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Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Greenbelt 2011: Dreams of Home

Four days spent with some of my best friends among some great art, wonderful music and stimulating seminars; Greenbelt 2011 was a little taste of heaven.

They say many of the best Greenbelt moments are unplanned - when you stumble upon something extraordinary or inspiring on your way to somewhere else - and that was true for me this year in discovering the multi-talented Canadian band, The Geese, and hearing the exquisite acoustic set by Lisa Gungor.

The Geese performed 'The Voyage of St Brendan' on the first night in their The Filid format; "a dynamic service of original music, liturgy, poetry, and images designed to facilitate contemplative prayer and openness to God." In line with their subtitle of "apophatic performance for aesthetic contemplation," the show dealt with the darkness and mystery of faith in a world of too much certainty. Later in the Festival, the band played a second set with each band member taking turns to lead the group, seamlessly trading instruments and roles between songs. In drawing on a range of folk stylings and in the changing leads, with each band member being a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, they remind of the ultimate band, The Band. Mavis Staples also recalled The Band during her set, thanking them for involving the Staple Singers in The Last Waltz, after singing 'The Weight'.

Lisa Gungor performed together with her husband Michael, who leads the band Gungor (of which she is also part), but performed songs from her solo albums together with some Gungor material. Gungor had played mainstage earlier in the day, a set I hadn't gone to see. I hadn't planned to go to Lisa's set either but was very glad I did catch it and bought the current Gungor album as a result. The title track 'Beautiful Things' was what really attracted my attention:

"You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us"

Michael Gungor says, “This album is an expression of hope that God will make beautiful things out of the dust in our lives, that God will somehow use us, use our obedience and love, our feeble human effort, and build Himself a kingdom.”

For me, this was essentially the theme which seemed to emerge from the Festival as a whole. Rob Bell's mainstage talk was on the theme of being fully ourselves; owning who we are - creativity and failures - and throwing ourselves into doing the next right thing. His talk seemed primarily anecdote based and often felt like that which might be given by a motivational speaker. Nadia Bolz-Weber's sermon at the excellent Communion Service was, by contrast, grounded in both her text (John 1. 1-5, 9-14) and her personal experience of significant back pain. She attacked the botox culture of idealised bodies and argued that the incarnation leads to the acceptance and valuing of our human flesh.

Michael Mitton quoted John O'Donohue and Sister Stan saying similar things as part of his talk on 'The Homing Instinct':

"Home is where the heart is. It stands for the sure centre where individual life is shaped and from where it journeys forth. What it ultimately intends is that each of its individuals would develop the capacity to be at home in themselves." (O'Donoghue)

"Home is the place where we discover who we are, where we are coming from and where we are going to. It is where we are helped to establish our own identity." (Sister Stan)

Interestingly and surprisingly, Peter Rollins arrived at a similar place albeit without Mitton's confidence that home forms our real identity. By contrast he began on a tack that mirrored Philip Larkin's, "they fuck you up, your Mum and Dad." He argued that we are imprisoned by separation, alienation, and misrecognition. Separation, through the sense of loss that we feel at three months old as we begin to develop a sense of self. Alienation, as we respond to this sense of loss by trying to possess our primary care giver while being aware that we cannot do so. Misrecognition, as we take on the alterego that our parent(s) want to give to inhabit. These three, Rollins argued, form the walls of the prison in which we are trapped; a prison where we endlessly seek idols to fill the existential void that we think is fundamental to our existence. The Church is part of the problem is that by offering God as the solution to our angst, it delivers a purified version of this false life structure and makes God a product among other products.

Christianity in its purest form, he argued, is the alternative to this imprisonment, rather than being the answer to it. Jesus did not experience this sense of separation being without sin and without idolatry. In this, he shows what it is like to be fully human. On the cross he became sin - became the concrete manifestation of our idolatry - revealing the falsity of the three walls to our prison. In the resurrection, he becomes present in the act of our loving others. Love is not an object to be sought but is what enables existence and meaning. As we lay down our desire to be fulfilled and embrace those around us - accepting their brokenness and ours - we find God in community. The role of the Church, therefore, is not to say this is how you can be fulfilled but instead to be the place where we go to experience and accept ourselves as broken, as outsiders, so that we can then find God in the service we do. The truth of who we are is found in what we do.

Generational conflict also formed the theme of Ann Morisey's session on 'Borrowing from the future' in which she described the perfect storm approaching us as a result of the disadvantaging of younger generations and asked, as a baby boomer, how those who have 'had it good' could act imaginatively to lessen the resentment that will be felt by future generations. Luke Bretherton went back to the medieval period to suggest that differing approaches to current government policies derive from medieval debates about limits and freedom. Voluntarism prioritises freedom of choice for the individual and favours marketisation, while Communion emphasises our participation with God working in creation and favours mutualism and cooperatives.

Billy Bragg's Friday night headlining set unsuprisingly also dealt dealt with political issues and conflicts. I arrived at the set appropriately as he was singing 'The Battle of Barking,' covering the fight against the BNP in Barking and Dagenham to which I and others in the Chelmsford Diocese successfully contributed during the last General Election. He spoke movingly about being inspired by the Rock against Racism movement to become a political songwriter and in terms of his belief in people like us to stand up and be counted in the ongoing fight against discrimation.

The wonderful closing set by Mavis Staples was an object lesson in overcoming generational barriers. The 72 year old needed a rest and a cup of tea midway through her high energy set but either side of this instrumental break shared a lifetime's faith and commitment to Christ and civil rights through the blend of gospel, soul and social action which characterised the oeuvre of the Staple Singers from their links with Dr Martin Luther King to their Stax classics and beyond. The celebration and challenge of her set and songs was summed up in the closing 'Eyes on the Prize' from her classic album We'll Never Turn Back, which uses the story of Paul and Silas' miraculous release from prison as enouragement to hold on in our search for freedom now:

"Well, the only chains that we can stand
Are the chains of hand in hand
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on
Got my hand on the freedom plow
Wouldn't take nothing for my journey now
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!"

In between all this, I also: took part in the Photo Flash Swap; viewed the Angels of the North, Lumia Domestica, and Methodist Art Collection exhibitions; discovered the poetry of Padraig O'Tuama; listened to Phyllis Tickle on Emerging Church, Jari Moate on his Paradise Now novel, Meryl Doney on curating exhibitions, Mark Pierson on curating services, and Luke Walton and Nick Park on film; saw the Ikon performance 'based on a true story'; and saw stellar sets from Milton Jones, Rob Halligan, Gordon Gano and the Ryans, Duke Special, Beth Rowley, Kate Rusby and The Unthanks

The thoughts and reflections of some of my friends who were also there can be found here, here and here.


The Geese - Cola Cans.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The Acts of the Apostles

The Acts of the Apostles by Ulrich Lindow is currently at Malmesbury AbbeySculptor Ulrich Lindow works in northern Germany near Malmesbury's twin town of Niebüll. His The Acts of the Apostles installation is "a dramatic re-enactment of the events narrated in the New Testament." Lindow has imagined a red glow from the tongues of flame reflected in the colouration of the rough hewn faces of his disciples.


Bill Mason Band - Stand Up And Be Counted

Windows on the world (159)

Malmesbury, 2011


Gungor - Beautiful Things.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Radical Compassion

This autumn the Educational Programme series at St Martin-in-the-Fields looks particularly interesting both because of the topic and speakers chosen.

Radical Compassion: The Gospel and Social Justice seeks to examine the radical implications of Christ’s life and transforming compassion in relation to issues of social justice. What is Christ saying to the poor, marginalised, and the struggles of our time? Can we rediscover a theology of liberation for today?

The lectures will take place in St Martin-in-the-Fields Church from 7.00pm – 8.30pm. They are free and no booking is required. There will be a retiring collection to cover some of the costs of the programme.

Monday 19 September: The Revd Professor Nicholas Sagovsky: Compassion and Justice - Professor Nicholas Sagovsky’s experiences in advocacy and justice for refugees and asylum seekers as a member of both the Independent Asylum Commission and the Churches Refugee Network provide the basis for his discussion of the Gospel in relation to issues of social justice.

Monday 3 October: Revd Clare Herbert: Compassion and Protest - As an ‘out’ lesbian priest and active campaigner on behalf of gay and lesbian Christians, Revd Clare Herbert has plenty of experience in fighting for what she believes in.  This lecture will explore the ways she has come to terms with needing to express both protest and compassion.

Monday 17 October: Neil MacGregor: Compassion and Art - In this lecture the Director of the British Museum uses images to help us enter more profoundly into our understanding of the radical compassion of Christ captured in some of our greatest art treasures, whilst asking the question: Can these works of art speak to our present and deepen our own compassion and humanity?

Monday 31 October: Nicola Slee: Compassion and Empowerment - As a poet and theologian who has looked extensively into the relationship between women and spirituality, Nicola’s lecture will address how the radical compassion shown throughout the gospel can lead to female empowerment.
Wednesday 16 November: Terry Eagleton: Compassion and Power - Widely regarded as Britain’s most influential literary theorist, Terry Eagleton will consider the contemporary relevance of the Gospel’s critique of power and the use of violence, drawing on themes discussed in his 2010 Richard Price Memorial Lecture ‘The New Atheism and the War on Terror’.

Monday 20 February: Dr Robert Beckford: Compassion and Freedom - Dr Robert Beckford is one of the most prolific black documentary presenters in Britain and will use his knowledge of racial tension to discuss Christ’s radical compassion in relation to freedom.

Marvin Gaye - Save The Children.

Art that tells the story

Art That Tells the Story is a new book by Christopher Brewer which seems interesting for several reasons. First, it includes a range of evocative art. Second, it tells the story of the Bible in terms of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation iniating a conversation about the Story God is telling. Third, because the book is an example of Gospel through shared experience, a conversation about reinventing evangelism for a postmodern world. 
Here is an article about the book from ImageUpdate:

"Art That Tells the Story, is exactly what its title indicates: page after page of precisely curated visual art, coupled with bible verses that tell the “grand old story” with grace, drama, and spiritual acuity. The pieces Brewer chooses are not simple illustrations of their accompanying verse; instead, they embody the living narrative and continuing discussion of these biblical moments. Each piece builds on what has come before, inviting the reader into a growing conversation about both the art itself and its place in the narrative whole. As Makoto Fujimura says in the book’s foreword, “Art is about asking questions more than giving straight answers.” Brewer separates the art, story, and questions into four sections: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation. “Creation” compares the physicality of our world and the physicality of art—we see the breath of life lifting Adam off the ground in a bronze sculpture by Clay Enoch and feel the text of Genesis 1:2 nearly melt as it ripples across the pages of a mixed-media ‘book’ by Sandra Bowden. “Fall” is bookended by dramatic oil and acrylic pieces by Wayne Forte, which show the pain of Adam and Eve’s expulsion and Cain’s betrayal through thick red and black lines. In “Redemption,” the book’s longest section, the story moves from the flood to Paul’s letters. Brewer contrasts photorealistic paintings, like Jonathan Quist’s reimaginings of Moses and David, with Julie Quinn’s Access, an abstract acrylic piece in light blues and grays that is linked to Romans 5:1. Finally, in “Consummation,” the eye turns to the apocalyptic future of the biblical story, highlighted by Scott Laumann’s block prints that show the reader bold, primary-colored representations of heaven in an open palm and hell in a closed fist. An afterword by Alfonse Borysewicz brings the themes of the entire book into further focus, as he discusses the transformative process of faith-based art on a biblical and personal level. Borysewicz’s four Emmanuel paintings carry viewers through Christ’s life story but are also reflections of Borysewicz’s own artistic journey of rebuilding. Through each of these themes and explorations, Brewer’s descriptions and page layouts remain sparse. It is in these empty spaces that Art That Tells The Story ultimately encourages our deeper exploration of the true mystery and ephemeral nature of biblical art."


Duke Special - Portrait.

Update: exhibitions and articles

Earlier this month I visited St Paul's Harlow to take more photographs in my Windows on the world series. I will be showing a selection of these photographs at St Paul's during the Study Day on the value of public art which is to be held there on 17th September. I will also have work included in the next commission4mission exhibition to be held at St Mary Magdalen Billericay from 9th - 18th September (10.00am - 5.00pm), an exhibition which is being organised for the A127 Art Trail. During this same period I will be showing some new paintings together with some older pieces in the commission4mission exhibition space at All Saints West Ham.

I have recently discovered that several more of my articles for Art and Christianity are now available online. The following reviews can be read by clicking on the links: God in the Gallery; Memória Roubada; Oona Grimes Conversations with Angels; Reunited: Gwen John, Mère Poussepin and the Catholic Church;
"Resurrection" at Saint Mary's Church in Bury Saint Edmunds; and Richard Layzell and Tanya Koswycz.


Idlewild - Love Steals Us From Loneliness.

Olympics Prayer Walk

A series of prayer walks is being organised to pray for and around the Olympic Park in East London.

The prayer walk on Saturday 1st October will be focussed on Stratford and the major gateway into the park through the newly opened Westfield Stratford City Shopping Centre. It is expected that 70% of the hundreds of thousands visiting the park during the Olympics will use this entrance.

Those attending will be briefed by David Richards, Vicar of St John’s Stratford, and by Julia Murphy, Coordinating Chaplain to Westfield Stratford City. Starting at St John’s Stratford on the Broadway the walk will conclude with prayer in Inspiration – the Quiet Space in Westfield Stratford City.

The full programme is as follows:

10.00 am - Arrive by 10.00 am please at St John’s Stratford - David Richards to give briefing.
10.15 am - Pray for St John’s and other Stratford Churches in the ‘churchyard’.
10.30 am - Walk to and pray for Stratford Cultural Quarter. Walk through and pray for Stratford Mall [Local shopping centre]. Pray for Transport and the Olympics from opposite Stratford Station.
11.00 am - Arrive Westfield Stratford City Shopping Centre - Julia Murphy to give briefing. Walk over the bridge and through Westfield Southern Boulevard which will be the main entrance to the Olympic Park to vantage point overlooking the Park. Pray for the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
11.30 am - Adjourn to Inspiration the Westfield Stratford City Quiet Space where we will pray for the ministry there and for Julia Murphy.
12.00 pm - Depart.
Please pass this on to those who would be interested – no need to book - just come to pray - whatever the weather!


Delirious? - Sanctify.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Bob, God 'n' blood

The current issue of Third Way has an interesting article by Stephen Tomkins exploring the way in which Bob Dylan has consistently linked religion and violence throughout his career.

Tomkins briefly surveys the religious references in Dylan's work from the religious politics of 'With God On Our Side' through "a quiet, persistent interest in spirituality" from Blonde on Blonde to Blood on the Tracks followed by the "Jesus is returning and you're in for it" message of Slow Train Coming before in his most recent work, most particularly Love and Theft, considering "the relationship between love, faith and violence, repeatedly bringing them together in an often incongruous ménage, and often at the most incongruous moments."

Tomkins concludes that the movement in Dylan's work is of the "politics of the earlier records" giving way to personal understanding; "religion, bloodshed and sex not as phenomena of the world out there, but first and above all as part of every human nature, things that we all carry around all the time." The realization found in the work, Tomkins suggests, is "that the line between Us and Them runs through me" and that perhaps "we stand a better chance of getting somewhere with changin' our times if we start by knowing ourselves."

I'm not sure though that this really gets to the heart of why Dylan links religion and violence. It's an important issue because many who are not religious link religion with violence and view the link as a reason to reject religion. Dylan doesn't do that despite clearly linking both, so exploring this theme in his work could potentially open up contemporary and universal debates. It is interesting too to compare Dylan's linking of the two with that of fellow rock star Nick Cave. Cave seems to view love as involving extreme emotion and therefore either inevitably involving violence or at least being inclined towards violence. Love of God, seems to be for him, the deepest emotion and therefore the most likely to result in violence and this is what attracted him to the language and imagery of the Bible, and the Psalms in particular. Cave's linking of religion and violence seems to me to be a better fit with the conclusion that Tomkins draws in his article than are the links which Dylan makes. 

Cave argues for a personal link to do with the deepest emotion that each of us can feel, while Dylan essentially doesn't do personal in his songs because his songs are observational rather than confessional. This, it seems to me, is the trap into which many Dylan critics fall and one which Dylan himself has regularly criticised in those who seek to analyse his songs.

Dylan comes from the tradition of hobo singers (Woody Guthrie) and beat poets (Jack Kerouac) for whom the journey and the documenting of their experience is life itself. Dylan as journeyman, as traveller, is the key insight of the liner notes for Tell Tale Signs where Larry Sloman signs off with a paragraph quoting a myriad of Dylan's lyrics:

"He ain't talking, but he's still walking, heart burning, still yearning. He's trampling through the mud, through the blistering sun, getting damp from the misty rain. He's got his top hat on, ambling along with his cane, stopping to watch all the young men and young women in their bright-coloured clothes cavorting in the park. Despite all the grief and devastation he's seen on his odyssey, his heart isn't weary, it's light and free, bursting all over with affection for all those who sailed with him. Deep down he knows that his loyal and much-loved companions approve of him and share his code. And it's dawn now, the sun beginning to shine down on him and his heart is still in the Highlands, over those hills, far away. But there's a way to get there and if anyone can, he'll figure it out. And in the meantime, he's already there in his mind. That mind decidedly out of time. And we're all that much richer for his journey."

Dylan's manifesto for his work is 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall'; a song about walking through a world which is surreal and unjust and singing what he sees:

"I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it,
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it,
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin',
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin' ..."

This is a song which has been interpreted as dealing with events that were contemporary to the time such as the Cuban missile crisis and, more generally, the threat of a nuclear holocaust. That maybe so, but I think a more straightforward interpretation and one that is closer to what the lyrics actually say is to see it as a statement by Dylan of what he is trying to do in and through his work. In the song he walks through a surreal and unjust world, ahead of him he sees a gathering apocalyptic storm and he resolves to walk in the shadow of the storm and sing out what he sees:

"... 'fore the rain starts a-fallin',
I'll walk to the depths of the deepest dark forest,
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty,
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters,
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison,
Where the executioner's face is always well hidden,
Where hunger is ugly, where the souls are forgotten,
Where black is the colour, where none is the number.
And I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect from the mountain so that all souls can see it ...".

This then is the other key element to Dylan's journey and work; the idea of journeying in face of the coming apocalypse. What we have in the best of Dylan is a contemporary Pilgrim, Dante or Rimbaud on a compassionate journey, undertaken in the eye of the Apocalypse, to stand with the damned at the heart of the darkness that is twentieth century culture.

This is where religion and violence are linked in Dylan's work because apocalyptic imagery and themes run throughout his work and often require Biblical images and stories for their expression. Tomkins uses 'When The Ship Comes In' as a key song in his thesis arguing that it, like 'The Times They Are A-Changin', is about "the whole sixties social revolution, young versus old, freedom versus rules" and he picks up on Dylan's need when "rousing the righteous rabble" to use the "language of biblical violence." He sees this as an inconsistency in Dylan's early work, criticising religious politics while also appropriating its language.

But, while both songs can be understood in terms of the sixties revolution, neither need be understood in that way and the lyrics of neither song specifically make that connection. Instead both deal with rapidly approaching change described in apocalyptic terms - "admit that the waters/Around you have grown/And accept it that soon/You'll be drenched to the bone", "There's battle outside/And it is ragin'./It'll soon shake your windows/And rattle your walls", "Oh the time will stop ... 'Fore the hurricane begins/The hour when the ship comes in", "And like Pharoah's tribe,/They'll be drownded in the tide,/And like Goliath, they'll be conquered" - and when the apocalyptic moment arrives some will be on the positive side of the change and others not. Dylan may well be speaking, as Tomkins suggests, about "young versus old, freedom versus rules" but, on the basis of the lyrics themselves, it is not possible to be definitive because the language Dylan uses is deliberately unspecific. In neither song does he identify the specific nature of the change that is to come and it is this generality which gives these songs universality and continuing relevance because they can be applied to different circumstances at different times. What can definitively be said about both songs however is that they are warnings about a coming apocalyptic change and the warning is to do with which side of that change we will be on.

Understood in this way, these songs then have startling consistency with the songs which Dylan wrote in the wake of his 1978 conversion and which Tomkins describes as 'Jesus is returning and you're for it' songs. In my post Bob Dylan: Pilgrim, Dante and Rimbaud, I describe how from Slow Train Coming onwards Dylan equated the apocalypse with the imminent return of Christ. The return of Christ in judgement is the slow train that is "comin' up around the bend" and in the face of this apocalypse he calls on human beings to wake up and strengthen the things that remain. Similarly, in 'The Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar', he sees the apocalypse coming ("Curtain risin' on a new age") but not yet here while the Groom (Christ who awaits his bride, the Church) is still waiting at the altar. In the time that remains he again calls on human beings to arise from our slumber: "Dead man, dead man / When will you arise? / Cobwebs in your mind / Dust upon your eyes" ('Dead Man, Dead Man'). In the light of this thread in Dylan's songs throughout this period, it seems to me to be consistent to read 'Jokerman', from Infidels as another song in this vein; as a song depicting the apathy of humanity in the face of the apocalypse and one which is shot through with apocalyptic imagery drawn from the Book of Revelation. We are the jokermen who laugh, dance and fly but only in the dark of the night (equated with sin and judgement) afraid to come into the revealing light of the Sun/Son.

For much of his career though, Dylan, while consistently writing in the face of a coming apocalypse, did not specifically equate that apocalypse with the imminent return of Christ. Apocalyptic change in Dylan's work can be understood as generational confict, Cold War conflicts, nuclear holocaust, Civil Rights struggles, and more. The generic message throughout is that apocalyptic change is coming and we need to think where we stand in relation to it. That message is as relevant today in terms of economic meltdown, climate change or peak oil, as to the Second Coming, whether imminent or not.

In Bob Dylan: Pilgrim, Dante and Rimbaud I described through his songs where Dylan's pilgrim journey in the eye of the apocalypse had taken him:

"He travels the paths of political protest, urban surrealism, country contentment, gospel conversion and world weary blues. On his journey he: sees "seven breezes a-blowin'" all around the cabin door where victims despair ('Ballad of Hollis Brown'); sees lightning flashing "For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an' worse" ('Chimes of Freedom'); surveys 'Desolation Road'; talks truth with a thief as the wind begins to howl ('All Along the Watchtower'); takes shelter from a woman "With silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair" ('Shelter from the Storm'); feels the Idiot Wind blowing through the buttons on his coat, recognises himself as an idiot and feels so sorry ('Idiot Wind'); finds a pathway to the stars and can't believe he's survived and is still alive ('Where Are You Tonight? Journey Through Deep Heat'); rides the slow train up around the bend ('Slow Train'); is driven out of town into the driving rain because of belief ('I Believe in You'); hears the ancient footsteps join him on his path ('Every Grain of Sand'); feels the Caribbean Winds, fanning desire, bringing him nearer to the fire ('Caribbean Wind'); betrays his commitment, feels the breath of the storm and goes searching for his first love ('Tight Connection to My Heart'); then at the final moment, it's not quite dark yet but:

"The air is getting hotter, there's a rumbling in the skies
I've been wading through the high muddy water
With the heat rising in my eyes.
Everyday your memory grows dimmer.
It don't haunt me, like it did before.
I been walking through the middle of nowhere
Tryin' to get to heaven before they close the door." ('Tryin' To Get To Heaven')."

For me the link that Dylan makes between religion and violence is firstly external to us because it is about a coming apocalyptic crisis or change which will be violent. Where it then becomes personal is in how we choose to respond. Dylan's response was:

"I'm a-goin' back out 'fore the rain starts a-fallin',
I'll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest ...
And I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect from the mountain so that all souls can see it ...".

Bryan Ferry - A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall.        

Beyond 'Airbrushed from Art History'

The new blog on the updated Art and Sacred Places website highlights a post by Matthew Cain, on the Channel 4 News site, who thinks the Church might be starting to re-engage with art and artists. He had visited Salisbury Cathedral’s ‘Conflux’ exhibition of Sean Henry’s people sculptures which he thought to be a "terrific – and thought-provoking – show."

He concludes his post by saying:

"Sean Henry’s sculptures haven’t actually been commissioned by Salisbury Cathedral. Rather, the exhibition is bringing together much of the artist’s already-completed work. But other cathedrals – like Liverpool and Saint Paul’s – have recently begun to directly commission new work by the likes of Tracey Emin and Bill Viola. And it doesn’t look like any creative compromise is involved on the part of the artists.

So if the Church really is beginning to re-engage with art and artists, then I think that this should be welcomed."

Artist and priest, Mark Dean, acknowledges such commissions in an interview for the current edition of Art and Christianity but argues that "the Church should take more risks when commissioning art for cathedrals." He also notes that "right now the postmodern critical agenda is finding space for questions of faith and belief, but only as an individual lifestyle or consumer choice." Despite this, he considers that it is still "impossible to make orthodox Christian claims and remain critically valid."

One reason for this is that Christian Art "sounds like a restriction of both critical and creative freedom." He is more optimistic, however, about possibilities for a contemporary Christian Art:

"first, it was the prophetic tradition in Judaism that invented the critique of culture, and second, if we think that Christianity isn't about creative freedom, we need to think again - it is the Holy Spirit, who spoke through the prophets, who enables our creativity, and it is Christ who sets us free - why do we think art should be above this?"

Valerie Dillon, at the beginning of the film about Makoto Fujimura's Four Holy Gospels Project for Crossways, says: "There's a line in the contemporary art world ... you can paint and you can worship, but don't do them together. If you step over that line, you're, in essence, setting yourself up for crucifixion."

In the context of a film which argues that Fujimura is both a successful mainstream artist and an artist making orthodox Christian claims, this is a slightly odd beginning as Fujimura doesn't seem to have been crucified for doing both. However, it does perhaps reinforce Dean's statement above about the difficulty, if not impossibility, of making orthodox Christian claims while remaining critically valid and, therefore, serves to highlight Fujimura's very real achievements.

In my Airbrushed from Art History series I suggested that one of the reasons why the perception that Christianity and contemporary art do not mix persists is because the story of Christianity's engagement with modern and contemporary art has never been fully told and therefore art critics and emerging artists alike think that there are no role models to which they can point. This is why it is important to be able to point to the work of artists like Dean and Fujimura who, in very different ways, have critical validity and make orthodox Christian claims.

It is also why it is important to tell stories from the history of modern art about Christian enagement and to critically assess contemporary artistic expressions of faith. Art and Christianity regularly features articles which do both and the current edition is no different with articles by Joseph Masheck on the relationship between Ad Reinhardt and Thomas Merton and by Neal Brown on the spiritual in the work of Tracey Emin.

Masheck begins by recalling that abstract art "was engendered a century ago by a Russian Orthodox painter in Germany, Kandinsky; a Polish Catholic painter in Russia, Malevich; and a Dutch Reformed painter, Mondrian." Today, Masheck notes, "theosophy is invoked to substantiate spirituality in Kandinsky and others, but Christianity is overlooked." However, in Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky writes of "the receptivity of the canvas to the painter's approach in analogy the Annunciation," while, in a Soviet government publication of 1918, he declares that Christianity "lies at the root of the continuous, new revaluation of values, which eternally (and now, as always), slowly creates the future, and is the foundation of that inner spirituality which we are gradually able to discern in art, and which is occurring in a vigorous and revolutionary way." Malevich presented "his suprematist image as grounded in the anti-naturalistic schematic Orthodox icon, with its saintly aspirations to the Isaiahan Kingdom of Justice - for the Black Square was mounted across the corner of the room, like the most honored icon in a Russian Orthodox household."

When Masheck published for the first time, as editor-in-chief of Artforum, a small black painting that Reinhardt painted for Merton, he pointed up Reinhardt's Luthern background. This was later also noted by art critic Lucy Lippard who wrote that he was brought up as a Lutheran and a socialist. Merton noted in his journal in 1940: "Reinhardt sticks with the communists. Certainly understandable: a religious activity. He believes, as an article of faith, that 'society ought to be better', that the world ought to be somehow changed and redeemed.' Further: 'Reinhardt's abstract art is pure and religious. It flies away from all naturalism, from all representation to pure formal and intellectual values ... Reinhardt's abstract art is completely chaste, and full of love of form and very good indeed ... He's make a pretty good priest.'" In letters of 1956-57 Merton requested a 'cross painting' for his hermitage "and Reinhardt obliged with a small 'Latin'-cross work that Merton was pleased to liken to an icon."

Neal Brown writes that "Religious and spiritual belief have often been invoked by Tracey Emin in her work, which contains statements of personal alignment with a variety of concepts of spiritual, religious, magico-religious and supernatural power. Although her negotiations of faith vary in their directness of expression, there is an emphasis on ideas of affliction, death and afterlife, expressed through ceremonial, contemplative ritual ... In spite of her work being 'contemporary', it is unusually positive in its affirmation of spiritual and religious sentiment; it is not protectively oblique, enigmatic, abstracted or disguised, and it takes place against a more varied religious background than just the Judeo-Christian one ... The revealing of her spiritual self is consistent with Emin's confessional project - her positive faith perhaps requiring more fearlessness (due to a greater danger of rejection by contemporary art-critical orthodoxy) than any number of descriptions of existential despair, sex or drunkenness."

Brown's comment that Emin has showed greater fearlessness in the face of the contemporary art-critical orthodoxy by revealing her spiritual self than confessing to existential despair, sex or drunkenness, is revealing of the values and priorities of that group and accords with Dean's assertion that it is "impossible to make orthodox Christian claims and remain critically valid." Despite all this negativity, the examples given above and those documented in 'Airbrushed from art history' show that it can be done.


Arcade Fire - Black Mirror.

Slavery-Free London pledge

With less than a year to go before the start of the London 2012 Olympic & Paralympic GamesAnti-Slavery International are launching a new campaign for a Slavery-Free London to draw attention to the potential risk of an increase in modern slavery connected to the 2012 Games, and ensure more is done to stop it in the run up to and during the event.
While human trafficking and forced labour are ongoing problems in London and accross the UK, Anti-Slavery International is concerned that the 2012 Games could exacerbate the current situation.

The mass influx of tourists could fuel a greater demand for cheap, temporary labour in jobs already vulnerable to the use of forced labour, including hotel cleaning, food packaging in factories, construction, and catering. It is likely criminal gangs may use the Games to lure people to the UK for jobs that don't exist, only to exploit them elsewhere. Traffickers forcing children to beg or pick pocket may also see the Games as a business opportunity, focusing their activities in locations with large crowds. And workers overseas making Olympic-branded sportswear and souvenirs available on our high streets are also at risk of forced labour.

The eyes of the world will be on London during the summer of 2012. Let's make sure it's Slavery-Free!

If you support that aim, please sign the Slavery-Free London pledge to help Anti-Slavery International call on the Government to ensure one of the positive legacies of the Games includes greater action against modern slavery. Find out more at

Vangelis - Chariots Of Fire.

Identifying money power behind climate change


The open Christian Council for Monetary Justice [CCMJ] invites you to examine the 'treasure that corrupts', the new idol of money, in relation to climate change, at St James Piccadilly, 10 am – 1pm September 24th.


PEOPLE - most are corporate serfs; some happy but millions miserable.

LAND - a few people control the majority of land and resources.

THE FINANCE SYSTEM - supports and protects processes that impoverish billions and degrade the planet.

DOMINATION BY MULTI-NATIONALS - control of the global economy now lies with multinational corporations, not democratic governments.



Joni Mitchell - Big Yellow Taxi.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Windows on the world (158)

Capel Manor, 2011


Beth Rowley - So Sublime.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Poem: Guilty generation

Guilty generation

There is oil on the streets tonight, oil! It only takes a spark to ignite;
the streets are flammable! Ram raid a van into a wall, wait nervously
for its fuel tank to blow. Spread fire and build barricades on streets
giddily lit by flames as lines of blue lights flash on distant riot shields.
Scaffold poles to smash up shops and passers-by, the sensation of feet
crunching glass, the shells of cars burnt to paintless, tyreless shapes,
the cheering as TVs, gangster chic and dangerware - free shit -
are pillaged. Get free stuff, fuck the system, rip the feds, in a festival
of illegal consumption, a violent Olympiad of lawlessness.
London is burning with more than boredom now. The streets
of London are filled with rubble, ancient footprints are everywhere.
You could almost think that you’re seeing double on a hot, bright night
in Peckham Rye witnessing the decline and fall of the Western world!

The sneer of a wealthy diner from the safe side of a restaurant window
is observed by a young rioter who sees in this look all he is personally denied.
One kick from a boot shatters the glass divide and replaces the sneer
with a look of fear. The thin film between rich and poor has been torched tonight
as night-time riots follow daylight robbery by wealthy elites.
Traders and bankers socialise risk and privatise profits
while trousering bonuses which exceed lifetime average salaries.
MPs fiddle expenses, police take backhanders as journalists hack phones for profit.
Public discourse sneers in a celebrity-obsessed media,
cynical and contemptuous of old values. Mutual assistance abandoned
in favour of solipsistic entrepreneurship, as community is cut
from the big broken society. The already rich at the forefront of the charge
to grab what you can while you can, now the good times are over.

From Salford to Pembury, from the City to Westminster
fear and greed roam unchecked without bothering to mask their faces;
generational fear and loathing increases now the old have power,
money, votes and demographics on their side. A generation is lost -
brooding, disoriented, suspicious - bearing the imprint of a consumer culture
determining ideas of status and achievement. A generation which pays
for the financiers’ calamity while their elders, who have taken early retirement
with generous pension packages and the proceeds of property booms,
spend liberally on their own pleasure and leisure. A generation whose basic desires
for stable jobs and secure homes will be hit hard by a triple whammy
of climate change combined with the loss of cheap fuel and credit.
A generation with a shared sense of deprivation, seeing a democracy deficit
and experiencing a collapse in the authority of traditional institutions.
If it is a crime to live without hope or meaning, then, yes, this generation is guilty.

(This poem has been collaged primarily from phrases and images used in articles published in the Observer - 14/08/11 - and the Guardian - 13/08/11, 15/08/11, 18/08/11 and 20/08/11)


The Jam - Down In The Tube Station At Midnight.

Witnesses giving testimony in a trial

“I have been used for many years to studying the histories of other times, and to examining and weighing the evidence of those who have written about them, and I know of no one fact in the history of mankind which is proved by better and fuller evidence of every sort, to the understanding of a fair inquirer, than the great sign which God has given us that Christ died and rose again from the dead.” Professor Thomas Arnold

The teachings of Jesus “are read more, quoted more, loved more, believed more, and translated more because they are the greatest words ever spoken … No other man’s words have the appeal of Jesus’ words because no other man can answer these fundamental human questions as Jesus answered them. They are the kind of words and the kind of answers we would expect God to give.” Professor Bernard Ramm

“Jesus was irresistibly attractive as a man … What they crucified was a young man, full of life and the joy of it, the Lord of life itself, and even more the Lord of laughter, someone so utterly attractive that people followed him for the sheer fun of it.” Lord Hailsham

“I believe there is no one lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic and more perfect than Jesus. I say to myself, with jealous love, that not only is there no one else like him but there never could be anyone like him.” Fyodor Dostoevsky

“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of thing Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call Him Lord and God … however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that he was and is God.” C. S. Lewis

Brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand … For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” Saint Paul

“Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” Saint Peter

You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Saint Peter

All those testimonies to Jesus stem from the one testimony in today's Gospel reading (Matthew 16: 13-20), the moment when Peter speaks out his belief that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Jesus calls Peter ‘the rock’ and he is the rock because he was the first to testify to Jesus and all the millions of people that have followed him in testifying to Jesus have built on the foundation of the testimony that Peter originally gave.

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

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

Witnesses are those who have seen or experienced a particular event or sign or happening and who then tell the story of what they have seen or heard as testimony to others. That is what Jesus called us to do before he ascended to the Father; to tell our stories of encountering him to others. No more, no less.

We don’t have to understand or be able to explain the key doctrines of the Christian faith. We don’t have to be able to tell people the two ways to live or to have memorized the sinner’s prayer or to have tracts to be able to hand out in order to be witnesses to Jesus. All we need to do is to tell our story; to say this is how Jesus made himself real to me and this is the difference that it has made.

I want to encourage us today that this is something which each of us can do. The best description I have heard of it is to gossip the Gospel. Just simply in everyday conversation with others to talk about the difference that knowing Jesus has on our lives.

It is also important to remember that we are not alone in being witnesses. We are one with millions of others who have testified to the reality and presence of Jesus Christ in their lives. No courtroom on earth could cope with the number of witnesses to Christ who could be called by the defence. That is why the writer of Hebrews says, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12. 1-3

This is what Peter began by saying, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” We are part of the witness that has been built on that rock. So let us be encouraged by the incredible numbers of others testifying to Christ and let us be challenged to add our own testimony in words and actions to those of our brothers and sisters in Christ because every day in every situation we face, we and our faith are ‘on trial’.


The Call - I Still Believe (Great Design).

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Art in Guernsey

Sausmarez Manor, parts of which date to the early 13th or late 12th centuries, has been altered, reduced and added to over the years with major changes in Tudor, Queen Anne, Regency and Victorian times. A delightful spot to spend in amiable and unhurried surroundings, the grounds house a sculpture exhibition which currently comprises 130 pieces by 57 different sculptors. Generally minor works can able to be seen to best advantage in the beautiful tropical garden.

The current exhibition at the Guernsey Museum and Art Gallery is Mervyn Peake’s Sark - To the Sweep of a Steel Bay; a celebration of the centenary of the writer and artist Mervyn Peake, who lived and worked for some years in Sark. Peake's son has rightly written that this:

"is an outstanding example of how the artist and writer's work can be displayed in all its glory in a relatively small space. The designer, curator and director of the gallery have given the local public and visitors to the island, a genuinely beautiful mix of water colours, pencil and oil paintings, within the octagonal gallery."

As a result of time on Sark, Peake wrote Mr Pye, a parabolic novel using the motif of the messianic or diabolic outsider who becomes a catalyst for change. Sitting mid way between, on the one hand, Mr Weston's Good Wine and Mr Golightly's Holiday and, on the other, Brimstone and Treacle, Mr Pye sees its central character land on the island of Sark equipped with love, his mission to convert the islanders into a crusading force for the undiluted goodness that he feels within. The extraordinary inhabitants of the island range from the formidable Miss George in her purple busby to the wanton, raven-haired Tintagieu, 'five foot three inches of sex'. Mr Pye, however, is prone to excess and in the increasingly personalised struggle between good and evil, excess is very nearly his downfall. The prejudices of a close-knit society shine through the story in which the characters, cameos and events add up to an hilarious romp.

Remaining on an angelic theme, we bought an interesting etching, from the Coach House Gallery, entitled Angel Sleeping, by Latvian artist, Katrina Graseva, whose work has been described as having "naive and whimsical charm" and who works with lithography, watercolour and in children's book design.

Hauteville House, where Victor Hugo lived in exile for 15 years (from 1856 to 1870), displays Hugo’s abundant creativity in the astonishing richness of its decoration, his use of recycled and reclaimed objects within that decoration, and the symbolism of his interior design as visitors literally rise from darkness to light in moving through the house. As Charles Hugo put it, the house is "a veritable three-storey autograph, a poem in several rooms".

Nick Boulos has described how a visit to the house begins in the suprisingly dark and oppressive hallway, where a creaky wooden staircase spirals out of view while heavy doors and intricately carved wooden panels line the walls. With its secret doors and bold interiors, the property was designed to intrigue and challenge visitors, reflecting Hugo's view that knowledge leads one into the light. His glass, rooftop lookout, reached via the third-floor library, allows a column of sunlight to illuminate the length of the staircase. A simple, drop-down table in his study is the place where Hugo put the finishing touches to Les Misérables. This room was a haven; he would sleep, write and (much to the dismay of his neighbours) wash up here, savouring sea views over the neighbouring Channel islands of Sark, Herm and, on a clear day, France. He likened his house to "a seagull's nest high above the immense foam of the waves".

Anthony Gormley has sculptures on both Guernsey and Herm, as part of the Art and Islands Foundation initiative. We saw Another Time XI on Herm. While Gormley's bodycasts often have huge resonance depending on the form and location chosen (such as Sound II at Winchester Cathedral or Another Place at Crosby Beach), here though the repetition of yet another Gormley bodycast seems merely decorative, rather than possessing genuine conceptual force through a thoroughgoing engagement between form and location.

Gillian Welch - The Way The Whole Thing Ends.