Friday 25 July 2008

Bill Henson - Part 4

After three Bill Henson blog posts (see here, here and here) I decided that I had subjected myself to enough frustration over this matter and wouldn't re-visit the topic. This was until I was confronted by Elizabeth Farrelly's frustrating essay "Paint them ugly" in the Sydney Morning Herald (12-13 July). I read it while on a much-needed holiday with my wife Carmen. I tried to ignore it. But eventually, I read it and felt compelled to send a letter to the Editor (which wasn't published!). I also decided that I needed to follow up one more time with a post on Henson's art. On the same day I had a fascinating exchange with a dissenting anonymous reader in response to my third Bill Henson post (here) that dealt with the provocative Art Monthly Australia magazine cover of a naked 5 year old girl. My reading of Farrelly, my letter writing to the SMH and my engagement with the anonymous blogger all overlapped. It took all my emotional energy and much of my time across a whole day to read, respond and write my letter, and so I decided I'd leave the blog post till later. Here it is, two weeks later. The Farrelly essay was in effect an attempt to provide a serious comment that would help readers to reflect on childhood and the transition to adulthood, and specifically the way that power is often imbalanced between adults and children. She made some excellent points. But after providing three interesting vignettes on childhood and family life she attempted to take the high moral ground in relation to the Henson affair:
"The Henson affair was resolved by not being resolved. The pictures were returned, no charges laid but viewable by appointment only. For Henson, for his gallerist Ros Oxley and for any artist or gallerist tempted to show any child, ever, the message was Beware! Beware the moral majority, the expectation of niceness in art, the imposition of 'standards' - not of artistry, or craftsmanship, or skill, but of decency. Decency, in art.

Never mind that decency, in all its small-mindedness, is the very anathema of art. Or that art and pornography are virtually opposite cultural forms. Consider for a minute the questions left by the Bill Henson affair about the nature of childhood, of children and of our relationship, as adults, to them."
As one who had objected to Henson I felt I was being unfairly attacked as "small-minded", part of the "moral majority" and so on. Farrelly proceeded to make a number of basic (almost random) points:
  • "In Shakespeare's time she (i.e. 15 year old Miley Cyrus - who had been in the news that day) might have been married"
  • "We talk as though she's a child being prematurely unnaturally 'sexualised'. "
  • "Beware the moral majority"
  • "The Oz trial and the Bill Henson affair are Australia's main contribution to obscenity scandal"
  • The reaction to Henson is based on the "visceral urge to protect innocence"
  • "We all want to protect our children.... but how much of our construction of childhood as a fragile walled garden is just that - a construct?"
She then moved to a questioning of parents and their motives for wanting to protect their children. She questioned parental motives for protection. She implied that the modern over anxious parent is too concerned with parenting styles, education, nutrition, discipline etc (she has a point here). Children are not perfect she suggested and neither are parents. Where is this going you might ask? It seems that Farrelly was wanting to blame society at large and families in particular for pushing children prematurely into adulthood and never encouraging some young adults to grow up (and of course there is some truth in this). Perhaps her point was badly made and she was trying to say that Henson's work is a commentary on our times.

The frustration with an essay like Farrelly's is that in her endeavour to play to the arts community there is a confusion of liberalism and relativism that leads to a failure on her part to adequately test her own assumptions. On one hand she was acknowledging that childhood and adulthood are different, that childhood innocence should exist, that parents have a role to protect and preserve childhood etc. But at the same time she wanted to promote the relativist argument that childhood is simply a construct anyway; what's all the moral fuss. I haven't the space or the time to do a complete critique of the essay but let me finish with the following quote and one point which I think is telling :
"Hardly surprising, perhaps, that once there (i.e. retreating from the task of parenting), we emit contrary and confusing signals; hyper-parenting, worshipping and yet negotiating. Deciding 18-year-old boys are old enough to die for their country but fifteen-year-old girls are too young even to recognise the power that having curves and pouts suddenly gives them. Turning the family from a hierarchy into a mini-democracy where children, teens and adults have equal status and discipline is no longer imposed but negotiated.

What we do not see, however, is that this perpetual childhood of ours is stolen from our children. Childhood - that particular, magic vision that allows kids to walk under tables, and fly under the radar - relies on being powerless as much as being small; relies on some external, benevolent source of power. We don't see this, because we see all empowerment as good.

So we abrogate. We refuse to exercise proper power over our children, or to recognise that children segue into adulthood by emulating us. We decline to set for them the boundaries or develop in them the skills by which they might securely navigate this process. We build a society obsessed with celebrity, sex and consumption, where advertising ice-cream on the sides of buses evokes oral sex, and then we affect abhorrence at the way our teenagers practise celebrity, sex and consumption.

The costs are high. In indulging our reluctance to play the grown-up, we sacrifice our children on the altar of our own cowardice, shoving them over the top to face an adulthood from which we ourselves shrink."
Stirring words, I wish I'd written some of them. But somehow, Farrelly seems unable to reconcile her own words (with which there is much that I see as true) with her own desire to argue that Henson, gallery owners, art magazine editors and even parents should be free to use images of naked young children beyond critique and accountability. The public, including people of faith and non-faith, professional educators, parents and grandparents, doctors and health workers, social workers, psychologists, police, lawyers, even the Prime Minister of this country, has questioned the wisdom of allowing children as young as 13 years to pose naked for a photographer. Images that are then placed on public display and distributed via the Internet to the world. With one of Farrelly's points I concur - sex has power. Yes there is power that can be exercised through sexuality. Yes, we should "exercise proper power over our children". Yes, we do have a society "obsessed with celebrity, sex and consumption". Yes, young people in the years of puberty may discover their own sexuality and wish to explot it. But given Farrelly's own words, you would hope that she might see a role for others to offer children guidance in this area, beyond simply offering them freedom to choose. That's why some have questioned the use of these images - any civil society, any community, has the right to raise such matters.

The matter of power seems to be of critical importance for Farrelly and so I have three questions about power for her and other apologists for Henson. Who is in control of the power of the 13 year old girl's emerging sexuality that Henson sought to portray? Who was exploiting this emerging sexual power? And whose purposes were most served by its use?

Thursday 17 July 2008

Environmental warriors on a religious crusade?

While I am committed to environmental issues and believe that all of us must be good stewards of God's world, like many others, I am often surprised by the religious zealousness of some environmental activists. Critique of the almost apocalyptic language of the environmental movement has recently come from some surprising sources.

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald this week (12-13 July 2008) Michael Duffy penned these words:

The rhetoric surrounding global warming is drawing increasingly on notions of religion and war. As has been often noted, environmentalism in its more extreme forms is deeply appealing to those of us with a need to believe in something, but who have decided that science has killed off Christianity.

(Bob) Brown with his apocalyptic talk of cataclysm, exemplifies this. Ross Garnaut’s use of the term “diabolical” when presenting his report pressed the same button. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse certainly get a good gallop in the report, with predictions of war (geopolitical instability), famine (collapse of agricultural productivity), pestilence (dengue fever) and death (all the above, plus heat-related fatalities).

ABC TV’s political editor Chris Uhlmann, picked up on the religious element in the carbon crusade…… “One of the things that strikes me most strongly about this debate is its theological nature – and that’s essentially that we have sinned against the environment, that we are now being punished and the only way we can escape that punishment is to wear a hair shirt for the rest of our lives”

I pray that Brown, Duffy, Uhlmann and others can join the dots between human selfishness, greed, exploitation, pride, power, environmental decay, sin and rebellion against God, and perhaps read Genesis and Revelation with eyes opened by the Spirit of God. My hope is that in the midst of these difficult times when the environment is under threat, and we face significant challenges from global warming, that they might realise that science does not control the world and that God is not dead!

Just and true are your ways,
O King of the nations!
Who will not fear, O Lord, And glorify your name?
For you alone are holy. All nations will come
And worship you,
For your righteous acts
Been revealed.
(Revelation 15:3-4)

Above: Port Stephens (NSW) at dawn yesterday where I'm holidaying

Sunday 13 July 2008

Truth & the Internet 2

In the latest edition of Case magazine I explore the topic ‘Truth and the Internet’. Does the Internet change the way we learn and acquire knowledge? Does it pose a threat to truth? What are the implications for how we engage with and use the Internet for God’s purposes?

Above: Could they have had any idea of what was to come? U.S. Army Photo, number 163-12-62

In a previous post on this blog (here) I commented on the challenge of discerning the difference between truth and falsehood and the special problem that children have on the Internet (e.g. the challenge of a tree dwelling octopus!). And in an earlier post (here) I discussed the impact of new communication technology and the benefits and opportunities of the Internet for communication, learning and evangelism.

I’m a keen user of the Internet and appreciate that it is a useful tool that has great benefits for learning and communication. But I also know that it also poses threats to God’s truth and to the very definitions of truth and knowledge that shape our worldviews. In my Case article, I suggested that there are a few things that are critical if Christians are to make the Internet our servant, not our master:
  • We need to rely on God’s word and give it first priority as the source of knowledge and truth about our God and his eternal plan for his people.
  • We need to understand the interpretive communities (virtual and real) that we negotiate each day. We need to enter and participate in virtual communities with the same respect, purposes, enthusiasm and preparation with which we enter any physical community.
  • We need to test the validity, accuracy and truth of anything we find on the Internet.
a) Avoiding being shaped by the Internet

There is a danger that in embracing the Internet we may be shaped by it. The postmodern thinker lives in a world of openness, doubt and uncertainty. The Internet as a platform for information exchange is a tool that sits comfortably with relativistic and postmodern thought. Meta-narratives like the Christian gospel can so easily be dismissed as just one telling of humanity’s story, just one possible truth amongst many, or perhaps even just one story amongst many stories.

It seems obvious that a key priority to avoid being shaped into the world’s mould is for the Christian to continually place a priority on God’s word. We should use the Internet both to strengthen our faith and to share it, but we need to do so with a healthy understanding of the varied epistemologies that we will encounter. Don Carson (in The Gagging of God) rightly suggests, that in a world dominated by radical hermeneutics and deconstruction, it will take diligence to fight against the tendency to accept that all interpretations of texts are equally valid.

The Christian needs to rely on God’s word as the ultimate test of what is right and true. Christians are people who “guard [their way]” according to God’s word, “storing up” God’s word in their hearts, “meditating on” and “delighting in” his statutes (Psalm 119:9-16).

b) Take care in, and show respect for, the Cyber communities we enter

Just as we must take care with the networks of people we join in the physical world, we must take care with the cyber communities we enter. The insight that interpretive communities and status hierarchies shape the understandings and beliefs of the individual is not a new one. Jesus himself asked the religious elite of his day, “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44).

We need to understand the interpretive communities we visit, and engage in them with full understanding of the foundations on which they share their experiences and insights. Just as Christians share common beliefs based on their reading of God’s word and their understanding of it developed in interpretive communities (e.g. families, churches, Bible study groups etc), so too non-Christian networks and groups share common understandings gained as part of interpretive communities. The atheist, the Rotarian and the sceptic all share common views of the world within their communities. What is different is that Christians claim a shared understanding of the Living God and our confidence in this comes from the truth we see in God’s word. The Bible claims that God is the foundation and author of all truth and that this is focused on the person of Jesus who claimed, “I Am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:1). This truth stands above and shapes all other ‘truth’.

c) Test the validity, accuracy and truth of anything you find on the Internet

While the Internet can be useful for communicating truth, readers need to be able to assess information to judge if it is true. I continue to be amazed just as much by the inaccuracy of Internet, as I am by its comprehensiveness. Even an Oxford Press published book by a leading international scholar is to be questioned. How much more carefully should we read with discernment the words of an unknown person, representing an unknown organization, with unknown qualifications? As Howard Rheingold has pointed out, "the responsibility for determining the accuracy of texts shifted from the publisher to the reader when the functions of libraries shifted to search engines". This is not inherently bad; in fact, I see much that is good about this shift. Both children and adults need to ask themselves more questions of the content they encounter:
Who wrote this piece? What is the author's claim to expertise and knowledge in this area? From where does the writer derive his or her sources and how well regarded are such sources? What is the purpose of the writing? What are the underlying assumptions, ideology, values and worldview of the writer? How do the claims of this text match the claims of others?
Summing up

The Internet offers new possibilities and also threats. John Stackhouse points out in his excellent book “Humble Apologetics” - “If we are going to defend and commend our faith, we must do it in a new mode: with a different voice and in a different posture. Our apologetics must be humble.” This is a great challenge to me personally; both as a reader or lurker in numerous virtual communities of which I am part, or as I seek to invite others into one of my own virtual communities, such as the readership of this blog.

Above: Just one more connection! US Army photograph

Monday 7 July 2008

Bill Henson - Part 3

I've written twice previously about the Bill Henson art exhibition that featured photographs of a naked 13 year-old-girl. For overseas readers, this led to much public comment and polarised views on the merits or wrong-doing of his work. Police charges against the artist and gallery followed (Part 1 and Part 2), but recently the charges were droppped. This seems to have encouraged an art magazine to test the boundaries of public acceptability by publishing a photo of a naked 6 year-old on the front cover. The action seems to have been calculated and has sought to promote the view that use of naked photos of children is a legitimate art form.

The picture, taken in 2003 by Melbourne photographer Polixeni Papapetrou of her daughter Olympia appeared on the cover of this month's Art Monthly Australia. The edition also has other photos of naked children. The Age art critic Robert Nelson, reports that "Papapetrou's husband and father of Olympia, now 11, said the family had no regrets and the photograph was a great work of art."

I find it incomprehensible that in a civilised society that there are so many people willing to defend the action of a mother who has photographed her 6 year-old daughter naked in varied unnatural poses and has then shared them with the world. The child's father (an art critic) has supported the publication of the photos in the magazine, and has allowed the girl (now 11 years) to front the media cameras to argue the case for such artistic photos.

While the photos might well be seen by some as art, many see it as a case of child exploitation and perhaps abuse. I am saddened and at the same time outraged by the recent developments and would urge public condemnation and government action to tighten laws in this area.

The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) has pulled together a collection of recent media reports and information without making any comment. These provide further background and viewpoints.

Saturday 5 July 2008

The problem of increasingly absent parents

Nicole at '168 Hours' blogged a few days ago concerning the pressure on ‘Tween’ girls today. She made reference to a review in the Sydney Morning Herald of a book written by Maggie Hamilton – What’s happening to our girls. She made special mention of the fact that by the time girls are close to becoming teenagers both parents are working, female role models are less available (because they see their mothers less) and so some girls turn increasingly to peers.

“While this gives tween girls more freedom, many end up spending a significant amount of time on their own….As parents are frequently not around, girls turn to their peers for support. This gives young girls a lot of power over each other's lives.”

The same can be said in relation to ‘tween’ boys and fathers. There is good research evidence to suggest that there is a relationship between the time mothers and fathers spend with their children and their children' well-being. I’ve written a number of previous posts about families and time with children, including reduced time being spent by parents with their children (here), the reduction of time spent sharing meals (here), and the role of fathers (here). I also wrote in Case magazine last year concerning research concerning the impact of fathers on their children’s lives (available here).

Nicole’s post has prompted me to revisit the topic to comment a couple of things.

1. There are qualitative differences in the time fathers spend with their children

While fathers are spending slightly more time with their children than they used to, they still spend much less time than mothers, and there appear to be qualitative differences in the time spent with them. As you’d expect fathers spend less than half the hours in direct care of children under the age of 14 years. But they spend less time in all major areas of involvement:
  • Engagement – i.e. direct interactions with their children and joint activities.
  • Accessibility – i.e. being available for possible interaction in the house or even by phone.
  • Responsibility – i.e. being responsible for childcare and the resources their children need.
A study by Goldman (2005) found that when asked who they would turn to for emotional support, 23% of boys with low self-esteem said they would go to their fathers, while 44% said they would turn to their mothers. In the case of high self esteem boys, 61% would turn to fathers and 76% to their mothers. When 11 to 16 year olds were asked who they would turn to if trying to make decisions about what to do with their lives after the age of 16 years, 10% said they would turn to their fathers and 33% indicated they would talk to their mothers. The rest largely turned to peers.

What studies like the above show is that more mothers than fathers engage in experiences with their children, and particularly with their sons, that promote physical and emotional intimacy. These data also suggest that if mothers are less available for boys in the teenage years will, that this could have adverse effects, particularly when coupled with low father involvement.

2. Growing up without a father makes a big difference

Research also consistently shows that children growing up without their fathers face more difficulties and are at higher risk of low school achievement, higher unemployment after school, earlier childbearing and delinquency. Boys growing up without fathers also seem especially prone to exhibit problems as varied as gender-identity, psychosocial adjustment, and aggressiveness. Girls are also affected by father-absence, although the effects on girls may be less enduring, dramatic, and consistent than the effects on boys. The absence of mothers (increasingly), as Maggie Hamilton writes, increases the risk of problems for girls as well.

3. Fathers help boys with peer relationships

Fathers play an important role in their children's socialization and including having potential influence on their children's relationships with peers (this applies to girls and boys). Professor Ross Parke at the University of California (Riverside) has spent many years exploring mother-father differences in styles of interaction. A particular interest has been in the lessons that are learned in the family that, in turn, influence children's adaptation to peers. He has identified several sets of mediating processes that bridge the gap between the family and peer group:
  • Helping with emotional regulation and support concerning social relationships.
  • Instructing, tutoring and modelling how to interact with peers.
  • Managing their children's peer relationships through some level of control of peer contacts.
Research also suggests that fathers are important players in the development of a child’s emotional regulation and control. For both resident and nonresident fathers, active and varied involvement in their children's lives, rather than just the amount of contact and time, appears to be important. In the teenage years, strong and close relationships with resident biological fathers or stepfathers are associated with better educational, behavioral, and emotional outcomes. High involvement and closeness, appears to reduce delinquent behavior and increases emotional stability.

Research evidence continues to show what the Bible has always taught, families matter! Mothers and fathers play different but complementary roles in nurturing, teaching and guiding their children.

Other useful resources

Fatherhood Institute
Family Action Centre (Newcastle University)