Thursday, 28 July 2016

Faith and Art: Postscript

While preparing this sermon, I had nothing to illustrate the new creation, other than my words about waking up with Daniel. This really struck me at the time. I wondered how a painting or sculpture about our boys would look.

Then, last Friday, almost three weeks after delivering the sermon, Kathy and I were with friends. They had returned from vacation with a gift for us. This was a painting by the wife’s stepmother, who had never met us, despite faithfully praying for us.

The painting depicts three birds. As soon as I saw it, and before any explanation was given, I recognised the larger bird as Daniel. The smaller two are Manny and Reg. The green background and purple flowers in the foreground represent life – a stark contrast to the dry cracked earth of the plot where they are buried.

It was further explained to us that the swirling background symbolises the Spirit. This brought 2 Corinthians 5:5 to mind, which tells us that ‘the Spirit [is given] as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.’ The painting therefore reminds us of that promise – that one day we will see our boys again. 

This is art that, by virtue of being art, does not deny the goodness of creation. It does not deny the fallenness of creation because it concerns three dead boys. And it does not deny the hope of creation because it looks forward to the resurrection.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Faith and Art III

This is the third of three posts taken from a sermon on faith and art preached on 3 July.

Last year we lost all three of our children. Our eldest Daniel passed away the January before last. These are my words from his funeral:

Kathy and I were with Daniel when he passed away at the hospital. This was around 3.30 in the afternoon. But we were told that we could be with him for as long as we needed.
So we decided to stay until we had done his bed-time routine at the usual hour. Having washed his body, we sung him his bed-time songs and prayed with him as we normally would. We then left him “asleep” at around 7.30 that evening.
So imagine this … imagine, as we put Daniel to sleep at the end of this life, so we perform his morning routine in the next.
It goes something like this.
Daniel wakes up around 6.30. I go to his cot and tell him to put his hands in the air, which he dutifully does. I pick him up. He rests his head against my cheek and rubs his eyes. I feel his hair against my face and kiss him gently.
We go in to the living room, and I let him turn the lights on. He sits on my lap as I sit on the sofa. I unzip his sleeping bag and I grab one foot. “He’s got a footsie!” I exclaim, as I take his leg out. Daniel smiles.
I pause and grab his other foot. “He’s got another footsie! He’s got two footsies!” Every morning this never ceases to amaze Daniel. And if he could articulate a CV, it would read, “My name is Daniel. I like ducks. And I’ve got two footsies!”
Now, imagine that Daniel's first experience of the resurrection is his morning routine, and that we can pick up where we left off in our parenting. This is as real as Jesus eating fish [Luke 24:42-43].

Those were some of my words from his funeral. Although not visual art, they are an attempt to recreate creation. You see, art need not make any explicit reference to Jesus. Jesus does not need to be affirmed by art. It’s the other way round. Art is affirmed by Jesus. Art is affirmed by Jesus because the Word became flesh – because the Word became the very stuff of creation.

And because creation is fallen, we need not deny Daniel’s death. We need not airbrush it out like nothing ever happened. There is no need for kitsch. And because creation groans in anticipation of what is to come, there is no need for nihilism. There is hope for Daniel. There is hope for us. There is hope for many who died in the Somme.

Therefore, if art recreates creation, then “good” art will be faithful to the story of creation. It will tell the story of its goodness, its fallenness, its hope. It may do so consciously or unconsciously. It may emphasise one part of the story above others. But it will never deny them. “Good” art will always be faithful to this story.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Faith and Art II

This is the second of three posts taken from a sermon on faith and art preached on 3 July.

Since creation is fallen, God got his hands dirty, when the Word became flesh. Therefore, art need not be afraid of fallenness, say, by airbrushing it out. There is no need for kitsch.

Above is a painting by Thomas Kinkade (1958-2012). If art is like food, then kitsch is the junk food of art. It’s McDonalds. It’s mass produced, and because it airbrushes out anything negative, it has something of a “plastic” feel to it. My own view is that McDonalds is alright once in a while, but we probably need a more balanced diet.

However, there is no need for nihilism either.

Below is a still from one of the Chapman brothers’ “Hell” installations. Art critic Brian Sewell hailed “Hell” as the first great piece of art of the twenty-first century. It depicts relentless violence, reminiscent of pagan accounts of the world, which are violent, cyclical, and unending.

Ironically, “Hell” also contains occasional references to McDonalds, as if being ironic is the best that we can hope for.

There is no need for art to be bleak, devoid of hope. We live between the “already” and the “not yet”. We are already engaged to Christ, but not yet married. There is more to come. Jesus has given us the Spirit, much like someone might give an engagement ring. In the same way that an engagement ring anticipates marriage, the Holy Spirit anticipates the resurrection to come [2 Corinthians 5:5]. The whole of creation groans with hope [Romans 8:22].

So although we cannot deny our fallenness, we need not languish in despair either. Let me end with a personal reminiscence.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Faith and Art I

This is the first of three posts taken from a sermon on faith and art preached on 3 July.

Art begins with Jesus.

This is because if we simply say that art recreates creation – art recreates creation – then art depends on creation for its worth. If creation is not important, then neither is art.

But how do we know that creation is important in the first place?

We know that creation is important because the Word became flesh [John 1:14]. The incarnation shows us that creation has its own worth. The Word doesn’t simply wear flesh. The flesh isn’t simply a cipher for God, like a superhero wearing a costume. The Word became flesh – the very stuff of creation. And so creation is affirmed.

That is why art – recreating creation – has worth.

Art has worth because of Jesus.

And by “creation”, I don’t just mean sunsets and stars and wildlife, but the whole spectrum of human activity too.

And since creation is fallen, I don’t just mean the goodness of creation – as perhaps sunsets and stars and wildlife might connote. Since creation is fallen, God got his hands dirty, when the Word became flesh.

That is why art can take the fallenness of creation seriously too. Let me read to you about We’re Here Because We’re Here.
We’re Here Because We’re Here was an artwork in the form of an event, devised by Jeremy Deller, that occurred across the United Kingdom on 1 July 2016, the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, which it commemorated. 
Throughout the day, more than 1,500 volunteers, all men, dressed in replica World War I British army uniforms, appeared in groups at railway stations, shopping centres and other places. When approached, they did not speak, but instead handed cards to members of the public, bearing the name, age and regiment of a man who died on the first day of the battle, and the hashtag #wearehere. Each volunteer represented an individual, named, soldier. From time to time, they would sing the recursive refrain “We’re Here Because We’re Here…” to the tune of Auld Lang Syne, as sung in the trenches before the battle. [1]

Friday, 13 November 2015

Halloween: Postscript

Given the previous posts on Halloween, Rogers’ observations about the crossover between Halloween and the Mexican Day of the Dead are particularly poignant. He notes that the first day of the Day of the Dead, ‘Halloween in North America, is devoted to los angelitos (little angels), for whom there is a night vigil and a blessing the following morning.’*
In Texas and North Carolina, even some mainstream Protestant denominations have adopted this liturgical calendar to commemorate and pray for the dead. In a North American culture that too often tries to hide and sanitize death, the conventions of the Day of the Dead seem a healthy antidote. One correspondent writing in the New York Times in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack upon the World Trade Centre urged readers to transform the opening Halloween into a day of remembrance similar to that of the Day of the Dead. Halloween “need not be a day of satire and horror,” she observed, “but can instead be a chance to linger with those we miss while the veil between the worlds is so thin.” She said she would put our flowers and candles at a small altar in memory of her father and sister who died years ago, as well as photographs of the twin towers.**
* Nicholas Rogers, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 149.
** ibid. 155.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

On Celebrating Halloween by Taking Communion

These two last months of the year have traditionally been a time for festivities and social inversion. Last week The Million Mask March took place in London as protestors donned Guido masks (made famous by the 2006 film V for Vendetta)

The interplay between 5 November and Halloween is captured by Nicolas Rogers: ‘If bonfire night appropriated some of the rites of Hallowtide in England, in Northern Ireland the appropriation has gone the other way ’[1]. This is because of the respective Catholic or Protestant undertow in each country.

Halloween (or Hallowe’en) refers to the Eve of All Hallows’ day – or All Saints’ day as it has come to be known. Another etymological form is “Hallowmas” (like “Christmas”) where the suffix -mas reminds us of the Christian practice of breaking bread together to remember Jesus.

But is this a retreat from public space? And/or does it have potential to shape what takes place in that space? Let us first consider the similarities.

Two traditional Halloween practices are souling and mummering. Souling is the practice of going door to door asking for food in exchange for prayers for the dead. This would be accompanied by taking a candle in a turnip, which symbolised a soul trapped in purgatory, thereby revealing the Catholic roots of the practice [2].

Mummering means dressing up and acting out alternative social scenarios [3]. Such scenarios range from social inversion for its own sake (mischief) to social inversion to mete out justice (vigilantism). Mischief has historically entailed dressing up as mock authority figures, and then demanding that neighbourhoods support the revelry (or pay the consequences). (But in more modern times it has simply been about making people pay.) And vigilantism has historically entailed dressing up as spirits, and then enforcing community justice. (If it were believed that spirits return to earth to right wrongs, then why not dress up as them to achieve the same end?)

Although both have been commercialised (candles in pumpkins and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade), souling and mummering are historically about making things right. Either the living make things right where the dead are (souling), or the dead make things right where the living are (perhaps the impetus for mummering).

The liminality (the threshold) between this life and the life to come, as well as the righting of wrongs, is what we remember when we break bread together. Remembering the death of Jesus is the focus of breaking bread together. But we not only focus on the past. We focus on the future. We focus on resurrection life as communion casts a vision for restoring relationships, and for meeting material needs (by the peace and the distribution of bread and wine respectively).

At these times I remember Daniel, and the life we are yet to live with him. Jesus identified with death. The dead body of Jesus was a lifeless as that of my son. But Jesus also rose again. And one day Daniel will too. This is justice.

This justice that restores relationships and, through those relationships, meets material needs cost Jesus his life. And it is only glimpsed in the current age [Acts 2:42-47].

But I sometimes wonder whether we don’t take seriously enough the contours that communion gives us for justice. When bread is passed from one person to another, is this just a functional way of ensuring that everyone has bread, so that he or she can reflect on his or her own individual relationship with God? Or should it also remind us that divine providence works itself out through each of us in our day-to-day lives? We therefore have an obligation to allow God to make things right through us (by restoring relationships and meeting needs). This begins with those with whom we break bread. But it goes beyond that too.

William Cavanaugh has written brilliantly on how Mass defied the power of Pinochet’s regime by nurturing a social body other than the regime [4]. That social body is the body of Christ. Shane Claibourne has equally written about the power of giving communion to the homeless in a local park, which publicly defied a ban on distributing food to them [5]. This is all about justice in public places.

Mass or communion or the eucharist or the Lord's supper or whatever we might call it has public import. How might we make it “more” public by enacting it on the streets. How might we live this out on Halloween? How might we move on from dressing up as spirits to right household wrongs, to allowing the Spirit work through us to make the world what it was meant to be.

[2] ibid., 29-30.
[3] ibid., 25-26, 41-43.
The potential for anarchic horror is well captured in the 2012 film The Purge. I confess to not having seen it, but the trailer makes the point well enough.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

On Dressing Up at Halloween

Writing in the Mirror this weekend J.John equates dressing up as evil to celebrating evil. Now, I’m no anthropologist or folk-theorist but I’m pretty sure that this is not the case.

For starters, the handsome chap in the photo is me donning a Dutch football shirt. I had that shirt for years, coincidentally wearing it to the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade in 2002.

But I do not support the Dutch football team. I do not follow the Dutch football team.

A couple of years ago I bumped into a guy wearing an Ohio State shirt. Since my wife facilitates the Ohio State alumni in London, I asked what his connection to the university was.

“None,” he said. He’s never heard of it.

By dressing up as something we are (knowingly or unknowingly) identifying ourselves with it. But identifying with something does not mean celebrating it. Indeed, it could mean many other things.

In the previous post, I suggested that dressing up as evil, by identifying ourselves as evil, is an opportunity to acknowledge our complicity in evil – a confession, if you will. I also suggested this be done in a way that simultaneously celebrates the overcoming of evil.

My wife once did evening shifts in a coffee shop in San Diego. (She did it for the social interaction: if not for the money.) They wore Starbucks aprons one Halloween. Why?

Certainly not to celebrate Starbucks. Dressing up mocked the ubiquity of Starbucks because their coffee shop was not Starbucks. And insofar as that ubiquity stands for a wider global capitalism, perhaps they were mocking that too. So perhaps it’s not a stretch to say that they were – rightly or wrongly – using Starbucks to mock the fallenness of global capitalism. Perceived evil had not overcome.

Indeed, precisely because they were not Starbucks, there was hope that the evil itself would be overcome. But precisely because they did identify themselves with Starbucks (by wearing the aprons in the first place) there was an opportunity to acknowledge their own complicity.

One last thing. The Batman. Why does Batman dress up as a bat? To overcome a childhood fear of bats. And insofar as this fear symbolises the evil endured by losing his parents, it symbolises the overcoming of evil. (Whether adopting the bat in order to instil fear in others somehow celebrates evil is a question I will leave aside for now.) The point I want to dwell on is simply the dressing up: the overcoming.

More importantly, perhaps Halloween helps us to ask what we already identify with through what we wear. (Are our clothes made in sweatshops … ?)

Again, I’m no folk-theorist or anthropologist but I’m pretty sure that dressing up as evil (or as anything for that matter), though it might identify us with that thing, by no means celebrates it.