Advent sermon with Isaiah

Advent Burning, 2020

But now thus says the LORD, / he who created you, O Jacob, / he who formed you, O Israel:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; / I have called you by name, you are mine.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; / and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;

When you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, / and the flame shall not consume you.

For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour. / I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.

Because you are precious in my sight, / and honoured, and I love you, / I give people in return for you, / nations in exchange for your life.

Do not fear, for I am with you; / I will bring your offspring from the east, / and from the west I will gather you;

I will say to the north, ‘Give them up’, / and to the south, ‘Do not withhold; / bring my sons from far away / and my daughters from the end of the earth –

Everyone who is called by my name, / whom I created for my glory, / whom I formed and made.’

Isaiah 43:1-7

Revd Adam Beaumont, online sermon for the Gauzebrook Group, December 2020:

Isaiah was speaking some two and half thousand years ago to a people in their own kind of wilderness. The kingdom of Israel was in decline at the hands of the Assyrian Empire, and the Kingdom of Judah, as Isaiah had already prophesied, was captive in the hands of the Babylonians. God’s people were in a place of trauma, dispossessed of their land, their freedoms had been removed. All that was familiar felt distant, impossible to reach. No doubt God felt distant too, how could he let this be? What had they done to deserve it?

The past nine months have brought their own wilderness haven’t they? Yes stuck at home rather than removed from it, but certainly our freedoms are curtailed, our friends and family are beyond arm’s length. The papers report people feeling trapped and lonely, domestic abuse on the rise, agency taken away from us… this is indeed a strange land, a wilderness, a captivity, a place where hugs don’t exist and where Zoom exhausts us, a place where it is hard to find God because we are so used to meeting him in the intimacy of relationship – in fellowship rather than distance.

How does God respond? God responds through Isaiah with a chiasmus, a literary device in which the words are laid out in order, they get to a point and then are repeated again in reverse order. Why? To make a point, and not just to make it but to emphasise it, to point it out, to shout it out, to slap you round the face with it – ‘this is the thing I want you to know’, and the words leading up to it and repeated afterwards tell you why it’s true:

First, says God ‘I created you’ – not manufactured you like some kind of product, but crafted you with care into the shape you are, the thumbprint of the maker indelibly present on his work of art.

Second, ‘I set you free’ – I called you by name out of your captivity. I did this for your ancestors and I do this for you.

Third, ‘I’m with you’ – it may feel like I’m far away but it’s not true, I don’t keep a comfortable distance, I’m with you in every strange land, in deep rivers and consuming fires, and empty churches, and care homes you can’t visit, and the deep loneliness… I’m there I’m with you.

And fourth, I gave everything up for you – not only Egypt and other places in the past, do you remember? But I’m willing to give up so much more for you too, my son, my everything, for you.

And then it comes to us… after all the layers, after the rehearsing and remembering of the history of God’s people, after bringing to mind our experience of God over the millennia, we get to the point, the pinnacle the heart, the depth, the breadth of it all. All of this, all of this, is because… ||:  You are precious to me, you are honoured, and I love you :|| This is no glib ‘Jesus loves you, this I know, because the Bible tells me so’. No, this is the penultimate-scene-of-the-movie stuff, this is the hero and heroine in tears in each other’s arms after they’ve been through so much together, so much trauma, so much trying to encourage each other along. They’re not home yet, but in the tears, in the sheer depth and intimacy of the love they experience they just know that it’s going to be OK. These are words for a people in captive exile, words for a people in a wilderness of their own: commit them to memory, meditate upon them.

I created you, I freed you, I’m with you, I gave up everything for you, because you are precious, and honoured, and I love you.

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.

Chasuble design for Adam B’s ordination

A year on from husband Adam’s deaconing service at the start of his curacy, I found myself sitting down again to play with textiles, symbols and deadlines. The brief: to produce a design for a white chasuble, to be worn at his first service leading communion and with the stole I produced last year – see the blog post.

The visual impact of this vestment is completely different to a stole – so the language of pattern and motif is more about emphatic statement than personal code. The wearing of it involves having your back to the congregation at times, as well having your arms crossing in front of you. So there is a common range of panel areas which are usually decorated: a chest-height symbol, and/or a central orphrey (stripe) stretching the length of the cloth, sometimes with a Y-shaped branch at the top to go over the shoulders. There are the usual designs – crosses, letters, a chalice. I’m more interested in the less typical ideas, ones which are more representative of the person and the multi-cultural world.

So the theme here is Ghana – the place where it all started for Adam’s journey to ordination, and a Ghana alive with Christian symbols that draw on tribal patterns and custom. On the front, the central dark purple symbol is an Adinkra symbol of worship called ‘Nyame Dua’, meaning altar of God (more on Adinkra symbols here). Literally translated, it means ‘God’s tree’, which in Christian symbolism can be another way of talking about the cross and Jesus’ death. More than just a remembrance of what Jesus went through, communion is about a living encounter, through place and purpose. The where and when of Adam leading communion is an important part of what worship is, and how the worship is (including his own) – where symbol becomes sacrament, that outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. Beyond this main focus, the red fleurettes are extensions of the tree metaphor (life through blood), and the gold details embellish and link the lines of pattern. Colour and texture come from the tie-dye Ghanaian fabric itself, large parts of which were already embroidered – this is the main feature on the back panel.

With the added dimension of being a personal challenge, this chasuble is again my sticking up for new and fresh takes on traditional craft in church design. This post has a ‘practice’ category because I take it seriously alongside my other, culturally more palatable work. Vestment design is, to quote a friend, ‘theatrical costume with beyondness and meaning’, it does more than you think it does. And, to add to the overall value-raising intention, I quote Nora Jones’ Church Needlework Guide to Vestments (1961), ‘it ought to be pointed out that while we usually expect to pay the electrician for his work in church, we sometimes forget that artists have to live too.’

Stole for husband Adam’s big day…

The finished article!

Here with this week’s work at a sewing machine and ironing board – my finished design and applique for Adam’s stole. The decorated scarf will be worn by the husband in question at his ordination this Saturday, Bristol Cathedral.

It’s an odd time. I slightly feel like I’m celebrating the kidnapping of my husband by the church. But the stole process was a way of weaving into that – 3 designs submitted to the board (below) resulted in the approval of one over the others. This is perhaps the more traditional of the 3, showing more self-contained emblematic symbols on the white background: in this case, DNA and Michelin star (at the top), Ghanaian symbols of adaptability and unity in diversity (in the middle) and an M.C. Escher tessellating pattern of fish and birds (at the bottom). The whole was linked and decorated with gold thread throughout.

To preempt the comments about vicar’s wife, I’m encouraged by the level of commissioning going on, at great cost and vision, for such vestment-decoration. It can’t help but have traditional associations that reflect negatively on creativity and value, but in amongst that, I’m liking the fact that John Piper did vestment design (see my previous post), and that symbolism can continue to find life in a visual vein of the church.

There may be more to come!

3 proposed designs