The Madness is the Message
Cognisant of the complexion of post modernity, we may be forgiven for thinking that we are not as comfortable as we once were with the idea that some experiences in life may bring revelation, awakening and profound and lasting change. Nevertheless, science, political ideology and the arts all provide us with spheres where we find claims of such profound encounters are readily accepted. This is especially true of the arts. When we see the latest play, attend the recent exhibition, listen to the big concert or read the must-have book, we are allowed to make significant claims for the impact that they have upon us. When we hear and read reviews and analysis through the media we see how, at times, they are delivered with a certain reverence as we are informed, for example, of the hitherto ignored artist and unacknowledged genius who we must now revisit and bring to the fore. To encounter a piece of transformative art and explain it in terms of revelation and transcendence is less likely to be mocked and more likely to be read as one of the hallmarks of being cultured, informed and discerning.
Revelation, awakening & conversion
A particularly good example of this relationship between art and the viewer and the seriousness with which encounters may be framed, is found in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited. The book’s main character is Charles Ryder who comes from an apparently unhappy middle class family and lives alone with his father. The image we are given of their domestic arrangements leaves us with the sense that Ryder lives in a monochrome world and is rarely disturbed by joy puncturing his existence. However, when he goes up to Oxford, he meets the aristocrat Sebastian Flyte and soon finds himself introduced to a glut of aesthetic pleasures and warms to the many colours and tints that the palette of the arts has to offer him. Within this experience, there is one juncture that particularly stands out and where we sense that this is more than just an enjoyable, but transitory, experience: During a vacation from University he stays with Sebastian at his parent’s stately home. In reminiscence, he recounts the time with the following words:
‘It was an aesthetic education to live within those walls… For me the beauty was new-found… This was my conversion to the Baroque. Here under that high and insolent dome, under those coffered ceilings; here, as I passed through those arches and broken pediments to the pillared shade beyond and sat… I felt a whole new system of nerves alive within me, as though the water that spurted and bubbled among its stones, was indeed a life-giving spring’.
The passage is both informative and clear; Ryder has experienced a form of revelation and conversion through his exposure to the many streams of the arts that he has encountered and the experience changes his life.
There are many examples that I could recruit to demonstrate this latent power to be found within the arts but, for the sake of brevity and to yield to my own personal interests, I shall focus on popular culture.
In his autobiography, Life, Keith Richards recalls first hearing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ by Elvis Presley and writes: ‘That was the stunner, I’d never heard it before, or anything like it… It was as if I’d been waiting for it to happen. When I woke up the next day I was a different guy’. It is notable quite how many people who went on to form some of the most successful and influential bands of the 1960s and 70s would bear similar testimony.
In his book on The Beach Boys album, Pet Sounds, Jim Fusili writes: ‘And then came Pet Sounds, the life preserver. The call from a distance that said, gloriously, unmistakably, “You are not alone”… Pet Sounds opened a new world for me, one that reveals itself through art, which in turn illuminates the real world around me… You know how it is; I’m sure you do: you confront a work of art and it speaks to you and suddenly the world is no longer the same’. What Fusili is eloquently attesting to is a call, an illumination, a transition and a new perspective on life and all derived from one album just 35 minutes and 57 seconds long. The impact on him is so profound that he can glance back over four decades later and see it as a watershed moment in his life.
In Philip Shaw’s exceptional book on the Patti Smith album, Horses, he recalls the moment of ‘sacerdotal anticipation… ‘, that is endured, or enjoyed, before he first listens to the record. A little later in the work he describes how the album pointed him in the direction of other music that brought with it ‘vitality – a religious impulse, even… ‘, and explores the power and fruitfulness of the impact of Smith’s record. Shaw is pointing, not only to that nexus of revelation but also to that sense of anticipation and the heightening of the senses along with the feeling that what is about to happen is, in some way, transformative.
This language of awakening, or revelation that is then followed by transition, is encountered with notable regularity when reading about the British punk movement. The Sex Pistols’ guitarist, Steve Jones, suggested that the attendees at their early concerts ‘just got converted’ and the Editor of Sniffin’ Glue magazine, Mark Perry, recalled the time he first saw the Sex Pistols and wrote, ‘… [my] life was changed forever… it was almost a symbolic act which signalled the end of my old life’. The influential musician, Howard Devoto, (who went on to form the groups the Buzzcocks and Magazine) remembers how, ‘My life changed forever at the point I saw the Sex Pistols’. More prosaically, but no less powerful, we find Andrew Collins, in his memoir of his 1970s childhood, recall that, ‘A punk Johnny-come-lately I may have been, but I was hooked into the Pistols universe… Thus it was that punk came in the front door on 27 March 1979 and the Electric light Orchestra were bundled out the back. It was no less than a conversion, as decisive as seeing the light’.
The transferability of the language of faith
What is clear about this small sample of testimonies is that, when people reach for language to describe these powerful encounters with the arts, they tend to turn to quite recognisable religious, or faith, language. They speak of conversion, becoming a different person, hearing a call from a distance, seeing a new world revealing itself, sacerdotal anticipation, a religious impulse, the end of an old life and an experience as decisive as seeing the light much as the apostle Paul did on the Damascus road. Without interviewing each person mentioned here it is difficult to discern whether the usage is knowing or unknowing, but whatever does lie behind the words they have appropriated words and phrases that comfortably sit within the lingua franca of the mainstream church and applied them within other subjects.
However, while this use of the language of faith may also be acceptable when used in conjunction with, say, the wonders of science; if we decide to recuperate this language and bring it back to the church for what may be regarded as its original and intended purpose and apply it to the directly spiritual, religious and transcendent we may find that, paradoxically, religious language is not at its most culturally acceptable or comfortable when used to describe religious experience.
The use of these phrases, in both polite and impolite society, to convey a personal commentary on spiritual formation and development may well be greeted with a swift moving on at best and the drying up of invitations to dinner at worst. Indeed, we may be right in thinking that, in some circles, producing a line of cocaine would be preferable to the sharing of a profound religious experience.
If, at this stage, you feel that I may be overplaying things just a little to make a point then indulge me by participating in the following imaginative exercise. Imagine walking into a secular workplace, sitting down with your work colleagues, and sharing that the night before you had attended a meeting and that you had had a profound revelation of just who Jesus Christ was, felt convicted of your sin, and made a decision there and then to transform your life. I suspect that, even at this stage, I have made my point and do not need to suggest that you develop your theme and share that you regard Christ as God incarnate and believe in the post-ascension arrival of the Holy Spirit. When we take what seem rather familiar and acceptable statements and lift them out of their ecclesiological setting and place them into the more mundane secular territory they can sound very odd indeed.
The question therefore needs to be asked. Why is my revelation at the power and splendour of the work of, say, Rembrandt, so much more acceptable than my sense of revelation to the majesty of Jesus Christ? Why is it that watching Apocalypse Now and having a sense of awakening to the tragedy of war so much more acceptable than the sense of awakening to a spiritual world? Why is it that my reading of the account of working class life in George Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier and the way in which it changed my outlook and life in relation to poverty and class so much more acceptable than a sense of awakening to the ideas of a life lived according to the Kingdom of God?
I am not suggesting that this language of revelation and transformation has been totally detached from faith and religion. There are some spaces where it is perfectly acceptable to describe things by using more transcendent language. Walk into a cathedral and be awed by the physical surroundings and that sense of great age and solidity and relate those feelings in poetic language and few will raise an eyebrow. But remember, cathedrals are both sacred and secular spaces that perform multiple functions for the community and nation. Arguably, they carry little sense of threat or discomfort and they may be one of the few spaces where the language of revelation is heard and felt to be comforting and hardly noticed. Even then there remain boundaries that we may bump up against. If we tried to explain that sense of presence and the feeling of communion and syncopation with something far older and deeper than ourselves it would not be long before we were met with glazed eyes and excuses.
The recovery of the madness of faith
If I am right, and this language of revelation and awakening is culturally problematic in many spaces, then the next question I need to ask is, to what degree is this a good or a bad thing? Do we turn to those who struggle with this use of language for the eternal and spiritual and challenge their raised eyebrows? It may be that the answer to that is a categorical no – quite the opposite.
The scornful look, the dismissive gesture or the barbed comment may be seen as indicators that tell us we are on the right, rather than the wrong, path. The subject of the scandal of the message of the cross and the need to ensure it is both protected and kept to the fore is familiar and one that I dealt with in my post ‘Seditious Theology’. But this is not the message of the cross as the scandal of the Jews or the embarrassment of the Romans; this is the message of the cross as the absurdity of the Greeks. From this perspective, the story of the life and death of Christ is sheer insanity or, if I render it in less than the conventional theological terms, bonkers, barking or batty. If we look to the Greek world in which Christ lived and died we are less likely to find offense as the problem and more the madness. John Stott describes the Greek position as follows. ‘How could any sane person worship as a god a dead man who had been justly condemned as a criminal … ’. When we turn to the letters of Paul we find that, rather famously, he describes the cross as not only offensive but madness and foolish. Joel Green suggests that, to the Greeks, the ‘Christian proclamation of a crucified malefactor was moronic to persons weaned on a love of learning, virtuousness and aesthetic pleasure’. The term ‘crucified Christ’ was not only oxymoronic but also utter stupidity. In his book on crucifixion, Martin Hengel speaks of the way in which Paul’s use of the term ‘foolishness’, ‘does not denote either a purely intellectual defect nor a lack of transcendental wisdom. Something more is involved, something more closely akin to madness.’ To speak of the insanity of the life and death of Christ is to bring back something equally as problematic as the offence.
It is a fine example of Seditious Theology in play. When we encounter testimony of revelation, awakening and transformation in relation to the message of the cross of Christ and see the degree to which it is met with incomprehension, superiority and at times antagonism; when those who try to make sense of their world through theological reflection, faith and/or a religious structure are dismissively described as little better than astrologers, ‘religionists’ or simply laughed away, then this may be less something to rail against and fight off and more something to be greeted with a wry internal smile, silence and a sense that, to be thought insane may be a sign that we are doing something right.
In the seditious eyes of the Kingdom of God, the message of Christ and his cross is the offering of something apparently little short of madness and challenges the very notion of human wisdom and demands the complete reconfiguration of what is lunacy and what is not.
Until next time…
Recommended reading & bibliography:
Brown. D. Tradition & Imagination: Revelation & Change (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)
Collins, A. Where Did It All go Right (London: Ebury Press, 2003)
Connor, S. Postmodern Culture: An Introduction to Theories of the Contemporary (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992)
Fee, G. D. The First Epistle to the Corinthians – NICNT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Press, 1985)
Fusili, J. Pet Sounds 33 1/3 (London: Continuum, 2005)
Green, J. B. ‘Death of Jesus’ in Geen, J. B. (et al) Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1992)
Hengel, M. Crucifixion (Fortress: Philadelphia,1977)
Johnson, M. Seditious Theology: Punk and the Ministry of Jesus (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014)
Morris, L. 1 Corinthians – Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1997)
Richards, K. Life (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2010)
Shaw, P. Horses 33 1/3 (London: Continuum, 2008)
Stott, J. The Cross of Christ (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1995)
Tidball, D. The Message of the Cross – The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press: 2001)
Waugh, E. Brideshead Revisited – The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder (London: Penguin Classics, 2000)
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