Dispatches from the Ploughshares Factory: Tattoos

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A recent edition of the Kind World podcast told the story of Dave Ente and Dave Cutlip, a couple of tattoo artists from Maryland in the US. Operating out of Southside Tattoo, Dave and Dave offer to transform racist or gang-related tattoos into designs that reflect a better future for people who want to start a new life. In the podcast, Dave tells the story of redesigning swastikas and Confederate flags for people who’ve left prison, left gangs, left lives of prejudice and violence. The emails he receives are known as ‘redemption requests’, messages from around the world looking for change, the transformation of their tattoos symbolising the changes they’re trying to make in their lives.

Tattoos can be art, and art can be violent, and when the podcast starts with a screwed-up description of a ‘messianic’ Hitler covering someone’s entire back, you can see the scale of the challenge that faces the two Daves, but also that facing those who want to move away from a legacy and a history of hatred. Art can be violent, but it can be transformed into something more beautiful. Sure, the hateful tattoos could simply be covered up, or removed, but the act of transformation has a symbolic purpose, a rite of passage. And in offering a welcome environment, the Daves befriend people who have left behind family, gangs, institutions because hey, it’s hard to change when you’re also battling loneliness.

By coincidence, I heard this podcast on the same commute that I listened to an episode of Shane Blackshear’s Seminary Dropout in which Shane interviewed Michael Beck, a pastor who has started a number of ‘fresh expression’ churches, including one in a tattoo studio. In the interview, Michael talks of how tattoos are sometimes seen as sacraments, an expression of something deeper reflected in the design etched onto an individual’s skin. And I can’t help but think of that in the light of the work done by Dave and Dave, in all the swastikas turned into roses, in the ink that beats swords of art into ploughshares. Redemption can be found in the strangest of places; grace can be written in the tattooist’s ink; hope can be found in art that transforms.

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Black Panther, and why it’s sometimes good not to see yourself on screen

Black_Panther_film_posterSo Youngest and I finally got to see Black Panther, and it lives up to the hype. Beautifully made with a lot of meat in the storyline, it brings something new to the table when a glut of superhero movies runs the risk of the genre becoming a homogeneous cookie-cutter mechanistically making money out of some valuable intellectual property.

Writing that, I can’t help but pause at the word ‘homogeneous’. Because as much as my son and I loved the movie, we didn’t engage with it in the way many people did around the world. Like Wonder Woman before it, Black Panther means something. It means that suddenly people of colour are centred in a superhero narrative – more than that, Africa is centred. We get to see what a superhero movie looks like when it’s influenced by African design, African history, African culture. And people engage with this, they respond to this, they celebrate seeing themselves on screen. A whole generation gets to be the kid in a rundown basketball court in Oakland, California at the end of the movie, looking up at a black superhero and seeing himself reflected in a new mythos.

Now that means that, for once, I wasn’t represented on screen. I mean, there’s a token 40-something white guy in there, but the most important thing Ross does is shut up and do what a group of black women tell him to do. And you know what? That’s fantastic. Because I sat next to my 10 year old and he was whispering questions about lip plates and the amount of snow there was in a generally hot continent like Africa. And we weren’t up there on screen, and that doesn’t matter, because representation is important to everyone, and that’s why we need to see Diana Prince and T’Challa saving the world. There’s a reason we’ve seen so much Black Panther cosplay over the last few weeks.

And it’s important for my kids to see superhero movies where the heroes aren’t white guys. I want my children to grow up with fictional heroes who look like Chadwick Boseman or Danai Gurira. I want them to realise that the smartest person in the world can be a young woman from Africa played by Letitia Wright rather than assume a genius will always look like Robert Downey Jr.

And as much as I can say this about my kids, it’s just as much about me and a need to confront my preconceptions and internalised prejudices and the unspoken narratives that make up my mental operating system. It’s easy to get so used to seeing yourself up there on the screen that it becomes the default, pop culture getting colonised because guys like me assume it should automatically look like us and anyone who suggests otherwise is an SJW.

I think we know what Killmonger would say about that.

And as I write this, I’m struck by how this is equally as relevant to the Church, how there are too many conference lineups made up of middle-aged white guys, how a vast and diverse continent like Africa is often reduced in the imagination to a blighted mission field that needs to be saved by European Christendom, how white churches don’t spend enough time looking for the beauty of the image of God in the diversity of a global church. And as the credits roll, we’re left with the responsibility to do something about all this, as the voices of prophets echo through the streets of Wakanda.

The Stories We Live By: Abuse


We’re a storytelling species; we gather together to tell tales around fires, we paint pictures on cave walls to shape the world beyonderland.  And these stories grow and spread their roots, they accrete and mutate and become memes and mirrors, become the rivers and the topsoil of our cultures. Often these stories are beautiful.

Other times? Other times these stories are toxic.

Silence has a weight all of its own; it creates its own gravity, a crushing absence. Sometimes rumours break through this forcefield, sometimes facts escape to become open secrets, and yet still the silence exerts its power. Everyone knows but no-one says anything.

Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, Rolf Harris and Jimmy Savile. Household names who abused women and girls for years under a silence purchased with popularity and power and cold hard cash; men standing on top of a pyramid with an altar and a knife. But while these might be the celebrity illuminati of sex offenders, they’re not the only ones. Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow and, heck, Terry Crews were assaulted, but so were waitresses and cheerleaders and office workers and students.

Because we’re living in a world that says “no” means “yes”, that clothing is consent, that gloating about groping is just the talk of locker rooms, that men get to take what they want and that women should keep quiet about it or suffer the consequences, that sometimes rape is ‘legitimate’. These things are said so many times that they take on their own twisted reality; society itself is groomed. We tell stories that empower abuse, we whisper stories that promote silence and strangle justice. Because this is about intimidation and fear and power that says everyone’s there for the taking.

We’ve got to allow different stories to be told, and in doing so, start putting rape culture to death. Men have to start calling out sexual harassment and objectification and raising our sons and daughters to get out of the shadow of a culture of abuse; men also have to stop assaulting women. That’s where everything starts. Masculinity needs detoxifying.

And with the telling, listening and believing. Because the diesel powering all this is disbelief and inaction; our cynicism and apathy fuels a culture of abuse.

And we have to exorcise our institutions: our churches, our sports clubs, our film studios, our politics, our schools, our homes. Because too many women are too scared to come forward, too many have been denied justice, too many live with the trauma of assault. That’s unacceptable, no matter what our darker stories tell us. Too many rumors turn out to be true, too many scandals end up forgotten. Everything needs to change.

Art and Healing: Medicine

For 28 years, Tilda Shalof worked as a nurse in Toronto General Hospital’s ICU. During that time she collected tiny ‘souvenirs’ of the patients she treated, the stories of which she was a part: caps from medicine bottles, plastice syringe covers, equipment connectors… Shalof collected these for years, not knowing what to do with them but knowing they were important somehow, transitory reminders of something greater, disposable bits of trash that together served as a testimony to a career and memories of life and death.
Eventually all this waste was upcycled into a 9ft mural that now hangs in Toronto General Hospital. Created with artist Vanessa Herman-Landau, the mural is a vibrant, colourful piece that uses the detritus of a hospital to express something of the hope and healing that takes place there. Shalof can point to any of the 10,000 bits of plastic embedded in resin and explain what it was used for, how it helped her patents. Through that, she also remembers those she helped, those who recovered, those she lost.

I’ve written before about how healing and art are more closely linked than we imagine. This mural reminds us of the science that makes the work of hospitals and their staff possible: the medicine, the equipment, the fluids, the drips, the needles. Bezalel’s legacy stretches across disciplines, it informs science and engineering and with them creates something beautiful.

We may be thinking of the miraculous when we pray for healing, but we’re also praying for nurses and researchers, doctors and paramedics, cleaners and receptionists. Our prayers for healing are also a blessing of medicine and MRI scanners, blood pressure machines and prosthetics. These are creativity in action; the Spirit works through science as well. And we can be reminded of that by 10,000 bottle tops and all those that use them.

Dispatches From the Ploughshares Factory: The Tree of Life

Visions of the future feel bleak right now; men with missiles threaten fury and fire. All I can do now is hold on by my fingertips to a vision of life and hope.

‘The Tree of Life’

“The work is a sculpture of the tree of life: it stands nine or ten feet tall, with spreading branches a further nine or ten feet in all directions. In it, and under its shade, are birds and animals. And the whole thing, tree, creatures and all, is made entirely from decommissioned weapons: bits and pieces of old AK47s, bullets and machetes and all the horrible paraphernalia of war… But the point, of course – and it is a stunningly beautiful object at several levels at once – is that this Tree of Life reflects the Isaianic promise that swords will be beaten into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks. The Tree stands as a reminder both of the horror of the world, with all its multiple human follies and tragedies, and also of hope, the hope of new creation… But it is also a sign of what genuine art can be, taking a symbol from the world of the original creation, building into it the full recognition of the horrors of the present world which by themselves would lead us to despair, and celebrating the promise of the new world, a world full of God’s glory as the waters cover the sea. It offers celebration without naivety, sorrow without cynicism, and hope without sentimentality. Standing before it is like glimpsing an apocalyptic vision, a vision of the beauty of God… For the moment I invite you to contemplation, to gratitude, to the vision of God’s new heavens and new earth, and to the multiple vocations – prophetic, artistic, political, theological, whatever – by which God will call you to bring signs of that new world to birth within the old one, where vision is limited and widows still weep.”

Tom Wright, Apocalyptic and the Beauty of God

The Grace of Mobile Libraries

A few years ago I read The Library Book, edited by the Reading Agency; borrowed it from a library, funnily enough. This is an anthology of writing on libraries by a number of well-known authors, but the piece that got me thinking was the forward, in which a librarian tells of her mobile library’s encounters with the homeless.

It’s moving to read of how lending a book to someone on the streets is more than just a nice public service – it’s an act of trust. After all, when your clientele is itinerant, you’re not going to get all of your books back.

And yet books were returned – kept dry when their reader himself was soaking wet, and acting as a catalyst for conversations other than homeless shelters. One man, having got back on his feet, became a librarian himself. Lending books became a humanising event, an act of grace almost. It changed people’s lives.

The same thing is happening in Greece. Laura Naude and Esther ten Zijthoff have converted an old minibus into a mobile library for refugees. Born out of the realisation that people in refugee camps need more than simple food and shelter, the library has become a safe space for people wanting to learn other languages, for scholars who want to translate their work, for kids who just want to read.

A library in an old minibus can serve as an agent of grace, and this grace can lead to transformation, if we accept it. It’s given freely, a thing of beauty that can help transform someone’s surroundings, even if circumstances are difficult. We shouldn’t simply reduce people to consumers of food and electricity and a welfare bill – ultimately that’sort dehumanising. Working to nourish souls, communities and hope is just as important: it’seems mazing what can grow from books in a bus.

Representation is Important

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So Jodie Whittaker has been announced as the 13th Doctor. For those of you unfamiliar with the greatest TV show of all time, Whittaker will be the first woman to play what has traditionally been a male role and so, unsurprisingly, the bottom half of the internet has exploded with equal parts joy and vitriol.

This post isn’t altogether about Doctor Who (although for the record I’m all for a female Doctor and have nothing but good vibes towards Jodie Whittaker and the production team. Go for it!). However, reaction to the casting highlights something very important: representation is important. The last couple of years has seen a lot of controversies around representation: controversies over women-only showings of Wonder Woman, over a black Storm Trooper, over there not being enough white dudes in the trailer for a new Star Trek show. All of these stem from a status quo that’s overwhelmingly white, male and straight. While some of this is due to the age in which major entertainment franchises were born, the fact is pop culture has a representation problem.

Imagine what it’s like to never see yourself on the screen, or to always be the sidekick or the comic relief or the first person to be eaten by the zombie. Imagine all the leads being ripped white guys. Imagine being told that films starring heroes that look like you wouldn’t sell. Imagine characters that look like you always being sexualised. Imagine characters that look like you being killed just to drive forward the hero’s journey, imagine characters that look like you being omitted from playsets because someone somewhere figured that little boys wouldn’t play with a girl action figure.

Imagine being cast as the new Doctor and seeing someone comment that the show should be renamed Nurse Who.

Some are quick to write this stuff off as the stuff of ‘political correctness’, but it sends a message, a message that women aren’t important, that LGBTQ people aren’t important, that people with disabilities and people who aren’t white aren’t important, aren’t interesting enough, aren’t lucrative enough.

Imagine if Jesus kept getting portrayed with blond hair and blue eyes.

Imagine all that, and think about what’s being erased.

These are the messages that are filtering through to children, and that’s heart-breaking. You’ve only got to see the reaction of kids to meeting their heroes, or even just meeting cosplayers, to see what it means to have an awesome character that looks like you. This isn’t just disposable, meaningless entertainment, this is pop culture mythology, this is the building blocks of imagination, this is a reflection of our world, both in reality and in potentia. That’s why Leia kept showing up on placards at the Women’s March on Washington. That’s why people were crying as they got to see Wonder Woman. It’s why I want both kids and Jodie Whittaker to read this post by Susie Day.

It’s not just about representation either. It’s about seeing the heroic, the aspirational, the awesomeness of someone who doesn’t look like you. As a kid I always thought Han was the coolest; now I’m glad that Leia’s been established as a general and a leader. I’m glad that my kids can watch The Force Awakens and not comment on how none of the three new heroes are white men. I’m glad the Doctor is regenerating into a woman because the things that make the Doctor – intelligence, compassion, eccentricity and bravery – aren’t male qualities, they’re human qualities that can be embodied by anyone.

And this isn’t just about what’s on the page, on the screen. It’s about who gets to create. We need more diversity among writers and directors and actors and producers and artists. We need more perspectives to be turned into stories, we need more experiences to be documented, we need talent from all quarters to enrich the culture around us, and we need avenues to make that happen (check out Arts Emergency and We Need Diverse Books). We’re all in this together, so let’s see that echoed in our stories.

We’re the product of the stories we tell. And we need to see ourselves in those stories, and I hope a new Doctor can be another step in a journey that’s already been too hard and too long. But let’s keep working at making our stories bigger, more expansive, more diverse, more human.

Learn From The Stories Of Those Who Flee

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It’s July, and writers and storytellers walk across south-east England, telling the tales of those who fled to this country to escape war and persecution and tyranny. A journey about journeys, Refugee Tales is a pilgrimage of sorts, all about migration and detention, a welcome mat laid at every stop, a salt-circle safe-space established against tabloid hysteria in which people can sit and listen to the stories of refugees and those who work with them, can sit and think about movement.

Because we need to think about movement. As long as the bombs fall and the tyrants rage and the planet warms, we need to think about movement.

Storytelling is at once a spiritual and a tangible practice. How we use words and language and sentences and punctuation shapes our narratives and defines and moulds the stories we live by. There are ‘big’ stories that drive nations for good or ill, manifest destinies or cries of ‘two world wars and one world cup’; there are also smaller stories, quieter stories, stories that emerges from the margins to supplement our uber-narratives, or to challenge them, David standing before Goliath armed only with a sling and the hope of justice.

Sometimes those quieter, rarely heard stories are an inoculation against terrible things and furious words. That’s why we need to listen to them. That’s why we need organisations like Migrant Voice, an organisation that helps promote the voice of refugees and migrants, or the Museum of Immigration and Diversity at 19 Princelet Street in Spitalfields.

Wait, an inoculation? Maybe, or a shield:

“At the core, what we’re involved in when we’re trying to make positive changes in our communities and in the world is a battle of narratives or a battle of stories, and that the corporations and different parts of the government tell us are stories that they use to cement their power and legitimise their power. Those of us who are angling for positive change need to tell another story rooted in our lives, and that’s the core of social change movements, it’s fighting between stories.”

So said organiser and writer David Solnit on the Iconoclast podcast in June, and he’s got a pretty good idea of what’s going on. That’s why it’s important to leverage whatever influence we’ve got to allow refugee tales to be heard, and to make the time to sit and listen to those tales.

But how we listen is important too; we should first listen not to fix but to understand. It’s through understanding that we will be formed by these stories, and recognise the humanity of those behind them; that’s not to be underestimated in a media landscape that routinely uses words like ‘swarm’ and ‘horde’ to describe refuges or migrants. Through listening we also learn, and one of the most important lessons we can learn is that we’re not so different.

A while back, the New Yorker published a piece entitled ‘The Refugee as Cassandra in the Shining City’, which highlighted the importance of hearing the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers because they can see and recognise things that the rest of us often can’t. We like to think that It Can’t Happen Here; refugees know that it can happen here, and by the way, here are all the warning signs you’re missing.

(So often Western countries see themselves as cities on a hill to which people flee to, but we can’t picture ourselves as places people could end up fleeing from. That’s a failure of imagination that leaves us vulnerable to authoritarianism.)

(Maybe this is also why people who leave, say, Pakistan or Mexico are called ‘immigrants’, while people who leave the UK are called ‘ex pats’.)

But perhaps most important, refugee stories are an assertion not just of humanity but of identity and individuality.

And amidst all these unique stories, there will be shared experiences and flashes of recognition, and through those moments of familiarity relationships can start to emerge, and with them community and appreciation; through moments like this, we make ourselves neighbours, find ourselves family.

Origami Can Save Your Life: The Work of Dr. Manu Prakash

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In my post yesterday, I referred to how there’s a strand of justice running through art and design. That’s demonstrated pretty effectively in the work of Dr. Manu Prakash. A Professor of Bioengineering at Stanford University, he has become well known as the inventor of the ‘foldscope’ and the ‘paperfuge’. These are ultra-low-cost microscopes and centrifuges, designed for use in tackling medical emergencies in poorer communities around the world.

They’re made out of paper.

Paper.

There’s something about this that inspires the young MacGyver fan in me. The idea that you can make a working, medical microscope out of paper, a microscope that effectively costs 50 cents to produce, is revolutionary. It’s taking an ancient art form, origami, wedding it to engineering, and getting it out into a world where almost half a million people die every year from malaria.

No – where half a million people die because they don’t have adequate medical facilities or a reliable electricity supply.

Then there’s the paperfuge. At 20 cents it’s a bit cheaper than the foldscope. This uses paper and other simple parts to create a working centrifuge that doesn’t require electricity. Centrifuges are expensive pieces of kit, but they’re essential in analysing blood and identifying pathogens. Again, the paperfuge is inspired by toys and origami, but is a working tool that can save lives in off-the-grid communities with no infrastructure. Prakash calls this “Frugal Science”. I call it “awesome”.

It’s not just about medicine though. It’s about accessibility. It’s about inspiration. It’s about art and science intersecting in such a way that provides more equitable access to resources and ideas and, as a result, allowing people from all backgrounds to interact with the issues facing their communities and identifying workable solutions. It’s about creating young scientists and supporting old doctors. It’s about origami. It’s about justice. It’s about hope.

Creativity as a Courier of Shalom

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Any project takes a while to coalesce; ideas weave together, webs of facts and stories and ideas. As they converse and embrace and debate, a voice emerges, sounding different to how you originally imagined. Still, this voice will be louder, and stronger, and more confident.

This blog was born out of one idea: that creativity, in all its forms, is a gift and a blessing from God. Because of that, we can see how art, and design, and crafts bless the world in turn, through beauty and challenge, imagination and justice, prophecy and protest, vision and healing and lament. Writing the last few formative posts, that’s becoming clearer to me: creativity can lead to an act of creation, and that can echo the Creator. In some small way we can recreate and remix and reimagine and re-enchant the world around us. The Spirit gifts us to do that.

“It is yours to create, it is God’s to sustain. Don’t stop creating, and building and making. Keep going. You’ve come too far.”

That’s a tweet from Pastor Jonathan Martin. It’s applicable to all sorts of callings and vocations, but our churches sometimes look askance at the arts – new songs are suspect, challenge is uncommercial and everyone knows that God speaks Latin or King James English. There are those in the pews who have art burning within them that can be used to beautify the Kingdom, and yet that art never gets created – the space isn’t made, permission isn’t given.

But it is yours to create.

If God’s put that gift within you, pray for his Spirit to release it into the world.

It is God’s to sustain.

God is a creator and a sustainer. And when art and songs and dance and sculpture, software and technology and architecture and food are out there, their impact expands and mutates and collides with other creations to make something new in their wake.

Don’t stop creating and building and making.

Don’t stop, because your gift is a blessing, and you’re blessed to be a blessing. And that blessing can help grow a different Kingdom, roses blooming through cracks in parking lots. Envision and embody and engineer and incarnate the better world whispered to you by the Spirit. Create out of your best dreams, create out of your most vivid scars. Create out of Bethlehem, create out of Calvary.

Because creativity isn’t just an act of imagination, it can be an act of worship, a source of healing, a courier of shalom. You can draw a link between creativity and justice, be that through a protest song or an origami microscope. Creativity can imagine a better world and tell its story and communicate its vision, but it can also help that vision to break through, be pulled through into reality in the wake of a Kingdom come.

Keep going. You’ve come too far.

Keep pushing forward, through the rejection, through the misunderstandings, through the writer’s block and the negative reviews and the troll’s lurking under Twitter’s bridges. Keep going. What you create can mean something, can change something, can make something more beautiful, can help the Spirit shine through.

Keep going.

Keep going.

Keep going.