How Should Christians Look at Nature and Art?

I read this quote a few weeks ago over at the ubiquitous Gospel Coalition and thought it reminded me of a few of the studies I’ve made on my courses regarding semiotics. Semiotics, if you’re interested is ‘the study of the sign wherever signs are to be found’ (Cobley 2004, pp.4).

C.S. Lewis says this:

We can’t — or I can’t — hear the song of a bird simply as a sound. Its meaning or message (“That’s a bird”) comes with it inevitably — just as one can’t see a familiar word in print as a merely visual pattern. The reading is as involuntary as the seeing. When the wind roars I don’t just hear the roar; I “hear the wind.” In the same way it is possible to “read” as well as to “have” a pleasure. Or not even “as well as.” The distinction ought to become, and sometimes is, impossible; to receive it and to recognise its divine source are a single experience. This heavenly fruit is instantly redolent of the orchard where it grew. This sweet air whispers of the country from whence it blows. It is a message. We know we are being touched by a finger of that right hand at which there are pleasures for evermore. (Lewis 2007, pp.86)

C.S. Lewis is painting himself here as an out and out Semiotician, but for Christians, there might be more to it. Phenomenologists are ‘content with describing the phenomena without asking what connection to an external reality those experiences might have’ (Hicks 2004, pp.44). So if Lewis was a phenomenologist, he would be content with hearing a bird sing, and not think to himself “that is a bird”. The way Lewis puts it, this immediate attachment of message is ‘inevitable’. This reaction is firstly because he is a human, we are ‘meaning-seeking and meaning-making creatures living in a world of meaning’ (Thomas and Segal 2006, pp.203); what’s more he is a Christian, so he believes in a Creator (Genesis 1:1).

However, the question is, whereas it is indeed ‘inevitable’ and indeed biblical (Psalm 19:1) to read the signs found in nature as those written by God, is there a place for a Christian phenomenology? I’m sure many of you could recommend me books on this subject, please do. But I would like to share some highlights from a bit of reading I enjoyed which we were set last year. It’s an article called The Phenomenological Attitude, by Bert O. States (2007).

He initially encourages us to nurture the ability to see through ‘the film of familiarity that blunts the scene of things’ (pp. 26). So straight up, phenomenology can help us become re-enchanted with God’s creation, because it is ‘the systematic attempt to unmask the obvious’ (pp.31).

But here comes my favourite bit, he talks about a guy called Adolf Reinach who ‘is said to have devoted an entire semester to studying the ways in which one experiences a mailbox’ (pp. 28). So there was a guy, who was so keen to go beyond the initial sign-reading experience that he entered into another realm of reverie — for a year.

In theory, when we try to truly look at something God’s created — which is everything — really look at it, we will realise that there is something called a frontal quality to it. In fact all of experience has a frontality, and that’s intended by God, because it ‘keeps the world from being all me.’ (ibid.)

This results in a conclusion that only God can truly look at an object — what States would call ‘the Divine Standpoint’ (ibid.) But having a phenomenological attitude towards nature — and all objects we experience — should not purely be for the purpose of making us conclude that we are not God, that shouldn’t be difficult.

Possessing this attitude would mean that we don’t immediately write off the sound of a bird singing, by just indicating its divine source, and then throwing it away just like you do a trashy novel. Yes, stage one is inescapably to acknowledge the Creator, and to praise him for his creation. But surely if Almighty God created this thing — or created the materials that made this thing — we should seek to revel in it further, experience it, contact it?

The art gallery is the ideal venue for such an exercise. Again I cite Rookmaaker via jonblog and his advice on how to approach an art gallery. I paraphrase:

Walk in, look at each piece for two or three minutes, work out which work you are most interested in, then spend one or two hours looking at that one work of art. When you leave the gallery you will look at the world with new eyes, see significance in things you never saw as significant. The sky will seem bluer and the grass will seem greener.

Christians should be the most phenomenological people around, fascinated by experiencing things that their God has created. But sadly, I find that Christians can be the least sympathetic people when it comes to art. “It’s just an object they say”, or “it’s just a line on a piece of paper, that’s not art”. But God is intricately involved, even at a micro microscopic cellular level with everything found in this world. So why not stop yourself, next time you jump the gun and write off a work of art just because you think you’ve read that sign and can read nothing more (i.e. “It’s just a urinal / unmade bed / sheep”) spend some time, looking and thinking. 

______________________________________

Cobley, P., 2009. The Routledge Companion to Semiotics. Routledge.

Hicks, S., 2004. Understanding Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. Stanford University Press.

Lewis, C. S., 2007. Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. Mariner Books.

States, B. O., 2007. “The Phenomenological Attitude” in Reinelt A. G. and Roach. J. R., Critical Theory and Performance. University of Michigan Press.

Thomas, J. C. and Segal, D. L., 2006. Comprehensive Handbook of Personality and Psychopathology. Wiley.

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Daniel Kitson on Eric Liddell in ‘Chariots of Fire’

I love this…

There’s a bit in the film Chariots of Fire where the Scottish sprinter Mr. Eric Liddell has qualified with ease for the Olympic final and is by far the favourite. But he refuses to run because the race is to be held on the Sabbath. He is a devout Christian and in utter deference to his God he refuses to run.

There are all sorts of Olympic officials trying to bully him and cajole him into making the race. It’s their big showpiece race of the games and they all want him to do it, but he’s refusing, he’s steadfast.

One such Olympic Official corners him at a function and tries to get him to speak to the future King of England — the then Prince of Wales — who has a mind to convincing him to run.

Liddell says “No, I won’t talk to him, that wouldn’t be right.”

And the Olympic official says “Does your arrogance extend that far Liddell?”

And Liddell replies, “My arrogance extends as far as my conscience demands.”

I think that if you ever say anything that wonderful in conversation, you are well within your rights to never speak again.

That really is a wonderful bit of talking. Imagine hearing that coming out of your own face!? How could you possibly resist the urge to Moonwalk away from that!?

 Daniel Kitson, The Stand (2005)

Meeting with a Rejected Jehovah’s Witness

Ten minutes into my half hour bus commute this morning, just as Mortification of Spin show was ending, I pulled out my earphones as a woman sat on the other side to me and said “Hello!”. She wanted to talk. I wrapped my headphones round the iPod and put it away.

“Where are you going?” I ask. And then after some extraneous conversationing, I tell her I’m a Christian.

She says “So am I!” and then I listen to a fascinating life story for the next quarter hour. Difficult family; time spent abroad; drugs; finding God; doubting God; and then looking round churches in town. She really wanted help, she had gone to a church, and she “wanted homework, not just conversations, written work to be getting on with when I wasn’t in church” but they’d just sent her to a student service where she had not received the intellectual stimulation she wanted. This disappointment led her to search out the JWs because she knew they did home bible studies, and she called them up and they came, “but not straight away, I called them up and I wanted them to come today, I was desperate!” This struck me — urgency is sometimes key!

So she’s with the JWs but they ended up chucking her out for immorality, but she wants to be rejoined. The whole time the story’s going I don’t know when its going to end, so I’m having to be ready to jump in with advice at any possible conclusion.

But it ended there, with her believing much of what the JWs taught, because apparently “the Trinity doesn’t work” but being rejected from their cult due to her not meeting their tastes.

And the story’s over. My turn now. Arrow prayers, arrow prayers.

“You know what I think your problem is?”

“No.”

“You’ve spent your whole life skipping from one person or one group to the next, trying to accept them and find acceptance from them, but not once in you story did I hear you talk about what God thought, and whether he accepted you.

I believe — as I’m sure you know — in God’s law. You and I have broken it. That means that our relationship with God is broken. That’s humanity’s biggest problem, our broken relationship with God. But Jesus died to make that way to God possible…”

“Yes, Jesus is the bridge.”

“Yes.”

And that was almost all I managed. But we talked a little more after that, and I explained that the JWs didn’t want her in their cult because she was damaging their reputation, and that’s all they care about, all they care about is people, not God.

Their entire cult is based around power relations, their peculiar beliefs must remain peculiar, otherwise their peculiar organisation would lose its peculiar power. And so it is with the behaviour of their members, they’ll try to clone you into being a peculiar JW and if you step out of line, then you’re not a peculiar JW anymore, and you’re out of their peculiar cult, because it doesn’t benefit them, they’re not receiving any power through the time, influence and money that you can provide. Everything they do is to gain power for their organisation. It’s all about uniqueness.

True Christianity is different, if I hear that someone who is a Christian doesn’t want to come to my church anymore, I’m devastated, but I’m not inconsolable, because I know that God doesn’t work in my local church only, but that he’s also sovereign over his universal church, so God is in charge of that person, not me or my organisation, I need not worry too much about his/her status with us, only the status he/she has with God. But if you leave a cult’s church, they tell you that “You are leaving God” but this is a lie. You are only leaving them, and they will no longer benefit from the power, influence and money that you provide for them.

I didn’t say all this to her. But I said a bit of it.

“They’re good people though”

“I’m sure they are very moral”

 “But I do get so scared having to talk to the elders, and I want to go to their meeting at the Kingdom Hall tonight, but I know when I walk in there everyone will judge me.”

I always quote John 20:28 to JWs, I like to tell them, “it’s in your Bible and in the real Bible!” Maybe that’s what God will use.

Just before we went our separate ways, I asked her, how come you tried all the churches in town but you didn’t try mine? It’s called Alfred Place Baptist Church.

“Oh, yeah, I went there ages ago, who’s the man there? Thomas is it?”

“Geoff Thomas. That’s my Grandad.”

She loved that. She said that he’d given her and her friend a book about depression. I wonder if it was DMLJ’s Spiritual Depression?

So it was interesting, also disheartening in some ways, but she heard the gospel, at least in part, she appreciated the time I’m sure, and God willing she’ll come to the true Jesus if she has not already. God’s in charge.

How Christian are the Coen Brothers’ films?

This article is an excellent analysis of the moral world of the Coen brothers movies…

Joel and Ethan Coen’s films […] often take a brutal, Old Testament tack on morality, defining good and evil along Biblical guidelines, and offering little wiggle room for anyone who doesn’t follow the Ten Commandments, or even anyone who strays from the Golden Rule.

The Coens always touch on moral choices, from career criminality to simple codes of personal conduct. And when characters make the wrong choices—which they virtually always do, because there would be no story otherwise—the Coens either laugh at them or kick them in the teeth.

What are Examples of Outrage Porn in mid-Wales?

Tim Challies was blogging yesterday about something called ‘Outrage Porn‘.

Like pornography, this kind of outrage is ultimately self-centered and self-gratifying. […] We feel better for having done it, for having participated in it. It is expiating in a sick sense. With the outrage behind me, I am satisfied that I have done my bit, and now I can move on to the next thing.

It makes me think of a recent front page article I saw in our local paper which ousted a man who works at our friendly neighbourhood pizza delivery franchise as a ‘child murderer’. Claiming he had been to prison in 1994 and therefore his right to deliver fast food should be removed.

In a small town like we are in, I imagine that man will have to move away again because of this. I assume he’s been all over the UK trying to escape the pitchforks, and thought that a remote Welsh seaside town might be a chance for him to keep his head down.

What do we gain from berating this man for his immoral past? I’m sure that we are afraid of him being put in a job that involves the doors of people’s homes being open to him (although I’ve never seen a pizza guy walk into anyone’s house), that’s okay. But is there a small part of this front page which is a perfect example of ‘Outrage Porn’. We bad mouth this sinner, we tut and gossip about him, and then we’re absolved of guilt on our part. “I’ve never murdered any children. He doesn’t deserve the same rights as I do”.

I know that God is the only true judge. I believe in the right of the state to punish wrongdoing, but if this man is legally free, then he should be allowed to live a peaceful life.

How well did I know ‘Grace’ growing up?

Over the course of my life I’ve come to realise how central grace is to God’s plan for the whole of humanity, I’ve started to think about how much a part of my earlier life it was.

I went to a Grace Baptist church, where we sung from the hymn book Grace Hymns, where every morning service began with the word grace (literally), these were led by my Father who was editor of Grace Magazine and wrote a monthly tract for the locals called Grace and Truth.

I’m sure there are many more examples too.

“Yet even now,” declares the Lord,
    “return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
     and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
    and he relents over disaster.
                                                                    Joel 2:12-13

18 things I do not regret my parents doing with me

Inspired by when Anti Catrin showed us that Challies article when he wrote the 18 things he doesn’t regret doing with his kids.

1. Praying with us before bed.
That was part of the everyday routine for us, and that’s remained into my adult life. Praying with Sibyl before sleeping goes along with brushing my teeth and putting on my PJs.

2. Giving us pocket money.
Dad borrowed a method from the de Jongs in our church; we would receive our age squared (in pennies), every Saturday. Enough to buy sweeties (or da da as we’d call them in Welsh), but we had to save some for collection in church the next day.

3. Talking with us about theology as we walked
On the way to the sweet shop every Saturday, Dad would ‘teach us diligently when we walked by the way’. I remember the freedom to talk about any theological concept, ask any question. “How do we know if God even exists?” “Who is the Holy Spirit?” “Can God sin?”

4. Playing us Christian songs.
I still remember every single Steve Green Hide ’em in Your Heart song, along with great family hymns like Holy, Holy, Holy. I was even helped when Dad tried to get us all to sing Keep on the Sunnyside from the Oh Brother Where Art Thou OST.

5. Leading us in family devotions
Not a day went by without us having a mealtime (sometimes breakfast, sometimes dinner) when the Bible was read to us. I’m indebted to those times for a huge chunk of my Biblical knowledge now.

6. Prioritising a family meal everyday
Leading on from that, we always ate together. I remember a school-friend moaning that his Mum forced them to have a meal together once a week. I remember thinking “Once!? Who else would you have a meal with the rest of the time?”

7. Feeding us amazingly tasty food
Yes, I’m dwelling on these mealtimes, but that’s because they were so good! Roast potatoes, homemade chips, roast chicken, sausages, turkey bake, quiche, tuna pie. And then there’s the puddings… chocolate brownies, chocolate pudding, chocolate bread and butter pudding, millionaire shortbread (with chocolate), little pastry pie things with brown sugary raisin stuff in them, fridge cake, flapjacks, cookies, and shop-bought battenberg was always a hit too.

8. Disciplining us
We knew when we’d been naughty and often had to learn the hard way. But those smacks could well have saved my life, they helped me honour my parents, and I know that that means I can now enjoy long life on the earth. However the downside is I do have a phobia of all wooden spoons…

9. Taking photos and videos of us
There’s a great VHS of me when I was a baby which is amazing to watch, and there’s lots of photos which I love looking at, people who’ve died that I now have images of to look at, memories of birthdays and Christmases, great stuff.

10. Taking us to church
That was just normality on Sundays. Morning and Evening. What’s come home to me recently is that I heard the gospel so many times before I listened to it, God gave me (literally) thousands of chances, and so much time, this helps me to have patience with others who have not grown up with that privilege, and who are not converted as soon as I tell them the gospel.

11. Sending us to schools
Firstly, the Welsh primary school solidified my contact with Cymraeg and Cymru, a language and place where much of my heart is with, so I’m thankful for that. As for the secondary school, I’m grateful for the socialisation and contact with the secular world that that gave me practice in.

12.Teaching us how to decipher what they were teaching us in school and the Bible
Dad would often ask us after school, “Did they mention God even once today?” The answer was usually no. I went to one of the most humanist schools around, but I’m glad I went home and was given the tools to engage with all of that.

13. Telling us to watch things critically
Along the same lines, these were the tools that we were to use when watching TV and films. Dad’s catchphrase was indeed “are you watching this critically?” And from speaking to my fifteen-year-old brother this week, he still says that.

14. Giving us time to play outside in our garden
Hours and hours and hours spent in our garden, mostly playing football, but also making a treehouse with our friends the Barnses, and also digging holes, even making fires sometimes! And the tree-swing was amazing too. And the climbing frame. And the paddling pool in the summer.

15. Encouraging us to do household chores
Lay the table, clear the table, empty the dishwasher, tidy your room… all things we were encouraged to do, but I must confess were very poor at even those few tasks. Poor Mam. I’m still working on that one. But I’m glad I was shown the importance of them.

16. Telling us how important books are
I was a terrible reader as a child, Dad at one point even offered to give me £2 for every book I could finish, it still didn’t work. He is a voracious reader, and that example has served me well as I’m slowly growing in my love for books. So even for the times I was forced to read boring Enid Blyton books about inane supernatural teddy bears, thank you.

17. Encouraging a love of music in us
There was more often than not music playing in our house. From Mam it would be The Carpenters and Lionel Ritchie, from Dad it would be Focus and The Beatles, and on Sunday we’d have Classical music. Did you know, I still love music?

18. Deciding to have loads of kids
I love having four brothers. It’s so fun. It’s also mad. But I can’t think of a better community to grow up in, one in which you are in a house with four other kids who all share the same parents and space as you, and are all so different from you, but also share so much in common with you too. That’s been great.