The sprogs and I hit some canvases yesterday in our homeschool art class.
The task: paint COVID-19.
The sprogs and I hit some canvases yesterday in our homeschool art class.
The task: paint COVID-19.
One of the things that sets Christianity apart from most other religious traditions is the centrality and the value it places on the body. Not anybody’s body in particular, but the flesh and blood reality of what it means to be a human being in a world created by God with all sorts of thoroughly ‘material’ aspects. The world was created by God, the Creed tells us, as a reality made up of things ‘visible and invisible’ – things that can be touched and seen and heard and tasted and smelled, as well as others that can’t. So ‘matter’, we must suppose, matters to Christians because it matters to God!
Not for us, therefore, the elevation of some purely ‘spiritual’ reality as an ideal, as though the thing we should long and hope for most is the escape of our ‘souls’ from their current messy and inconvenient entanglement with the world into which our bodies enmesh us. That’s a very common idea in all sorts of other religious and philosophical traditions. But it has nothing to do with Christianity. For Christians, we need to remember, God is to be apprehended and grasped most fully not by leaving our bodies behind (or even, for the time being, straining to do so by screwing our eyes tightly shut and blocking their world out), but precisely when God himself ‘takes flesh’, so making the stuff of touching, tasting, smelling, hearing and seeing his own in a radically new way. And doing so in a way that accommodates God’s own reality to the limitations of our human condition and our human knowing, not merely as a temporary measure, but permanently! (Jesus does not leave his body behind when he returns to the Father, but takes our whole flesh and blood humanity home with him into the Father’s presence.) And, of course, the ‘life eternal’ that God tells us is both our purpose and our promised end is not some wraithlike spectral existence bereft of substance, but something more solid, more real, more substantial even than the world we know and experience now. It will not be the disembodied survival of ‘souls’, but the resurrection life, enjoyed in a material creation restored by God’s love.
The eucharist or Lord’s Supper, so central to our usual diet of worship, is one point in our life together as the ‘Body’ of Christ where all this is paramount and taken fully seriously. Here, instead of mere words – of which our worship already contains plenty! – God calls us to take physical things (bread and wine) and to do physical things with them (breaking, sharing, eating and drinking). And as we do this together in the flesh and blood reality of our gathering as a congregation, God etches the meaning and the reality of the gospel into our hearts, minds and, yes, our bodies in a way that goes far beyond anything which words alone could ever communicate.
The ‘sensory overload’ of eucharist as distinct from some other forms of worshipping is, in other words, a divinely mandated bodily practice; and our bodily presence, bodily proximity to one another, and bodily involvement with solid, flesh and blood elements (taking, breaking, giving, receiving, eating and drinking) are all essential rather than incidental to its meaning. To strip away these things, to take our bodies out of the equation, or even to reduce the multi-sensory experience to one of seeing and hearing alone, is, I believe, to end up with something that is no longer eucharistic worship at all. Worse still, it risks complicity in the wider cultural and religious myth that tells us that disembodied realities are the only ones that really matter at the end of the day.
If anything like the current health crisis had occurred thirty years or more ago (that is, across most of human history), Christians would not have been able to share eucharist together, nor, indeed, any other form of worship. Our generation, with its technological prowess, enables those of us equipped with computers, tablets and smartphones to be ‘virtually’ present to one another. I don’t doubt that this is something to be grateful for and to give thanks for. It is certainly better than doing nothing. But virtual reality is not ‘virtually (‘more or less’) reality’, but in reality a far cry from reality itself. Its modes of rendering us ‘present’ to one another fall woefully short of the embodied engagements and relationships for which we were created, and which are the stuff not just of life but of ‘life in all its fulness’.
So, let’s by all means celebrate the power of Zoom and other bits of clever software that enable us to enjoy this pale reflection of things when the reality of things themselves is not available. But let’s never mistake their thin surrogates for a viable alternative to our embodied dealings with one another. And let’s not pretend that those things to which our bodily presence and participation together is essential rather than merely desirable can carry on perfectly meaningfully for the time being via such fleshless, virtual provision.
That’s why, in this time of exile, although we shall continue worshipping together in ways that Zoom does make meaningfully possible if not exactly as we would choose, I shall nonetheless not be doing what some clergy are doing — that is, livestreaming themselves saying the eucharistic liturgy. For the reasons outlined above, I do not believe this is a meaningful thing to do; indeed, I think it risks (unintentionally, of course, but genuinely) missing the point of eucharist altogether, and encouraging the largely un-Christian notion that disembodied, non-material, so-called ‘spiritual’ (or in its more secular version ‘digital’) realities are not only perfectly satisfactory but may even be what really matters most. They are not and cannot be! Not for Christians at least.
So, bear with me, and join me as your Rector in looking forward to our eventual return from eucharistic exile, when among many other things we shall rejoice in our ability to celebrate the eucharist together once again, and in doing so become more fully who God intends and desires us to be as the Body of Christ.
[Image: Raoef Mamedov, Supper at Emmaus. Triptych #1 of polyptych from 9 parts, 2007. Lambda print, Diasec on dibond, wood frame, 191 × 363 cm. Galerie Lilja Zakirova, Heusden, Netherlands.]
Marc Chagall, Descent From The Cross, 1941. Gouache with Indian ink, 49.53 x 32.38 cm. Andrew Weiss Gallery, Los Angeles, USA.
Gutted about news that the extraodinary John Prine has died due to complications from coronavirus.
Requiescat in amore, beautiful man.
Plunged into a time of such disruption, it can be difficult to feel that we are still in Lent. And while some disruptions demand more of our immediate attention than do others, Lent remains an annual interruption to our ‘normal’ modes of living, the reminder that while we are made for life, life neither precludes nor dulls the actualities of death.
We experience some of this twin reality, for example, in the way that unforeseen joy and absolute despair pair up in our lives. It is also a coupling we read about in the Easter narratives, and which we experience in the proclamation activities of baptism and eucharist. Each in their own way recalls that the tragedy of the grave is not territory of which God is unfamiliar, and anticipates that whatever comes next will be euchatastrophic. Such is the character of hope.
Such events bear witness also to an important and easily-forgotten truth; namely, that in this world there exists nothing stable, nothing wholly reliable, nothing immune from absolute vulnerability. This year, we are learning these same lessons in other ways. COVID-19 brings closer to home than we are comfortable with what is true for us always – that to be alive is to live continuously suspended over the abyss of nonbeing, upheld solely by the voice of one who even in his proximity to us remains a Stranger to us.
Some of us are already imagining a return to those death-denying routines upon which we depend to return life to normality. It’s hard to stay in Lent. It’s impossible to stay in Easter.
The French polymath Blaise Pascal (1623–62) famously suggested that ‘Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world’. Pascal’s words exhort us to a twin resistance – a resistance to becoming nostalgic for the past and a resistance to taking refuge in some imagined and enchanting future. It is, in other words, a call to stay with Christ wherever Christ is, however unbearable that proves to be. This too is the call of Lent, and of Easter. May this call be met with a response of our faith, however fragile.
Image: Douglas Purnell, ‘C-V 1’, 2020. Acrylic on canvas, 180 x 122 cm. Private collection, Sydney. Used with permission.
Certain things last week got me thinking about what celebrating Holy Communion via Zoom might mean. The result was a few thoughts on the subject which have now been published by the ABC on their Religion & Ethics site.
You can read them here.
What kind of time is this? And what might such a time mean for artists and their work?
Beyond the very real financial hit that many artists are currently taking, a great many of us, artists included, are welcoming this abnormal moment to ask other questions – existential questions, and questions about our regular habits and commitments, for example. It is suggested that to try to carry on with business as usual, however tempting and well-intentioned that might be, would be to forego a rare opportunity to reimagine and re-embody other modes of our living. Others are turning to all kinds of creative endeavours. Others still – including artists – are asking whether now is really the time to make art at all?
Of course, we’ve been here before. This is hardly the first time in our history that such questions have been asked.
In the aftermath of WWII, where the dominating backdrop was clearly otherwise than it is today, the philosopher Theodor Adorno, in his Negative Dialectics, raised the question of whether the traumas of Auschwitz mean that ‘we cannot say anymore than the immutable is truth, and that the mobile, transitory is appearance’. It is not, he insisted, a case of an impossibility of distinguishing between eternal truth and temporary appearances (Plato and Hegel had already showed us how that could be done); it’s just that one cannot do so post-Auschwitz without making a sheer mockery of the fact:
After Auschwitz, our feelings resist any claim of the positivity of existence as sanctimonious, as wronging the victims: they balk at squeezing any kind of sense, however bleached, out of the victims’ fate. And these feelings do have an objective side after events that make a mockery of the construction of immanence as endowed with a meaning radiated by an affirmatively posited transcendence.
Put more plainly, our emotional responses to horrors of such magnitude ought to outweigh all our attempts to explain them. It was this conviction too that led Adorno to state famously (in his essay ‘Art, Culture and Society’) that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’, and that ‘the task of art today is to bring chaos into order’. The line between explanation and intelligibility has been severed. In the wake of such, we are left with the possibility of Adorno’s ‘negative theodicy’, a kind of theodicy in which the old intellectual and philosophical distance is impossible. If we are to make any headway at all in recognizing how the Nazi death camps succeeded in the destruction of biographical life, and reorientate our thinking in response, Adorno argues, we must learn how to regard Auschwitz as the culmination of a trajectory embedded in the history of western culture in the wake of the Enlightenment. In other words, there can be no genuine acknowledgement of the Holocaust that does not begin with the realization that ‘we did it’.
Today, our questions may be otherwise. For some of us – for those, for example, trying to discern (or create) lines between unbridled capitalism, ecological disaster, and global pandemics – perhaps they are not so.
In his latest post for The Red Hand Files, musician Nick Cave responds to a series of questions about his own plans for this time during the corona pandemic. His reflection is worth repeating here in full:
Dear Alice, Henry and Saskia,
My response to a crisis has always been to create. This impulse has saved me many times – when things got bad I’d plan a tour, or write a book, or make a record – I’d hide myself in work, and try to stay one step ahead of whatever it was that was pursuing me. So, when it became clear that The Bad Seeds would have to postpone the European tour and that I would have, at the very least, three months of sudden spare time, my mind jumped into overdrive with ideas of how to fill that space. On a video call with my team we threw ideas around – stream a solo performance from my home, write an isolation album, write an online corona diary, write an apocalyptic film script, create a pandemic playlist on Spotify, start an online reading club, answer Red Hand Files questions live online, stream a songwriting tutorial, or a cooking programme, etc. – all with the aim to keep my creative momentum going, and to give my self-isolating fans something to do.
That night, as I contemplated these ideas, I began to think about what I had done in the last three months – working with Warren and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, planning and mounting a massive and incredibly complex Nick Cave exhibition with the Royal Danish Library, putting together the Stranger Than Kindness book, working on an updated edition of my “Collected Lyrics”, developing the show for the Ghosteen world tour (which, by the way, will be fucking mind-blowing if we ever get to do it!), working on a second B Sides and Rarities record and, of course, reading and writing The Red Hand Files. As I sat there in bed and reflected, another thought presented itself, clear and wondrous and humane –
Why is this the time to get creative?
Together we have stepped into history and are now living inside an event unprecedented in our lifetime. Every day the news provides us with dizzying information that a few weeks before would have been unthinkable. What deranged and divided us a month ago seems, at best, an embarrassment from an idle and privileged time. We have become eyewitnesses to a catastrophe that we are seeing unfold from the inside out. We are forced to isolate – to be vigilant, to be quiet, to watch and contemplate the possible implosion of our civilisation in real time. When we eventually step clear of this moment we will have discovered things about our leaders, our societal systems, our friends, our enemies and most of all, ourselves. We will know something of our resilience, our capacity for forgiveness, and our mutual vulnerability. Perhaps, it is a time to pay attention, to be mindful, to be observant.
As an artist, it feels inapt to miss this extraordinary moment. Suddenly, the acts of writing a novel, or a screenplay or a series of songs seem like indulgences from a bygone era. For me, this is not a time to be buried in the business of creating. It is a time to take a backseat and use this opportunity to reflect on exactly what our function is – what we, as artists, are for.
Saskia, there are other forms of engagement, open to us all. An email to a distant friend, a phone call to a parent or sibling, a kind word to a neighbour, a prayer for those working on the front lines. These simple gestures can bind the world together – throwing threads of love here and there, ultimately connecting us all – so that when we do emerge from this moment we are unified by compassion, humility and a greater dignity. Perhaps, we will also see the world through different eyes, with an awakened reverence for the wondrous thing that it is. This could, indeed, be the truest creative work of all.
Love, Nick x
Like Cave, Adorno too challenges us to ‘take a backseat and use this opportunity to reflect on exactly what our function is – what we, as artists, are for’ – and to lean into ‘other forms of engagement’ that such uncertain and time-altering times render (almost) unavoidable. It is certainly a time to consider our responsibility to and involvement in all kinds of violence, for example.
But is this the only or final word on the matter? Returning to Adorno and his book Minima Moralia: Reflections on Damaged Life, he suggests that:
The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity [fancy] or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects – this alone is the task of thought.
Is not what might be true for ‘philosophy’ and ‘thought’ not also true for art? Redemption, the ‘messianic light’, exposes the incongruity between the world as it appears now and the world as it might be. That exposure – birthed and sustained by profound and counterintuitive hope, hope born not of trust in markets or in a change of conditions but which is the wholly unanticipated gift of the God of life – serves as both a judgement upon all that threatens and overcomes life, and as a promise that there is a love that is stronger than death.
That exposure also brings new possibilities for artists – in their freedom – to find their banjos, their pens, their brushes, their shoes, their voices, their humanity, etc. etc.
Human poiesis (and theology too, for that matter) can be – and in this world ought to be, as Jonathan Sacks put it in To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility – a form of protest ‘against the world that is, in the name of the world that is not yet but ought to be’. It can like placing oneself right in the midst of a broken world – something like the way that the cellist Vedran Smailović placed himself in Sarajevo’s partially-bombed National Library in 1992 – and refusing to accept that the way things appear is the way that things must or will be.
[Reposted from Art/s and Theology Australia]
‘… the presence, inclusion, and participation of the less abled, the unwell, and the most vulnerable among us is integral to the proper formation of moral communities, and is basic if we are to take the body of Jesus seriously’. – ‘Dying Without a Script: Some Theological Reflections on Voluntary Assisted Dying’. Colloquium 51, no. 1 (2019), 31.
I wrote these words in a piece published last year on voluntary assisted dying. They seem to have taken on a new focus in recent days.
Rowan Williams speaks with Emily Maitlis (BBC Newsnight) about some implications for living amidst the coronavirus crisis.
Scott Kirkland writes:
COVID-19 has brought the frailty and vulnerability of the body into sharp relief. Some have suggested that in the wake of COVID-19 we should consider practices such as virtual eucharists. I would like to suggest we resist that, and think a bit more about what bodily absence might symbolise.
COVID-19 provides occasion to think about the bodily absence of Christ in productive ways. There’s something about the absence of the eucharist which gives way to a realisation that it is always an act of hope, of anticipation. The Eucharist, however, can be something we take for granted, something we don’t miss until it is gone. The absence of the eucharist is also indicative of the absence of an ability to meet together in, as, and through the body of Christ. That which binds us together as one body is taken away for a time.
Søren Kierkegaard tells a story of a lover watching the beloved disappear on a ship over the horizon. It is in that moment of absence that love is somehow brought to attention. This is more than not knowing what you have until it’s gone, it is a matter of not knowing what we don’t have in the first place. We don’t have Christ, his body has ascended and we await his coming. The eucharist is an enactment of this hope.
Image: J. M. W. Turner, Seascape with a Sailing Boat and a Ship, c.1825–30. Oil on canvas, 46.7 × 61 cm. The Tate Gallery, London.
I have known the silence of the stars and of the sea,
And the silence of the city when it pauses,
And the silence of a man and a maid,
And the silence for which music alone finds the word,
And the silence of the woods before the winds of spring begin,
And the silence of the sick
When their eyes roam about the room.
And I ask: For the depths
Of what use is language?
A beast of the field moans a few times
When death takes its young.
And we are voiceless in the presence of realities—
We cannot speak.
A curious boy asks an old soldier
Sitting in front of the grocery store,
“How did you lose your leg?”
And the old soldier is struck with silence,
Or his mind flies away
Because he cannot concentrate it on Gettysburg.
It comes back jocosely
And he says, “A bear bit it off.”
And the boy wonders, while the old soldier
Dumbly, feebly lives over
The flashes of guns, the thunder of cannon,
The shrieks of the slain,
And himself lying on the ground,
And the hospital surgeons, the knives,
And the long days in bed.
But if he could describe it all
He would be an artist.
But if he were an artist there would be deeper wounds
Which he could not describe.
There is the silence of a great hatred,
And the silence of a great love,
And the silence of a deep peace of mind,
And the silence of an embittered friendship,
There is the silence of a spiritual crisis,
Through which your soul, exquisitely tortured,
Comes with visions not to be uttered
Into a realm of higher life.
And the silence of the gods who understand each other without speech,
There is the silence of defeat.
There is the silence of those unjustly punished;
And the silence of the dying whose hand
Suddenly grips yours.
There is the silence between father and son,
When the father cannot explain his life,
Even though he be misunderstood for it.
There is the silence that comes between husband and wife.
There is the silence of those who have failed;
And the vast silence that covers
Broken nations and vanquished leaders.
There is the silence of Lincoln,
Thinking of the poverty of his youth.
And the silence of Napoleon
And the silence of Jeanne d’Arc
Saying amid the flames, “Blesséd Jesus”—
Revealing in two words all sorrow, all hope.
And there is the silence of age,
Too full of wisdom for the tongue to utter it
In words intelligible to those who have not lived
The great range of life.
And there is the silence of the dead.
If we who are in life cannot speak
Of profound experiences,
Why do you marvel that the dead
Do not tell you of death?
Their silence shall be interpreted
As we approach them.
– Edgar Lee Masters, ‘Silence’, Poetry (February, 1915), 209–11.
Image: Anselm Kiefer, Die Ungeborenen (The Unborn), 1978. Acrylic, shellac emulsion and lead on paper collage laid on canvas, 170 x 189 cm. Private collection, Switzerland.
I was delighted to receive an invitation to contribute a short piece for Zadok and their issue on ‘Urban Spirituality’. It’s a great issue, with pieces by some amazing people – Karina Kreminski (who edited the issue), Alison Sampson, Simon Carey Holt, Glenn Loughrey, Siu Fung Wu, Jo Kadlecek, Sherry Maddock, Geoff Maddock, Melinda Cousins, Joel McKerrow, and Matt Anslow. My own contribution is some scribbles about street art. Details: ‘On the Gifts of Street Art’. Zadok 146, Summer (2019): 13–15. [pdf]
I was even more thrilled when they chose to use one of my photos for the front cover.
[Update: the Australasian Religious Press Association awarded this essay silver prize for ‘Best Theological Article’ in their 2020 ARPA Awards.]
Art/s and Theology Australia is excited to provide an update about our upcoming conference – Vision, Voice, and Vocation.
Keynote speakers and a rich offering of short papers, creative presentations, and workshops, will lead us in stimulating conversation about what roles the imagination and the vocations of the artist play in navigating and shaping the complex and changing climates of contemporary life.
The keynote speakers are Emmanuel Garibay (a visual artist from the Philippines), Lyn McCredden (an academic and poet from Melbourne), Jione Havea (a Melbourne-based bible scholar), Trevor Hart (a theologian and priest from Scotland), and Naomi Wolfe (a Melbourne-based historian). Emmanuel Garibay will also be Artist-in-Residence, and his presentation on Thursday 16 July will be open to the public.
Registrations are now open for the conference, with early bird and day-only rates available.
And we are issuing a call for short papers and presentations. Academics and practitioners in the fields of theology, visual art, music, performance, literature, cultural studies, poetry, philosophy, and/or history are invited to send an Abstract (approx. 250 words) of their proposed presentation, plus a short bio, to Jason Goroncy (email) by 31 March 2020.
I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned here on the blog that I’m currently on sabbatical, and that the major focus of my work during this time is on trying to better understand and to write about trauma. Today marks Remembrance Day, and I happen to have been reading a fine essay by the American sociologist Neil Smelser wherein he makes the following apt observation:
When seeking an analogy [between individual trauma and socio-cultural trauma] at the sociocultural level, we discover such dual tendencies – mass forgetting and collective campaigns on the part of groups to downplay or ‘put behind us’, if not actually to deny a cultural trauma on the one hand, and a compulsive preoccupation with the event, as well as group efforts to keep it in the public consciousness as a reminder that ‘we must remember’, or ‘lest we forget’, on the other. A memorial to an event, it has been pointed out, has elements of both reactions: to memorialize is to force a memory on us by the conspicuous and continuous physical presence of a monument; at the same time a memorial also conveys the message that now that we have paid our respects to a trauma, we are now justified in forgetting about it … One major qualification on psychological analogizing, however, should be stressed. At the psychological level the battle between the two tendencies goes on within the psyche; at the cultural level, there may be instances of alternating between compulsive avoidance and compulsive attraction in some individuals and groups, but the major manifestation is a conflict among different groups, some oriented toward playing down the trauma and others in keeping it alive.
(I share this from a smoky room, not too far from the fires that are currently ravaging large sections of Australia’s east coast. I share this as the ‘conflict among different groups’ in response to those fires is being played out across the endless news and social media circus. I share this as Walpiri people in Yuendumu are in grief and anger over yet another needless death at the hands of the police. I share this in the hope of better and patient understanding.)
The photo was taken by me this morning.
HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies, a South African-based open-access journal, has just published a little piece that I wrote:
‘“A Pretty Decent Sort of Bloke”: Towards the Quest for an Australian Jesus’. HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 75, no. 4 (2019), e1–e10. (HTML| EPUB | PDF)
From many Aboriginal elders, such as Tjangika Napaltjani, Bob Williams and Djiniyini Gondarra, to painters, such as Arthur Boyd, Pro Hart and John Forrester-Clack, from historians, such as Manning Clark, and poets, such as Maureen Watson, Francis Webb and Henry Lawson, to celebrated novelists, such as Joseph Furphy, Patrick White and Tim Winton, the figure of Jesus has occupied an endearing and idiosyncratic place in the Australian imagination. It is evidence enough that ‘Australians have been anticlerical and antichurch, but rarely antiJesus’ (Stuart Piggin). But which Jesus? In what follows, I seek to listen to what some Australians make of Jesus, and to consider some theological implications of their contributions for the enduring quest for an Australian Jesus.
The article can be accessed here.
All photos taken by me, on 11 October 2019.
One of the Goroncy sprogs has written a couple of funky little tracks. Enjoy.
So I’m bingeing on Beckett lately (for a book that I’m working on) and happened across this sharp little comment on patriotism (p. 21 in his essay ‘First Love’, first written in French as Premier Amour, 1946):
What constitutes the charm of our country, apart of course from its scant population, and this without help of the meanest contraceptive, is that all is derelict, with the sole exception of history’s ancient faeces. These are ardently sought after, stuffed and carried in procession. Wherever nauseated time has dropped a nice fat turd you will find our patriots, sniffing it up on all fours, their faces on fire.