Oswald Chambers and walking the line

Splinter, 2020

Some quotations this month from Oswald Chambers’ ‘My Utmost for His Highest’, originally published in 1927 by his wife, and still a global bestseller. Chambers trained at the Royal College of Arts, before turning to theological training and a life of church ministry. I’ve found his unflinching single-mindedness awe-inspiring, a trait and habit that I aspire to both as a creative and as a Christian.

The one all-important thing is that the gospel of God should be recognised as THE abiding reality. Reality is not human goodness, or holiness, or heaven, or hell – it is redemption.

31st January

The most important rule for us is to concentrate on keeping our lives open to God. Let everything else including work, clothes, and food be set aside. The busyness of things obscures our concentration on God. We must maintain a position of beholding Him, keeping our lives completely spiritual through and through. Let other things come and go as they will; let other people criticise us as they will; but never allow anything to obscure the life that ‘is hidden with Christ in God’ (Colossians 3:3). Never let a hurried lifestyle disturb the relationship of abiding in Him. This is an easy thing to allow, but we must guard against it. The most difficult lesson of the Christian life is learning how to continue ‘beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord’ (2 Corinthians 3:18).

23rd January

The psalmist says that we are to be obsessed by God (Psalm 25:12). The abiding awareness of the Christian life is to be God himself, not just thoughts about Him. The total being of our life inside and out is to be absolutely obsessed by the presence of God. A child’s awareness is so absorbed in his mother that although he is not consciously thinking of her, when a problem arises, the abiding relationship is that with the mother. In that same way, we are to ‘live and move and have our being’ in God (Acts 17:28). … And now we understand why our Lord so emphasised the sin of worrying. How can we dare to be so absolutely unbelieving when God totally surrounds us? … We rob ourselves of the miraculous, revealed truth of this abiding companionship with God. ‘God is our refuge’ (Psalm 46:1). Nothing can break through His shelter of protection.

2 June

If we do not apply our beliefs about God to the issues of everyday life, the vision God has given us will never be fulfilled. The only way to be obedient to ‘the heavenly vision’ (Acts 26:19) is to give our utmost for His highest – our best for His glory. This can be accomplished only when we make a determination to continually remember God’s vision. But the acid test is obedience to the vision in the details of our everyday life – sixty seconds out of every minute, and sixty minutes out of every hour, not just during times of personal prayer or public meetings.

11th March

Beware of any work for God that causes or allows you to avoid concentrating on Him. … A worker who lacks the serious controlling emphasis of concentration on God is apt to become overly burdened by her work. She is a slave to her own limits, having no freedom of her body, mind, or spirit. Consequently, she becomes burned out and defeated. … But the opposite case is equally true – once our concentration is on God, all the limits of our life are free and under the control and mastery of God alone. There is no longer any responsibility on you for the work. The only responsibility you have is to stay in living constant touch with God, and to see that you allow nothing to hinder your cooperation with Him. The freedom that comes after sanctification is the freedom of a child, and the things that used to hold your life down are gone. … We have no right to decide where we should be placed, or to have preconceived ideas as to what God is preparing us to do. God engineers everything; and wherever He places us, our one supreme goal remains to pour out our lives in wholehearted devotion to Him in that particular work. ‘Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might’ (Ecclesiastes 9:10).

23rd April

We are living in a time of tremendous enterprises, a time when we are trying to work for God, and that is where the trap is. Profoundly speaking, we can never work for God. Jesus, as the Master Builder, takes us over so that He may direct and control us completely for His enterprises and His building plans; and no one has any right to demand where she will be put to work.

7th May

Watch for the storms of God. The only way God plants His saints is through the whirlwind of His storms. … Let God send you out through His storm, and don’t go until He does. If you select your own spot to be planted, you will prove yourself to be an unproductive, empty pod. However, if you allow God to plant you, you will ‘bear much fruit’ (John 15:8).

11th March

God is not concerned about our plans; He doesn’t ask, ‘Do you want to go through this loss of a loved one, this difficulty, or this defeat?’ No, He allows these things for His own purpose. The things we are going through are either making us sweeter, better, and nobler men and women, or they are making us more critical and fault-finding, and more insistent on our own way. … If we will pray, regarding our own lives, ‘Your will be done’ (Matthew 26:42), then we will be encouraged and comforted by John 17, knowing that our Father is working according to His own wisdom, accomplishing what is best. When we understand God’s purpose, we will not become small-minded and cynical. Jesus prayed nothing less for us than absolute oneness with Himself, just as He was one with the Father. Some of us are far from this oneness; yet God will not leave us alone until we are one with Him.

22 May

One thing God constantly requires of us is a oneness with Jesus Christ. After being set apart through sanctification, we should discipline our lives spiritually to maintain this intimate oneness. When God gives you a clear determination of His will for you, all your striving to maintain that relationship by some particular method is completely unnecessary. All that is required is to live a natural life of absolute dependence on Jesus Christ. Never try to live your life with God in any other way than His way. And His way means absolute devotion to Him. Showing no concern for the uncertainties that lie ahead is the secret of walking with Jesus.

9th March

When our purpose is to seek God and to discover His will for us, daydreaming is right and acceptable. But when our inclination is to spend time daydreaming over what we have already been told to do, it is unacceptable and God’s blessing is never on it. God will take the initiative against this kind of daydreaming by prodding us to action. His instructions to us will be along the lines of this: ‘Don’t sit or stand there, just go!’ … If you are in love with someone, you don’t sit and daydream about that person all the time – you go and do something for them. That is what Jesus Christ expects us to do. Daydreaming after God has spoken is an indication that we do not trust him.

20th February

Are you prepared to let God take you into total oneness with Himself, paying no more attention to what you call the great things of life? Are you prepared to surrender totally and let go? The true test of abandonment or surrender is in refusing to say, ‘Well, what about this?’ Beware of your own ideas and speculations. The moment you allow yourself to think, ‘What about this?’ you show that you have not surrendered and that you do not really trust God. But once you do surrender, you will no longer think about what God is going to do. … If you are not there, it is either because of disobedience in your life or your refusal to be simple enough.

28th April

If I will do my duty, not for duty’s sake but because I believe God is engineering my circumstances, then at the very point of my obedience all of the magnificent grace of God is mine through the glorious atonement by the Cross of Christ.

15 June

The real meaning of eternal life is a life that can face anything it has to face without wavering. If we will take this view, life will become one great romance – a glorious opportunity of seeing wonderful things all the time. God is disciplining us to get us into this central place of power.

8 May

In memory of Dr Tom Gledhill, my Dad

My father’s Bible

My father died on the 16th April. He had Parkinson’s, and was in a care home in Oxfordshire where, despite isolation, COVID-19 took away his breath. Parkinson’s took away other things, shading my last year with him in other ways: his frustration, his failing speech, his intent on leaving the wheelchair behind (but definitely not the walnut cake). On his last night, the carers read Psalm 23 to him, a man whose love of the Bible knew it inside out. Of all the things I want to remember about my Dad, this is up there along with his favourite jokes and repeated stories of his life’s adventures. He found the Bible to be so abundant, so profusely full of life, it spilled over into my life. And keeps spilling over. The Bible, and this photograph of my Dad’s Bible, is fundamentally generative for me, an evocation of him that escapes the bounds of ‘memory’ and becomes a picture of life to the full.

Which it was. Dad taught in Nigeria, Turkey, Uganda, Malawi, Kenya, and Wales. The first three on that list were all before he was 40 years old, and include what he called his ‘baptism of fire’ introduction to Africa: teaching during the Biafran War at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, and under Idi Amin’s regime whilst at Makere University in Kampala, Uganda. He was teaching physics in his specialist area of nuclear magnetic resonance (having been first to Oxford, then the University of Nottingham for his PhD), in countries without computers, and usually without running water, but with plenty of guns. Happily for him they also had motorbikes. And mangoes. But the science ultimately wasn’t to hold his interest, and in 1977 he retrained at Trinity College, Bristol, in Greek, Hebrew, and Old Testament studies for theological colleges. His father had been a Classics teacher in Yorkshire, where he grew up, and by his own admission this had put him off subjects in the humanities, but it seemed they were to claim him anyway through a discovery of the Bible, and an adventure in faith. It was at Trinity that he met my Mum, got married at All Souls Langham Place, London, and went out to Malawi ahead of us just after I was born (to Chancellor College, Zomba). By the time my brother was 4 years old, we’d moved to Kenya, where both my parents taught at the Nairobi Evangelical School of Theology, now Africa International University, until 1991.

My father in 2001, his publications, and with my brother and I in Kenya, c.1987

Dad’s faith, from my perspective of a childhood spent abroad, was as vibrant and buoyant as his way with words and stories. He read from or with Bible stories to my brother and I, even into our teenage years (back in the UK). In every home we had a chair that I associate with him reading or praying from, as well as a book-laden study with its own atmosphere of grown-upness. He was a gifted preacher and teacher, and when I compiled a book of acknowledgements for his retirement in 2006, the tributes were overwhelming. He also published a commentary on the Song of Songs (IVP, 1994), and contributed articles to the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (IVP, 1998) – on ‘Zion’, ‘Trees’, ‘Nakedness’, and ‘Kiss’. His teenage daughter at the time did not think the subjects particularly spectacular, though in a letter I’ve kept he seemed quite proud to tell me that this was an ‘artsy’ effort at biblical interpretation – as I was studying fine art at university. Dad could poke fun at church leaders or traditions (especially the British ones), while speaking with pin-sharp honesty and authority. In UK life, his later experiences teaching in Wales (now the Union School of Theology, Bridgend) kept him in touch with international students, but a wry mockery of everything from rain to Reformed seriousness would pervade what was undoubtedly the loss he and my Mum felt at leaving Africa.

When I think of my Dad, I think of someone who wrote things like ENJOY LIFE and SHOOT THE PREACHER in capitals, whilst facing experiences and people and continents with an unshakeable sense of Christ by his side. He was never overbearing (except to labradors who stole his shoes), but kind and funny and steadfast and bright. I imagine Job’s words, below, as his words (he did love a bit of Job, and always the Old Testament – about which he said he learnt more through African eyes than through a thousand Western commentaries). And I forgive him for lampooning my MA thesis writing style in his wedding speech. I proudly claim artsy wordiness as an inherited trait. To the party in heaven for someone who lived wisdom with such humour, I raise my glass. And put on my sunglasses.

He knows the way that I take;

when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.

My feet have closely followed his steps;

I have kept to his way without turning aside.

I have not departed from the commands of his lips;

I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread.

Job 23:10-12

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

Julia Margaret Cameron’s island outpost

Dimbola Lodge on the Isle of Wight

2 weeks’ holiday on Hayling Island in April afforded me the first opportunity to go and visit Julia Margaret Cameron’s home on the Isle of Wight. Named Dimbola Lodge after Dimbula in Sri Lanka, where her husband’s business in tea and coffee plantations had taken her in the 1840s, Dimbola was her family home from 1860-1875. By all accounts, the home became her abundantly creative domain for family and photography, and it was here that she turned her chicken house into a studio for her wet plate processing (not preserved today at the site) – a time-consuming and dextrous version of photography, in which the tasks of arranging and sitting her subjects for portraiture were further extended by glass plate developing and then positive print production. In the 1860s especially, she devoted herself to this work, saying to a would-be reviewer,

I work with more zeal and rapidity than can be supposed, and this I can illustrate to you when I tell you that I took last week 35 life-sized Portraits and printed 62 in 5 days time and I work without any assistance printing my own prints – varnishing my own glasses – continuing till 2am & recommencing at 7am.
[“A letter by Julia Margaret Cameron”, Graham Smith and Mike Weaver, History of Photography 27:1 (2003), p.66]

Display of the ‘Freshwater Circle’
Visiting it today, and indeed with the label ‘museum’, I found it hard to recover the vitality and energy of her story in this place. The building is somewhat tired in places, accommodating enough for tourist pilgrims needing a tea-room stop but somehow missing the dynamism of, say, Lacock Abbey as Fox Talbot’s home. Of course it is much smaller – a gentleman with a country seat (and the National Trust’s later patronage) is not the same as a society lady married into a shrinking colonial business. I found myself asking whether this effect of geographical and historical ‘outposting’ is something to do with the way UK heritage is set up to receive and commend the efforts of patriarchal success, but not matriarchal success. The museum has some wonderful prints to show, but it also gives us Cameron’s bedroom in a flurry of Victorianised domesticity with inordinate attention to furnishings (which are also proudly announced as speculative), while in the same breath elevating a roll call of those more esteemed figures with whom she was associated.

It is the creep again of the fine art vaunting of Cameron, to which I am giving more attention elsewhere, that relocates her work within a high modernist intellectual tradition – something that isolates her vision in black and white austerity and certain emulative acceptability (usually to do with male subjects as themselves, and female subjects as models). In a way, this develops reasonably enough on a body of work that doesn’t lend itself to mundane identifications of place and situation – her studio photographs (which form ninety-nine percent of her output) deliberately play to her ideals of truth and beauty, with minimised background setting, close-up framing, and painterly compositions. The strands of this more serious discourse around her tend to eclipse the possibility of finding something different about her at Dimbola. I would love to see a family tableaux vivant recreated, or her effusive letters (written at about the same pace as her print production), but the museum would rather show cabinets of old cameras. I would love to get a sense of her church life, her neighbourly interaction, whether she went to ‘take the air’ down on the beach, but instead we get a ponderous voiceover that retells what every photo-history resource repeats about her (the amateurism of her soft focus and its reception). My kids loved the dressing up room, and I wonder if they too were reaching for a recreation of JMC’s spirit here – her dressing up went beyond play, into the sincerity of assuming Christian identification with figures such as Mary and the angel at the tomb. There must be other ways to highlight this, to bring a rich, resonant, feminine, spiritual credibility to light. I think the floor is open for something new here, but it remains to be seen at Dimbola.