16 July–26 October
Kazimir Malevich the avant-garde Russian artist and Laurence Sterne the Yorkshire clergyman both provide a useful service to the busy aesthete: once you have sampled their work you needn’t bother with other experimentalists in the field. Sterne’s Tristram Shandy anticipates many of the tricks of experimental writing and Malevich’s squares and crosses tell all the duticul viewer she needs to know about abstraction. After visiting Tate Modern’s show, those who wish can go back to good, honest realist painting, though they might think twice about that.
Malevich was active in the revolutionary years which brought down the Tsars and brought in Stalin. This was a time of frenetic artistic change led from Paris by the Fauves and Cubists and from Italy by the Futurists. Two of the finest collections of this modern art were in Moscow. Malevich was able to study these collections and they all too obviously influence his pre-War work in the first rooms of the show. Here you can spot in the colour and brushwork Malevich’s rapid internalisation of a Cézanne or Matisse, or even of a Van Gogh or Gauguin. But there is a Russian twist to this with simplified, iconic peasants such as The Scyther who became part of Malevich’s subject matter on and off for the rest of his life.
Around 1912 the different French and Italian schools were blended by Russian artists in their own distinctive ‘Cubo-Futurism.’ Malevich’s Head of a Peasant Girl is an example of this school which also shows him moving closer to full-blown abstraction. Cubo-Futurism grew as an interaction between writers and other artists centred upon the idea of ‘zaum,’ the moving beyond reason through a meaningless language, first literary but then visual and even musical. A key work of this movement was the opera Victory over the Sun which Malevich designed and which is shown on video at the Tate. It is of its time, hectoring in tone and with Dadaist parallels. A similar absurdism can be found in Malevich’s An Englishman in Moscow.
None of these works prepare us for the sheer force of a small number of abstract works made by Malevich in or about 1915. These he labelled Suprematist – Malevich was a great theorizer – and were to be the end of painting, or rather the old art world of nature was to disappear and be replaced by a new world of pure, objective form. The first of these works of the new art was Black Square which is just that, a large black square on a white ground. The Tate shows a preparation for this, another black square which fits onto a small canvas which was originally to have been called War, and a later version of it (the original is too fragile to travel – like Leonardo, Malevich had problems with paint).
It is, of course, something any child could do, except no child ever has. The same goes for paintings in Malevich’s 1915 exhibition ‘The Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting 0.10’ a number of which have been brought together and hung in a manner similar to that show. These include Cross Black 1915 and Red Square (Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions) 1915 which are just what they say they are. How I don’t know, but these paintings carry a powerful charge with them. There is a force of character and a vision with the purest of these works as if Malevich has energized the paint with his own psyche. The more varied works in that 1915 show such as the Suprematist Self-Portrait in 2 Dimensions have more colours and different geometric shapes and there is an obvious debt to Futurism with movement and balance, even agitation. But they do not have the same vital energy as the pure blocks of colour. If these works ‘lead’ anywhere it is not on a path to the visionary uplands but to Art Deco.
Malevich himself did not take that path. He paralleled the dissolution of Tsarist Russia with the dissolution of painting, a difficult position for a painter to be in. No wonder then that even the simplest works post-1917 lack the force of those of 1915. So White Suprematist Cross 1920 in which the paint seems just to dissolve may be a liberation from paint but for the painter they are a letting go of life.
During the years before Stalin Malevich painted less and less, though he spent a great deal of time designing buildings without a purpose (the Art Deco begins to creep in here) and teaching. However, Stalin had no time for the avant-garde and when Malevich did return to painting, whether by choice or not, his work became more figurative and precise, even photographic in its realism. And it lost all but the most oblique hints to his belief in abstraction. The final room of this show where Malevich’s work fits in with the Party line makes us ponder the relationship between ‘proper painting’ and tyranny. But Malevich’s finest abstract work for all that it remained imprisoned in the Soviet Union was to find echoes in the work of Rothko and Newman. It was not the end point of art as he claimed, but it was real, vital painting.
Tate Modern’s show is extremely well curated.
ARCHBISHOP JUSTIN WELBY
Risk-Taker and Reconciler
DLT, 268pp, pbk
978 0232530728, £18.99
This is an easy book about an easy man with no easy job. I say easy in that he seems hard to faze and we learn he was appointed among other reasons because he was easy in his own skin which seems rare among clerics. The lack of ease of the job is well chronicled so that his predecessor as Archbishop talked of needing ‘the constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros’. A year into the job he has quite a track record in the establishing of a settlement for women bishops, charting a way forward regarding same-sex unions and setting forth an agenda for prayer, monasticism, church growth and kingdom-oriented social engagement that sees the Pope as partner.
Andrew Atherstone is easy reading if you have got a passion for transformative Christianity. His chronicle of Justin Welby is peppered with joyous life, growth and change far more typical of the Church of England than, as is said, the letters to the Church Times would have you believe. Sympathy with our Eton-educated subject is won by tale of a broken home that sent him to boarding school. This may have skilled his capacity to deal with dysfunction in his Anglican family. Intellectual brilliance made him a fast riser in the oil industry and the Church as ‘risk-taker and reconciler… able…to synthesise a lot of information quickly and under pressure’, be that linked to collapse of oil prices or the Anglican communion.
If I as an Anglo-papalist can identify with him it is not just to do with his being a Benedictine oblate of the former Nashdom but with his basic catholic conviction that truth and unity go together. It is also attractive to me, as village priest leading a coalition from Forward in Faith across to Evangelical, to read of Justin’s friendship with people of both those hues. This makes his profession that both groups will be honoured after July’s vote for women bishops, inasmuch as he has a say, so very credible. Of course, to use his words, ‘he is not the Pope’ and the broad church he leads looks as uncomfortable as ever after the vote through lack of a referee on matters of faith and order.
Justin spoke of that discomfort at a commemoration of seventeenth-century divine Jeremy Taylor in 2013: ‘Like a drunk man walking near the edge of a cliff, we trip and totter and slip and wander, ever nearer to the edge of the precipice. It is a dangerous place, a narrow path we walk as Anglicans at present. On one side is the steep fall into an absence of any core beliefs, a chasm where we lose touch with God, and thus we rely only on ourselves and our own message. On the other side there is a vast fall into a ravine of intolerance and cruel exclusion. It is for those who claim all truth, and exclude any who question. When we fall into this place, we lose touch with human beings and create a small church, or rather many small churches – divided, ineffective in serving the poor, the hungry and the suffering, incapable of living with each other, and incomprehensible to those outside the church’.
It is this incomprehension by outsiders of Christian infighting that clearly touches Justin, as well as their disdain for the Christian sexual ethic. This latter he addressed twenty years ago as parish priest: ‘The standard the young people in this church are being set for age of consent is marriage. It may not be P.C. (politically correct) but it is B.C. (Biblically Correct). As the nation moves further away from the biblical norms Christians should be able to present an alternative lifestyle which others will find demanding but attractive just as they did in the second century’. More recently as an Archbishop he met gay rights promoter Peter Tatchell in a quest for pastoral involvement with the homosexual community which may not exclude sticking to the same countercultural ethic.
Who could not wish someone well who both wears and bears a cross of nails? That cross, the Coventry symbol, hangs always round his neck and helps Justin endure the pains of a ministry of reconciliation. Throughout the book there are quotes of how Jesus on the Cross impacts him and changes everything: ‘The cross is the moment of deepest encounter and most radical change. God is crucified – my Friend died – in some way, for me. Merely writing or reading these words together in one sentence is overwhelming. A person caught by the implications of the cross will be a person who has found the fullness of the life which is the gift of God through him…The cross is the great pointer where the suffering, and the sorrow, and torture, and trial, and sin, and yuck of the world ends up on God’s shoulders, out of love for us’.
It is this profound sense of redemption that underlies his strong sense of the church. ‘Because God has brought us together we are stuck with each other and we had better learn to do it the way God wants us to. That means in practice that we need to learn diversity without enmity, to love not only those with whom we agree but especially those with whom we do not agree’. As Archbishop he says he is not trying to get everyone to agree but to transform bad disagreement into good disagreement, working for unity not unanimity. ‘Reconciliation among Christians does not have unanimity at its heart, or tolerance, but the capacity to love despite disagreement, and to differ and be diverse without breaking fellowship. The difficulty is where to draw the boundaries and decide that a difference is of such fundamental importance that a breakdown of fellowship is necessary’.
I value this book not just for presenting Justin Welby but for presenting through him some profound Christian aspiration. This man I called ‘easy’ is most likely the best leader God could give the many of us who are ‘not easy’ since leading the Church of England is as easy as taking your cat for a walk.
The Biography of the Archbishop Rupert Shortt
Hodder & Stoughton, 624pp, pbk
978 1444787436, £12.99
One page in Rupert Shortt’s revised and updated biography of Rowan Williams sums up the perceived record of the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury. There are few words on the page, just two pictures. The top picture shows Rowan sat next to Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican in 2006. Here is Rowan Williams in magisterial form: the ecumenical giant with a profound grasp of and sympathy for the claims of the Universal Church; the world-class theologian; the Anglican Archbishop invited to address the Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops in Rome; the disciple whom Shortt describes as ‘an apologist without peer in the English-speaking world’. Beneath the picture of Pope and Prelate is a photo of Williams with Katharine Jefferts Schori on their way to a press conference in 2007. They are walking together, but she is slightly in front, striding out, while he, clutching his pectoral cross, seems nervous and diffident. Here is Rowan Williams in less assured mode: seemingly trailing behind one of the most deeply divisive Christian leaders of recent years; unsure of himself in the presence of a domineering personality; struggling to keep up with a less authoritative, but more strident voice.
These two sides of Rowan’s personality appear to have jostled with each other (sometimes very publicly) throughout the decade he spent at Canterbury. It is an enigma that Rupert Shortt discusses repeatedly, concluding that the two character traits which combine to make up the total – a deep reverence for and love of tradition and catholicity on the one hand, and radical nonconformity bordering at times on anarchism on the other – were present in Rowan’s make-up from the very beginning. This gives the lie to the liberal perspective on Rowan’s primacy, which views his time at Canterbury through the prism of betrayal and retreat from a supposedly more glorious era of theological radicalism, unfettered by the responsibilities of high office and the pressures of a global Communion. In Shortt’s description, such a view is faulty for two reasons: first, because it neglects the conservatism which has always been a part of his subject’s theological identity; and secondly because it fails to appreciate the decision Rowan made to subsume his own personal opinions on many matters into what he saw as a wider responsibility to maintain and build up the unity of the Anglican Communion. A bishop (and an archbishop even more so) has a duty to maintain the unity of the Church, even at the expense of his own opinions, whereas a professor is not tied down by such considerations. It is possible to dissent from this view, but Shortt argues that in reaching it, posterity will at least judge Rowan Williams to have made a decision, and not merely have been guilty of vacillating weakness in the face of noisily competing voices.
If Shortt’s analysis of Rowan’s attempts to keep the Anglican Communion together shows on the one hand how the liberals misunderstood the man they thought they knew, then at the same time it reveals just how nasty some of the leading figures in the Global South movement were – to Rowan personally and to the individuals and theological trends which they sought to resist. It was probably a relief that many of the bishops of the Global South stayed away from the 2008 Lambeth Conference, which is judged to have been a qualified success.
Shortt gives due attention to the major flashpoints of Rowan’s tenure: the Jeffrey John affair; the consecration of Gene Robinson and the pitched battle between the American Church and the Global South before, during and after the 2008 Lambeth Conference; and the Sharia Law speech, which is also used as illustrative of how Rowan and the Lambeth Palace staff never really got to grips with the workings of the modern media.
The tensions within Rowan’s personality which have already been described were very much in evidence in his handling of the women bishop’s legislation. The Archbishop was in favour of women bishops, but also wanted adequate provision for those who are not. Here, as elsewhere, Shortt concludes that he was unable to convert his own (undoubted) personal authority and charisma into structural solutions which were mutually acceptable to the competing parties jostling around him. This, ultimately, was a failure for the Williams primacy. Shortt acknowledges that the defeat of the legislation in 2012 was ‘predicted well in advance’, and yet unable to give a lead that was heeded by Synod members in sufficient numbers (both in 2012 itself and at various stages before that), Rowan was unable to prevent the Synod voting down what is now generally considered by all sides to be seriously deficient legislation. The failure of the Church of England to adopt the Anglican Covenant must also be seen as a failure of Rowan’s leadership – though many would argue that the end result was the right one.
So there is no doubt that there were failures during Rowan’s time as Archbishop of Canterbury – but we all knew that was so. The achievement of Rupert Shortt in Rowan’s Rule is to see past the specific failures and remind us of the greatness – and the uniqueness – of the man. It is perhaps remarkable that Rowan Williams ever became Archbishop of Canterbury, temperamentally and emotionally more suited as he is to the world of academia and theological enquiry than the messy business of Church leadership. It is perhaps more remarkable still that he stuck at it for as long as he did. Shortt is an avowed fan – though not an uncritical one – and concludes that his best is still to come.
What struck me in reading of the trials and tribulations that were inflicted upon Rowan during his years at Canterbury was that although most of he presenting issues have not gone away, the intensity of the heat surrounding them seems to have died down. Where once there were red-hot coals of fury and fighting, the divisions seem – for the time being at least – to have been reduced to slowly burning embers. This has allowed his successor – with very different strengths and weaknesses – to achieve visible results in a way that seemed to be beyond Rowan.
But perhaps those ten years of Rowan’s Rule were an essential part of the ongoing and somewhat mysterious saga which is the Anglican Communion: perhaps he was not only a necessary Archbishop of Canterbury, but a God-given one. Between the sheer inadequacy of his predecessor, and the tangible results achieved by his successor, Rowan Williams was that rarest of things as Archbishop of Canterbury: a prophet. Prophets seldom fit into the boxes marked out for them by other people. They are frequently without honour in their own time and country. But the Church needs them. Rupert Shortt is surely right: posterity will view Rowan Williams and his archiepiscopate with far greater warmth and approbation than the Church and society in his own day ever did.
THE UNKNOWN GOD
Responses to the New Atheists
Edited by John Hughes
SCM, 128pp, pbk
978 0334049821, £11
The day I received this book for review was the day that I heard that the editor, John Hughes, had been tragically killed in a car crash. Although I did not know Fr Hughes personally, I was acquainted with both his work and his reputation as an outstanding priest and theologian. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.
He explains in his Introduction that his aim with this volume was to bring together a series of sermons that had been preached in the chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge by contributors who have something to say about the zealous group of ‘thinkers’ who have attained notoriety by their mockery of religion and popularizing of atheism.
I could have almost have reproduced the excellent and witty foreword written by Richard Chartres as this review, but will leave that delight for readers to enjoy for themselves.
Fr Hughes helpfully introduces each sermon with a concise introduction of each preacher which includes a brief summary of what they say. He also provides a fuller description of each of them at the end of the book.
The first sermon is by Terry Eagleton. He is one of Britain’s most distinguished literary critics and has held chairs in the Universities of Oxford, Manchester and Lancaster. He reminds us of the difficulty in entering into dialogue when atheists and believers end up ‘talking past each other’. He says, ‘Their conversations have the slightly surreal quality of a quarrel over veal escalope between a food scientist and a bon viveur’. He also helpfully examines the difference between having faith and believing.
The second sermon is by David Fergusson, Professor of Divinity and Principal of New College, Edinburgh and a Presbyterian minister. He is appalled by the tone of some exchanges between believers and atheists, likening them to Prime Minister’s Question Time. Christians, he reminds us, should argue courteously in keeping with the God of Love they profess to follow!
Timothy Jenkins likens Richard Dawkins to a man you meet in a pub who is determined to argue with you no matter how much you agree with him. He claims that Dawkins does not evaluate his sources but simply states them. He finds it interesting that Dawkins gets a lot of support from children’s authors and sci-fi and fantasy fiction writers!
Conor Cunningham is assistant director of the Centre for Theology and Philosophy and a lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies at Nottingham University – and it shows! He argues that Dawkins has killed off Darwinism and ultimately takes away any meaning in life. He quotes an awful lot of people and in effect has given us a longish, closely argued lecture rather than a sermon.
Alister McGrath comments that atheists make slogans not arguments and ridicule believers rather than belief. He is dismissive of the intellectual viability of atheism and reminds us that populist movements, like empires, rise and fall – so hang on in there Christians. Our time will come again!
Then we have the text of John Hughes’ own sermon. He reflects on the fact that Christians believe in a God who allows us to reject him and although the Cross can be a place where we can experience desolation, the Resurrection is where we can see that God does not abandon us even when we reject him.
John Cornwell was raised a Roman Catholic, became an agnostic and recovered his faith twenty years later. He is an author and journalist. He examines the disputes between believers and atheists through the eyes of the novel The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky. The argument between the brothers, Ivan and Alyosha, about the meaning of life is the same as that between those who believe that only ‘facts’ are valid as opposed to those who believe that ‘imagination’ gives us meaning.
Tina Beattie, the only female contributor, is professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Roehampton. She contends that Christians have misread the meaning of God’s justice and suffering and thereby have given atheists arguments that we believe in ‘Pie in the Sky when you die’. We must recover confidence in the hope that makes more sense of the world’s suffering than the glib optimism of the New Atheists.
Finally we have David Bentley Hart’s sermon. He is one of America’s most lively Christian apologists and an Eastern Orthodox theologian. He dismisses the New Atheists as intellectually feeble. He believes they occupy the same territory as fundamentalist believers. He accuses them of lazy reasoning and an ignorance of history. The true ‘Atheists’ were the early Christians who
challenged the selfish, fickle gods of the pagan world. New Atheism, he argues, is wedded to a consumerist, comfortable society.
While this volume brings together a formidable group of religious thinkers and practitioners which I commend to anyone engaged in thinking about the challenges of popular atheist thinking, I felt that too much time was spent dismissing the claims of the New Atheists rather than putting forward the positive arguments for belief that many readers would like to hear about.
Tina Beattie and David Bentley Hart begin to rebalance this in their contributions, so I want to end this review by quoting some words from the latter’s sermon: ‘Christianity from the beginning understood itself not simply as a timeless wisdom revealed, but as a dynamic invasion of time by eternity, a particular history that altered the frame of things, not only on earth, but in the heavens as well. It is that event that issues a call, in any generation, to those disposed to hear it, and even to those who are not’.
THE BREATH OF NIGHT
Arcadia Books, 300pp, pbk
978 0957330450, £11.99
Michael Arditti is truly the master of the modern religious novel. He manages to bring a wealth of fascinating characters from Communist priests, through journalists to rent boys together in this beautifully crafted and surprising novel. There are many twists and turns that leave the reader asking questions not only about the novel but also about the very nature of sainthood itself. The story centres a missionary priest Julian Tremayne who works in the Philippines. We read his account of his own story through letters to his family. In these he expresses his hope and fears as well as his deep convictions that he is called to serve his people in the here and now. The letters are interspersed with the story of Philip Seward sent out to investigate Julian’s life on behalf of his family. His adventures and interactions with people along the way are rich and varied. Arditti has a real talen for dialogue and the way in which different people relate to one another. I have only been to the Philippines once but Arditti has captured beautifully the mix of poverty and riches in this wonderful South East Asian country. The cast of characters include Imelda Marcos whose mansion, incongruous amidst the poverty, is beautifully described. There is humour in this novel: simply the description of a man trying new Asian food for the first time is enough to bring a smile to my face. There is also sorrow and pain and a real understanding of how people strive for something better but in doing so often risk their lives and falling further into poverty. Nothing ever is what it seems to be and that is perhaps the central theme of this novel. When is a saint truly a saint and how do we understand the nature of sanctity? Philip is sent to explore and investigate the claims of sanctity for Julian and he faces doors both closing and opening in his face. The great question is who is telling the truth and who is not. Another question this novel raises is how political priests should be, can they interfere in politics and how compatible is the communist cause with the church. Arditti as in his other novels never answers the questions he poses but he does give much food for thought. I would recommend this novel to anyone interest in the nature of sainthood, especially as canonizations seem to happen sooner after the saint’s death these days. It will not offer you the answer but it will help shape and challenge your thinking. It is also a cracking piece of escapism, ideal for a long journey or sitting by a beach.
Or Ethics for Physicalists
OUP, 420pp, hbk
978 0199682829, £50
You are out walking with your dog. You throw a stick for him to chase and retrieve. Which he duly does; and brings it back, drops it at your feet, and looks up at you, mouth open and panting. He looks as though he is smiling, and he certainly seems to want you to throw the stick again. And so you do. As he rushes off again, is it true to say that he wants to do it, or even that he does so of his own free will? Or again – for you have had him many years and trained him well – when you leave him sitting on the grass and tell him, ‘Stay!’ as you walk over the brow of the hill, would it be fair to say that he wants to be obedient, or even that he sits still of his own free will?
Up to a point, such talk (though somewhat overblown) is not absolutely inappropriate. Cat lovers, you will note, would come up with a very different vision of free will, but still with a solid sense of their cat ‘doing exactly what it wants’. Pets make lovely examples, being extensions of our selves, our desires and responses. But what if you turn it the other way round? Is free will best expressed as ‘doing what one wants’, and is this by analogy something like my dog rushing after the stick which has been thrown?
If this is all you want (sic) from free will, then it may be possible to develop an ethics (i.e. a system of moral judgements) for creatures (us) who are essentially no more than monkeys, only different by degree from cats and dogs. For, as Mendola says, ‘Everything that exists is constituted by the microphysical, by atoms in the void, or more exactly quarks, leptons, and force-carrying particles with their characteristic physical properties in curved spacetime,’ and again, ‘There is no god. And the truth of physicalism [this is what used to be called materialism] assures there are no non-natural properties, Forms of the Good, …’
Frankly, this is complete nonsense. If all is mere physics, then what is the point of writing books, or discussing ideas and concepts? This is a strange world: seeking values, speaking of right and wrong, searching for truth and falsehood, in a world from which all such subjects are by definition excluded. It is like the Venerable Bede’s attempt to explain a round world, and the basis of the seasons, within the prevailing orthodoxy of a flat earth: it is an intellectual tour de force, even awesome in its imaginative invention, but in the end rather weird.
Since I cannot truly believe there can be any such thing as an ‘ethics for physicalists’, I cannot truly give a fair account of what Mendola is proposing. Like most modern theories, it is mainly consequentialist (what used to be called utilitarianism, until that theory went out of favour), but a good deal richer than what used to be served up in the twentieth century. In the end, with delicious irony, he falls back on the scientists’ unacknowledged vision of the moral universe, namely that our desires (as observable facts) provide the foundation for our sense of value (i.e. what is right or wrong).
The one thing you cannot do, as a materialist–physicalist, is derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, an evaluation from a fact, a judgement about what is right from an object or event that has been observed. But the one thing you have to do, as a physicalist philosopher, is to squeeze an ought from what is. All you have are (physical) objects, and somehow you must extract a (moral) subject. This book is a hugely impressive attempt to do just that.
For most of us, this book’s value (sic) is as a sophisticated text book, an explanation and elaboration of the elements of moral theory, without any recourse to the wider truths of the world we live in. As an analysis of the forms and logic of a moral theory, it is far more sophisticated than anything a theologian would come up with. Frankly, life is too short and morality too important to get caught up in the minutiae. But the fact that someone has done it for us, this is valuable. Wrong, but highly instructive.