Ask me anything
If a ‘gospel’ is by definition an attempt to compile a biography, in our modern sense, of the entire life and teaching of Jesus, then not John alone, but all the evangelists fall short of the requirement. To assume this as the evangelists’ aim is, however, at clear variance with their stated intentions*. A ‘gospel’ is rather the telling of the story of Jesus in such a way that the unique significance of his person and work impacts the reader, enabling him or her to meet Jesus for themselves and be guided in following him.
*See Luke 1.1-4, John 20.30-31
Milne, Bruce The Message of John: Here is your King! 1993 Nottingham: IVP.
In the introduction to A Son to Me, Peter Leithart’s stimulating exposition of 1 & 2 Samuel, he demonstrates the necessity of reading the Old Testament typologically, and quotes George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age:
‘Typology does not make scriptural contents into metaphors for extrascriptural realities, but the other way around. It does not suggest … that believers find their stories in the Bible, but rather that they make the story of the Bible their own story. The cross is not to be viewed as a figurative representation of suffering nor the messianic kingdom as a symbol of hope for the future; rather suffering should be cruciform, and hopes for the future messianic … Intratextual theology redescribes reality within the scriptural framework rather than translating Scripture into extrascriptural categories.
It is the text, so to speak, which absorbs the world, rather than the world the text.’ (Emphasis mine)
I hope to return to these ideas more fully in future, but for now I will say that this has clear implications for our ‘reading’ of culture; in my project Shropshire Lore, you are but a breath away from the gospel: who is the true Christian who braved the waters of judgement to rescue his beloved bride (and succeeded!); who is the spring from whom healing waters flow; who is the bold knight who cut the lion in two, and bears the scars of that struggle still? What is the reality to which all these stories point?
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. [Genesis 2.15 ESV]
Ponder for a moment the various things suggested by the word ‘culture’. It has a meaning in the laboratory: the growing of organisms (noun and verb); or in a wider sense as the growing of things: consider agriculture, horticulture, viticulture, for example. Broader still we use it as a term to describe the distinct patterns of peoples, and the way they give expressive form to their experience of life: ‘Western culture’. We use the word to indicate a certain standard of aesthetic excellence. We speak of an ‘indigenous’ culture, a consumer culture, ‘a culture of’ this or that; and we label as ‘subculture’ a group operating within (and over against) a ‘mainstream’ culture, we talk of sharing culture with people of other nationalities, of consuming and enjoying the culture of another country.
It is in fact quite natural and right that a scientific term for the growing of organisms should also be employed in speaking of the ‘cultivating’ of distinct patterns of life relative to particular peoples. I suspect the latter may have preceded the former. An awareness of the fullness of the word adds depth to the flavour and use of it.
It is commonly understood that we construct culture (in the broad sense) through language. We are speakers and storytellers. We name and define, we order and fill, and largely do this through ‘speech’ of various kinds. We are sign makers, in the business of communication. To be human is to speak (and this need not necessarily be verbal). Consider then, the following from Ted Turnau:
“We must understand that creation does reveal God. This fact is vital for a correct understanding of culture and cultural apologetics. If we get this wrong, we can expect many more to follow. People typically think that culture boils down to human beings making their own meaning in an otherwise chaotic and meaningless universe. In that case, culture ultimately boils to humans speaking meaning over the Void, the empty, formless abyss of existence.
“But if the Christian worldview is right, nothing could be further from the truth. When we do culture, we aren’t simply making meaning. Rather we are responding to meaning that is already there woven into creation. Creation hums and buzzes and rustles and sings with songs to its Creator. These songs are around us and even in us … When we do culture, we are taking that meaning-filled creation and reshaping it in our hands. We hear and feel and respond to meaning, even as we fashion new meanings from it. Creation serves as God’s stereo system, proclaiming messages about his own glory, love and wrath, and we respond to that culturally. Culture, in a sense, dances to the tune of God’s soundsystem.”
In Primeval Saints: Studies in the Patriarchs of Genesis, James Jordan outlines “The Pattern of World-Transformation”:
God’s original creation of the heavens and the earth out of nothing is unique, and man cannot copy it … From that point on, however, God acts in ways man can copy. He brings light to darkness, gives form to the shapeless, names the unnamed, and apportions the restructured world to various kingdoms. We can summarize God’s activity in Genesis 1:2-2:4 as a five-fold sequence of actions.
First, God takes hold of the creation. This is expressed by the phrase “And God said.” God does not need hands to work, and He lays hold on things solely by the power of His Word and of His Spirit, who is the breath or out-speaking of His inner Word. Man images this aspect of the Divine work when he lays hold on any created thing in order to begin to work with it. Like God, man cannot work with anything until he has names, words to put on what he is doing. God thinks and then puts forth His Breath to perform his actions. Similarly, the image of God thinks and then acts.
Second, God restructures the creation. This is particularly in focus in the first three days of the creation, wherein God separates light from darkness, waters above from waters below, land from sea. The world, already glorious in that it reflects God’s glorious Person, is rendered even more glorious in the course of time by being broken down and restructured, so that at the end of each stage the world is “good”, with still greater goodness to come.
Men continually and inescapably image this restructuring action of God. If I remove a book from my shelf, I have broken down the original form of my room and restructured it. If I dig up ore from the ground and heat it so as to separate gold from dross, I am restructuring. This act of restructuring is what we generally think of as work in the strict or narrow sense.
Third, God redistributes His work. This particularly apparent in the last three days, during which God gives the firmament to the sun, moon, and stars, the sea to fishes, the land to birds and animals, and all things to men. This act of distribution follows naturally after the work of transforming. After I have made something I can do one of three things with it. I can keep it for myself, I can give it away, or I can trade it for the work of someone else.
Fourth, God evaluates his work. This is noted repeatedly by the phrase “God saw all that He had made and it was good,” climaxing at the end: “God saw all that He had made and it was very good.” Evaluation always comes before consumption or full enjoyment. Before eating there is tasting. When a mother makes a soup and distributes a bowl to each member of the family, the first taste elicits an evaluation. ‘Well, how do you like it?’ she asks. That question comes not at the end of the meal but after the first sampling of it.
Fifth, God enjoys his work. God’s Sabbath rest on the seventh day was not apart from the creation; it was in it. God’s temple is always set up in the midst of the world – think of the Tabernacle in the centre of the Israelite camp and the Temple in the centre of the land of promise. Having tasted His work and finding it good, God relaxed and enjoyed it. Similarly, if the soup tastes good, we enjoy a whole bowl of it, and maybe a second helping.
These five actions are as ordinary as they are inescapable. It is, or should be, encouraging and invigorating to realize that imaging God does not necessarily involve performing great, earth-shattering acts. It can be accomplished simply through carrying out very ordinary activities … Such simple, mundane actions constantly and unavoidably imitate God’s actions in the building of the world. Thus, every calling in life, indeed every action in life, has immeasurable dignity.”
Like the music of the spheres, the heavenly song we have become deaf to because the earth is “The Silent Planet”, the image of God is so clearly and frequently before us, that we have become blind to it. It becomes easy to see why Chesterton said grace before everything, not just his meals. (Though meals do have extraordinary significance).
The question is: Are we going to read the signs? And will we read them with subtlety? Only the Christian can say that even the most marred, hideous distortions of the glory of Jesus seen in his creation are worth saving, indeed, that salvation is possible, or even desirable. In Christ, a person or creature is valued not only because of what it may do or become, but for what it is. It has glory and spectacular value, because it bears the hallmark of its divine creator.
In fact we are already reading the signs. There is no neutral ground (Christ declares all creation his*, including those parts conducting rebellion against him), instead we ought to think carefully about the reading we are already doing, that is, the culture we are creating, speaking, and making already. We must give thanks, praise, and ask for wisdom. Much of what passes for ‘culture’ among Christians and by Christians could do with a thorough re-evaluation. We have not even begun to consider a pursuit of excellence, or different cultural pursuits as good ends in themselves, not just as tools for evangelism. And what of evangelism? Isn’t all this talk of culture a mere sideshow to the biblical mandate to make disciples? More on that another time. It is perhaps enough, by way of introduction, to have spoken a word about culture, and paused to reflect on what it might mean for us to ‘work the ground’. Indeed, it is worth asking now, what does it mean to be saved?
* “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein,” [Psalm 24.1 ESV]
A mini residency completed at UCCF’s Forum, responding to this mission equipping track. Completed over three days at the Quinta, Shropshire. Stories adapted from The Lore of the Land, Westwood & Simpson, 2005.
I have a keen interest in folklore. There is something intoxicating in the oldness of it, the strangeness and magic of the legends. It holds both joy and sadness. As we walk about the world, we tread on layers of accumulated culture; the earth is alive with stories. We in turn are ‘story-formed’. We, like our forebears are storytellers, and makers of culture.
I find the stories that have come down from past generations absorbing. What is the reality they describe? We may not believe a well can cure eyes because it sprang from the head of a saint, nor that bottomless lakes hold submerged cities, or even that knights once fought with lions in Shropshire. Is it all pure superstition? Naivety out of which we have long since advanced?
I responded to these questions by taking objects from the landscape, and painting Shropshire-based stories onto them. I placed those objects in new places in the landscape, ‘animated’ with the stories previously present in landscape, but silent. I have ‘amplified’ the music in specific places, displaying the story that is already there.
A whole ancient city lies beneath Bomere. It was drowned in a single night because the Saxon inhabitants refused to accept Christianity, and mocked the missionary priest who tried to convert them. The church was submerged too. If one sails across the lake at midnight on Christmas Eve, the bells can be heard ringing. On Easter Eve one may see the ghost of a young Christian Roman rowing desperately on the lake hoping to rescue the pagan girl he loved from the waters.
Stone lettered and placed by the Quinta lake.
St Oswald’s Well
St Oswald’s well is a healing well. It cured eye trouble and weakness of limbs. The saintly king was killed in battle and its clear unfailing spring sprang up at the place where his head was buried, or where it touched the ground after being severed. Or during the battle the king’s eye was plucked by a raven and turned into a spring which contained water good for curing eyes. A particular stone at the back of the well marked the burial place of Oswald’s head. Anyone who wanted to wish at the well had to go at midnight, scoop up some water in his hand, drink a little while making a wish and throw the rest against the stone. Only if all the water fell on the stone, without touching any other part of the well would the wish be granted. Other methods: to wish into a hole in the archway of the wall, wish while [washing] one’s face in the water, drop a stone into the well, making enough of a splash to wet your head.
Broken pottery lettered and placed by a stream.
Scriven o’ Brompton
The church at Berrington contains the wooden effigy of Scriven of Brompton. The knight’s face is badly scarred, his feet rest on a lion. ‘Owd Scriven o’ Brompton’ was on his way to visit his lady love at Eaton Mascott when he encountered a lion which had been terrorizing the neighbourhood crouching at a certain stile. Scriven at once drew his sword and attacked the lion with all his might. After a fearful struggle he cut it in two but not before it had torn half his cheek with its claws, a wound clearly seen on the effigy.
Cut wood lettered and placed by a stile.
I chose found objects that might otherwise be considered detritus and gave them new purpose intentionally because I believe it reflects something crucial in itself to do so. I placed them in the landscape so that they might be discovered and enjoyed, and hopefully provoke some wonder.
Copyright James Watts, 2013.
I went to Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life at the Tate Britain recently. I wasn’t overly familiar with his work before, but my parents had a print of one of his pieces (we couldn’t remember which one), which hung in my room at our old house for years.
I enjoy Lowry’s painting. It’s sometimes difficult to look at, especially at his bleaker moments. I respect his honesty, as the introduction read: “His art never claimed false comradeship with the world it took as its subject. He was an outsider.” No patronising attempt to champion the poor. Just a presentation of that life as he saw it.
"The streets were gloomy to him, but magnificent." Quite. There is a fascinating and troublesome idea that presents itself through his work: that working life is one long, monotonous routine, walking to and from the factory, the football match, and finally to the cemetery. But there are no people in the cemetery painting, because no-one ever comes home from there.
Church spires loom like factory chimneys, a visual similarity that cannot be unintentional. Some paintings focus directly on churches as dark (almost black) monoliths, terrifying and imposing. In “The Fever Van”, the church haunts the end of the street, at the vanishing point in the painting’s perspective, as if to say, when the van arrives, it might make a show of taking you to the hospital, but everyone knows where you’re really headed.
Churches seem to be associated with death then, but what of the factory chimneys? Often impossibly large, piercing the industrial landscape, perhaps the association is deathlike as well. Or is the question over who really rules? God, enshrined in gothic spires, or the industrialist, exalted in the smoke stacks?
Amid the bleakness and the gloom, the unsettling accident and incident, the movement of crowds, there is warmth, and something like poetry. A surprising number of Lowry’s greys, reds, and ochres are warm colours. The exhibition was well curated, and quotations were artfully employed to give voice to the editorial decisions:
Today if I hear someone using words like ‘sorrow’ and ‘misery’ freely, they usually sound slightly archaic. To my grandmother they were regular words, together with ‘care’ and ‘hardship’. When she spoke of someone ‘taking the bread from her mouth’ she was not being dramatic or merely figurative.
These things contribute to a view of life among working-class people which can from some angles look like a kind of hedonism. At first hearing, ‘why worry?’ may seem to suggest a trivial attitude; but only those who expect to have to worry a lot would coin such a phrase and use it so frequently. And so with all the other phrases of this type - ‘Always look on the bright side’, ‘A little bit of what you fancy does y’good’, ‘Life i’n’t worth living without a bit of fun’, ‘Make the most of each day’, ‘We av’n’t much money but we do see life’.
Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy, 1957.
C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain:
Those who would most scornfully repudiate Christianity as a mere ‘opiate of the people’ have a contempt for the rich, that is, for all mankind except the poor. They regard the poor as the only people worth preserving from ‘liquidation’, and place in them the only hope of the human race. But this is not compatible with a belief that the effects of poverty on those who suffer it are wholly evil; it even implies that they are good. The Marxist thus finds himself in real agreement with the Christian in those two beliefs which Christianity paradoxically demands - that poverty is blessed and yet ought to be removed.
I wonder if that is an echo.
Lowry then, is a Saturnine painter, a (true?) contemplative. As in the work of Damien Hirst, we are confronted with mortality. Lowry, however is playing from a different hymn sheet to Hirst. The latter is a grinning skull, terrifying and absurd, the former is the living gaze that once occupied it: grim, resolute, doughty. There is grandeur in the gloom. All that is gold does not glitter.
As Michael Ward points out in Planet Narnia, Saturn is surpassed by his greater son, Jupiter. Funnily enough, red appears often in Lowry’s paintings. Just enough red, to suggest, perhaps, the road beyond Saturn’s tower? An extract from my own work:
Cry out, O men, for dark is all around,
And tears are spent from weeping and lament,
Though in the midst of chaos is our seat,
Perceive, resolve and wait, in hopeless night.
Beyond his stony tower lies a way,
And though beneath his gates we’ve need to pass,
At End the breeze anew begins to blow.
Now herald stars arise, and sing the dawn!
As frost unfrozen trickles tinkling down
Like laughter’s first new strains, as Spring is born.
"Lowry was an enemy of ‘sentiment’ in art." And so he, "[told] this stark England what it looks like, deliberately, sternly, without mitigation, but without as one can testify, exaggeration. It is the nearest rendering of the life of Lancashire one knows." (Jessica Stephens, The Studio, January 1928). The curator also quoted Baudelaire:
The heroism of modern life crowds in on us, all round … The painter, the true painter, will be the one who can seize from the life of the present its epic dimension, and make us see and understand, in colour or contour, how great and poetic we are in our neckties and patent-leather boots.
Charles Baudelaire, The Salon of 1845, 1845.
At first reading, narcissistic? I thought so. But, as Lewis insists, in The Problem of Pain, God pays us the inconvenient compliment of loving us, though we would much rather he left us alone. Perhaps the greatness and the poetry is that we still, even in the Lancashire slums, bear the divine image, that God finds us lovely, and so worth loving; the Jovial whisper hints that Saturn might not, ultimately rule. That death might not have the last word.
Indeed, the Jovial red is visible in the places where the Saturnine grey has worn thin, where life breaks through unbidden (unstoppable), as even (is it too much to suggest?) the ‘care’, the ‘worry’ the ‘taking of the bread from my mouth’ embodies the beatitudes?
It seems that Christ is not to be found in the towering church spires, or the imposing factory chimneys. But somewhere in the crowd, a flash of red, a hint that the Day has dawned, that resurrection is on the loose, and that the sufferings of this present age are swiftly passing away. Not sentiment, not opiate, but something truly, really, actually magnificent.
Recently rescued from the attic in my parent’s house, and given a bit of a clean up. I’ve used it on a couple of trips recently. To be lettered as Luna, whose influence causes wandering.
The Planets is ‘A series of useful household items, lettered’.
Final observation from Exodus which lifted my heart. Chapter 40.34-48 talks about the cloud over the tabernacle by day and the fire in it by night, and the glory of the Lord filling the tabernacle.
Just as he wanted to in the garden the Lord has come to dwell with his people. In Genesis 15.17 he sealed promises to Abram by passing between pieces of animal as smoke and fire. The smoke and fire led Abram’s descendants out of slavery (that is, Jesus did, see Jude 5), and fought for their freedom (Ex. 14.25). Now he shows his presence among them in cloud and fire, and continues to lead them to the promised land.
At the end of Exodus there’s a long way to go before the Word becomes flesh and truly tabernacles among us. But we stand on the side of history where this is a past event, and we look forward to the true promised land, where we will see not in a glass darkly, but face to face.