references to the Neo-Romantics with no mention at all of the work of Michael Aryton, John Craxton or Keith Vaughan, among others. Neither is there mention of the major Church commissions undertaken by Piper and Graham Sutherland, perhaps because these tended to result in more obviously modernist creations as, in Piper’s case, where such commissions facilitated his return to abstraction.

Nevertheless, Harris largely succeeds in making an expansive and original case for an English renaissance in this period. However, in making the case that this renaissance valued the local and particular, it would seem that she also succeeds in confirming the modernist belief in the provincialism and pastoralism of English art.

OMD - Maid of Orleans.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

A further MiLE

The website for Mission in London's Economy (MiLE) has been upgraded. Click here to see the new site.

MiLE is a London wide ecumenical Christian organisation set up in 2005 which has set itself the following objectives:

1.To co-ordinate the churches’ interventions in discussion of London’s economy
2.To respond on behalf of the churches to consultation exercises on London’s economy
3.To recruit, train, support, insure and supervise workplace chaplains
4.To support Christians working in the institutions of London’s economy
5.To educate churches in the issues facing London’s economy so that they might be able to respond appropriately
6.To work with other faith communities in order to create coordinated faith-community responses to the issues facing London’s economy

The site also has information about Faiths in London's Economy (FiLE) which I chair, copies of two papers I have written (Faith IN Work and Taking faith to work), weekly Gospel Reflections to which I am a contributor, as well as a wealth of other materials relating to Christianity and London's economy.
Bruce Springsteen - Working On A Dream.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The Bible - to be continued ...

On Sunday evening I heard Stephen Cottrell, the Bishop of Chelmsford, preach on the Bible Year 2011. Bishop Stephen's sermon was bookended by two stories. The first concerned a man who had read, in 24 hours, the whole of the New Testament for the very first time and who had concluded that it was the most incredible message of love. The second was about a woman who had sung a rhyme listing the books of the Bible to the Bishop while in the Silver Ring at Royal Ascot on Ladies Day. This incident had been a trigger for this person to share something of her troubled background with Bishop Stephen and commit to opening and reading her Bible again, after many years of not doing so.

In between, he spoke about the Psalms as the love songs of the Bible and highlighted the look of love from God towards who walk in his ways (Psalm 33). This he contrasted with the look of love which Jesus has for the rich young ruler who walks away from him (Mark 10. 21). That same love was there for the woman in his story regardless of the way in which she chose to respond to the incident. All this illustrated the need for us to give away to others the Bible and its message of love and, as a result, three words should be added to the Bible; 'to be continued'.

Bishop Stephen was preaching at St Peters Harold Wood and, as part of the same service, dedicated two fused glass windows by Caroline Richardson, which had been commissioned through commission4mission.


Sixpence None The Richer - Breathe Your Name.

Monday, 10 January 2011

The New Dark Ages (3)


Birmingham-based street artist Unit-Y begins a new work today at the entrance to the Water Hall of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. At the artist’s request I will be present to document the development of this work for God’s graffiti and readers of freeze.

The inspiration for this new work has come as Unit-Y has reflected on the current culture crisis through the lens of his Islamic faith. He has always viewed his unique brand of street art as a spray-painted message to humanity by directing his aerosol to themes of diversity, justice and love. Now he intends to recreate the cultural journey made by humanity in the form of the 100 objects identified by Neil MacGregor as telling the story of the world.

Images of these 100 objects will be spray-painted onto the wall of Birmingham’s principal palace of culture containing, as it does, a collection of similarly significant artefacts. Unit-Y is well aware that the earliest objects which he paints will inevitably be enveloped by the darkness which is currently extending through our cultural heritage. This is part of his thinking for this work. As a graffiti artist he is used to his own work being eradicated by Council cleansing teams and he will, in his usual fashion, simply begin again each day that the darkness continues to cover up his images.

In an act of faith Unit-Y commits to repainting each day in a different form these 100 objects as an act of actively remembering our heritage and its influence. His work is therefore envisaged as an act of resistance against this eradication of our cultural history. Unit-Y invites the general public to join and assist him in this act of resistance and remembering.

In view of the significance of this initiative, freeze will follow the project posting visuals documenting the project and regular reports on Unit-Y’s activity and achievement. Unit-Y is taking a stand, a stand for human culture and deserves the active support of all who value our common culture past, present and future. This is art for humankind’s sake.

Don Wolf, Editor of freeze, 31/12/11

The New Year began with clear skies and a hard frost. Unit-Y, keeping active with his aerosol to combat the cold and begin the work, explained the genesis of his decision to begin this resistance project which dates back to the Prophet’s (pbuh) time in Medina.

At Medina, the Prophet (pbuh) and his followers lived peacefully with Christians, Jews and pagans, each valuing the culture of the other. Equality and freedom of religion were both codified in the Constitution of Medina. Unit-Y says that he seeks through the images and messages of his work to recapture the essence of that Medina vision.

In this project he aims in an act of solidarity, as a Muslim, to demonstrate his valuing of the cultural artefacts of many other faith groups, in addition to those of his own. He sees this as an opportunity to bring to the forefront of our collective minds understandings that are gradually fading away from modern society.

News of the project begins to circulate. Passers-by stop to view proceedings and share views. Texts are sent, the website gets hits, and the numbers arriving increase. Unit-Y shares his vision with those who come and the work expands to encompass each of the 100 artefacts.

This first version sets the objects, logically enough, on a timeline which doubles as a Swarovski charm bracelet; so seeing the artefacts as the precious jewels of humanity. As each historically early object is completed it is immediately covered by the darkness; the onset of which palpably deflates those present.

As natural darkness descends, candles are lit and prayers recited in differing forms. The small crowd begins to disperse, Unit-Y is congratulated, hands are shaken, backs are slapped, people commit to returning, and the completed work is left to the street light’s glow. The soft light makes vivid the voids created by the darkness.

Don Wolf, Editor of freeze, 01/01/12

Returning a week later, the transformation is immense. The eyes of the world are now on Unit-Y. Cameras from TV companies and News Agencies are relaying his work and observations around the nations. The street is a milling mass of well-wishers, many of whom have taken up residence intending to be with Unit-Y for the duration. The area surrounding his painting has become a shrine through the crowd of candles which mark the boundaries of the space within which he paints. Scaffolding towers with tarpaulin stretched between them now offer protection to the work and respite from the inclement weather to Unit-Y.

Gazebos and other shelters have been erected. Food outlets have sprung up. A stage has been erected as a festival feel is unfolding. Local acts have begun to perform in shows of solidarity or associated publicity. Areas and times for various types of worship have been initiated.

Yet, while an organisation of sorts has emerged, what seems most positive are the myriad examples of more informal and casual interactions: musicians jamming together; rappers inspiring each other to more audacious rhythmic rhymes; accapella folk singathongs; ad-hoc interfaith groups studying each others’ scriptures together, among others too numerous to document here.

Unit-Y is thrilled with these developments. "I started this project just as a gut response to the crisis of culture caused by the darkness. It was a simple act of resistance and I had no idea whether others would share that gut response. Now, though, I’m getting a sense of something much bigger building. People are getting the project. They’re not just here for the vibe. They’re checking out the 100 objects and getting the connection between these objects and us, here and now. I’m sensing that forgetting or ignoring those connections is in some way linked to the rise of the darkness and could be key to us resisting its rise."

Today’s image is word heavy replete with phrases deriving from or accruing around the objects themselves. The wall of the Water Hall becomes a word cloud of associations released by human creativity. Phrase upon phrase building a construct of creativity. The darkness redacts this visual document with increasing censorship of that same creativity.

Don Wolf, Editor of freeze, 07/01/12

I have been fortunate to have able to globetrot in order to see art in many countries and cultures around the world. I have reviewed and reported on most, if not all, the most recent trends in contemporary art. I have met many of the most significant artists of our time and have been present at some of the most profoundly original and exciting exhibitions, festivals and installations of recent years. Yet, I have never experienced an art happening such as occurred today.

It began with the great and the good descending on the Water Hall. The Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, Directors of each National Museum and Gallery, national religious and secular community leaders, all came to stand in front of Unit-Y’s latest creation; a global interlinking of the 100 objects with countries of origin and countries where Unit-Y’s act of resistance was being replicated. The speeches and prayers that you would anticipate from such figures were duly made. The crowd was restive, not fully appreciating the stereotypical phrases praising Unit-Y’s initiative and prayers which seem ineffective in the face of the relentless rise of the darkness over human culture.

Unit-Y commended this gathering of the great and good to the crowd as a unique coming together of culture, politics and religion before requesting that those who had come to speechify and pray now took time, before leaving, to speak with those in the crowd and hear from some of the myriad other performers present now responding to the artworks and the cultural crisis.

Clocks nearby sounded the hours and the crowd rose as one to tell the history of the world by naming, in order of their creation, the 100 objects. TV cameras relayed the chant around the world where it was taken up in the same moment by those at each site where Unit-Y’s initiative was being replicated. Millions of human voices – the great and the good, creatives, religious, secular, marginalised, dispossessed, nameless - each naming the great cultural artefacts of human history; knowing, owning, valuing, appreciating, and understanding these same artefacts. Collective scales were falling from the eyes of humankind. These objects are what we made and what have made us.

And in this moment of collective realisation the darkness stalled, weakened and faded before vanishing like mist. For a moment following stillness was absolute then the dam of pent-up emotion broke in a vortex of hugs and tears and kisses and dances and whoops and cheers releasing all into a realisation that the world had listened and learnt and understood.

Dan Wolf, Editor of freeze, 10/01/12

PM Dawn - Looking Through Patient Eyes.

Windows on the world (136)

Coventry, 2010


Bob Dylan - Not Dark Yet.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Spirituality in Contemporary Art

Jungu Yoon is a South Korean artist now living and working in London. His book, Spirituality in Contemporary Art: The Idea of the Numinous, is of particular interest because Yoon writes as an artist not an art historian and out of an Eastern, rather than a Western, heritage.

In his own conceptual and digital work Yoon is seeking contemporary equivalents to the numinous aspects of Chinese Shanshui painting: "concepts of ‘void’ or ‘nothingness’, and ‘moving focus’ or ‘multi-viewpoint’ devices." Additionally, he argues "that multimedia ... exhibits unique characteristics which facilitate artistic explorations and revelations of the numinous." These include: time controllable experiences providing out of the ordinary feelings (Nam June Paik); exposure to visible sights beyond natural perception (Bill Viola); reconfigurations of the natural order (Atta Kim); and utopian virtual experiences of interconnectedness (Mariko Mori).

Yoon creates, exhibits and documents responses to four artworks utilising aspects of the concepts summarised above in the hope that "such practice-led research may be of interest not just to people with an inclination towards the spiritual in art, but also those already experimenting with multi-media technologies and open to expanding their horizons."

The latter chapters of the book which deal with the above provide an original analysis of spirituality in contemporary art which fully bears out Yoon’s conclusion that "contemporary artists understand and express the concept of spirituality" and "the process of expressing or approaching spirituality in art is a constantly changing one."

Preceding these chapters are more problematic introductory chapters which seek to survey the history of spirituality in art and definitions of the numinous. The strength of the latter sections come from Yoon writing as a contemporary artist drawing on his Eastern heritage while the weaknesses of the initial chapters derive from the fact that he cannot write as a Western art historian.

Therefore, we get a simplistic adaptation of Bellah’s five stages of religious development leading us to a place where organised religion and contemporary art are opposed, with artists such as Ofili, Serrano, Viola, and Hirst viewed as Anti-Christs. All this in the space of little more than eight pages leading to the conclusion that "in order to apprehend contemporary spirituality in art, we must search in unconventional places and seek the numinous in the guise of secular ideas and forms."

Similarly, in his definitions of the numinous, Yoon emphasises that "the concept of spirituality within modern art cannot adequately be expressed by relying of traditional theological jargon" and that "the numinous is greater than specific moral laws." As such, he argues, "the museum or gallery has replaced the church as a site where the ‘numinous’ might be encountered."

There are numerous issues with the assumptions and arguments that Yoon utilises in these sections of the book. His historical summaries are clearly sketchy in the extreme, his own definitions of the numinous constantly expand to the point where the term means so many different things that it is essentially undefined, and he describes his own practice as drawing on "Taoist speculations about the significance of the non-existent" thereby demonstrating an engagement with organised religion.

While there is much in Yoon’s historical analysis that is open to challenge, his description of his own practice-led research and his insights into both the spiritual potentialities of multi-media and the spiritualities of his immediate artistic predecessors and peers are compelling.

Brandon Flowers - Only The Young.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

The New Dark Ages (2)


The Times, Thursday 22nd December 2011

The New Dark Ages

Our palaces of cultures – the museums and galleries of which free access to the riches of their great stores of human learning and culture have been among the greatest achievements of our culture in recent centuries – lie in ruins. Barricaded by rings of security personnel and barred by locks, chains and all manner of high-tech security devices, we, the public, can no longer access the collections to which we previously shared the right of open access.

Yet this denial of access combined with its concomitant rapid increase in security has been powerless to prevent the slow but relentless eradication from sight of artefacts from the earliest times of human culture together with all reference to these artefacts in later artistic, educational and scientific creations.

The darkness which is systematically obliterating human culture and which, if it continues, will lead us into a new Dark Age shows no sign of being abated by the actions taken to date by the Government to seek to protect what remains of our national collections.

Culture, to be preserved, must be lived and breathed in order that it fertilises future creativity and learning. Too much of our current culture is already blind to the extent to which it utilises and is informed by past culture. We think and act as though we emerge from the womb as fully formed independent individuals with no debt to nurture, yet our every thought and word and action is inevitably and unconsciously predicated on some past learning.

This year, we celebrated a cultural artefact – the 1611 King James Version Bible – which is among those artefacts that will shortly be lost from sight should this dark blight on our culture continue its relentless progress. When this Bible is lost from sight, we will not only lose the artefact itself but all that it has contributed to our culture in terms of imagery, story, phraseology and much, much more.

Our culture cannot sustain such a loss, such a repeated series of losses, and survive unharmed. We face a new Dark Age which cannot be prevented by denial of access and security cordons. Therefore, we call for the doors of the palaces of cultures to be flung wide open once again. Maybe in the learning which ensues an answer to the relentless rush of this tide of darkness in our culture can be found. Or, like Canute’s courtiers, we will see the folly of our hubris.

Carly Simon - You're So Vain.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Art's chilly attitude toward religion is thawing

Steve Scott has posted a link to an excellent article by Matthew Milliner in The Huffington Post entitled 'The Return of the Religious in Contemporary Art'. Here is Milliner's conclusion:

"Art's chilly attitude toward religion is thawing, expressed perhaps most directly by Harvard's Camille Paglia:

"I would argue that the route to a renaissance of the American fine arts lies through religion. Let me make my premises clear: I am a professed atheist and a pro-choice libertarian Democrat. ... For the fine arts to revive, they must recover their spiritual center. Profaning the iconography of other people's faiths is boring and adolescent. The New Age movement, to which I belong, was a distillation of the 1960s' multicultural attraction to world religions, but it has failed thus far to produce important work in the visual arts."

To be sure, the art world suffers from a secular hangover still. But one can't shake the feeling that religious concerns are the elephant in the gallery, waiting to be more fully addressed. When the dust settles from the controversy over Wojnarowicz (whose work should be understood apart from it), this refreshing proximity of art and religion, not their temporary alienation, will endure.

At the end of the day, the silliest part of the passing kerfuffle is that it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of Christianity. The cross, at least according to St. Paul (1 Corinthians 1:23), is already an intentional offense, and nothing done to it by artists can make it any more horrifying than it already, quite intentionally, is: The most hideous of spectacles, a hole impossibly black, absorbing every awful deed committed and every good one left undone. Just what is a crucifix? It's impossible to say: "As the depths of the sea cannot be fathomed by any human gaze," wrote Gregory of Nyssa, "so too the secret of Hell is impenetrable to all human knowledge." But such was the cost of redemption. Compared to the bracing reality of the gospel itself, urine and ants are as offensive as Champagne and butterflies."


Galliano - Prince Of Peace.

Of beauty and affirmation (2)

I'm currently reading It was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God which returns me to my earlier reflections on the nature of beauty because the book contains a chapter on 'Beauty transfigured' by Adrienne Chaplin.

Chaplin begins with some art historical reflections by arguing that the concept of beauty has been absent from and even inimical to modern art. Beauty has been associated with the sentimental and shallow while the purpose of modern art was to subvert and to shock. She quotes Barnett Newman as saying, "The impulse of modern art is the desire to destroy beauty."

This changes, she suggests, in the early 1990s as art critics and others begin discussing the concept of beauty once again. She contrasts the Regarding Beauty and Sensation exhibitions suggesting that Sensation was "the last gasp of the modernist belief in art as agent of social confrontation and change, while Regarding Beauty heralding the beginning of a renewed focus on beauty and "aesthetic" experience."

This latter perception would seem to be disproved by subsequent events as the Sensation artists went on to become major figures within contemporary art retaining their ability, as has contemporary art generally, to shock. At the same time, beauty has not generally become a major strand of artistic creation or criticism in the way that Chaplin envisaged in 2000. In her comments on modern art, Chaplin does not seem to acknowledge the interest, attraction or beauty which modern art sees in the 'found object' or the 'ready-made' or the way in which later generations see beauty in art which was once perceived as 'ugly' or 'shocking', as is evidenced by the repeated success of exhibitions showing work from the early to mid modern period.

Chaplin then highlights the confusion which exists regarding definitions of beauty. Entering this debate means entering "a complex interdisciplinary web of theories and views". Where, she asks, "in this jungle of views and opinions should Christians position themselves?"

Firstly, she suggests we need to question aspects of our own tradition including abandoning the Platonic conception of "a two-tier world in which earthly beauty is either a mere shadow of or a pointer to another higher world of capital B beauty." Beauty, she writes, "whatever may eventually decide it means, is an integral feature of the one world created by God and deserves to be honoured exactly as such." Secondly, we need to nuance the idea that God is beautiful as this is a term very rarely used of God in the Bible and which is often seen as "frivolous, seductive or deceptive." A more accurate attribution to God, she argues, is that of glory but glory seen in relation to the self-sacrificial love of Christ which "passes through the ugliness of the cross."

Chaplin then undercuts this significant perception by stating that, "although this account of the "beauty" of Christ may help us gain a deeper understanding of the meaning of the cross, it does not help us very much with the question of beauty in art or nature." I would say exactly the opposite, that this perception helps us to see the beauty of modern art which embraces offence, pain, darkness, death, and ugliness.

Next Chaplin highlights the definition of beauty given by Aquinas as "that which pleases when seen." She nuances this definition by stating that "something may please because it is striking, or stunning or just plain intriguing"; it does not have to be ""pleasing" in a conventional or confirming way." Again, this would seem to encompass the possibility of finding beauty, as modern art has done, in pop, kitsch, the ready-made, and the found object but Chaplin's contrasts in this section - strip malls, highways, subway platforms - suggest not. These are "ugly urban scenes" where there is nothing that "calls for our more focussed attention." Modern art, I suggest, operates within Chaplin's nuanced version of Aquinas' definition but disagrees with her examples of ugliness on the basis of her own definition of beauty.

Aquinas' statement is not, to my mind, a definition of beauty because it depends entirely on subjective responses which will differ instread of providing objective criteria on which many can agree. Chaplin notes that beauty "always appears in particular historical and social contexts" and so is "not the same for everyone at all times" meaning that "we cannot point to an objective feature of something beautiful, which can be considered to constitute the kernel of its beauty." So, if Aquinas' statement is useful to us but not as a definition, how is it to be understood? I would suggest that it can be understood as a way of seeing; an affirmative approach to life which is looking for what we perceive as pleasing, attractive, intriguing, striking or stunning (to use Chaplin's phrases). 

So, we have two perceptions of beauty drawn from the Christian tradition which Chaplin articulates but does not clearly link within the argument made in this chapter. I, however, want to say that they are synergous; that an affirmative way of seeing is analogous to Christ's embrace of human pain and suffering in order to redeem it.

Chaplin ends her chapter on a similar note by highlighting a third exhibition, A Broken Beauty, in which was exhibited works which invite the viewer "to consider the body's capacity for beauty despite its brokenness, in the midst of its brokenness, and, ironically, because of its brokenness." I agree with this perception of beauty, which I think accords with what I have outlined above, but am unclear as to how Chaplin reaches this point through her use of the materials and ideas which she considers in this chapter.

Finally, I think that the picture she paints of modern and contemporary art in this chapter confuses the issue as, in my view, many of the perceptions of beauty which she wishes to commend to us are exemplified by the very examples of modern and contemporary art which she seeks to critique.


Nickel Creek - Seven Wonders.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

The New Dark Ages (1)

This is the first part of a short story which I have recently written with the 400th Anniversary of the 1611 version of the King James Bible in mind, although the story concerns all human culture and has a strong multifaith element to its plot.

The New Dark Ages

"I'm bringing back to the forefront principles that are gradually fading away from our modern societies." Mohammed Ali (aka AerosolArabic)

"You can't appreciate English literature unless you are steeped to some extent in the King James Bible ... not to know the King James Bible, is to be in some small way, barbarian." Richard Dawkins


It was in a private meeting called by Prime Minister David Clegg at 10 Downing Street itself that the full implications of the crisis were finally articulated.

The published reports were of an increasing series of thefts; systematic thefts of artefacts from museum displays throughout the country and with no sign of forced entry. Security had been immediately increased, access had been restricted to significant sections of most museum collections and free entry to all but the most localised of museums suspended.

Yet the full extent of the crisis was being actively suppressed with the media being fed only the bare bones of the true story which in its fullness constituted a cultural crisis and had led to the Directors of all the national collections being summoned to meet with the Prime Minister.

"There have been no thefts," explained Neil Dixon, the Director of the British Museum.

"No thefts!" exclaimed Clegg. "Then what in God’s name are we doing here and why the massive expense of the measures you have all demanded from me and my Government!"

"That is correct," Dixon stated. "No actual thefts, but to all intents and purposes theft is what appears to have occurred."

"All who visit our institutions see absence where certain artefacts should be displayed," cut in Dr. Michael Penny, the Director of the Natural History Museum.

"The artefacts remain in their place of display." Dixon resumed his account. "Our curators can touch and feel them and can confirm that they have not been stolen, yet these artefacts are enveloped in an impenetrable darkness which means that they cannot be seen."

"In the circumstances," Penny cut in once again, "it seemed more understandable to talk to the media of thefts than to persuade them and the public of the true nature of the crisis."

"A crisis," shouted Clegg, his voice rising in sync with his flushed colour, "which I still fail to fully grasp, beyond what now appears to be wholly unnecessary expenditure on increased security for objects which have not in fact been stolen, nor are under any threat of being so."

"To be frank, Prime Minister," interjected Sir Nicholas Jones, the Director of the Tate Galleries, "that is the least of our worries. The darkness which is enveloping these cultural artefacts – and it is artefacts of human creation which are affected - is doing so systematically and period by period, epoch by epoch."

The bearded, bespectacled face of the Director of the Natural History Museum once more jutted forward with an interruption. "The darkness began at the beginning with the first objects known to have been human creations and is progressing systematically forward from that point."

"In addition," continued Jones, his face beginning to glisten from heat and sweat - the effect of the import of the news he sought to convey combined with his concentration in doing so and the stuffiness of the room in which they met – "not only are the artefacts themselves being blanked from sight but so too are all references to them in the artistic and literary artefacts which follow them in history."

"Our contacts tell us," added Dixon, "that this is a global phenomenon."

"What periods of history are currently affected?" asked the Prime Minister.

"We are currently in the Mesolithic Period," stated Penny, pleased to finally take the lead and supply hard facts. "The forward movement of the darkness appears to be weekly and we have no indications as to what its cause might be or how to counteract its progress."

Dr. Martine Serota, the Director of the V&A, made her first contribution, "Prime Minister, you must understand that we remain at present in a period of crafted objects rather than written words. As a result, the current impact of the darkness is much less than it will become if its progress continues as to date."

"Even so," stated Jones, "I have paintings, photographs, sketches and notes which cannot be displayed because they contained images of artefacts which the darkness has covered and these images have also been covered by darkness at the same time."

"The Lascaux caves now look like the redacted documents issued by the US after the first WikiLeaks publications," blurted out Dr. Christophe Newby, the Director of the Science Museum, almost in tears.

Serota continued her analysis. "What will happen, Prime Minister, when the darkness reaches crafted objects which are in the landscape, rather than our museums, and are national icons? Stonehenge being just one significant example!"

"Constable’s mezzotint, Gropius’ photos, the arrest of Tess ..." Jones muttered.

"What too will happen once we reach the periods of the written and then the printed word? Take the King James Bible as example! What will happen when that is enveloped by this darkness? Will all the phrases which it gifted to our culture and which are peppered throughout our language also be enveloped? Will the phrase ‘salt of the earth’ no longer be seen in our literature? Will that phrase still form itself on our lips? We do not know the answers to these questions but we fear the consequences for our culture and future."

"Without a solution," exclaimed Clegg with a sharp intake of breath, "we will be entering the new Dark Ages!"

Mark Heard - Well-Worn Pages.