Will the so called Arab spring be the Middle East Christian’s winter?
The future for Christians in the Middle East is not looking good. Consider the following developments:
The ongoing violence towards Christians in Iraq since the ‘liberation’ and the large numbers leaving the country. Thousands have fled into Syria where the Alawite controlled Baathist’s have respected the minority Christians, but if Assad’s regime falls the upheaval in Syria may leave them in a very precarious situation with a majority Sunni Muslim population.
The recent violence towards the Christian Copts in Egypt since the overthrow of the Mubarak government does not bode well there for Christians. On October 9, 2011, a peaceful protest in Cairo by Coptic Christians and some moderate Muslims against religious discrimination was violently broken up by the Army and police. The army fired into the crowd and armoured vehicles ran people down. This resulted in 27 deaths and 300 injured. A Christian church was also burnt recently by a Muslim mob.
The recent statement by one of the leaders of the provisional liberation government of Libya, Mustafa Abdel Jalil is not reassuring, he is pledging to replace Gaddafi’s dictatorship with a more ‘democratic’ but more strictly Islamic legal system and reintroduce polygamy. (1)
The recent election in Tunisia has just elected an Islamist party the al-Nahada, much to the alarm of woman’s rights groups and those who fought hard to overthrow the previous oppressive rule. (2) It is interesting to note that the leader of the Islamist party, Rachid Ghannouchi, spent 22 years in exile in the UK under the protection of British democracy! It will be interesting to see if he returns the compliment to minority religious groups in Tunisia.
The fact is that Islamic organisations and particularly the more strict ones are the most well organised political groups in these countries and so are likely to have the most political influence in the chaotic situation that follows the overthrow of oppressive regimes. With Islam’s commitment to the fusing of religion and the state and the introduction of Sharia law it means that what the West understands by democracy is by no means the same as what may emerge. Islam has a bad track record of marginalising and frequently persecuting religious minorities and repressing woman. This so called Arab spring may not be the budding of real democracy but a very limited and restricted form.
The Islamic government of Iran has recently arrested a well known Iranian female documentary film maker Mahiraz Mohammadi and a female photojournalist Maryann Majd, both are woman’s rights activists. No reason has so far been given for their sudden arrest. (3) An Iranian actress, Marzieh Vafamehr, has also been sentenced to one year in jail and the medieval punishment of 90 lashes for acting in an Australian made film that is a social critique of life in Iran – “My Tehran for sale”. Iran has had a long and distinguished film industry but currently suffers under very restrictive laws. (4) A Christian pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani, is also currently in prison there and likely to be sentenced to death for alleged breaching of the Islamic Apostasy laws. (5)
Christian are regularly sentenced to imprisonment or killed in Pakistan, an Islamic ‘democracy’, by local courts and Islamic groups for Apostasy. (6)
(1) The Age Oct 25th 2011.
(2) The Age Oct 28th 2011
(3) The Guardian June 30th 2011
(4) The Envoy Oct 10th 2011
(5) The Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin Oct 26th 2011
(6) The Islamic Apostasy laws forbid Muslims from converting to another religion on pain of death. Also encouraging a Muslim to change their faith is also forbidden under the Apostasy laws.
The following six ideas are eroding classical, creedal, orthodox Christian faith. They sometimes travel under the heading of “Progressive or Emerging Christianity.”
1.CONFORMISM – The radical adapting of the gospel to fit the prevailing plausibility structure (A “plausibility structure” is what a particular culture finds easy to believe at a particular time.) This is often done covertly and dishonestly by continuing to use the language and symbols of orthodox faith but changing their first order or original meaning. Conformism is intellectually provincial; it traps itself in the spirit of the times and fails to give proper weight to the churches historic understanding of the faith. Most of the fundamental issues we face have been faced by the church in the past.
2. UNIVERSALISM – A gospel without repentance and exclusive allegiance to Christ where every one will eventually be members of the Kingdom of God even those who do not believe, reject or ignore Christ or give allegiance to another God.
3. RADICAL INCLUSIVISM – A community without boundaries of belief or practice. Loving Christian hospitality should not be confused with radical inclusivism.
4. SYNCRETISM – The acceptance of all religious beliefs as equally true and the inclusion and blending of all faiths. The logical contradictions embraced by syncretism are breathtaking.
5. COVERT UNITARIANISM – The reduction and erosion of the uniqueness, divinity and lordship of Christ. This eventually unravels the key doctrine of the Trinity. This leads to a new Arianism.
6. PANTHEISM – The confusion of God and the creation in which the distinction is dissolved and the worship of nature emerges. This inevitably leads to Monistic Pantheism and a revival of Paganism. Monism (all is one) is also the fundamental idea beneath Eastern Mysticism.*
C.S.Lewis observed many years ago that Pantheism is fallen humanities default religious position, “….not because it is the final stage of enlightenment, but because it is the attitude into which the human mind falls when left to itself. In the absence of revealed religion, humanity gravitates towards natural religion.”(See Romans 1: 18-23)
It also reveals itself today under the titles of Evolutionary Mysticism and Religious Naturalism but it is the old pagan Pantheism.*
The influence of these ideas in the contemporary Church leads to spiritual impotence – form without life or power. It is existentially irrelevant and spiritually deeply unsatisfying as it does not deal radically with sin and evil or lead to a personal relationship with the living God.
That is why so many people in this movement often turn to mysticism, aestheticism and liturgical symbolism to find some experiential satisfaction.
THE RESPONSE to these trends is often fundamentalism but there is another more constructive alternative – vibrant intelligent orthodoxy. The way forward is to bring the depth and broad historical perspective of Biblical and Credal orthodoxy to bear in a critique of the current plausibility structure and its intellectual preoccupations rather than the reverse. Theological liberalisms tendency is to judge God by our own intuitive morality and reason forgetting the fallen state of these faculties and their conditioning by the current world view. Camus, speaking wistfully but honestly out of his atheism, said “When man submits God to moral judgment, he kills him in his own heart”
It seems extraordinary and so unfounded that we who are so flawed and responsible for the many atrocities of human history have such confidence to imagine that our moral sensibilities and our judgments about truth are somehow superior to the God of Revelation.
The great danger is that we create a God in our own image. As Bonhoeffer said: “If I am the one who says who God is and what he is like then I will always find a God who in some way corresponds to me, who is agreeable to me. But if it is God who says who he is, what he is like and how he acts then that may well be a place which at first is not agreeable to me; for that place is the cross of Christ and that does not correspond to our nature at all”*
This is false belief and a re- run of Gen 3. Once again we believe a creature and his word over God’s. “You won’t die….. when you eat (disobey) your eyes will be opened and you will be like God knowing good and evil”
Any young church leader or anyone contemplating training for pastoral ministry in the church today needs to be aware of these ideas. In some denominations you will need to be well prepared before you even contemplate entering theological college as these ideas are well entrenched in some, but thankfully not all, theological faculties.
* The title of this article was inspired by the title of John Quiggin’s book on economic rationalism, “Zombie Economics, how dead ideas still walk among us”, Princeton Uni Press 2010.
* Eastern Mysticism is very attractive to people concerned with the degrading of the environment because of its apparently associated idea of interconnectedness which comes from its underlying monism (all is one). But imbedded in its monism is the idea that ‘difference’ is an illusion to be transcended and so it must ultimately deny the individuality of species. James Lovelocks Gaia theory is an expression of this idea of the interconnectedness of all things. While there is truth in the idea of interconnectedness in nature it becomes a distortion when used as the primary operating principle for the interpretation of nature and it should be recognized very clearly that when applied to philosophical and theological ideas it is a particular ideology and world view.
* It should be noted that the names this movement sometimes gives itself are: “Progressive Spirituality”, “Progressive Christianity”, “Evolutionary Christianity”, “Emerging Faith,” “Emerging Christianity.” A brilliant analysis of these trends in contempoaray Western culture and Christianity is Ross Douthart’s book “Bad Religion” Free press, 2012. (See chp 7)
* D.Bonhoeffer “Meditating on the Word” Camb.MA Cowley 1986 P44-45
The recent bomb attack and massacre in Norway and the violent death of 91 people is a terrible tragedy. The targets also strike at the heart of Norway’s political life and democracy. The events raise many questions for us: Is the perpetrator a contemporary Christian terrorist or something else? Given what appears to have motivated this act can we survive the pressures being created by the massive people movements around the world, the clash of cultures and the xenophobia they produce? The Netherlands have had a leading politician murdered in a racial/ religious motivated act of violence. There are deep tensions in France and Italy that are growing stronger as they now face a new wave of people fleeing the violence in North Africa. Denmark has reintroduced border controls in spite of the E .U’s policy on free movement. It will probably not be long before its followed by others. The financial crisis in Europe will increase the pressure as unemployment grows. It also raises the disturbing link between right wing politics and religion. All public figures, religious or political, left or right need to take great care with their rhetoric in these dangerous days. Christians in particular need to remind themselves that “They will know we are christians by our love.”
But in addition to these socio political questions another ancient question raises its head once more. It’s a question we prefer to keep at bay till another atrocity hits our screens. It’s the reptile we keep locked away in the cellar of our minds – the reality of evil.
Our writers have turned to metaphor to name it and the paradox of its presence alongside human goodness and beauty. It’s been called “the worm in the rose” and “the maggot in the breast”. Alexander Solzhenitsyn made the point most elegantly when he wrote that “the line dividing good and evil goes right through the heart of every human being.” In its larger mystical sense St. Paul described it as “the mystery of iniquity” and Conrad as “the heart of darkness.”
But however we name it we must face it if we are to defeat it, both in ourselves, our societies and our nations. Optimistic Humanism wants to deny it. Scientific Naturalism wants to explain it away as the blind indifferent and brutish survival process of evolution. Secular sociology and psychology wants to explain it sociologically or chemically.
But we all know this will not do. These explanations are inadequate and reductionist. When confronted with the beast we instinctively feel its malevolent spiritual reality. It may be that the reason that our first response is either to deny or rationalise it is because we do not want to face its presence in ourselves and the challenge it presents. But face the challenge we must or the darkness will overpower us. When Bonheoffer faced the darkness in the form of the German Nazi party in the 1940’s he wrote: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
Of the many horrors of the 20th and 21st C that one could recount I chose two reflections by people who were actually present when the beast got off the chain. I chose them because they reveal in a very personal way that when intelligent and sophisticated people are confronted with rampant evil they can only describe it in terms that reveal their intuitive sense of its malevolent spiritual reality.
In 1993/4 General Romeo Dallaire a Canadian army officer was appointed the Commander of the UN peace keeping force in Rwanda. Due to an inadequate force size and the criminal unwillingness of the UN to make decisions, in spite of his repeated appeals, he was unable to prevent the deaths of 800,000 people in the intertribal mayhem and murder that erupted over a period of 100 days. In his heart rending book “Shake hands with the Devil” he writes: “This book is the account of humans who were entrusted with the role of helping others taste the fruits of peace. Instead we watched as the devil took control of paradise on earth and fed on the blood of the people we were supposed to protect.” Later haunted by the experience he was driven close to suicide.
The second reflection comes from the experience of a young German lawyer, Sebastian Heffner who fled to England in1938 to escape the Nazi regime. There he wrote a description of Germany’s seduction and corruption by Hitler entitled “Defying Hitler.” In an icy passage he describes the evil he sensed in Hitler well before it took expression in ‘the final solution’. “For a moment I physically sensed the man’s odour of blood and filth, the nauseating approach of a man eating animal – it’s foul, sharp claws in my face.”
So, is the Norwegian bomber a mad man or is he madness in the service of evil? Is he a religious and political fanatic or fanaticism in the service of evil? When and where was the point he stepped beyond reason, morality and his own faith, surrendered to the darkness and was overpowered?
When we ponder the reality of evil other questions leap forward. Can it ever finally be overcome, not just personally, but universally? Who calls evil to the final accounting? Will there be an ultimate universal Hague, a final court of justice for the unnamed victims of history. Will there be a final judgment for the monsters of ancient as well as modern genocides? Is there another kingdom, a kingdom of light that can and will overcome the kingdom of darkness?
The responses posed range from Nihilistic despair that says that life is absurd and without meaning and so there is no reason why anything cannot happen in a meaningless random world, to the Optimistic Humanists who, in spite of all the evidence, believe more education and social engineering will solve the problem. They seem unaware of the naiveté of their position in the light of the fact that it was the most sophisticated, highly educated and aesthetically aware nation in Europe that designed the Holocaust.
Then there is the Existentialist response of heroic decision in the light of no ultimate meaning, purpose or values. Like the hero in Camus’ novel “The Plague”, Dr Rieux, who works courageously on fighting the plague knowing all the time he cannot finally win but who finds his meaning in his actions. Of course this is ultimately no different from the disillusioned young men in David Fincher’s film “Fight Club” who find meaning in the visceral violence of bare knuckle fighting, or Hemmingway’s meaning in adventurous action, “Nobody ever lived their life all the way up except Bullfighters.”
The above are modernist responses, what would a Post Modernist say? With PM’s rejection of all grand narratives that seek to explain life they are driven inward to individual subjectivity – what feels good or right to the individual. This leaves them to their own thin resources. Ironically within their rudderless world there may be a seed of hope as their subjectivism may lead them to rediscover the core of their humanness – “made in the Image of God.” But the journey will be fraught because they will also meet the darkness and dysfunction within themselves as well.
Then there is the current Western flirtation with Eastern Mysticism and its concept of peace through disengagement from that which it claims produces evil and suffering – attachment, desire, individuality and difference. Leave desire, individuality and the self behind and merge oneself into the cosmic sea of universal oneness. Transcend the illusory world of difference. To critics of EM this is just the ultimate escape, the destruction of the self, a kind of mystical suicide? In the end these mystical and mental gymnastics will, I think, prove uncongenial to Western individualisms preoccupation with personal autonomy and self interest . In fact it is mostly ‘EM light’ that’s flirted with in the West. Historically EM has a bad track record of indifference to social and structural evil. The iniquitous cast system is still alive and well in modern India. (*)
But there is someone who offers another way, the way of redemptive suffering, someone who suffers with and for us. Who neither denies, nor withdraws from evil but engages with it to defeat it. His actions take him into the heart of suffering caused by evil and to a final, terrible but triumphant confrontation. This one is ‘The Christ’, crucified and risen, “the lamb of God offered for the sin of the world”
Johns Gospel describes him in this way: “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Although to his friends on that dark night when they came for him it seemed that it had. When the police and the betrayer arrived to arrest Jesus at night he said to them “This is your hour, when darkness reigns.” Yes! Like every oppressive regime before and since this is when the secret police always arrive, at night in the darkness. There is a deliberate play on words here by Jesus. As he said on an earlier occasion “men love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil”
But evil overplayed its hand; in attempting to destroy him it destroyed itself. Its cunning, its overweening pride and will to power over reached itself. It precipitated a final showdown with God and his sovereign will and his absolute power, justice and mercy. There is only one outcome in such a contest. And so on the cross Jesus bears all that evil can do, not only in its destructive violence and blood lust, but also through its primary goal, the separation of humanity from God and then people’s alienation from each other. So he identifies with us in our suffering, but also suffers for us bybearing justices’ penalty for our willing participation in evil. He suffers death and then defeats it in his resurrection. The cross reveals how implacably opposed God is to evil and how unrelentingly for us is his love.
How are we to live now in the light of all this? We live now in the tension between the two kingdoms. The kingdom of light has broken in with the coming of Jesus, the decisive battle has been won but the final surrender and the consummation of the Kingdom of God is yet to come. It is like the situation in Europe as WW2 drew to its close. The decisive battle with Hitler’s army had been fought and won late in 1945, the Axis forces were routed and in retreat. It was now only a matter of time before the final surrender and the enemy laid down its arms. But of course if you were in an allied infantry group on the front line there were a dozen more small but deadly battles and skirmishes to survive before you reached Berlin and the formal surrender. That is the Christians position now in the world. God has won the decisive battle on the cross, the end is now decided but we are still exposed to the crossfire of evil and each day we must act both personally and socially to confront and defeat it.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible (KJB), sometimes referred to as the Authorized Version. Its influence on the development of the English language, our values, imagination and culture has been profound. It’s phrases still echo in common speech – an eye for an eye, like a lamb to the slaughter, as old as the hills, sour grapes, love thy neighbor, am I my brothers keeper, be sure your sins will find you out, pride goes before a fall, the salt of the earth, the sign of the times, the laborer is worthy of his hire, all things to all men, etc. The largest section in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations is the KJB section (28 pages).
But its influence goes beyond language into our art, music, literature and film. It ranges from the explicit text in Handel’s Messiah to U2, Bono and Nick Cave where the phrases and illusions abound. From William Blake’s poetry and Steinbeck’s East of Eden to a recent work, Atonement by the novelist Ian McEwan, and the film that followed, the influence continues. To fully appreciate the poetry of John Milton or T S Elliot requires an understanding of the Bible. It is also hard to read the words of the Prophet Micah (6:8) or Mary’s song (Luke 1:46-55 ) or Jesus’ manifesto of his ministry (Luke4:16-21 ) without being inspired about justice, fairness and equality!
Even an aggressive atheist like Richard Dawkins has said You can’t appreciate English literature unless you are steeped to some extent in the King James Bible… not to know (it) is to be, in some small way, barbarian.(1)Andrew Motion, former British Poet Laureate, and self confessed non believer, in an interview in The Guardian, laments the widespread ignorance of the Bible today. He made the point that Bible stories are an essential part of our cultural luggage. He recommended that all children should be taught the Bible in school, since without it they can not hope to understand history and literature.(2)
This is an important observation in the light of the current push from a vocal minority for the dismantling of state legislation that provides for religious education in public state schools in Australia.
Many of the critics of religious education not only seem to have developed a form of cultural amnesia, they also seem ignorant of the very critical role the Bible has played in English culture in the forming of the very liberal freedoms they espouse so loudly. (3)
In fact the translation of the Bible into vernacular English was deeply influential in the development of democratic ideas in England and America. The availability of the bible to ordinary people inspired many egalitarian and radical movements in 16th and 17th C England. It was strongly influential in maintaining the importance of the elected Parliament over the powers of the King in the Commonwealth period. Other examples are the push for equality of access to land by groups like The Diggers and Levellers (17th C) and the demand for freedom of association and the right to organize their own labor in the early 19th C by farm laborers like The Tolepuddle Martyrs , forerunners of the modern Union Movement. These democratic movements were long before the advent of Marxism and were inspired by Biblical ideas of justice, fairness and equality.
To remove the study of the Bible from schools is like a form of book burning by the misguided secularists who either have no cultural memory or are simply ignorant of the forces that have formed our culture and its values, including those they cherish. Values are like water in a storage dam they leak away if they are not replenished from their source.
The KJB was commissioned by James I in 1604, the task was completed in 1611.Its forerunners were Wycliffe’s translation from the Latin in the 14th C and William Tyndale’s translation from original Greek in 1526, his work had a strong influence on the KJB. It is interesting in the light of what we said above about the Bible’s influence on the development of democratic ideas, that James’ reasons for the project were partly political. When James ascended the throne of England the most widely read Bible was the Geneva Bible. This was produced by Protestants who had fled to Switzerland during the persecutions under Queen Mary. It contained marginal notes, or commentary on the text, some of which was critical of the absolute power and authority of monarchs. James’ plan for a single official Bible gave him the opportunity to displace the Geneva Bible and its notes.
The aims of Wycliffe and Tyndale were to put the Word of God into the hands and language of ordinary people so they could read and interpret it for themselves without the controlling filter of priest, prelate or ruler. They also believed that the key to the reformation and renewal of the church was a true understanding of scripture and a restoration of its authority in the church.
When Luther was faced with the criticism that putting the Bible into the hands of every plowboy would create controversy and confusion he replied that he would prefer the hurricane of controversy to the pestilence of an authoritative error, a not so veiled reference to Papal authority and ex cathedra pronouncements!
Once again in these comments we see the desire for freedom of thought and expression that the Reformation and the accessibility of the Bible to everyone promoted. It is ironic that the secular beneficiaries’ of this legacy now want to exclude its study from our schools.
For those of us who are committed members of the Christian community, the body of Christ, the task begun by Wycliffe and Tyndale goes on. Every generation requires and has the right that the Bible be translated into its ‘language’ and every tribe needs it translated into their own tongue. For us the Bible is more than a cultural jewel to be cherished it is the living word of the living God. As Jesus said Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. The work of translating the Bible into people’s mother tongue also reminds us that Christianity is not a culturally or ethnically bound faith, we have no sacred language. Jesus as a good Jew knew Hebrew but when he taught the Lords prayer he spoke in Aramaic the language of the ordinary people, these words were then translated into common Greek and since then into hundreds of other languages.
In a time when multiculturalism is being challenged and there is anxiety about the divisive role of religion in the world, the story of “The Commonwealth” is worth reflecting on. It is not perfect but it is one of the more successful political unifiers’ in our troubled world. As well as a commitment to democratic government, part of the glue that has held The Commonwealth together is the English language and also the place and influence of the Bible in its educational systems. This has been far more significant than people often realize, particularly through the schools established in the colonies by Christian Missions in the 19th and 20th C’s. Many of the first nationalist leaders of post colonial governments were educated in these schools such as Julius Nyerere the first president of Tanzania. Nelson Mandela the first black president of South Africa is another outstanding example.
The words of Paul in the NT have had an impact, that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:27-28) In spite of its faults the Christian Church is one of the most powerful examples of multicultural unity in our world.
(1)I am indebted to the excellent article by Antony Billington in the March 2011 edition of EG the magazine of The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.
(2) The Guardian 17th Feb 2009
(3) See the outstanding work by Melvyn Bragg in “The Book 0f Books – the radical impact of the King James Bible” by Melvyn Bragg, Hodder 2011.
Signs, Symbols and Icons – their strengths and their weaknesses by Peter Corney
What is a symbol?
When we say something is a symbol or something is symbolic what do we mean? The dictionary defines it as a sign or thing that stands for or represents something else. It could be an idea, a quality, a process, an object. An Australian army slouch hat symbolises the courage and resilience of the ANZAC spirit and the men of Tobruk and Kakoda. A symbol can also be defined as a mark or character taken as a sign of some object, idea or process, like a mathematical sign, musical notation or a road sign. Words are symbols. Certain music can be symbolic. Symbolism is the use of symbols to express the essence of things by suggestion, to express abstract or mystical ideas. A story, a painting or a poem may use symbolism. Words associated with symbol are: sign, badge, emblem, image, logo, mark, token, representation, icon. Often allegory and metaphor are closely connected with the symbolic. Bunyan’s story “The Pilgrims progress” or Lewis’s “Narnia Chronicles” are allegories that use metaphor and symbol.
It is extraordinary how saturated our lives are with symbols, from road signs to advertising, the symbols on our car dashboard or our computer and I – pad screens. Symbols dominate and influence our lives every day.
Symbols are very important in Christianity.
The cross is a central and dominating symbol but there are many others; the flame or the dove for the Holy Spirit, the two edged sword for the word of God, the three intersecting circles for the Trinity, the water in baptism, etc. The regular meeting of Christians at the celebration of the Lords Supper is rich in symbols; the broken bread and the cup of wine representing Christ’s body broken and his blood shed for us. The New Testament and in particular the book of Revelation is rich in symbolism and metaphor; like the seven lamp stands representing the seven churches in Asia minor.
The power and strength of symbols
(a) Symbols have great communicative power. It has been argued that we would find communication difficult and impoverished without metaphor and symbol. Just listen to a football commentator “he’s as quick as a flash”…… “he hit the pack like a Mack truck”…… “he’s like a terrier at the ball”. We all frequently resort to metaphor to explain our thoughts and feelings and experiences. We often say “it felt like…”, or “it sounded like …”, or “its like……” Whenever we begin a sentence in this way we are inevitably about to introduce a metaphor or symbol!- They concentrate meaning, significance and emotion without having to use a lot of words, which of course is why advertisers use them. (b) They are easily recognizable. (c) They are often visual and tangible; the flying kangaroo, a handshake. Words or phrases like “..as quick as a flash” recalls a visual image like a lightning flash that we all instantly understand. (d) They can hold many interpretations and feelings within a general concept. The song Waltzing Matilda is deeply symbolic and iconic for Australians, it can hold any or all of the following: national identity, nostalgia for our bush past, the outback myth, egalitarianism, anti authority, a fair go for the underdog – the ‘Swaggie’. (e) Symbols appeal to the imagination, they can excite faith
The weakness and dangers of symbols, especially religious ones.
(a) Symbols oversimplify complex ideas. (b) They can also lead to literalism where we think if we posses or employ the symbol we automatically have what it symbolizes. The cross and the Lords Supper are examples of this. (c) They can encourage emotionalism and sentimentality that replaces active thoughtful faith. (d) Superstition and ‘magic’ can easily attach to symbols where people feel they can receive, control or exercise power through them. The wearing of a cross may be accompanied by the belief that it has a protective power for the wearer rather than as a reminder for the wearer that the basis of their acceptance with God is through Christ by faith in his atoneing sacrifice. The mechanical transfer of power can also be associated with symbols like the belief in the power of relics or religious icons. (e) When faith is too closely attached to or dependent on images or symbols it can loose its depth and inner reality and its thoughtful understanding, faith can crystallize into images. (f) Symbolism without substance where we retain the signs but loose their real meaning. (See ‘The parable of the pie sign’ under the category “Parables for Preachers.”)
The erosion of meaning in Christian symbols.
The erosion of meaning, and therefore the erosion of the truth and spiritual reality the symbol points to, is often caused by the gradual reduction or erosion of their original (first order) meaning. This is then followed by a change in the original meaning but the symbol is retained. This is a very common tendency in liberal Protestant theology. The anxiety to over adapt to the spirit of the age or the plausibility structure of ones secular contemporaries – what they find easy to believe- leads to this tendency.
The NT belief about the resurrection is a clear example. Finding the NT belief about the bodily resurrection of Jesus unbelievable to contemporary minds the resurrection is redefined as an idea or a moment of insight as a person comes to realise the importance of Jesus and his teaching. Jesus lives again as an inspiring idea in the mind of those who have embraced the Jesus ideal. ‘He has come alive in our mind and heart.’ This is similar to saying the spirit of Gandhi is alive today through those who believe in his principle of non violent protest. This of course is a far cry from the NT teaching on the bodily resurrection. (1Cor.15) A similar process has taken place within liberal Protestant theology in relation to the cross and the NT doctrine of substitutionary atonement.
This process leads to Christian symbols having only aesthetic, sentimental or cultural influence rather than the spiritual power that comes from the divine truth they originally represented. If we change this we change their effect.We should also be aware that when we change their original meaning we have created an object of faith that is false or in error. Only the truth sets us free.
The power and weakness of symbols is seen in the churches experience with Icons.
Icon is from a Greek word meaning image, or a portrait of a person. (In NT see Colos. 1:15) Later the word was used to describe a particular form of religious painting. Icons had a checkered career in the early church because of the fear of idolatry and the first commandment. The word iconoclast comes form the negative reaction of Christians in the early Church. But their use remained and grew in the Eastern and Orthodox churches where they form an important part of their spirituality. The churches of the reformation have always been critical and cautious of their use. Interestingly there is a renewed interest in Icons in parts of the Protestant church today which we will comment on bellow.
Icons can be objects of :
Instruction – to teach and inform, like a visual aid.
Inspiration – to inspire us to honor the one the icon images eg: Jesus
Veneration – where the icon becomes a sacred object with power in itself.
The first two are legitimate but the third collapses quickly into superstition where faith becomes mechanistic. “If I kiss this Icon I will receive a spiritual blessing,” or “the icon hanging on our wall at home will protect us.”
In recent years interest in Icons from the Eastern tradition has grown in some parts of the Anglican and UCA churches in Australia. This tends to be among aesthetically aware Christians who appreciate the artistic value and beauty of Icon painting or have a fascination with the way they are created and painted and the underlying spirituality expressed in the Orthodox tradition. For some theologically liberal Christians who have rejected or reduced the original meaning of the symbols there is a danger that the aesthetic and intellectual appreciation can become a substitute for lively faith. This may be more sophisticated than superstitious veneration but it can be equally delusional. We all need to be constantly aware of Paul’s critique of those who “hold the form of religion but deny its power.”
If we ask why people wish to retain symbols whose original meaning they have rejected or radically changed, the answer is probably emotional security, sentimentality or nostalgia. The classical Christian symbols are associated with their childhood and their religious formation and so they are part of their identity, culture and security. Also the process of reduction for most people is a gradual one. Of course to create new symbols for their new beliefs that have departed from creedal Christianity would be the honest way to go but that is a bridge too far for most. They know instinctively that it would put them too far outside the Christian community and its tradition.
The nature of Biblical Faith
A key to understanding the proper use of Christian symbols is to understand the nature of Biblical faith and its relationship with symbols. This is sometimes described as sacramental theology. Biblical faith involves at least six elements:
1. It is centered on Christ– the object of Christian faith is crucial to its validity.*
2. Intellectual assent – belief involves understanding and reason.
3 A decision of the will – it is volitional.
4 Trust- it is relational and involves vulnerability and commitment.
5 Submission – it involves obedience and submission.
6 Emotion – one to five above will involve and effect our emotions.
(* The value of faith or an act of faith is significantly affected by its object. Faith can be misplaced eg; the ‘snake oil syndrome’ or faith in the evil leader.)
A Christian sacrament.
In the reformed tradition it has been defined as ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.’
For a sacrament or a sacramental act to be valid and spiritually effective rather than just a an emotional, aesthetic or cultural experience or even a superstitious act, it must have the following elements:
The sign and the action commanded by Jesus, eg; the breaking and eating of the bread in the Lords Supper, the water in baptism.
The word of God read and expounded that explains and applies its meaning.
The faith of the participant as defined above. We are to ‘feed on Christ in our hearts by faith’ as it is expressed in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.We are to engage with God relationally in spirit.
The Christian community. The action/the sign is done both by and within the faith community. It is both an individual and a corporate act. The body of Christ is not only represented by the bread we break and eat but also by each other, together we are ‘the body of Christ.’ (See I Cor. 11: 17-34)
Baptism and the Lords Supper are the two signs commanded by Jesus. They are the preeminent signs of Gods love for us because both are centered on the saving actions of God for us. They point to God as savior, redeemer, forgiver, the one who rescues and renews.
( See also the article “Would Jesus have worn a mitre?” on the website under the catergory: The Anglican Church in Australia)
In the 2004 edition of his brilliant and provocative book The Wreck of Western Culture –Humanism Revisited, John Carroll has added a last chapter on the significance of 9/11 and the attack on the Twin Towers in New York.
He argues insightfully that the attack on the World Trade center in New York has deep symbolic significance for western culture. He makes the acute observation that Osama Bin Laden did not target the Vatican, Westminster Abbey, Washington Cathedral or some other religious symbol of Western culture but the city that is home to the ‘persuaders’ of Madison Avenue, to Wall Street and the building that housed the bond traders, bankers and money manipulators at the heart of Western capitalism. New York has come to symbolize many things with its ethnic diversity and rich cultural life, its art galleries, theaters and vibrant music scene. But as they daily ring the bells at the NY Stock exchange it has also come to symbolize the real heart and soul of contemporary Western culture today – money and materialism. Bin Laden attacked and successfully destroyed a most potent icon of this, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
Bin Laden correctly judged what has now become the soul of Western culture, what it’s real metaphysical core is – Mammon. This is what has replaced its Christian foundation, lost as a result of the impact of the secular humanism that grew out of the enlightenment. (1) Having lost its faith the West is now vulnerable to those who are unafraid to die for theirs.
The towers of the World Trade Centre are being replaced and once again will house the Bond Traders and the ‘money changers’. But the 2976 who died and the 6000 who were injured are not to be remembered with a memorial that reflects the West’s Christian foundation, such as a cross as in many of our past war memorials, but an International Freedom Center, although apparently this idea may now be abandoned as a result of controversy about its meaning and purpose. But what is the nature of the freedom that might be symbolized in this building? Is it the freedoms and rights expressed in the US Constitution, or the freedom of the individual from all moral restraint, the freedom that has all but destroyed the best in the West? Carroll wryly quotes the Janis Joplin song “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose..!” (2)
There are also two reflective water pools as part of the new center. Their dark stone walls will bear the names of the dead. These are to “reflect absence”, presumably the absence of those who died. It may also ironically reflect the absence of our spiritual heart, the story that gave Western culture its greatest creative and moral energy. That built the soaring towers of its cathedrals to the glory of God. What will a visitor see as they stare into those pools? Will they see a reflection of our emptiness or will they see people made in the image of God whose glory shines most clearly in the face of Jesus?
God, who said “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. (3)
In spite of impressive progress with construction it seems that Ground Zero is to continue to be surrounded with controversy. Now, in a strange twist, that ironically brings into sharp focus the real tension in all this, there is a plan to build a $A.123 million Islamic center with a Mosque and “Interfaith Center” just two blocks from Ground Zero. The plans have touched off a furious debate in America between those siding with the Constitutional right to freedom of religion and those who feel this is an insensitive affront to those who died at the hands of Islamic extremists. This debate taps into a very sensitive nerve in the US and other Western countries. It is interesting, that to my knowledge, no Christian body has planned to build something as significant near Ground Zero. This tragic site is set to be a controversial symbol for the West for a long time to come.
(1) Carroll J “The Wreck of Western Culture”, pp261-265.Scribe 200
(This was originally delivered as an address to the teaching staff chapel service at Trinity Grammar School Kew in Melbourne in 2010)
During the American civil war and the battle to emancipate the slaves, the then U.S President Abraham Lincoln said he “often felt like a man standing on a burning platform.”
Many people in leadership today, whether it is in politics, business, education, health or public administration feel like Lincoln did. The times are so uncertain and the problems so challenging. What does the future hold for us?
Just think of a few of the headline issues we face. Global warming and the environmental crisis, water supply and security, world population growth, the global financial crisis, which is really a crisis of greed and morality that may even herald the twilight of the dominance of Western capitalism. Then there is the clash of civilizations as massive people movements around the world force radically different cultures and world views into uneasy connections. The U.N estimates that there are now approximately 43,000,000 refugees and displaced persons around the world as a result of wars, ethnic conflicts, poverty, hunger and climate change.
In the West we are becoming increasingly disturbed by the fraying of the moral and social fabric in what have been for some time relatively stable societies like Australia and the U.K. Drug and alcohol abuse are at alarming levels, and while we have never been wealthier, the percentage of dependent children being taken in to state care keeps rising steeply each year. These depressing examples could be multiplied.
So, what does the future hold for us?
Can we predict it? More importantly, can we influence it?
We have of course always been fascinated by the future but particularly in times of crisis. Our artists and novelists have often prophesied for us – George Orwell’s ‘1984’, Aldus Huxley’s ‘Brave new world’, the prolific H.G Wells, a pioneer of science fiction, wrote many very prescient novels like ‘The World Set Free’ and ‘The Shape of things to come’. In our own times when film has become the literature of the people visions of the future appear in films like ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Gattica’, ‘The Matrix’, ‘Akira’, ‘Mad Max’, ‘Brazil’, ‘Existenz’, ‘Twelve Monkeys’, ‘The Children of Men’, ‘District 9’, etc. Then there are the natural disaster films like ‘2012’ where a giant tidal wave submerges the world in a modern flood narrative even with contemporary Arks! Then there is the recent film of Cormac McCarthy’s bleak but very moving novel ‘The Road.’
Interestingly these are mostly dystopian and pessimistic visions. That is probably because we tend to see the future through the lens of the present. In confident times we are optimistic and hopeful, in anxious and troubled times we become pessimistic even apocalyptic.
There are three alternative ways we can face the future:
(1) With Pessimism: Pessimism leads to resignation, loss of hope, the suppression of creativity, distraction and the growth of self interest.
(2) With Nostalgia: Nostalgia is a longing for the way things used to be. There is nothing wrong with a little nostalgia, there are many good things to honor and preserve from the past, the past shapes our identities. But you can not steer your vehicle into the future by looking mainly in the rear view mirror, that’s a good way to miss a vital turn you need to make.
(3) The third way is with Creative Imagination: Creative Imagination is that way of thinking that sees the future in a new way and by its vision creates the future.In spite of the plethora of futurologist’s, we can not predict the future with any accuracy. Nor do we discover the future. In fact we create the future! The future is a decision we make now, an intervention in the present. The present is of course the only field of action we have.
To create the future we must first imagine it. Creative imagination, coupled with passion, sees, feels and dreams new possibilities. But to have the energy to create a positive future you have to have an inspiring and guiding moral vision. Whether it’s the dream to create a new vaccine to deliver millions from a debilitating disease or to free people from hunger or injustice, it requires a moral vision.
Hugh Mackay the Australian social researcher has made this point about the need for such a vision in Australian society. We have yearned for a guiding story that would help us make sense of what is happening to us, and to our society. But no such story has emerged, because no such leadership has emerged. (The Mackay Report 1997)
Nietzsche, that strange prophetic voice from the late 19th C., made many pertinent observations about the future direction of Western culture. He wrote:
When cultures loose the decisive influence of God and God dies for a culture they become weightless.
Nietzsche had lost his own faith and he observed that as Europe was loosing hers, the culture was hollowing out. What had given it its energy, strength and moral vision was leaking away and it was becoming weightless. We are living in the remains of that movement today. Western culture is like an old neglected masterpiece that is fading, the paint peeling, mould growing on the canvass. What was it that gave our culture its weight?
Psalm 24 concludes with this shout:
Lift up your heads, O you gates;
Lift them up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is he, this king of glory?
The Lord Almighty –
He is the King of glory.
Glory is one of the most frequently used words in the Bible to describe the character of God.For us it conveys the idea of radiance, brilliance, light, but the Hebrew word Kabod also carries the idea of weight. But weight in the sense of heavy with truth, laden with love, loaded with justice and holiness – gravitas, the epicenter of reality.
It was this idea that was the defining source of Western cultures values, its energizing creative force, the origin of its sense of meaning and purpose.
I recently read A C Grayling’s book “Towards the Light”. The sub title is The story of the struggles for Liberty and Rights that made the Modern West. Although he is an atheist he makes it quite clear in his book that many of the most important forces in the human rights movement were Christian. People like Anthony Benezet the French Huguenot who became a Quakerand influenced many of the English and American leaders in the anti slavery movement including Thomas Clarkson and Wilberforce, all committed Christians. There is also a direct line out of that movement into children’s and workers rights and the modern labor movement and finally the UN Charter.
We are still living on this moral and spiritual capital but it is running down. Like money in the bank, if you only draw it down and don’t replace it eventually it runs out!
My point is a fairly simple one – you can provide an excellent education for the young people who pass through your hands, an education that will equip them with all the tools they need in our society to construct successful careers. But to what end? What will they build? What will guide them in how they build? What kind of society will they construct, with what sort of values? The answer to these questions lies in the spiritual and moral realm, where the real weight of a culture is measured.
We can and should provide our young people with an excellent education but unless we also provide them with a moral and spiritual vision we have not provided them with the most essential thing.
As a school with a long Christian tradition I urge you to keep going back to the well, back to that which gave us the best things we have inherited from our culture and its energizing vision. It is true that our Christian institutions have sometimes failed us and failed the Christian vision, but the vision has never failed. It may fade in our minds but its essential glory does not fade.
The New Testament picks up the Old Testament idea of God’s glory (the kabod) and in II Cor.4:6 Says: “God, who said, ‘let light shine out of darkness’ made his light to shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”
This is the heart of the vision, this is where our attention should be focused.
The recent tragic events in Haiti (13/1/10) raise this question acutely for us once again, but the question is always with us because we all experience suffering in some form or other in our lives and the lives of those we love.
There are no simple or glib answers to this question, but if one is to live in hope and not despair it is essential to think it through. The following is an attempt to provide a Christian framework from within which to consider the question.
1. We need to observe that suffering has different causes:
(a) It can be the result of human decisions and actions that are selfish, exploitive, cruel, unjust or evil. E.g.: Economic exploitation, war and other forms of armed conflict, pollution that leads to disease, individual life style decisions that lead to alcoholism or drug addiction, heart disease or diabetes, etc. Human actions can also compound the effect of natural forces like flooding or seasonal cycles of cyclones when people are forced for economic or political reasons to live in flood prone areas like parts of Bangladesh or Burma. Climate change is another example of this. The tragic impact of the earthquake in Haiti is compounded by the political corruption, instability, poverty and lack of infrastructure in that sad country.
(b) As a result of the natural physical order; Storms, earthquakes, volcanic activity, etc. The creation is dynamic; it is continually evolving and changing. We humans are part of the natural physical order and our suffering sometimes occurs when we interact with it. While it is largely predictable it is not static. Often we take risks in our interaction with the creation, e.g.: building in flood prone or volcanic areas.
(c) Diseases, genetic distortions etc., that seem to be part of the ‘natural order’. We will return to these later.
2. The religious answers to the reality of suffering are many but two of the most significant are Christianity and Eastern Mysticism (EM), but they are very different.
(a) In EM the basic answer given is ‘detachment’ or disengagement. Suffering is caused by our desire for things; money, health, love, power, recognition, possessions, etc.
When we don’t have them or they are taken away we suffer. The answer is to get rid of our desires, detach, and disengage from the world. This is attempted through mental and physical exercises like Yoga. The ultimate detachment is where self consciousness is absorbed into the so called ‘cosmic consciousness’ and disappears in a kind of self annihilation. The other idea in EM that affects the attitude to suffering is that the material world with its particularity and differences is really an illusion and so not important. So the East’s answer is disengagement!
(b) Christianity on the other hand is the complete opposite to this; it is about engagement with suffering, in particular Christ’s engagement with suffering. It is based on the following seven ideas. It is essential to the Christian understanding of and response to suffering to understand these key ideas.
The seven key ideas:
The first four concern the way we understand God’s relationship to the physical order. We understand that:
1. God created the world and set in place certain physical laws like gravity.
2. God sustains and interacts with his creation in a ‘self limiting’ way; which means that even though he has the power to interrupt or intervene, generally he follows and upholds his own physical laws in a consistent and reliable way. Can he intervene? Yes. Does he intervene? Yes, but generally not . Later we will discuss an example of his intervention.
3. Because God sustains and interacts with his creation in a ‘self limiting’ way the world is both a marvelous and consistent place. The seasons come and go the sun rises and sets, etc. This means scientific and medical research is possible. But it is also a dangerous and risky place for humans particularly as they pit themselves from time to time against the powers of nature. Mountains are exhilarating to climb but gravity is a danger! The sea and sailing can be a wonderful experience but storms are dangerous!
4. God created us as ‘embodied’ people; which means we can experience pleasure and pain, love and grief, rest and exhaustion. As embodied people in a world of powerful nature this carries with it certain implications. We also need to recognize that pain has an important protective role.
(The last three key ideas concern God’s relationship to the people he has created and certain ‘moral and spiritual laws.)
5. When God created us he set in place certain moral and spiritual laws (like his physical laws); e.g. Knowledge of and freedom of choice between right and wrong; the power to affect the creation for good or ill; relational choice – to relate to God or not, to relate to others rightly or wrongly, etc. Now God interacts with us like the rest of his creation in a self limiting way; which means according to his moral and spiritual laws. So he allows us the freedom to choose wrongly or selfishly as well as rightly and that may cause suffering for ourselves and others. Can he intervene? Yes. Does he intervene? Yes, but not normally. His aim is to call forth from us a free response not coerce us.
6. The sixth key idea is what Christians call ‘the fall’. The Christian faith holds that God’s original creation has been disturbed by humanitiies challenge to God’s authority. The story, described in mythic and theological language in chapters 3 and 4 of Genesis, explains what happened and the results. Our rejection and assumption to ourselves of God’s authority disturbs our relationship with him, with one another and with the creation. The natural intimate relationship with God is replaced with estrangement, fear and guilt. The man and the woman’s relationship is also disturbed. Mans responsibility for the creation remains but is changed, thorns and weeds grow with his tilling of the soil, the work is now hard. Finally in chapter 4 we see violence and death enter with the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. God pronounces judgment on Cain, he will be alienated from the soil, from other men and from God, cursed to restlessly wander the earth never finding his true home. It is such a prophetic picture of the alienation experienced by contemporary people, environmentally, relationally and spiritually, and expressed in much art and literature. (See the article on the website “Is the 20th C’s scream of alienation still echoing in the 21stC?”)
This is why many things are not the way they were meant to be and so produce suffering and disease. The created order is ‘fallen’, out of joint, the world is broken. The rest of the Biblical story is essentially God’s response to this and his rescue mission.
7. The intervention! I said earlier that God does sometimes intervene and takes the self imposed limits off himself. Generally it is difficult for us to know when he does this, but the big intervention and the one we can be sure of, because he said it was, is the ‘incarnation’. (John 1:1- 18) God stepped into our history in the person of his son Jesus Christ, took on human flesh, identified with us and suffered for us and with us. Here we see the great difference with EM. God engages with us, enters into our brokenness and suffering. Christianity is about incarnation not excarnation, it is about attachment not detachment, engagement not disengagement with the real world. God is with us in our pain.
But he not only identifies with us in our suffering, he confronts its major cause – our wrong and selfish choices. In his death on the cross he takes on our evil and guilt. God absorbs the power and effects of evil and death and suffering and it judgment in himself and then rises to new and eternal life.
So by his death and resurrection he banishes death and decay and suffering. His resurrection releases Gods renewing and recreating power to renew the whole creation. When a person ceases rejecting Gods authority over their life and submits to it and trusts in Christ they are reconciled with God through Christ’s actions. They receive the Holy Spirit of God and God’s life enters their life. This is like a down payment on their future transformed life in Gods’ renewed creation. Christians do not believe in annihilation at death nor do they believe we will exist in some disembodied consciousness but in real renewed bodies in the new heavens and the new earth where all pain and suffering will be wiped away. (Romans 8: 18-25)
Jesus’ miracles were not so much violations of the natural order but a restoration of the fallen natural order. God did not create a world with disease and death in it. Jesus’ miracles were signs of the future complete restoration that is to come (1)
This understanding leads Christians to be in the forefront of caring for those who suffer. They created the first NGO’s for aid and development, the first hospitals and orphanages, etc. Like Jesus they are driven by love for the broken world and a desire to be signs of the vision of the future God has in store.
The alternative to this is stark. Richard Holloway expresses it with disturbing clarity in these words:
The person who gives up belief in God because it brings with it certain unresolvable dilemmas ends by believing in a dying universe in which there is no meaning anywhere, a universe that came from nothing and goes to nothing, a universe that is cruelly indifferent to our needs. And there is no point in feeling resentment against such a universe, because in a Godless universe there is no reason why anything should not happen, and there is no one to resent, no one to blame. We are alone in an empty universe. No one is listening to our curses or our tears. We stand, tiny and solitary, in a corner of a vast and empty landscape, and if we listen, all we hear is the bitter echo of our own loneliness. (2)
References: (1) Tim Keller ‘ The Prodigal God’ p112, Hodder, 2008.
(2) Richard Holloway ‘ Paradoxes of the Christian Faith and Life’ p29, Mowbray, 1984
Summary: Artists, writers, film makers and playwrights in the 20th C often reflected in their work a sense of alienation, of being alone in a hostile and dystopian world. There was a feeling of bleakness about the present and frequently an apocalyptic vision of the future like Orwell’s “1984”. Other examples are Colin Wilson’s “The Outsider”, Graham Greens fascinating but sad explorations of the dysfunctional interior worlds of his anti hero’s like the man in “A Burnt Out Case”. James Dean played to perfection the iconic outsider in the film “Rebel without a cause.” The existentialists like Camus explored the possibilities of finding meaning in decision and heroic moral action but, as in his novel “The Plague”, in the end it all seemed pointless, the plague won. Francis Bacon’s paintings of a screaming Pope captured in disturbing images the angst of his contemporaries. Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot” summed up the feeling of the times: we are alone in an unfriendly world and there is no point in waiting for God to turn up again, he is dead!
The questions I raise in this essay are: has this sense of alienation continued into the 21st C, or have we become so used to the absence of God and any greater meaning and purpose to our lives that the mood has significantly changed, or are we just expressing the absence and aloneness in a different way, or have new anxieties like saving our ecosystems replaced the old ones, or has our tendency to use popular culture to distract ourselves from deeper questions accelerated as it has been made easier and more accessible by the electronic media? It seems to me that these are important questions for Christian communicators and educators.
The 16th C Spanish artist Velazquez produced a large body of work, two of his paintings are The Crucifixion and the portrait of Pope Innocent X.
Two 20th C painters, one English, Francis Bacon, the other a fellow Spaniard, Antonio Saura were inspired by Velazquez but produced images much more disturbing than his. They are images that express and reflect the twin anxieties of their times: the loneliness of the modern self and the horror of human violence and brutality. They had lived through the Second World War, the Jewish holocaust, the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Stalin and Mao’s totalitarian regimes. These two regimes brutalized thousands and forced the mass starvation and death of over 40,000,000 people in the Ukraine and China, the list goes on.
Bacon’s Pope, distorted into an endless silent scream of horror and alienation, is his response to this. The author J G Ballard wrote “Empire of the Sun” the fictionalized account of his boyhood experience in China during the Japanese invasion of China and the following rise to power of the communists. He experienced at first hand the terrible suffering that resulted. In his autobiography Miracles of Life, he describes Bacons paintings in this way: Bacons paintings were screams from the abattoir, cries from the execution pits of World War 2. His deranged executives and his princes of death in their pontiffs’ robes lacked all pity and remorse. His Popes screamed because they knew there was no God. ( Bacon went further than the surrealists, assuming our complicity in the mid century’s horrors.) (1)
Interestingly Bacon himself said very little about the inner meaning of his work with the exception of this comment: We are born with a scream; we come into life with a scream, and maybe love is a mosquito net between the fear of living and the fear of death.(2) This implies that his paintings were concerned with the individual’s struggle with the pains of existence, the struggle for meaning in the midst of living with the fear of life and the fear of death. Love provides a partial solace, but its fragile and gossamer nature gives but thin and brief protection for a short time.
Artists like Bacon reveal with stark honesty the high cost of living in a reality that excludes God. Perhaps because of their sensitivity they are more willing to face and express the nihilistic implications of their loss of faith. Antonio Saura’s crucifixion series reflects the same themes.
Saura’s crucifixion is confronting. I first saw it some years ago in an exhibition in the Victorian National Gallery called “Beyond Belief”. He painted a number of versions, the one I saw was in stark black and white. It is a very large painting and shocked me when I turned a corner in the gallery and suddenly came upon it. It captures not only the physical brutality of torture and death but the malevolence of the evil that is its cause. The figure is distorted to the point of transformation into that which caused its suffering. The violence and cruelty, the aggression and arrogance of human evil has become concentrated in the crucified figure. He has become what has afflicted him!
Saura made this comment on the painting: Through this image of the crucified, I wanted to depict my own situation of being alone in an unfriendly world that one can only react to by shrieking. On the other side of the mirror, however, I am also interested in that absurd tragedy of the man – man not God – nailed to the cross. That image……could be seen as the tragic symbol of our age.(3)
Ironically, while Saura has created a brilliant graphic description and visual explanation of substitutionary atonement, according to the comment above, he sees in the crucifixion only the symbol of the terrible suffering man has afflicted on his fellow man. For me his painting does far more. It certainly is a confronting symbol of man’s cruelty to his fellow man – our tragic dilemma. But it also powerfully reveals the meaning of Christ’s death as the NT explains it, that he bore our sin and evil, became sin for us, that we might be forgiven and reconciled with God. Only by embracing this meaning are we able to be set free from the guilt of our complicity in the tragic dilemma. Only by embracing God the Holy Spirit are we able to find an inner transformation that can overcome the heart of darkness that is in us all and find in restored relationship with God, the answer to our sense of alienation and our despair at humanities condition.
Over sixty years earlier the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863 – 1944) painted his famous scream series that visually, expressed the beginning of Western culture’s sense of alienation, a feeling that was to become the constant dull ache of the twentieth century. Munch’s own life mirrored the risks as well as the spirit of his age. He was born into a deeply religious family but his mother and elder sisters died from tuberculosis, his other sister suffered from schizophrenia. This, coupled with his fathers religious fanaticism and mental instability, contributed to his loss of faith. He was also very influenced by the charismatic nihilist philosopher Hans Jaeger. In his pain Munch retreated into his art.
“The Scream” has become one of the most famous and recognizable images of the 20th C. constantly reproduced in prints. It frequently accompanies serious journalistic pieces on our contemporary angst’s and anxieties. Ironically it has even become part of the consumer clutter of our times appearing on coffee mugs, coasters and T shirts that add to the mountains of useless detritus we produce. If for a moment we were to pause and consider the absurdity of drinking a latte’ out of a mug with a picture that expresses horror at the futility and cruelties of our world, would we laugh or cry? Maybe this is a perfect Post Modern moment, full of irony and contradiction; it’s only meaning what we choose to give it!
Perhaps this is the point at which we should come to the present and consider the question: does the 20th C’s angst and sense of alienation carry over into the 21st?
My own view is that it does but in a different way. The people of today’s world are not conscious of the loss of faith because they never had it to lose. Their anxieties are prompted by secondary losses, those that grew out of the loss of faith by the previous generations, like the loss of the values which were based on the Christian faith. Parents with a vague memory of past values feel alienated from their children as if they are from another planet. The whole discussion today about values in education is a reflection of this. It is illustrated by the decision of a third of Australian parents choosing, at significant cost, to send their children to private faith based schools. In most cases the faith issue is secondary, what parents want is a more disciplined education and what they vaguely perceive to be ‘good values!’ There is also a general woolly concern about whether we have removed or relaxed too many moral fences. If they knew it, many parents would quote G. K Chesterton when he said “Before you remove the fences ask why they were first erected!”
There is a general uneasiness about the loss of cultural unity and identity, an anxiety about what is an Australian or French or English or Indian identity now. Multiculturalism, large scale immigration both legal and illegal from cultures with a vastly different world view are raising the old xenophobic fears. The so called ‘clash of civilizations’, international terrorism, and uncontrolled people movement are creating significant anxiety and one that people feel they can not express publicly.
The British film “The Children of Men” picks up this theme with its bleak apocalyptic scenario of a Britain that is virtually an armed fortress against the avalanche of refugees from a Europe that has descended into chaos. A sign daubed on a wall reads- the future isa thing of the past. The South African film “District 9”, that describes the arrival of aliens in Johannesburg also picks up this theme and also raises the issue of the contradictory nature of humans. The treatment of the aliens by the Africans is a fascinating parable of a repetition of apartheid by the very people who fought to free themselves from the first apartheid. The same issue is being played out in real time now in Palestine. The scream of frustration at our inhumanity and stupidity goes on!
There is also a deep unconscious dissatisfaction created by consumerism. The media marketing monster, inextricably entwined with popular culture, creates a constant desire for new acquisitions, something better than what we have now. But when we get it we are still not satisfied. This breeds an underlying angst and dissatisfaction, a feeling that we are constantly being conned. TV shows like Australian Idol have now created a fantasy world that claims to make any one a star or celebrity.
In the disturbing film “Fight Club” * the writer puts these words into the mouth of Jack, one of the disillusioned young men trying to find some reality and authenticity in their empty consumer lifestyle through the violence and pain of the Fight Club. The idea is that only in this extreme experience can one feel really alive. We are the middle children of history – no purpose or place. There is no great war for us to fight, no great depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on Television to believe that one day we’ll all be millionaires, and movie god’s and rock stars. But we won’t. We’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.
Disillusionment can lead to depression, anger and violence, either directed inward to ones self or outward to others. It can lead to self medication through drugs or alcohol to relieve the pain or fill the vacuum. This may be one of the reasons why currently we have such an epidemic of drug and alcohol abuse and violence among young men. “American Beauty”* taps into this same theme of despair and middle class angst at the superficiality and ephemeral nature of the consumer culture where the wrapper seems to have become the reality.
Quinton Tarantino’s films like “Pulp Fiction”*, “Kill Bill”, and “Inglourious Basterds” are intriguing but unsettling with their violence and postmodern, non linear story lines. Their references to other films point to the incestuous and self referential nature of the media. Is our ‘reality’ just a construction of the media like “the Truman Show?” Their ironic and dark humor reflects a feeling of the absurdity of our world and its absence of any meaning or truth foundation. These are artistic deconstructions of what we think is reality. To gauge the artistic world’s reaction we only need to note that Tarantino’s films have won almost every prestigious award: The Academy, the Golden globe, the Palm d’Or and the BAFTA. (Even the ironic ‘Scream’ Award in 2007!) Like the earlier cult classic “Blade Runner” (1982) “Pulp Fiction” continues the Post Modern theme with new energy.
Another reflection of contemporary anxiety is the fear of Technology overwhelming us or blurring reality and virtual reality so we are confused about what is really real. This comes through in a number of recent films like “The Matrix”, “The Sixth Sense”, “The thirteenth floor”, “eXistenz”, “The usual suspects” and “Inception”.
These examples show that the artistic production of dystopian prophecies and apocalyptic visions, and cries against man’s inhumanity and screams of despair are still very much with us in the 21st C., but they have a new edge, a new factor. We have moved from the loss of faith and angst of modernity to the confusion of post modernity. Not only does God not exist but there are no other foundations or objective truths and realities either.
My interpretation may be quite off the mark and it may be that the children of the 21st C are simply indifferent, that the scream has been replaced by “whatever!” It is certainly true that by far the most viewed media today is computer games* and the most watched conventional films are fantasy like “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter”! Perhaps as Neil Postman said of the 20th C post TV generation we are still just amusing ourselves to death.
(* The computer warfare game “Call of Duty- Modern warfare 2” released in 2009 grossed a record $591 million in the first five days!)
How should we respond?
Quoting Camus or Orwell may not connect us to the cry of the 21st generation but exploring contemporary art and film may, particularly film. We need to remember that film, and electronic media is the principle way in which this generation receives its cultural and artistic expression. Once we have raised people’s awareness to what they are feeling and responding to, in a film like “American Beauty”, and identify what is being expressed, we have gained real insight and personal identification with their need or loss and so have achieved an experiential starting point for connecting them with the Gospel. This generation, unlike the previous may not know what they have lost but the vacuum, the absence is there, the longing is there. We will have to now work back from the ‘secondary losses they are aware of to the primary loss.
In response to the reaction of some people to the suffering and apparent futility of our world, Richard Holloway wrote:
The person who gives up belief in God because it brings with it certain unresolvable dilemmas ends up believing in a dying universe in which there is no meaning anywhere, a universe that came from nothing and goes to nothing, a universe cruelly indifferent to all our needs. And there is no point in feeling resentment against such a universe, because in a godless universe there is no one to resent, no one to blame. We are alone in an empty universe. No one is listening to our curses or our tears. We stand, tiny and solitary, in a corner of a vast and empty landscape, and if we listen , all we hear is the bitter echo of our own loneliness.(4)
All who mutter quietly or those who lift up there voices to scream their how’ll of despair at the world and life should ponder this statement. This is the real stark alternative to rejecting belief in God, or the absence of belief in the living God.
1. J G Ballard, ‘Miracles of life’ Harper Collins 2008, p157.