Wikio - Top Blogs - Religion and belief

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Newspeak: British Art Now Part II

Earlier this week I was at the Saatchi Gallery to see Part 2 of Newspeak: British Art Now. Having appreciated the first part of Newspeak, it was encouraging to see that the standard of work remained high in part 2 and that painting continued to feature strongly. These are the artists that caught my attention:
  • Juliana Cerqueira Leite: Leite's work is driven by an investigation into physicality and how we interact with the physical world. Oh came from thinking about physics: what would our bodies look like if time didn’t separate our actions? She traced the area around her as far as she could reach without moving her feet and made an object that would materialise that space. She sees it as a volume defined by the potential of touch.
  • Jonathan Wateridge: Wateridge thinks of his work in relation to cinematography; composing realistic but fictional images. These are paintings that play on a sense of the familiar - our understanding and consumption of archetypal or generic images - by way of a B-movie aesthetic meeting the Sublime.
  • Tessa Farmer: Made from desiccated insect remains, dried plant roots, and other organic ephemera, Farmer’s Swarm references Damien Hirst while envisioning the purveyors of mischief and magic (fairies) as an actual species, as animalistic and Darwinian as any other to create a microscopic apocalypse.
  • Dan Perfect: Perfect says that his paintings are like imagined interiors or psychological landscapes; stage sets or dramatic scenes from video games. They are re-imagined experiences, a decayed science fiction where tumultuous change and biological entropy is intervened and radically altered. Everything is partial in these paintings: masks, costumes, body parts, animals that are human, humans that are animals, things are taken apart and exploded.
  • David Brian Smith: Smith's Great Expectations - Wow takes a picture of a Shepherd tending his flock found in a newspaper from the 1930s and uses the image to jump between different styles of painting to reinvent the space, light and palette within the picture. 
  • Anne Hardy: Hardy’s photographs picture depopulated rooms that suggest surreal fictions allowing our relationship with them to be in our imagination.
  • Anna Barriball: Barriball covers the surfaces of everyday objects so they become seductively sinister husks of their former selves unveiling a mystery in the domestic and familiar. Door is a drawing that assumes the qualities of a sculpture. Its burnished graphite surface captures every subtle detail of the original object, while the paper warps and fluxes through repetitive handling to gain a solidity of its own. Black Wardrobe becomes a monumental void connoting absence and memory.
  • Idris Khan: Khan compiles single super-images by digitally layering and super-imposition of multiple images of industrial subjects giving the effect of an impressionistic drawing or blurred film still. The effect is of a soft ethereal energy conveys a sense of time depicted in motion. They exude a transfixing spiritual quality in their densely compacted details and ghostly outlines.
  • Clarisse d’Arcimoles: d'Arcimoles' series consists of a photograph from her family album and a picture of the same person taken in 2009 in a scene that’s been exactly reproduced creating a way back to childhood, even if just for a short instant. d'Arcimoles says, "We were all children once, and that is something that is always current within us ... By creating these kinds of comparisons, or rather confrontations, I felt like I was exploring time in its oddest form – as if there was a dialogue between the past and the present moment."

Confessions of Dangerous Minds, showing at the Phillips de Pury & Company galleries at the Saatchi Gallery in London, features 19 established and exciting up and coming artists to explore the breadth, depth and diversity of Turkey’s visual arts. Here I particularly liked:
  • Yasam Sasmazer’s works feature figurative sculpture of children or ‘little people’. Made to confess something seemingly naughty, there is something uncanny in the fantastic world the artist creates, a feeling that we all remember from our childhood.
  • Ebru Uygun embraces a minimalist and abstract approach to painting; concentrating on colour, form and space. The artist adopts a technique by which she combines torn strips of canvas into a new single work, each strip forms a piece of the work in an dazzling accumulation of colour and pattern.
  • In Ramazan Bayrakoglu's works, the viewers’ first impression comes from the image seen through the use of satin cloth or plexiglass. As viewers visualise the material and the subject together, the meaning of the work is ultimately understood; the result is a comparison of various works and the different feelings evoked in the audience.

Arcade Fire - Ready To Start.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

For interpretation

Daniel Siedell has recently posted on Susan Sontag’s essay, "Against Interpretation" (1966), in which:

"Sontag argues that the classical mimetic theory of art has created an unnecessary distinction between form and content, which modern (and now postmodern) theories have merely intensified. Interpretation presumes that a work of art must justify itself through content. Sontag writes, "Directed to art, interpretation means plucking a set of elements (the X, the Y, the Z, and so forth) from the whole work. The task of interpretation is virtually one of translation." In the hands of interpretation, art becomes merely the visual illustration of an idea."

Arguing against interpretation seems problematic to me because as soon as one moves beyond factual reportage of form, one is instantly in the realm of interpretation where one’s worldview (whether consciously or unconsciously) frames all one’s responses to the artwork, however deep one’s engagement with the work of art may be. Each of us inevitably view all that we encounter through the lens of our particular perspective. That doesn’t prevent us from engaging with anything new but does mean that we cannot have an entirely objective (‘God’s eye’ perspective?) perspective on anything with which we engage. It seems to me that Sontag presupposes the possibility of an engagement with the artwork by the viewer which is entirely free of any internal influence and where engagement is only in relation to the work itself. I don’t think that is possible because we are always context bound and therefore are always interpreting.

If interpretation is inevitable, the question then becomes how to do it well. There seem to me to be at least five elements, which vary considerably in importance.

The first and most important is an engagement with the work itself. Like Sontag and Siedell I would also want to emphasise the importance of a deep engagement with the work of art itself as a unified whole combining form and content. Form and content cannot be separated in viewing, engaging with and responding to the work as an integrated entity. Form and content inter-relate and their inter-relation must be perceived and appreciated if there is to be real engagement with the integrity of the work. All interpretation must therefore begin with and constantly relate back to the unique combination of form and content which is the artwork itself.

The unified whole that is the artwork exists in relation to the artist who created it as a child exists in relation to her/his parents. The child is always a person in his/her own right who can be known and encountered entirely independently of the parents yet who has been formed by both the genes and upbringing of the parents and continues to be, whether in revolt against or in harmony with, in relationship with her/his parents. Similarly, an artwork can never be defined by the intent or history of the artist that created it but both the artist’s intent and history can shed valid and valuable light on the work.

Each artwork also exists within a range of different contexts. The most obvious is the physical context of the space in which it is encountered; most commonly, but by no means exclusively, gallery space. The inter-relation between the space and the work is most explicit in site-specific works but is a factor in response to all works. Other contexts include the social and cultural time in which it has been created, whether or not the work specifically refers to aspects of these or not (just as a child can be in revolt against or in harmony with his/her parents, so an artwork may respond to or react against its social and cultural context), and its place within art history and art movements (again, rejection or assimilation may be involved) including the influence of other art upon its creation and the effect that its creation has on art history and art movements.

Each artwork also generates its own critical trail as it is reviewed, analysed, interpreted and categorised by critics, curators, historians and other artists.

Finally, each viewer makes their own personal response to the work. One that is inevitably influenced by the factors already listed but which always holds the potential, because of the unique combination of influences and perspectives that each viewer brings, to perceptions which may differ markedly from those generated by these same factors.

Contemplation and reflection are key if the varied nuances of each work are to be perceived and integrated. Often the time required is not given affecting the quality and integrity, my own very much included, of the interpretation.

Observation and research into the practice of visitors to galleries suggests that the amount of time spent engaging with the work itself is often minimal (the crowds founded at blockbuster exhibition exacerbate this tendency) and that priority is often given to critical comment on the work, whether in the form of curatorial explanatory labels, catalogue entries or audio guides. Whether through lack of time or confidence, these practices seem to emphasise the least helpful factors in interpretation.

A sustained, deep engagement with the work seems the necessary beginning for interpretation, and the central reference to which interpretation should constantly return. In my view this would then lead to personal response which can be developed and challenged by consideration of the artist’s intent and history, the work’s several contexts, and the critical trail the work has generated to date. None are ultimately definitive, although the form and content of the work itself provide the parameters within which all interpretation takes place.

The Low Anthem - Golden Cattle.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Windows on the world (151)

Ilford, 2011


Elbow - Open Arms.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Prayer - Banner dedication

We dedicate this banner to the glory of God in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. May it be a sign visible to all who come to this church of our commitment to live by the wisdom from above which is pure, peaceful, gentle, friendly, compassionate, good, free from prejudice and hypocrisy, and produces a harvest of good deeds. So, we also dedicate ourselves, as individuals and as a church, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus by becoming peacemakers who plant in peace in order to produce a harvest of goodness. We ask this in the name of the same Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.


Robert Randolph and the Family Band - Ain't Nothing Wrong With That.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

'Faith-friendly' employers

Just discovered that my interview with Catharine Pusey when she was Interim Chief Executive Officer of the
Employers Forum on Belief can be found online here.

The interview was published in the Faith In Business Quarterly Issue 13: 1 and explored Catharine's perceptions of ‘faith-friendly’ employers and what they are doing to warrants that designation.


The Who - Substitute.

MiLE Gospel Reflection

My latest Gospel Reflection for the Mission in London's Economy website begins by noting the number of people who haven’t initially recognised me as result of my having grown a beard and ends with the following prayer:

Open my eyes, Lord, to see you in the events, people and things around me. To know your reality and meaning in human beings and the world you created. Amen.

The full reflection can be read by clicking here.


Radiohead - Street Spirit (Fade Out).

'Piss Christ' and incarnation

Andres Serrano's Piss Christ - his 1987 photograph of a crucifix immersed in urine - was attacked last weekend in France by Catholic activists armed with blunt tools. The LA Times reports that:

"three people entered the Collection Lambert art museum in Avignon, France, over the weekend. One of them wielded a hammer at the photograph, breaking the protective glass. The photograph was apparently not damaged, though other works in the show were. Piss Christ was being displayed as part of a religion-themed group exhibition titled I Believe in Miracles.

Serrano told Libération: "I find it extremely sad, and unexpected. Frankly, I wasn't expecting something like this at all, especially in France, where I get a lot of support." Serrano also reiterated that he is a Christian artist and has no tolerance for blasphemy.

The Catholic bishop of Avignon, Monseigneur Jean-Pierre Cattenoz, has described Serrano's photograph as "odious" and has called for its removal.

Over the years, Piss Christ has generated a lot of heated rhetoric. The work was a central focus of the Culture Wars in the 1990s, in which politicians and arts supporters debated whether the National Endowment for the Arts should support works by Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe and other transgressive artists."

Despite this, Piss Christ is an almost perfect image by which to reflect on the reality of the incarnation. The incarnation saw Christ choose to immerse himself in the shit and detritus of human life to the extent of being treated, in his death, as being of no worth and entirely surplus to requirements. I can think of no other image that brings the scandalous reality so graphically to mind and, if that cannot be understood by those who smashed the image last weekend, one wonders what they actually understand of their faith.


The Call - Walls Came Down/Scene Beyond Dreams.

Good Friday Activity Morning


Friday, 22 April 2011

Seven last words from the cross

The first word

Forgiveness for betrayal
Forgiveness for wrongful arrest
Forgiveness for abandonment
Forgiveness for denial
Forgiveness for a corrupt trial
Forgiveness for false witness
Forgiveness for mob rule
Forgiveness for legal capitulation
Forgiveness for condemnation of the innocent
Forgiveness for imprisonment
Forgiveness for beating
Forgiveness for mockery
Forgiveness for violence
Forgiveness for torture
Forgiveness for murder

All sin
All humanity
All held
All covered
All embraced
All forgiven

The second word

From blindness to insight
From condemnation to salvation
From punishment to freedom
From death to life
From a cross to Paradise

You are with me
now, today
in Paradise
in this moment
in this instant
in this now
and to be
with me
in me
in this now
in this moment
in this eternity
is insight
is salvation
is freedom
is life
is Paradise

The third word

Love in the midst of torture
Care in the midst of pain
Life in the midst of death
Wounded reconciler
Wounded healer
Wounded carer

The fourth word

The sin-bearer
the scapegoat
is sent out
from the community
bearing the sins
of the community
taking sin away
from the community
into the desert
into the wilderness
into isolation
into nothingness
for the sins
of all

The fifth word

Dehydration …
loss of appetite
dry skin
rapid heart rate
elevated body temperature
dry mouth
muscle cramps
visual snow
swelling of the tongue

The sixth word

Death has been knocking on the door
Death has entered
Death is here
It is finished

Forgiveness achieved
Salvation complete
Mission accomplished
It is finished

The seventh word

Like an eaglet pushed from the nest
then caught by its mother
as it plummets
in order that it learns
to fly,
so I surrender my life
to death in trust
that I may rise.

Faith is
a leap in the dark
a step into an abyss
a journey through the valley
of the shadow of death
in trust that
the hands of God
are there
to hold you.


Julie Miller - River Where Mercy Flows.

Transfigured Vision and Everyday Apocalypse

I've just finished reading Faith, Hope and Poetry by Malcolm Guite which is about transfigured vision and am just beginning to read David Dark's book about Everyday Apocalypse. Each are different sides of the same coin; the coin in question being epiphany understood as a moment of revelation.

Guite writes that:

"sometimes ... the mirror of poetry does more than reflect what we have already seen. Sometimes that mirror becomes a window, a window into the mystery which is both in and beyond nature, a 'casement opening on perilous seas'. From that window sometimes shines a more than earthly that suddenly transforms, transfigures all the earthly things it falls upon. Through that window, when it is opened for us by the poet's art, we catch a glimpse of that 'Beauty always ancient always new', who made and kindled our imagination in the beginning and whose love draws us beyond the world."

It is those moments of transfiguration, he writes, "those moments when the mirror a poem holds up becomes a window into the Divine," which are the subject of his book.

Dark, by contrast, writes that:

"We apparently have the word "apocalypse" all wrong. In its root meaning, it's not about destruction or fortune-telling; it's about revealing. It's what James Joyce calls an epiphany - the moment you realize that all your so-called love for the young lady, all your professions, all your dreams, and all your efforts to get her to notice you were the exercise of an unkind and obsessive vanity. It wasn't about her at all. It was all about you. The real world, within which you've lived and moved and had your being, has unveiled itself. It's starting to come to you. You aren't who you made yourself out to be. An apocalypse has just occurred, or a revelation, if you prefer."

Two contrasting revelations but both meeting the requirements for an epiphany. James Joyce set out the requirements or conditions for an epiphany in Stephen Hero (the early version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) where he writes:

"By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual transformation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phrase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they are the most delicate and evanescent of moments ...

... First, we recognize that the object is one integral thing, then we recognize that it is an organized composite structure, a thing in fact: finally, when the relation of the parts is exquisite, when the parts are adjusted to the special point, we recognize that it is that thing, which it is. Its soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance. The soul of the commonest object, the structure of which is so adjusted, seems to us radiant. The object achieves its epiphany."

This description of epiphany seems more aligned with Guite's sense of transfigured vision than it does of Dark's everyday apocalypse, although it is Dark who claims Joycean understanding. On the one hand this is because Joyce draws heavily on theology for his understanding of epiphany. He wrote, for instance, of the work that would become Dubliners as being "a series of epicleti." This term Terence Brown notes, "derives from the Greek Orthodox liturgy and refers to the moment in the sacrifice of the Mass when the bread and the wine are transformed by the Holy Ghost into the body and blood of Christ." It is at this moment of consecration that "the everyday realities of bread and wine are charged with spiritual significance." Similarly, the literal meaning of epiphany is manifestation but, in the Church calendar the Feast of Epiphany commemorates the manifestation of Christ's divinity to the Magi. Bernard Richards notes that with this definition Joyce "comes close to the aesthetics of Gerard Manley Hopkins and his philosophy of haeccitas ('thisness')."  Richards also notes that, "For centuries writers and mystics have experienced sudden insights that seem detached from the flow of everyday perception. He cites William Wordsworth's The Prelude and Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Sudden Light as examples, before stating that often these epiphanies "have been on a borderline between the secular and the religious: what has been revealed in the mystical moment has been a sense of God, of the whole shape of the universe, of the unity of all created things."

On the other hand, Dark is right in stating that Joyce's use of epiphanies in his work was more to do with everyday apocalypse than with transfigured vision. Francesca Valente writes that:
"Joyce himself confirmed this in a letter of July 1904 to Curran, where he said that he intended Dubliners "to betray the soul of that hemiplegia or paralysis which many consider a city" (Joyce, Letters 55). Joyce therefore conceived this work as a sequence of "fifteen epiphanies"-as he stated in a letter dated February 8, 1903 to Stanislaus (Ellmann, James Joyce 125)-which were written to let Irish people take "one good look at themselves in his nicely polished looking-glass" (Joyce, Letters 63-64). What emerges from these words is that both the fictional characters of the tales and the readers are meant to undergo an epiphanic confrontation."

The two sides of the coin are, to some extent, combined in the stories of Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy (Dark says that O'Connor "is perhaps the best example of how the Yes and the No can coincide"). Percy writes about there being two stages in non-Christian audiences becoming aware of grace. First, there is an experience of awakening in which a character in a novel (and through that character, the audience) sees the inadequacy of the life that he or she has been leading. This is a moment of epiphany or revelation about themselves; an everyday apocalypse in which they either realise their depravity or their potential for grace. Thinking along similar lines O’Connor wrote that “the novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural.” Such an experience may then lead on to the second stage of hearing and responding to the grace of God in Christ (an epiphany of transfigured vision).

In the American South, there is a tradition of Appalachian country death songs; gothic backwoods ballads of mortality and disaster. The Violent Femmes took that tradition and used it in Country Death Song to confront their audience with an epiphany of the reality, ugliness and consequences of sin. They told a story in which the central character acts in a way that all of us recognise as sinful and then spoke about the reality of hell as a consequence of what he that did. This song is, therefore, an example of what Flannery O’Conner was talking about when she wrote that “the novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural.” In that situation she said, you have to make your vision apparent by shock and that is what the Violent Femmes did.

In her novels Flannery O’Connor also wrote about the way in which the holy interpenetrates this world and affects it. St Paul, in Philippians, tells to go through life with an attitude of looking out for things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely and honourable. He expects us to find these things in our ordinary lives, if we look for them. Over The Rhine say in the song Jesus in New Orleans that you never know just what on earth you'll find in the face of a stranger or in the dark and weary corners of a mind because, here and there, when you least expect it, you can see the Saviour's face. In their story of meeting a stranger in a bar in New Orleans in whose face and words they see something of Christ the holy is interpenetrating their world, and ours, and affecting it. In this way Over The Rhine created an epiphany that reveals Christ for us in the ordinary experiences of life.

American Literature and American Music frequently oscillate between epiphanies of grace and epiphanies of terror. Compare and contrast Emily Dickinson and Flannery O'Connor, for example, Victoria Williams and Jim White, The Innocence Mission and Sixteen Horsepower. Fear and threat on the one hand, mystery and enamour on the other - the twin poles of American music (see my post here). Legends, bibles, plagues, vegetables and death, roses growing out of people's brains, lovers who are really geese and swans that turn into angels - they're all in the mix. Epiphanies are songs of sin and salvation as sung by the wild, unshod, soot-covered orphans of God.     

Dark recalls an interview given by Malcolm Muggeridge in which he says:

"Let's think of the steeple and the gargoyle. The steeple is this beautiful thing reaching up into the sky admitting as it were, its own inadequacy - attempting something utterly impossible - to climb to heaven through a steeple. The gargoyle is this little man grinning and laughing at the absurd behaviour of men on earth, and those two things both built into this building to the glory of God ... [The gargoyle is] laughing at the inadequacy of man, the pretensions of man, the absolute preposterous gap - disparity - between his aspirations and his performance, which is the eternal comedy of human life. It will be so until the end of time you see ... Mystical ecstasy and laughter are the two great delights of living, and saints and clowns their purveyors, the only two categories of human being who can be relied on to tell the truth; hence, steeples and gargoyles side by side on the great cathedrals."   


Over The Rhine - Jesus In New Orleans.

Creatively communing with the Bible

Music, art, literature and film will be communing for an evening of performance and print, as the London Word Festival throws a four-hundredth birthday party for the King James Bible with a difference. Check out those contributing to the King James Bible Bash at Stoke Newington International Airport on Saturday 23rd April by clicking here. You’ll not see anything like this at your local church this Sunday.

On the same theme of the continuing inspiration of the Bible for creativity, writer Jeanette Winterson has been quoted by Genevieve Fox as saying:

"I do not think the inner life edited by AC Grayling is how I want to live. What secularists forget about Christianity is that belief in that system prompted the creation of an astounding body of imaginative work that in turn uplifts and alters the human spirit.

I do not believe in a sky god but the religious impulse in us is more than primitive superstition. We are meaning-seeking creatures and materialism plus good works and good behaviour does not seem to be enough to provide meaning. We shall have to go on asking questions but I would rather that philosophers like Grayling asked them without the formula of answers.

As for the Bible, it remains a remarkable book and I am going to go on reading it."

Artist Albert Houthuesen said:

"When you are a child and you read in the Bible of miracles, you wonder very much. Later all that changes and it becomes an amazingly imaginative idea of the world, based on truth, and written by great poets. Man, through this poetry, is trying to express about his life what is so terribly difficult to understand. He stands in mystery and through it he is trying all the time to understand.

At certain times, one may begin to make drawings and paintings of biblical things. The Bible is full of these tremendously imaginative ideas. They are profound symbols. The richness of the Bible is terrific. It is the greatest stuff that has ever been written."


Wave Machines - I Go I Go I Go.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Climate Changes: The Gallery at Parndon Mill

Today I visited Parndon Mill, in its delightful riverside setting, which provides workspace for artists, craftspeople, designers and architects. The Gallery at Pardon Mill, which is open five days a week, has become a focus for the artists who have studios there, and for those who work further afield.

The Gallery presents a series of exhibitions each lasting about six weeks which display a wide variety of paintings, original prints, sculpture and skilled craftwork, including an annual exhibition of works of art in glass by some of the best artists in this popular medium. In Summer the exhibition space can extend onto the "island" outside. Sculpture is even sited in the river! At all times there is a selection of original prints, paintings and crafts available for sale at The Gallery, and a wide variety of artworks can be viewed within a visual image data-base.

Climate Changes is the current exhibition (from 7th April until 15th May); a show of works which reflect humanity's effect on the world and its climate. Especially featured in this exhibition are paintings by Ian Welsh who uses multi-layered lacquers to evoke the melting ice of glaciers and the sea. Welsh has always been fascinated by the poignant beauty of decay, and has been totally seduced by the majestic collapse of our 'frozen' world but paradoxically views it with a profound sense of dread.

Also featured are a series of thought provoking prints by Anne Daniels. Anne states "The differences in the artistic and the scientific approach to nature fascinate me. I spent ten of my youthful educational years learning about applied mathematics and modelling fluid flows, then recently eleven years studying art at the University of East London." At present she is studying for a doctorate using climate change as a chosen subject. Her prints use the analogy of the world as a sliced red cabbage with telephone masts, wind farms, oil rigs and overcrowded buildings on the surface and oil wells and mines in the interior. Although her prints are concerned with this serious theme, they are very decorative and not without humour.

Textile hangings by Jill Leech depict strata through the earth exposed by the excavation of minerals and coal. She uses recycled dust bin bags to represent coal so effectively that one has to touch to be sure, and real coal is also imbedded in the fabric.

The exhibition also includes Alan Burgess's paintings of local flooding and his wife the sculptor Angela Godfrey's drawings of trees in Epping Forest affected by drought. Paintings and prints by Gillian McKenna, Corrina Dunlea, Fiona Zobole and Julie Cooper are also being shown.

The Jesus and Mary Chain - April Skies.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Airbrushed from Art History (24)

Albert Houthuesen has been described by Souren Melikian in the International Herald Tribune as a "virtually unknown master." Melikian wrote in the same article that he suspected that "Houthuesen will come to be seen as one of the great figures in post-World War II Western art." Jackie Wullschlager, Chief Art Critic at the Financial Times, wrote in a listing of the best books of 2008 that "Houthuesen was a Dutch-English modernist, whose life story forms one of the most sensational, offbeat, affecting artist's biographies I have encountered."

Melikian suggests that one of the reasons for the "deafening silence surrounding Houthuesen’s oeuvre" was that he "found his way to modernity in isolation, without ever trying to fall into line with any group." Although he met "Henry Moore, Edward Burra and other future luminaries on the contemporary scene" at the Royal College of Art, as a loner, "he did not keep in touch." Houthuesen expressed this sense in his view that the artist and the poet were inseparable in spirit from the clown, who he often portrayed as philosopher and saint.

A further reason for the wall of indifference towards his work may have been the visionary nature of the work. Melikian writes that Houthuesen, "transcribed visionary scenery, remote from material reality" where "movement is conveyed in masterly brushwork and color applied with a rare sense of harmony."  "A kind of explosive exultation" comes out in some of these "mental landscapes" where his "sophisticated brushwork is as complex as are the harmonies."

In Rocks and Storm, for example, "a hurricane seems to be blowing apart primeval elements, disintegrating into colored shreds" while in Invocation, "a red hot sun disc shot through with yellow is framed in a swirl of black. The sky, too, is ablaze in shimmering red with faint yellow streaks. The sea could be a torrent of lava springing up from a volcano." His ambition was "to paint things which are so rich and intense that they will annihilate what has gone before."

Houthuesen "was a profoundly religious man" who once said, "Today, for many artists, it’s ‘out’ to be interested in these things." Yet, "going to the moon for instance – this incredible thing that has happened in our time – doesn’t make the Bible any less wonderful. If anything, it makes it more marvellous." He remarked to his biographer Richard Nathanson that, ‘We walk in mystery’ and Nathanson has written, in the introduction to Walk to the Moon, that Houthuesen introduced him to the notion of ‘an inner journey’; "that an enquiring, ‘seeing’ imaginative mind could, without travelling the globe, gain an understanding of the underlying, universal elements that link all living things and Nature, regardless of time or place."

Houthuesen said, "I used to like going to church. Most of it I didn’t understand but I always had this feeling that there was a great and profound mystery which had tremendous meaning. When you are a child and you read in the Bible of miracles, you wonder very much. Later all that changes and it becomes an amazingly imaginative idea of the world, based on truth, and written by great poets. Man, through this poetry, is trying to express about his life what is so terribly difficult to understand. He stands in mystery and through it he is trying all the time to understand. At certain times, one may begin to make drawings and paintings of biblical things. The Bible is full of these tremendously imaginative ideas. They are profound symbols. The richness of the Bible is terrific. It is the greatest stuff that has ever been written."

The secret, he thought, is that some men and women (like Christ) are born with an intense imagination; "this imaginative power gives their thinking great clarity" and "that is why their thoughts carry on and on and become a universal thing, of all time and for all time."

Wullschlager brings both the isolation and spirituality together by writing of Houthuesen's "isolated but luminous imaginative world" as seen in the painting Walk to the Moon which has "at once a lightness of being – art’s escape into interiority – and a sense of painting as a tragic language that never left Houthuesen." In Walk to the Moon:

"a strange, elongated figure in a tight-fitting white costume, legs twisted like a gauche ballerina, face like a mask, emerges from a translucent blue ground, bearing a single flower. It is a figure out of time, one who might have walked off the moon, yet carries long art-historical echoes: the heart-breaking pathos of Watteau’s white-robed “Pierrot”; almond-wide, still, sad Modigliani eyes; the religious intensity of George Rouault’s clowns."

Ultimately, Houthuesen said:

"One can only paint anything at all, whatever the subject, through knowing it. And one must love it and be moved more than one can say."

Low - Witches.

Holy Week and Easter @ St John's

These our services and other activities for Holy Week and Easter Day at St John's Seven Kings:

• Tuesday 19th – 8.00pm, United Lent Service @ Seven Kings Methodist Church, Seven Kings Road
• Wednesday 20th – 10.00am, Holy Communion
• Maundy Thursday 21st – 8.00pm, Holy Communion with footwashing
• Good Friday 22nd – 10.00am Children’s Activity morning & 2.00pm Devotional Service
• Holy Saturday 23rd – 9.00am Morning Prayer
• Easter Day 24th - 6.30am Sunrise Service (followed by breakfast), 8.00am Holy Communion, 10.00am All-Age Holy Communion

This year's Devotional Service will include new meditations which I have written on the theme of the Seven Last Words from the Cross.

Robert Randolph and the Family Band - I Still Belong To Jesus.

Windows on the world (150)

Southwark, 2011


Sunday, 17 April 2011

Palm Sunday procession (2)

Photos above from our Palm Sunday procession shared with St Paul's Goodmayes together with a prayer from this evening's Palm Praise service at St John's Seven Kings:

Lord Jesus Christ,
you called your disciples to go forward with you
on the way to the cross.
Since you first walked that road
countless millions have followed you.  
In all that we do as your disciples
save us from false familiarity with your journey.
May we never presume to step into your shoes
but make us small enough to fit our own
and to walk in love and wonder behind you.


Solomon Burke with Gillian Welch - Valley of Tears.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Windows on the world (149)

Borough, 2011


Gordon Gano & The Ryans - Man in the Sand.

Palm Sunday procession

In recent years Palm Sunday in Seven Kings has seen the congregations of St Pauls Goodmayes and St Johns Seven Kings process between the two churches accompanied by a donkey and children dressed as disciples. The procession has been jointly organised by the two churches and has become an annual community event.

The year the service begins in St Paul’s Goodmayes (Atholl Road) at 10.00am and ends in St John’s Seven Kings (St John’s Road) at 11.15am. Procession route: Atholl Road – Westwood Recreation Ground – Meads Lane - St John’s Road.

The original Palm Sunday featured a joyful procession as Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a colt and the people praised God and spread cloaks and palms on the ground (see Matthew 21):

“They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" "Hosanna in the highest!" When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, "Who is this?" The crowds answered, "This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee."

The service and procession are a joyful celebration for us and, we hope, a visible act of witness to our community. Fr. Benjamin Rutt-Field, parish priest of St Paul's Goodmayes, has said that the procession reminds him of his three month sabbatical in Japan, "where the indigenous faiths of Shinto and Buddhism celebrate their festivals with joyful and colourful processions, conveying to the whole multi-faith community, something of what they personally believe in and why it is important to them."


Extreme - Everything Under the Sun Part 1 (Rise 'n Shine).

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Ministry Leadership Team

Today was our Annual Parochial Church Meeting, which included the following sermon:

Acts 13.1-3 shows us one way in which a missionary church of the first century was organised in the period covered by the New Testament. In the church at Antioch, we see:

• Members exercised different gifts; as there were, at least, prophets and teachers in this church (13.1a);
• Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul were representative of the culture of the area (13.1b);
• They were also part of the worshipping and praying congregation; as they were chosen while worshipping the Lord and fasting (13.2a);
• Set apart for kingdom work i.e. the work to which God called them (13.2b);
• Sent out for apostolic ministry in wider community (13.3); but
• Remained accountable to church leaders and members of the church (14.26-27).

Ministry as Partnership - MaP - is the name the Chelmsford Diocese has given to new models of Christian ministry which were beginning to be developed at the turn of the millennium and which aim to bring us back to patterns of church life that more resemble the missionary church of the first century.

At its heart, Ministry as Partnership seeks to affirm and encourage the calling of the whole people of God. It is about identifying and releasing all the gifts God has given us to be more effectively his church, principles which now underpin all diocesan and national strategies, including the major Mission Shaped Church and Fresh Expressions initiatives.

Within our changing world and culture, parishes are delivering ministry in many different ways. No one way is appropriate for all, but where the God-given gifts of all baptised members of the local church are being identified and used, there is growing confidence and a greater sense of moving forward. Historically, we may not have as many stipendiary posts, but there have never been so many following a calling, whether in a commissioned ministry or more informally.

Ministry as Partnership provides a process for establishing a Ministry Leadership Team within a local church. A Ministry Leadership Team is essentially those who lead, encourage and build up the work of the whole Body of Christ on behalf of the PCC. This year our PCC has taken the decision that we should set up a Ministry Leadership Team at St John’s Seven Kings.

The Ministry as Partnership process has five steps for establishing a Ministry Leadership Team within a local church:

• Building the vision – assessing where we are and discerning where we would like to be
• Making decisions – envisioning a team to suit local needs
• Forming a team – practical guidance for getting underway
• Staying fit – the ongoing life of the team, particularly at transition stages
• Going deeper – theology and ecclesiology for leaders and others

Looking at these five steps, you can see that we have already been working on the first two. We have our Church vision, which we reviewed in the first year or so that I was here:

That led to a renewed focus on our engagement with the local community which has in turn led to new people joining the church. As a result, we have moved onto Step 2 which is about envisioning all of us for ministry. Our Vocations Sunday service led on to the SHAPE course, the faith and work video interviews, and currently the Care and Share Lent course. All of which have emphasised that all believers of all ages and abilities have been called by God and have a vocation to follow. All have gifts to offer for the common good of the church and world.

All of which means that we are now ready for Step 3 which is where we form the Ministry Leadership Team itself. In the coming months, we will be asking you to think and pray about five areas of ministry here at St John’s and which members of our congregation could be responsible for each of these areas. It could be you! The five ministry areas are: Children and Youth; Mission; Pastoral; Peace and Justice; and Worship.

The kind of people that we will be seeking as leaders are those who have a developing spiritual life of their own and who seek to nurture and disciple others. Leadership is a gift for the common good and we will be asking those who become responsible for these areas of ministry to work in partnership with all those who are also involved in that area of ministry. Christian leadership is less to do with command-and-control than with establishing the environment within which others are empowered to use their gifts. The corporate leadership at St John’s (i.e. licensed minister(s), the PCC and the Ministry Leadership Team) are the guardians of God’s vision for this community of faith.

At St John's we will all have the opportunity over the next few months to reflect more on these areas of ministry and what is involved in taking them forward. Working towards partnership in ministry is a demanding and worthwhile challenge within which prayer deserves to be a high priority. In setting new directions, let us seek to keep in step with the purposes of God in the power of the Spirit; joining in partnership as God works in his world and his church.


Delirious? - Now Is The Time.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Of beauty and affirmation (3)

W. David O. Taylor has posted 9.5 Theses about beauty at Diary of an Arts Pastor. These derive from conversations with friends over a series of texts - ranging from Aquinas to Milbank while taking in a lot of Von Balthasar along the way - which have focused their attention on questions surrounding art, aesthetics and beauty.

His provisional conclusion has been that the centuries-long discussion about art and beauty, specifically about art's relationship to beauty, is a dizzying mess. His theses question the assumption that art and beauty self-evidentially go together and set out factors which are important if art's relationship to beauty is to be defined while still not giving up on beauty altogether, because the world would be much poorer without it, theologically as well as actually.

What he thinks he has learned principally is "to slow down - to read things three and four times if necessary, to look and to look again, to understand the author carefully before I make judgments (a basic requirement of charity), and to not be afraid, as hard as it is, to keep asking simple questions, however "obvious" or "silly" they may seem, and when I feel overwhelmed to not panic but to recognize that these authors deserve the respect of careful, slow, patient study."


McIntosh Ross - All My Trust I Place In You.

Save King George Hospital

The Save King George Hospital campaign is a multi-party, multi-faith campaign to persuade Andrew Lansley, the Secretary of State for Health to stop the closure of A and E and maternity services at King George Hospital, Ilford. Yesterday I took part in the day of the protests which began outside Queens Hospital and included a march to Ilford Town Hall for a rally where more than 500 people heard speeches from John CryerMike Gapes, Margaret Hodge, Lee Scott and local faith leaders, including myself. My contribution was as follows:

"What will be gained by this proposed reorganisation and who will benefit from it?

Clearly, we, the people of the affected boroughs, do not want it to happen. We have said so loudly and vociferously throughout the campaign but our voice has not been heeded by those in the Health Service who wish to push the changes through in the face of our opposition. As that is the case, we can only conclude that those who are driving these proposals either have some other agenda which benefits the Health Service itself or think that they know better than the huge number of local people who are opposed to these proposals.

So, on the one hand there is the possibility that this reorganisation is not about better service delivery to local people at all or the possibility that these proposals are paternalistic with so-called Health experts thinking that they know better than us what is good for us.

The whole direction of Government policy in the previous and current Government has been in terms of greater accountability to patients and yet these proposals ride roughshod over such accountability because those responsible for them insist on driving through in the face of overwhelming local opposition.

There are essentially two ways of delivering public services, whether as a Health Trust or a local authority, either you bring all your workers together in one place so that you reduce your costs and the public have to travel to you. Doing so, primarily benefits the Agency delivering the service and inconveniences those who use it. Alternatively, you locate your service as close to the people you are serving as it is feasible to do. This means you need more buildings and staff, rather than the public, are inconvenienced by having further to travel. This approach is about best practice and best customer service.

It is what we have now with locally delivered A and E and Maternity Services at King George Hospital. We must not lose it simply to satisfy Health Service managers pursuing their own agendas at the expense of hearing what we, the people they are in post to serve, are saying to them. What we are saying is simple and clear: Save King George Hospital."


Writz - Night Nurse.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Responses to the Templeton Prize award

Here are two responses from today's Times to the decision to award this year's Templeton Prize to Lord Rees:

"Martin Rees is a brilliant astrophysicist and a personal friend, but I believe he has made a mistake in accepting £1 million from the Templeton Foundation. In doing so, he supports its primary aim, which is to undermine the most precious tenet of science: that it is the only philosophical construct we have to determine truth with any reliability. The Templeton Prize has been set deliberately at a higher value than the Nobel Prize in a pathetic attempt, using enormous amounts of money as their lure, to bask in the reflected lustre of the most prestigious of science awards." Sir Harry Kroto

"Lewis Wolpert, Emeritus Professor of Biology at University College London and vice-president of the British Humanist Association, said that Lord Rees was justified in accepting the prize. "I think religion helps a lot of people, and as long as it doesn't interfere with science I don't mind. My son became religious and it did him some deal of good. Martin works so hard and does so much for science that any prize is well deserved."

I leave it to you to judge which response is the more reasoned and reasonable.


Radiohead - Everything In Its Right Place

Modern British Sculpture

Yesterday I heard The Very Revd. Nicholas Bury, former Dean of Gloucester Cathedral, speak at an event organised by Art & Christianity Enquiry about the Cathedral’s engagement with the visual arts including Crucible, the successful sculpture exhibition organised together with Gallery Pangolin and held in the autumn of last year.

Crucible showed over 75 works from 48 artists - a who’s who of contemporary British sculpture - from the "New Bronze Age" sculptors of the 1950s to current household names like Damien Hirst and Antony Gormley. The curator of the exhibition and director of Gallery Pangolin, Rungwe Kingdon, argued that: "Such enormous diversity, such a range of expression, powerfully illustrates the vitality and vibrancy of the sculpture scene." Pangolin Editions was founded in 1985 by Kingdon and Claude Koenig and by working with some of the foremost artists of the late 20th and 21st century, their foundry has grown into the largest sculpture foundry in Britain. Every sculptor they approached responded positively, a testament to the strength of the relationships they have formed. Therefore, most of the works included in Crucible were made in Gloucestershire, by the talented craftsmen working at Pangolin Editions foundry in the Stroud valleys, or by artists from Gloucester Cathedral.
Kingdon aimed to "choose objects that demanded attention, questioned convention and stimulated ideas" believing that sculpture "articulates images and ideas in a primarily emotional way, responses that are felt as much as seen." The sheer diversity of the seventy-eight pieces could be seen both in "their varied form, texture and colour" but also in the emotional responses made to them; "many confound, others delight, some may make us laugh and others even induce melancholy." Late twentieth and early twenty-first century sculpture, Kingdon suggests, "is famously irreverent, bawdy and questioning," but he also believes that the exhibition clearly articulated its "fascination with belief, faith and the potent ideas religion addresses: life, death, pain, pleasure, denial, excess, our interdependence and individuality; the opposites that question the ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ of our existence."

He concluded: "We wanted to find contemporary sculptures that would complement the magnificent setting of Gloucester Cathedral, which is a great work of art in itself ... The result is a tremendous endorsement of the sculptural richness of our age and a fitting tribute to the medieval period, justifiably known as the ‘great age of sculpture’ in British history."

Like Crucible, the Modern British Sculpture exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, which I saw today, is primarily relationally based, in this case showing how, for over 100 years, London and its museums have had a powerful appeal for sculptors, and how the Royal Academy itself has played a significant and controversial role in shaping modern British sculpture. To highlight the extent of the Royal Academy’s influence, the exhibition features sculptures by three of its former presidents – Frederic Leighton, Charles Wheeler and Phillip King.

However, unlike Crucible, which focused on the emotive nature of sculpture’s engagement with ultimate themes, the RA’s survey is chronological and focuses on the dialogue that British Sculpture has had within a broader international context, highlighting the ways in which Britain’s links with its Empire, continental Europe and the United States have helped shape an art that at its best is truly international in scope and significance. A series of visual juxtapositions are intended to challenge the viewer to make new connections and break the mould of old conceptions. So, for example, a series of significant loans from the British Museum and the V&A are shown alongside modern British sculptures from the period 1910-1930 to highlight the inquisitiveness of British artists when the Empire was at its peak and London was, almost literally, the centre of the world. The visitor is invited to make comparisons between these pieces and consider the dramatic effect that non-western techniques, iconography and cultural sensibility had on the development of British sculpture at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The extent to which both exhibitions have been formed through the relationships that each institution has fostered means that neither exhibition can be definitive in their treatment of the subject. The argument underpinning the selection and display of work in the RA’s show means that the works are viewed within a narrative of dialogue while at Crucible the works themselves were in dialogue with the architecture, functions and meaning of the building.

Bruce Cockburn - Pacing The Cage.

Prayer - Vision

Transfigure my vision, O Lord of creation. Remove the film of the familiar, re-awaken in me the mind's attention, give to me eyes that not only look on wild flowers, raindrops, grains of sand, but through them spy heaven. Allow your sacred river of imagination to rise in me. Grant me access to the truth which transfigured vision sees, as multi-layered meaning is bodied forth in finite phrases. Speak your logos to me that I may become luminous with the light of Christ. Amen.

(Based on Faith, Hope and Poetry by Malcolm Guite)


Malcolm Guite - The Green Man.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Windows on the world (148)

Gants Hill, 2011


Low - Especially Me.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Living the story (4)

The final session of Living the Story last Friday got me thinking about the extent to which creating art involves, through its very nature, aspects of spirituality. This is an argument that Malcolm Guite makes in respect of poetry in his book Faith, Hope and Poetry and one which is, to some extent also borne out through the writings of Philip Pullman, whose The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ we compared and contrasted to Ann Rice's Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana.

The starting point for these reflections is the commitment of the author to the story. Pullman has rightly been explicit in interviews about the importance of this commitment for novelists: "My intention is to tell a story – in the first place because the story comes to me and wants to be told."

Where this commitment is in place the stories that are written cannot simply be illustrations of the beliefs and opinions of the author. This is because once the initial scenario and characters have been described the story must develop in a way that is consistent with what has gone before:

"It's a story, not a treatise, not a sermon or a work of philosophy. I'm telling a story, I'm showing various characters whom I've invented saying things and doing things and acting out beliefs which they have, and not necessarily which I have. The tendency of the whole thing might be this or it might be that, but what I'm doing is telling a story, not preaching a sermon."

When this is combined, as in the His Dark Materials trilogy and The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, with explicitly Christian sources (Paradise Lost for His Dark Materials and the Gospels for The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ) it is then not possible for the story to not explore and express a spirituality.  

Pullman views the spirituality expressed as essentially secular albeit expressed in Christian language, imagery and narrative (often inverted). He has, for example, spoken in interviews about the impact of Kleist's thinking on his work:

"Kleist says we exist on a spectrum that goes from the unconscious to the fully conscious, and once we've left unconscious grace behind we can't go back, we can only go on - through life, through education, through suffering, through experience to the thing we come to call wisdom, which is right at the other end of the spectrum."
It is this sense of movement from unconcious grace to conscious wisdom that he seeks to present in and through Christian myth in His Dark Materials:
"I try to present the idea that the Fall, like any myth, is not something that has happened once in a historical sense but happens again and again in all our lives. The Fall is something that happens to all of us when we move from childhood through adolescence to adulthood and I wanted to find a way of presenting it as something natural and good, and to be welcomed, and, you know - celebrated, rather than deplored."

However, this movement need not be understood solely as a secular spirituality. The fact that it can be expressed in and through Christian language, imagery and story should suggest that it can also be consonant with Christian theology and spirituality. This movement is one which can be equated, for example, with Radical Theology, also known as Death of God theology. Ideas found in Radical Theology such as that:
  • that certain concepts of God, often in the past confused with the classical Christian doctrine of God, must be destroyed: for example, God as problem solver, absolute power, necessary being, the object of ultimate concern;
  • that we do not today experience God except as hidden, absent, silent; and
  • that God must die in the world so that he can be born in us as those chose to live in Christ in a world come of age; 
have real synergy with a story in which, as Donna Freitas and Jason E. King have argued, Pullman annihilates an understanding of God that is antiquated and unimaginative.

Rowan Williams has argued, in a review of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, that there are occasions when Pullman forces his stories in order to preach this message and therefore turns story into polemic: 

"The narrative is mostly Pullman at his very impressive best, limpid and economical, though one or two passages feel like easy point-scoring – the Annunciation story told as a seduction, or the mechanics of a fraudulent resurrection. At only one point does he break the flow of this narrative, in a long soliloquy by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest. Jesus's own faith, it transpires, is now on the edge of extinction. He admits to himself that there is no answer to be expected from heaven. Looking towards God, in the complete absence of any definable divine action or manifestation, is no longer possible. We may look back wistfully at a world in which this once felt possible or natural; but we have to let it go or be dishonest.

It is essentially the vision of Mary Malone in the third volume of Pullman's His Dark Materials. Here as there, it is expressed with some real emotional power. But there are problems. One is simply that nothing in the narrative has prepared us for this; the Jesus of earlier chapters has a robust conviction of the unconditional love of God as the basis for forgiveness and generous confidence, and for principled opposition to religious nonsense and tyranny. Set against the magical, power-hungry deity of "Christ", this is a liberating vision of the divine. Suddenly, it seems to have collapsed because there is no conclusive sign from heaven; and nothing in the story helps us to see how this happens.

The problem for a believer goes deeper. In the gospels, too, Jesus agonises in Gethsemane and gets no answer. But he accepts that he has – so to speak – taken on the responsibility of providing an answer in his own life and death, in a way consistent with his claim throughout the gospel to be speaking on behalf of God's liberating authority within a paralysed religious and social world. So when he cries out to God in agony from the cross "Why have you deserted me?", this is the consequence of his decision to be – in his own person – God's "answer". And there is no consoling word that can come to him from outside.

There is a clear narrative line in the Bible from Jesus's revolutionary confidence in announcing God's forgiveness, through to the terrible resolution in Gethsemane and its consequence on the cross. Simply as narrative, I think it makes better imaginative sense than Pullman's abrupt introduction of Jesus's abandonment of faith. Now Pullman would reject such a narrative line, because it claims that God's "failure" to answer doesn't decide anything. Pullman's Jesus is scathing about "smartarse priests" who talk about God's absence really being his presence. Well, yes: Christians use this kind of language. But not to let themselves off lightly; they're arguing that you only get anywhere near the truth when all the easy things to say about God are dismantled – so that your image of God is no longer just a big projection of your self-centred wish-fulfilment fantasies.

What's left, then? This is the difficult moment. Either you sense that you are confronting an energy so immense and unconditioned that there are no adequate words for it; or you give up. From Paul to Luther, George Herbert or Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Hitler's prisons, there are plenty who haven't given up; and they haven't given up because they see their experience in the light of something like this understanding of Gethsemane and the crucifixion."

Equally, it is also possible to see moments in his narratives when the demands of the characters and story lead him onto ground and ideas which seems very different from that he has explicitly sought to explore. So, for example, Graham Holderness has argued that the heart of the Dark Materials trilogy lies in Pullman‟s modern version of the Christian Harrowing of Hell:

"... in my view the journey to the Land of the Dead is both the narrative climax, and the most fully realised imaginative achievement of the novels. By contrast the War in Heaven and the Second Fall represent disappointing and anti-climactic narrative resolutions. The Authority has no true power, and disintegrates at a touch, though his regent Metatron proves harder to destroy.

It is precisely at this point of the narrative, where the search for Roger is suddenly expanded into the vastly larger project of liberating all the dead, that we witness a transition from the classical journey to the underworld, to the Christian Harrowing of Hell. Lyra and Will jointly play the role of deliverer, "redeemer and redemptrix", or as Millicent Lenz describes Lyra, the "Savior of humanity". Although Pullman's Land of the Dead clearly bears many similarities to the classical underworld, this vision of Hell being emptied was beyond the scope of the pagan imagination. Only Christianity with its revaluation of death could envisage an underworld from which the dead might hope to gain release. 'Death is going to die’.

In constructing his modern version of the harrowing of Hell, Pullman may have been 'trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief‟, by attempting to fashion a new anti-religious counter-myth of death and the dead, a "secular liberation narrative" expressing an "emancipatory and 'natural' humanism". But despite his intention, as Gooderham puts it, to "bend the old myth to a new secular purpose", the old myth bites back. „In order to attack religion‟, says Rayment-Pickard, "Pullman ends up telling a religious story". "Like all artistic transgressors" he goes on, "Pullman pays homage to the sacred power that he seeks to overcome". Pullman calls himself a "Christian atheist": ultimately he remains "secretly in love with theology and the theological re-enchantment of the world". He hovers on the threshold of the church because it is the church, not the ideology of secularism, that centres both the worlds of heaven and hell. Pullman is an anti-metaphysician who has nonetheless, to adapt Nietzsche's phrase, lit his fire from the Christian flame. The reason he writes at liberty when writing of devils and Hell, and in fetters when writing of secular humanism, is that he is of God's party, without knowing it."

Rowan Williams makes essentially the same claim in relation to The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ:

"A very bold and deliberately outrageous fable, then, rehearsing Pullman's familiar and passionate fury at corrupt religious systems of control – but also introducing something quite different, a voice of genuine spiritual authority. Because that is what Pullman's Jesus undoubtedly is. Time and again, when Pullman offers his version of a familiar biblical saying or narrative, he achieves a pitch-perfect rendering in modern idiom, carrying something of the shock and compelling attraction of the original gospel text. Just one example. When he relates the story of Jesus healing a demon-possessed man in the synagogue, his Jesus responds to the shouts of the disturbed man with, "You can be quiet now. He's gone away" – subtly paraphrasing the "Be silent and come out of him" in the gospel. This eloquently suggests the sort of sense a modern reader might make of the story, without reducing the manifest authority of the words of Jesus. More radically, he manages to retell the parable of the wise and foolish virgins in a way that turns the biblical text completely upside down, yet creates an echo of other gospel parables in its fundamental vision – reversing moral expectations in the context of the Kingdom of God."
Their views are viable not because of Pullman's stated intent, close as this is to Radical Theology, but because being true (in the main) as author to the dynamic and flow of the story and characters he has created take him inevitably where his conscious mind would not choose to go. Pullman may even have acknowledged this reality in one of his more positive statements about religion:

"Religion is something that human beings do, and the story is on the side of humanity. The feelings of wonder and joy and awe that human beings have always felt in the face of nature and the mystery of our lives have sometimes taken religious expression, and sometimes poetic; and sometimes they've been expressed in writing about science. I think I tried to give those feelings expression in the form of a story. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. That's what the story is for."


Rush - Xanadu.