Launchpad: Arts and Crafts, Movies and Music

There’s a strand of imagination that runs throughout the Bible, a book overflowing with love songs and parables, craftsmen and outsider artists, music and apocalyptic eviscerations of Empire. This page serves as a launchpad for all my posts relating to the interplay of creativity and faith.

So start with The Importance of Art: The Story of Bezalel, which covers the Old Testament’s great craftsman, and how creativity is a spiritual gift. Bezalel’s legacy crops up again and again throughout this blog, including posts on creative approaches to peacemaking and turning swords into ploughshares, and the healing power of how art is used to treat PTSD. If our churches can release the gifts of our artists, we can have an impact beyond our imagination.

Part of this revolves around the stories we tell; we too often tell tales with no happily ever after, when in fact we need to use our creativity and our art to tell more positive, transformative stories. The different applications of this are also looked at in a multi-part post for National Storytelling Week (chapters onetwo and three.).

If you’re into cooking then there’s a post on building church community through food, and if you’ve got green thumbs, maybe take a moment to reflect on the intersection between faith and guerilla gardening. Our churches are full of people with practical skills, so maybe DIY and the maker/fixer movement may inspire some ideas to support our communities. However, art can also be problematic – what, for instance, is the spiritual impact of defensive architectureCartooning also has has a dark side.

There are reflections on painting in ‘The Power of a Portrait‘, while there’s also a post about fashion – or at least the design of clothing and how that can have symbolic value. The power of photography as witness is discussed, and while there’s not much on the practice of writing, there’s a meditation on grace as filtered through the story of a homeless man and a mobile library.

Sculpture is represented by ‘Homeless Jesus‘; comic book art by ‘José y Maria‘, which has become something of a Christmas icon for me. There are also digressions; a post on Joshua Norton for Christ the King Sunday also included a discussion on the outsider artist James Hampton, who built a throne for Jesus in his garage…

Pop culture also gets a look in, with posts on Pulp FictionGhostbusters,  Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade. There are also posts on ‘Fairytale of New York‘ and Springsteen’s ‘Thunder Road‘, and the Civil Rights campaign inspired a post on singing when you don’t feel safe. And while Psalm 137 inspired a disco classic, it’s actally the most metal song in the Bible!

The Frogs of War (Revelation 16:13-14)

Revelation is a strange book. Apocalyptic and poetic, full of cryptic signs and mysterious symbols, it presents a Prophetic Reality view of the world, a veil lifted on the nuts and bolts of human life to reveal dragons and monsters, many-headed behemoths and war in heaven. It’s difficult to comprehend, and perhaps that’s why so many debate whether it’s about the past or the future; whatever the truth of that, however, it remains that Revelation has something to say in the here and now.

Take Revelation 16:13-14. The great antagonists of the apocalypse,  the False Prophet, the Antichrist and the Dragon, suddenly spew forth ‘unclean spirits’, spirits that perform miracles and bend kings to their will and bizarrely look like frogs.

They’re the media wing and propaganda arm of the apocalypse. And something about the image freaks me out. I mean, frogs? Is that because frogs are an unclean animal in Jewish thought? Is it because they capture their prey with their tongues (which is a pretty concise definition of propagandists)? A reference to Egyptian gods and the Plagues of Egypt? In ancient thought, frogs were associated with coarseness, or thought to be poisonous. Maybe their use in Revelation relates to all four.

But let’s take a step back from the language and symbology. The frogs are ultimately a message, a message of false religion, hateful politics and general fear and accusation. The message is antichrist in its most literal sense – against Christ.

So the frogs are media and memes, propaganda and psyops, static that drowns out the words of God. And those forces are on the move, just like they’ve always been: snaking through the Garden, tempting in the wilderness, leaping towards Armageddon.

So when someone calls you to hate your neighbour, don’t listen; if someone tells you to cast the first stone, put it down; if the voice doesn’t sound like Jesus, ask yourself why.

Because the world feels like it’s on the brink of…something. Strange metaphorical creatures are on the move, doves and chaos monsters, the frogs of war. In times like this, when forces herd us towards war (whether that’s with guns and bombs or Twitter accounts and dark words), when so many competing voices constantly teeter on the edge of conflict, all I can do is turn back to the Gospel,  to reclaim the words in red and pray to hear the voice of Christ above a cacophony of croaking. The frogs of war are out there; we don’t have to follow them into the abyss.

The Feast of the Donkey

Medieval Christianity was weird.

Back in the day, there was a feast day dedicated to the Bible’s donkey-related stories. Celebrated on January 14th and more commonly known as the Feast of the Ass (I renamed it because I didn’t want the SEO hassles, sue me!), its primary focus was on the donkey that carried the Holy Family to Egypt when they were forced to flee Herod.

In many ways this is a liturgical quirk, a bit of interesting history. But this is a world that’s scared of those running for their lives. The image isn’t of a working class family fleeing violence, it’s of terrorists in disguise, of cynical opportunists, a dangerous horde lurking on our borders. Build a wall! Send in the gunboats!

This is helpful or humane. Toxic rhetoric poisons our societies rather than saves them, and the church shouldn’t participate in the hysteria; instead it should promote a more gracious option. And in the midst of all this, a bit of medieval ecclesiology can speak to us across the centuries.

Because that donkey is also a raft in the Mediterranean, is also Harriet Tubman‘s Underground Railroad, it’s Upbeat Communities. It’s Amnesty International and Christian Solidarity and the shelter that helps a woman and her kids leave an abusive relationship. It’s any means of escaping a horrific situation. It’s liberation. And as liberation – spiritual, legal, political – is baked into the Bible and the Gospel, maybe the Feast of the Donkey is a reminder that we can’t be passive in issues of justice. We can’t stand by while people are beaten and raped, executed or ‘disappeared’, while they freeze in doorways and makeshift camps. We’re not called to that.

Because the donkey can also represent Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, thereby heralding a new Kingdom, a Kingdom in which the last are first and the humble are blessed. And if we’re going to wave palm branches as Christ rides that donkey, we better be willing to live in the light of that Kingdom rather than just treat it as a spiritual insurance policy. Because a better world grows in the cracks,  and even donkeys are important.

Creation and Baptism, Floods and Doves (Genesis 1, Matthew 3)

In the beginning there was a timeless darkness, a primordial night shrouding an ocean of chaos. Apart from this chaos, there is a presence; holy, divine, a Spirit hovering over the waters. Ancient sages compared this Spirit to a dove hovering over her young, and as the Spirit hovered over the waters, suddenly Creation was called into life.

 This is how the Hebrew Scriptures begin, with the story of God creating the heavens, the earth and everything in them. It’s a familiar story, but it immediately establishes a tension with other stories from neighbouring lands. Many creation stories begin with the same primordial chaos and a divine culture hero warring monsters to bring the world into being. Genesis does away with this conflict; there is the chaos, and there is God, and he doesn’t need to go to war in order to create, he just speaks the words and the world appears. He is supreme over the chaos.

Reconcile that with science however you want, that’s not the point of this post. Instead, think about the chaos of the world, the darkness through which we stumble; prejudice, hatred, war, Aleppo, Charleston, slaughters at nightclubs. We’re surrounded by chaos, and often it seems like the chaos is winning. Heck, I feel like that right now. But those are the times we need to stop, to take a step back, to look for the Spirit hovering over the chaos and to see where the dove may lead us.

Because even when things are overwhelming, the hope of new life and new creation is still there, the promise of a restart, a rest a reboot. A few chapters after the creation story and the world is flooded, Noah and his family stuck on the Ark and praying for dry land. They release a dove, which flies over the water until it finds an olive branch, a sign that the world can start again, a sign that new life still emerges from the mud and the waves, a rainbow asserting that the tempest doesn’t get the last word.

Because amid the deluge and the whirlpools, the darkness and the rolling thunder, God is still there. Even when the monsters rise up from the sea and threaten to carry us away, God remains. He doesn’t fight the monsters, he commands them, like a pet. He goes fishing for Leviathans, and when Jonah is consumed by the waves, he’s swallowed a God-sanctioned behemoth who carries him to safety. The monsters may be terrifying, but they’re not God and eventually they come to heel.

(The name Jonah, incidentally, means ‘dove’.)

And when Jesus is baptised by John, the Son of God plunges beneath the waters, and as he emerges the Spirit descends, a dove once again. Because this isn’t just a ritual, it’s a rebirth of hope, the offer of resurrection, the chaos put on notice before Jesus walks the land, driving out demons and stilling the storms. He’ll go to the Cross, yes, the monsters of Empire and Dogma dragging him to a lynching, but even then the darkness does not win; it breaks out of the tomb three days later, creation begun anew.

Sometimes we need to just cling on to that hope, even it’s by our fingertips, even if the lifeboat’s taking on water.

Much of this post was inspired by the work of Pastor Jonathan Martin, but also a sense that the darkness and chaos are creeping ever closer, leaking through the edges of the world, threads beginning to unravel. That’s how it feels, at least, and I guess that it’s easy for those emotions to take hold. Maybe there’s always chaos before a recreation, maybe we plummet into the abyss before we’re reborn. Maybe the monsters need to scratch at our door before we learn to be brave. I don’t know.

But while the sun sets and the waters roar, hope still hovers; the light shines in the darkness because the darkness cannot overcome it, and the Spirit flies over the deep in the form of a dove.

Meryl Streep, Golden Globes, Disability and the Church

I have two children with autism. They’re great kids and I love them and my wife and I want nothing but the best for them. And so it’s difficult watching their struggles, because we want them to have a full and fulfilling life and yet the barriers keep coming down and sometimes we have to just put our foot down and smash through the roadblocks that are put in place by schools, by churches, by governments, by random people in the supermarket. We try to shield and insulate our kids from that as much as possible. It’s not an easy task, it leaves you battered and bruised, and even though we’re still standing, sometimes it feels less like a great sword-wielding victory and more like the last fight in Rocky

So when Meryl Streep won a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes last night, and used her acceptable speech to attack the way in which political rhetoric legitimises bullying, particularly of people with disabilities, I’m with her all the way. Regardless of what you think of his platform, Donald Trump shouldn’t have mocked a disabled reporter last year.

Others aren’t quite so supportive. Many think she should have kept her mouth shut, not used the occasion to make what they see as a political point. Some of those people speaking out have been pastors.

 But look, this isn’t about partisan politics; I’m British, I have a whole different bunch of uninspiring political choices to make. No, this is about normalising a level of discourse in which criticising the mockery of people with disabilities has suddenly become controversial. And while that may seem to be an academic issue in the rarefied atmosphere of Twitter or Hollywood, on the ground it just continues to poison a culture that already gives less of a damn about disabilities than it likes to think it does.

That’s why it’s difficult to watch the Church cave into this sort of thinking. It’s already a struggle for many people with disabilities, and their families, to be part of church communities for a whole range of issues, many of which I’ve blogged about here. This can be a failure to offer the necessary practical and emotional support that’s needed, or a failure to communicate effectively, or criticism and infantilising of those with learning difficulties. That’s within the church: outside the church, things aren’t pretty either. PWD face regular assaults on their dignity, their fundamental worth as human beings is underappreciated. Trump’s mockery of Serge Kovaleski is part of that culture; yes, it’s horrifying to see this take place as part of a political rally, but let’s not kid ourselves, this happens every day.

So the Church needs to take a stand here, and as the public faces of our congregations, we need pastors to lead on this. Because it’s easy to dismiss Meryl Streep’s comments as the privileged voice of rich and successful Hollywood, but if you, as pastor, have a book deal and a megachurch and a regular invitation to the offices of political representatives, then you too are privileged, you too have a voice. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, provided the voice you use sounds like Jesus.

That’s the thing about the Church. It’s not here to sound like Democrats or Republicans, it’s not here to sound like Meryl Streep or Donald Trump. It’s here to sound like Jesus, it’s here to act like Jesus, and that means treating people with disabilities – and yes, everyone else – with compassion and grace. You want to discuss policy? Fine. You want to disagree? That’s okay. But don’t punch down, never punch down, never hold the coats while others are bullying, because that’s when our mission on Earth becomes fatally compromised. Normalise the indefensible and your church dies, even if the pews are still packed, even if the bank account’s still healthy. The Spirit moves somewhere else; the Glory departs the Temple; Jesus hangs out on the outside with the tax collectors and the disabled people.

Many people with disabilities find church difficult. It’s as simple with that. But if you have authority in a congregation, then you have the ability to do something about that. Your words can build up someone spiritual life and their inclusion in the wider Body of Christ, or they can just add to the impression that disabled people aren’t respected, aren’t valued, aren’t important. You have the ability to change and influence that culture. And I’m not asking you to agree with Meryl Streep’s politics, I’m asking you to hear her words about how people are treated, how people may feel, and think about how that impacts those under your pastoral care, or those who don’t come to your church because the light you give out doesn’t reach as far as people with disabilities.

Your choice. Your call. Go for it.