Pentecost: A Time for Telling Stories

I haven’t written here for far too long. Life has been crowded, anxious, a hamster-wheel slalom. But today is Pentecost, a day when the wind should howl and the fire burn bright. Two thousand years ago and the Spirit moved and all who were present heard God speak in their own language. Nowadays? Now speaking is easy. What we don’t do is listen.

We don’t listen because we don’t want to hear. To listen is to be receptive to the humanity in another, the humanity in those we’ve been taught to despise. Far easier to rob the Other of their humanity, and that’s why so often the language used is animalistic, demonic, militaristic. There aren’t groups of immigrants approaching our borders, there are ‘hordes’, there are ‘swarms’. We weaponise language so we don’t have to listen.

Violence comes later. It starts with the words we use, and the words we refuse to hear.

So maybe Pentecost is a time for telling stories. Technology can help us translate and disseminate, but we still need to make space to hear the stories and the voices of those who are on our margins. In hearing we see humanity, similarities, and behind them all catch a glimpse of the divine. When the Spirit moved, unity and diversity began to dance and pilgrims from around the world began to understand each other anew.

And because the Spirit is an artist, we need to celebrate the way in which words and image and music and sculpture can help us hear other languages, other perspectives, other stories, all told through the unique language and grammar of each medium; art is a better vehicle for Pentecost than Google Translate. It can grow empathy, issue challenge, demand justice; embody truth and raise up a platform. And when the Spirit’s fire falls we can gather round it, tell our stories and see ourselves and the Image of God reflected back in each other’s eyes.

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.

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.

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.

Dispatches From The Ploughshares Factory

There are times when it feels that we’ve turned some of the most powerful, beautiful themes of Christianity into empty cliches, pious memes that are gutted of their ability to change the world just at the moment we need their power the most. So we talk about something as radical and transformative as beating swords into ploughshares and make it a nice, utopian promise for a future world rather than something that could upend the violence that underpins our society in the here and now.

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So I wanted to recognise the times and places in which Isaiah’s great prophecy has been put into practice. Because these are places where the Kingdom breaks through. Sometimes that’s literal – the picture to the left is of workers at RAW Tools turning a rifle into a farm implement. RAW takes seriously the words of Isaiah and Micah, and sees them as a way in which a society scarred by gun violence and mass shootings can start to pursue a more peaceful path. That’s not just through engineering – it’s through giving people the metaphorical tools they need to reject violence. After all, if the only tool you have is a gun, the answer to everything starts to look like a target. We need better tools.

But this isn’t just about getting rid of our guns, not just about the repurposing of weapons. There are other kinds of violence, with the internet becoming a breeding ground for violent words, violent attitudes. Much of this is aimed at women, where what should be simple disagreements and debates end up being accompanied by misogynist language. To our shame, this is often the case among Christians; we fail to disagree well.

So when writer Rachel Held Evans found herself on the receiving end of some pretty unpleasant emails, she resolved to take this ugliness and turn it into something more beautiful. Using the art of origami, she turned hate mail into swans and cranes and ships, and in doing so it led to fellowship, freedom and forgiveness. Because when we reject the weapons and words of hate and replace them with creativity and imagination and peace, they can begin to heal.

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These examples are faith-based, but that’s not always the case. Germany, like many other European countries, has seen a resurgence in racism, tensions within communities metastasizing into far-right violence and racial abuse. Swastikas have started to reappear, spray-painted in urban spaces, old wounds reopening. Street artist Ibo Omari is fighting back, not by painting over the graffiti, but by transforming them into something more positive, something more beautiful. And so, thanks to the Paintback campaign, strangely angular plants and animals have started appearing where there were once ghosts of a dangerous past, because even when our swords are transformed, they can still help us reclaim ground that was once lost to those with darker agendas.

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Meanwhile, somewhere in Shropshire in the UK, there stands an angel born of knives, 100,000 surrendered weapons transformed into art and beauty and memory. The sculpture was made by artist Alfie Bradley, using knives confiscated by over forty police forces across the UK. Britain doesn’t have much of a gun culture, but knife crime remains a lethal problem. The angel stands as a monument to lives lost, a beautiful sculpture, yes, but also disturbing, reminiscent of something from Game of Thrones or Doctor Who. Somehow that’s appropriate; we can reject the tools of violence and war, turn them into things of beauty, but maybe the sharp edges that remain remind us where the art came from, reminds us that peace in a broken world is an ongoing process, an ongoing battle rather than something to take for granted.

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Because peace is something worth fighting for; after all, it’s so easily taken away. We saw this back in February, when a white supremacist gunman opened fire on worshipers at a mosque in Quebec. Six people were killed.

But following that, rings of peace surrounded Canada’s mosques as people stepped forward to defend the right to worship without fear. “Houses of worship are sacred and must be protected,” said the organiser, Rabbi Yael Splashy, but they’re sacred because they’re full of people made in the image of God. We need to protect that inherent dignity rather than allow us to be consumed by demonised language, dehumanising rhetoric.

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Of course, dehumanisation is an attitude born out of seeing people as problems to be ‘fixed’ rather than individuals of intrinsic worth. Just look at how much money is spent on keeping the homeless at bay rather than helping them; defensive architecture is big business. In Manchester, spikes were placed in a doorway to deter rough sleepers. Humanity wins through, however and the spikes have now been removed because locals kept covering them with cushions. A similar thing happened in Liverpool, when an anti-homeless ramp was turned into a tea stall. I see that and I see hope, but I also remember the Homeless Jesus statue, and hope and apathy in an awkward dance.

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There are other examples I’m sure; the world’s crying out for peace, and the Kingdom will break through like green shoots from pavement cracks. We need to look out for them, we need to encourage and build them and take them seriously, because these aren’t neutered cliches, they’re moments that point to a different, greater, better world. And those sounds you hear and the beauty you see are swords being turned into ploughshares; they’re signs that another world is possible, another world is breaking through.

Witness: Life Jackets

So many flee with so little; the clothes on their back, possibly their phone, totemic house keys dreaming of a return one day. Money exchanges hands, a deal of desperate hope, and, eventually, the escape route leads to a dangerous boat, a crowded raft. Maybe, or maybe not, the deal will include a life jacket.

Ai Weiwei’s installation in Berlin

The refugee crisis is a human disaster, a situation that no-one seems able to rectify but that leads to frightening, vicious levels of dehumanisation and rage. Open a newspaper and refugees have their humanity erased – words like ‘swarms’ and ‘hordes’ turn them into rapacious locusts, faceless invaders. Their stories are subsumed in the maelstrom of our own prejudices, reverberating around tabloid echo chambers.

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Ai Weiwei;s installation in Vienna

The Chinese artist in exile, Ai Weiwei, courted controversy in 2016 by installing art created from thousands of refugee life jackets in Vienna and Berlin. Each life jacket represents an individual – a life, a story, a human being – but the sheer number reminds us of the scale of the crisis and its human cost. A life jacket symbolizes safety, rescue, but it also represents the danger faced by refugees. So many don’t make it. So many don’t survive.

Some do, however; they find themselves in vast refugee camps awaiting resettlement. Some are housed in towns and cities, an alien environment, sometimes hostile, but nevertheless an environment in which they need to make a home, lay down roots. That requires a welcome. That requires a job.

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Thistle Farms, a US-based social enterprise of women who have survived prostitution, addiction and trafficking, are working with female refugees in Greece to turn life jackets into welcome mats.  The fabric from the jackets is woven into mats which are then sold to give the women and their families financial independence. A symbol of safety becomes a symbol of welcome; through the project, women connect with those around them and the generations that went before, learning skills that used to be practiced by their mothers and grandmothers.

The jackets are also a symbol of fear and trauma, a reminder of frightening and heartbreaking circumstances that provoke visceral reactions. But in order to create, the jackets must first be destroyed, and so the creation of the mats becomes healing, cathartic. This may not be the life that any of these women would choose, but maybe the mats become symbols of hope, symbols of the future.

There are so many stories out there – so many lives torn apart, so many lives lost. These life jackets become a witness to those lives. In the cacophony surrounding refugees, we need to heed that witness.

No, The *Other* Font

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Letterers are some of the unsung heroes of the comic book world. It’s easy to miss, but the fonts and design of those speech bubbles are essential to guiding us through a story, to providing sound effects in an essentially silent medium, integrating art and language to tell a story. Lettering is the difference between a silent movie and the talkies, at least in comic book terms.

It’s also an art that moves with technology – letterers used to work by hand, now most use digital tools. Comic books used to have everyone speaking in upper case, due to the printing process, and while that’s still a tradition, some companies, notably Marvel, have shifted to using lower case. Each letterer, each project, will have its own style, its own aesthetic, even its own font.

What it won’t tend to have, however, is Comic Sans.

It’s now a cliché to hate Comic Sans. People are enraged by its very existence. It’s seen as patronising, infantile, ugly. Despite the name, Comic Sans isn’t a comic book font. It was inspired by the lettering in Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns (two of the essential texts of comic books), but doesn’t have any of their prestige. Most designers would rather be punched in the head by Batman than use Comic Sans.

There’s a twist here, of course. In February 2017, Lauren Hudgins wrote an article for The Establishment entitled ‘Hating Comic Sans is Ableist’.  That’s because the irregular shapes of Comic Sans makes it easier for it to be read by some people with dyslexia. Regardless of whether the font is artistically painful, it’s also an accessibility aid. That raises an important point – the design of fonts, the use of lettering, is a justice issue. And the things we mock without thinking are often things that other people find enabling and empowering.

The whole point of this blog is about faith reflections on the arts, and so it’s worth looking at how this affects our churches. How many of us give out church newsletters every week? How many of us use electronic presentations for hymns or sermon notes? And when we produce all this, do we give much thought to the fonts we use, the colour of the paper? Graphic design is an unsung art when it comes to enabling worship as well.

So if you’re the editor of your church newsletter, think about the advice given by Disability and Jesus and using a sans serif font, 12 point, bold so that people with limited vision can better access the resources you produce. Follow the example of the Good News Group and pick up some accessible Bibles. Look at ways in which the design and placement of written materials can be more accessible and enabling. Fonts aren’t just for baptisms.

Singing When You Don’t Feel Safe

Dr. Vincent Harding was a leader in the Civil Rights movement, a man who had boots on the ground during a time of great injustice, when faith involved things like not responding to physical abuse from racist police, when singing became an act of defiance against a violent world. A couple of years ago, NPR broadcast an interview with Harding that stopped me in my tracks.

It was summer, 1964, and James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were in Mississippi as part of a voter registration drive among African Americans. One night they never returned home; this was KKK country and the bodies of the three students were found a day or so later.

The news reached Harding and a gathering of hundreds of other activists, whereupon a choice presented itself: risk falling foul of further lynch mobs or head home to safety. And as those gathered were making hundreds of life-or-death decisions, they started to sing.

Someone’s missing Lord, kum ba yah…

We all need you Lord, kum ba yah…

The way Dr. Harding tells it, the moment sounds sacred, a simple song becoming a profound intercession, an act of worship that takes place not as a corporate singalong but as a prayer, a cry to God to make himself known…. And this came through a song as simple and as often derided as ‘Kumbayah’.

Paul, writing to the church in Ephesus, exhorted his friends to “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” That’s easy to do when church is bursting at the seams and the music is cranked up to 11 and when struggle is far away or even imaginary. It’s a different story to sing in the eye of the storm.

But we can still sing in the darkness; sing as communities with shared experiences and fears and griefs and threats, and maybe those moments are when our faith and our worship are at their most honest. In the midst of grief and fear and with the enemy at the gate our easy words and ivory-towered theologies fall silent and all we can do is sing to each other and to the Immanuel God who stands alongside us. There’s something powerful about singing when we don’t feel safe.

I’ve said it before: our churches don’t always make enough space for lament, and we often feel pushed to pretend that ecstatic elation is our default setting, no matter what’s going on the other side of the stained glass window. Maybe the memories of Dr. Harding and the words of St. Paul remind us that worship can be found when there’s no other choice than to sing to each other; when hope and horror can be expressed through the words of a Kumbayah.