Art, faith, and seeing with new eyes

Yesterday I went to the opening of an exhibition by the artist and ordained URC minister, Elizabeth Gray-King. It’s part of the Believe in Shipley festival of Christian faith, on now until 2nd October 2016 – if you’d like to see Elizabeth’s work, it’s on display at Saltaire Methodist Church daily, from 2pm to 4pm, during this period.

The exhibition is called ‘Neighbour and self’. Through 18 pieces, Elizabeth Gray-King takes the viewer on a profound meditative journey of how God calls us to love our neighbour, and ourself, both, and equally.

This is the picture that caught my attention most strongly (which is not the same as being my favourite). It’s called ‘Holy Saturday‘:

(you can see this and more of Elizabeth’s work on her website.)

This picture disturbed me greatly. For a long time, I’ve thought of Holy Saturday as a very special day – that liturgically empty day, when God is dead. The day suspended between the brutal agony of Good Friday, and the incomparable, incomprehensible, overwhelming joy of Easter Day, when the world is changed utterly and forever. The pivot point, between then, and now. A blank day, a day of nothingness. If someone had asked me what it looked like, I wouldn’t have had an answer. In fact, I would have said that it couldn’t be depicted, that any attempt to do so would be futile. Best leave it alone, void and mysterious, to be experienced annually  – at least, as far as possible, amidst the insistent, unavoidable mundanity involved in living in the real and messy world.

So Elizabeth’s picture felt as if it was trampling on some turf that I hadn’t even realized was hallowed; forcing itself into a private space that I had hedged round and considered holy and inviolate without even realizing it. I hadn’t wanted a picture of Holy Saturday. And here, all uninvited, I was being given one.

You can’t un-see things once seen. And so, as I wrestled with my totally unexpected feelings of loss and sorrow at feeling a private sanctuary invaded, I forced myself to engage with the picture. As I looked more closely, I realized that I couldn’t tell for sure whether the figure was female or male (the leg looks more female than male, but is the face that of a boy or a girl? is it the edge of a woman’s breast, or a man’s chest muscle?). It is a sorrowful and confined figure – but stirring in its confinement. A hand is clenched in front of a downcast face. The other arm is moving, lifting, perhaps about to point, away from darkness and into light. Rainbow colours are seeping in. The very fabric of the picture is anchored firmly in one corner, but bursting the bonds of its frame elsewhere. The picture quivers with potential, charged with that sense of being on the cusp of great change.

And I was changed. I lost my possessive grip on my sense of what Holy Saturday ‘ought’ to be about. I lost my indignation at what I had at first thought to be an attempt to capture visually a mystery that I cannot pierce. I realized that this was a picture, not (or not just) about the Holy Saturday that we must go through each liturgical year, in order to reach resurrection joy – the Holy Saturday that in my imagination I had privileged and idealized. It is about the Holy Saturdays that each one of us goes through, as we become the people we are called to be. The process involves pain and struggle. Parts of us may need to die, in order for us to be reborn into the world as new creations. Some people go through that process multiple times, each time needing to reach that dark, dead, quiet place before rebirth is possible. For Christians, it is a holy process. In the tomb, God was dead – but death could not hold him. For Christians, in our Holy Saturdays, however we may feel, we are not abandoned. There is no place we can go where God is not.

This is what art does. It can console and comfort, but it can also unsettle and disturb. It challenges, and dispels complacency. At its best, it shows us something about the world, and ourselves, whilst pointing beyond both. It It gives us a new way of seeing. In that respect, it is rather like faith itself.

Mel and Sue, and life after Brexit

So. Farewell, then, Mel and Sue. The news that Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins will be leaving the phenomenon that is the Great British Bake Off at the end of the current series was a second blow to fans of the show. It came hard on the heels of the announcement by Love Productions that it had decided not to renew its contract with the BBC and instead was taking its golden-egg-laying goose to Channel 4.

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(C) Getty Images

Love Productions had decided that their property was worth at least £25m. The BBC couldn’t go above £15m. And so hard-headed economics won out. Goodbye, and thanks for all the macaroons.

But what is GBBO? At the heart of its appeal is the chemistry between the four individuals who play the leading roles: Mary Berry, the nation’s granny, always looking for the best even in the most disastrous bakes and unabashedly fond of a little tipple; Paul Hollywood, steely-eyed, perma-tanned silver fox, whose sardonic “Good luck!” puts the fear of God into the doughtiest (and doughiest) baker; and Mel and Sue, the cheery big sisters, not above nicking the bakers’ ingredients, but always there with an outrageous cod-European accent, a morale-boosting quip and even a hand when needed. At the moment, Paul and Mary have not made any public statement on their continuing involvement with the show. But with Mel and Sue’s departure, half of the people who (on-screen at least) make the show what it is will not be part of GBBO 2017.

So why have Mel and Sue decided to leave the Bake Off tent for good? In their public statement, they said, “We made no secret of our desire for the show to remain where it was…we’re not going with the dough.” For them, the show wasn’t primarily about money. It represented something else. It was about the BBC having the vision to see the merit in the apparently ridiculous idea of making baking prime-time TV viewing, and taking and nurturing that idea, giving it time and space to grow into what it has become – something that gives huge pleasure to millions of people, something that it is entirely good-hearted and warm, that celebrates something rather lovely about Britain. Its charm can be discussed and analyzed, but not entirely pinned down. It is far more than the sum of its parts. It is not simply a standardized industrial product, that can be churned out by one processor as easily as by another, with no obvious alteration. It is much more of an artisan creation, dependent on a mix of ingredients, not all of which can be quantified and priced.

For Mel and Sue, moving the programme to another channel alters it fundamentally, in a way that they were not prepared to see. As presenters, the economically savvy thing for them to do would have been to follow GBBO, and swallow their reservations as they trousered a (no doubt) enhanced cheque for their services. But they weren’t prepared to do that. Some things can’t be reduced to cold hard cash.

Their decision seems to be much more of the heart than the head. It’s about principle, not pragmatism. It’s to do with both emotion and integrity. Rational, logical calculation would surely have led them to make a different decision.

But we don’t always make decisions based on logic and reason. Our emotions and our guts come into play much more than perhaps we like to admit.We can weigh up and assess arguments all we like, but at the end of the day our hearts and guts often get the casting vote.

That may well account for the outcome of the EU referendum. Such arguments as there were on both sides of the debate were vague, woolly and questionable (being charitable). Both sides cast around for rational and compelling reasons to support their case, and both failed. At the end of the day, the Brexiteers touched emotions and prejudices more deeply than the Remainers, and were rewarded for their efforts.

But in the post-referendum world, the Brexiteers cannot now be surprised if the EU’s response to the UK is equally shaped by emotion and gut instinct. Countries are made up of people, and people are driven by emotion and instinct as well as by reason and calculation. It is all very well for the Brexiteers cheerily to assert that it is in the interests of EU countries to give the UK what it wants, and that mutual economic interests will drive the deals that are eventually agreed. Perhaps, rationally speaking, the economic argument is correct. But that is no guarantee that it will prevail. It may be that, like Mel and Sue, EU countries will decide that not everything can be reduced to pounds and Euros. You can’t put a price on everything that goes into making a relationship.