on why you’re an art lover

You like art. You do. You like poetry as well.

I’ve known hundreds of people who claim not to like art. I’ve met even more who say they hate poetry (I was one of them for years). But I’ve never met anyone who, after often complaining about contemporary art and claiming that it’s pointless and weird, has never been faced with a particular piece (never contemporary) that has illumined some facet of life, that has with beauty and truth reflected something, often something quite ordinary of the world with particular insight, that’s caused them to say – ‘I like this. This is art.’

I am convinced and becoming more so that people like art and poetry and more, want to like art and poetry, and that art and poetry, like song, have tremendous power to resonate deeply with people and cause them to slow down and reflect and contemplate the world and themselves. Yet faced with an arts culture that has become disconnected from the realities of everyday life and so disconnected from most people who don’t find themselves in a somewhat fringe subculture, art has become to most people the weird and irrelevant pastime of society’s oddballs and poetry is no more than a rather pathetic and soft relic of a thankfully bygone era. Thankfully this never happened with music (although something must’ve gone wrong to bring us to the point where we have One Direction). Music remains a fundamental part of any culture, and of deep importance to anyone I’ve ever met. But once art and poetry were no different.

A number of things have caused me to be thinking about this stuff and move in this direction, and you should read the posts by Glen on this: Art on Fire: a Naples Tantrum and Definitely not for Burning…

See art is sick. It’s not dead, but the West is killing it. And I don’t mean all the haters are killing it – the ‘Art World’ is. What we think of as Art is not what art has been for centuries and across cultures. I’m realising the same is true of poetry.

Before the Age of Reason there was no separate discipline called ‘Art’. There were no movements, individual styles, progressive ideas; no ‘geniuses’, self-expression or avant-garde. Across ancient and medieval societies art was inscribed on the daily and ritual life of the people, was often religious and sought to connect the ordinary life of people with what they saw as the spiritual reality of their world. I have to say as a Christian I’m pretty wary of how this has often been done, even in the history of the Church, where the created object becomes the object of worship rather than the living God, or God is recast and denigrated in the image of the artist. But I don’t think idolatry must necessarily be the outcome of visual art. I’m interested in thinking that question through more.

The same, it seems, is true of poetry. I didn’t realise that poetry had been a major element of the Church’s life and worship for most of the past 2,000 years. I did know, however, that much of the Old Testament is written in poetry and have had the joy recently of being able to sink my teeth into it (check out Robert Alter’s translations). Poetry causes us to think deeply. Its rhythmic cadence and structural play, acheived through differing cultural conventions, give language a power that for that ancient society enabled them to slow down, contemplate and understand the profound spirituality that pervaded their world and ours – that the creation in which they lived and were a part, with its ordered movements and cycles,  that every moment of their lives rooted in the dust and the salt air and turning of the seasons was and is in the hands of a soveriegn and providential God. In an age gorged on instant gratification and an insatiable lust for faster and faster download speed this is a great need.

Sadly most of us have had our view of poetry shaped by those fluffy, willowy Romantics with their clouds for brains into something of a caricature. I mean, why would I do something productive when I could sit under a tree and wax lyrical about how I feel about a flower? Because it’s stupid.

Seems it was the ascendancy of Rationalism that spelled the doom of poetry as it had existed for centuries across cultures. Faced with the sterilisation of a world viewed only through the lens of reason yet no longer believing in a spiritual dimension the Romantics of the 19th century looked to the arts for something ‘more’ (this is what happened to art as well). But here art and poetry became ends in themselves and concerned with something higher than the everyday world which was seen as purely rational. Here began the ‘high arts’, now the pastimes of the bougeious elite who could afford to sit around feeling ‘arty’ rather than disciplines, which like music was and has remained,were inextricably intertwined with everyday life which was itself closely connected with spirituality.

In a fragmented and dislocated society which has lost any notion of a central axis, this wouldn’t be a bad thing to rediscover.

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happy resurrection day!

‘Why are you looking for the living among the dead?’ asked the men. ‘He is not here, but he has been resurrected!’

Happy Resurrection Day! Also known as Easter. A day we Christians commemorate the rising of a certain man from the dead which will precipitate the rising from the dead of all those who put their trust in him. Death brings all our efforts and joys and desires to nothing… but death need not be the end. New life is the prize won by Jesus going to the cross to pay the penalty for our rejection of God. Trusting in his death and coming under his reign is how we take hold of it.

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

1 corinthians 15.54-55

Does Easter have any significance for you? Do you have something to say or ask about its significance for Christians? 

good news indeed

The Garden Tomb, Jerusalem

I was reading my Bible this morning, where Jesus rebukes some religious leaders for teaching there’s no life beyond death. That God isn’t the God of the dead, but the living (Mark 12.18-27). And I knew I had been doing it again. That though this life is fragile and broken and passing away, and though a new life is found beyond the brokenness of death which is perfect with God, worth living for now…I haven’t been. As usual, my focus, my vision has been gazing firmly into my navel, and at what’s going on for me in the here and now, getting the right circumstances, finding the stuff to make me feel good about myself now.

Not that this life is bad or lowly or to be suppressed or repressed or denied or anything like that. Just that there’s no actual hope in this life. But I’ve been trying to find my hope here, futilely, in relationships, in comfortable circumstances, in exalting my own reputation. And here Jesus is saying that there’s this incredible hope, which would be realised by him going to the cross and then rising, that all the brokenness and pain of this life that ends in death – isn’t what it’s all about. That even beyond death God is my God and I belong to him, if my hope is in Jesus and not in…whatever else.

I can’t deny I felt pretty futile when I realised this (again). Like I’m in this rut, this trough, locked into a pattern of stupidity and sin that I just keep doing and no matter how often I tell myself at the start of a day I need to be different, I roll into bed knowing nothing actually changed. That i just don’t have the resources or power to change this pattern. So I did the only thing I could do. I told him that, and I asked for him to rescue me. And I felt also this great comfort, because I know that it’s not up to me. Yes God calls me to change, but he is the one who changes me. And I know that he is. I don’t live by my moral capacity but by his grace to me. Not a grace that says ‘do whatever, it’s cool with me’, but a grace that keeps working with me, that never gives up on me as I struggle to grow and change and become a man who actually loves God and loves other people instead of just a jerk who loves myself. A kindness that will never let me go, until one day when I see Jesus face to face, I’ll become exactly as I should be.

And that’s good news indeed.

How has God’s kindness affected you? Have you ever experienced it?

stories and the story

Each life is a story. And each person, as they go about each day, writes that story of their life. Post modernity told us that we each were free to form the narrative of our lives with our language. Who I will be awaits to be seen,awaits me to form it. But what post modernity never told us, indeed, emphatically denied, was that each one of our life stories might be caught up in a story much bigger than ourselves. That history might not be simply an endless stream of brief flashes-of-life, each its own narrative here for just a moment and then gone forever, meaningful for the one it centred around for the duration of their life and then fading like a mist, but that history might itself be a story playing out to a conclusion.

This is, I feel, a great paradox in the modern day philosophy, perhaps on the wane anyway, that each of our lives is our own truth and story alone, and we form this narrative around ourselves, centred on ourselves, on finding ourselves and finding our place. Because we’re told and believe that this is what we want, but don’t we all have this deep longing to be a part of something bigger than ourselves as well? Isn’t that why, for all our self autonomy we rack up facebook friends, always checking in and getting updated, trying to stay as connected to everything as we can? Isn’t that why we keep going to read and watch those stories of Harry Potter and the Narnia kids and the like, those stories of a world beyond what we can see, of those epic battles between good and evil, and ordinary little people standing in the gap for what’s right? Isn’t that why the more each of us chase that dream of self autonomy and personal fulfillment, the more isolated and fragmented we feel, despite most of us living surrounded by more people than at any time in history?

There is an amazing story stretching from the dawn of history to its end, a story of incredible beauty and ugliness, betrayal, suffering, sacrifice, hope and love, from which all stories draw their existence. A story that catches all our stories up into it and invests them with eternal significance. Much like the Copernican Revolution several hundred years ago shifted people’s view from believing the Sun revolved around them to realising the earth revolved around the Sun, I’m starting to learn slowly to see that who God is and what he’s doing doesn’t revolve around me, but instead the story of my life revolves around his story, finding its centre in a man named Jesus Christ. And contrary to what you might expect, I’m finding great joy there.

It’s the greatest story ever told. You’re not the hero of the piece, and you’re not in control of the plot, but I would definitely recommend giving it a read.