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.

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

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

Steiner’s light

Floating III, Sheona Beaumont, 2010

I’m in endurance mode with George Steiner’s Real Presences (1989). What pitted, articulate, ranging, poetic depth he brings to present-day understandings of the arts. At my sense of it, he says we need a reckoning with the undisputed ‘life of meaning in the text, in music, in art’ (p.50) because our world is doing away with having to face mystery, immediacy (even ‘the wholly personal hospitality we owe our own death’, p.50) in what is a society in thrall to positivist accounting for the humanities or cheap journalistic thrill. We’d rather write about the arts, and screen their effects, than face their ‘implosive powers within the echo chambers of the self’ (p.10).

Everything about the journalistic-academic burgeoning of commentary and reflection and endless publications about the arts, the tsunami of talking, the preoccupation with inflated argument is ‘bustling pretence’ (p.48), ‘caring mediocrity’ (p.23), a ‘narcotic’ against interpretation as lived and felt (p.49), articulating ‘an epistemology and ethics of spurious temporality’ and ‘novelty’ (p.26,27). When some interpretative mode-du-jour fails, ‘when the zero-point of trust and of felt meaning is reached’ it’s more a sign of general decay and overinflation in ‘the mushrooming of semantic-critical jargon’, not of reckoning with ‘real presence’ and the humane (p.49). Rather than shooting down such malaise (as Baudrillard would), Steiner asks ‘how can personal sensibility go upstream, to the living springs of ‘first being’?’ (p.40), and proceeds to elaborate what is a declaration for hermeneutics as imaginative, transforming, event; hermeneutics as ‘defining the enactment of answerable understanding, of active apprehension’ (p.7); hermeneutics as ‘a shaping reciprocity between ourselves and that which the heart knows’ (p.9). Actual encounter with the arts precipitate this – for Steiner, especially music.

Amongst the hermeneutic approaches he discusses is the Jewish midrashic circling, retelling, and reimagining tradition towards Scripture. It deliberately brings the text into ‘palpable presentness’ (p.42), being ‘indeterminately synchronic with all individual and communal life’ (p.44). Not so the Christian (‘Catholic’) tradition, which works to extract fixity over and through the specific testimonies of Jesus and the disciples (so ‘dogma can be defined as hermeneutic punctuation, as the promulgation of semantic arrest’, p.44). It is these more legislative and systematic programmes of Christian theological interpretation which the humanities largely inherit today, combined with positivism and carried in the US by a wider non-canonical (‘democratic’), ahistorical ‘egalitarian ideal’ (p.32). But over and against each of these which might notionally stand for or accommodate theological-metaphysical interpretation, Steiner spends the bulk of the book (the 2nd of 3 chapters) elaborating on why modernism radically counters and annihilates such theological possibility.

Since the 1870s, Western consciousness has ‘moved house’ (p.94), effecting a fundamental break between word and world such that the ‘covenant of reference’ (p.96), or the ‘mystery of consonance’ (p.105) which supposes meaningfulness in representation/discourse is gone. Meaningfulness in language (or the linguistic, understood to describe all art) is, according to deconstructionism, a delusion, a ‘lazy dream’ (p.124) exhibiting ‘sclerotic remnants of religion, of metaphysics, of gross positivism’ (p.125). So the death of God, of the author, of intentionality, of logocentrism, etc. ‘Deconstruction dances in front of the ancient Ark. This dance is at once playful, …and instinct with sadness. For the dancers know that the Ark is empty’ (p.122). It feels like a devastating indictment, like Steiner himself accepts nihilism, from which there is no recovery. And yet, because the project is about the living, ever-returning, responsibility-inducing experience in front of art (where we feel ‘the talismanic quickening of our being’ p.63,64), in the final instance Steiner says the reckoning with deconstruction is limited by its theory, its dependence on logic to refute logic.

The full, indisputable freight of deconstructionism is not to be denied or denounced as untrue (within its own postulates, it is true), but it stands apart from the fact of the creative effort, and the fact of interpretative encounter with art. Steiner says he has never met an artist who is a deconstructionist. So with the serious encounter with art, to which everyone can testify at a kind of universally experienced level, even if not articulated through the privileged educational setting of high art. Both describe the human ‘wager on transcendence’ (p.214), the looking to meaning expressed and received beyond or above the immanent, manifest plane of our world. Whether the meaning is there or not, whatever the ‘style of designation’ for the otherness of encounter (p.211, which Steiner himself posits as the reception of an unknown guest knocking at the door), whether it exhibits confirmation or challenge or disruption to our sense of knowing, we enter into it. And it needs theological language, however foolish or embarrassing that is felt to be, to describe it. Steiner stands by this, though ends finally, melancholically, with uncertainty in the face of cultural rejection of the transcendent (which he says is understandable politically, morally, and linguistically) – will art, he wonders, become an archaeology when ‘the verticalities of reference to ‘higher things’… drain from speech’? Will general sentiment follow, or will it ‘aspire to religious fundamentalism and kitsch ideologies’? (p.230) It’s a supremely timely question.

The perspective of pilgrimage at the Sony World Photography Awards

From Alys Tomlinson’s ‘Ex Voto’ series, at Somerset House, London, 2018
Overall winner and Photographer of the Year at this year’s Sony World Photography Awards is Alys Tomlinson for her series Ex-Voto. A British winner for the first time in ten years, Tomlinson presents a series of black and white photographs across the genres of portrait, landscape, and still life exploring the geography and legacies of particular European pilgrimage sites. In Lourdes (France), Ballyvourney (Ireland), and Grabarka (Poland), a distillation of details with carved crosses in rocks, suspended animation in forest clearings, and quietly direct faces form a study in contemplation that reaches for depth in faith and history.

It is a superlative achievement, rendered with a poise and sincerity that seemed to eclipse the noisy exuberance of other entries. Tomlinson entered in the category for professional photographers called ‘Discovery’, new this year to the competition. It appears to tap a vein of invested story-telling, something that goes beyond the documentary, externalised interest of other places and people. Also shortlisted in this category was the series Els Enfarinat by Antonio Gibotta, in which scenes of ‘the Floured’s War’ are shown taking place in Ibi, Spain every December – a flamboyant festival of smoke, fireworks, and enacted combat with reverberations in the biblical festival of the Day of the Innocents. Both Gibotta’s work and Tomlinson’s reveal ‘discoveries’ that suggest an internalised interest, a connection of world with something soulfully and historically meaningful. In this case, perhaps surprisingly, it is also Christian. Here an observant photography, far from being blind to cultural politicisation of the visual field, or blind to the global, diversifying, colour of the contemporary environment can also see the Bible, the horizon of Christian faith, and the sincerely held habits of belief in European traditions. Further, it can do so without suspicion, without irony, and with a lens porous to the visual meaningfulness of spiritual observance.

Nun, 1921 by August Sander.
Tomlinson herself feels the attraction of simple faith, though she does not share it. Her time at the pilgrimage sites grew out of a residency at Lourdes at the Marie Saint-Frai in 2014. Her long-term project there had spanned her studies for an MA in Anthropology of Travel, Tourism, and Pilgrimage (SOAS), during which time she continued in documentary and editorial photography. But it was the contrary impetus of a world defined by ‘the peace and the space that people carve out to just sit and think’, as she has said in interview, that drew her attention. In this sense, Tomlinson’s recognition of faith is registered in images that seem to concentrate slowed time and intentionality. Her own perspective shifts in what is immersive sympathy with, and not simply conceptual accommodation of an ‘other’ community. The views in the photographs imply her own viewing directness, the near-tactility of objects, and the self-positioning of her gaze – not to mention the aesthetic of black-and-white across different focal zones. There’s a hum to the series as a whole that resists any suggestion of artful distance, instead resonating with the personal effects of a certain kind of reflective action. The portrait above bears comparison, for example, to an August Sander portrait from 1921. The frontal pose and the framing of the figure against a blurred background give the same nominal setting for the same subject, but Sander keeps the societal difference and the signs of his classification in view (as evidenced in his 1929 publication Face of Our Time), whereas Tomlinson renders at life-size an immediacy and vulnerability of person. Across her series indeed, we find this attentive and searching gaze, reflected and held in a vision that is at once photographic and spiritual.