Of Art and Prophesy

Sunday 28th February 2010
Year C, The Second Sunday of Lent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Family Eucharist
Genesis 15:1-12; 15:17-18
Luke 13:31-35

Do you remember, many years ago, the great furore over the pile of bricks which were supposed to be modern art? The trouble is, today you can't tell what is and what isn't art. At the moment, there is a piece of installation art at the South London Gallery, or it might better be called a disinstallation piece of art, because its essence is that artists and those who have bought their works of modern art throw them into a giant "art bin", so that the act of destroying art becomes art. Think about it, as I will be coming back to this later.

Not a million miles from that thought is the work of Damian Hirst - along with Tracey Emin and Rachel Whiteread - the most notorious artist of the past two decades. He first made his name by cutting animals into pieces and preserving them in formaldehyde. Many people, ignorant of their Bibles, wondered what this was all about; but we have heard it in today's reading from Genesis. The divided animals, through which the lamp passed, were symbols of the Covenant between YHWH and the Chosen people.

And this was just the beginning. The history of the Chosen People is crammed with the records of prophets and Priests and their transactions with YHWH but, with rare exceptions, the prophetic and the priestly never came to terms with each other, and only in very rare instances, such as Samuel, did the prophetic and the priestly both reside in one human being.

This tension explains the passage from Luke's Gospel where Jesus alludes to the death of prophets in Jerusalem. On numerous occasions, most notably the death of Zechariah and the imprisonment of Jeremiah, the priestly class could no longer tolerate prophets who said religiously or politically inconvenient things. Imagine the situation in a besieged Jerusalem where the most high profile figure of Jeremiah goes round saying that the army should surrender. Imagine if we were in severe danger of invasion today and the Archbishop of Canterbury went on television to say that God had told us to surrender because we deserved to be invaded because of our unfaithfulness to God! No; nor can I. In truth, the only good prophet is a dead prophet. We love looking back at what they said once they've gone, or nearly gone. Look, for example, at the deep affection in which Tony Benn is held by people who at one time thought he was the devil incarnate; now out of office, he has become a national treasure, valued for his integrity; but when his integrity, combined with his public office, meant that he threatened vested interests, he was never short of enemies.

In the Christian churches, too, we have fallen into the habit of being reverent towards the radical dead and frightened of the radical living. Our own Rowan Williams was savagely attacked for suggesting that in some instances we might want to allow certain cases of behaviour by Muslims to be subject to Shariah Law. In the 1980s when we had the temerity to publish Faith in the Cities, describing the impact of Thatcherite policies on the poor, the "Iron Lady" and her followers, and those who stood to gain from a philosophy of untrammelled private greed and unimaginable public squalor, treated the Church as if it was a traitor to national interests.

Sadly, these occasions of public courage on the part of the Church are all too rare because we are institutionally timid. If a Prophet came into any Church of England service on a Sunday morning, the chances are he wouldn't get past the Churchwardens. So untidy, and so noisy! Neither particular about dress nor speech! Spoiling the comfort of the faithful.

In urging us to think more carefully I am not asking us to abandon the wholesome and helpful practice of looking back at the prophets of old. Isaiah, Jeremiah and the others have much to tell us about the nature of God and humanity and the ebb and flow of the relationship between them; but we must have a much more careful ear for the contemporary prophet.

As you have heard me say before, the problem for the Chosen People was that although they longed for the Messiah they had no way of discerning his arrival; so Jesus, the Messiah, knows that this lack of discernment will lead to his death in Jerusalem. So what mechanisms do we have for knowing a prophet when we hear one? How do we assess those who want to bring us closer to God? How can we tell if this tele-evangelist is truly a servant of God or is preaching for the purpose of raising money for his private income? How can we tell if those who seem to be doing good are actually servants of God or simply egotists?

There is, of course, no simple answer to these questions but there are things we can and should do to give us a closer understanding of our world. Here are there rules:

Amongst the considerable damage which Mrs. Thatcher wrought, perhaps that which will be most long-lasting was her assertion "there is no alternative". It is much more difficult to take a decisive step in one direction when there is an alternative. And, related to this, the reason why the Chilcot Enquiry has received such a bad press is that it has been concerned with listening, analysing small print, collating and contrasting.

And here is the core of what we need to think about. So far, I have reminded us not to jump to conclusions and to think carefully about what we are told; but, once we have come to a conclusion, we must be brave. The prophets made a noise because they were inveighing against a cacophony of public and private selfishness and greed. There is no point whispering about society's unfaithfulness to God if all around us are shouting.

That is why, in our world of media maelstrom, we have a desperate need for people to stand up and be counted; but that, paradoxically, demands a high degree of self criticism and humility.

The instance of the art breaking at the South London Gallery is salutary; it tells us that people can recognise when they have been misled; they can recognise that they made a mistake; that they need to make a new start. That world of modern art which so easily attracts conventional opprobrium might have something to teach the Church; in the name of prophesy we might need to take some of our conventional religiosity, our churchiness, and toss it into the bin.