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Why the Arts? 2: A Blessing and A Curse

For nine years, I was on the senior staff of All Souls, Langham Place in London. Many in the USA will know it as the church where John Stott attended throughout his long life (he joined as a toddler and only at 86 moved to his retirement home). But in the UK, if people are aware of it at all, All Souls is more likely to be known as “the BBC church.” This is because Broadcasting House is our immediate neighbor, literally a few paces away, and for many years, it was the church from which BBC Radio’s Daily Service was broadcast every morning.

A few years ago, Broadcasting House underwent a mammoth redevelopment. This inevitably caused huge disturbances for a decade or so, and throughout the process, they went on a big PR exercise with the neighbors. I was invited to a tour of local religious leaders in late 2011, and it was hard not to be impressed by the vast well dug several stories into the ground. In what is now the largest news broadcasting center in the world, the centerpiece is the main news studio. Because of its close proximity to the London Underground’s Bakerloo line just below it, the entire studio had to be built on a cushion of air. Only then could the vibrations and noise every few minutes be contained.

But in the end, that was not the thing that struck me most. We were assembled in the BBC’s Council Chamber at the front of the original 1930s part of the building. Despite sitting under the intimidating portrait of founding Director-General Lord Reith, my eyes kept being drawn to the Latin motto on the corporation’s coat of arms opposite. It’s actually a quote from the Bible—surprising enough for a secular public broadcasting body.

Yet, as if to illustrate the perennial dangers of shorthand, it is actually one word from the Latin Bible, the Vulgate, taken from Philippians 4:8. Here it is in full:

de cetero fratres quaecumque sunt vera quaecumque pudica quaecumque iusta quaecumque sancta quaecumque amabilia quaecumque bonae famae si qua virtus si qua laus haec cogitate

So what is the BBC's motto? It is quaecunque, an alternative spelling of the word repeated six times above (clearly the verse's most significant word). As will be obvious to all who know the verse, it has a simple meaning: whatever.

It made me chuckle every time I glanced up. You can just hear its teenage sneer, accompanied by a dismissive shrug of passive aggressive apathy.

Integrated Christian art must have a place for the ugly and the despairing. Because that is the way our world is. We can still inspire people to reflect on, and indeed long for, the beautiful and noble. But that doesn't necessitate art that is itself beautiful and noble. Mark Meynell

Now to be fair, that hardly describes the BBC. Despite its critics (and there are many), I am actually a fan, and it is an organization full of those who do genuinely strive after excellence. I only wish they took the whole of the Pauline quotation a little more seriously. Nevertheless, the motto did seem an unwittingly telling comment on contemporary society. Convictions, confidences, conventions—all are routinely dismissed with a shrug (or something worse). To the extent that a national broadcaster reflects, rather than shapes, a national culture, the BBC will inevitably communicate aspects of this—especially when it comes to those things that modernity demands to be excluded from the public square, like religion. “Whatever… that’s fine… unless you take it seriously enough to actually believe this stuff…”

Lord Reith was in fact a Christian believer, in a rather austere Scottish Presbyterian mold. He held deep convictions about the great good that a national broadcaster could potentially accomplish, and he famously embedded the aims of “entertaining, informing and educating” into the corporation’s ethos. That is undoubtedly what motivated the adoption of the Philippians 4 motto to think on “whatever is true, noble, right, and pure.”

Now, of course, when Paul wrote to the Philippians, he was encouraging them to live godly lives, or more specifically, godly lives of thought. And that is a noble aspiration. Crucial, in fact. It is wonderfully open-ended, too. Here Paul is not laying down prescriptive rules, but inspiring his readers to figure it out for themselves in the context of their own lives and contexts. It is something that all involved in the creative arts do well to embrace. It occasions a profound challenge to know ourselves, to acknowledge our own fallibility and temptations. Each of us is different. One person’s beartrap is another person’s irrelevance. We should bear that in mind when debating the sometimes very fine line between art and pornography, say. Or between what is an acceptable or unacceptable level of violence on screen or on canvas.

But the truth is, at times, Philippians 4:8-9 has become a rod for artists’ backs. Too often, these verses have been wielded by various powers-that-be as a tool of coercion and control, in order to restrict what can be created. Paintings have to be lovely and pure, words must be clean, themes must be inspiring, and the arts must always be improving and “noble” (whatever that word means). You get the idea. But that is to miss the point. For not only are beauty and nobility notoriously relative to the eyes and ears of the beholder; this approach too often has led Christians down the blind alleys of kitsch, clichés and platitudes.

But if we are to take the visionary prophetic as our model for creativity, which perhaps means to take our cue from the Old Testament prophets, then our horizons need to be far greater. For it means that integrated Christian art must have a place for the ugly and the despairing. Because that is the way our world is. We can still inspire people to reflect on, and indeed long for, the beautiful and noble. But that doesn’t necessitate art that is itself beautiful and noble. We are not propagandists. Calvin Seerveld is surely right here:

You cannot bludgeon people with Christian art into accepting Jesus Christ. But neither should you settle for just being as dispassionately good as the secular artist, adding: ‘I do it for Jesus, you know.’ It is the crux of your task as a communal body of fellow Christian artists to fire your art until it emits sparks that warm, or burn, those it reaches. (Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves, (Piquant, 2001) p35)


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