‘Russia, Royalty and the Romanovs’ and ‘Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea’ are at The Queen’s Gallery until 28 April, 2019
Readers of New Directions will have enjoyed any number of good exhibitions over Christmas and New Year: Lorenzo Lotto, Klimt/Schiele, the Courtauld Impressionists at the National Gallery, Edward Burne-Jones (wonderful soft furnishings), Ashurbanipal in the British Museum, Anglo-Saxons in the British Library… and those are just the London-based shows. Publication deadlines mean that this month’s exhibition is a little different from those in-depth studies. ‘Russia’ at the Queen’s Gallery is not about artists but about the interchange between two families, the Romanovs and the Hanover/Saxe-Coburg and Gothas. It is also two separate shows: ‘Russia, Royalty and the Romanovs’ features paintings, gifts and momentoes of the Romanovs in the Royal Collection, whilst ‘Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea’ does what it says on the tin, the Crimea being the Crimea of the Crimean War.
Fenton’s photographs were bought assiduously by the British royal family, the then Prince of Wales sharing the great Prince Regent’s interest in battles he didn’t take part in. Fenton himself was only able to arrive in Crimea once the major battles were over. Nevertheless, his photographs of men and women on the frontline and of fields strewn with cannonballs made a strong mark on the public imagination. Photographs of the Indian Mutiny/Rebellion and of the American Civil War often follow Fenton’s template and the show crowns him as the first war photographer.
There are also photographs of Russia in the other exhibition, and they are the only indications of the vast, impoverished society of mujiks which held up the glittering crust of the imperial family. Though there are some memorabilia from before the nineteenth century (which serve to confirm the imperial family was not conventionally handsome) it is with the clash of empires—the French (under Napoleon), British and Russian—that things become interesting.
And most interesting of all are the portraits selected from Lawrence’s ‘Waterloo’ paintings, pictures of the leaders of the alliance which defeated Bonaparte and which usually hang at Windsor Castle. The finest of these is that of Count Nesselrode, in whose honour it is said numerous chestnut based recipes were created by the first celebrity chef, Carême (an exhibition on the influence of the Russian aristocracy on French cooking in the early nineteenth century would be niche, but nourishing).
The later portraits in the show lack the verve of Lawrence’s brushwork and, with the exception of Alexander III, the characterful sitters of the type who helped defeat Boney. The lead artist of these later works is Winterhalter. His realist sentimentality goes a long way and was much sought after by Queen Victoria’s family and relations. That family features in Tuxen’s ‘The Family of Queen Victoria in 1887’ a work which is both recognizable and forgettable. It hangs alongside Tuxen’s earlier ‘The Family of King Christian IX and Queen Louise of Denmark.’ The last paintings in the show are more family portraits, this time of Queen Elizabeth and of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. They are by Sorine, an emigré artist. They are not his best works—royalty so often deadens the most creative artists (cf. Freud’s picture of our own Queen)—but they symbolize the post-revolutionary diaspora.
It is the Revolution of 1917 which is the elephant in the exhibition. Indeed, there are few hints that after the revolution in 1905 the Romanov autocracy was under threat. To look at a sailor’s uniform worn by Tsarevich Alexei or the letter from George V which notes he’d been made an admiral by ‘Nicky’ is to live in a different world from the one in which the Russian navy had failed against the Japanese or mutinied at Odessa. Only the history of some of the bibelots on display suggest the upheavals which were taking place in the last years of the Romanovs. Amongst the luxury eclectibles, the Vladimir Tiara stands out. It was made for Grand Duchess Maria Pavlona, wife of Grand Duke Vladimir, the brother of Alexander III. It is a finely constructed mix of diamonds and pearls. To pay the bills in exile the Grand Duchess’ daughter, Princess Nicholas of Greece, sold the tiara to our current Queen’s grandmother, Mary of Teck. The Princess’s nephew, Prince Philip of Greece, of course, married our Queen and so in a way the stones came back into the Grand Duchess’ extended family. It is very much that kind of a show.
A more sombre note is struck by the advice attached to some fine stone carvings from Ekaterinburg. This explains how the Russian luxury trade in high quality display pieces collapsed after the revolution. Ekaterinburg had been the main centre for luxury stone carving. Ekaterinburg was where the last Tsar was killed.
Though most of the exhibits are related to the Ramanovs and their circle, the most beautiful item on display has a British history. The item in question is a cigarette case, made by the Russian court jeweller Fabergé and given to Edward VII by his favourite mistress, Mrs Keppel. Queen Alexandra, the King’s wife, returned the case to the mistress on the King’s death, as a momento we’re told. The mistress later gave it to the King’s son’s wife. It is a very beautiful, sinuous object. This is a well presented and catalogued show.
God & My Mobile
Keeping the faith in a digital world
CARE 2018, £8, 168pp
I have an eccentric friend who never side steps a mobile reading pedestrian heading for him because he has a mission to alert them to their rudeness. Nigel Cameron’s book is less direct but nonetheless a wake-up call to better stewardship of the digital world in which we own more and more, yet which so often owns us.
‘God & My Mobile’ charts the extraordinary benefits of mobiles, smart technology and social networking whilst reminding us of the price we are paying for these developments. I was struck by his insight on the rise of multi-tasking which leaves many of us distracted and unable to concentrate when away from computers and phones. Cameron’s critique comes in a suitably visual book laced with tweet-sized-box commentary: ‘Technology ‘shreds our attention’, says the penitent tech guru. It taps us where we are most vulnerable… using a mobile, hand-held or hands-free, makes the driver four times more likely to have an accident… on average, preschool children in the UK spend more than four hours a day with screens… I think we like our phones more than we like actual people’.
Most illuminating is Cameron’s insight into the power politics of the digital world with ‘tech tycoons taking over the planet’ riding on the back of data obtained from social media users which they employ to great commercial benefit. It’s mutual exploitation: we give ourselves over to immersion in the free colourful connecting and they monitor our desires for gain. ‘The Internet of Things’ connects real life objects like cars, garage doors and heating systems to the internet with great advantages. But hacking and the loss of personal data can often be traced back to cyber break-ins via these seemingly innocuous enhancements.
At the heart of Cameron’s analysis is the Christian concept of stewardship which sees life as a gift to be employed in God’s praise and service. His stories of the commercial exploitation of children, unhappiness among teenagers and obsessive behaviour of so many on social media spell out a challenge for readers to recover this sense of stewardship in their digital lives. Among his suggestions for recovering self-possession under God is a mobile Sabbath where families agree periods when conversation replaces individuals ‘speaking to themselves’ on a phone. ‘Everywhere you find yourself – home, office, factory, school, church – if you can speak to someone face-to-face, do. If you don’t want to, ask yourself why.’
Technology is God’s gift but like all his gifts – money, sex, power and so on – employable for good or ill. Cameron commends the US Center for Humane Technology whose research informs this book and which calls for ‘Team Humanity to realign technology with humanity’s best interests’. Such a call resounds through this helpful book which sets that noble aim in theological context and calls for Christians to take a lead in promoting good practice in the digital world.
Questioning the Incarnation:
Formulating a Meaningful Christology
Christian Alternative, 499pp, £24.99
Peter Shepherd is the bloke we have been so long awaiting to disabuse us of all that primitive tosh in the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition. He says, “My overall aim has been to formulate a meaningful Christology, one which, unlike the classic expressions, can offer ways of understanding Jesus Christ that are comprehensible.” At a stroke, he purges away all the accumulated rubbish of the Christian centuries which is “simplistic and naïve in its failure.” He achieves this, he thinks, by taking “Nicene and Chalcedonian language and divesting it of its metaphysical baggage.”
But what if this language which Shepherd so despises is not baggage and unnecessary clutter but part of the essential structure? He doesn’t stop to answer such a tiresome question, but presses ahead with his project of clearing away the junk: “’Jesus worked for God’ is a far more straightforward and meaningful assertion than ‘Jesus was God’.” Perhaps, but the two statements do not mean the same. Instead of the Christology of being, proclaimed by the Fathers, Shepherd offers a Christology of function: Jesus is not God, but he behaves as if he is. There’s a word for people who do that sort of thing, and it’s not very complimentary. It’s as if we should say, “Fred delivers the milk every morning, but you mustn’t run away with the idea that he’s the milkman.”
As well as clearing out all that old conciliar muck, Shepherd trashes the Old Testament: “We may draw the conclusion that the Jewish scriptures actually have nothing specifically to say about Jesus at all. How could they, as the future cannot be known?” In the face of such sophistication, I suppose it would be only foolish to reply that those ancient writers were prophets to whom God revealed truths inaccessible even to the elevated consciousness of Philip Shepherd.
If the Christology of the Fathers is meaningless, to whom should we look for guidance? Well, John Macquarrie and Geoffrey Lampe. When Shepherd was a student and the book prizes were being given out, his bishop Eric Kemp would rather he had not chosen a book by Lampe. But Shepherd tells us he was undeterred and bravely insisted on receiving it.
Actually, if Shepherd were to read more deeply into John Macquarrie, he would discover that Macquarrie does not share his disdain for the Christology of the Fathers. I know this for a fact. When I was Rector of St Michael’s, Cornhill, I invited Macquarrie to come and give a talk. Over lunch afterwards, I suggested to him that the Christologies of the Fathers and those of the modern existentialists might not, after all, be exclusive or mutually contradictory. Macquarrie radiated his gentle Highlands twinkle and replied: “Indeed they’re not. They’re the inside and the outside of the same thing.”
Yes, as with Augustine’s meditations in his masterpiece De Trinitate in which he presents both an objective statement about the being of God together with profound reflections on our experience of the Blessed Trinity in whose image we are made.
Shepherd belongs to that old, miscellaneous chorus line whose other members include such as David Jenkins, Maurice Wiles, John Hick and all the other “liberals.” And these pantomime dames sing only one song: that the traditional formularies are unbelievable and must be ditched in favour of fresh modern versions. It’s as daft as if we should say that, while the seven times table was believable in 1919, it can no longer be believed in 2019.
He’s a persistent enthusiast for hierarchies and segregating special interest groups and he delivers his judgements from a very great altitude: “The gulf between academy and pulpit has often been as immense as that between pulpit and pew.” Phew! Not at our St Michael’s it wasn’t!
Shepherd’s writing reminds me of polytechnic sociology modules (with parentheses on nearly every page). To read his strange book makes us want to know more about the author. Luckily, he has provided quite a lot of information about himself. Aged only thirty-four, he was headmaster of Canon Slade, a state comprehensive school in Bolton with 1800 pupils. As he tells us himself, “Perhaps the youngest ever.”
Revealing the Gospel
Nicolas Stebbing CR
Mirfield Publications, 2018
The Bible is the Word of God, Holy Scripture for all Christians. But how do we read and understand it?
The past decades were marked by a lot of uncertainty, as much of Biblical scholarship seemed to question what generations of Christian believers have thought to be true. Furthermore, the Bible has been claimed by vastly different strands of the Church and often used as a weapon in controversies.
Small wonder then, that many Christians have given up the practice of patiently and expectantly studying the Scriptures for themselves.
Fr Nicolas’ collection of short essays on the Gospels is a precious gift in this situation. The author shares with us his fascination and passion for a close reading of the Scriptures, particularly the four gospels.
Far from offering a devotional refuge, which shelters us from the critical questions of Biblical scholarship Fr. Nicolas makes a convincing case that the insights of scholarship, wisely used, can actually deepen our love and understanding of the Bible.
The first essay is devoted to basic methodological and theological reflections on how best to do this. The author introduces interested readers to basic tenets of a historical reading of the gospels and how this approach can go hand in hand with a dynamic spiritual understanding.
The rest of the booklet is an exercise in precisely this basic conviction.
One of the gifts of Biblical scholarship is that it attunes us to the difference and distinctiveness of each of the four gospels.
Hearing portions of the gospels during worship creates a great familiarity with these texts. But we can unwittingly blur the different accounts in our minds or fail to notice the big lines. Reading this essay collection helpfully addresses such dangers and redresses the balance. The author, a keen Greek tutor of many years, offers insights from years of learned reading and writing in a most accessible and clear form.
Paying close attention to vocabulary, overall theological convictions, structures and patterns Fr. Nicolas brings the distinctive Gospel witnesses to life for us. We see how Matthew narratively unfolds the confession of Jesus as the Son of God. We peer over Mark’s shoulder as we watch him artfully setting the scene in the beginning of his account of Jesus. We observe how Luke weaves the theme of forgiveness as a red thread into his story of Jesus. And we learn about John’s world of signs and symbols. All this is undergirded by the conviction that the gospels bear witness in all their differences to the one living Word of God, Jesus Christ. This is aptly captured in the title, which speaks of revealing “the Gospel” in the singular.
Fr Nicolas shows us how this Gospel is both life-giving and challenging by making the familiar strange and the strange familiar.
The interested reader would sometimes have loved to be pointed to this or that example of Fr Nicolas’ scholarly conversation partners, even more so because the author encourages us in his foreword to engage with such literature.
Yet what the booklet certainly does is to encourage its readers to turn to the New Testament and to see and read for themselves. In the richness of what Fr Nicolas shares in this volume, one is reminded of Jesus’ word that ‘every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old’ (Matthew 13:52).
Dorothea H. Bertschmann
Book of the month
The Noble Liar:
How and Why the BBC Distorts the News to Promote a Liberal Agenda
Biteback Publishing, 2018
In this fascinating, witty and trenchantly argued book, the former journalist Robin Aitken (who now runs a food bank in Oxford) turns the spotlight on the British Broadcasting Corporation, for which he worked for many years. Although the BBC is the focus of the book – because it is the organisation that Aitken knows from the inside – he acknowledges that it is slightly unfair to single it out too sharply as many of its characteristics are shared by a wide range of news organisations, as well as institutions such as schools, universities and the judiciary.
The noble lie to which the title refers is a concept drawn from Plato’s Republic: the idea of a polite fiction that holds in place the existing social order. The noble lie in this case is that the BBC is fair-minded, impartial and balanced whereas, in fact, it is deeply biased in favour of what might be described as metropolitan liberal opinion. Aitken demonstrates this as he ranges widely over subjects such as family life, Brexit, feminism, immigration and the place of religion in the public square.
For example, on ethical matters, the BBC has been resolutely in favour of abortion, divorce, assisted dying and, more recently, transgenderism; rarely allowing contrary viewpoints to be aired and tending to disallow any discussion of the damage that these do either to the social fabric of the country or to vulnerable individuals. In its coverage of Islam, the BBC has similarly closed down debate: ‘if you are a critic of that faith you become an “Islamophobe”’.
On Brexit, things are rather more complicated because, during the run-up to the referendum itself, the BBC was under a legal obligation to give equal coverage to both sides. However, he argues that the Corporation’s refusal over many years to allow discussion about the subject of immigration seriously backfired against its strongly pro-EU convictions. Because immigration was a subject that the Corporation traditionally regarded as taboo, it vigorously suppressed debate and dismissed as racists those who did not agree with its approach. Eventually the dam burst in the late noughties with many people suddenly discovering what had been the true level of immigration to the UK, feeling very alarmed by it, and wanting to ‘take back control’ of the UK’s borders. This, Aitken argues, almost certainly contributed to the ‘Leave’ victory, but if there had been a more measured long-term debate, the result of the referendum might well have been different.
Readers of New Directions might be particularly interested in this fascinating account of life and opinion in our country for two reasons.
First, Aitken lays bare what is often experienced as the intolerance of those with supposedly tolerant, liberal opinions: a phenomenon that may even sometimes be experienced within the Church of England, as well as more widely in British society. Convinced of the moral probity of their cause and that history is ultimately heading in their direction, liberals often tend to ignore, ridicule, dismiss as offensive or in other ways fail to engage with arguments that conflict with their deeply held beliefs. In doing so, they contradict a basic principle of liberalism’s founding father, J.S. Mill (1806-73) who in his seminal work On Liberty argues we should always be prepared to test the rightness or otherwise of what we think by hearing the views of those of the other side of the argument ‘in their most plausible and persuasive form’. Aitken argues that in the BBC and other similar media outlets, this ‘liberal bigotry’ comes in the form of what President Trump inelegantly calls ‘fake news’: not outright lies (the BBC and the newspapers are very careful in their fact checking) but through an ideological bias that ensures that certain subjects and viewpoints are rarely up for discussion.
Second, although Aitken does not reveal his own allegiance, he is strikingly sympathetic to traditional Christianity. In a chapter entitled Auntie the Apostate: Losing her Religion, Aitken outlines how the BBC has entirely turned its back on its former understanding that it had a duty ‘to uphold and sustain the traditional – which is to say, Christian – culture of Britain’, based on qualities such as duty, self-restraint and personal discipline. The BBC’s former motto was the Latin word Quaecunque, meaning ‘Whatsoever’, inspired by St Paul’s letter to the Philippians (4.8): ‘whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things’. In 1984 the motto was changed to the more anodyne ‘Nation shall speak peace unto nation’. Aitken argues that the breakdown of the formerly Christian culture in Britain, reflected in and strongly encouraged by her national broadcaster, has led to the consumerism, shallowness and extreme vulgarity that are now such evident features of public life. He encourages us not to be optimistic that these things will turn around any time soon and yet to be confident that it is the gospel and the teachings of the Church, rather than the vacuous nostrums and false promises of liberalism, that provide the only real bedrock for a better society. ‘The qualities that made Christianity a force to be reckoned with – the truth that wins human hearts and compels belief – have not changed, and will go on winning converts to its banner’.