This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Zoe Ball Breakfast Show (with Gary Davies in the chair).

So, we start this week with new Covid restrictions – just at the point when we were hoping to emerge into a brighter world. And, yet again, we have to learn to wait for the day when the misery will – somehow – pass. In the meantime, the uncertainty drags on – perhaps inviting us to learn that this is normal for most people on this small blue planet.

It’s perhaps fitting, then, that today marks the twentieth anniversary of the death of George Harrison and this month the anniversary of his great post-Beatles album All Things Must Pass. He got it, didn’t he? Everything is transient, everything changes, seasons come and go. You can’t come to terms with living and losing, longing and … er … laughing without accepting first that all things must indeed pass.

For me this is built in to the rhythm and seasons of the year. Yesterday marked the start of Advent in the Christian calendar. What now follows is a rather weird exercise in learning to wait (as if we don’t know what’s coming) whilst actually knowing how the story goes. That the people have been waiting for centuries for God to come among them again: praying, longing, looking for signs. They try to make sense of their story in the light of what is happening now, but it doesn’t seem to compute. Then a baby is born in Bethlehem and the world is taken by surprise.

But, and this is the point, we don’t know that yet – not in Advent. So, we Christians try to re-live that waiting experience, trying to be open to being surprised when Christmas eventually comes – that God’s coming could have been a bit more impressive … than a mere baby born in an obscure village in a corner of the Middle East.

And that’s the point. As the Welsh poet RS Thomas put it: “The meaning is in the waiting.” In other words – and for a generation that wants everything now: Advent slows us down, makes waiting active and not empty, and leaves us open to surprise.

All things must indeed pass, George, but the story ends with a comma and not a full stop.

Today is Thanksgiving in the USA – the 400th celebration. I wrote this script for Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme while in the House of Lords in London. By the time I got back to Leeds late evening, the news had moved on and this script was no longer appropriate. As I said in the last post, here is the original script which I publish simply to illustrate how this slot works and how a new script is sometimes required in the early hours of the morning.

Every time I hear the term “peanut butter and jelly” I want to shout “it’s jam!” – quite a lot in the last few days as they are the names given to the American turkeys whose lives have been spared by the President for Thanksgiving. I gather they are now living in a hotel – but, we’d better leave that thought for another time.

Peanut Butter and Jelly are probably unaware that today is the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving event. The early settlers in America had good reason to be grateful. They had escaped the old world of monarchy and religious control, and had overcome the initial challenges of shaping a life in their new world. And their instinct was to be grateful for their new freedom … which, of course, brought with it new limitations and challenges. It was a beginning, but not an end.

However, there is a clue in the phrase “their new world” that not everyone had reason to be grateful for this new settlement. I guess the 90 indigenous people who sat down with the 53 new settlers 400 years ago could not have imagined what was to follow – violence, dispossession and a legacy of cruelty and tension. It won’t come as a surprise, then, that many indigenous Americans celebrate a National Day of Mourning instead of Thanksgiving.

If anything, this recognition should evoke in anyone a certain humility in the face of a complex history. As we know, the scars of our ancestors’ continue to bleed for generations to come. And it is really complicated to work out what ‘justice’ or healing might look like for people who live now in a different world, but a world shaped by the grievances or victories of the past. But, complexity doesn’t solve the paradox. Closer to home, look at Sathnam Sangera’s ‘Empireland’ or the continuing injustice experienced by the Windrush generation.

I have to apply imagination and empathy to this exercise. The legacy of my own ancestors has not landed me in a bad place, after all. But, I come from a Judeo-Christian tradition that compels us to look through the eyes of the other. The Israelite settlers in the Land of Promise instituted rituals – involving body, mind, spirit and economics – so that they would never forget that once they had been slaves and must not enslave others. They didn’t learn quickly. Mary’s song – the Magnificat – makes clear that good news for the poor will be costly for the rich, and Jesus’s own ‘manifesto’ in Luke’s gospel recognises that liberation for some causes a problem for others.

If Peanut Butter and Jelly understand anything of their happy situation today, they might also see that not all turkeys will be celebrating their joy. Thanksgiving and humility belong together.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. I had already written a different script that became inappropriate as the day’s news developed. I got back from London late, wrote a new one and got it out by 1am. This is what can happen with Thought for the Day. I’ll post the original one shortly, so that this change will make sense.

I was on a train back from London to Leeds last night when I caught up with the news that some people had drowned in the Channel while trying to reach England from France. By the time I got home the number had risen to over twenty and a song of lament was going around inside my head.

Some years ago the Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn was in Afghanistan.  He happened to be at Kandahar Airport as the coffins of fallen soldiers were taken on board an airplane for repatriation – that is, the return of the bodies to those who loved them back home. He wrote: “Each one lost is everyone’s loss, you see; each one lost is a vital part of you and me.” It is a hauntingly simple and beautiful elegy in the face of human mortality. It’s full of empathy for those whose world would now have changed for ever and whose grief would be unbearable.

But, the point he makes is that if we don’t have our basic humanity in common, what is then left? This reflects the famous John Donne assertion that “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less…”

It seems that both Cockburn and Donne were able to penetrate through the dominant politics and positioning of their day and find the truth at the heart of it all – that whenever people die, a hole is left into which pour the tears of the bereaved. The difference between the fallen westerners in Afghanistan and the drowned easterners at Calais is that we label the latter, question their choices, and forget their identity.

The French President, Emmanuel Macron, put it well when, recognising human solidarity, he offered first his sympathy to the families of those who drowned. This isn’t just a time for politics; rather, it is a time for digging deeper emotionally and being touched by tragedy. I don’t know the names or circumstances of those who have died, but their death changes the world.

This goes to the heart of Christian faith when faced with tragedy and loss. The Judeo-Christian tradition begins with people being “made in the image of God” and, therefore, being of infinite value – a value that goes beyond their economic or utilitarian function. Every person matters absolutely – not just those we deem acceptable.

Naive sentiment? Maybe. But, it also happens to go to the heart of what Christian faith refuses to negotiate.

Each one lost in the Channel had a name, a history and people who loved them. God knows their name even if I don’t.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Last Sunday evening we held a celebration in Bradford Cathedral. Christians, Muslims and Jews and many others came together – not an unusual phenomenon – to remember Dr Rudi Leavor who died recently in his 90s. Rudi was loved by people across our communities and he is greatly missed.

Rudi was a refugee to this country from Germany. He and his parents escaped what became the Holocaust. He grew up, set up a dentistry business, chaired the Bradford Synagogue for over twenty five years, and was a crucial holder of the memory in West Yorkshire, insisting that we recognise the fragility of our democracy and civility. He was loved by all who knew him.

Did he “game the system”? I ask the question because the phrase is being used frequently at the moment. Not only is it applied to politicians and PPE contracts, but also to the Iraqi asylum seeker who tried to attack a hospital in Liverpool a couple of days ago. Systems, it seems, are there to be gamed.

In the case of Emad al Swealmeen, the allegation is that he converted to Christianity in order to ‘play’ his asylum application. Inevitably, this has raised questions about the motives of all asylum seekers. Yet, the Refugee Council has also published research this week that indicates that 70% of those landing on our shores are demonstrably fleeing persecution. Which then raises the question as to why it is easier to extrapolate from one example – Emad al Swealmeen – rather than another – Dr Rudi Leavor? Or the huge majority of those who do not go rogue, but become good citizens who make our country stronger?

Gaming the system is an easy conclusion for me to draw, but only if I lack empathy or imagination. Living on this island seems to make it hard for many to look through the eyes of those whose experience drives them to extreme decisions – like leaving home and crossing the globe in order to survive, let alone thrive.

The three Abrahamic traditions that gathered in Bradford Cathedral last Sunday have much in common. One is the mandate in our scriptures to pay attention to people who are poor and marginalised. In the Hebrew Scriptures a people approaching settling in a new land are commanded to make provision for those who are hungry, homeless or – for whatever reason – in need. A tenth of the harvest is to be left in the ground so that there is always something for the dispossessed to eat.

In other words: yes, mistakes will be made; systems will be gamed; good will will be mocked. But, that doesn’t remove the moral obligation to love our neighbour.

FW de Klerk

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.


As I get older I discover that people and events that were crucial to my own experience and understanding of the world are unknown to a younger generation. I guess that the death of FW de Klerk fits in that category.

For my generation the curse of Apartheid and the cry for the liberation of oppressed people rang out from South Africa. Shaped by a particular Christian theology and an ideological commitment to a particular form of the nation state, white Afrikaaners fought to defend the land they dominated. Just as many of us caught up in the Cold War could not envisage how change might come, so did the South African regime seem impregnable.

Yet, change can come quickly. When de Klerk succeeded PW Botha as head of the National Party in 1989 few would have imagined what was to follow. This ideologically conservative white man recognised that the need for peace and justice transcended even deeply-held and culturally-entrenched worldviews. Nelson Mandela was released in 1990, multiracial elections took place in 1994, Mandela became President … but de Klerk continued to serve with him as a Vice-President.

I think I learn two things from this remarkable transition of power and culture: the first is about what I would call ‘repentance’; the second is about the nature and demands of leadership.

The word ‘repentance’ comes from a Greek verb meaning ‘to change your mind’. It basically means changing the way I look at God, the world and us in order to change the way I see God, the world and us in order to change the way I think about God, the world and us in order to change the way I live in the world with God and everyone else. It takes immense courage to repent – not least because, especially for a leading politician, this will invite abuse, opprobrium, and charges of betrayal. But, integrity and wisdom sometimes demand such courage. Christian theology certainly does.

Leadership is not for the romantic. At the heart of good leadership lie the virtues of ethical integrity and moral courage. In dismantling not only a political culture, but also a theologically underpinned cultural construct, de Klerk challenged the very foundational myths of a people … and did so knowing there might be a high price to pay.

He apologised for the effects of Apartheid, but not for Apartheid itself. He wasn’t perfect; but, given that leadership has to be exercised by real, complex and conflicted human beings, he had the courage to repent in action and open the door to a new generation and a new, more just world.

His death might evoke mixed memories for some. But repentance and courageous leadership should not be ignored.

This Rough Magic

De Lacy Arts Lecture, Bradford Cathedral

3 November 2021

Studying Shakespeare’s The Tempest for A Level was, at first, a disappointment. I had hoped to be assigned one of the great tragedies or histories: Julius Caesar or Henry V or King Lear, for example. Something with big characters, lots of blood and rousing speeches that change the world. Instead, I thought, I got a fantasy about magic and shipwrecks and fairies.

My introduction to the Bard at O Level had been Macbeth and I have never been able to escape the haunting warning of the consequences of the king’s “vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself” – a warning that seems to have eluded some of our senior politicians in recent times. The memory of Lady Macbeth is also difficult to shake off: driven towards madness by vicarious destructive ambition, and left with blood on her hands and torment in her soul.

Here we have characters who embody hope and shame, hubris and failure, affection and violent hatred. As they walk the stage in front of us they draw us into both the contingency of human character and relationships whilst exposing slowly the corrupting power of power itself. TheMacbeths display what we might call a utilitarian view of humanity in which we use people as commodities for the satisfaction of our own desires and cravings. Even on the page, if not on the stage, Shakespeare confronts us with ourselves – our raw humanity, the discrepancy between the ideal and the real, the complexity of ethics, and so on – and all this in words and speech and rubric.

If the song is right and “a picture paints a thousand words”, then the converse is also true: a word can paint a thousand pictures. I’ll return to this later.

I soon got over the disappointment at A Level. The Tempest was a revelation. It was less the plot and more the language that caught my reluctant attention and teased my imagination.

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” “What’s past is prologue.” “You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse.” “Now I want / Spirits to enforce, art to enchant; / And my ending is despair, / Unless I be relieved by prayer.” I could go on.

This lecture is not, however, about Shakespeare or language per se. But, I took the title from this play because ‘This rough magic’ seems to me to describe both the importance and nature of art and the arts. Magic? Because the arts refuse to be constrained by measurable sense or economic metrics; rather, they sneak around the protective walls of reason and commodity, and fire or tease or shock the imagination in ways that cannot be captured readily. The arts touch the imagination, engage emotion (often involuntarily), stimulate association, and go beyond what is merely measurable.

Whichever form of art we choose to peruse, we find ourselves invited into a place of what I would call ‘new seeing’. John Berger’s work on this is seminal and I won’t try to repeat it here. But, engaging with art – either in the creation of it or in interacting with it – draws from us a response. This response might be visceral; on the other hand, it might be indifferent. Yet, even indifference is a particular response to what is seen or heard. Let me illustrate briefly.

I am not a visual artist. I know what I like and I like what I know. While working in Paris in 1978-9 I used to visit a different wing of the Louvre every Sunday afternoon. Why? Because entry was free and I was skint. Week after week I returned to the Impressionists, then housed in the Jeu de Paume in the Tuilleries Gardens. Here I would stand as close as possible to the Manets and Monets before stepping back to see how the dabs and strokes made sense only from a distance; but, I wanted to see how the paint had been applied in the detail that formed a bigger picture. I fell in love with Van Gogh and the deep, tortured paint strokes that seemed hewn out of the canvas rather than applied to it. I admit, his story was one I found deeply moving.

(It was also here that I stood next to an American tourist who told his wife that ‘Haystacks’ was “kinda cute” – to which she responded: “You do this room, I’ll do the next one, then we’ve seen everything.” I still haven’t recovered.)

I was lost in other periods of art history, but loved the Impressionists. Of course, I have grown up since then, have travelled the world and visited galleries of all sorts. But, my ignorance keeps growing. Hence my enthusiasm when the Canon Theologian of Bradford Cathedral, Professor Ben Quash (Professor of Christianity and the Arts at Kings College, London) addressed clergy study days here in the Diocese of Leeds by showing us several paintings and introducing us to the language employed by the artist. I don’t know how to ‘read’ the art unless someone teaches me the language … teaches me to look differently in order to see differently in order to think differently about God, the world and us. The iconography demands curiosity and learning; the language needs to be interpreted before I can get beyond merely ‘liking’ it or not. I don’t always ‘see’ until I am enabled to ‘look’.

Likewise with poetry. I grew up hearing constantly how important poetry is, but not being introduced to the adventure of language itself – of words that can open or close the imagination. One of my favourite singer-songwriters is the Canadian Bruce Cockburn, now in his seventies. Thirty years ago he wrote a song called ‘Maybe the poet’ in which he suggests that every society needs its poets – people who use word and rhythm to open our eyes and ears and imagination to the echoes of an immeasurable depth of reality and experience and understanding. Musicians and poets, he asserts, shine a different light on experience and dare us to look differently. Don’t get locked into your prejudiced viewing point: “Male, female, slave or free / Peaceful or disorderly / Maybe you and he will not agree / But you need him to show you new ways to see.”

I once did a script on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 when Billy Ocean was the guest musician in the studio. I knew he would do his most famous song at some point, so I pre-empted it with my script. Instead of “When the going gets tough, the tough get going”, I offered “When the going gets tough, the tough write poetry”. And I was serious. Poets use words and images that steal behind the defences and have the power to move, shake, surprise or shock us – placing a subtle question mark over what we have considered to be ‘normal’ or assumed to be ‘just the way it is’. Sigmund Freud once observed: “Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me.” It is the poets who face themselves with honesty and express what they see.

I could be confident about this because the Christian tradition is rooted in poetry – in the words of the American Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann, “words that linger, texts that explode”. When Israel is in exile and longing for a home they might never see again, it is the poets who bring challenge and comfort, hope and realism. These prophets use language to help the suffering face their reality, not escape from it. It is their words that haunt the imagination of a bereft people over generations, scratching away at the memory and opening up the cracks of the hint of a possibility of a future.

Maybe a clue to the power of the arts lies precisely here – in the cracks. In the broken places and broken people whose recorded experience presents us with an opportunity to look through a different lens at our own experience of the world. It was the late and very great Leonard Cohen who sang (in ‘Anthem’): “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.” The poets go beyond rational semantics; they open up the cracks in order to let light get in. Of course, we also have the freedom to fill in the cracks in order to stop such subversive things happening again.

Again, this is how the Psalms work. These are songs and poems I read every day, whether I feel like it or not, and regardless of whether they seem apposite to my own circumstances or mood at the time. They provide a vocabulary for praise, lament, joy, fear, longing, confusion, lostness, foundness, hope, dread, and so on. Jesus taught using words to paint pictures – stories and images that make the hearer do the work of thinking and imagining … if, of course, the hearer can be bothered. Poetry, in this sense, is demanding. It is also indifferent to response … which is the responsibility of the hearer or reader. In this sense, it takes people seriously as adults who need both to play with words and ideas and to change their world, if not the world.

I have dwelt on poetry because words have been my own trade and language has been my interest, both professionally and personally. I recall starting my modern languages degree at university (in German and French) and being told by a professor: “There is no point learning a language unless you have something worth saying in it.” I took the point. Which is why we then had to study not only literature, but also history, politics, economics, philosophy, and so on. In other words, words matter. But, words are not an end in themselves; rather, used well, they have the potential to change the world.

Poetry, like art, has the power to be subversive. Bracha L Ettinger put it like this: “Art adds an ethical quality to the act of witnessing.” This was said in the context of how art functions in the face of atrocity and makes the point that neither the artist nor the audience can be ethically neutral. Try standing in front of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ and look only at the texture of the paint, ignoring the horror of what the paint depicts. This is where the artist invites the viewer to become a moral agent and not just a spectator. We can easily become numbed by the stream of utterly shocking stories of abuse of children by churches; but you only have to look at Kent Monkman’s painting The Scream (2017) to be confronted with the horror of what happened to children in Canada who, between the 1880s and 1990s, were torn from their families and taken to Catholic residential schools where appalling sexual, emotional and physical abuse took place behind the walls of what should have been a sanctuary. As Susan Sontag put it: “Real art has the capacity to make us nervous.”

Here we come back to the cracks. It is not only what we see in a painting – or hear through the words of a poem – that matters, but, also, what is left out. That is the power of good art: the silence speaks, the white space articulates, what is missing is eloquent by its very absence. Let me illustrate with a simple story.

When I was still in my mid-twenties, married with two very young children, my artist wife tried, on holiday, to slow me down. She asked me to draw an apple which she placed on a table in front of me. I did my best, but when she returned she asked why I had drawn a banana. I was aware of my limitations. But, what it taught me is that drawing demands attention being focused only on the object being drawn. You have to think not only about what it is (or what it signifies), but how it might be represented in a different medium. In other words, the artist has to look carefully, pay attention to how light plays on it, recognise shape and form and texture. It is the looking that changes.

The second thing she did was ask me to draw a chair. I did. It was a joke. When she came back into the room she gave me a new piece of paper and asked me to now draw the spaces between and around the elements of the chair. What emerged was less sharp, but more like a chair. It was in the space – the cracks, the gaps – that the form and the meaning emerged. It taught me to look differently. And I began to apply the same discipline to poetry, language, writing, music, theology, and so on. The absence is a presence, the silence is substance.

In this context, the musician Brian Eno spoke of the need for the artist to know when to stop, what to leave out. He said: “Having no silence in music is like having no black or white in a painting.” Henri Matisse claimed: “I don’t paint things, I only paint the difference between things.” Marcel Duchamp: “It’s not what you see that is art; art is the gap.” Grayson Perry questions the anaesthetising nature of how some art is appropriated in a culture that lacks confidence in what he calls “measuring subjective experiences”; he asserts that our lack of confidence in how to understand our own experience leads us to rely on brands that tell us what is good and how to be happy. He calls for greater emotional intelligence and less reliance on prefabricated and manipulative brands to shape our worlds of meaning.

And, so, we are back to the role and power of art to challenge and subvert our comfort or expectations – opening up the gaps and cracks, beckoning us to stay with the silences and live with the absences. Ben Quash says: “Works that ambush you are religiously important, because a sort of religious art that only gives you what you already expect and want quickly becomes kitsch. It’s just a reward for your expectations. And that shouldn’t be what religious art does. It should want to take you somewhere else, just as good religion should – it should be transformative, not merely confirming where you already are.”

And, I would add, what goes for religious art goes also for any art form. We can recognise the form and the pattern, but only in order to be compelled – or, at least, invited – to ask if that recognition is adequate. The American novelist and cultural commentator, Marilynne Robinson, said: “Sometimes people who subscribe to goodness in a programmatic way are resistant to surprise. Christianity is subversive in that sense. Christ became a slave. That undercuts cultural assumptions about what is valuable, what the hierarchies are. Art reproduces that great overturning whenever it is good art.” Rowan Williams observes that this subversiveness is rooted in grace: “It’s about the church being hospitable to difficult voices and difficult images,” he says.

“Art is the lie that reveals the truth,” said Picasso. Bertolt Brecht observed that “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” And James Baldwin gets to the point when he points out that: “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been concealed by the answers.”

What I have been considering here about art and poetry comes together in a fundamental respect for the imagination. I remember being at a board meeting of an international insurance group when we were introduced to the notion of ‘stochastic modelling’, a tool used by insurance companies to posit different global scenarios (1 in 50, 1 in 100 or 1in 200 year weather events, for example) in order to do the actuarial work that underpins underwriting policies. I am not very good at such things, but the penny eventually dropped and I said: “Ah, I see. It’s an exercise in imagination.” My colleagues began to object until I made the point that ‘imagination’ is not fantasy; it is not ‘making things up’ that aren’t there. Imagining what is not actual is actually a distinguishing feature of what it means to be self-reflectively human. Albert Einstein put it like this: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.” Or, as Brian Eno (quoted earlier) says: “What is possible in art becomes thinkable in life.”

CS Lewis, in his book Mere Christianity, writes: “We can’t hold faith entirely in our hands, we must creatively imagine it. … We are inveterate poets.” He goes on to suggest that the theatre is a gymnasium for underused imaginations.

Media expert and current chairman of ITV, Peter Bazalgette, makes the connection between the exercise of imagination, the arts and education when he says: “There’s a strong relationship between arts and cultural engagement and educational attainment. We see an improvement in literacy when young people take part in drama and library activities, and better performance in maths and languages when they take part in structured music activities.” Sir Anthony Gormley agrees: “Perhaps the most important argument for the centrality of art in education is that the art room can become a zone dedicated to the exercise of curiosity, a place where the instincts of questioning can find their own paths to language. What happens when I mix this with that? How does what happens affect me / how does it affect others?”

But, if art is so important to human culture, promotion of the social good, critical moral development, political narrative formation, individual growth in depth and imagination, then why are the arts and humanities being apparently devalued in the sphere of public policy in the United Kingdom? If the lockdowns of the last couple of years promoted an explosion of creativity in some homes and in the media, government also suggested that artists should consider retraining to “work in cyber”. The repeated pleas and warnings by artists, actors and musicians – performers dependent on travel for their living, along with all those needed to enable them to perform – for consideration during the Brexit negotiations were derided as just more ‘Project Fear’. That is, until it became impossible for artists to travel in Europe because of the new cost and bureaucratic impositions that Brexit enforced. Freelancers – which most working artists are – found that they were not valued and had not been considered as priorities as ‘deals’ were being done with the European Union. The despair of many artists was obvious as they felt overlooked and undervalued in the political machinations of shaking a fist at Europe.

What this oversight ignored was the economic value of the arts to this country. The arts not only flew the flag for a global Britain, but also contributed to our soft power around the world as well as making a direct and enormous economic contribution to our domestic GDP. But, you wouldn’t have thought this to be the case while witnessing the marginalising of the sector in negotiations over deals. Numerous questions were asked in Parliament, reports and evidence accumulated, and attention was brought to bear far too late. Yet, this is not the main point of my observations. The import of this phenomenon is that the arts were assumed to be economically irrelevant, suggesting that the political radar is biased against areas of life that serve the common good whilst being considered of low value in the cogs and wheels of economic thinking.

Let’s be clear, as the London-based academic Rishi Trikha has written: … “the underlying belief that creative jobs are a frivolous hobby, staffed by people who are unserious and low-skilled, has persisted for a long time. … The creative industries and cultural sector contribute over £143 billion to the UK economy every year, in addition to secondary benefits to hospitality businesses such as hotels and restaurants. The digital sector is worth £149 billion, so the idea that artists should hang up their dance shoes and get a ‘real job’ is based on prejudice rather than facts.”

Culture and the arts do not need to be justified by economics; but, if economics are assumed to be the only or main criterion for valuing people and work, then it is right to question the assumptions and be honest about the economic benefits derived from the arts. In this context I commend Darren Henley, CEO of Arts Council England, and his book The Arts Dividend Revisited in which he identifies seven benefits that funding culture can bring to a society.*

What does it mean, then, to live in a culture in which public policy appears to be marginalising the arts as a public good? Several months ago a university vice-chancellor, Professor Todd Walker, spoke unashamedly of getting rid of what he called ‘vanity courses’ from universities. His actual words were: “The days of having a vanity course are over. We’re not here to study something for which there is no direct employment, growing market or sector.” He later apologised, but the damage was done and the game had been given away. (One commentator described his views as “utilitarian crap”.) What happened to the notion of a university as a locus of education, learning, thinking, development of critical faculties, cultural development, and so on? This is consistent with a way of thinking that values only that which is measurable economically. It assumes that unless a university course leads directly to a job that brings an income, it serves no purpose – that if it is not vocational (in the sense of training the subject to fulfil a function), it is discardable.

You can see where this is going. Teachers at every level of education have been complaining for years that ‘Ausbildung’ has transplanted ‘Erziehung’ – that is, education has been elided into mere training. Where music, art and playing are seen as a distraction from the real business of ‘learning’, we should not be surprised to dig a little way down and find an anthropology that is fundamentally utilitarian. Is learning really about cultivating the capacity and skills for thinking about life and its meaning – or is it simply about getting a job to feed the economy? Is learning more about gaining wisdom than accumulating data? Peter Bazalgette observes again that removal of a collective memory, cultivated by the arts as an essential part of society, leaves us with “a society bereft of a national conversation … about its identity or anything else.”

These are vital questions at a time when the arts and humanities are being diminished in public policy as being of less importance than, for example, economics or engineering. To be fairly crude about it: when the engineer finishes constructing ‘things’ and systems, what feeds his or her soul? Where does the music come from if music is merely an optional extra for those who like that sort of thing or can afford to study a ‘vanity course’? What feeds the person who the engineer is? And to what end is the engineering itself a means?

If, as I would argue, the common good is served by human beings – in society – being treated as more than economic cogs in a productive wheel, then the arts are essential to building a good society in which human persons, individually and together, can thrive. The arts are not an optional extra. In this sense, the arts – and society as a whole, if it wants to thrive – must push back against the insidious assumption that a market economy can slide effortlessly into a market society. The former has to do with economic choices; the latter with preventing the economy (seen in purely financial or industrial terms) from being seen as an end in itself. Put simply: does the economy exist for the good of society, or does society exist for the sake of the economy? As we observed earlier in this lecture, the point of human society is people and their communal thriving; the economy is a means to that (greater) end, not an end in itself.

The title of this lecture, taken (as I explained at the beginning) from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is incomplete. “This rough magic” is not just an evocative phrase that, I suggest, provokes thinking about art and drama and meaning and music and language. Prospero actually says: “This rough magic which I abjure…” He is renouncing it, abandoning the rough magic, letting go of the art. But, as a friend pointed out to me when discussing these themes and that phrase, this ‘abjuring’ can be understood in two ways: first – negatively – as a turning away from that which has now, through experience, become devalued – a source of doubt or disillusionment; secondly – positively – as the abandonment of one way of looking at, seeing, thinking about and understanding the world … because art has opened up a new way, an alternative perspective, a new (or renewed) vision of how the world is or might become.

I think this is what Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was suggesting when he wrote: “A man shall hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.”

Here I want to put particular weight onto this notion of beauty. Not a beauty that avoids the horrors and ugliness of the world, but a beauty that defies that ugliness because it inspires an imagination of what might be. Art can never be satisfied with what is. This is why, as  Christian, I am fired up by the scriptures in which art and beauty are praised – think of the elaborate design of the tabernacle and the temple, shaped by artists in an ancient world. Jesus teaches using stories that, once told, have been given away to the hearers. He sows images in the mind that scratch away when propositional statements have long been forgotten. I would go as far as to say that the key to the kingdom of God is not adherence to any particular dogma, but, rather, that curiosity that opens the imagination and is bold enough to – in gospel terms – walk up the beach with the Jesus who calls us into the journey without giving us any guarantees about what lies ahead.

This is, indeed, rough magic. The temptation is always to smooth it out and polish it. The genius is to explore it, even if, later, we choose to abjure it.

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* enhancing the nation’s creativity; improving education; advancing health & wellbeing; supporting innovation and technology; regenerating villages, towns and cities; contributing to economic growth; building a reputation for cultural excellence on the global stage. (He goes on to say that creativity and culture bring people together, support local economies and make our lives better. But, while talent is everywhere, opportunity is not.)

“Poetry is like fish. If it’s fresh, it’s good. If it’s stale, it’s bad. If you’re unsure, try it out on the cat.” (Osbert Sitwell)

“Faith precedes understanding.” (Augustine)

“The work of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.” (Francis Bacon)

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

So, the Olympics are over and the Paralympics are soon to begin. And I still find it odd to keep hearing the title “Tokyo 2020” in 2021. I know the reasons why, but it stops me every time.

It’s not the only thing that has been strange about these Olympics, either. I learned the other day that the Spanish national anthem doesn’t have any lyrics; they couldn’t agree what they should say, so they do without. Given the weirdness of some anthems, maybe that’s a good idea.

But, what’s amused me most about these Games was how the prophets of doom – “They should be cancelled because of the pandemic, etc.” – are now celebrating a brilliant couple of weeks of sport and competition … without a hint of memory or, even, irony.

It smacks of Arthur C Clarke’s observation about every revolutionary idea being filtered by critics through three phrases: first, “It’ll never work;” second, “It might work, but isn’t worth doing;” and, third, “I said all along it was a good idea.”

Well, I put my hand up to that one. I well remember questioning out loud why anyone would want a camera in their phone; a phone is a phone and a camera is a camera. That ended well.

 But, this is just how life is and how people are. If the Olympics are a test of many things – including stamina and determination – they certainly shine a light on character. You can’t just turn up in Tokyo, get off the settee and run a marathon. Some personalities are naturally optimistic and visionary; others need time and persuasion – like me and technology. A good society needs both early adopters and late developers: the former make things happen, the latter ask the hard questions.

One of the reasons I keep reading the Christian Gospels – apart from the fact that it’s my job – is that this diversity of character is taken seriously. The first followers of Jesus have their own distinctive personalities – which is why they often clash. Peter is impetuous and harbours illusions about how strong he is … until he discovers that he actually isn’t. Judas is impatient and wants to force Jesus’s hand into bringing the revolution now. At the cross, when the men do a runner, it’s the women who stay and attend to the painful detail of miserable death and surprising resurrection.

They all have their place and their role: early-adopting visionaries and hindsight-persuaded pessimists. The rash get slowed down and the slow get drawn along. Somehow it works.

Which is just as well, really. As the apostle Paul wrote and every athlete knows, the eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you.”

Professor Lyndal Roper’s biography of Martin Luther was a brilliant read. Published in 2017, it looked at this remarkable,strange, brave and conflicted character from 500 years ago through a different, psychological, lens.

Now Roper has published a follow-up series of lectures and it is illuminating, disturbing, challenging and a great read. Like me (but for different reasons) she was present in Wittenberg in 2017 when Germany and the Church was celebrating the quincentenary of the birth of the Reformation in 1517 when Luther allegedly nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schloßkirche.

So, she introduces the book with a glimpse into how this was celebrated – exhibitions, new studies and kitsch. The substance of the book is vivid. Roper digs deeply into the way Luther’s ‘brand’ was created and shaped in a way that looks terribly modern.

However, the chapter on Luther’s anti-Semitism is a hard read. I first went to Wittenberg with Rowan Williams in 2006 – it was freezing – and was shocked to be taken outside the Stadtkirche to see the depiction of the Judensau under the eaves. Luther’s anti-Semitism cannot be avoided, and Roper spares no mitigation.

If you thought Twitter invented the sheer nastiness of undisciplined and inhumane language in media, think again. What Luther published – and the language he used to attack his opponents – should surprise and shock, even today. The book gives lots of examples, but they are alarming, shaming and often very funny. Luther was not for the faint hearted.

Luther, like all of us, was complex and contradictory. Understanding him matters because his legacy – the theme of the book’s exploration – has made such an impact on the world. You can’t understand Europe, Germany, the development of world politics, Christianity or history without understanding Luther and his legacy.

This is a great, stimulating, illuminating and very accessible book.

And, if you put “Wittenberg” into the search on this blog, you’ll get a number of entries over the last decade or more and some photos. (You will also admire the fact that if you stand to one side of Luther’s statue outside the Marktkirche in Hannover and look back, it looks like he is doing Scottish country dancing.)

When I was preparing for ordination and studying theology at Trinity College, Bristol, a couple of friends set up a new society that met a number of times until enthusiasm ran out.

Although the teaching was mostly great, and the theology, etc. was engaging, no course can cover everything. Some of us were interested in stuff that couldn’t be covered by the curriculum. And it was to provide a forum for discussion of such themes that we set up the Eutychus Society.

Eutychus was the young man in Acts 20 who fell asleep while listening to the apostle Paul who, the text says, “talked still longer”. He fell out of the window and died. The joke was that he was bored with Pauline theology, and so were we. Well, the last bit wasn’t true (of course), but we did want to fill some gaps.

The society met once a month (I think) in the evening. It was formal. One of us would present a paper, there would then be a break, and then there would be a discussion. I would then type up the text of the paper on my new Amstrad word processor (Locoscript, if anyone remembers that), and I would then edit the ‘journal’ – including the discussion – and it would be distributed. And that’s where it got weird.

We decided to call the journal ‘The Window’. Our logo, front and centre on the front cover, was an open window. We felt we needed a Latin motto to complete our credibility. The problem was that none of us had learned any Latin. So, as the resident linguist, I made one up: “Nils fallem ex fenestra” – Let us not fall out of the window”.

It was a joke, OK? It was several months in before a tutor who did know Latin spotted it and was not happy. So he put it into correct Latin (which I have now forgotten) and the society didn’t last too much longer.

I still have a copy of one of the journals somewhere. I did a paper on ‘Babel re-visited: the use and abuse of language by Christians’. It was partly lighthearted; but, it’s serious questions still haunt me today.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Who’d have thought that the Summer Silly Season would begin with a social media debate about Latin?

The Education Secretary’s announcement that Latin will once again be taught in 40 more state schools ignited an explosion of opinions about its value. The cynics see it as a nod to conservative nostalgia, others see it as utterly pointless – teaching children a dead language. I have to confess, my first reaction was: if Latin can make you as happy as Mary Beard and Tom Holland, why not make everyone do it?

But, there is a serious argument to be had about learning ancient languages – and I speak as a former professional linguist who didn’t learn Latin or Greek at school and regrets it.

Yes, it’s understandable that some people think it a waste of time to learn something that has no economic development potential (unless, of course, you happen to have invented the Asterix franchise – to which I say hic, haec, hoc). But, despite current assumptions, economic value is not the ultimate goal of civilisation or the acme of human meaning. Character cannot be cashed out.

Educating a person is not the same thing as training her for a job. And isn’t it strange that the term ‘vocational courses’ – from the Latin vocare, of course – now usually refers to technical qualifications? Are our children really destined only to be cogs in an economic wheel – commodities in a competitive market? Or are they people whose mind and imagination need essentially to be teased and stretched and ignited and kindled – because, in Christian terms, they are made in the image of God … to be creative?

I well remember my first day at university – studying French and German, but not very good at either.  The professor told us bluntly that there is no point speaking a foreign language if you have nothing to say in it.

This goes to the heart of what is known as the Wisdom Literature in the Bible. The book of Proverbs nails it in its opening words when the writer extols “learning about wisdom and instruction, … understanding words of insight, … gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice and equity…” So, when his contemporaries marvel at the wisdom of the young Jesus, this is the tradition that explains what they meant.

So, the learning of Latin is, in and of itself, not a useful end. But, it is a means to an end – opening up the mind and imagination; giving access to the wisdom and follies of past civilisations; reminding us what education is really for.

Producat illum, I say: bring it on.