Tuesday, December 22, 2009

An attack on liberal Anglicanism - and on art?

Anger tends to induce incoherence, so it is perhaps not surprising that the Christians who attacked the billboard erected outside St Matthews church last week have been unable to explain their actions clearly.

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.


Blogger Skyler said...

Maps, you haven't shopped yet for a single present! :-)

1:32 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's public knowledge that atheism and Satanism go hand in hand. Satanism and atheism have one common principle: The idea that you can do what you want to without fear of retribution from a higher authority. Is there any real difference between atheism and "true" Satanism? What I mean to say is, that Satanism isn't really the worship of Satan. That might be better classified as Luciferianism, as I like to put it, the worship of Lucifer. Those that worship the Devil are commonly referred to as "poser Satanists". The "true" form of Satanism is the idea that if something isn't to be, it should be destroyed. They do have -some- morals, however, but then again, so do cannibals. Satanism and humanism, mixed together, would be a good way to describe atheism. Satanism says, "do as thou will" while humanism says "man is God/man is the center of infinity". So, in reality, atheist is Satanism plus humanism If you do research, you'll come to the same dramatic conclusion that atheism sprung from Satanism.

James Andrew Hatfield

2:16 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You don't seem to have taken on board that the minister responsible for the billboard stated explicitly that the billboard was designed to deny the virgin birth, that quote ' the idea of a male god impregnating Mary is ridiculous' and that Christians should understand the meaning of Jesus in terms of his values, love, support for the underpriveledged etc, and not be concerned about the 'superstitious' side of the faith, ie. whether or not Mary was a virgin is irrelevant to the meaning of Christ.

2:23 pm  
Blogger maps said...

But why, anon, should we have to be guided by the interpretation of the bloke who runs St Matthews, any more than we should have to be guided by the interpretation of the ultra-conservative vandals of the billboard? Can we not form our own interpretations of art?

I have noticed that my response to the image has been shared by a number of viewers.

2:35 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Btw, I'm sorry if anyone thinks I'm picking on Christians here. I had a crack at a few of the attempts of New Age mystic types to reanimate God in this post:

2:55 pm  
Blogger Country Lane said...

I think the second Anon was just pointing out, Maps, that you said most theologans would consider the virgin birth as a pillar of the faith when in fact the minister at St Matthews HAD said the opposite.
Maybe most do? Who knows. Who cares?

As Maps said there has been no explanation from the objectors about just what THEIR beliefs are. Interesting that a fundy organisation,like FF is siding with traditional Catholics over this one when I'm sure they diverge on a number of other issues. May they don't.
The thing is - I for one don't care.
I would FAR rather a series of billboards that point out how we are all "goodwill to all men" at this time of year but don't seem to give a toss for our neighbour for the other 364 days. It would be good to see a humorous billboard saying - "you don't have to believe in an imaginary friend to love they neighour."

3:08 pm  
Blogger Dave Brown said...

I don't have a problem with bourgeois atheism since we live in a bourgeois society. I blame virgin birth for the high rate of teen pregnancies. Just as I blame reincarnation for the way we throw our lives away in wars for oil. Hitchins is a prick. He does put himself at the centre of the universe but that's not compulsory for atheists.
How's the Xmas shopping going by the way? The art of Xmas shopping?
I blame Xmas for most things.

10:48 pm  
Blogger Edward said...

I can see what Maps is saying, but I also agree with the second anon and country lane. I don't think it's entirely true that most theologians have a literal interpretation of the virgin birth, at least not the kinds of theologians i've read and spoken to who have studied theology. I think it's fundamentalists, who don't deserve to be deemed theologians, who think such. I think this is the case because theologians tend to be very well read of the Bible and supporting texts, while fundamentalists seem (in every single instance I have encountered anyway) to be quite illiterate of the Bible. I can fully see where Saint Matthews is comming from - in an age where subtle, positive, and scholarly theology is being replaced by fundamentalism, it would be as important for genuine Christian denominations to combat extremism and literal interpretation as it is for many atheists and agnositcs.
But I agree with Map's wider argument also. About the disconection from God and the expression of this through art. The only thing is that I don't think the reaction to the billboard comes from these theological insecurities, but more from bad theology / fundamentalism. As for the 'new atheists', while I am rather fond of Dawkins, I certainly don't understand why people line up behind his take on matters of theology. I am very weary of atheistic 'followers' of any person, and think Maps is very right to suggest that atheists/agnostics too might not be ready and willing to engage in honest discussion around religious isolation in NZ.

9:30 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We don’t know what we are doing, but He always is.

In all cases, its what God says.

there are many on this blog who wouldn’t understand a thing I’m saying. too bad eh....

12:03 pm  
Blogger Edward said...

how esoteric and elitist of you anon :)

5:19 pm  
Blogger Paul said...

It is not art, it is an advertisement. It was designed by Saatchi and Saatchi. It is a pastiche of Renaissance art, and not a very clever one at that. It is all rather childlike.

Qualifying things you don't like as "bourgeois" is so 20th Century. At least we bourgeois atheists take religion seriously.

10:09 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I am interested for example in Spinoza's view of the Universe - I have been since I was a teenager when I read his Ethics - which is in fact laid out like Euclid's Geometrical theorems (it's method is based on that in fact). God is a thing that operates actively in and through itself. God is in fact everything. Wordsworth also sees a Thing that interfuses though all Nature.

I cannot default to absolute atheism nor can I hold with some outer directed religion (of any kind)

But I don't share Dawkins's massive obsession with his atheism - his enthusiasm is almost as if "(S)he protesteth too much". I have one of his books on evolution - it is excellent in showing for example how the eye evolved and so on - but the impulse to some kind of deep belief or sense of deeper meaning than what is "material" makes me depart with Dawkins. But nor can I hold with any (absolutist) fanatics - but I am interested in fanatics who are religious. I am interested in their passion. Their near anguish and their various leaps of faith.

I was never a 'believer' myself - my parents were very strong atheists! And even as a 6 or 7 year old at Sunday School, I felt that there was something very simplistic about the Christian religion as depicted - now I feel that all religions fail in this ...the Muslims are perhaps closer to where I might be interested in going. They abjure non abstractions - images they are against. Hence the tessellations of the Alhambra etc. Hence Escher. Except that I cannot be part of any group thing - for me it has to come from within myself and it is a sense of perpetual mystery.

It is that sense of not knowing that the US Pulitzer winning poet John Ashbery talked about to John Tranter in an interview I heard once. He felt that that sense of constant mystery of not knowing - that almost phenomenological sense of being (which also derives from the Romantics such as Wordsworth who is a great poet for me).

Science fails for me in this - science is great but limited in getting to fundamental questions - but for Dawkins it becomes another religion.

Science has to stay near to literature, Art, music, sociology, philosophy and other 'disciplines' to survive. Science-Religion has or is becoming too arrogant. And Marxism is great - but limited also. (It is because all these things are too fragmented.)

Marx has value but he is limited to the human. I am interested in Spinoza and Nietszche and others - even Heidegger... with him I possibly feel that poets and artists (he looks at van Gogh and Holderlin) can tell us more about the "whatness" of the universe..but then there is the problem of such as Turing and Wittgenstein!

Also reading the works of James Joyce is like studying of religion-philosophy - humanism-socialism - all mixed together (but there is also irony and social criticism etc) ...and there are many other writers who do that. Even Hugo, Balzac, Dostoevsky, Lawerence, Golding, or Faulkner, Dylan Thomas, T S Eliot and Geoffrey Hill. Ashbery himself. And Smithyman in his own way and such as Robin Hyde seek. She also looks for the first time quite positively (in the 30s) at the Tangata Whenua. She is a socialist but a dreamer, fearful visionary and courageous...there are many others here and elsewhere.

(Alan Curnow dismissed Hyde - wrongly - others see her vision "The Book of Nadath" is a great work - but Curnow, while he arrogantly, or shortsightedly, dismissed Hyde, does add to the insights.)

But I am not sure that Art replaces Religion - "religion" of the impulse toward that sense of what are we etc - as in Gauguin's great works. McCahon is a deeply religious non believer, a deeply "spiritual" and philosophic artist who indeed "asks" great questions.

10:59 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Hi Dave - I don't mind Xmas. I don't hold with any simple faith. I like quiet family gatherings however. I don't drink now and a I never used too much at Xmas.
I don't send Xmas cards or even buy many presents to save money - I have no problem with that. I don't have much money, so I don't spend much. I get some thing for each of my children and my grand son. He is the only child really.

Children I love - if you feel bitter about the world - watch children playing.

11:07 pm  
Anonymous Keri h said...

Hmm, Richard Taylor, to paraphrase Susan Sto Lit (in Teryy Pratchett's "Hogfather") "the sound of children playing in the distance is very comforting - provided you cant hear what they are saying."

Otherwise, I basically disagree with you. Science is a tool; a tool of thought and experiment, analysis and
query, and every resultant answer is subject to ongoing review. It's the best tool we -as species H. sap. sapiens - have yet invented.

"God is everything"?

Well, space is everything.
Ultimate nothingness is everything.
And vice versa.

Totally meaningless statements, all of 'em.

12:10 am  
Blogger Edward said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:04 am  
Blogger Richard said...

"Keri von Hulme"

Henry to Minn:

"You evil modern woman you!"

Merry Xmas!!

You curmudgeonly genius of the South!

6:30 pm  
Blogger GZ said...

It is not surprising that the offended cannot explain their offense. They genuinely do not know why they are offended.

The reason (tied in with Maps' interpretation) why the image is so incredibly offensive to Christians is that it states that their Christ is human.

Christianity and its antecedents are based on the idea of sin - an idea that allows for the regulation of behaviour and the creation of an unattainable ideal. To be human is to be tainted with such sin and to be not-god. This is why Catholics go to such lengths to declare the demi-god status of Mary, and both Evangelicals and Anglicans also push so heavily the idea of virgin birth. Whether Jesus is half-human and half-god, or entirely god is not of concern here - either side of that debate seek to denigrate humanity as a failed state.

That is what is so radical, and thus offensive here. And it is backed up by the statements of the minister behind the billboard, who states that one can be human and attain a form of salvation from what is wrong in this life.

8:11 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home