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:

One of the unexpected things I did during lockdown was watch the sort of television programmes for which I usually have either little time or sufficient interest.

I love art, but I can’t do it. When I was younger, in an attempt to slow me down and distract me from working, I was given a sheet of paper and a pencil and told to draw the chair that stood in front of me. I did my best – even using my thumb the way real artists do to measure size or perspective. The result wasn’t great. I was then told to look differently and not draw the chair, but the spaces around and between the elements of the chair. What then emerged was something that looked less precise, but more real.

What I began to learn from this is that the point of art is to invite the artist or the audience to look differently in order to see differently in order to think differently in order then to live differently in the world. And this perspective also began to impinge on ways of approaching theology or politics or just about anything else. Instead of looking at the thing itself, look at the spaces around it and new perspectives begin to open up.

Now, I think this is what many people discovered – often to their surprise – when Grayson Perry did his excellent Art Club – a six-part series during lockdown. Apart from the vulnerability of the exercise on his part and the huge numbers of people who joined in – often sending in their own productions – he touched on something important about human being and creativity. Commenting on the series he said: “Art is a powerful tool for expressing what is going on in the world and identifying what really matters.”

In other words, art and the arts have vital economic value in and for a society, but  cannot be measured in purely economic terms. They change the way we see and think. They reach into the depths and re-grind the lens behind our eyes through which we see – in my words – God, the world and us.

For a Christian this is not a new idea. The creation narratives in Genesis show an almost playful God, creating such variety, but then, for example, giving people the responsibility of naming the animals. Co-creators whose humanity is only being fulfilled when open to art for art’s sake. The Bible is full of examples of beauty and craftsmanship – valuable in their own right. Jesus invites people to look differently at everything – changing their mind and how they think. This awakens curiosity, teases the imagination, enriches experience.

It is what we are made for.

This is the text of the article I was asked to write for this week's Radio Times. It was reported as a “lament”. It wasn't. I just thought it was quite funny.

Well, would you Adam and Eve it? Recently 3000 people took their clothes off, painted themselves blue and lay around the not-so-tropical city of Hull in varieties of heaps. All, of course, in the name of art.

 

Actually, I thought it was quite funny. I saw it on my phone while enjoying two days at the General Synod talking about sex. So, it seemed both timely and amusing.

 

What is it with nakedness at the moment. You can hardly turn the telly on without finding someone wanting to take their clothes off. I thought Big Brother was embarrassing, but clearly that was just the appetiser for Love Island, Naked Attraction, and Life Stripped Bare. At least the new paradise-building Eden (soon to arrive on Channel 4) has the islanders keep their clothes on – probably wise given the climate.

 

We'll come back to that in a minute. First, though, it might be worth knocking on the head one or two misapprehensions about religion, bodies and nakedness. The story in the Old Testament book of Genesis has Adam and Eve (man and woman) doing a naughty and then realising that they were naked. So, they run away and hide in the bushes in the garden. Which is reasonable.

 

But, the point of this is not that they were naked – that is, clothes-free; it is that they realised they were transparent… or, as we might put it, they knew they could be seen through. And this transparency was felt to be threatening rather than promising. So, they hid. And, funnily enough, it is God who comes looking for them (not the other way around) in order to find them and make sure they were OK for the future despite the mess they had got themselves into.

 

What is odd these days, however, is that some people seem to jump at any opportunity to get their kit off. Especially if there is a camera nearby. What is it that drives people to want to have not only their body, but also their character, habits and personality laid bare for an audience of voyeurs to criticise? What strange motivation lies deep within them that makes exhibitionism seem an attractive option?

 

I guess what lies behind these questions is the blurring of the lines between what used to be called the private and the public. Whereas society has developed conventions about what should be legitimately exposed and what should be kept private, it seems that contemporary society has binned these and invited the beautiful people to bare more than their souls in the name of the great god Entertainment.

 

Oh dear. That's wrong, isn't it? And now it’s not just the beautiful people. The telly is full of programmes about ugly people, people trying to cover up dodgy tattoos, operations that went wrong, weird people trying to make themselves attractive. And all in full public gaze. Why?

 

Maybe the ubiquity of social media has something to do with it? If breakfast used to be a matter of private interest, now the whole of Twitter needs to know what I eat. Obviously. The barriers are down, everything is open, nothing is hidden. Politicians and others in public life have their lives shredded by a prurient and ruthless media monster, insatiable in its appetite for flesh.

 

I am not sure this is entirely healthy. If the Internet has given our kids open access to all sorts of distorted views of what it is to be human – that beautiful and idealised bodies are to be valued above all else – then perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised at some of the identity and self-esteem problems faced by them as they grow through adolescence towards adulthood.

 

In which case, Love Island lies at one extreme of exhibitionist fantasy, whereas at least the Hull nudists were just ordinary people with ordinary bodies in ordinary shapes and sizes.

 

Still, there must be some places where it still is right to shout, “Get yer kit on!”.

The key to surviving the General Synod of the Church of England is to have a book on the go that has nothing to do with church business. Or church.

I have just finished the excellent ‘A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney’ by Martin Gayford. Hockney spends a lot of time looking. Not just spotting something and drawing it, but looking. He describes how he looks for a very long time – hours and days – at, for example, a group of trees. The book ranges over time, space, colour, place, depth, and much besides. And it is beautifully illustrated.

The problem is that it provides a lens through which to look at and think through the business of the church as mediated through the General Synod. No escape there, then.

We began yesterday (after worship and a very odd choice of an unsingable hymn) with an address by the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil in Iraq. This was a powerful first-hand account of what is happening to Christians at the hands of Islamic State. The plight is dire and the plea for help is urgent.

It always jars to move from such a matter to the legislative business of the Church of England – even though that is basically what the General Synod is for. But, it rams home the fact that life has to carry on despite the mess of the world. We then ranged over a variety of matters before departing in the evening. Today is taken up with four reports aimed at reorienting the Church of England for the future, aimed at focusing our attention on our core vocation: making disciples (followers) of Jesus Christ and shaping the church at every level for its core mission.

It could be expressed like this: how does the church, in all its variety of context and reach, create the space in which different sorts of people can be invited to join us in following Jesus in the particular contexts in which we live, work, play, and give our lives? This involves worship, outreach, evangelism, pastoral care, nurture, learning, arguing together, and so on.

Of course, the bit of this that has hit the media radar is the so-called Green Report. The coincidence of its launch with the depressing news about HSBC’s tax evasion behaviour is … er … unfortunate. But, a half-rational mind would realise that, putting the easy target to one side (how can the church be advised on leadership by a banker?), the question of how to equip church leaders for the responsibilities they carry is an important one.

Someone in public life said to me yesterday that, although she had not read the Green Report, she only had to look at her vicar to realise that some training in professional conduct would be helpful – given that he had run down his congregation over the last few years. I guess many in our churches would like to see their clergy better trained for some of the ‘management of people and stuff’ responsibilities that running a parish demands.

So, we will no doubt pick holes in this report and others. But, we cannot simply hide behind cleverness and dismissive non-engagement with serious questions about how we train and equip leaders for what we are asking them to do. The Green Report should have been translated for its ultimate audience; it might even start from the wrong place and use the wrong language; the process of its genesis might well not be ideal; it might well make assumptions about the nature and exercise of leadership and the nature of the church. Fine. But, the criticisms still don’t address the question of how we do then invest in ensuring that church leaders in the future are better equipped to do what is expected of them.

When I was Bishop of Croydon I initiated a clergy leadership development programme and recruited an experienced colleague to create, develop and facilitate it. Some in the diocese were sceptical – about any suspicion of ‘management’. However, this programme involved peer cell groups of six clergy in their first post-curacy post, residential training, expert coaching, and so on. It was a heavy investment. But, it was an attempt to take clergy seriously and build their confidence in their own competence. It made a huge difference to morale, and feedback from parishes about their clergy made clear the impact that went wider than the development of the clergy themselves.

This is what the church is now looking to work on. It is not a substitute for inspiration, spiritual direction, theological development or all the other holy stuff of ministry. We need to ensure that the question Green poses is not avoided by dismissal of the Green response.

There is an excellent article by Ed Stourton in today's Sunday Telegraph about the importance of good media understanding of religion (and a strong reference to the Sandford St Martin Awards which I chair).

As I keep saying (I know, I know…), the need for journalists to understand religion has nothing to do with whether they believe any of it, but because you can't understand the world without it. This is a matter of intellectual wisdom, not of evangelism. If you don't take religion seriously, you are not taking the world seriously – its politics, economics, traditions or people.

And, if you want to see just how unintelligent we have become, look at the comment thread under Ed's article.

I noted recently how the BBC was getting a new Religion Correspondent at the same time as the Times was losing theirs. And look what happens…

I went to St Paul's Cathedral in London on Saturday to see the new Bill Viola video installation, Martyrs. Later I caught up with the newspaper coverage of the launch and was pleased to see how positive most of it was. But, then I got to the Times, from whom one expects.

The article hails the victory of the powers of culture over the reactionary forces of church after ten years of wrangling to get Viola's video piece into the cathedral. Typical – the church has to be dragged kicking and screaming into a brighter cultural age. Other non-specific references are made, but unattributed and without evidence.

The heavy hitters of Britain’s art world have been deployed in a decade-long battle to persuade St Paul’s Cathedral to accept a permanent video installation in its hallowed interior, it can be revealed.

The artist and his supporters, including the directors of Britain’s most prominent galleries, almost gave up their fight to persuade elements within the Church of England to allow the first ever moving image artwork to be permanently displayed in a British cathedral or church.

See that? “Battle”. “To accept”. “Revealed”. “Fight”.

Really? So how does the reviewer David Sanderson cope with the fact that the work was commissioned by the Cathedral in the first place?

Just asking…

The video is superb: powerfully moving and commanding. Just go and see it.

But, remember the story.

 

 

The headline doesn't sound too promising, does it? But, it brings together the last couple of days before I return to Bradford tomorrow for a week of work before having a scheduled holiday the following week.

Having finished Ben Quash's excellent Found Theology, I intended to just spend the last couple of days reading German frivolous stuff. But, I started on Imaginative Apologetics, edited by Andrew Davison instead and got hooked. Serendipitously, it hangs together very well with the Quash book, although written from a different perspective and toward a different end.

Imaginative Apologetics recognises that the current irrational obsession of the New Atheists with what they think of as 'pure reason' (as if it wasn't mediated by a person who brings to the task a tradition and unargued-for presuppositions about the world, the way it is, and why it is the way it is) and 'pure science' (see above) does not need to be responded to on its own redundant terms, but that the premises of the argument can be questioned. And, to cut a long argument short, people need to be appealed to at the level of imagination and emotion – finding a consistency with real lived experience … which is more (but never less than) than 'rational' – and the Christian tradition has a huge amount to offer in this respect.

In fact, Davison himself makes the case right at the outset for Christian confidence when he writes:

The Christian faith does not simply, or even mainly, propose a few additional facts about the world. Rather, belief in the Christian God invites a new way to understand everything. (p.xxv)

He also cursorily quotes Yale's Denys Turner's observation that “the best way to be an atheist is to avoid asking certain questions”. The purpose of this is not to dismiss atheism or atheists, but to ask robust questions about the assumptions and presuppositions that lie before and behind assertions about reality and the absence of God. There is material here for good debate, if the theistic case is accorded some credibility and not simply dismissed prior to consideration. As Alison Milbank puts it, the apologetic task of the Christian is not to appeal to pure reason (as if there could be such a thing), but “to awaken in the reader this feeling of homesickness for the truth”. (p.33)

Each essay is worth reading in itself and I don't intend to go through the whole book here. However, the appeal to art, literature and the imaginative life of a human person (as well as communities) chimes in very well with the case being argued theologically by Ben Quash in his book. In other words, take culture seriously; explore and appeal to the imagination that takes reason seriously; be confident about the role of the imagination in comprehending reality.

Having read this stuff in a cafe in Basel yesterday, I then moved on to the Kunstmuseum Basel. I particularly wanted to see the Hans Holbein painting of the dead Christ (referred to by Ben Quash in his book) and the impressive Impressionist collection. There is nothing quite like an art gallery to make me feel ignorant and illiterate. I look at paintings and know that I don't know how to read them – I don't know the language. I had intended to scan the bulk of the collections and stay for longer with the stuff I knew a little about from my reading, but I found I had paid to see the special exhibition of James Ensor: The Surprised Masks.

I had never heard of James Ensor. I realised I had come across several of his works (The Fall of the Rebel Angels and The Entry of Christ into Brussels on Mardi Gras, for example) but I knew nothing about him or his art. It was stunning. The paintings were interesting, but it was the ink drawings that grabbed me. They explore death, dying, mortality and humanity – but with the sort of humour that had me laughing as I looked at them. It reminded me a little of how I felt when I read Robert Crumb's cartoon version of The Book of Genesis.

The point here is that art goes beyond pure reason (but entirely reasonably) into the imagination in a way that digs at 'truth' and pushes our perceptions of what we assume to be 'reality'.

And this, bizarrely, is what takes me on to immigration. If coming to Switzerland helped me escape some of the sterile immigration debates in England, I quickly got plunged back into them. Recently a referendum narrowly backed the view that restrictions should be imposed on immigration into Switzerland. This caused a huge storm both here and in the wider European Union: decisions have consequences. The political fall-out has been interesting to read whilst actually here in Switzerland. And 'imagination' – in the perverse, but common sense of 'fantasy' – has come powerfully into play in the rhetoric around the issue.

The friend I am staying with is employed by the Swiss Reformed Church to engage in industrial and economic matters (Pfarramt für Industrie und Wirtschaft). He was invited by the local newspaper, the bz Basel, to attend last week's opening night of a performance of Max Frisch's Biedermann und die Brandstifter and to be interviewed by the newspaper afterwards. You really have to know the play, but the performance had a twist in that the stories – in their own words – of immigrants to Switzerland were told to a surprised audience. The interview appeared today and Martin (Dürr) has been getting very supportive messages all day. In the interview – which is amusing as well as intelligent – he sharply calls into question the rhetoric propagated by the right wing that mass immigration is threatening the Swiss way of life. The right wing press (in some cases owned by the leader of the right wing party, the SVP) fan the flames of fear whilst simultaneously offering themselves as the saviours of the nation. Martin put it like this (my translation):

We have to draw a line. For many years the SVP has succeeded in building fears and resentments. The play exposes the mechanisms behind this. I believe there are some very respectable people in the SVP. But, the element that has the say has managed for years to present itself as both victim and saviour. This is a fascinating achievement… They present themselves as victims of the foreign masters in Brussels and of the Left and the Greens and even the remaining left wing press. These are doing terrible things to us and our Swiss identity is being destroyed – say the SVP. At the same time they get up and announce: “Comrades, don't be afraid! We offer you the antidote to this. We are the only ones to really fight to keep the Switzerland that has existed since 1291.”

Sound familiar? Create the spectre – regardless of facts and reality – and then offer a solution to the fear that you have created. It is an interesting and powerful example of political apologetics. It works on the imagination by conjuring a fantasy and then calling it reality.

We are not alone…

 

This 'away-from-home-and-reading' bit of my sabbatical is coming to an end. I haven't read as much as I had wanted to, but there is also a life to be lived (and football to be watched).

Before finishing with a couple of funny German satirical books, I spent the last couple of days reading Ben Quash's Found Theology: History, Imagination and the Holy Spirit. I am very glad I did.

Last year I asked Ben to be (Honorary) Canon Theologian of Bradford Cathedral and he agreed. He is Professor of Christianity and the Arts at Kings College London and was formerly Dean and Fellow of Peterhouse in the University of Cambridge. Last summer I asked Ben to address my clergy on the subject of 'change' – given all the uncertainties about the future of the diocese in the light of proposals to dissolve three dioceses and create a single new one for West Yorkshire & the Dales (which, as we know, is soon to be a reality). In the morning he presented some of the material that is now set out in this book. (In the afternoon we had Pastor Sebastian Feydt from the Frauenkirche in Dresden, Germany, to talk about radical change and its effects – he had experienced the changes in Germany from GDR to FRG at every level, including how such change affects or shapes your theology.)

If Ben had told me beforehand that he would begin with a brief study of modal auxiliaries in English language, I would probably have advised against it on the grounds that … er … it doesn't sound very … er … likely to enthral the busy clergy mind. It was absolutely riveting. Since then, I have waited for the book and for the time to read it properly – even though some bits made me feel a bit dim and slow.

I am not going to attempt to review it here. Suffice to say that this beautifully written book ranges through language, translation, art, poetry, the naming of cats, Bible, text, hermeneutics, history, philosophy, christology and pneumatology. And, yes, that was 'the naming of cats'. I rarely read a 'theology' from cover to cover, but I did this one. Basically, he wants the reader to see that the Holy Spirit breathes through the space that engages our imagination (in its proper meanings), re-lighting the past and shaping the future. En route he has important things to say or suggest about how the church is to handle new phenomena in the light of a proper reading of and handling of scripture – something pertinent to current ethical debates in and beyond the church.

I quote the opening of the first chapter on 'Historical finding':

The theology advanced in this book understands ongoing history as a gift of the Holy Spirit, to relate us to God in Christ, and it is energetically opposed to models of doctrine that assume for it any sort of ahistorical completeness; that assume it to be a set of securely held propositions from which all necessary implications for Christian belief and practice can then be deduced in any time and place. (p.1)

 

A great lunch with the Bundestagspräsident, a former Ministerpräsident of Rheinland-Pfalz and Thüringen (Bernhard Vogel), a French theologian and a Jewish academic – we discussed the NSA revelations, spying on Merkel, the Holocaust and other things – and then back to work.

Wo Sprache endet: Das Verhältnis von Literatur, Transzendenz und Politik was a paper delivered by Professor Dr Lydia Koelle (Bonn). I expected some sort of treatment similar to that by Rowan Williams in his book on 'Dostoyevsky: Language, Faith & Fiction', but what we got didn't seem to address the theme of the title. However, it led to a good question about the transference of 'trauma' from a generation of Germans who did not 'live' the Holocaust, but reads 'trauma' back into an experience that was not actually lived as a trauma by those who actually went through it. (I might be doing this session an injustice, but it was the post-lunch slot and we had wine with lunch…)

Zwischen Medialisierung, Religionskonflikt und Rückkehr der Figuration: Religion in der Kunst am Beginn des 21. Jahrhunderts saw Dr Johannes Rauchenberger (Graz, Austria) illustrate how contemporary morally-challenging events are handled in art – for example, Razoume (?) on the recent Lampedusa migration deaths.

Ulrich Khuon, Intendant of the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, was really interesting about theatre and film as he addressed the theme Glaube, Welt und die Kunst des Spiels: Kino und Theater als Seismographen der Gegenwart. He began with Pasolini observing Jesus from a distance in his 'Gospel of St Matthew', then ranged widely around Friedrich Schiller, Mallick and Julian Barnes in relation to death, suffering and the human condition.

Zwischen Skandal und neuer Kunstreligion: Das zwiespältige Verhältnis von Künsten und Religion in der Öffentlichkeit, an exploration of how art provokes and challenges, saw Professor Dr Wolfgang Ullrich (Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung, Karlsruhe) tackle public responses to (a) Gerhard Richter's east window in Cologne Cathedral, and (b) Martin Kippenberger's 'Crucified Frog'. Both caused huge controversy: the former because it subverts both the architctural form and the received nature/purpose of stained-glass windows in churches, and the latter for obvious reasons. The window substitutes traditional biblical images with 11,500 four-inch 'pixels' cut from original antique glass in a total of 72 colours, dividing opinion between those (like the bishop) who hate it and those who say that “all the saints, all the parables, every thought, every idea, transcendence itself are all here in these windows”. Richter observed that the critical bishop had actually understood it: [it is] “gar nicht katholisch.”

Interestingly (and pertinently), the symposium has heard no reference in today's papers to music – a surprising omission. Mind you, there isn't time to cover everything…

I need dinner…

 

I was tempted to call this post 'Let's do the Como-tion', but I resisted. Just. I bet you are glad.

I came on from Finland early Sunday morning and flew to Milan where I joined the Germans coming in from Berlin and we were driven to Villa La Collina in Cadenabbia, overlooking Lake Como. Having not slept a wink last night, I found the lectures and discussions today quite hard going. Even chatting at dinner was a strain.

This villa is the conference centre (Accademia) of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. Konrad Adenauer was the remarkable first Chancellor of Germany after the Second World War, taking up office in 1949. His Stiftung (foundation) does some really excellent work on the relation between society, religion, culture and politics (among other research and other themes). This one is titled: Der öffentliche Raum in Europa und seine religiös kulturelle Prägung.

The first day (having arrived at 2pm, we started on the work at 3.30pm) tackled the theme: Religion und Säkularität in der Moderne. The first paper was by Professor Marcia Pally of New York University and she presented a paper (in English) on Covenant: Rebalancing the fractures and freedoms of Modernity. Basically, it was about the essential relatedness of human beings (although quoting Moltmann on 'relatedness' without reference to 'creation' is a bit weird) and the essential nature of relationality to human flourishing (my term).

The second paper was by Professor Dr Rolf Schieder (Humboldt-Universität, Berlin) and titled: Spiritualität und Glaube – und die Kirchen? Empirische Befunde in Europa. This was really a interesting survey of research into 'religion' (commitment and expression) and 'spirituality' in Europe – referencing the differences between neighbouring European countries in some surprising ways ('religious' getting a higher rating than 'spiritual' in Germany, but the opposite being the case in France). The ensuing discussion led to some difference of opinion about how optimistic we should be about the future of the church in Germany, given the cultural as well as 'spiritual' contribution it might make.

A long, sleepless and intense day ended with a superb paper given by the Speaker of the German Parliament (Bundestagspräsident), Professor Dr Norbert Lammert, on Kunst, Politik und Öffentlichkeit (Art, polotics and public space). He basically posed a fundamental question: how do you measure the soul of a society? He went on to consider truth, democracy, culture and the need for a [written] Constitution (which, of course, we do not have in the United Kingdom). He stated that culture is not an ornament of society, but is fundamental to society… and that although art has a claim on the State, the State has no claim on art or culture. The discussion was fascinating and detailed, but I was struggling to keep my concentration because of extreme tiredness… and will need to re-read the paper more slowly. (The paper will be published along with others in due course.)

Enough for now.

 

What a way to go out?

Dr Rowan Williams celebrates his first day of freedom from office with a brilliant documentary journey through Canterbury Cathedral: Goodbye to Canterbury. The BBC at its best and Rowan at his best: brilliant, poetic, articulate, fascinating, stimulating, educative, erudite, clear.

I still maintain – as I have consistently – that the 'Rowan is too hard to understand' narrative was mostly an excuse by lazy commentators who couldn't be bothered to work at thinking.

In this programme – written and presented by Rowan himself – he proves himself to be an adept communicator and media operator. How embarrassing for so many to have written him off so easily.

In this wonderful programme we have poetry, art, history, music, aesthetics, theology, philosophy, drama, beauty, honesty, storytelling, ecclesiology, evangelism, rhetoric, social analysis, realism, education, communication, interpretive clarity, personal reflection, politics, economics, explanation, and more besides.

Perhaps Rowan might be persuaded to do more of this now he has left office?