Saturday, 22 October 2011

Onlookers and Participants

How is Christ's mission accomplished in a complex and ever changing society in which it's hard for many to take the very idea of church seriously?  Following my last post I've been idling through more of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and I came across 'Watching the church'. This isn't a picture I know anything about but again like Friendrich's many other works it's worth pondering.             I think it's evening. The falling sun of the lengthening day makes the outline of the gothic church stark. The gothic form is clear and detailed despite the sharp light. Indeed the light suggests promise and hope radiating from that gothic shape.The two viewers are intent on the church with no hint of present conversation between them. They are themselves framed by an arch in the garden, perhaps part of a larger wooden structure, but its shape is much simpler than the complex building towards which they are staring. Have they come from evening worship and are pausing to look back and consider what has been? Or, is it that they haven't got as far as the church and its worship? The density of the foliage just in front of them suggests the latter. Today, at least, they haven't got as far as the church.
The artist is clearly 'at home' with the structure of gothic architecture - and yet there is a hesitation or reserve expressed in the watchers. They are obvously attracted by its beauty; but only from a distance. Like so many they 'look on' and wonder. Maybe they are longing to be part of this distant beauty, but maybe they are not. Will they join the artist at being 'at home' in this structure? We don't know. The artist poses the question whether his vision can be theirs?
It's so easy to assume that others long to share a living faith when in fact all they wish to do is to 'look on.' Like the artist those of faith have to be thoroughly 'at home' in ancient forms so that those forms remain clearly living traditions, but that doesn't necessarily turn onlookers into participants.

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.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Hassle-free sperm donation?

“A growing number of young women in Britain have lost patience with the dating game and are turning to sperm donors to start one-parent families,” reads a story in yesterday’s Sunday Times that is quickly spreading across Internet news sites. The article went on to say that dozens of women in their early 20s – including graduates, nurses and bank workers – have posted appeals on Internet sites citing impatience and frustration with relationships for their decision to take the step into parenthood alone.

I’m not sure how seriously to take this piece. Let others examine the issues and the veracity of the evidence. The only point I want to make is that the story is believable. Most people, I think, would admit the possibility that a significant number of young women may have given up on personal relationships to achieve the motherhood they desire. The idea seems to fit with social changes of which we are all aware. Britain is becoming a nation of ‘aloners’: more people are living alone; lots of organisations have falling memberships; the ubiquitous use of earphones makes casual conversation impossible; knowing your neighbours seems more difficult that previously; and individual choice is the ideological ideals in most areas of life. We don’t seem as able to connect with one another (no pun intended!) as readily as we formerly did. Yes it’s all too easy to imagine that some young women have decided inter-personal relationships aren’t worth the hassle.

And yet at the same time our ‘alone world’ is more connected than it has ever been. All those mobile phone calls can’t be to automated digital services! As is constantly said, the digital revolution opens to all those connected opportunities to communicate beyond the wildest expectations of our forebears. At one and the same time we are more connected and but also more alone. Whether it’s actually true or not, that appears to be a widely held perception of our social world: too many possible relationships, too few real ones.

For a faith with communion at its heart the issues are pressing ones. Christians have to turn communication—real, attempted or idealized—into communion. And that turning is now more difficult than it’s ever been, perceptually and actually. And yet I take some encouragement from that very difficulty. Connecting is troublesome in every area of life; it isn’t a problem unique to the mission efforts of Christianity. The decline in church participation is part of a wider social phenomenon. Creating social communion is counter-culture—literally. Creating intentional communities where communion can flourish is our aim. Such communities are signs of better things for everyone—an antidote to ‘inter-personal relationships aren’t worth the hassle.’