Category Archives: Theology

How Real Are You? Bill Viola’s ‘Martyrs’

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The installation at St Paul’s

On the Saturday before Palm Sunday, I went to see Bill Viola’s video art installations at St Paul’s Cathedral.  The two moving-image works, Martyrs and Mary, are gifted to Tate and are on permanent loan to St Paul’s.  I will in this piece focus on Martyrs because talking too much about Mary would be a great spoiler – its meaning is only in seeing it, and reading anything descriptive about it will destroy its impact.  You will understand if you go and view it.

Born in 1951, when Viola was 6 years of age he fell into some water and nearly drowned. Looking back many years later, he says that while he was under water, he was able to register the beauty of this new world that he witnessed. The notion of the ‘real’ being under the surface is a key theme throughout his work, and this draws from his early experience with water.

He says ‘Art is, for me, the process of trying to wake up the soul. Because we live in an industrialized, fast-paced world that prefers that the soul remain asleep.’  There is no more of an appropriate time for this than Easter.  The installations, parts of which can be seen here, begin with, in Martyrs, humans in the process of beginning to be martyred, and in Mary, new life – a baby, but ending with death.  It got me thinking: the Christian faith is about Crucifixion followed by Resurrection, and recalling these events in Holy Week is a prime opportunity for us to start over and ‘wake up’. But actually, in our daily lives we are presented with such opportunities constantly but so often allow them to pass us by, and so the moment has gone – and we fall asleep again.

Viola sees cameras as keepers of the soul because of what they capture – an example being the filming of his mother as she died (she was in a coma).  He read St John of the Cross aged 16 which, like the experience with water, was highly influential and is evident here where his work seems to have an integral feeling of bringing back the numinous and focussing on the interior landscape of the human person.

The use of film to communicate to the audience is significant – we are used to being spectators but in this instance, we are not to be controlled by this usually controlling medium.  Going back to the theme of being asleep, in our daily lives we have allowed screens to dictate far too much to the point of being so addicted that an alien visiting earth would think our souls were stored in our phones rather than in our very being.  Well, these installations remind us that it is the latter: yes – I hate to break the news but your soul is not in your phone.  The essence of the humans in these installation is so intense – we are not controlled by them, or the screen in which they reside, but rather we are at one with them, as the tangibility of the flesh behind the screen is raw.

In Martyrs four actors are shown left to right, in isolation.  One is a man buried under earth, who gradually stands up and pushes through the soil; the second is a woman bound at her feet and wrists, and hanging from them as she is blown in the wind; the third is a man sitting on a chair surrounded by a circle of flames encroaching on him, and the fourth is a man hanging upside down with water pouring down on him, his arms outstretched.

Viola does not say what anyone is supposed to see in these or in what time period they are set. The man in the earth has overtones of Adam (man made from the earth) – or it could be a civilian caught in an earthquake; and the man hanging could be St Peter who was crucified upside down – or it could be someone undergoing waterboarding. These are just some of the reactions St Paul’s has received from the many visitors to the installation. There is a phrase which is something like ‘comfort the distressed and distress the comfortable’ – this work is an example of this process. The point is we should be affected in some way – not indifferent. It is the encounter that matters.

Whatever we think, as viewers we look and then walk away. Which is exactly what we do in life, at our peril. We condemn those who torture or kill others, and apparently empathise with the victims, but these actors within the screen seek to reflect us back to ourselves (as all good art does) and show our failings, which in this case is inaction – and force us to re-examine the term ‘martyr’. It can be ill used in today’s world.

The main issue I had with the martyrs is that there is no evidence of pain in their faces – even when a martyr accepts death willingly (alone, in order to stand for the truth – they do not impose this on others or wish to destroy others in their death), they would physiologically feel the agony of flames, or the horrendous pressure on their body hung upside down battling to breath with water blocking their air passages. Perhaps suffering is aestheticized, and too gentle in these installations? Are these martyrs too archetypal – to the point of being unreal?

But maybe that is the point – we don’t need to be ‘controlled’ by being shown four actors screaming and writhing in agony. We know this to be the case – and having to think for ourselves about these four human beings who appear peaceful and serene only makes manifest the real life current situation – it is the peaceful who have become martyrs at the mercy of many a brutal regime. Viola’s film medium has indeed subverted the idea of control – we have got it wrong if we are controlled by it and become its puppets. This is about what we do in response, as are the daily news pictures on our screens…

The study of Theology, in general, throws up more questions than it provides answers.  Likewise with these installations, and likewise with Easter. We simply cannot know answers to everything and it is increasingly difficult to find meaning in everything. If we are constantly looking for rational explanations for our experiences, including our sufferings, then we are missing the point. It is far more important to engage with the situation and in that moment, take a note of how we feel, and react. How we react makes us real, and if we don’t react we are perhaps the ones who are unreal.

As Disraeli said, ‘never apologize for showing feeling. When you do so, you apologize for the truth.’

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The Polar Express (the train of life)

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I’m not the first to look for the deeper meaning in the animated film The Polar Express. It is a wise film interspersing thoughtful conversation with high action – it would make a thrilling fast ride at a theme park.  The music is also wonderful – it would also make a great musical.

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Faith, and lack of it, along with the innocence and loss of childhood, are big themes, but also the general challenges of life that we experience whether child or adult. There are some key one-liners from the train conductor (Tom Hanks) – I thought one might pop up “it’s not the destination but the journey that is important” but instead, better, it’s: “it doesn’t matter where the train goes, it’s making the decision to get on it that matters.”

Hanks

It is a risk for all the children to jump on the train but they do and discover aspects of themselves that they either didn’t know they had or find they needed confirmation of the qualities they did have. On the journey they are challenged, but also helped, by Doubt – the spirit of the dishevelled, teasing spirit of a man who appears on and off in various parts of the train – also played by Tom Hanks.

This pairing of these two characters (conductor and spirit man) could be seen as theological – Hope (the conductor) and Doubt (the dishevelled, teasing spirit of a man) are two sides of the same coin. We experience one with the other in most cases, but with friendship, empathy, and our own individual reflection, we can get through them.  Three of the children become good mates – one boy struggles particularly with the concept of Christmas (we’re not given details but we assume he’s had a tricky home life, is lonely, and certainly doesn’t come from a wealthy background) but he is valued by his two friends.

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Materially the children are on the search for presents but learn a great deal more about the gifts they already have within them and also what they need to learn and do to maintain hope and faith. The conductor makes a passing but key comment ‘sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.’

Holding onto the unseen is the challenge in life – the symbol of the bell in the film personifies this. Doubt says you must see to believe.  Hope says you sometimes have to believe in order to understand, and to see.

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Happy Christmas.

The Dangers of Labelling

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The Christians by Lucas Hnath. Published by Nick Hern Books and first performed at the Humana Festival of New American Plays, Louisville, Kentucky, 8 March 2014. The Gate Theatre, Notting Hill, 8 September – 3 October.

I’d heard very positive comments on this play from its time in New York in 2015, the 2015 Edinburgh Festival and its transfer to The Gate Theatre. I was not disappointed and came away troubled – and reminded – about the reality of a religion (and perhaps religion in general).

The staging is simple and you walk into a deliberately blurred setting between drama and church. The Gate is a tiny theatre so the stage and its joyful choir on the stage are very close.  A luminous cross sits at the back of the stage in between their two sides.  In front of the choir are two standing microphones from where Pastor Paul (a brilliant William Gaminara from TV’s Silent Witness) and Associate Pastor Joshua deliberate the theology of salvation to the shock of their congregation – which is both the choir behind them and us the audience.

The microphones are at first a distraction since the whole script is delivered through them, but we have to remember that this is a ‘mega’ church in America. I also found the microphones to be metaphors: when you are talking about your faith and particularly when what you say is controversial, it does feel like the whole world is listening, and likely making its judgment.

The whole play hangs on the question ‘what happens when you die if you are not a Christian?’ and Pastor Paul is haunted by his witnessing of a boy who runs into a burning house to save his sister’s life only to lose his own. The boy worships a different God and is likely to never have heard of Jesus Christ.  As Stephen Portlock of the Independent Catholic News, October 8th, says, ‘Ghastly as is the notion of this compassionate young man going to Hell, it is hardly less of a travesty of justice than that of an all forgiving God who places the murderer and his victim together in Heaven.  Furthermore, if salvation is open to all then why bother being a Christian at all?’

Gaminara delivers the powerful sermon with his news that he does not believe in Hell with complete sensitivity, earnestness and passion, and manages empathy too. The aftermath is devastating – members of his congregation leave as does his colleague and friend Joshua, whom Paul had mentored, feeling betrayed that he drops a theological bomb shell at this point in time when all the church’s debts are paid off from the congregation’s gifts, and his marriage faces a split.  At the start you support Pastor Paul in his strength and want to believe what he says, but the catastrophic implications come crashing down.  He didn’t share any of this, what some would call, revisionist and progressive theology with his wife until she hears it with thousands of others on a Sunday morning.  Suddenly you realise that faith is never really private.  It affects how you behave to others, and what they think of you.

Pastor Paul

Pastor Paul

There isn’t time here to go into issues of translations of words in the Bible which the play spends some time discussing but in a nutshell, Pastor Paul reminds us about taking the words of Jesus out of context; and one issue did hit me with almost horrendous resonance for the 21st century world we try to comprehend: we label people into ‘Christians’ and ‘non Christians’ with one group going here after death and one group going there after death (as if we can even have any understanding of what life after death could be – we cannot), and in labelling them we forget that a big part of Christianity is about trying to make a heaven on earth through ‘loving one another’ and embracing the stranger. Pastor Paul alerts us to the potential of the pollution of Christian behaviour when it twists, and uses the example of a group of thieves – they stick together because amongst themselves they don’t keep telling each other how useless or ‘bad’ they are.  The thieves are alike in the way they have gone wrong in life.  Christians are their own worst enemy with phrases such as ‘saved’ and ‘unsaved’ – if you are in the latter camp, whether you are a thief or whether you just happen to have been born into a culture where Jesus just isn’t around, then yes, you may well feel worthless if you are condemned as ‘unsaved’.  Let us not forget the words of Jesus to the thief that hung on the cross next to him.  Thankfully for him, he went to his death released from the ‘bad’ ghetto that society had put him in.

Pastor Paul, at the start of the play, says he has a powerful urge to communicate but that he finds the distance barrier insurmountable. You realise what he means as the play goes on and it’s shattering, as by admitting his struggle with this part of the Christian faith he loses much of what he holds dear – but at the same time there is the all too real fact that by putting the human race into categories we create distance between ourselves as we simply label ourselves as different. (The Dalai Lama said the same thing, The Big Issue, 28 September 2015.) Either way there is huge loneliness.

Before this turns into a sociological essay, let me turn to the author. Hnath says that when he was younger he wanted to be a preacher but didn’t want to be responsible for other people’s souls so he switched to medicine but then didn’t want to worry about other people’s bodies.  So he became a playwright (full interview on http://www.playwrightshorizons.org/).  Ironically, in writing this play, he has partly become responsible for how people feel about their souls and bodies.  He says of the play ‘…lack of obvious resolution can be uncomfortable, agitating… And maybe something more complex and true becomes visible within the agitation…I think back to a [picture in the] physics class I took [pre-med days].  The picture is of a very tiny particle. The only way you can see the particle is by colliding it with many other particles, from many different angles.’

The Bible presents us with challenging situations resulting in unanswerable questions – and contradictions. It is the particle in collision with others.  But then I’m reminded of the person of Jesus – denying self in order to find Self.  We see him as coming to earth as a man – one of the reasons being to understand what it was to be human.  But he became accessible – living as ‘other’ to be at one with us.  So there is a contradiction right there.  He was an explicit human but implicitly God so who are we to judge that someone is not explicitly Christian? – the fact is, Jesus was not always recognised for the entity he was so for us to be dividing people into who might go to Heaven and  who might go to Hell, seems far beyond us, when we recognise the implications of what this does.  I leave the last words to Hnath:

‘A church is a place where people go to see something that is very difficult to see. A place where the invisible is – at least for a moment – made visible.  The theatre can be that too.’

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