Archive for September, 2013

Saints Alive, Saints Derided, National Gallery: 30 September

September 30, 2013

Pay a modern, de-constructing installation artist, famous for systematically destroying his belongings in an empty store-front on Oxford Street, to spend 3 years as Artist in Residence at the National Gallery culminating in a small exhibition, and what does he come up with? Watching the introductory video to ‘Saints Alive’ in the Sunley Rooms at the Gallery until November 24, you will hear that Michael Landy comes up with an extraordinary, sympathetic, innovative exploration of responding to the saints depicted throughout the Gallery. The experience of the exhibition gives a different message. 

The artist, on video, speaks of noticing so many saints, particularly so many St Catherines, with many accompanying wheels of martyrdom. He speaks of taking a liking to St Jerome, a hermit beating himself with a rock. The artist finds echoes in his own experience, an isolated life in which he is prone to beating himself up. On video he comes across as a likeable English lad, cradling his dog as he speaks, gentle and self deprecating. His boss at the NG calls him an innocent. The video explains how he has mixed 3D elements from old paintings with mad mechanics of the 1970s to produce larger than life moving sculptures. He designed and drew, a props company fabricated. He says he hopes people will enjoy the mechanics as he enjoyed similar in his younger days.

 The exhibition is popular, with a 15 minute queue to enter. Immediately on entering we encounter St Apollonia, double normal size, from time to time pulling out her teeth with large old pliers. She is a mixture of the simple, homely, and the grotesque. People look in surprise, not knowing quite how to react. Around her on the walls are collages of elements from saint paintings and simple mechanics broken down, spread out on white backgrounds, a mass of strange pieces.

 St Francis is next. His head and brown-robed torso sit on a Perspex collecting box for donations. He is gazing at a crucifix in his hand. When a coin drops, he bashes his head with the crucifix. Ha ha. The preacher of poverty roped into fundraising. Francis repeatedly bashes himself with a ‘duh…’, comically distraught at people who just don’t get it about money. Or is it more sinister? I show the bemused man next to me how the machine works, even with a 2p. He keeps a safe distance, laughingly worried that Francis will bash him instead.

 The atmosphere in this initial room is darkened by random loud bangs, shocking and threatening. Through in the main room we see a naked torso front attached to a structure of wheels and pulleys. A mechanical arm is covered by a plastic arm holding a rock. As people step on a switch, the arm swings back to the torso, the rock smiting the chest loudly. Ha ha. But the noise is too loud, the contraption too weird. This St Jerome has no head. People look, sort of smile, but are nowhere near laughing.

 ‘Multi-Saint’ is a similar contraption, with plastic elements from paintings of five saints attached to another set of wheels and pulleys. Mechanical multi-saint stands on a devil. This reptilian winged creature has been thrown on his back and is held firm, alive but captured. The devil is not mechanical, and, with his lurid colouring contrasting with the drabness of the saint machines, seems more alive.

  On the wall behind is a huge wooden wheel with barbs. Golden lettering on the wheel tells the story of St Catherine in the format of a role play from a fantasy game: ‘You will be tied to a wheel by the Romans…’ Most of the lettering was too high, and at too much of an angle, to be read as the handle that is meant to turn the wheel was not working.

 St Francis is in this room too, here headless. His arms stretch up to show the marks on his hands like those on Jesus’ hands. The position of arms and hands also means ‘I surrender – the game’s up.’ A mechanical grabber like in a fairground ‘game’ rides out along a gibbet to above Francis’ open neck, drops in and then rises out with nothing. Francis is shown to be empty, a hollow man. Occasionally a T shirt is pulled out with the words ‘Poverty, Chastity, Obedience’ – to be given to a lucky viewer. Emptiness with an occasional marketing ploy.

 The last contraption round the room is a companion piece to St Jerome. Jesus’ naked torso plastic shell sits on a giant spring, which is poked by the disembodied mechanical hand of St Thomas, index finger forward. The spectator operates the switch. The hand makes the torso rock drunkenly on its spring.

 Generally, people look bemused, unsure how to respond. The overall impression is unsettling. What claims to be an affectionate portrayal of ‘Saints Alive’ is taken as maybe more mocking, more sinister. Are the contraptions showing us how in our present mechanical age we only have fragments, memories of the saints? Are the contraptions showing us that the saints have always been made out to be imposing in stature, but are essentially lifeless, operated by the spectator, given life only by the faith in which they were viewed?

 I imagine that a few Cathedral Deans will now want to have one or more of these pieces in their cloisters for a time, grateful that modern art is engaging with religious symbols and characters. But I hope they don’t. These contraptions show us religion, especially Christian religion, as something essentially mechanical, inhuman, imposing, breaking down and imprisoning  humanity and life. Michael Landy has conveyed the anti-religious, even anti-Christian, spirit of this age. He seems to be at home with this spirit, happy to promote its subversion of the saints.

 

Gay Marriage at New Wine and Greenbelt Festivals: 2 September

September 2, 2013

The Bible is against gay marriage, end of debate. Discrimination against gay people, including marriage discrimination, is clearly unjust and out of date: end of debate. These two positions dominate the Christian terrain, with New Wine generally preaching the former and Greenbelt the latter.

This year I had good days at both New Wine, Newark, and Greenbelt, Cheltenham. Spending time with friends, worshipping, listening, thinking. Each is good in its own way.

New Wine is the more coherent, uniting around a Charismatic and semi-Evangelical approach. People camp in ‘villages’, organised communities mostly of people from the same area. People cook and eat together. At key times most people gather in the same place, with a couple of smaller alternative venues.

At New Wine, women are welcomed into leadership. The usual argument for such a welcome is that the Biblical principles of the equality of the sexes, as demonstrated by Jesus and proclaimed in broad terms by Paul, carry greater weight than the Biblical prohibitions on women speaking in public and not wearing head-covering. The specific restrictions on women are shown to be for that 1st Century culture. The principles of equality are shown to be for all times and places, as far as local culture allows, without making the Gospel seem ridiculous or out of the question. In our culture restricting church leadership to men seems ridiculous and out of the question. It is a serious hindrance to the Gospel. The New Wine leadership would probably say that this is a truth into which the Holy Spirit has led.

At New Wine, gay people are not welcomed into marriage. There was no specific seminar on the subject when I was there, but the implications of what some speakers said were that the Bible is against gay sexual activity, and therefore against gay marriage. Last year this was made explicit by a speaker from the Evangelical Alliance. (see https://rogerharper.wordpress.com/2012/08/30/thinking-about-gay-marriage-at-new-wine-festival-30-august/)

But could it be that the Holy Spirit is leading the Church in a similar way in which He led over women in leadership? Could it be that the principles of equality and of life-long exclusive faithfulness carry greater weight than the particular Biblical gender prohibitions? In our culture, where excluding gay people from marriage now seems ridiculous and out of the question, making a considerable hindrance to the Gospel, is the Holy Spirit leading us to apply fundamental principles over culturally specific instances? It would make sense for New Wine, who stress the current activity of the Holy Spirit, to at least consider these questions. But the indications I heard were that no such consideration is happening, at least publicly.

I had a private conversation with a leading young theologian and speaker at New Wine. He questioned the whole approach of distinguishing between fundamental principles and possibly culturally specific instances. I replied that that was easy. Jesus distinguished between the weightier matters of the Law and the specific Laws of tithing herbs and spices. The distinction made by Jesus on this occasion is part of the foundation of all our thinking as Christians. The distinction is not for that instance only but for us to make more generally. The theologian was not convinced. He didn’t think that I was drawing a legitimate conclusion. I think he is aware that emphasising such a distinction would work in favour of gay marriage.

Greenbelt is different, less coherent. People camp as individuals. A few cook; many buy food on site. On Sunday morning most people gather in one place for a Communion. Most of the time there is a multiplicity of venues, approaches, formats. One cause around which Greenbelt officially seems to unite, though, is gay rights.

Steve Chalke was welcomed and applauded for his support for gay marriage. This was not the main point of his seminar, though. ‘An Issue, an Issue, we all fall down’ was the title of the main seminar addressing gay rights – by Mark Oakley, Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral. Mark described himself as gay and ‘a Greenbelt virgin’, delighted with the new experience. His message was simple. Gay rights are an issue on which we must not fall down but make a stand. We Christians should be championing the full inclusion of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people. To do anything else is to indulge in deception, discrimination, and despising of fellow human beings.

Mark talked about the deception which for him began when he offered himself to be selected for ordained Anglican ministry. From the beginning he had to hide his sexuality. He said that he was encouraged in this deception by people in Church leadership, including Bishops. He bemoaned the continuing deception of Bishops who privately support gay priests and publicly rule out gay marriage.

Mark did not talk about his own decision to hide his sexuality. Why did he not simply pursue another career or join or establish a more pro-gay Church? Mark spoke with considerable wit and the audience responded warmly to him. Part of this, however, was his highlighting the ‘victim’ part of his own story and ignoring the ‘responsible adult’ part. Winsomely saying ‘poor me’ is likely to draw out sympathy from a sympathetic Christian audience.

Mark was strident in blaming others, particularly Bishops. He went on to talk of General Synod as containing ‘bed wetting depressives.’ Hardly an attitude of respect for Church authority, or of Christian grace for brothers and sisters with whom he disagrees.

Mark spoke with little regard for the serious concerns of others. He blandly adopted the gay rallying call for the inclusion of bisexual people, without explaining how marriage is to be expanded to include sexually active bisexuals. On the face of it, gay marriage, as heterosexual marriage, excludes any sexual activity other than with the spouse.

Mark must know that the latest statement from the Bishops is based entirely on Jesus’ description of marriage as between a man and a woman (http://www.churchofengland.org/media/1715479/marriagetextbrochureprint.pdf ) but he failed to mention it. The words and life of Jesus are the foundation and cornerstone of our Christian understanding. The Bishops commend building our understanding of marriage entirely on Jesus’ explicit description of marriage. I think there are other words of Jesus which should also be considered in this context (see http://gaymarriagemaybe.wordpress.com/listening-to-jesus/) Mark chose to ignore the words of Jesus and of the Bishops and instead make below-the-belt swipes at his own Church leadership.

I think Mark, and others like him, have a good point. The Biblical, Jesus, principles of loving our neighbour as we love ourselves could well be leading the Church in our culture to welcome gay marriage. Gay marriage is not a threat to heterosexual marriage, certainly not to Christian faith as a whole. We need to look afresh at the whole of what Jesus said and the Holy Spirit is saying, messages which support gay marriage and those which undermine it. Strident nasty arguments which demonise those seen as on the other side are not to be applauded. Nor is hiding behind a ‘Bible says’ wall.

Roger Harper