An attack on liberal Anglicanism - and on art?
Even the Family First organisation, which has acted as a cheerleader for the men and woman who took to the billboard with paint and knives, has struggled to explain exactly why the portrait of a wistful Mary and a dejected Joseph in the sack was so offensive. Family First leader Bob McCoskrie called the billboard outside St Matthews 'irresponsible and unnecessary', and claimed that it might damage the morals of passing children, but he didn't explain how he reached these curious conclusions. In a discussion thread on David Farrar's Kiwiblog, opponents of the billboard were repeatedly asked to explain why it constituted an attack on Christian doctrine, let alone community morals, and were unable to fashion a coherent reply.
The billboard's assumption that Mary and Joseph had sex runs counter to Catholic doctrine, which teaches that Mary remained, for rather mysterious reasons, a 'perpetual virgin', but it is consistent with Anglican beliefs, and St Matthews is an Anglican church. Family First and other critics of St Matthews have claimed that the church has become a haven for heretical liberals who want to revise the most basic tenets of Christianity, yet it can be argued that, whatever the views of the people who funded it, the billboard's image implicitly affirms the virgin birth, which most theologians would consider one of the pillars of the faith.
To understand why the image outside St Matthews has caused offense, we have to understand it as a work of art, and not as some sort of coded theological statement. Some of us might shrink from considering the billboard as an artwork, because it was created on commission, as part of an advertising campaign, but the same could be said, surely, for some of the most famous paintings and sculptures in the canon of Christian art. Like all good art, the St Matthews billboard cannot be summed up by the slogans which are the stock in trade of philistine politicians like Bob McCroskie. We must each interpret it, and the interpretations we create will be affected by our presuppositions and preoccupations.
The Mary of the St Matthews billboard lacks the signs of holiness that devotional art normally awards her. She does not wear a halo, she does not smile radiantly, and her face does not seem to glow with health. She lies with a distracted, slightly irritated expression beside her disconsolate husband, who has, as a caption unnecessarily informs us, found God 'a hard act to follow'. God is absent from the scene, but he is certainly not forgotten. For Mary, he is an ecstatic memory, which makes her present existence seem diminished and inadequate; for Joseph, he is an oppressive, because unattainable, ideal.
In its depiction of people troubled by the absence of a God they still desire, the St Matthews billboard echoes one of the great themes of modern art. With urbanisation, the breakdown of what FR Leavis liked to call 'organic' communities, the advent of mass education, the advances of science into areas formerly reserved for religion, and the failing grip of religious institutions on the state, church attendances have been in decline for many decades in New Zealand and most other Western nations. In modernist masterpieces like the paintings of De Chirico, with their barren cityscapes, and the plays of Samuel Beckett, with their characters waiting hopelessly for the intervention of a higher power, we see a lament for the absence of God from the modern world. Like the characters in Waiting for Godot, the figures on the St Matthews billboard are disappointed believers, desperate to feel close to a deity who has become distant and mysterious. The artist has made Mary and Joseph modern.
The feeling of isolation from God has been particularly intense in colonial nations like New Zealand, where the arrival of Christianity coincided with the arrival of modernity. To the settlers who carried statues of Mary and massive family bibles off their ships, the landscape of Aotearoa often seemed alien and pagan. More than a few of the missionaries charged with planting the Christian faith amongst the tangata whenua of the new land went mad, or committed suicide, or followed the path of Thomas Kendall, who 'went native' and became a sort of tohunga for the warlord Hongi Hika.
Lacking Europe's venerable Christian tradition and its 'Christianised landscapes' of spired shires and cathedral towns, those Pakeha New Zealanders who held on to their faith often felt embattled, even besieged. Many of New Zealand's oldest churches were built so that they could double as forts in times of war. I grew up down the road from a Presbyterian church surrounded by a trench, and marked by bullets; a few kilometres up another road an Anglican church had slots in its walls that the barrels of guns could be thrust through. Long after the wars were over and Pakeha control of most of the country had been consolidated, the siege mentality persisted, in theologies that were tightly defined and intemperately defended.
It was Pakeha artists, rather than Pakeha theologians or politicians, who were first able to step outside the bounds of siege Christianity and examine the problems of belief in a modern society that had been roughly laid over an ancient and alien land. In the 1940s Colin McCahon produced a series of paintings that relocated Biblical characters to a New Zealand landscape of bare hills, squat buildings, and heavy skies. In one of these paintings, an angel hovers uncertainly over the little clubhouse of Takaka golf course; in another, the two Marys stand sadly beside Christ's tomb, while a couple of kanuka cower on a windy ridge in the distance. McCahon's paintings express what a struggle he had to feel at home in the New Zealand landscape and in the Christian doctrine. With their fusion of New and Old World imagery, they anticipate the noble but futile efforts of theologians like Lloyd Geering to reconstruct Christianity so that it is more suitable to life in a bicultural nation at the other end of the world from Europe.
Like the billboard outside St Matthews, McCahon's early religious paintings outraged conservative Christians when they were exhibited in the 1940s and '50s. Many of the condemnations of McCahon were just as incoherent as the condemnations of the St Matthews billboard have been, and they had the same cause: the reluctance of many conservatives to deal honestly with the distance of God from modern New Zealand life. Like the Latin masses which diehard conservative Catholics still hold around New Zealand and the nostalgia for a golden age of happy families and God-fearing citizenry that Bob McCoskrie constantly stokes, the mutilation of the St Matthews billboard was designed to pre-empt the sort of confrontation with reality that Colin McCahon dared sixty years ago.
A number of atheist commentators have been shaking their heads and chuckling at the attacks on the St Matthews billboard, but it is not clear whether they are more prepared than the vandals for a serious discussion of the consequences of the death of God. The shallowness of the so-called 'New Atheism' championed by the likes of Richard Dawkins and the appalling Christopher Hitchens is expressed very well in the current campaign to put ads with the slogan 'God Probably Doesn't Exist. Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy your Life' on the sides of New Zealand buses. For many people in New Zealand and in the rest of the West, it is the very absence of God which sometimes makes life difficult to enjoy. For these people, the persistence of the concept of God combined with the inability to believe in God makes life seem obscurely impoverished, in spite of its many pleasures. Mary and Joseph might understand.
If Skyler gives me enough time out from Christmas shopping expeditions, then I'll follow this post up with an account of the alternative to both untenable religion and bourgeois atheism that Kendrick Smithyman shows us in his writings.