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.

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

A Ruskinian conversation: conference report

St Michael and All Angels Chapel, Marlborough College

Visual Theology‘s second two-day conference took place this month at Marlborough College, and in what follows I draw on the report penned by Madeleine Emerald Thiele. Madeleine and I have envisaged new places where art and theology might intersect, very much in a plane of contemporary relevance and interest. I was delighted that this weekend offered new ways to bring John Ruskin into conversation with worship, art history, and contemporary art practice. His words continue to inspire, and I’m prompted again to draw on what feels like a wisdom tradition of sorts that he started – one for modernism and arts in particular.

Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites: Sacre Conversazioni’ was part of the international John Ruskin bicentenary celebrations. The event was held in Marlborough College’s Chapel, overlooked by a series of Pre-Raphaelite paintings by the artist, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, and beneath an Edward Burne-Jones stained glass window. Amidst a tightly choreographed programme of 15 papers (from open submission and by select invitation), there were 2 keynotes, 1 ‘special conversation’, 1 installation of video art, 1 church service, 1 exhibition, and 1 musical concert. 

Our presenters delivered to an extremely high standard, thus reflecting the high calibre of their specialist knowledge and insight, and our carefully considered shaping and design of the event. The voices who contributed to our conversations represented leading academics in Art History, Literature, and Theology, church leaders from the Anglican tradition, curators, and an award-winning artist. Our speakers were international, with five being based Stateside, and the rest either Europe or UK based. 

The presentations and panels covered a range of subjects, including (for the full programme, see here) visions of church reflected in Edward Burne-Jones, the visual theology of angels in Pre-Raphaelite art, Dante Gabriel Rossetti in colour and sound, the sacred in social contexts for William Morris or Mary Watts, Ruskin’s reception on the continent, and theological reflection on icongraphies of leaves and dirt. We were delighted also to hear from Professor George P. Landow and Professor Colin Cruise as keynote presenters, and through a special conversation between curator Christopher Newall and the Bishop of Salisbury: all four brought questions about aesthetics to bear on responses of faith.

Day Two saw an intimate reimagining of the original 1886 Service of Dedication, with a video installation by Reverend Mark Dean. Visual Theology had commissioned Dean, and we were delighted with his impressive angelic themed visual and musical pieces which were in response to the opening theme of the original service: ‘This is a dreadful place’, and the Stanhope cycle. Dean had brought ideas about both worship and the practising or making of art into close contact with liturgical expression, in this case through a sensitive reflection of the building’s dedication and subsequent history.

Hosted here at Marlborough College, with a conference dinner at the town’s well-known Polly Tea Rooms, and including a private view of the Richard Sheridan exhibition for our delegates, we put considerable thought and planning into a level of ‘added value’ to the event. Our delegates had the opportunity to access a display of Marlborough College’s rare books with Dr. Simon McKeown. These included architectural books on Pugin, Millais etchings, and most significantly, a copy of William Morris’ Aeneid translation, signed by Morris himself and given as a gift to Burne-Jones’ son, Philip. We also invited three talented young musicians from Wiltshire, who played in the Chapel for our delegates prior to the Sheridan exhibition visit. Significantly for us, the holistic reach of the event was felt further afield, through well-received engagement online with our live Twitter feed #VTRuskin. Increasingly these expanding spheres of engagement are reflective of our hope that Visual Theology finds footing and connections with communities beyond church and academia.

We had a total of just over 50 people register across the event, with a heavier mix of academics than clergy or artists than we have had previously. We had a slightly greater number of women than men (both presenting and attending), but we achieved a broad range of ages from students to those in retirement. We continue to believe this is vital to both our own events, and to academia generally. We remain grateful to Marlborough College for underwriting some of the event: without their financial support we would not have been able to achieve what we did, nor allow our delegates to present in such an impressive and special venue.

We feel two aspects of the conference – the quality of the research in the paper presentations (which communicated across their panels, as well as being individually outstanding), and the specific engagement with the Chapel setting – were key in making this a successful event. Inevitably, as with any event, there were some difficulties – such as a power cut in the town and some audio issues. However, included in the overwhelmingly positive feedback we have now received were a number of comments that welcomed our sense of ambition, our shaping of a new style of academic event, our interdisciplinary conversations, and our overall achievement without institutional backing. We have received much generosity post the event both from those that attended and also those who were unable to. This event has been a complex one to organise, and we are grateful for such feedback and encouragement. 

Sounds of a summer visual theology

Millet’s ‘The Angelus’, 1857-59

On holiday in France this year, I am staying with my family in an old 3-storied house in the Loire.  It is full of beams, right next door to a church. The village is quiet, the houses silent, the shop fronts closed.  The summer air hangs over the place, people aren’t around.

But the bells.  The bells ring out on the hour and every quarter between 7am and 8pm.  And, quite differently, ring out the Angelus at 7am, 12pm, and 7pm.  It is rhapsodic, an astonishing compound, reverberating sound like Millet’s liquid light spreading over the furrows.  I must have heard this call before, I must have been near bells when they’re rung, but somehow this feels new, magnifying, overwhelming.  And this was the angel come to Mary, the angel touching earth with providence and grace and blessing.  It connects the touch of God with the ripple effect into human lives and souls, and I truly felt it.  As if the church tower were a lightning rod.  It was specifically the swinging pendulum in the rocking bell, its ratcheted momentum releasing a pealing, repeat, and reflection on downswing and upswing, and caught irregularly at the pitch of both.  Not the sharp hard sound of a striking hammer marking the triple invocations ‘Hail Mary’.

I hear and see this in Millet’s painting.  The two figures who have stopped to pray mark the moment (that’s where the villagers are!). The reverence is not token, is of a piece with the land, the soil, the light, the church – and it is all held together in sound.  But it is also embodied differently, felt differently, seen differently.  The man is nearly full frontal to us, and bears the facing directionality with our frame, our personhood.  The woman is in profile, and faces the sun, her frame is her creaturehood in the landscape.  He has the vertical, darkly-outlined thrust of the fork; she has the horizontal, illuminated load of the barrow. This reminds me of last month’s reach for a description of difference. For now, it’s enough to perceive a complementarity, if not harmony, pervaded by a context of sunshine and prayerfulness.

Visual Theology I: Transformative Looking Between the Visual Arts and Christian Doctrine

Sara Mark’s Lavant at The Chapel of the Ascension, University of Chichester

Visual Theology Conference Report
19th-20th October 2018
The Bishop’s Palace, Chichester; The Chapel of the Ascension, University of Chichester; in association with the Diocese of Chichester

Our two-day conference explored ‘Transformative Looking Between the Visual Arts and Christian Doctrine (1850-Now)’. Together with Madeleine Emerald Thiele, we put on a programme of 17 papers from open submission, 2 keynotes, 1 roundtable, and 2 installations/performances of art work. Our presenters delivered to an extremely high standard, reflecting the high calibre of their specialist knowledge and insight, amongst whom were represented leading academics in Art History and Theology, church leaders from the Anglican, Baptist, and Catholic traditions, and award-winning artists. The presentations and panels covered a range of subjects, including (for the full programme, see here):

• The Visually Discursive Bible
• A Theology of Installation with Maciej Urbanek
• Contemporary Visual Theology in Performance and Participation (including an artist-in-residence programme at St James’ Weybridge, sound/dance performance at St Paul’s Cathedral, and the community engagement through Beyond in Brighton)
• Institutional and European Commissioning
• Transformative Listening to the Biblical Image (keynote 1, Professor John Harvey)
• Sacred Symbolism as Discursive Theology
• Inherited Visual Theologies and Cultural Cross-Currents
• Pre-Raphaelite Theologies and the Victorian Imagination
• Contemporary Art in Dialogue with Medieval Cathedrals (keynote 2, Revd Dr Ayla Lepine)

Hosted at the Bishop’s Palace, with a conference dinner at the Chapel of the Ascension (Bishop Otter Campus, University of Chichester), and including a tour of Chichester Cathedral’s artworks, we put considerable thought and planning into a level of ‘added value’ to the event. This included the performance of Sara Mark’s piece ‘LAVANT’ with Compline after the conference dinner, the invitation to Prof Gill Clarke to talk about the Otter Collection in situ, the recognition of the Alight app for Chichester Cathedral, and the installation of my own work Scriptorium in the Bishop’s Chapel (which also hosted Sara’s shroud by the end of the conference). The visually rich, printed programme also served to highlight the range and multi-disciplinarity of the conference (available to buy here), as well as our significant online presence both through our website (www.visualtheology.org.uk) and on Twitter (@Visual_Theology).

We feel these two aspects of the conference – the strength of the paper presentations (which communicated across their panels, as well as being individually outstanding), and the specific engagement with the settings – were key in contributing to an extremely successful event. Included in the overwhelmingly positive feedback we have had were a number of comments that convey the sense of grace and generosity felt by those attending. This has been truly humbling, and beyond what we expected. Also on this level, 5 local hosts put up some of our long-distance guests (including a very generous response from St Pancras, Chichester), which was deeply appreciated. We had a total of 70 people attending, with a fair mix of clergy, artists, and academics. Of these, 61 attended the first day, 45 the second day, with 37 attending the conference dinner. We also had an equal proportion of women/men (both presenting and attending), and a range of ages from students to those in retirement.

We remain extremely grateful to the Bishop Otter Trust for underwriting what has been an intellectually, spiritually, and socially engaged event. Visual Theology will go on to deepen and develop these relationships with future events, as a formal entity between myself and Madeleine. We have a vision for that which we felt blossoming at Chichester, for the generosity of collective conversations that can happen between church leaders, academic researchers, and artists. It is in no small part down to the original vision of Bishop Otter himself that we have felt able to take this step.