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Wednesday 19 October 2011

Realistic or Romantic memory

The landscapes of the German painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) offer much food for thought. Every one of them has some symbolic twist that offers more than a simple comment on a country scene. I was intrigued therefore to find Friedrich’s famous Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (pictured here) as a marker of the argument presented in Alan Roxburgh’s latest book on church leadership.

In Missional Map-Making: Skills for Leading in Times of Transition, Roxburgh suggests that churches have come to rely on rational processes and planning as means to attract people to faith. In doing so, communities of faith have tied themselves to the strategies of modernity at the time when those tactics no longer work. Or, to use his terminology, the maps used to determine where we are and where we might go no longer achieve those things. What the churches need are new maps that take account of radically changed circumstances.
And that’s where Friedrich’s painting demonstrates the point, according to Roxburgh. The solitary individual (actually Friedrich himself) stands in the foreground of a massive, mountainous landscape. He can see their impressive bulk before him; but what he can’t see through the fog is the confusion and ugliness of industrial life below him. The fog represents the pollution, disorientation and disarray of urban life that stands in the way of a majestic and clear vision. Friedrich, the paradigmatic Romantic, stands above the fog and achieves the perspective that none of those below can have.
Roxburgh writes, ‘This is the kind of Romantic temptation I fear we can fall into right now. Like the wanderer standing alone above the swirling fog, we, in the midst of a strange new space, can be tempted to believe that we too can get above the fogs of confusion and see a new solution, find a new method for making the church work as it once did. The truth, however, is that at this point in time, there are no formulas that will give us back control and no ideals in the forgotten past that can become the means for making our worlds work’ (page 110).
I’m with Roxburgh until that final clause of the last quoted sentence: ‘no ideals in the forgotten past ...’ What makes Freidrich’s landscapes so haunting is that their symbolism is shot-through with a profound awareness of the past. That past may indeed be overly romanticised but it is nevertheless the lens that gives Friedrich his vision. Those enveloped in the fog can no longer see the contours of existence the past provides. They are literally blinded by that forgetfulness. It is not that the Wanderer considers himself to have a superior view that’s above others’ confusions, but rather that he still has a memory that can spur his imagination and insight.
I believe regaining the memory of Christianity as a distinctive way of living and thinking is vital to mission in our times. To do that, we have to quarry our heritage and build from it a new house of being. This need not be, indeed it should not be, anything about romantic nostalgia nor overly rational dependence on the recovery of process. Instead it is a watchful and humble searching for resources of Christian memory that can sustain faith in secular times.

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