Theology’s problematic interface on screen

Revd Adam Beaumont, leading an Easter service online.

So the unsettled feelings are percolating. Many and continued are the triumphalist pronouncements of church leaders that communities of faith thrive online, that connections are made and obstacles overcome (like prohibition of worship due to situations other than pandemics, eg. warfare, geography, disability), and that virtual communion is theologically sound. But some are not so sure. There’s the whiff of inflated rhetoric, a feeling that in not wanting to snuff out the humanity, some are led to overclaim for the spirituality of our technology. There’s disquiet felt by many at describing/entertaining Zoom and other digital communication as substitute presence (Giles Fraser and Paul Roberts), and not just faith leaders. I want to write here a short contribution to the debate, centred on some aspects of the technology’s materiality. In part, this is a response driven by the observation that not enough visual culture and media studies informs the discussions that readily flow into theological abstracts. In fact, I think that such abstracts miss the mark, precisely for not seeing the primary form of media exchange, the screen.

Theological discussion of the incarnation and the physical realities of Jesus and the Eucharist go some way towards an intellectual challenge. They muscle in on the conceptual space created by the overcoming of geography (with particularly purple-shirt ontological clout). You can, it turns out, throw all sorts of existential and philosophical enquiry at what simultaneity on screen might mean: you are there, but also here, and so ‘the body’ as Christ or the church can manifest itself in many different ways, literally for some, but also across the whole spectrum of metaphorical reality, including sacrament and symbol. Long, deep, and rich is the tradition of theological interpretation around images and their power – these are the verbal currents of exchange that truckload interpretation with conceptual and moral freight. Men and women coming out of vicar training colleges wield these ideas like full-blown Councils of Nicea. But such oversaturation has the effect of clipping in the digital image – you blow out the detail, creating flat areas of black or white and missing adherence to local situation. That, indeed, is the mark of a kind of category confusion: the interjection of wholesale ideas upon a two-dimensional representation. No matter how ‘transparent’ the simulation, no matter how real the figures seem, it is the medium which is the body, which offers the surrogate for presence.

Let’s step back a bit. We know how the shorthand version of this goes: the person on screen looks real, but is actually made up of varying pixel illumination (changing at speed); cameras are the primary functional operators, converting light’s energy to electrical signals. So do our eyes, for that matter. These are the answers to the ‘how’ questions, which in their place seem merely technical, an area of knowledge for practical answers. But does this understanding go deep enough? Doesn’t it, in fact, make more sense to talk ontologically and epistemologically about our relationships to objects of technology, and the extent to which they have an assumed use value in an economy of functionality – rather than a truth-bearing and revelatory value? Such is the integration of the science with our cultural worldview that where we are certainly beholden to the power of its images, we are also intellectually, and commercially, franchised to the means.

Unlike ‘using’ our eyes, we have to buy, own, and look after these technological objects in order to participate in their functionality. There is a paywall to communication here. That can, and should, deter the profundity of some of the theological claims being made: inclusion in online services requires financial means, as well as a hierarchical (if not entirely possessive) command of the instrument. We also inherently defer human agency in images of their kind, to the advanced specialist skills of a progressive society. These skills have developed through an engine of intellectual capital that has, for the last century at least, been applied to industrial and consumer need/desire. It is intellectual capital driven by the market – not by philosophical or moral enquiry for its own sake (though you might argue for a residual element of original creative enquiry).

To emphasise the point here again, we’re talking about the material technology, the carbonate stuff we hold in our hands, mount on a wall bracket, or trade in for upgrades – we’re not talking about the intellectual capital attached to the image itself (where the permissibility for connection seems almost utopian, but that’s for another blog, and other ontological-clout-contributors like Benjamin, McLuhan, and Baudrillard…). The physical objects for our most realistic images are high-precision complex pieces of electronic equipment, for which we have no personal human fingerprint or signature. Instead, we are on the receiving end of a conglomerate of impersonal human knowledge, parcelled out along long stages of production, the end of which most likely would not recognise the beginning, in whose machinations labyrinthine decisions for cost value and markup determine to a large extent the user functionality of the object. This in turn is enacted through the power we wield over the instrument as transactional, if not determinative, for human exchange.

Surely the limitations are obvious? Surely the attributions of theological efficacy are misplaced – certainly in the reductionist casting of God or Spirit in the role of Zoom share-holder? As much as Enlightenment thinking would render invisible the deeper cultural meaning of functionality (veiled as it is in the elaborate language of superior scientific description and performance), it is there. It is loaded. It is holding up whatever notions of spectacle and presence we would attribute to our screens. It drives the mining of our planet for endless supplies of lithium and cobalt. It confirms the hold of consumer identity and its ‘normative’ cultural participation over our relations with each other. Its knowledge puffs up, but ultimately does not build up, apart from as landfill. Theologians cannot afford to render it invisible, nor can they afford to align God with its mythical sub-text. Nor can they afford to pronounce from ‘outside’ their own use of the media, since the technology ownership by default includes their opt-in. Instead we need the courage to foreground our attachments, base as much as spiritual, as if the haptic were as much God-invested AND humanly-contingent as the perceptual. We need to see through our screens.

A flurry of Frith photographs

The Holy Bible, illustrated with photographs by Francis Frith, 1861

This month I’ll be speaking at the University of Oxford’s seminar series ‘The Bible in Art, Music, and Literature’, with a talk entitled ‘Pick & Mix: the non-linear Bible as modern artists visualise it’. I’ll be exploring a few artists discussed in my recent journal articles, but also introducing some thoughts on Francis Frith. Frith’s albumen prints were the first to illustrate a Bible in 1861, as seen above. In many ways, what he did with photographs of Palestine anticipated the range and breadth of new, modern ways to visualise the Bible. I’ve called this a pick & mix approach, not to be derogatory, but to argue that for him and for others something positive is going on with respect to the interpretation of the Bible in visual culture – the recasting of its language and stories as essentially non-linear. Here, I expand on what this meant in Frith’s case.

Frith travelled to Egypt and Palestine three times between 1856 and 1860; during and immediately after the trips, he published at least eight titled works, including this and a following two-volume ‘Queen’s Bible’ – the first photographically illustrated Bibles. These were undoubtedly at the more formal, exclusive end of his commercial printing enterprises, which also included serial travel books, sets of stereoviews, illuminated visual presentations, and card- and glass-mounted views sold separately. Frith delighted in the immersive effects of photography – his were not the typical wall-mounted print set for exhibition in societies. In his hands photography had different work to do, conjuring up the travel experience and imaginatively engaging the viewer to transport them to another world.

More than this, Frith was a Quaker (later a minister), and the idea of transport had a lot to do with seeing and experiencing something true – in this case, with a lens on the landscape of Egypt and Palestine, it was exposure to its meta-truth as read in the Bible. Frith’s Bibles are inserted with topographical views of particular places (such as Bethlehem, Mount Sinai, and Jerusalem) on separate pages. They interrupt the seamless verbal script, offering a conceptual junction with the real world. It isn’t simply a case of illustrating the text, it’s the alignment of another space with, alongside, through, the text. It’s a new epistemological venture. Truthfulness as it might be read has now a spatial dimension as something that might be inhabited. Frith found that the photographic image made immediate, spiritual claims on the viewer:

We can scarcely avoid moralizing in connection with this subject; since truth is a divine quality, at the very foundation of everything that is lovely in earth and heaven; and it is, we argue, quite impossible that this quality can so obviously and largely pervade a popular art, without exercising the happiest and most important influence, both upon the tastes and the morals of the people. … We protest there is, in this new spiritual quality of Art, a charm of wonderful freshness and power, which is quite independent of general or artistic effect, and which appeals instinctively to our readiest sympathies. 

Francis Frith writing in ‘The Art of Photography’ in 1859 (emphasis original).

Such a charm of wonderful freshness and power becomes, in contemplating biblical sites, a matter closely related to faith. The past is realised in order to enliven a theological imagination. The reader-viewer may well connect with the romanticism of the picturesque view, may indeed connect with the factual visual information pertaining to ancient biblical sites, but the trump card was really that they might connect with the living truth of God’s activity in the world (as much present as past). The facingness of the world exerts its non-linearity on biblical reading here. And in so doing, Frith I think sees in miniature the effect of big screen photographic representation – that catapulting of realistic spectacle and immersion which has rendered the Bible extra-textual in so much of our modern visual culture.

More at the seminar… And for those that can’t, some of these ideas are being worked into an essay for an edited volume, to be published with Routledge later this year (Transforming Christian Thought in the Visual Arts: Theology, Aesthetics, and Practice).

Future forecasts for art and religion by A+C contributors

It’s 2020. I wonder if we can start the year with clear vision. If those of us playing with the meaningfulness of images and words can anticipate the colour cast of the next decade or two. Or consider whether we are even facing the right way? Sometimes I feel the disjunction of offering thoughts on the arts in a burning world acutely, let alone introducing a religious voice here. The estrangement of theological vocabulary: it’s a laughable anachronism in visual culture at large, but those in church or universities (on the religious side) continue to write and speak it. Where practice harangues me, publications persuade me. A betwixt and between place to be at the moment.

Excerpts below are taken from Art+Christianity’s 100th issue (Winter 2019), to which I contributed. Along with others working in the field, I was asked to respond to the question, ‘Looking back over the past 25 years of art and religion in dialogue with one another, in what ways do you think this will develop in the next 25 years?’ Here I select those who identified specific concerns for the future. Some identify interpretative or cultural thresholds for the conversation partners, others highlight the changing locales of the internet, church space, activism and global Christianity. Plural indeed, as Jonathan Anderson notes. Let’s hope for the rigour to follow.

Academic interest in the relationship between theology and art … has been conspicuously absent from contemporary art academe and the public gallery. A significant apologetic task remains to make the case for a public practice of visual theology. … Practices and reforms [in the art world, including working practices that are collaborative, inclusive, heterogeneous and democratic] provide fruitful opportunities, as yet unrealised, for public theology. My hope is that the debates we have been having will find their place within contemporary art academe and cross over into the public realm. This is not inevitable. It must be intentional and, as practitioners and researchers, we must listen carefully and try to ask the right questions.

Lucy Newman Cleeve, Gallery Director, Man&Eve

The scholarship of ‘art and religion’ has grown significantly in the past 25 years, and it will continue to do so, gradually consolidating into a coherent field of study. … I think we’ll see two important developments: (1) Thus far, the most advanced ‘art and religion’ discourse has lived on the margins of the art world, drawing more heavily from sociology, religious studies and theology. In coming years, more of this discourse will occur within academic art history and major art institutions. (2) In the past two years, several prominent contemporary artists have told me that they are not particularly interested in talking about religion or spirituality, but they are very interested in talking about theology … This doesn’t mean a shift towards doctrinal or ecclesial concerns, but it does mean an increasing exploration of the vast resources of historical theology as providing both vital social context and powerful critical apparatuses for art-historical research. The theological perspectives contributing to this discourse will be extremely plural, but they will be more theologically rigorous and historically well-resourced across this plurality.

Jonathan A. Anderson, Associate Professor of Art at Biola University

Criticism has been catching up to practice [since Elkin’s ‘On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art‘, 2004], and will continue to do so, not least because horizons of religion in the global cultural sphere demand it. But I echo those such as Jonathan Anderson who call for deeper reflexive engagement alongside the more prevalent sociological axis. Theologians and religious leaders are slow to pick up where a dominant suspicious hermeneutics has thoroughly disenfranchised the image from institutional religion, partly because there’s so much postmodernity to get through. Art critics and educators show lack of nerve and occasional lapses of intellectual respect, especially where Christianity is concerned. Artists, on the other hand, will crack on regardless. They’re the ones doing the imaginative work; my money’s on them.

Sheona Beaumont, Bishop Otter Scholar and artist

The internet is a public space and in the next 25 years I think it will be in this public space that the most interesting and creative inter-relationship between art and Christianity will take place.

Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford

Whether exploring the imagination in art and theology, questioning the claims of institutions on corporate and individual cultures of belief, or assessing the vital place of visuality in a putatively post-secular world, [art and religion] dialogue can speak to urgent needs today. Facing a culture poor in truth and satiated with excess, in the next 25 years the dialogue between art and religion may hold some of the best means we’ll find for living with it and with one another, seeing clearly, and for hope.

Deborah Lewer, Senior Lecturer in History of Art, University of Glasgow

The dialogue between theologians and artists, especially within the sacred spaces of churches, will continue to be a central context for religious reflection in a society that is increasingly set apart from the churches and the practice of religion.

David Jasper, Professor Emeritus of Literature and Theology at University of Glasgow

The next 25 years is the timeframe we have left to avert the potentially disastrous consequences of environmental abuse to our planet. It is also our chance to lead on equality of opportunity, to mitigate homelessness and hunger and to embrace the potential benefits to societies from migration and multiculturalism. There are parallels to be drawn between religion and art, both which will address these urgent issues.

Vivien Lovell, Founder Director of Modus Operandi

What I would like to see in the next 25 years is a worldwide perspective on this [Christian imagery in art]. In some parts of the world, China and Africa for example, the Christian faith is thriving. It would be good to be in touch with how this is being expressed in the rich artistic cultures of those countries.

Richard Harries, former Bishop of Oxford

Christmas card reflection

The Wilton Diptych, c.1395-9; The Gift, 2007

This year once again I’m delighted that one of my Advent images, Joseph’s Angel, is being used by Bishop Martin as a Christmas card for the Chichester Diocese. It was originally produced as part of several annual designs, which were initially for personal use, but subsequently became prompts for mini-research projects. Here I reproduce the ideas I explored for another card, The Gift, in 2007. In this card, the opportunity to plumb deeper pictorial traditions comes to the surface, as it was explicitly modelled on the medieval Wilton Diptych, held in the National Gallery’s collection. What follows is a mini-essay I wrote and produced as a miniature booklet at the time, one of my earliest ventures in self-publishing.

A Visual Analysis

John Drury in his analysis draws out the physicality of the Wilton Diptych in terms of ‘treasure’ (in Painting the Word: Christian Pictures and their Meanings, 2002).  My Christmas card is designed in terms of the ‘gift’.  ‘Treasure’, in the meaning of the Greek gospels (the Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure), comes from the Greek thesaurus.  It specifies a casket or strong-box for valuables – so suggests a container for other riches.  ‘Gift’ in our understanding of Christmas presents, also suggests a wrapped container with a present inside.  The connotations of both are of something intimately received and delighted in.  

At the time it was made, the diptych would have been exclusively enjoyed by one person, King Richard II.  He would have held it as a precious object, opening the box on its middle hinge to reveal the glowing gold and blue interior.  Essentially, it functioned as ‘a portable altarpiece which could be closed like a book and set up on the altars of different churches and chapels – it was intended for private religious devotion’ (Dillian Gordon, writing for the National Gallery).  Gifts at Christmas, if given in the spirit of the wise men, are similarly devotional offerings – they don’t simply meet a need, or fulfill obligation, rather they remind us of another way of living, of another way of loving.

The subject of the painting is designed to encourage such spiritual attentiveness, being as it is a very picture of devotion on the part of the king himself.  The picture shows earth and heaven facing each other – on the left hand side, Richard kneels, attended by Saint Edmund, Saint Edward the Confessor and Saint John the Baptist; and on the right the Virgin Mary holds the infant Christ attended by a host of angels.  There is a very definite separation of space, whose formality acts on our interpretation of what is going on.  It is just such a language of precise arrangement and correlation that I have tried to impose on my Christmas card. 

Within the ‘frame’ of the Christmas present depicted, my image is split into four, each part hosting various figures.  Drury makes the observation that in the diptych, all eyes on the left look to the right, whereas in heaven, there is a greater containment in some mutual gazes as well as others directed towards earth.  My card creates a criss-crossing of gazes, an interaction between angels and humans that is altogether more involved.  Mary acknowledges the kings, who both present their gifts and acknowledge the angels, who in turn look down on events and capture the gaze of a shepherd.  Joseph by his expression could also be acknowledging everyone.

The exchanges are further added to by a consideration of boundaries.  In the diptych, the figures on the left are contained within the frame, and on the right are crowded into it, some not quite making it.  In my card, those figures who have appeared on the scene, as it were, stepping in from the outside are the kings and the angels, whose outlines overlap the notional division suggested by the ribbon.  They are larger than the other figures, and bring either gifts or a fanfare of announcement.  They break into the world of the other pairing, the holy family and the shepherd, whose figures are smaller, more self-contained and stationary.

In terms of background, pattern plays an important part in the diptych, showing a ‘quiet pattern of buds’ on the left, against a ‘bolder and more vibrant pattern, like open leaves or petals’ on the right (Drury).  Similarly, flowers on the ground make a fuller, more decorative setting on the right than the bare earth on the left.  Whilst I have not exaggerated the use of pattern to distinguish between worlds, the markings of the wrapping paper are stronger on the lower panels of my depicted Christmas present than on those above.  This is a simple denotation for ‘groundedness’ which then finds something of a release in the placing of the shepherd on the spiral of ribbon.  Here is an abstracted means of lifting a figure both physically and as a reflection of the character’s worship upon the appearance of the angels (at a slight remove from the events below).  

The echo of this dimension is also found in the lighter colouring of both angels and sheep.  As with the diptych, the angels’ realm is one of concord where similarity of uniform and face (in the medieval tradition of portrait by type rather than studies from life) present overwhelming harmony and affirmation of their thrice-repeated proclamation.  Their white robes dominate the image, and as I’ve always thought the animals to be significant witnesses of the Christmas story too, they also pick up this reflection.  In the diptych, the prominent animal in the arms of John the Baptist, a lamb, serves a symbolic function in reminding the viewer that Christ was also referred to as the Lamb of God, whose white purity is celebrated in the book of Revelation.

The heart of the diptych links this picture of Christ as a lamb with Christ as triumphant Son of God, since the gesture of the infant is to direct the flag with the red cross to be passed over to the lamb.  Here another symbol predominant in painting at the time signifies Christ’s resurrection after death which performed a reconciliation between earth and heaven on account of his perfect sacrifice for the sin of the world.  As Drury observes of the diptych, ‘his crossings-over had joined the worlds together’.  In my image, there is also a red cross which acts in the same manner to both symbolise and effect a joining of worlds.  The message is made clearer in the writing on the gift tag which quotes John 3:16, ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son.’

In the case of the diptych, it is likely that the flag carries multiple meanings as well as that highlighted by Drury, referring to the banner of Saint George, patron saint of England, and also to the kingdom of England as represented in the tiny depiction of an island within the flag’s orb.  The presentation of the flag might well refer to the blessing and/or devotion of Richard’s kingdom from/to the Virgin Mary.  As also noted by the presence of the king’s personal emblem on the robes of the angels (the white hart brooch), there is a very definite affinity between heaven and earth, sacred and secular.  In my card, there is this sense of intermingling since the characters of the nativity are photos of plastic models – mass-produced slightly kitsch figurines employed in the depiction of that most holy night.

Finally, it is the action of the king in the diptych which leads Drury to reaffirming its purpose as an object of devotion – his hands remain open, and he kneels.  In ownership of the object itself, Richard is to practice that same reverence and simplicity, so that without grasping or being acquisitive he enters into ‘a moment of happy seeing when the overwhelming beauty of the world beyond breaks into the present’.  It is the same with receiving God’s gift of his son, receiving the nativity story again and appreciating the ‘good news of great joy’.

Lenses on the Bible: recent article publications

Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin’s Holy Bible, 2013; David Mach’s Adam & Eve, 2011

2019 has been a year of article publications for me, the first fruits from completion of my PhD in 2017. In that labour of blood, sweat and tears, I considered four photographers as case-studies for new kinds of image/text relations between photography and the Bible. I’ve already introduced Revd Alexander Keith in a previous post, he saw the light of day in the History of Photography 42:4, published earlier this year. Here I’ll introduce Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin briefly, and David Mach in more detail. For another time is that seminal photographer in regard to biblical themes, Julia Margaret Cameron.

Broomberg & Chanarin’s Holy Bible (2013) is a publication I’m very fond of: a Bible with photographs from the Archive of Modern Conflict covering the pages. I’ve written about it twice now, in the Visual Commentary on Scripture as part of my commentary ‘Scaping Sin: Leviticus 15-18‘, and a couple of months ago in ‘Engaging with the Bible in Visual Culture: Hermeneutics between Word and Image, with Broomberg and Chanarin’s Holy BibleReligion and the Arts, 23:4. They present what I call artistic ways of exploding the Bible, with photographs of catastrophe. It’s quite a provocative hermeneutic in which they imagine a de-centering and deconstructing effect of war reportage, in which the Bible holds its own with a de-centred and deconstructive theology of God beyond words, God as rupture.

I’ve also been a long-time admirer of David Mach’s photo-collages – large-format composites assembled by hand from magazine and newspaper images. Mach produced over forty of them for an exhibition in 2011 called ‘Precious Light’ (which I reviewed at the time here), all with biblical subjects in celebration of 400 years since the King James Version of the Bible was published. In ‘The Bible as Photo-collage and Tableau: David Mach’s Precious Light Series (2011), I’ve written for the German Bible Society’s online journal, Bible in the Arts (Volume 3) exploring this work in greater depth. In the vein of Kudos’ helpful interface for the presentation of academic writing, I’ll answer their questions about this article here:

  • Plain language title: What happened when artist David Mach took cuttings from the Bible.
  • What is it about? David Mach’s ‘Precious Light’ series of photographic collages: huge and with myriad details, these art works show well-known biblical episodes against modern city backdrops with contemporary crowds. I describe Mach’s visual treatment of the text in three ways: the images play to that which is scenic about biblical stories (a realism which is also staged/written like a kind of picture), they give the stories the epic treatment (especially with the wide-angle), and they invite the reader-viewer’s imagination to construct from and with composite, piece-meal knowledge of the stories.
  • Why is it important? Mach brings the Bible into the present tense, which opens the door onto its present-tense theological bearing. Such theology can be seen through the Bible understood as newspaper rather than as Shakespeare (to paraphrase David J. A. Clines) – as being continually renewed, disseminating, and materially embodied, rather than residual, throwaway and inaccurate. Mach invites a particularly engaging consideration of theology as mediatised with his recourse to imaginative re-collection and re-membering of contemporary media.
  • Perspectives: ‘[Precious Light] veered away from just being about the Bible very quickly, to being about people. People living on this earth, like me, with two feet on the ground, and all the things that are happening to us today, in an attempt to try and make this story, that subject matter a contemporary thing, a contemporary art talking about now. I’m not illustrating something from then, I’m trying to talk about us, how we live, and what’s going on now’ … ‘Surreal is too bloody easy. … Collage can be political, contemporary social comment. Because they are real people who exist, every time you cut, you bring something to it – like chopping off Castro’s cigar and putting it in a peasant’s mouth’ (David Mach, 2012).