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.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Why I Will Celebrate Halloween II

This is the second of two posts.

(Comments have been disabled as per the thread after the previous post. They will be enabled again on Tuesday 3rd November.*)

In the first post I wrote that Halloween belittles death, much like Jesus belittles the powers of darkness by making a spectacle of them [Colossians 2:15]. Of course, much depends on what we mean by Halloween – the Christian practice of remembering the dead, or the commercial phenomenon that we have inherited. It seems to me that Halloween connotes both.

And both belittle death. But, again, much depends on what we mean by “belittle”. The resurrection of Jesus belittles death by putting death in its place. What is purportedly bigger is actually smaller. Death has lost its sting.

But there may be those who do not believe in the resurrection, and who actually do celebrate the powers of darkness. Within this context, the commercial component of Halloween might be said to belittle death by underestimating it. What is purportedly smaller is actually bigger.

So what it means for the commercial component of Halloween to belittle death varies in each context. In the former dressing up as a zombie symbolises the spectacle that Jesus has made of the powers of darkness. In the latter it fails to take seriously those same powers.

But who actually celebrates the powers of darkness? Pagans don’t celebrate Halloween, at least not beyond the commercial phenomenon that we have inherited. And Satanism, at least Satanism following Anton LaVey, doesn’t even profess belief in a biblical Satan.*

And even if we could answer the question, the bottom line is that we are all sinners. So as we remember the dead, perhaps the commercial side of Halloween can help us to come to terms with our own sin. Perhaps it can help us to come to terms with our own complicity in the powers. (For example, dressing up as a zombie might be a most apt way of confessing our complicity in consumer capitalism.) Yet the resurrection also reminds us that Christ has put these powers in their place. And that is worth celebrating.

Perhaps this even goes some way to redeem the commercial side of Halloween. In itself the commercial side of Halloween literally candy-coats death. Far from celebrating death it fails to face up to it. So if we then abdicate from Halloween, might that abdication similarly fail to face up to death?

That’s certainly how I felt about some of the responses to my previous post. The very real fallenness of Daniel’s death in the darkness of the real world felt like it was being brushed aside for fear of some nebulous “pagan” darkness out there, somewhere. Could this be denial – the flip-side to facing death head on?

If so, such denial can become pharisaical to the point of distorting scripture. For example, I’ve seen 2 Corinthians 6:17 “touch no unclean thing” used to argue abdication from Halloween. The verse begins, “Come out from them and be separate”. But who is this “them”? Insofar as Halloween is a Christian tradition, surely this can’t be the church ...

And insofar as Halloween has been commercialised – or has been spliced with pagan practices from the past – should we then celebrate neither Christmas nor Easter? For both have been commercialised and spliced. And by extension, should we refrain from using the days of the week, because they are named after pagan gods? (“What! You’ve never been to a TGI Friday’s!?”)

Besides, the context of 2 Corinthians 6:17 is about being yoked to non-believers. And I’m pretty sure that celebrating Halloween doesn’t commit me to any legally binding covenants with my neighbours.

The fact is: you and I will become rotten, stinking corpses one day, just as Jesus did. So let us remember our dead. Let us ponder our own mortality. For Halloween affords us the opportunity to face death head on. This constitutes the first of a three-fold liturgical movement: meditation in response to Creation.

The second and third moments in this movement then follow: confession in response to the Fall, and celebration in response to Redemption. So let us confess our complicity in the powers of darkness, as we proclaim that Christ is risen. (For then, and only then, does dressing up as a zombie make most sense.)

* For interested parties wanting to discuss the history of Halloween, perhaps we can begin here:

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Why I Will Celebrate Halloween

This is the first of two posts.

Earlier this year my son died of a nasty, horrific infection. It was sudden: we were shocked. And we are still stunned.

One of the fears thrown up by grief is that our new normal – a normal less dimensional, less colourful than the old – will erase our inner Daniel. The fear is that as he faded away in real life, so he will fade away in our inner lives too. To assuage this fear it is important to remember him.

So after the funeral, more so after the subsequent memorial, this fear came to the fore. After the formalities, will he be remembered? Will he have a place in the world, albeit an empty place? It seems to me that he will in one of two ways.

Either we could repress his memory, and move on. But like trying to submerge a flotation aid beneath the surface of a swimming pool, the aid will erupt to the surface in the same way that repressed emotions can cause psychological eruptions.

Or, we could mark his memory by various rituals. So sometimes I address my wife as “Daniel’s moma”, and she me as “Daniel’s dada”. Sometimes, perhaps on the anniversary of his death, a small group of us will gather graveside to sing him his bedtime songs. One day morning will come.

Is this not precisely what Halloween is about? To acknowledge death, and to remember the dead? Is this not psychologically healthy? Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes,

“Nothing can fill the gap when are away from those we love, and it would be wrong to try and find anything. We must must simply hold out and win through. That sounds hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation, since leaving the gap unfilled preserves the bond between us. It is nonsense to say God fills the gap; he does not fill it, but keeps it empty so that our communion with another may be kept alive, even at the cost of pain.”*

So does not Halloween help us here? Halloween might be an apt day to think through what should be on Daniel’s headstone.

05.10.13 – 13.01.15

Or something like that (and probably in that order too).

Through its belittlement of death, symbolised by costumes and candies, doesn’t Halloween also remind us that death has lost its sting [1 Corinthians 15:54-56]. For doesn’t Halloween make a spectacle of death, as Jesus made a spectacle of the powers [Colossians 2:15]. Death has lost its sting because Jesus rose from the dead. So can we not celebrate Halloween as such – zombie costumes and all? 

(And if we were to believe that zombies represent the worst of consumer capitalism, then how appropriate to mock that particular power – although the irony of doing so through consumer costumes and candies is not lost on me.)

As Easter Saturday reminds us of the death of Jesus, doesn’t Halloween bring to mind our dearly departed? So is skipping Halloween tantamount to jumping too quickly from Good Friday to Easter Sunday? Is it tantamount to skipping Easter Saturday? Is this tantamount to denial?

In the next post we will explore a little more fully what it means for Halloween to belittle death.

* Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘To Renate and Eberhard Bethge, Christmas Eve 1943’ in Letters and Papers from Prison (trans. Christian Kaiser Verlag, London: SCM, 1971), 176.