Mammon—dedicated to his worshippers

Detail from G. F. Watts, ‘Mammon’ (1885), Tate Britain.

Some people have been asking me about the picture in my last post. It is worth a closer look. Its message is, sadly, timeless, but particularly relevant to our troubled age. In the 1880s, the artist, G. F. Watts (1817–1904), was a senior figure in the London art world and known as ‘England’s Michelangelo’. He was an intellectual whose work pioneered symbolism; a deep thinker who painted ideas. Oscar Wilde called him ‘a great originative and imaginative genius’.1 Barak Obama was particularly drawn to Watt’s Hope which, I read somewhere, hung in the White House, and Watts was an inspiration to Martin Luther King. (This Guardian article is a good introduction to Watts.)

The full title of this work is Mammon—dedicated to his worshippers and the heavy, gilded, obscene demonic deity dominating this image is ‘massive’, that is, weighed down by gold whose gravitational pull binds him to the earth. His gouty leg (more visible in the artist’s line drawing of the subject) and unfeeling, swollen arm bear down on lifeless figures—fragile humanity, the imago Dei crushed by the weight of unfeeling avarice. Continue reading “Mammon—dedicated to his worshippers”

Light in the darkness

An advent meditation on art

“Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
and he will prepare your way.
He is a voice shouting in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming! (Mk. 1.2-3.)

Last Sunday we lit the second advent candle at our church, a symbol of the light of the coming Christ, and Saša spoke about John the Baptist—the voice crying in the wilderness, heralding the coming King.

I believe such a voice had not been heard in Israel for some 400 years; the prophets had been silent. For 400 years the faithful had waited for the fulfilment of the words of Micah and Isaiah which Mark quotes here. This really is good news! The narrative begins, ‘This is the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.’ The silence is broken.

Mark records that the first voice to cry our after this long tacit is that of The Baptist, fulfilling those predictions of Micah and Isaiah; a voice calling in the desert, crying out the need for repentance—for turning back towards God.

John, an ascetic in the Essene tradition, is a liminal character inhabiting two points of transition. He lives both on the edge of society, the place where inhabitation ends and desert begins, and he lives on the borders of the land of the spirit. He is a bridge, reminding us that all may not be as it seems.

On Sunday, our speaker, Saša Flek, mentioned that art is also a voice crying in the wilderness, and this got me thinking. We normally associate the word ‘prophecy’ with foretelling the future, but the word really means ‘to speak forth the mind’, and in the religious context this means speaking out the things of God — revealing God’s ways (past, present or future). It is easy, perhaps, to fall into the error that Paul warned us about in his letter to the Thessalonians (5:20) — that of despising prophecy. In my past experience of charismatic Christianity I have come across many who have claimed to be God’s mouthpiece. Unfortunately their proclamations were often more to do with the desire to manipulate, or to be visible, or, frankly, just human nonsense. I have become a little more wary of the ‘prophetic’ voice having experience those who are quick to speak in God’s name, but slow to live a godly life.

We must be careful, however, not to judge the priesthood by the priest, for here we have a true prophet. The Baptist was a man of integrity, turning his back on the comforts of the society he judged, speaking out against political evil, and longing that the Christ would have more visibility than himself. It was a message that involved not just words, but his whole being. It was a message that cost him his life. His was a life and a message not to be despised.

The artist is also necessarily a prophet, for to be an artist is also to be a revealer of hidden things. The creation of true art, like prophecy, demands vulnerability: it involves taking risk, not only in revealing deep personal convictions (always risky), but in questioning the status quo. The artist is also a liminal voice, crying on the edge of society, calling for new perspectives, asking us to consider change. It is perhaps this synonymy which has resulted in the recent paucity of art in the Christian world, for if Christianity is in itself a prophetic voice which challenges society, is it any wonder that there are those who would want to silence this voice? To make us mute?

As psychologist Iain McGilchrist has persuasively argued, this is perhaps one of the unfortunate consequences of the Reformation, that in their quest to quell the abuse of art, the Reformers destroyed art itself instead of focusing on the abuse. In their zeal they destroyed the very means to bring renewal — they silenced the prophetic voice. Whether or not you concur with this somewhat bleak analysis, the fact remains that modern post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment society, both within and without the church, is deeply suspicious of the artist for the artist is dangerous, cannot be controlled, and often challenges the way things are.

The highest calling of the artist is to be a prophetic voice. Like the Baptist, the present-day artist finds him- or herself in a desert: a world where music is controlled and recorded by computers, where visual imagery is untruthful, where The Word has been reduced to mere words, and where worship has become cliché. If this is you, this advent season, make a choice to speak the truth. But it must be said that, as an artist, as a believer, you only have the right to speak the truth if you are prepared, like the Baptist, to live truthfully.

Most of all, I pray that during this wonderful season of Advent the light of Jesus will shine on you and those you love.

Prague and the Cross

An Advent walk through mediaeval Prague

It was a crisp, cold November evening yesterday as we walked with our Czech guide through the dark windswept streets of Prague. Most sensible people were passive-smoking in the warm, crowded bars; we headed for the Old Town, then across Charles Bridge. On the parapet of the almost deserted medieval bridge we found our first cross: bronze, and set into the stone of the parapet. ‘Place your hand on it,’ I was told, ‘any wish you make will come true.’ The location was where, in 1393, the tortured body of Jan Nepomucký (John of Nepomuk), confessor to the Queen, was thrown into the river on the orders of a suspicious Wenceslas IV for failing to divulge the confession of his wife. I placed my hand on the baroque cross with two horizontal bars: it was worn smooth by centuries of touch. I made a wish which will remain secret. Continue reading “Prague and the Cross”

Art for art’s sake

I remember as a fifteen year old, on a trip to relatives in Holland, coming across the music of Tom Paxton. I felt like I had stumbled into heaven. Soon the likes of Tom’s successors – Bert Jansch, John Renbourne, Paul Simon and James Taylor – were giving me guitar lessons. Not that they knew it, of course: I simply played their LP’s on my merciless record player until they were irretrievably scratchy – but at least I could play some of the most difficult passages. My education was supplemented by weekly trips to the White Horse in Reading where I joined bearded guitar-wielding hippies and other fresh-faced lads like myself nursing under-age pints (which we made last the whole evening) as we worshipped the guitar. I could soon finger-pick with the best of them and blew all my savings on a wonderful instrument which cost me seven pounds and bore the label ‘Hi Spot, Foreign’. This was, of course, a marked contrast to Sundays where hymns and dreadful ‘choruses’ made me cringe with embarrassment. (Whoever penned the immortal lines ‘We’re in the great race to put rockets in space, but the needs of our souls we’re refusing to face’ should, in my humble opinion, be made to eat their own toenails. Some of the ‘choruses’ I’ve heard recently are little better.) There was no way I could take my White Horse friends to church. And so my life developed in two parallel universes whose paths never intersected.

Continue reading “Art for art’s sake”

The art of being human

In my teaching I find myself, occasionally, reminding my students that they are human beings, not human doings, for surely one of the consequences of the information age is a relentless doing? In London there are those who bring sleeping bags to work, who eat gazing at handhelds, who travel talking into mobile phones, and who do their deals ‘after’ work over a pint. I remind my students that at times it is good to take one’s foot off the accelerator — to simply be, for are we or are we not human beings? It has to be said that Christians are, on the whole, equally manic: great at doing things, not least some pretty exhausting services on the ‘sabbath’. Perhaps this is why within popular (I would use the term ‘unthinking’) Christianity there is a lot of talk about the afterlife, conceived in terms of clouds, interminable hymn-singing, gazing on divine glory, and, generally, taking a well-earned rest. Continue reading “The art of being human”

Intellectualism—exploring mind and faith

Following on from my last post about ‘isms’, let’s have a closer look at intellectualism

Recently I was at a meeting where the gifted speaker mentioned in passing that in the West we are far too intellectual. The eastern mind, he suggested, was more open and appropriate to ‘real’ Christianity; intuitive, imaginative appropriation by the heart was of higher value than mere intellectual assent.
There are two issues which need uncovering here. Continue reading “Intellectualism—exploring mind and faith”