Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Visit to Church

“Are there any visitors?” We are at that point in the service when we can choose to identify ourselves and so I stand and do so. We are visiting a suburban United Church in central Canada from our island home on the West Coast. The service follows a familiar pattern; the readings, the sermon, the hymns and the collection at the end. Familiar, yes, but strangely like a time warp for my wife and I who have not attended a service for over a decade.

We have been out sailing the world’s oceans, visiting many different cultures, gaining a wider perspective and personal revelations that felt at odds with what, once we were home again, seemed a too circumscribed religious observance. Once safely home, we stayed away from church. I observe this ceremony, this mostly grey haired congregation, like a visitor from Mars and begin to cautiously revise my far-too-pat opinions.

The readings and sermon today revolve around the need to trust in and follow God and that faithfulness will bring rewards in our personal and community lives. I am tempted to take a cynical view ( 'Be good, do as you’re told' ) of all this until I remember how true this was for us far out in the Pacific where all the skill and preparation in the world was not enough for us to survive in a hostile environment. Only when we accepted that we alone could not control our fate, that we must allow ourselves to become part of the great oceanic wilderness and pass our ultimate fate over to another dimension did life flow smoothly.

All these folks in the pews around us have led parallel lives, worked conscientiously to raise their children, buy their own homes, contributed to their community and have envisioned their church community as reaching out to the whole world. Life was not easy for them either, but religion provided the 'back story' that made sense of their lives and their faith community gave them real support. And they, en mass, have formed the essential roots that hold a larger society together. While some may rebel, take all they can, question all faith and all religions, a certain base must exist for us all to stand upon.

Civilization, as Kenneth Clarke writes, only survives if people are in general agreement about its values. What we are seeing acted out before us in church today is the underlining of a value system that goes back thousands of years and is built into our governmental and legal systems. Somehow, no matter what, we know that we are our brother’s keeper, there is right and wrong in human relationships and that we must learn to love our neighbour and not just if he is of our race, religion, or economic class. Powerful stuff, if acted out in our daily lives.

We leave church today, welcomed and hand shook, with the thought that perhaps there is a place here for us after all. That our experiences in the wider world may be of value to this community and not be rejected as 'unchristian' or something that 'we do not believe'. It would be a struggle though, to fit into a too narrowly defined 'faith' tradition again. The world is too big for a fortress mentality, the needs of the earth and its living communities far too urgent for a narrow interpretation of Christianity or any other religion. To be our 'brother’s keeper' may well require we all stretch ourselves individually and as religious communities and gain the confidence to move forward towards a dangerous and uncertain future. After all, Christians and others have been doing just that for two thousand years or more!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

RUNNN!!!: the tendency toward making harmonious compositions no matter what the subject matter.

One thing that seems to be important to makers of pictures the world around is the idea of harmony. Different cultures may choose different formulas, but every one of us seeks balance and harmony and shies away from disharmony. We find the irregular disturbing, and the regular satisfying. Even when we wish to portray disturbing things; war, murder, abuse etc. ( there is plenty of this subject matter available, after all) we have a perverse tendency to create harmonious compositions or patterns to show them. What is this all about?

Imagine our remote ancestors walking through the landscape, ( “La, la, la, such a nice day on the savannah.”). Suddenly someone catches the faint flick of a lion's tail above the grasses, the slight sound of something licking its chops, and panic ensues. RUNNN!!! The ability to notice disharmony in the patterns of the environment, be they ever so slight, causes fear and flight. A very good survival instinct to pass on to succeeding generations. In modern times, at least away from that same savannah, we are still very aware of hidden agendas, of slight changes in the social atmosphere, of the lie that is being pressed upon our senses. We have the same response, perhaps modified into anger or sadness,and we feel disharmony in the pattern of our lives. It still has survival value. We still have a tendency to run.

So when we make a picture or take a photograph, we still try to compose a harmonious pattern. There are many forms this may take, but balanced, harmonious relationships among the various elements we design with is important. Edvard Munch was the first European artist to break from this and create disturbing, expressive images ( 'The Scream', for example), using colour, line, tone etc. to create tension within the viewer's mind. And others have followed. But even with their lead, if we do not stop to think our images through in advance, we will make that nice, balanced, harmoniously coloured image, no matter what our subject, and our viewers will feel satisfied. How many would really buy and place on their walls something that tells them to RUNNN!!!?