Nostalgia by Emily Barker
and The Red Clay Halo.
Music adapted for the television series Wallander.
Excerpt from the lyrics
… a door that shouldn’t be in front of me
Twelve thousand miles away from your smile,
I’m twelve thousand miles away from me
Oh whisper me words in the shape of a bay
Shelter my love from the wind and the rains
Crow fly be my alibi
And return this fable on your wing
Take it far away to where gypsies play
beneath metal stars by the bridge
Oh write me a beacon so I know the way
Guide my love through night and through day
Only the sunset knows
my blind desire for the fleeting
Paulist Press International | 2013
“The God of the Old Testament can shock readers of the Bible: he drowns his creation in the Flood, requires Abraham to sacrifice his son, destroys the first-born of the Egyptians the night before the Exodus, and ruthlessly eliminates the Israelites who were devoted to the worship of the golden calf. Throughout the centuries, many Christians and philosophers have rejected all or part of the Old Testament because of these divine characteristics that violently contrast with the image of the good and kind God of the New Testament. So, can we believe in a God who is macho, cruel, despotic, or who even indulges in ethnic cleansing? Thomas Römer puts forward a reinterpretation of these difficult passages in the light of the most recent research into the Old Testament. For the author, the characteristics that God appears to have, and that at first seem repulsive, are aimed at preserving the faith from dogmatic complacency by instilling in mankind the unexpected vision of a God who is engaged with the real life of humanity.”
there, in the concrete.
See? There can’t you see
A broken body on a cross.
And the wind is up:
Clouds gather to the North.
From the north
disaster will be poured out;
From the land between the two seas
and two mountains:
Beth Togarmah and Gomer.
Who knows if the soldiers turned back, seeing the black sky and all.
Jupiter’s fire, or was it Baal, or Momus or some menacing Semitic god –
Worse still: perhaps (always perhaps in this godforsaken place!)
perhaps an unknown god yet to be named in this godforsaken place.
Who knows if the soldiers returned
the ill-fated Jew’s bloodied tunic?
never wear a dead man’s clothes they say.
The garment woven from a single thread
without seam from top to bottom
from God to man and man to God.
We’ll put it back
there’s an idea we’ll put it back
where we found it
On the hill of the skull
their god won’t notice
their thunder god
their volcano god
we’ll leave it where we found it
at the foot of the cross
(we were just following orders weren’t we?)
A hanged man is cursed by God
Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree
And after all:
this is a tree of sorts
Or is that cross not a cross
but a pylon,
Where cable-thieves burn
and fall like electrocuted Icaruses?
Seraphim staves of the Braamfontein spruit:
Where the green and blue children of Zion drum demons out in Jesus name!
ecoli baptisms and detritus exorcisms
to the cry of sacred ibises.
Or is that cross not a cross
but a Moses-staff:
a snake-stick to part the sea or cleave a skull,
A shepherd’s crook
a rod for the back
of a fool,
To turn the rivers red,
to bring plague
I touch the concrete ground,
touch the face of God.
A cold face to kiss:
The Grand Inquisitor’s bloodless, aged lips.
Do I burn Thy heart?
God of concrete, God of steel
God of piston and of wheel
God of pylon, God of steam
God of girder and of beam
O cold, austere, distant and reproachful Father!
weep not for your children:
for we weep for You.
Who might I pray to, for Thee?
Is it cold up there,
beyond the narrow gate, in heaven
beyond the pylons, beyond
the steam of cooling towers
where the saints enter, clutching narrow truths?
I see only Sainte Marie de La Tourette:
cold, winter light on her concrete body
black rain and rust tears from
To create a whole universe
and after all that – to find oneself alone!
The pity of it!
No wonder you exchanged Your frigid heaven for
Gethsemane, for The Place of the Skull.
And The crowd chanting:
Dust and blood
Dust and blood
and a cross for the blasphemer!
Pitiless this sun,
and this moon-arc’s thin smile.
Who might I pray to, but Thee?
© Scott Harrison 2018
Below: Geoffrey Clarke Daedalus
I have just re-discovered the sculptures of the British sculptor Geoffrey Clarke.
As a boy I had a volume of the Larousse Encyclopedia of Modern Art, and I came to love the little black and white illustrations of the work of artists like Geoffrey Clarke and William Turnbull. I also found in my Larousse pictures of Le Corbusier’s Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp, and his brutalist Sainte Marie de La Tourette monastery in France.
Something in these images struck me. A disquiet, a religious stirring when I was just a boy. Looking at these images as a child brought no comfort – the opposite in fact: they disturbed and even frightened me. Yet simultaneously I felt less alone knowing these artists had seen something in the fabric of things that I too had sensed.
What was it?
I first heard the strange Modernist hymn “God of Concrete” at a huge comprehensive school I attended around age 8 or 9 in England in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s. I remember being alone in a crowd of bewildered schoolchildren, an icy wind on my legs. The newly built, bleak, modernist school buildings, the smell of freshly laid cement. I remember a feeling of desolation, of feeling lost. Something in the words and the music disturbed me, this hymn about a cold and distant God.
Exorcising the Fear: British Sculpture from the 50s & 60s
This poster on the signboard of a local church has something rather sad about it. It’s bad design (so bad, in fact, that it bleeds into it’s opposite, where ‘bad’ becomes a new, ironic aesthetic, a parody of David Carson’s RayGun or Blah. (Is this poster intentionally deconstructive design? And would deconstruction be an appropriate genre here?) The typography is horrible. Then there’s that nasty double exposure effect and blurred drop shadow on the strangely eroded letter forms. And that ‘train-crash’ between the cyan and magenta on a dirty blue backing board. The word Jesus is typeset in a font reminiscent of sausages (and hasn’t Jesus become commodified, like sausages, for consumers?
Above: Sausage typeface. Perfect for typesetting the name of the Messiah.
Haven’t we ‘processed’ Jesus in much the same way as processed meat, squeezed and bent him into shapes much like sausages in a pan, contortions which suit our ideas about that enigmatic 1st century Jew?).
There is an old Arabic proverb which goes “Purity of writing is purity of the soul” – in Islam, typography is considered a sacred art form. And indeed it was considered thus in Christianity once, as evidenced by the illuminated manuscripts of Medieval Europe and even in some quarters of Christianity today – in beautiful typographic design of Bibles and liturgical works.
See below: ‘Bibliotheca’ – one man’s quest to make the Good Book better
Has Christianity lost a typographic reverence for God?
Frank Schaeffer, American author, film director, screenwriter, and public speaker and son of the late theologian and author Francis Schaeffer (of L’Abri fame), wrote a scathing attack on this kind of shabbiness – “Addicted to Mediocrity” back when he was a conservative Evangelical Christian. Proof that even Evangelical Christianity can self-critique at times. Are we content to see what Christians call “The Name Above Every Name” tossed onto the page in some god-awful freebie-font, used just last week perhaps for the flyer for some greasy burger and banger fast-foods outlet?
Yeah – we’ll use Banger Bold in Jesus’ name!
Maybe the person responsible for this monstrosity didn’t even think about it, which makes it all the more dismal.
Raygun poster Issue #19 September 1994
One of the things that makes the “One to One” poster a little sad is that it is also a feeble attempt to “reach out”. One can almost sense God’s quiet desperation here: “please, can we have ‘a one on one?'” – like someone in middle management sending a meeting request to a disengaged employee. It’s just so dismally corporate in tone:
Conducting one on one check-ins
“Would you like to be involved in something exciting? How about something big, special or important? Most people would. And for those who wouldn’t, many would still like to be an integral part of their workgroup. In this article we’ll look at one of the secret weapons leaders can use to build a powerhouse team. A tool that continually instils a sense of importance and focus… One on one check-in meetings are held between a team leader and team member. They are conversations that usually last no longer than 10 to 20 minutes where they discuss what is going well and what needs to change. For such a simple process, you’ll discover they provide a big bang for your buck.”¹
Oh, God. This quote could be cut and pasted from the corporate kingdom to the evangelical kingdom: something exciting? How about something big, special or important? – spreading the gospel of course! workgroup – the local church I guess?
So one on one has this trendy, corporate-speak ring to it: no more ‘disciples’ or ‘children of God’ or even sinners or lost sheep – but team members for Christ sake. Secret weapons leaders can use to build a powerhouse team” – that fits the Word of faith nicely!
Give me a Charles Wesley-style, hellfire-and-damnation-repent-or-be-lost-forever-God over this anaemic, apologetic just-pop-in-for-a-cup-of-tea-and-a-chat-boss.
It is a typically late- or post-christian gesture: the once omnipotent God – The warrior Yahweh, Lord of the Hosts of Israel – is relegated to the cheap seats or shunned or ignored, represented now not by sublime art or the blood of martyrs in a Roman arena, but by a shitty poster outside a locked church. Recall for a moment the awe-inspiring Gothic Cathedrals of Europe, the great architecture and mosaics of Byzantium which demanded encounter with the Pankreator God of the Universe. Think of the magnificent works of art (The Sistine Chapel, The Pieta, Handel’s Messiah and so on) which proclaimed the presence of God through beauty and craft – superseded now by third rate posters and dreary religious tracts.
While taking the photograph some curious local kids asked in Scouse² accents why I was photographing the poster and asked what it meant. I explained I was a graphic artist with an interest in the way things look, especially posters, and that I guessed the poster meant exactly what it said, that if you wanted to you could have a talk with Jesus. Perhaps it was the one-to-one bit which the kids didn’t quite get. Did I even understand what it meant? They seemed satisfied with my answer. I, less so.
The mediocrity of the poster design is a sort of graphic contradiction of the sublime proposition contained in the text – that an individual might have a conversation – a one to one – with the Creator of the Universe. And I question whether the proposition is really true, if I could genuinely tell those kids that God would listen and respond to them, that there is a God who might communicate with them. A reluctant iconoclast, I wasn’t about to sabotage the message on the church notice board like some caustic atheist (the poster was already doing a good job of sabotaging the Kingdom of God in my opinion); – but neither was I able to enthusiastically promote it’s message.
The voices in my head – the chattering remnants of an outworn evangelicalism – accused me (as they always do) of failing to use this opportunity to “share Christ” (what a preposterous and conceited notion – as if like a purveyor of fine meats I could dish out some Christ to the hungry).
Why should I get behind this message of a chatty, avuncular Jesus, when Christians themselves ask, in the words of James Brenemann,
Have you ever felt like Isaiah or the people of his day, wondering where in heaven or on earth God is? Have you tried to pray and felt nothing, seen nothing, sensed nothing for a long time? Have you ever been ready to throw in the towel or felt the sad weight of Bob Dylan’s song, “Knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door,” with no one answering?³
I’m drawn to the thinking of the Jesuit theologian Ladislaus Boros:
“Has God become silent?…
He says nothing…
Is there any meaning in talking to a God who keeps quiet?”
“Our journey into the territory of being should be made in silence… Silences are the only scrap of Christianity we still have left…” 4
Perhaps I am mistaken then, about the poster. Perhaps it’s an invitation not to a religious chinwag, but to enter meaning, interiority, encounter.
The poet Theodore Roethke wrote,
You will find no comfort here,
In the kingdom of bang and blab.
And in fairness to the poster perhaps at vert least it invites us to leave the shabby ‘kingdoms’ of this world, – the kingdom of pretense, of smoke and mirrors, of mundane consumerism which fetishizes entertainment – a world of “bang and blab” – to seek the silence of God.
Yet again – and I know I’m banging banging on now – but all this religious stuff may be just one more province in the kingdom of bang and blab.
At the end of the film Winter Light, Ingmar Bergman was painfully unable to reconcile the silence of God with the existence of God. In the words of the protagonist Märta,
“God hasn’t ever spoken, because God doesn’t exist. It’s as simple as that.”5
- Scouse: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scouse
- Worth the wait: Isaiah 64:1-9: Isaiah refuses to pretend anymore by James Brenneman (Nov. 2008) at christiancentury.org.
Sausage typeface courtesy of https://handmadefont.com
“Who invented God? When, why, and where? Thomas Römer seeks to answer these questions about the deity of the great monotheisms—Yhwh, God, .
“Who invented God? When, why, and where? Thomas Römer seeks to answer these questions about the deity of the great monotheisms—Yhwh, God, or Allah—by tracing Israelite beliefs and their context from the Bronze Age to the end of the Old Testament period in the third century BCE.
“That we can address such enigmatic questions at all may come as a surprise. But as Römer makes clear, a wealth of evidence allows us to piece together a reliable account of the origins and evolution of the god of Israel. Römer draws on a long tradition of historical, philological, and exegetical work and on recent discoveries in archaeology and epigraphy to locate the origins of Yhwh in the early Iron Age, when he emerged somewhere in Edom or in the northwest of the Arabian peninsula as a god of the wilderness and of storms and war. He became the sole god of Israel and Jerusalem in fits and starts as other gods, including the mother goddess Asherah, were gradually sidelined. But it was not until a major catastrophe—the destruction of Jerusalem and Judah—that Israelites came to worship Yhwh as the one god of all, creator of heaven and earth, who nevertheless proclaimed a special relationship with Judaism.
A masterpiece of detective work and exposition by one of the world’s leading experts on the Hebrew Bible, The Invention of God casts a clear light on profoundly important questions that are too rarely asked, let alone answered.”
“Advent is a season observed in many Christian churches as a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus at Christmas as well as the return of Jesus at the second coming. The term is a version of the Latin word meaning “coming”.
I read an essay titled Worth the wait: Isaiah 64:1-9: Isaiah refuses to pretend anymore by James Brenneman (Nov. 2008) at christiancentury.org.
Initially I wrote an angry response. Then it struck me that I was being unkind: Brenneman was proposing a sort of theodicy not unlike my own – though now-abandoned attempts, struggling with the silence of God and apparent absence of God, trying to find meaning in that silence. My vitriol was unnecessarily harsh: God forbid I become a ‘troll’.
Still: for my own peace of mind I needed to respond to his essay, and decided to do so on my own blog site.
Some passages I’d like to consider, with my thoughts in red, and my emphasis in bold type:
“We long for the advent of Christ.” Yes!
“The Advent prophet, Isaiah, expresses the frustration that many of his fellow believers feel after years in exile. They are longing for God to re-enter their lives in tangible, this-worldly ways. It’s been a long time since God sent pillars of cloud by day and fire by night.
“… pillars of cloud by day and fire by night.” A technical detail about the text, but I wonder if the pillar of fire and smoke really was a ‘theophany’¹, or perhaps the smoke and fire were from the animal sacrifices by day and night, or a tribal memory – residual trace – of a Bronze Age Canaanite Vulcan deity? “… where did the YHWH cult originate? Who were the first people to worship him? And how did he end up being the sole deity of a group called Israel, who, as their very name says (in Hebrew), didn’t even start out as a Yahwistic people, but as followers of El, the main god of the Canaanite pantheon?”²[Haaretz]. But these are matters of historicity for scholars to debate.
“It’s been a long time since God rained manna from heaven or sent plagues upon Israel’s enemies. It seems to these Jewish refugees that God is no longer minding the store.
Jack Miles, in ‘Christ: a Crisis in the Life of God’, explores this change in God from the interventionist deity of the early New Testament, to the post-Malachi, disengaged, silent God of the intertestamental/deuterocanonical period (the ‘400 Years of Silence’. It’s a fascinating read by a former Jesuit.
“God… sent plagues upon Israel’s enemies.” Plagues – and commanded genocide: strange interventions indeed. If we accept – as do evangelical Christians – that the Bible is inerrant, we have a dilemma. Jack Miles examines this dilemma with great insight: If Jesus is God incarnate, then Jesus is the God who sent the plagues and commanded the genocide of the Amelikites. (1 Samuel 15: “Thus saith the LORD of hosts… … go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”
Saul gathered the people together … two hundred thousand footmen, and ten thousand men of Judah. … And Saul smote the Amalekites … and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword. But Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them: but every thing that was vile and refuse, that they destroyed utterly.” It goes on in this vain. As one blogger pointed out,Saul killed the old men, the pregnant women, the children and babies. But because he spared Agag and some of the spoils of war, God never forgave him for it.
But Brenneman points out that “Isaiah refuses to pretend Advent anymore. Too many years have come and gone without a sign of God’s presence. (Is it wrong to ask for a sign of God’s presence? Jesus said, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah” – implying Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. This should be sufficient for an ‘evil and adulterous generation’.
In blunt and violent terms, the prophet begs God to come out of retirement: “Tear open the heavens and come down,” shake up the landscape with forest fires—enough to boil water. Make the mountains quake. Isaiah seems to be saying, “Don’t just stand there silently, God. Do something!”
The prophet Isaiah also laments that in their waiting, the people are emotionally withdrawn and have lost their will to stay in touch with God, to walk anymore in God’s ways. Why? “Because you . . . hid yourself, we transgressed.”
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” – Proverbs 13:12. If we are sick from hope deferred – from God’s hiding from us – what might the consequences be? “Because you . . . hid yourself, we transgressed.” Is Isaiah blaming God here? And who could blame the prophet?
“There is no one who calls on [God’s] name” anymore. (Why have they become d Others have described the absent God as the Deus absconditus or ‘hidden God’ who is the ‘Elusive Presence.'” It’s mischievous of me, but I can’t help but see in the Latin ‘absconditus’ the English word ‘abscond.’ I may be pushing the translation too far@ but Merriam-Webster defines ‘abscond’ thus: “In general usage, abscond refers to any act of running away and hiding (usually from the law and often with funds), but, in legal circles, the word is used specifically when someone who has already become the focus of a legal proceeding hides or takes off in order to evade the legal process.” And that’s how I feel about God in the face of the suffering and death from cataclysmic events like earthquakes and tsunamis, hurricanes and volcanic eruptions, famines, floods, disease, war, genocide. The diabolical diseases which beset humanity and the whole animal kingdom, the tortures and cruelties of the Industrial Animal Complex – dear Christ! – I could go on. So yes, Mr. Brenneman you paraphrase Isaiah well: “Don’t just stand there silently, God. Do something!”
“Have you ever felt like Isaiah or the people of his day, wondering where in heaven or on earth God is? Have you tried to pray and felt nothing, seen nothing, sensed nothing for a long time? Have you ever been ready to throw in the towel or felt the sad weight of Bob Dylan’s song, “Knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door,” with no one answering? If so, you’ve entered Advent, when we cry out to God to “tear open the heavens and come down.” We beg God to come down, to enter the public squares of life, to blast our enemies to smithereens, to holler into our existence with a cosmic bullhorn. We want a loud and noisy Advent.
“…felt nothing, seen nothing, sensed nothing…” – Christopher Hitchens and Mother Theresa both experienced this to be true of their ‘encounter’ with God.
But most often we get Deus absconditus, God who hides from us, whose presence is sometimes more elusive than we want it to be. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria in the fourth century, said of Christ’s first Advent, “The Lord did not come to make a display. . . . God came to be made known according to our need and as we could bear it.” “God came to be made known according to our need and as we could bear it” – really? REALLY? Just who is this fourth century bishop to say what we can or must bear, or to say so on behalf of humanity? Dear God! What of The torture chambers and ‘auto-da-fé’ of the Inquisition – perpetrated against heretics, apostates and “witches”? What of the Nazi death camps, the Gulags, Pinochet’s torture chambers, the horrific sexual abuse of so many thousands of children by Catholic priests, the pain of cancer and God knows (an interesting turn of phrase) how many other horrendous illnesses! Pray tell me what we can bear, I’d like to know. Let us reason together, Athanasius the Great, and I will drag you by the scruff of your pretty robes – no – Ill takr your hand and wellw step with all our horror and dear and shame into the gas chambers of Auschwitz, to the mass executions in Russia by the Einsatzgruppen, or the bloodied forests of Bosnia, the Hoeryong concentration camp in North Korea where families were routinely gassed. I’ll ask you to make your glib assertions as we watch the sickening experiments on prisoners by The Imperial Japanese Army’s Unit 731. You won’t have heard about it, dear bishop, all of this was yet to come. The subjection of people to Vivisection without anaesthetic, the deliberate exposure of innocent men and women to Germ warfare toxins, Frostbite testing, infecting men and women with Syphilis to observe the progression of their agonies, Rape and forced pregnancy. Should I go on, most noble bishop, to persuade you that you are mistaken, that your theodicy is bankrupt and a source of atheism? Your bishop would have not encountered too the kind of existential despair which emerged in the 20th Century, specifically after the Great War where Christian nation tore apart Christian nation, leaving 40 million military and civilian casualties. In light of this, how unacceptably glib James Brenneman’s comment seems, “it seems… God is no longer minding the store”. The “store” is a madhouse run by the inmates, the Chief Warden is nowhere to be found.
“Some church traditions refrain from singing Christmas carols during Advent. oI completely ‘get’ this. Purple, the color of remorse, adorns the altar (as it should) a ritual warning us not to greet God prematurely or presumptuously—that is, at least not until we acknowledge that we are clay in the divine potter’s hands, people chastened by God’s silence, ready to be molded anew as the “work of [God’s] hand.”
“Advent is mostly about a God who “breaks open the heavens and comes down,” not stopping halfway. God in Christ comes all the way down to meet us in our sinfulness, down into a manger bed, down to the cross, down to the grave. This is written in a very mystical and obscure way in my view. I do think the theopaschite mystery has more merit than any dominionist, fundamentalist theology, but it remains to be seen how this advent means anything to the person being gradually eaten away by the venom of a spider or snake.
We spend too much time trying to work out the details of when and how Jesus will come again. In the process, we fail to grasp the truth that Christ has come not once, not twice, but hundreds of times as God-with-us, our Savior. Here I think of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: Ivan’s arguments agains God is existential, where Alyosha responds to the world’s agony not with debate, but practical engagement, acts of lovingkindness, mercy, empathy.
Note: Another of Dostoevsky’s stories, ‘A Gentle Creature,’ closes with a cry of pain that rings with the same emotional density as Ivan’s outpouring. ‘Is there a living man on the plain?’ cries the Russian legendary hero. ‘I, too, echo the same cry, but no one answers.’4
The Advent of God happens every time we repent, turn from our sins and seek God’s forgiveness. The hidden God, Deus absconditus, becomes God our Savior. Advent is worth the wait!”
I hope you are right, James.
1) A theophany is a manifestation of God in the Bible that is tangible to the human senses. In its most restrictive sense, it is a visible appearance of God in the Old Testament period, often, but not always, in human form. (gotquestions.org)
3) The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky is a passionate philosophical novel set in 19th century Russia, that enters deeply into the ethical debates of God, free will, and morality. It is a spiritual drama of moral struggles concerning faith, doubt, and reason, set against a modernizing Russia.
4) Project D by Dennis Abrams: https://projectdblog.wordpress.com
Additional thoughts about Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov:
“Numerous commentators have understandably stressed the moving pathos of Ivan’s humanitarianism; it has been suggested, as Blake said of Milton, that Dostoevsky was really of the devil’s party and could not suppress his emotional agreement with Ivan. There is no question that Dostoevsky poured into these passages all his own anguish over the abominations he was recording. However, Ivan represents, on the highest level of intellectual and moral sensibility, the supreme and most poignant dramatization of the conflict between reason and faith at the heart of the book, and it would have been inconsistent with his thematic aim to have softened or weakened his utterances. Faith, as Dostoevsky wishes it to be felt, in The Brothers Karamazov, must be really pure, a commitment supported by nothing except a devotion to the image and example of Christ, and the opposing arguments of reason must thus be given at their fullest strength.”
I still find myself in agreement with Ivan — for me, when I was young, it was learning about the holocaust that pushed me in that direction.
I think that Frank is being harder than necessary on Ivan — I think his anguish over the suffering of the innocent is real, and his need for justice equates to justice on earth and not necessarily punishment or retribution, but not just the promise of justice in a non-Euclidean afterlife.