I’d like to acknowledge with thanks a reply received from Bible Society to my open letter posted a couple of weeks ago here. Matthew van Duyvenbode (Head of Campaigns, Advocacy and Media), gave considerable thought to my concerns, for which I am deeply grateful. An initial point of clarification was easily resolved with reference to the online terms and conditions – www.biblesociety.org.uk/calendar2014 – which I duly recognise as overlooked on my part.
These guidelines make it very clear that the calendar is not for purchase, but is simply as a thankyou project available for ongoing supporters of Bible Society’s work. Indeed, the project is ultimately made up of supporter’s own photographs and comments to share with one another, as a kind of community collaboration project, rather than a commissioning project and for-sale project.
I agree with you that there are a range of different ways in which people can be invited to engage with the biblical text. Indeed – there needs to be a range of entry points. I’m sure you would also recognise that a personal response to Scripture can often be deeply profound and theological. To assume that this project will result in sentimentalism is perhaps doing a disservice to the task of encouraging more and more Christians to engage with the Bible through the lens of the arts?
In addition to this point, I would also reiterate – as is mentioned in the further details – that the resulting calendar isn’t intended to stand alongside professional art in the broadest public spaces. You’re right that we do have a strong pedigree in this area – but that isn’t the intended focus of this particular project. Does this mean that we are embracing an amateurish approach? Certainly not! … For many Christians, the opportunity to think creatively about how the arts can help them think more deeply about the biblical text is a bold and exciting step. In running a competition like this, we aren’t ignoring our mission aims in the culture, but providing a stepping stone for some Christians to grow in their confidence in this area. Perhaps some might be so inspired as to begin to explore and support the arts more seriously – which, I’m sure you would agree, would be a fantastic outcome! … We believe that there is a space for laypeople to be involved in an accessible and unthreatening manner. I’m not sure I’d agree that this dilutes or cheapens the integrity of the Scriptures, but I would want to argue this fulfils our missional goal to offer ‘ways in’ to the Bible for everyone.
I’m writing this open letter to ask you to reconsider your approach to photography and the Bible, as suggested by the above poster. You ask for the public to send in photographs to enable you to produce a 2014 Scripture Calendar, with the aim of matching inspirational Bible verse to image. You offer something of a suggestion as to how this calendar will look with 3 examples, though you leave room for development with ‘actual design will vary’. You exclude any details of how the photographer will be credited, nor any terms of copyright, nor how and for how much the calendar will be distributed.
I am deeply concerned by various assumptions seemingly made by this advertisement. You are an organisation founded to promote the Bible, and your strength has always been your serious engagement with contemporary media and culture. Among other things, you spearhead pioneering work in raising the profile and quality of film-making that embraces biblical stories, you produced an outstanding calendar last year that demonstrated the skill and professionalism of textile art on the theme of creation, and you currently support myself and others with a studentship that encourages a greater and deeper engagement with education and academia (in my case, a PhD in photography and theology at the University of Gloucestershire).
Yet for this promotion, you are asking for the simplest level of media understanding, coupled with transparently personal interpretations of the Bible. Such expressions, more usually seen in powerpoint presentations in churches, or as devotional tokens in Christian bookshops, undoubtedly have their value and place – afterall, we all respond emotionally to images and text, and are all able to think creatively about such things. However, for your organisation, it demonstrates a worrying acceptance of sentimentality and amateurism in a public, media-savvy sphere which demands more from the message. Assuming the calendar is produced primarily to fit in with the mission aims of the society (and not for ‘in-house’ circulation only), this calendar will not stand up to the quality of your other work, will fail to honour the professions of photography and art, and will ultimately cheapen the integrity and depth of the Bible itself.
I would implore you to rethink your approach to this calendar, to the type of work you will look for and to the quality of its presentation. Do not assume the easy appropriation of photographs for a quick spiritual return.
For more images and information about the work, click here.
This series of 14 artworks was shown at the Bible and Spirituality Symposium, held at Glenfall House, Cheltenham (29th – 31st May, organised by University of Gloucestershire and Bible Society). Part of my PhD in visual theology, these photographic prints and photo-based installations explore the imagery of the elements, as seen through Christian spirituality and biblical symbolism. As well as specific references to earth, fire, wind and water, there is imagery that considers nature and the planet as the stage on which expressions of faith are set.
Previously in May, this work was shown in Bristol as part of the Bristol Festival of Photography across two venues: Colston Hall’s Glass Room and St Stephen’s Church. The various contexts of church, public exhibition venue and academic forum have yielded some rich and ranging discussions: from art as contemplation in a spiritual tradition, to conceptual questions about art as knowledge. I’ve had the benefit of responses to a paper given at the Postgraduate Theology and Religious Studies Conference (Bristol University, March 2012), where I discussed this work-in-progress, as well as its presentation to two groups of artists and photographers who meet regularly in Bristol to share ideas (The Group and Second Look, May 2012).
As part of bigger events, including the festival and the symposium, this work has successfully contributed to wider forums for research – my own position straddling the areas of contemporary art theory/practice (with particular reference to photography) and theology/spirituality. In my capacity as regional representative for Art & Christianity Enquiry, I hope to extend both the opportunities to show this work and to further the connections being made across these two disciplines. A programme for 2013 is being developed.
My thanks to Bible Society, the University of Gloucestershire and the Christian Arts Trust, who sponsored the production of these artworks in their entirety.