The poets and artists leading the way

Western Christianity (Protestantism in particular, evangelical and otherwise) is in crisis in a few ways, all probably related. The bottoming out of church attendance and post-Christendom, for example, are undoubtedly related. And the bottoming out of church attendance is itself related to the fact that we have forgotten God, as Mark Galli has so succinctly diagnosed the problem in American evangelicalism.

As we have been slowly failing to get accustomed to this situation, many wonder who (or where) our guides in the Wasteland are. In the Introduction to A New Kind of Christian, McLaren writes, ‘Is there no Saint Francis or Søren Kierkegaard or C. S. Lewis in the house with some fresh ideas and energy?’ (p. xiv) Probably until 2010, many believed McLaren was that Kierkegaard or Lewis.

I’d like to imagine that the thinkers of my own direction, the ancient-future, are the guides in the Wasteland — D. H. Williams and the evangelical ressourcement, or Robert E. Webber with ancient-future faith, or Thomas C. Oden and Christopher A. Hall with palaeo-orthodoxy — but I fear these writers are largely un- or under-read (except Ancient-Future Worship by Webber, which seemed to do well amongst Michael Spencer’s iMonk set a decade ago).

Or maybe the theologians can lead the way? Sarah Coakley, perhaps? Hans Boersma (he’s almost the ancient-future set, though)? Miroslav Volf? Is Oliver O’Donovan too old to count? T F Torrance is dead, alas. What about non-Protestant guides? Frs John Behr, Andrew Louth, Kallistos Ware in the East?

But if we stick to our own set of Protestants with a bent towards historic orthodoxy and a desire to drive faith forward into the future, a desire to grab the living God and pull ourselves up into Him, a desire to set fire to the Enlightenment and show the world a real Persons at last, a desire to grab other people and show them the glory of God in its fulness —

The ancient-future set and the theologians will certainly help those who read them. (All, what, five of us?)

But I think Steve Bell and Malcolm Guite and (to toss in a Roman Catholic) John Michael Talbot are proving more helpful in this wasteland. Poets and musicians all, committed to the ancient paths but also to the shifting sand under their feet and bringing the power of the transcendent God of grace into our lives in a time when many within western Christianity feel uncertain or are walking away.

I say this as someone more likely to be like Christopher A. Hall (a patristics scholar who writes books about the Fathers for evangelicals) than Bell, Guite, or Talbot.

Their poetry and music — as well as Bell’s stories and his new Pilgrim Year resources, as well as Guite’s theological lit crit, as well as Talbot’s writings on the mystical and ascetic tradition — make truths immediate that are not always apprehensible in other forms. A Guite sonnet can carry freight that no theological article I have ever read can. Poetry and music grasp our souls in a different way from discursive analysis, much as I think the latter important.

I think on the rapture I have experienced at choral eucharists and evensongs. Or the hold that John Donne’s ‘Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God’ has on me. We need what the Romantics called the sublime. The sublime helps us rise up from the prosaic, mundane materialist world foisted falsely upon us by the Enlightenment. And as we rise, the transcendent God makes Himself immanent and enters our hearts and we can meet Him.

I may be amiss, but I think this is the case, and I think it make sense.

Regardless of the accuracy of the term ‘postmodern’, and regardless of how many of McLaren’s 2001 imaginings have come true, it is the case that the ‘postmodern’ is thought to be more interested in story than proposition, in the evocative than the precise, in connection than precise rationalisation.

Poets and singers, painters and architects, playwrights and novelists, can help bring us to God in such a culture.

May God raise up more to be the prophets to our generation.

(I’d list my musician friends, but I’m not sure they’d welcome the publicity…? And one has gone off to be a ‘normal’ person.)

Steve Bell’s website is here.

Malcolm Guite’s is here.

John Michael Talbot’s is here.

Faith and the arts

Pinturicchio fresco in Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, Rome (my photo)

At the start of this new year, my friend Talita from high school put on her debut concert as a singer-songwriter, livestreamed over Facebook (Thunder Bay, Ontario, is far from Durham, England) from the Urban Abbey. It was the story of her journey as a musician, and a good number of friends from high school as well as her dad and sisters made appearances on the platform, performing alongside her, including Ryan Marchand who is actually a rock star.

It was a wonderful event, and there was a strong element of Talita’s faith in the midst of the theme of her emergence as an artist. Many of the beautiful songs, including her own compositions, were songs of the Christian faith, reflecting the beautiful truths of our beautiful God. It was great to watch this event. And I am so glad that the Urban Abbey provides a space for artists — performers and others — to ply their trade.

But few churches and Christian communities really do. It’s probably seen by some as a hipster sort of move. Historically, however, churches have not needed to sponsor the arts so consciously as this — it was natural. Notker ‘the Stammerer’ was not Sankt Gall’s Artist in Residence (and certainly not a hipster), but he wrote them beautiful poetry. The mosaicists of Palermo were simply plying their trade. The anonymous liturgists of the Gelasian Sacramentary did not need to make special pleading in the church.

But today, spaces like the Urban Abbey can be rarely found.

In Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians, one piece of wisdom Chris R. Armstrong imparts is for evangelicals to get into art more — that the Incarnation makes Christian art important. God Himself became His creation. All creatures matter. Not only this — and this is not from Armstrong but is Tolkien language also expressed by Sayers in The Mind of the Maker — but we are made in the image of God, and one of the foundational properties of theism is that Our God is Creator. We then, are sub-creators in some way.

Turning back to Armstrong, evangelicals have not always made good art. Think of the King of the Hill line about how Christian rock doesn’t make Christianity better but rock’n’roll worse. Armstrong mentions Richard Wilkinson’s study of English literature 1860-1960 that found the only orthodox Protestants producing high literary art worth mentioning in that century were C. S. Lewis and T. S. Eliot, both sacramental Anglicans. I don’t know how accurate that is, but it’s worth thinking about.

How can we make great art and beauty a natural part of evangelical faith?

The Gospel — the evangel of evangelical — is the most beautiful true thing in the world. The God who dies. The myth that is real. The cosmic-rending reality of Incarnation. The piercing of the Virgin’s Mary’s soul. There is high drama here. It is worthy of great art, and great art has been made about Christianity forever.

People of faith have always made art, often of a very high degree of skill and beauty. Just think on the Parthenon and temples of the Acropolis, the Pantheon of Rome, the tales told of the cult statue of Zeus at Olympia, or consider the Dome of the Rock, the Great Mosque of Damascus, the calligraphy on the exteriors of so many mosques. Think of the Homeric Hymns, the Poetic Edda, the Rg Veda. Greek tragedy and comedy began as part of a religious festival.

Christianity, in its worship of the Triune God, has given us the beautiful prose of the Book of Common Prayer, the verse of Gregory of Nazianzus and Prudentius and Ambrose, the glories of Byzantine and Renaissance liturgy, the fine intricacies of ars anglicana embroidery, the hymns of Charles Wesley, of Romanos the Melodist, of Ephrem the Syrian, of Isaac Watts, of Notker the Stammerer, of J. M. Neale, as well as the architecture of liturgy — Hagia Sophia, St Peter’s, Notre Dame, Chartres Cathedral, the mosaics of Santa Prassede, of Palermo, of Hagia Sophia, of San Marco in Venice.

Beyond the formal worship event, Christianity has given us so much (and so much more than the following): The Dream of the Rood, Dante (!!), The Quest for the Holy Grail, Fra Angelico,  Mozart’s Mass in C Minor and Requiem, William Byrd, countless mosaics and frescoes throughout the Mediterranean world, the Christian Latin epics of Late Antiquity, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, J. R. R. Tolkien, and so many more without delving into Protestantism.

For the churches descended from the Reformation have their own rich heritage in the arts. St Paul’s Cathedral, John Donne, George Herbert, Lancelot Andrewes, the prose of the 1611 KJV Bible, Sir John Davies, Henry Purcell, Thomas Tallis (who was also Roman Catholic — he lived in interesting times), J. S. Bach, C. S. Lewis, Malcolm Guite, and undoubtedly so many others who escape me just now.

Let us drink deep from the beauty of the beautiful God, and we shall produce beauty ourselves.

Beauty in a world of darkness (Tallis & Black Mirror)

Yesterday morning, I decided to watch the first episode of the Channel 4 programme Black Mirror at the recommendation of a friend. There is a synopsis here on IMDB. I felt kind of dead inside afterwards. This is, of course, part of the point of TV shows like Black Mirror — to hold up a mirror of the darkness of the insane, twisted world we live in. And I understand that. And maybe — maybe — we even need that sometimes. When we become too complacent with living with the darkness and forgetting to kick at it until it bleeds daylight. When we accept brokenness as ‘normal’ and the depraved and misguided as acceptable.

Yesterday just after lunch I went out, and I turned my phone’s radio to BBC Radio 3, where they were broadcasting live the lunchtime Proms. It was Thomas Tallis. When Tallis died, William Byrd said, ‘Tallis has died, and music has died with him.’ I’ve expressed my delight in Renaissance music here before, specifically in relation to Striggio’s Mass in 40 Parts. Well, I found myself quickly and easily caught up in Tallis’s music. I hope that this is what the heavenly choirs sing, because there is little music in this world more beautiful. It made my heart sing. I was happy and transported to another realm. Seriously. If I were alive in the 1500s, I would have a very hard time swallowing Heinrich Bullinger’s distaste for Renaissance music. I’m not sure I could ever be Reformed in that sense.

As I listened to Tallis, I thought about Black Mirror. In the episode I watched, the Prime Minister was forced into a horrible situation that involved committing a lewd act on television. One of the fictional commentators on the show said that this was the first truly great piece of art of the 21st century. Obviously fictional, but this is the sort of dark, shocking thing ‘real’ art seems to want these days.

Tallis, on the other hand. Well, Tallis is obviously after something else. Something bigger and better. The sixteenth century is not all glorious light and beauty. It’s not all the chapel at Hampton Court Palace or the art in Venice’s Accademia. It’s not all St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s not all Cranmer’s Prayer Book or Shakespeare’s plays. It is also disease and death and filth and squalor and war and uncertainty and treason and changing political regimes and changing religious regimes and all the usual dirt and muck and sorrow and darkness of the world.

Tallis does not stoop down into the muck, pick up a handful of it, and compose music of dissonance and cacophony that reflects that. He does not put the sh*t of England on display (and yes, it must be that crude word to gain full force) and call it ‘art’. Instead, he raises his eyes to the heavens, to the rolling spheres. He looks to the beauty of God’s creation and man’s artistry. And he makes something that is fitting to the majesty of the Creator God — something that can raise us up beyond the muck and mire.

The world is an uncertain place today, just as it was in the days of Tallis. But I prefer Tallis’ approach, the approach of redemptive beauty. He puts the texts of Scripture and the liturgy to stunning, inescapably beautiful music. With Tallis, I am able to rise above the dirty filth of the Internet age. With Tallis, I can encounter the sublime. This is a great and terrible good. It is not escape, but rather refuge and solace.

The music of Tallis, the art of Michelangelo, the poetry of Donne, the sermons of Andrewes — these are moments of glistening beauty that strike us at our hearts, shot straight from the bow of the Renaissance. And they are moments that are there to help us survive the disease and uncertainty and sorrow and pain and woe and terror that beset us every day, whether in the news or on the internet or down the street or across the stairway or in our own homes.

Making Jesus weird

Coptic Icon of Christ

So, besides the fact that I simply like ancient and mediaeval Christianity (theologically, devotionally, artistically, liturgically, musically), one of the themes running through this blog is the use of our ancient and mediaeval inheritance to untame God and draw nearer to Him. Certainly my own time with the Church Fathers has helped untame my vision of God. The Fathers and monks and mystics of 2000 years of Church history have saved me from a small faith and weak theology.

In response to my post about mediaeval and Renaissance representations of Jesus as white, a friend said that most people aren’t necessarily concerned with those older representations but, rather, with the flannelgraph Jesus we all grew up with where He is so clearly just one of us white dudes in a robe. Not unlike my father.*

This comment made me think about contemporary representations of Jesus, especially in white congregations. While I think blond, Germanic Jesuses of the Early Middle Ages, or Chinese Jesuses in the 19th century, or mediaeval Jesuses who like vaguely like Buddha (also in China), or First Nations Jesuses today, maybe the time for such encultured Jesuses in white churches is over.

I’m not concerned with ‘imperialism’ or ‘racism’ here. I’m more concerned with tameness. With ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild.’

Do our ongoing white Jesuses  serve to tame the untamable? Have we made Jesus too normal? Have we lost the shock and scandal and bewilderment of the historical particularity of the Incarnation? Yes, God became one of us. And that meant a first-century Palestinian working-class Jewish guy.

That is to say, perhaps the time for this 19th-c image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, whence comes flannelgraph Jesus, I believe, has gone:

Accurate? Probably. Creepy? Definitely.

But I don’t think the BBC’s 2001 image of Jesus should ever have its day. Not because it’s untraditional but because it’s creepy. A friend of mine says that there is a stage at which computer images move from acceptable to creepy as they become more real. Like the trailers for the new Tarzan film (which I eschew on principle). I’ve seen these facial reconstructions done by osteoarchaeologists and forensic scientists before, for Pompeiians and Bog People and they are always creepy.

When I say I want Jesus to be ‘weird’, I mean I want him to be less familiar, not more creepy.

Perhaps then we can begin to be shocked anew at the sayings of the Crucified God. Perhaps we can realise that He spends a lot of time challenging our lifestyles, and that’s really uncomfortable. Perhaps.

Perhaps we can untame our theology and be seized again by the power of the Triune God who is completely beyond our understanding.

*Who has been referred to as ‘God’ by children on multiple occasions. The beard and the robes …

The San Damiano Crucifix

This past Christmas, one of the gifts I asked for was the Byzantine crucifix pictured above, which was available at a local Christian book shop. I wanted it because of my interest in Eastern Orthodoxy as well as the aesthetic beauty of it; it now hangs above my desk at home where I can look upon a reminder of the glorious, cosmic event that transformed the world and my own life.

Upon looking at this crucifix, however, it became clear to me that this was not actually a Byzantine crucifix. It looks Byzantine, especially given that Christ is standing in victory, not hanging in agony, but it is not. A big give away, besides the western Mediaeval style of the figures, is the Latin inscription above our Lord’s head:

IHS NAZARE
REX IVDEORV

Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Not only is it in Latin, but it is not what Byzantine crucifixes tend to say. They tend to call him the King of Glory, not of the Jews.

Today I was wasting time on the interwebs, and, feeling like a bit of a fool, I now know where the crucifix is from:

Assisi.

It’s here, in the Basilica of Santa Chiara:

I know I’ve seen images of this crucifix before I asked for the one at Christmas, but somehow it escaped me that they were one and the. The significance of this crucifix is as follows.

Francis of Assisi, when he had recently rejected his father’s wealth and all the rest, was in the old church of San Damiano praying one day. Hanging in the church was the crucifix in question.

Praying before this crucifix, Francis was told by Christ to rebuild His church. Thinking the Lord meant San Damiano, Francis did just that.

Later he learned that the church to be rebuilt was the one made of living stones, and Francis began his mission of evangelisation in earnest.

This crucifix, then, is very famous and holds a special place in the world of Franciscans.

As a work of art, it is interesting, as was pointed out at The National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi. In this article, we are drawn to three elements in this painting of the crucified God. First, we see the crowd of people beside/surrounding Christ, Mary the Virgin and John the Evangelist on one side, Mary the wife of Cleopas, Mary of Magdala, and Longinus the centurion on the other.

At the second level, where Christ’s arms are outstretched embracing the world we see four angels and two men surrounding a black chamber — the empty tomb. The men are Sts. Peter and John, the apostolic witnesses of the empty tomb.

Third, above our Saviour’s head we see Him ascending into Heaven and greeted by angels.

The salvation event is before us here, with the crucified God standing central as a King in control, crucified, resurrected, ascending before our very eyes. Depicted in line and colour is the salvation of the world, the theology of our own lives. Here we see the centrepiece of our faith on the San Damiano crucifix, the crucifix that the Lord used to draw Francis to transform the world.

Rosslyn Chapel, “the Celts”, and the Christianisation of Europe

My wife and I visited Rosslyn Chapel, a Scottish Episcopal Church in the village of Roslin just outside Edinburgh, the other day. It has been made famous by the infamous Dan Brown and his The Da Vinci Code. Its (probable/possible) connexions to the Knights Templar has made for a wealth of exuberant speculation about the myriad decorations in this Collegiate Church of St. Matthew.

Outside of things directly traceable to the Freemasons, with whom the St. Clairs — the Lords of Rosslyn — have historically-attested connexions, most of this speculation is … silly, in my opinion. The sort of silliness borne of people who hear “Freemason” think “Templar” and then see something ornate and think “Code,” rather than “MEDIAEVAL.”

In this beautiful, ornate chapel there are 110 Green Men. Now, if you don’t know about the Green Man, he’s not a mediaeval proto-extraterrestrial. He is a carven image of a man’s head surrounded by foliage and with foliage coming out of his mouth. Some modern renderings of the Green Man make him entirely out of plants. The Green Men of Rosslyn Chapel, from what I saw, are of the former variety.

Here is what the current Earl of Rosslyn in Rosslyn Chapel says:

Over one hundred [Green Men] have been counted in the interior of the building, a profusion of pagan fertility symbols not unexpected in a place so influenced by the Celtic tradition. … The green man symbolised the capacity for great goodness and the parallel scope for significant evil. (21-22)

The Earl goes on to give us a bit of Robin Hood, connecting him with the Green Man.

What surprised me and provoked this post was the statement that pagan fertility symbols are “not unexpected in a place so influenced by the Celtic tradition.” What Celtic tradition, exactly? That of Freemasonry? Or that of the Irish monks who were virulently anti-pagan and Christianised Scotland? Or that of the … continental … Gothic … architecture of Rosslyn Chapel …??

Facts: The Green Man is not peculiarly Celtic, and Rosslyn Chapel is not especially “Celtic”, and this region of Scotland was settled by Anglo-Saxons in the Early Middle Ages, so it was not really very “Celtic” by 1446 when construction began on the chapel.

I’m not going to argue that the Green Man is something other than a pagan fertility symbol (I reckon that’s exactly where he comes from — as to why he’s on churches, that’s a different question altogether), although I’m curious as to the stuff about goodness and evil — it sounds like romanticised neo-paganism to me.

But I am going to argue that the presence of pagan things has nothing to do with Celtic-ness in these whereabouts, even if the Pictish population of Mid- and East Lothian had not been assimilated by the Germanic invaders. Or, at least, if it’s related to Celtic-ness here, it’s just as related to Italian-ness in Italy, Cypriot-ness in Cyprus, Spanish-ness in Spain, French-ness in France, Germanic-ness in the Holy Roman Empire, and so forth.

Conversion to Christianity took a new turn after Constantine’s conversion in the early 300’s, a turn that was kicked into high gear by Theodosius I in 381 when pagan rites in the Roman Empire were outlawed. Justinian (r. 527-565) sought the forcible conversion of pagans throughout Asia Minor and hunted down idolaters in his Christian capital of Constantinople. With a growing number of Christian rulers and potentates, conversion to Christianity became a matter of more than merely personal conviction.

In some cases, as with Olav in Norway or Charlemagne amongst the mainland Saxons, converting meant that you got to keep your life. In other cases, converting meant you got to keep your land, your titles, your money. In some cases, converting meant that you got a better job at court, or extra land, extra titles, and extra money. There were very compelling reasons to become a “Christian”, and not all of them had to do with the death of a Jewish rabbi c. AD 33.

The Christianisation of Europe is an interesting phenomenon as a result. It is true that there has always been a notable population of sincere, honest, devout, catechised Christians in the cities and towns of Europe. It is also true that paganism often went underground in the Middle Ages — even in an ostensibly “Christian” city such as Constantinople; this is often what “witches” were up to, I suspect — worshipping pre-Christian deities with pre-Christian rites.

Sometimes, paganism was simply syncretised into Christianity. Thus, at the Church built on the site of the Temple of Aphrodite in Paphos, Cyprus, to this day women wishing to conceive wrap threads around the building. There is the possibility that St. Brigid of Kildare (not to be confused with the many other Sts. Brigid) was just the slapping of an ST onto a local deity. A lot of local festivals of fire have been maintained to this day. There are more, but I’m tired.

All of this is to say that the Celtic-speaking peoples of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales were no more keen on paganism than the Germanic-, Romance-, Greek-, and Slavic-speaking peoples of mainland Europe. Any pagan connexion the Green Men of Rosslyn Chapel may have is not due to any so-called “Celtic” connexions the area may have had.

But, you see, this problem is the problem of the mythic “Celts.” Everyone lays claim to the Late Antique and Early Mediaeval Celtic-speaking peoples of these isles, sometimes tossing in some of the continental Gauls for fun. The evangelicals see them as some sort of Church free from Roman influence, while the Catholics see them as good Roman Catholics, and the Orthodox as good Western Orthodox. The Neo-pagans and New Agers get all excited about them, too, and lay claim to these peoples as their own. One article I’ve seen discusses the similarities between “Celtic” thought and St. Maximus the Confessor; another wonders at the great similarities between “Celts” and Buddhists.

Basically, say anything you like about being free-spirited, and earthy, and in touch with nature, and making distinctive art forms, and believing in the closeness of the numinous, and being free from oppressive hierarchies, and about making Christianity real to the culture you’re in — or about resisting subversively the influx of Christian ideas — and attribute it to “the Celts”, and you have a hit. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not.

So many of the things people imagine to be distinctively Celtic, such as Green Men or the persistence of pagan images and ideas throughout the Middle Ages, are, quite simply, Mediaeval. But we don’t have enough Mediaevalists to go around, do we?

Ascension

The Ascension by Phoebe Anna Traquair at the Mansfield Traquair Centre, one of Edinburgh's empty churches

GRANT, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that like as we do believe thy only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens; so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.