Preacher: Maggie Guillebaud
Sunday 6 September 2020
Stanza: The Reader
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Had you asked me today after viewing our current exhibition the question: what is art for? and what is it for in this Cathedral context? then up until what we might loosely call the Modern Period I could have given you some fairly coherent answers.
Until roughly the C13th European art was mostly about iconic figures such as Christ or the Virgin Mary or saints, used for devotion, and for illustrating the Christian faith, illuminating Bible stories and stories of the great saints to the faithful who were mostly illiterate, and who couldn’t understand the Bible as it was in Latin. Paintings and sculpture were the picture books for the faithful, if you like.
As the Renaissance developed, so the focus of art shifted to more secular subjects, though the Biblical themes were still of great importance. Think of Michael Angelo’s astonishing decoration of the Sistine Chapel, with his creation of Adam being an image which is instantly recognisable all over the world. Cocooned in a womb-like structure which we so often miss, Adam is captured at the moment when the finger of God touches his finger and gives him life. The whole human story is about to begin.
Jumping over several hundred years of artistic development we find that our contemporary artistic expressions are not so easily defined. Many of us think that what many consider art is, to us, not art at all.
Before becoming a priest I spent many happy years in the arts world. And in my years on the Arts Council of England, as it was then called, I had the privilege of helping to fund many significant arts institutions and venues in this country, and seeing a lot of exhibitions, and watching new artists emerge. Some of what we funded was very controversial at the time; it seems much less so now. We know that what is considered art by one generation is often not seen as such by another. And so it will be here.
Take this piece by Stanza, The Reader. What are we to make of him? If you haven’t seen him for yourselves, he’s just outside the Vestry. If you have a chance, do go and have a look at him.
There he stands, a 3D transparent plastic figure wearing a hoodie, modelled on the artist Stanza himself, his head bent in the characteristic pose of the young as he studies whatever it is he is studying, oblivious of what goes on around him.
His body pulsates with little screens on which words appear. The figure is in fact, unbelievably, reading all the books published since 1952 in the British Library. These words are transmitted by what could, in a human being, be veins, but in this case are bright red or blue-coloured flashing electrical impulses. Is this a representation of a man, or is this a robot?
That very question lies at the root of why I like this piece so much: modern conceptual art, which I believe this to be, at its best poses significant questions, challenging us to think differently, see differently, as well as more traditionally reflecting back to ourselves the world in which we live. This piece does all those things.
It forces us to think about what it is to be human. Are we a mere combination of flashing signals, our brains mini-computers, our bodies to be treated like machines that sometimes break down and have to be fixed, rather like a car? Some might think that modern medicine is going down that alluring path, as we can now, at a huge price, be cryonically frozen in the hope of being thawed out at a future time when medicine will be so advanced that we stand the chance of immortality. Not a future I would relish.
As Christians however we see ourselves very differently. As Psalm 139 put it so eloquently:
‘ For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my Mother’s womb….My frame was not hidden from you, when I was intricately woven in the depths of the earth.’
As with Adam cocooned in the womb in the Sistine Chapel, so God gave us life at the moment of our conception. We are much, so much, more than a random collection of electrical impulses: we carry within us the spark of the Divine, we are made in the image of God, we have souls that yearn for God, and we believe that we shall be with Him for eternity after our deaths, as Christ promised.
The piece also poses a second question: what happens next in our human history?
Artificial Intelligence is already with us, mostly in the shape of algorithms, and will develop in ways which we cannot yet fully imagine. We know what happens when these algorithms go wrong, as with the public exams this summer during lockdown. But then a new algorithm has recently searched through the old Keppler Space Mission data and discovered 50 new planets humans had not been able to spot. New technologies can be good as well as bad.
But what happens when more and more technology begins to be embedded in human bodies?
Already chips can be embedded in our bodies for all kinds of medical and practical reasons. I myself use my finger print to open my I-phone, so Apple already has a unique record of me. Should I be worried? Probably. In the future who will actually own the data embedded in these chips? And will we know who reads this data? What will the impact of what is called Big Data, the knitting together of all these bits of information, have on our collective lives?
When everything is electronically linked, where is our privacy? The Reader is silent on the subject. However if you look at what is going on in China today then you will know what our future might look too.
Robotics also are becoming ever more highly developed. For many years we have had our army surgeons at a safe distance from the front -line operating on wounded soldiers remotely using robotics. But in the near future wars may be fought using robots which never tire, get hungry, or need surgery to bind up their wounds. And we may soon have robots looking after us at home in our old age. What are we to make of that?
And the piece also asks a third question, I believe: what exactly does the written word, in an age of shortened attention spans, Tweets and instant opinions on social media, mean to us now?
The written word is, if you think about it, of the utmost importance throughout the Bible. We think of Moses inscribing the law on tablets of stone, and the sacred scrolls of the Torah being a central part of the Jewish faith.
Then there is the thunderous opening by John to his Gospel, describing Christ as The Word – in the beginning was The Word – a being that is first conceived of as in idea represented as a Word. This being exists before time and for all time because he is also God. This is not an easy concept to grasp, but this identification of The Word – in capital letters – and the words with which humanity communicates, is profoundly important.
As Christians we are urged to pray regularly, not always using words, but if you follow a regular pattern of prayer, such as that set out by Common Worship and the Book of Common Prayer, prayed every day in this Cathedral, then you will know how these words gradually change you over the years. A kind of alchemy occurs. You become, if you allow the words to resonate at the deepest level of your being, a different kind of person, a more Christ-centred person.
Also in the regular reading of the Psalms, again read or sung every day in this Cathedral, we enter directly into the thought-world of Christ, as he would have been intimately familiar with them since boyhood. They shaped the Jewish way of thinking, just as they help shape our Christian way of thinking. The golden thread of these words bind the two faiths together.
It is with words, with regular readings of the Bible and the Psalms, with which we re-call and re-learn every time we read or hear the Scriptures, the great stories of our faith. From the earliest stirrings of an Abrahamic faith in the Hebrew Bible, rich with prophecies of the Messiah who is to come, to the revelation of Christ as described by Luke when, in the Synagogue of his home town of Nazareth one Sabbath, Jesus reads from the allotted scroll and reveals who he truly is. The Word has become flesh and is dwelling among us.
It is after reading the written word that Christ comes to us, not through a great spectacular whizz-bang of a cosmic revelation, but through the simple act of the reading of the words of Isaiah, and explaining what they mean. The Word and words perfectly combined.
So where does this leave our reading, hoodied figure? Well, it certainly heaps on him a level of interpretation which his slender shoulders might find hard to bear! But that is the fun, in thinking beyond the mere object we see before us, of good modern art.
We have been silently encouraged to speculate, to question, to make links with our own humanity, and to peer into the future. And above all, in this Cathedral context, to think more deeply about our relationship with God and his word, and how the communication of that word might look like in the future.
Because the Reader also carries a warning, and in that sense is therefore also prophetic: wisdom, it perhaps inadvertently tells us, is not attained by scanning all the books in the British Library written since 1952.The mere acquisition of information will never be a substitute for allowing the word of God to climb over the defences we erect between the Divine and ourselves. Wisdom comes from allowing God’s word to work on us like yeast. It is a slow process. But it does change us. And it is our duty to pass this message on if our faith is to survive.
Trying to ignore this new world of AI, Big Data, and robotics is futile: it is already happening. It is up to us as individuals, and as a Church, to ensure that our humanity and privacy are protected in this brave new world, and that our telling and re-telling of the great Christian story engages positively with these new technologies. We need to up our technological game.
This silent, flashing figure poses a challenge to all of us. How we respond, with God’s help, is up to us, and our Church leaders. We need, in my view, a bishop to lead on AI, Big Data, and robotics, as Bishop Nicholas leads on the Environment . Because the responsibility is, as my grandchildren would say – and in this case with great accuracy – awesome.