Thursday, 15 December 2011

Iconoclastic Christmas

The controversial street artist, Banksy, today unveiled what is described as a piece of "anti-Christian artwork" - Cardinal Sin is a replica of an 18th century bust with the face replaced by a series of tiles which are apparently meant to represent the pixellation effect used to conceal the identities of victims of child abuse. The statue is considered to be a statement on the child abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic church. Banksy says it is a sort of Christmas present ...

I have to say that I find modern art interesting although I am dubious about some of it. I rather like Banksy's statue with its representation of new media superimposed upon old stonework. Perhaps he is intending to juxtapose old attitudes to the Church hierarchy, shown through the reverential bust, alongside our modern contempt and anger at corruption in the Church, shown by the obscured and vandalised face. I don't have any problems with artists condemning corruption in the Church or exposing its flaws. What I am more concerned about is the comment from the artist, 'At this time of year it’s easy to forget the true meaning of Christianity - the lies, the corruption, the abuse.'

So, corruption, lies and abuse constitute the true meaning of Christianity ? I don't think so! Christ was a an iconoclast, someone who had a vivid turn of phrase, describing religious authorities as "whited sepulchres"and not hesitating to overturn the tables when he saw lies, corruption and abuse. The Christian Church throughout the ages may have often traded on lies and abuse, but Jesus himself spoke up against power and corruption. The Incarnation should also strike us as iconoclastic because it smashes to pieces some of our ideas about the nature of God.  It also challenges our human ideas about power and hierarchy; Mary tells us that it is the work of a God who "hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts and the rich he hath sent empty away."

So, what is the true meaning of Christianity - and isn't it time to reclaim it?


  1. “So, corruption, lies and abuse constitute the true meaning of Christianity ? I don't think so! Christ was a an iconoclast...”

    Suem, I think here you hit on one of the very real problems of Christianity: Christ may have been many things, but ‘Christ’ is not Christianity. The hypocrisy of Peter noted by Paul (Gal 2:11-14) suggests the nascent Church was already burdened with internal divisions and hypocrisy. However I don’t think this is an issue limited to Christianity – rather it is something endemic in religion. Two thousand years on from Paul’s spat with Peter, it comes as no surprise to find societies which have high levels of religiosity also have high levels of corruption (see for an interesting discussion on this issue).

    I don’t know how much has been discussed in the wider media, but here in London the local news was dominated the Ealing Abbey sexual abuse scandal in November ( What I find shocking about this tale of abuse is not that it was perpetrated by a few, out of many, monks (having lived the monastic life, I am more than aware that the Religious Life (not to mention the priesthood) attracts some very twisted individuals – there was no sexual impropriety (that I knew of) in the community where I was a monk – but there were other kinds of abuse, particularly emotional, psychological and even physical – and this is typical in many religious communities!). No, it was the fact that there was a systematic cover up – what was important to the local Roman Catholic community was its good name – and this usurped any duty of care for the victims or compunction for the abbey’s failings. Yet this is not a RC problem alone – similar events have muddied the reputation of Protestant run children’s homes in Northern Ireland. I have worked for two faith based organisations and have been a volunteer for a third and know there was an endemic tendency to hide the organisations’ failings – reputation always won over transparency (in these cases the failings weren’t – in the main – sexual, but usually financial, procedural and/or professional). My own experience (and academic research) has shown that faith-based organisation are no better (or worse) than secular organisations when it comes to sweeping things under the carpet. The problem is that many claim they are ‘better’ or more virtuous organisations than state or secular organisations – moreover many people (particular those owning a faith) believe faith based organisations are somehow ‘better’ – when there is little evidence to suggest this – and considerable evidence to the contrary.

    “At this time of year it’s easy to forget the true meaning of Christianity - the lies, the corruption, the abuse.”

    This is hyperbole and at best a half truth – but there is some truth in it and to forget or deny it, is to display a wilful ignorance. Again and again, in my academic research I find Christians (and those other faiths) will claim organisations and institutions associated with their faith are morally superior to their secular counterparts. When asked why they believe this, few can substantiate their belief, except by an appeal to wishful thinking. Alas it is probable Banksy can provide less savoury, but more concrete evidence for his claims!

    There is much that can be praised about Christianity and the work of Christians. But any of us who have held positions in faith based organisations or local churches; or have been a member of a church community, know just bearing the appellation ‘Christian’ isn’t a guarantee of communal or individual virtue. There are things that take place in vestries, PPC meetings, management meetings and just the back biting and nastiness that is quite common in the day to day lives of churches that rightly deserves condemnation because it is far from the Christian ‘ideal’.


  2. I love the way you write me a little essay in your comments, Peter:)
    I think this blog places a fair emphasis on the flawed nature of the Church as an institution and it is something I really struggle with. Coleridge (I think) said he would be fine with Christ if it wasn't for his "leperous bride the church" - and many have made similar observations! At the same time (as you say) many good things do happen in Churches and yet (as you also say) there is plenty of pettiness, nastiness and division in individual churches as well as in the church as a whole.
    I suppose I would say that the church has betrayed and fallen far short of Christ's message and teaching. I did actually stop attending church for two years a while back partly because I felt so disillusioned with it as a whole organisation. I did find, however, that it was difficult to be a Christian without the support and structure, and I missed communal worship and taking communion. So I went back. I think that is the dilemma, church is flawed, but it does offer a structure that supports personal faith.
    I try to be a bit more tolerant now of the flaws - and the flaws I perceive in Christianity-as-institution. I remember that it is (basically) just a human institution and so human nature with all its problems and vested interests and ability to be abusive is potentially there in Church . I wish this could be more explicit in Churches, that we get it wrong.
    But when I talk of "Christianity" I suppose I mean the teaching and example of Christ - which the Church falls well short of (but then so do I and so do we all!) I am far from thinking that Christians are "persecuted" in the UK today, but I think there are (again as you say) many half truths and assumptions and lazy thinking about Christians and our faith. I do think those assumptions should be challenged sometimes?

  3. But isn’t this the case with many aspects of life? On Thursday I was buzzing around the house getting ready to attend a meeting in central London and while in and out of the bathroom and bedroom, I was half listening to the afternoon play on Radio 4. It was a love story between a priest and a nun. I didn’t hear the conclusion, but found myself growing irritated by the sheer lack of knowledge the author demonstrated by his continued use of ‘well-worn’ clichés concerning both the monastic life and the priesthood. At one point the priest character makes some comment about not knowing whether nuns had a sense of humour and later the nun says that if her sisters back at the convent found out she liked her hospital voluntary work because it brought into contact with the priest, she would be stopped because it would be seen as an occasion of ‘sin’. I thought this utter crap. I am sure it would be unusual if a middle-aged, RC priest hadn’t at one time or another known nuns socially. As for being stopped from occasions of ‘sin’ the onus of responsibility lies with the individual Religious. The play drew its characters from a putative, almost ‘folklore’ comprehension of the life of priests and nuns (see:

    I think Banksy is doing the same – like many, he is able to ‘create’ a polarised world, where ‘Christianity’ becomes a monolithic whole, without variation and with a malicious intent. Whereas the bulk of Christianity’s failings are more likely to fall within this discussion of ‘malicious intent’ by George Eliot in Mill on the Floss:

    ‘Plotting covetousness and deliberate contrivance, in order to compass a selfish end, are nowhere abundant but in the world of the dramatist: they demand too intense a mental action for many of our fellow-parishioners to be guilty of them. It is easy enough to spoil the lives of our neighbours without taking so much trouble; we can do it by lazy acquiescence and lazy omission, by trivial falsities for which we hardly know a reason, by small frauds neutralized by small extravagances, by maladroit flatteries, and clumsily improvised insinuations. We live from hand to mouth, most of us, with a small family of immediate desires; we do little else than snatch a morsel to satisfy the hungry brood, rarely thinking of seed-corn or the next year’s crop.’

    Yes, there are some very prejudicial views concerning Christianity – though alas, some are based on individual’s experiences. Yet I know Christians likewise can hold very prejudiced views. There is some wicked stuff being exchanged on some Christian blogs when it comes to Islam at present. While doing research for my thesis I ‘cold-called’ several faith based organisations enquiring what qualities they were looking for in care staff. One woman, in an organisation that only employs practicing Christians in its front line care work (very rare for Christian faith based organisations!!) said to me: ‘Unless you’re a Christian, you can’t really understand what it is to care for someone...’ – at which point I wanted to say ‘Fuck off you self-deluding, arrogant bitch!’ but practiced a little Christian forbearance myself and kept within the ‘role’ I was playing.

    We do ‘live from hand to mouth, most of us, with a small family of immediate desires...’ and as such create social reality from primary (our own) and second-hand (via media and cultural discourse) experience. Sometimes we believe things because it suits our self interest, and sometimes we’re just not interested in another point of view because it would have a personal cost to change our way of thinking. Yet the hard truth is that we live most of our lives in ignorance of much the world – we make good this deficit with quickly sketched line drawings: thin black lines on an empty white background. We like the wider world to be black and white because we have neither the time nor the interest to fill in the gaps. We do this, despite our personal world being more impressionistic, where lines blur and colours merge.


  4. Yes, we do ‘live from hand to mouth, most of us, with a small family of immediate desires...’ That self absorption is a recurring theme in George Eliot's writing. It runs throught Middlemarch - I have a quote here,
    "we are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves." There is another wonderful quote ( start of chapter 27) about how a candle placed on a pier glass will cause its "multitudinous scratches to seem to arrange themselves around that little sun." The pier glass is life's events, the candle is our egotism.

    But I wonder what our attitude should be to this sort of human frailty (of which we are often oblivious, most of all in ourselves.) I think it can either make us cynical about others, or it can give us a kind of compassion and tenderness for that human vulnerability and frailty. I suppose that might sound very sentimental - I don't mean that we should not condemn wrong behaviour in others, but none of us is perfect, we are all such a mixture of good and bad. When it comes to human fallibility we are "all in it together", that's more the viewpoint I think I'm moving towards - don't know if it sound like utter crap though!!

  5. I was only thinking of the ‘multitudinous scratches’ quote the other day when watching ‘Victorian Farm Christmas’ and Ruth was polishing the oil lamps... Middlemarch is probably my all time favourite novel!

    The following is something I posted on someone else’s blog:

    “The final words of the priest at the end of confession are: ‘Go in peace, the Lord has put away your sin; and pray for me a sinner…’ (from memory – please forgive me if I’ve not quite got it right). I think these words sum up what it is to be a Christian: we have our purpose, but we also have the reality that we are imperfect and are nothing except through the Grace and Forgiveness of God. We have to accept that the failings and limitations of others will be matched (and often outdone) by our own. This doesn’t mean that we should be passive, or silent, or not exhort others to lead ‘better’ lives; but we can only do this from a place of humility. Here lies the problem because we cannot know when we are humble – otherwise there is the temptation to take pride in that humility. True humility is hidden from its owner. It is often through the trials and situations of life that this humility is wrought – yet for it to bear fruit it cannot be possessed purely for the gratification of the self (there is nothing wrong with taking pride in one’s achievements, it is when we become ‘Little Jack Horners that the problems start!).”

    Just a thought...