Sunday 28 September 2008

Loving your neighbour's children

In a recent post on his blog titled How children bless - Part 5, Tim Adeney asked the excellent question:

"How do you feel about other people's children? Do you see them as people worthy of your time, effort, prayers and affection?"

Love your neighbour as yourself

I responded to his post because it's a question dear to my heart, and in the process I began thinking about how I was treated as a child and the impact it had on my life. Tim's question of course was directed to those in the church, and is worth asking within the church alone, but I have always felt that as Christians we are far too ready to place a fence around our concerns for others. While there is good biblical justification for the priority that parents are to give to the care, concern and spiritual growth of their children, we can easily become oblivious to the needs of our neighbours. By neighbours, I mean the broadest sense of the word, the Luke 10 sense, where Jesus challenges the expert in the law ("lawyer" ESV) who had just tried to challenge Jesus himself. You no doubt know how it unfolds; the lawyer asks, "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus responds by asking him "what is written in the Law?" The lawyer then quotes from Leviticus 19:8 - we are to "Love your neighbour as yourself." Jesus then responds with the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan and makes it clear for the lawyer that the extent of his love and concern for others should extend beyond his family and fellow Jews even to a stranger (Luke 10:25-37), in fact in other places Jesus extends this even further - "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:43-45).

Some decent men in my life

When I reflect on my first 31 years as a non-believer and atheist, I can identify a number of decent men who took an interest in me; who saw me as their 'neighbour'. These were men who demonstrated in the richest sense of Jesus parable what it is to be a neighbour to other people's children. I'll share how just two of them did it.

There was Paul, the owner of the local slot car track and pinball hall. As a young teenager I would spend up to 25 hours per week at the slot car track - playing pinball machines, racing and repairing slot cars, messing around and hanging over the counter talking to Paul about sport, cars, girls and life in general. Paul had his own wife and two children and his mother-in-law living with him. He was a devoted husband and father even though like most small business owners he worked long hours. He was always quick to give advice - "Don't talk like that!" "Don't you need to go home to do some school work?" "Do your parents know that you're here so late?" "What are you going to do with yourself when you leave school?" "One day I want to be able to tell people that you're an engineer not unemployed."

There was Mr Campbell my 4th grade teacher. I was a grubby and chubby little kid who would try to sit at the back of the room, with the seat out of my hand-me-down pants and a neglected appearance that was brought to the attention of DOCs on at least one occasion. He was the first teacher who recognised some things in me that others had missed. He took an interest in me in and out of the classroom. He would talk with me in the playground when I drifted towards him. He would encourage me inside the classroom, calling on me to answer questions when my hand didn't go up, setting me work that would challenge me, talking patiently with me when I messed up, and looking for ways to challenge me. He gave me several jobs. One of them was to put me in charge of the brand new school aquarium with tropical fish. I'd never seen tropical fish before. I'd seen goldfish and the mullet I caught from the creek, but never fish like this. I was entrusted with the only local source of knowledge "An introduction to caring for tropical fish" and encouraged to take care of them; and I did with great success. Eventually, he gave me my first public speaking opportunity, a talk I delivered on tropical fish to the class. I was now an expert on something.

There were other people (a baseball coach, a cricket coach, a high school geography teacher, the father of one of my closest mates) who also demonstrated that they were concerned for me and that they were interested in my life and my welfare. None of these men were Christians, but each was a decent man and each had a significant impact on my life, second only perhaps to that the only significant Christian influence, my grandfather. While God was to use a variety of Christians later in my life (between the ages 20-31) building on it my Grandfather's godly example, God also used these few decent men in my formative years.

The challenge

For me the challenge as a Christian is this. If God can use a few decent men who didn't know him or his eternal purposes, how much more can God use godly Christian men in the lives of their neighbour's children? Furthermore, how available am I to be used in similar ways? In fact, how can I ensure that I am seeking to be used by God in this way? Am I even conscious that God might use me this way? Of course, I know that God expects me to do more than live alongside people, he wants me to share my faith in Christ with others. But how seriously do I take to heart that I am to love my neighbour as myself? And perish the thought, am I so bound up with caring for my own nuclear family that I have no time or interest in my neighbours (young and old)?

There isn't space to go into much detail, but my personal challenge, and one I hope readers will share, is for each of us to do a quick assessment of the type of neighbour we are to the other families even in our street or apartment block. Of course for this to happen, our lives need to intersect with their lives in some way. How can we make this happen? This will vary depending on our circumstances - whether young or old, married or single, male or female etc. If for example, you have a young family, you have a great opportunity to involve yourself in other people's lives. When my children were growing up my wife and I had wonderful opportunities to be involved with other families. For us there were three areas where we had numerous opportunities outside the church:
  • Through school - we got to know parents and children at bus stops, in the playground, at school events and in the community. In one street where we lived our house was an open house for all 43 children in the street (42 of whom were girls!).
  • Through sporting teams - my daughters played sport summer and winter in the primary school years and generally I ended up coaching their teams. As a result, I had opportunities to know the team members and their families.
  • Through other out-of-school activities like dance classes and music lessons.

I have no idea what influence my wife and I had in these years but I do know that we were enriched by these opportunities, and that we began to develop a concern for these children and their families. With this came opportunities for prayer and for us to share our faith. As well, our own daughters saw us relating to other children, which I'm sure was helpful for them in the formative years of their faith.

A related post

I have written about the importance of communities being concerned about children more generally in a previous post titled "Other people's children"

Monday 22 September 2008

The debate about teaching Australian literature: What's it about?

Most newspapers have carried reports in recent days about the response of the NSW English Teaching Association (ETA) to the NSW Board of Studies review of the English Curriculum designed to strengthen Australian literature content.

The ETA response to the Board drew heavy criticism from Miranda Devine writing in the Sydney Morning Herald (20-21 September, 2008). Devine provocatively titled her piece "English teachers have lost the plot". She shared quotes from the submission including the following:

"The ETA opposes the selective nomination of some types of text as this implies hierarchies in generic form and medium rather than in the quality of the texts themselves."

The association is "most concerned at the use of the term 'literature' [and the] privileging of 'print medium'. "

Devine rightly questions why the ETA isn't taking the position of being the strongest defender of the book, whereas the ETA seems to be concerned to ensure that new technology and diverse new narrative forms are incorporated into the curriculum in the interests of cultural relevance and the interest and motivation of students. They are positioned as the defenders of all children.

Parents might wonder what this debate really is all about. The Board of Studies review appears to have been motivated by a perception that the balance between literature and other textual forms, including new media, may well have shifted in recent times to the detriment of Australian literature. This is certainly a perception mirrored by some parents, academics, public intellectuals etc. Might it be possible that in teachers' quest to recognise that students encounter many new textual forms in this increasingly digital age that they have given insufficient emphasis to traditional forms such as the novel, the play and the poem? It seems a fair question. But of course it's a loaded one, for this isn't simply about the balance of textual forms in the curriculum, this is a debate framed by epistemology and even ideology.

What are the key issues?

There are a number of questions being implicitly and explicitly explored:
  • What should be the balance of textual forms in the curriculum? How do we balance the need to teach children about written language through traditional forms such as the novel, the play and the poem, with new media and textual forms such as the graphic novel (see my previous post on an example of this literary form), animated poetry, hypertext, and interactive digital narratives (see for example the work of digital authors like Chris Joseph)?
  • How broadly should we define literature? Should it be limited to the print medium or broad enough to embrace new technological forms?
  • How much of this literature should be Australian?
  • How should the literature be chosen? Is there a need to ensure that great texts are taught as part of educating children about history and cultural traditions? Should teachers have more say in such decisions, making choices based on the student population in the school and the desire to acknowledge cultural pluralism, or less?
  • What is the right balance of pedagogical approach when encouraging students to read, view and engage with texts? How do we balance written responses such as the essay with other more creative options such as imaginative recreation, drama, art etc?
The extreme ends of the debate

While there is great variation in the positions being taken by teachers, academics, media commentators and education officials, there are two extreme ends to the continuum of views. In one corner we have some who would want to reinstate a cannon of set texts that all students would study, and who would remove any pedagogical ‘dodgy’ stuff like reader response, imaginative re-creation and the like. No new media here, and leave all that video gaming, blogging, twitting, zinging, web surfing and the like at home. Just interpret the texts, work out what the author meant to communicate and reproduce it on demand. In the other corner we have a new generation of technological zealots who view with suspicion any classic novel or poem more than 20 years old, most of the great plays, all Australian colonial poetry and so on. Converts to French philosophers like Derrida and Foucault, relativists who see no meaning in the text, open-mouthed worshippers of new technology; a technology that they see as providing endless possibilities for creating hypertextual and multimodal meanings that will create a more pluralistic and fairer world, and that will put an end to the white/male/European canon of literature seen as a tool of oppression.

I'm being deliberately provocative above to make a point. There are few people at the extreme ends of this continuum (but I know some in each), however unfortunately, when legitimate questions are asked about education, there is a tendency for the discussion to be polarised to such an extent that no healthy debate can occur. I sit at neither end of this continuum but I do have some questions and concerns about the English curriculum. I question Devine's disparaging comments about teachers who I know are professional and have the interests of children at heart, and who deliver a quality of education that is the envy of much of the world. But at the same time, I'm tired of teachers not being prepared to listen to community concerns when they arise, or to necessarily seek evidence-based support for their defence of what they see as attacks. Schools serve the community; they are created for the education of children and must be responsive to community concerns.

At the base of the argument - Epistemology

While we know that the Internet offers us amazing new possibilities for communication and the sharing of information and knowledge (see the article in Case #15 by Hadley and Horne), we still don’t know a lot about the impact it has on children’s ability to learn and communicate, let alone, whether it helps or hinders reading and writing of traditional written language forms such as the book. We know even less about the impact of some of the more creative multimodal forms such as the electronic literature, multimedia and interactive art, on students as learners. We do know a bit about the impact of gaming and there is cause for concern (here). We also need to ask what impact might new technological forms of communication and 'literature' have on culture, community, relationships and so on? My view is that we must embrace new technologies but only with caution and not at the expense of traditional written language forms.

The public debate in the media, at its heart, is an epistemological argument. Underpinning the response from the English Teaching Association is a foundational and central commitment to pluralism and Deconstruction, and a failure to accept that not everyone shares this position. Many people still believe that there is such a thing as knowable truth; I'm one of them. It is not that the ETA has lost respect for the book and literature (as Devine seems to suggest) but that they are supporting a different balance of traditional texts and new media. And this is at the heart of much of the public criticism of English teaching.

Pluralism, Deconstruction & Postmodernism

Part of the attractiveness of the Internet and new media for some, is that it not only demonstrates Empirical Pluralism (i.e. there is obvious diversity in our world in race, value systems, language, culture and religion) which cannot be denied, but it is also home to ‘cherished pluralism’ (i.e. many who don’t just accept the diversity but celebrate and praise it; at times blindly). Hermeneutical pluralism assumes that objective truth is not achievable, and that meaning resides in the interpreter (the reader, the viewer, the web surfer), not in the text. And of the course the Internet offers potential for new narrative forms that merge text, image, video, hyper text, interaction and so on, all of which reinforces the place of the reader over the author.

Advocates of Deconstruction such as Jacques Derrida and others, argue that words are self-limiting, because words simply refer to other words. Derrida claimed that meaning is locked within the knower, not the text. Hence, language cannot convey objective truth about objective reality. It is a small step from such claims to what we would broadly call postmodernism which asserts that truth reflects who you are; it is in the mind of the beholder - ‘that might be true for you, but not for me’. You should be able to hear in this the echo of debates about the place of reader response and creative re-creation over the essay and other more traditional forms of response to literature.

What deconstructive postmodernism does is to shift the focus from the author and the text to the reader and his or her context. Deconstructionists argue that we do not go to a text to gain meaning (let alone truth that does not exist), but rather to make meaning, which of course can only be relative. Such a view of reading that locates meaning in the knower reflects a view of epistemology that sees truth as relative and the written word as a tool of oppression for some and empowerment for others (and of course there is truth in the argument concerning the word and power relationships).

The dangers and, a way forward?

While Barthes wrote of the ‘death of the author’ over forty years ago, and one could hardly claim that the Internet is responsible for the removal of the author from textual considerations, the Internet continues to add weight to this shift from authorial and textual power to the reader and their interpretive community. In particular, the Internet has done much to negate individual authorship in favour of shared authorship. Phenomena such as Wikipedia make it increasingly difficult to identify a single author. An Internet Encyclopaedia that can be changed instantly as the world changes has a number of advantages. But an encyclopaedia written by authors who are self-selected, unknown and faceless must raise questions about the potential accuracy of the information it shares. Wikipedia is the perfect pallet for postmodernism.

Hopefully even the extreme ends of this debate about English can see the potential benefits of the Internet; and I have no doubt that the embracing of it by teachers is motivated by what they see as in the interests of children. But can we also see the dangers? What might be lost if we get the balance wrong between new interactive media and written language? What place does content, indeed (dare I say it!) even truth have in the school curriculum? How vital is it that our children have the chance to read at least some of the great literature of the past as well as the very best of contemporary literature? How do we balance this against a desire to embrace new digital possibilities? How do we ensure that English teachers continue to be teachers and champions of written language (including literature), something that was probably underpinning Devine’s provocative criticisms?

Other resources and posts

1. I have covered the issue of Truth and the Internet here and here

2. My Case article offers more detailed philosophical and theological arguments concerning this topic and reference to it can be found here.

3. I have written previously about "Writing, communication, technology and relationships" here.

Monday 15 September 2008

God and the Artist - Trevor Hart talks online

Recently, Professor Trevor Hart presented the 2008 New College Lectures in Sydney at the University of New South Wales. I have already reported on his three excellent talks and have provided summaries on this blog (here). New College has now posted the MP3 files of all three lectures for free download. The links for all downloads are below.

Tuesday 2 September
The lunatic, the lover and the poet': divine copyright and the dangers of 'strong imagination'

Wednesday 3 September
The 'heart of man' and the 'mind of the maker': Tolkien and Sayers on imagination and human artistry

Thursday 4 September
Givenness, grace, and gratitude: creation, artistry and eucharist

Thursday 11 September 2008

The benefits of failure

We live in a world where (as the saying goes) "everyone loves a winner, nobody likes a loser". In fact one of the most common words of derision for younger generations is "loser", or as they put it, "you loser!" Media and advertising constantly promote the view that life will be all the richer and rewarding if we can ensure that we're winners - "winners are grinners!" And yet, we know that people also talk about learning from their mistakes. Failed businesses, failed relationships, failed exams and so on, can all lead us to reflect on ideas that didn't work, motivations that sold us short, errors we have made in relationships, priorities that were all wrong and paths we should have avoided. In every instance of failure there is also an opportunity in which to learn.

The work of the 'Review of the National Innovation System' was handed down yesterday - Venturous Australia (this warrants its own post later) - and I don't think the 'f word' (failure!) was anywhere to be seen. More's the pity because I suspect that failure is foundational to innovation, success, wealth, and life's ultimate fulfilment. It's part of the blueprint for an innovative and successful nation, and yet the report doesn't give much consideration to failure, one of life's best teachers.

However, the world's most successful children's authors, J.K. Rowling, seems to understand from experience that failure has benefits. In a graduation address at Harvard University on the 5th June 2008, she had the good sense when speaking to one of the most talented and privileged group of young minds in the world, to speak about the benefits of failure. In choosing to do this she acknowledged that they were a group not "not very well-acquainted with failure". As a school leaver she had just wanted to write novels, and was ready to study English at university. But her parents had other more practical ideas and urged her to pursue a vocational degree. She compromised and agreed to study Modern Languages, but as soon as she was dropped off at University, she transferred to Classics. In her address she went on to share her experience of failure after university and the role that imagination played in this phase of her life.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life."

Rowling went on to share how failure taught her many things:
  • It taught her things about herself - about her strong will, discipline, friends
  • She became more secure in her ability to survive
  • She learned that life is "difficult and complicated and beyond anyone's control...."
All of this sounds almost biblical. Unlike Venturing Australia, the Bible talks a lot about failure, although its counterpoint to failure is more often restoration, not simply success.

A study of the Bible will reveal that many of the central and best-known figures in the Bible experienced failure in life. Abraham, Moses, Elijah, David, Solomon, Peter and Paul, to name a few. Elijah after taking on four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and four hundred prophets of Asherah at Mount Carmel, and defeating them in a spiritual contest that saw God perform great miracles through him, is just a short while later under a broom tree in deep depression, praying to God that he might die (1 Kings 18-19). David was plucked from being a shepherd boy to defeat Goliath, became a hero to his nation, and eventually king of Israel (1 Samuel 16). The man acknowledged by God as “a man after my own heart” (1 Sam 13:14) went on to fail badly. He succumbed to sin and ended up engaging in lust, deception, adultery and murder (2 Samuel 11). The Apostle Peter boldly declared his loyalty and commitment to Jesus, but failed by denying that he knew him three times within moments of his death. I could go on, but hopefully we all get the point. The Bible has many examples of God’s people failing and yet later being restored and going on to fulfil God’s purpose for their lives. Each failed at some point in their lives, sometimes in spectacular fashion, and often after a triumph. But their failures were not the end of their stories and did not stop them from continuing to serve God. Each of these people not only recovered from their failure, they grew as a result of it. They learned from their failure, confessed sins to God, and were often able to be used in even mightier ways.

While J.K. Rowling did not set out to speak of failure due to sin, nor was she talking of restoration to a relationship with God, there are clear parallels. Life will involve successes, and failures. We learn from both, but in a profound sense, it is failure, or the recognition of one’s frailty and the search for new hope and direction, that has a more significant impact on shaping us and making us better people. The Bible of course points to our need to accept that we can never ‘succeed’ on our own. Life’s most significant goal is to acknowledge God, accept the forgiveness offered through the death of Christ (1 Peter 3:18) and seek to honour and serve him all the days of our lives. And the prize is out of this world (John 3:36)! Far beyond fame, money and success in this life.

I'm glad that J.K. Rowling confronted the graduates at Harvard with the benefits of failure. I wonder how we might factor failure into our thinking a bit more, and in particular, into our teaching and nurturing of our children. I want to ask parents who read this blog five simple questions:

How often do you stress success to your children, and how does this compare in frequency and intensity with discussions of failure?
How often have you shared with your children that you fail at times?
How does the school where your children attend talk about failure?
How much are your goals for your children shaped by a desire for success in worldly terms?
How do you try to help them understand that their 'good' (in Romans 8:28 terms), is just as much about how they cope with and respond to failure rather than just success?

I could go on to frame questions for pastors and teachers in the church and leaders of all kinds. And believe me, I ask myself questions like these regularly. A full understanding of how God uses failure to teach us is important. We tend to focus on spectacular moral failures when we do consider failure, but I think there is great benefit in considering failure more broadly within the context of God's redemptive work in people's lives.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

"For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered."

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:35-39).

The text of J.K. Rowling's address can be found here.

Friday 5 September 2008

God and the artist - Part 3

New College (the home of CASE) has an annual public lecture series, which I convene each year with two fellow Trustees Bishop Rob Forsyth and Professor Christine Alexander. The Lectures are in their 22nd year and this year occurred on the 2-5 September 2008. Their purpose is to bring together the college residents, University, Church and wider community to discuss significant issues of common concern. This year the theme is God and the Artist: Human creativity in theological perspective and our lecture is Professor Trevor Hart from the University of St Andrews, Scotland.

The third lecture delivered last night was:

“Givenness, grace and gratitude: creation, artistry and eucharist”

This post is my summary of what Professor had to say. While I have tried to faithfully report the summary of the lecture, and present his views (not necessarily mine), and I have used many direct quotes, any inaccuracies are my responsibility not those of Professor Hart. The asides in brackets are some of my reflections and questions.


Professor Hart’s third lecture focussed again on the work of a few key scholars but asked broader and more complex questions than on any night, and for me (at least) it raised more questions than on previous nights. He started by suggesting that what is lacking in the Christian church’s ability to make sense of the arts and to see it as an important and relevant part of the human condition, “Is any positive theological evaluation of the arts and human artistry as something good and important in their own right.” He returned to Sayers in taking the discussion further and acknowledged some common ground in her lament that for centuries the church had not developed a proper Christian aesthetic that “…took seriously and engaged directly with core creedal claims of Christian faith in the world.” Of course while valiant, her attempt Professor Hart suggested failed in finding a way towards seeing the arts as something essential rather than peripheral to what it means to be human (Lecture 1 provided a critique of her attempt).

The rest of the lecture was devoted to Professor Hart taking us further in this direction. He used two writers to help him, C.S. Lewis and Rowan Williams.

C.S. Lewis - Not a ringing endorsement

C.S. Lewis he suggested offers at best “a fairly modest” defence of the place of the arts. He recounted how Lewis who after bringing a fairly ‘high culture’ view of the arts to his conversion to Christianity later in life, had to reconcile where he’d been in seeking almost to worship creative works, to knowing from the Scriptures that his chief end was to glorify God and enjoy him forever, not Mozart, indeed, not anything else. Lewis sought to find reasons from the Scriptures to support the active participation of Christians in the arts, and concluded that he could find little to support his view from the New Testament, and only a modest list of more general reasons to affirm the arts; reasons of pecuniary worth; their place as part of our engagement in the world as ‘salt and light’; their role in enjoyment; culture as a pre-evangelistic device; and one more way to glorify God (no more worthy than the way the charwoman did it, but no less). He suggested that it was a positive account of the place of art in the church, but not a ringing endorsement and not far on the path to a theology of the arts or a Christian aesthetic.

Rowan Williams -"Artistry as value added"

Next Professor Hart turned to Rowan William’s book “Grace and necessity: Reflections on Art and Love”. Williams he suggests offers a more positive account. Williams suggests that God created the world out of his goodness and gave to us a world pregnant with potential, brimming, teeming with as yet undisclosed possibilities and meanings….crying out for us not to stand back and appreciate its existing aesthetic charms like a viewer….but to roll up our sleeves, wade-in, and get our hands dirty in taking what God has given and bringing more to birth from its potential. This Professor Hart suggested is an “open givenness” one with boundaries, constraints and trajectories of possibility, but “leaving plenty for us to do in and with the world”.

Williams notion is of an ‘unfinished’ world but surely Scripture teaches that it is a world subject to decay that will be replaced with a new earth (as well as anew heaven) when Christ returns in his glory. [An Aside: For me this raised lots of questions, I need to read Williams to see how he derives his view from Scripture; his notion that there is a ‘finishing’ to do now with us as participants? How does he get from man’s place in Genesis as stewards of this world subject to God’s curse to one of adding to creation? How does he justify the notion of us taking the world as we find it and through working it “…hand it back enhanced, ‘improved upon’, adding value to it rather than devaluing it, granting it something more and something better than was there in the first place.” How do Rowan William's ideas sit with Tolkien’s notion of man as “sub-creators”? And how do we avoid the path that Sayers and others slide down towards a view of man as co-creators, where too much is assumed of mere humanity, mere specks of dust?]

Professor Hart then visited the work of Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, who writes of mankind as “partners in the work of creation”. [An Aside: Is this a bridge too far?] Professor Hart helpfully pointed out that such arguments (for him at least) must not go too far – “the enhancements or developments that we contribute can only ever be ones lying within the purview of God’s sovereign vision.” He continues “It’s not that God somehow needs us to do this, but that he chooses to make creative creatures whom he then calls to do it, fulfilling their own creaturely nature by their active engagement with a world the possibilities and richness of which are still unfolding and being fashioned, by human hands as well as by the movement of God’s Creative Spirit in the world.”

Artistry as obedience

Hart then moved to artistry as a form of obedience. He suggested that as a response to the divine call to human beings to work creatively with the world and to offer it back with value added, artistry is a form of obedience. In citing Williams he suggested that in obedience we are to respectfully and responsibly work with the creation God has given us, which respects the materials God has given us, and which “pursues an artistic vision in accordance with the shape and tenor of God’s own vision for the world, and those possibilities intrinsic within it which are for its blessing rather than distortions or abuses of it.”

[An aside: The notion of artistry as a form of obedience was helpful. For me this at least positions the intent of the artist as ideally aligned with God’s purposes. But this raised a question for me: how do we ensure that purposes and intent of man relate to the sovereign intent of God; and how easily are they misaligned, and what is the consequence? Surely, sin. This in itself helps me with my ongoing debate concerning Bill Henson’s photographic work – brilliant in technique but surely inappropriate in content and perhaps even in purpose. A struggle at this point – how far, in the light of Scripture, can we push this point? Are we not close to making Sayer’s mistake of suggesting that God needs us to be creative? Surely, no act of human creativity can impede or advance God’s sovereign Kingdom purposes. Scripture does guide us towards areas where God expects obedience from us, for example, in making his Son known, “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). But for me a question still to be answered is where in Scripture are we commended in obedience towards creative artistry? Lewis clearly struggled with this, hence his seemingly ‘soft’ justifications (e.g. art as work; art for evangelism etc). Can our creative efforts point others towards our Creator God; can they bring glory and honour to his name? I think so. I am sure that the musician and the artist can argue this case and I have argued myself for the role that literature can play here. But are they just helpful and good, or are they required? I support the former but am struggling to see the Scriptural evidence to support the latter.]

"Arts, grace and gratuity"

Professor Hart then suggested “arts’ enhancement of the world belongs decisively within the logic of economy of ‘grace’. We take and transform things and offer them back, not because it serves some human need to do so….but because, as an act of sheer gratuity, it seems right, good, fitting to do so.” Art in this sense is inherently eucharistic, a gift freely offered in thanksgiving, “a gift freely offered in thanksgiving, because the one who gives it has him or herself first freely received.” [An aside: Once again, I suspect that our musicians could identify this purpose as central to what they do when they make and perform music.] Professor Hart then considered the possibility that even those outside the Kingdom of God might be used of God through their creative activities and suggested that they could.

A Trinitarian account

He then turned from William’s attempts, which he suggested do not go far enough, to Sayer’s once again to revisit a Trinitarian account of Human artistry. Can human creativity and the arts be grounded in the Christian doctrine of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

Of particular interest to me in his analysis here was his discussion of the distinction between God’s ‘creative’ action in calling the world into existence and his “sustaining or preserving of that same world, holding it in being from moment to moment.” But he suggested that God’s ongoing work should not be seen just as sustaining what he had created, but of “drawing out” establishing a set of possibilities for flourishing and enrichment, the revealing of things hidden in the depths of creation as potential futures….”. This he suggested does not exclude our participation but includes our responsible participation.

Professor Hart then moved to Jurgen Moltmann’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit whose concern he suggested is not just “….the generation of faith and the inner lives of believers, but with the sanctification of the creation, establishing the forces of life and resisting death, and drawing ‘all things’ into conformity with the character of their maker.” He suggested that again human creativity is an enhancement and enrichment of the given world.

He then moved back to look at the work of Spirit with the Son. Jesus taking on flesh, assuming “our fallen nature in order to refashion it, putting to death in it all that is unworthy of God’s holiness, and establishing in it, all that reflects that same holiness.”

[An aside: While this notion correctly accommodates the sense of ongoing sanctification in the lives of believers, there is obviously a need to keep in balance Christ's work in our redemption and justification at the point of acceptance of Christ. While Hart didn't suggest otherwise, any Trinitarian theology of the arts needs to start with the redeeming grace of God in sending his own Son in human form to become an atoning sacrifice; it must consider the fullness of Christ's work]

Professor Hart then posed the question, is not the whole life of Jesus (conception, birth, baptism, ministry, death, ascension and return) “one long creative and artistic engagement”? Hart asked the question “is what…the Church celebrates week by week in its liturgies and proclaim in its missionary activities” artistry?

The end times

Finally, Professor Hart looked at the end times. He started in Lecture 1 with Genesis and ended with Revelation. He reminded us that “the world as we find it is in an ambiguous state – created, and reflecting the goodness of its origination with God, yet fallen, and reflecting the distorting presence within it of sin and evil and death, a condition from which it requires finally to be rescued. No amount of ‘enhancement’ or ‘enrichment’ or ‘added value’ will do. Something much more radical is called for and, by faith, hoped for.” There will be a new heaven and a new earth (Is 65; Rev 21:1, 5). And the one seated on the throne says “See, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5). Here Professor Hart suggests there is radical newness which only God can establish, there is a balance of “discontinuity with one of continuity”. It is finished Jesus cried at the Cross, Sin and death are defeated, the kingdom is at hand, and yet it is still to finally come. In the meantime he suggests there “is a history of transformation and redeeming renewal of the world to be lived out” and artistic and imagination endeavour has a place in this.

This has been an excellent series of talks which we may publish at some future date. As well, Professor Hart is working on a larger book that addresses the them of the lectures. I appreciated his generosity in sharing his ideas, his work in progress so to speak. It has been a stimulating week.

You can find all three summaries of the Lectures via this one link here.

Please note that the full text of the lectures plus MP3 files should be posted by the end of next week.

Thursday 4 September 2008

God and the Artist - Part 2

New College (which established CASE) has an annual public lecture series each year, which I convene. The Lectures are in their 22nd year and are on each evening (2-5 September 2008). Their purpose is to bring together the college residents, University, Church and wider community to discuss significant issues of common concern. This year the theme is God and the Artist: Human creativity in theological perspective and our lecture is Professor Trevor Hart from the University of St Andrews, Scotland.

The second lecture delivered last night was titled"

The ‘heart of man’ and the ‘mind of the maker’: Tolkien and Sayers on imagination and human artistry

This post is my summary of what Professor had to say. While I have tried to faithfully report the summary of the lecture, and present his views (not necessarily mine), and I have used many direct quotes, any inaccuracies are my responsibility not those of Professor Hart.

Sayers work

Last night he focussed our attention on the work of two writers Tolkien and Sayers in his attempt to advance his theology of artistic creativity and imagination. He started his analysis on Sayers with her play “The Zeal of Thy House” that she wrote for the Canterbury Festival in 1937 – a work that was to be a celebration of artists and craftsmen. In her writing of this play centred on the rebuilding of the church’s choir in the late 12th century - and using the French architect William of Sens (chosen to undertake the work) as the protagonist - she “paints a picture of human artistry and craftsmanship as at the very least a spiritual vocation equivalent to others, and at best something much more significant than that.” Much of his discussion centred on a final speech to the audience by the Archangel Michael in “The Zeal of Thy House” and Sayers popular wartime classic “The Mind of the Maker” (1941).

Sayers like others before her used the doctrine of the Trinity as a metaphor to create a conception of the place of the artist relative to their creator. She described the book as ‘three books’ – the ‘idea’ of the book, the ‘energy’ or birth of the idea, and the ‘Power’ or the impact of the work as it is read. This is a work of skilled apologetics that goes much further. Hart suggested that what her work offers is a “distinctive theology of the creation of human beings in the image and likeness of God. To be human, to correspond to God humanly, is above all else to be creative and thereby to ‘image’ God’s won Trinitarian being.” “Creativeness… was for Sayers the secret to the Cosmos, the fundamental pattern of personal existence…to be human according to Sayers was not only to be homo sapiens, but homo faber – man the maker”.

Professor Hart offered a brief and partial critique of the problems with Sayers theology and aesthetics. First, as C.S. Lewis reminder her, “there is an unbridgeable gulf of sorts between God and the world he has made, between the ‘created’ and the ‘uncreated’. He reminded Sayers that any analogies we use to think and speak of God must therefore tremble at the temerity of their own approach to what is finally a holy mystery and must remain so. Second, Sayers picture of God’s eternal Trinitarian being is of a specific sort, (which Hart suggests is probably influenced by St Augustine and Karl Barth); one that does not view the Trinity as three divine ‘persons’ in relation to one another, but aspects or modes of existence of one divine person. Third, Sayers’ premise that the creative act can occur wholly within the mind of the maker is problematic (even for literature), but moreso for music and art. Fourth, Sayers offers, “a highly individualist account overlooking the importance of social and communal factors vital to the facilitation of creativity” - as Nicholas Wolterstorff has reminded us. Finally, it needs to be noted that Sayers’ own rendering of Trinitarian notion of “Idea, Energy and Power’ is developed (as Hart points out) with virtually no reference to Christian Scripture.

Sayers view on Creativity

Before moving to Tolkien Hart finished with an analysis of how Sayers defined the hallmarks of creativity. What does creativity look like? He offered three insights from her work. First, “being creative involves bringing something new into the world God has made, something which was not there before. At the level of the materials used she accepts that there is a finite amount, we don’t add to God’s creation. But at the level of imagination, “she insists that there is no such finite constraint – pattern, form and meaning do not belong to the inventory of the flesh.” For Sayers the artist comes closest to the creation ‘out of nothing’ that the Bible teaches is the prerogative of God himself.

Second, “to be creative is to exercise God-given freedom, refusing to be constrained by the apparent limits of givenness….pushing beyond the thresholds of the familiar….”. It is a freedom within rather from the divinely ordained potentialities and constraints of the world.

Third, “creativity adds value to the world. It enhances and enriches, taking the world as it finds it, and handing it back transformed for the better through a supererogatory surplus of care and attention.”


Professor Hart then turned to Tolkien. Using Tolkien’s literature and writing about literature as backdrop he unpacked Tolkien’s concept of artistry as ‘sub-creation’. Tolkien’s first foray into myth was his work “The Music of the Ainur” in which a recount is given of how God created first a race of angelic beings (the Ainur or Valar) as participants in fashioning of Middle-earth. Unlike the biblical creation myth, “The music of the Ainur” is not just about God’s creativity, but equally ours’. The Ainur are “….‘sub-creators’ not co-creators. There is a subordinate modality of creative action, yet one that is nonetheless, thoroughly creative.” Tolkien suggests that “the ‘many hues’ which adorn the world and render it beautiful….must be refracted through our sub-creative act” for his myth is concerned with human artistry.

Professor Hart suggested, “…human art is in some sense a matter of assisting in our turn, in making our world.” Drawing on Tolkien he suggests that the desire that drives creativity (and which can be corrupted as we see in William of See) is a “sort of insatiability”, but one which has the good and the free flourishing of its object (Tolkien calls this ‘Primary Reality’) as its chief concern. “The artist is no slave to reality, but her lover.” If art is born out of unsatisfied desire it is kindled and sustained by a God-given imagination. For Tolkien, “ be human is to be (and called to be) creative with respect to God’s world.”

Building on Tolkien’s thesis Professor Hart unpacked the concept of a “secondary” or alternative world (or Sidney’s “Another nature” as discussed in Lecture 1). When authors like me use titles like “Other Worlds: The endless possibilities of literature” what is implied and how does a theology of the arts offer explanatory help. Hart points out that Tolkien does not mean an entirely alternative cosmos (though Middle-earth seems to go close to this), he means instead the particular object or ‘work’ which the artist fashions. Tolkien does not seek to blur the boundaries between reality and unreality. He draws a clear distinction between the “Primary World” and the world of the story, “….something the artist expects us to take for granted.” While being expected to be citizens of the Primary World “…we are expected to permit ourselves to be drawn imaginatively across the threshold between fact and fiction, and to become temporary indwellers of another world….”

Secondary belief is appropriate and expected with respect to a Secondary World “…of which we become, temporarily, citizens by virtue of some sub-creator’s art. The capacity to engender it, indeed, is, for Tolkien, what differentiates art from mere ‘imagination’ at all.”

Hart’s last interesting twist to his explanation of Tolkien’s work comes with his discussion of ownership of the these secondary worlds and secondary belief within them, a point at which there is clear diversion from Sayers. Tolkien had a particular view of the status of an artistic world, he knew that “…he wasn’t the creator of Middle-earth in any absolute sense.” There are many things “…about this literary world and about any work and world of art, about which the artist was and would and would never be in any position to declaim with absolute authority…..the work…always comes to the artist as something given and received, and in one sense, therefore, not ‘created’ by him or her at all.” Readers and observers of art will find all sorts of things in the work that the artist was not aware they had placed within it.

“For the sub-creator, the making of other worlds is no act of defiance or contradiction of the prima divine ‘Let there be…’. On the contrary, the artist’s Secondary Reality enjoys a positive relationship to the Primary Reality which, ordinarily, we indwell, and is always glad to acknowledge its subordinate state.”

Tolkien insists that artistic vision does not seek to supersede our world, but instead seeks to glimpse the richest possibilities latent within the creative vision of God. And he presents an underlying concept. Our art is not so much about things are, but of what they are capable of becoming, and “how things may be and will be when God is finally all in all (this) …is the source of that joy which aesthetic experience grants us. Beauty – genuine beauty – is finally an eschatological phenomenon.” Art “…does not compete with the world but in a profound sense for Tolkien makes the world new.”

The third and final lecture will be presented tonight with the title “Givenness, grace, and gratitude: creation, artistry and eucharist”.

Please note that the full text of the lectures plus MP3 files will be posted by the end of next week.

Wednesday 3 September 2008

God and the artist - Part 1

New College (which established CASE) has an annual public lecture series each year which I convene. The Lectures are in their 22nd year and are on each evening (2-5 September 2008). Their purpose is to bring together the college residents, University, Church and wider community to discuss significant issues of common concern. This year the theme is God and the Artist: Human creativity in theological perspective and our lecture is Professor Trevor Hart from the University of St Andrews, Scotland.

Last night 200 people gathered at the University of New South Wales (where New College and CASE live) to engage in the first lecture. The title was ‘The lunatic, the lover and the poet’: divine copyright and the dangers of ‘strong imagination’.

This post is my summary of what Professor had to say. While I have tried to faithfully report the summary of the lecture, and present his views (not necessarily mine), and I have used many direct quotes, any inaccuracies are my responsibility not those of Professor Hart.

Starting at the beginning

Professor Hart commenced the lecture series with the opening words of Genesis, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. He reminded us that the Hebrew word translated “created” is “bara’ has an aura of holiness to it, being set aside exclusively for his divine use; “there is and can be no corresponding human analogy to this divine action, because it has to do with God’s unique relationship to the world as the one who, by virtue of his sovereign Lordship, brings a world forth into existence where previously there was not only nothing but no potential for anything.” While there are other words used in the Bible that describe man’s activity of doing and making, none should be confused with God’s creation as encapsulated in the Hebrew word “bara”.

But he suggested that there is a changeability of language that has led to a loss of appreciation of God’s place as creator as against mankind’s creativity. Hart suggested that words are “sticky” and “have the habit of picking up words and associations” – words are used and used again until the initial core connotation is lost.

Hart pointed out that the careless use of the word “creativity” – creative play, creative problem solving, creative accounting etc – is a long way from Genesis and “its sublime vision of ultimate origination”. Interestingly, he made the point that such complaints come primarily from artists, not worried about God’s dignity being lost, but their’s and that of their work. The canons of orthodoxy and heterodoxy are no longer theological but aesthetic.

He argued that to some extent the use of the word “created” was meant to imply that the artist had created “new worlds of meanings to be set alongside those of God”. However, while we can make sense of this even within a Christian framework it lends itself “to other impulses”.

What Hart sets out to do in these lectures is to examine the place of artistic creation. A theology of human artistry – an account “that takes seriously Christian Scripture and Creeds”. Can we hold together talk of human creativity and “God’s unique identity as the originator and gracious giver of being and life to the world”? This he suggests is not a question of if but of how? We need he suggested to disentangle from one another both ‘modalities of creativity’ both of which are to do with God’s relationship to the world, but only one of which incorporates human agency.

Cosmos and cosmetics

Citing Abrams (1954), in the monograph “The mirror and the lamp”, he argued that the most primitive and enduring aesthetic was that of “holding a mirror to the world”, art imitating life, an aesthetic consistent with Plato’s somewhat negative view of art and Aristotle’s more positive view. He used Leonardo da Vinci as an example, who almost 2 millennia later, expressed the view (and demonstrated it) that art should not try to improve on the things of nature. Art in effect was seen as allowing due emphasis to be given to the world God has given us to inhabit. But even in this earliest view of the place of art there was a distortion of the notion of the mirror as artists sought to paint out (so to speak) the “warts, the blemishes and the bulges”. The artist was not just seeking to render a true likeness, but was seeking to add beauty to what they see (e.g. Michelangelo and Rembrandt). Artists were seeking to catch “the best of the thing”. This view reflected the belief that in a sense the artist’s soul was seen as having access to Nature’s blueprint in the mind of God, and their role was to add some cosmetic enhancement, adding value to what they found in nature.

These ideas he suggested were reborn in the Renaissance offering an exalted place to human artistry. By the Renaissance “the artist sits in judgement rather than as a skilled apprentice in the workshop of a divine master”. The desire was not for what God has purposed “but something that improves upon and competes with it.”

Breach of Copyright

In citing Abrams again, Hart suggested that there was then a shift from mimetic notions of art to one that assumed that the illumination of the human mind was essential to the process of “murky reality”. Art was then seen not as a mirror reflecting the light but of shining a lamp on what was observed to illuminate it further. The artist moved from a view of a world naturally rich in beauty and goodness to a world needing to be enriched “by the projections of the human imagination”. This Hart suggested was the source of Kant’s claim that we can only ever experience phenomena as they appear to us rather than as they appear to other creatures or perhaps to God.

Hart suggested that we can see how easy it is to move from the position to “half create” the world to a position of seeing the world us unacceptable and in need of offering an alternative view of Nature. A position that George Steiner suggested reached its height in Modernism where the artist sought to call into being objects and creations as totally unlike nature as possible, “begetting their own creations”. Here the artist is offering a challenge to the givenness of God’s creation and his prerogatives as Creator. It is this Hart suggests that “lies behind an ancient Hebraic nervousness about the imagination”. “Creative imagination, then, paradoxically lies at the core of all that is worst and all that is best in our humanity”.

But modernism is not where we are in 2008. Postmodern aesthetics have been the dominant influence. Hart cites Richard Kearney who observes that artistic imagination is less like a mirror than a labyrinth of mirrors each in turn reflected in “seemingly endless refractive play of light and none standing apart as the apparent source of it all”. Art scavenges its materials from “the sites of prior acts of imaginative construction, pre-owned and part-used serviceable, and fraught with the semantic instability of the merely human.” “If Modernism threatened to supplant the source of aesthetic meaning by usurping the throne of the cosmos, post-modernity does so just as effectively by refusing to bend the knee to any authority whatever, be it human or divine.”

But Hart suggested that any “self-deluded attempts to supplant that Word by instigating new moments of origination cannot succeed”. Such attempts he suggested lead to despairing shadow chasing; a version of the cosmos as “turbulent chaos”. Both Modernism and Postmodernism deny transcendence. He cited George Steiner to point to the folly of such efforts, “art is and must properly be a dialogue with a meaningful presence which does not depend on us for its being”. Steiner goes further to suggest that where God’s presence is no longer tenable and where his absence is no longer a felt and overwhelming weight “that certain dimensions of thought and creativity are no longer attainable.”

Pathologies of the poetic eye

Hart then took the audience back to the 16th century to the work of Shakespeare, and specifically “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Cervantes great novel “Don Quixote”. Both he suggested raise serious questions about the place of the imaginative in human life. Shakespeare in this work both directly (through the plot) and indirectly through its use of comedy and irony, looks at the chaos that is created when the boundaries between reality and artifice are blurred deliberately or accidentally. The play poses the question, are we as humans in danger of confusing the real and the imaginary. Similarly, Hart suggested that Cervantes in the imaginative premises of the novel there is a critical take on the possibility of over-indulgence in the imaginary. Quixote loses his grip on the distinction between reality fiction as he tries to reconfigure his life according to the books that he loves; he transforms the everyday to a knightly quest. The comedy comes from the collision between Quixote’s illusory and real worlds.

Hart suggested that both these works caution against the “vices and devices of the imagination”. Both do this by driving a wedge of irony between imagination and reason, with each leaving us with a sense that the final verdict on imagination is complex. Both texts Hart suggests remind us that the status of reality itself is the subject of dispute and negotiation, and that “every attempt to make sense of the world is finally poetic, a making as well as a finding of sense in the world.”

Hart concluded the lecture by drawing on the work of Sir Phillip Sidney’s “Apologie for Poetrie”. Sidney argued for the development of poetry in which he saw that with the “divine breath of God” the poet could bring forth new things through the work far beyond their capabilities. The artist, far from challenging God can be God’s instrument and faithful servant. Sidney’s understanding of the need to keep man in his rightful place is seen in his unwillingness to use the term ‘creator’ of the human artist at all. The artist is seen as gaining access to the essential character of things, “that which we are capable of coming and should become, the potentiality built into them by God”. Hart paraphrased Sidney to argue that in a sense what the artist sees and represents in his/her work is “not the way the world is now, but the world bathed in the light of eschatological perspective, as, in God’s purposes and the grace of God’s new creation, it can be and finally may be. And the ‘final end’ according to Sidney of such vision is not titillation, nor an Oedipal bid to ‘un-Nature nature’, but to lead and draw us to so high a perfection as our degenerate souls, made worse by their clayey lodgings, can be capable of.”

The lecture generated some good questions and some equally good answers: “Could not modernity also seek to celebrate God?” “What of music, do his ideas extend to music?” etc

Professor Trevor Hart will return to the eschatological theme in lecture three on Thursday, but tomorrow night (3rd September) he will look at the work of Sayers and Tolkien and the light their work shines on the place of the human artist in a theological perspective.

Please note that the full text of the lectures plus MP3 files will be posted by the end of next week.