Art for Under 5s – Turner and the Sea

fishermen upon a lee-shore in squally weather

Impression of ‘Fishermen upon a Lee-Shore, in Squally Weather’ by Joseph Mallord William Turner. 2014. 

A couple of months ago I took the Boy to the “Turner and the Sea” exhibition at the Royal Maritime Museum as a dry-run for gallery visits during my sabbatical. The experience was a good one and so, in the first art-related post of my sabbatical, I’m going to share my five tips for visiting exhibitions with under 5s.

1) Keep it simple, but don’t patronise.

Small children tend to be taken to art galleries for one of two reasons. Either a parent wants to go and can’t find a babysitter, or they see it as important to their child’s education that they have a good grounding in art history before they go to school. In the case of the Boy, it’s a bit of both and our trips tend to be a mixture of keeping him engaged and keeping him amused.

Now, I’ll admit that my expectations are probably higher than they should be for the level of engagement a three year old can have with an Old Master, but we’ve always tried to encourage the Boy to have opinions about things, especially art and music. And the questions we should all be asking ourselves about art and culture are fairly easy for children to answer. Do you like it? How does it make you feel? What’s happening? What does it remind you of?

Philip James de Loutherbourg - The Shipwreck 1793 - detail Painting

The Boy picked out this detail as his favourite part of the exhibition. The wreckers in Philip James de Loutherbourg’s ‘The Shipwreck’ look like pirates. Apparently.

What I’m not such a great fan of are activities for children which have nothing to do with the art, like trails to find stuffed toys hidden around stately homes. These do seem to suggest that visits are more about keeping children amused while you look around than helping them engage with what you’re looking at.

When faced with a 2 meter wide canvas there is a limit to how much discussion you can have about technique or the historical importance of the work. But you can talk about the action and the colour. How do the different parts of the painting elicit different responses? The Turner and the Sea exhibition included works by other artists so we tried to guess whether each one was a similar style to the rest of the exhibition or if it looked different.

Of course, it was a particular high-point of the visit when the Boy correctly identified which painting was a Turner and which wasn’t ‘because of the sea’. I’m not sure it was a repeatable exercise, so I didn’t ruin the illusion by trying it again.

A First rate Man-of-War driven onto a reef of rocks, floundering in a gale

‘A First rate Man-of-War driven onto a reef of rocks, floundering in a gale’ by George Philip Reinagle. Not a Turner!

2) Find non-marking ways of sketching.

Making sketches of what you’re looking at is arguably the best way to appreciate what is in front of you. Add this to children’s natural love of drawing and you have a great way to encourage their inner artist while being able to look yourself. Having said this, gallery staff tend to look very worried if a small child is wandering around priceless works of art with a crayon, so I’ve loaded up my iPad mini with a drawing pad app which cost about £2.50 but has saved hundreds of pounds of babysitting fees over the past two years. It also makes the whole process of moving around a gallery much easier if you don’t have to worry about collecting up all the pencils.

Be prepared for adoring comments though. If you have a small child sitting sketching in front of a early Turner then expect comments about “a young Turner”. Not all comments are straightforward though. One lady looked at the Boy’s screen and asked “Are you drawing a sunflower?” “No” came the reply, “I’m copying this Turner”. And this was his interpretation of “Wreck of a Transport Ship”. You can see her confusion, but then he’s always preferred more abstract art than me.

Wreck of a Transport Ship

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘The Wreck of a Transport Ship’ c.1810Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘The Wreck of a Transport Ship’ c.1810

3) See the good stuff first.

Exhibitions are usually arranged in a linear order, often beginning with an artist’s earlier and less developed work. You want to see the good stuff before children get impatient, so don’t feel bad about missing out the first few rooms.

I find that impatience comes in three phases:

  • Stage one: I’m enjoying this.
  • Stage two: I’m bored with art but happy to do something else while you look around.
  • Stage three: We have to leave right now!

With Turner we had about forty minutes of stage one (with drawing on the iPad), fifteen minutes of stage two (with world map puzzles, again on the iPad) and it took five minutes of stage three to get out of the exhibition. Strangely, as soon as we got into the gift shop we reset to stage one.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805’ 1823-4

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805’ which I was enjoying as we moved from stage one to stage two.

Joseph Mallord William Turner – ‘The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up’. Formerly the nation’s favourite painting, which I had to go back to the National Gallery and see alone, as we had entered stage three before we found it in Turner and the Sea.

If you do some research before you leave home, you can generally find out what’s going to be where in the exhibition. This also gives you the opportunity to familiarise your child with the most well-known works in advance, so finding them is part of the discovery.

4) Queue-jump if possible.

I’m not suggesting pushing in but, if you book in advance, many places offer timed tickets which reduce the amount of queuing at the door. Standing in a queue to get into the exhibition cuts into your stage one time, as I found at the Natural History Museum to my cost.

5) Don’t worry about other people.

Some artists seem to inspire a muted awe in their viewers, and Turner is the apotheosis of this reverential appreciation. But people who visit art galleries, and especially those who pay for exhibitions, are generally keen that young people learn to appreciate art for themselves, so they would rather see children engaged and talking than absent or silent. Other visitors to a gallery will be using the audio-guide headphones, so can’t hear you anyway.

If you’re at stage one of a visit then most other visitors are going to be charmed, rather then annoyed by a small person commenting on the exhibition. If you’re at stage two then you may need to have headphones on the iPad. If you’re at stage three then the person who is most likely to be disturbed by your child is you, so cut your losses and head for the gift shop.

  • What have you learnt from your own trips out with small children?
  • What have you seen working and not working when you’ve encountered other people’s children in galleries?

Sun Rising Through Vapour

Impression of ‘Sun Rising Through Vapour’ by Joseph Mallord William Turner.

Evening harbour scene with boats being unloaded and spectators

Impression of ‘Habour Scene with Boats being unloaded and Spectators’ by Claude-Joseph Vernet.

What Would We Have Done? – A Midnight Meditation for Christmas Eve

Bible Readings: Matthew 1:18-25, Luke 2:8-17 and Matthew 2:1-12.

Lord of grace and truth,
we confess our unworthiness
to stand in your presence as your children.
We have sinned:
forgive and heal us.


What would we have done, if we had heard that God was doing something new and unique deep within us?

Would we lay claim to our flesh, our biology, our reputation, our safety?

Or would we surrender ourselves saying “not my will, but yours be done”?


What would we have done if we had listened to the gossip and found we were the butt of the joke? We’d been lied to, taken for a fool.

Would we clamour for justice, for the world to see the lies for what they were, for our name to be vindicated and our path clear to start again?

Or would we remember our place in history, the earthly link to a heavenly king? Would we trust that what was conceived in her was from God, as unlikely as that sounded? Would we care for these helpless ones as if they were our own flesh and blood?

The People of Bethlehem

What would we have done if we had been woken in the night by travellers filthy from the road? Would we have closed the shutters of our hearts to the pain and the desperation of those far from home?

Or would we have made room for the mess and the chaos of birth, going without to feed another mouth, risking the unknown but opening ourselves up to this holy mystery.

Unto us a Child is Born
Unto us a Son is Given

The Virgin Mary accepted your call
to be the mother of Jesus.
Forgive our disobedience to your will.
We have sinned:
forgive and heal us.

Hearing the Angels

What would he have done if God had broken into our world, calling us to attention and exposing our weakness with the light of His glory?

Would we have hidden away, desperate to keep our hearts hidden from the gaze of the one who sees and knows?

Or would we have listened to the words of welcome – “Don’t be afraid, this is good news” – and been the first to feel the joy of heaven as it rushed across the earth?

The Shepherds

What would we have done if we had to choose between guarding our assets and proving the words from heaven?

Would we have huddled more closely to the light of the fire, warding off the terrors of the night and preferring to ignore the words of invitation?

Or would we have set out into the unknown to see this thing which had happened, this thing which would amaze all they told and would turn the scum of the earth into the heralds of the kingdom of God.

Unto us a Child is Born
Unto us a Son is Given

The shepherds left their flocks
to go to Bethlehem.
Forgive our self-interest and lack of vision.
We have sinned:
forgive and heal us.

The Magi

What would we have done if the moment we had been waiting our whole lives for finally came?

Would we search for an explanation, a rationalisation an reason to stay put where we are the masters of our own destiny?

Would we be swayed by the trappings of power and the veiled threats, and betray this undefended child into the hands of violent men?

Or would we search for the one who calls out the stars by name and lay down whatever we can in his service?


What would we have done, if we had heard that the promised king had been born and his star had risen in the sky?

Would we take counsel together and discuss this threat to national security, this pretender to the throne who had been born in Bethlehem.

Would we allow our own pride and desires to be unseated before this king who has no equal and who wants our hearts for his own?

Would our hearts be filled with gladness that God had heard the cries of his people, that the silence had been filled with a baby’s cry?

Unto us a Child is Born
Unto us a Son is Given

The wise men followed the star
to find Jesus the King.
Forgive our reluctance to seek you.
We have sinned:
forgive and heal us.

You and I

What will we do as we come to his table? As we hear again of the night he was abandoned, in the garden and on the tree? As he broke himself for us and poured himself out that we may be filled.

Will we stay into the darkness, or will we come into the light, daring to believe that this was for us.

Will we receive the gift of God?

Will we receive Him?

Unto Us a Child is Born
Unto us a Son is Given
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Unto Us a Son is Born
Unto us a Child is Given

The Peace of the Lord be always with you
And also with you.

Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England, material from which is included in this post, is copyright © The Archbishops’ Council 2000.

Learning about Church – from the Atheists.

I don’t think I’ll be going to the mission meeting in Plymouth tonight. It isn’t that I’m not interested, it’s just a bit tricky to find the time to squeeze it in.

Anyone who has tried to drum up enthusiasm for church will be familiar with this sort of response. There doesn’t seem to be any less interest in spiritual matters, but with regular church attendance now defined as going once a month, there are just too many other attractive alternatives.

After decades in denial, both national denominations and local congregations have now woken up to the fact that we ought to be doing something about dwindling numbers, and this has led to a great diversification in the way we do church. The manta for most of these fresh expressions has been – “it’s the format which is broken, so let’s do church differently”.

Which is why its something of a surprise that tonight’s mission meeting is promoting the ‘Sunday Assembly Everywhere’ organisation who hope to see “a godless congregation in every town, city and village that wants one.”

And despite their rejection of any sort of divine mandate, these atheist gatherings are surprising rigid in what they do and don’t allow – in essence it’s trendy Church of England, on a Sunday, but without God.

Hang on, I thought that Sunday wasn’t a good day for church anymore – the kids have got sports clubs and anyone sensible will be hung-over from the night before. And what about the singing, which people find strange? And the sermon, which people find boring? And the sitting in silence – which people can’t cope with?

But all these elements are essential parts of a Sunday Assembly. In fact, this is part of the attraction. One participant was quoted in the Guardian as saying:

“there was just something that clicked … It’s unashamedly copying a familiar Church of England format, so it’s part of the collective consciousness.”

If this is true of the wider population then this present a serious challenge to some of our own assumptions about fresh expressions. Maybe it isn’t the format which people are rejecting. 

Should I be on Twitter?

This week I was away on a conference with my fellow clergy from the Diocese of Exeter. From the start of the conference we were given permission to sit engrossed in our laptops, tablets and smartphones as this was to be the first Devon clergy conference with a “social media element”.

As I quickly pointed out using the #DevonClergy hashtag, this wasn’t really anything new, we used to call it passing notes, and it used to be frowned upon if you did it too obviously.

Now it turns out that there are a lot of Vicars in Devon who have Twitter accounts, but many of them have a tweet count in double figures, rather than the thousands which it is possible to rack up if you post on a more regular basis. They had signed up, but not really found a use for Twitter.

New to Twitter Login Screen

As Erasmus commented “In the country of the blind, the one eyed man is king” so even with my fairly modest 1,234 tweets I found myself in the rare position of being an early-adopter. I also found myself being repeatedly asked the question by colleagues “Should I be on Twitter?”




So here is an answer to the question – which doesn’t make recommendations, but does give an insight into how I see my own Twitter use, and how I want to develop it from here.

I my personal Twitter account in three main ways:

First, as a way of connecting with local people, businesses and organisations. I’ll typically do this by mentioning places I’ve gone, things I’ve been impressed by, and sometimes things I’ve been disappointed with. Most businesses, charities and venues have a Twitter account these days, so if you mention them by their account name you should expect some sort of response. Recommendations on social media are generally thought to be a good thing, and I’ve found that retailers get to know you as a customer if you interact with them online. I’ll often share photos here too, especially if something special is going on and I want to help publicise it. Here’s a couple of recent examples, both positive and negative:

Having a great ?#TouristWednesday? in the sunshine. With ?@Marttheart?, ?@NMAPlymouth?, ?@RoyalWilliamYd? & ?@NationalTrust? Shamrock.

Well done Boots Opticians. Just posted my new contact lenses to an address I left 12 years ago!

(I wasn’t being kind by leaving the Twitter username off this Boots tweet, I couldn’t find a relevant account to aim it at.)

Second, as a way of announcing news, notices and insights related to ministry or my blog. These are typically announcements rather than invitations to dialogue, but I occasionally retweet comments I agree with or pass on links to articles and blog posts, as in the example below. As a rule I tend not to retweet things I don’t agree with ‘as discussion starters’. Under this section I’ll also engage on a fairly superficial level with discussions or disagreements, but try to avoid protracted or heated exchanges in this public sphere. I’m also not a big fan of retweeting aphorisms from well know Christian speakers.

Catch up and share Stephen Ellard's great sermon 'Peace under God's rule' from ?#spancras? this morning. ? ?

Finally, I use Twitter as a way of sharing personal thoughts, anecdotes and photos with friends. Unlike Facebook, Twitter is a public forum, so I have quite strict rules about what I do and don’t share. I try not to give away any personal information that might help identity fraudsters; I never use my son’s name or put any identifiable photos of him on Twitter or my blog; I don’t advertise if the house is going to be empty, and I’m careful what I write about alcohol, eating out or spending money. I always need to think ‘would I be happy for my congregation, neighbours, parents (or Bishop) to read this?’

This does keep the sharing to a fairly superficial level, but I’ve found that it is possible to be truthful and humorous in a way that does help people to build up a picture of you are a person. Like a true Brit, my best humour is self-deprecating, and this seems to work well on Twitter too.

Just accused my mum of stealing aprons from my kitchen. She pointed me towards a draw containing nothing but clear, ironed aprons. #contrite
Fortunately I looked up from my iPhone when I heard the words "Tom Daley diving" from the bath tub.

Now the thing to keep in your mind as you tweet, is that if you are interesting and courteous (follow others and mention them) you will gradually build up a list of followers who fall into one of these three categories. As such, you want to keep them all interested, and not flood their timeline with stuff that isn’t relevant to them.

It’s a temptation to set up several accounts for different audiences, but as Christian leaders we ought to be able to integrate our life and ministry in such a way that we are presenting the whole person to those who are looking on.

Having said that, there is one additional category which I’m just starting to explore, which is using my presentation software to automatically tweet from lectures and sermons. Because the volume of information is likely to exceed the spam-tolerance on those who are not in the lecture, I’ve set up a separate profile to handle this information. (@JonMSpeaker) If I want to interact with my own lecture material, I will then do so by retweeting or replying from my personal account.

As I reflect on these three ways I use Twitter, it seems that there is one thing that they have in common, which is that Twitter is a great way of making friends. Twitter allows you to interact with people you don’t know or you hope to get to know and breaks the ice quickly. In a conference setting, it’s difficult not to speak to someone you’ve been interacting with online just a few moments ago, but for many, Twitter is now the starting point.

So yes, you probably should be on Twitter, but you also need to know when to put it down and have a real conversation.   

If you don’t already follow me, the you can find me on Twitter using the name @jjmarlow. Now you know what to expect. 

Getting to Know You – Part II: When your thoughts are not your own.

Facebook Login ScreenOscar Wilde’s character Lord Darlington is probably best known for his confession: “I can resist everything but temptation”. So how would he have fared if he were faced with that most modern of temptations, a logged-in Facebook page? I must admit that from time to time I’ve experience the excitement of leaving a reminder to log out or a message saying how much they admire @jjmarlow, but is there a more serious side to the latest iteration of the prank call?

Writing you’re a message in someone else’s Facebook status or Twitter feed is known as ‘Fraping’, a contraction of ‘Facebook-Rape’. The term is obscene in the way it trivializes rape, but the comparison reveals the perceived seriousness of the offence – it violates our autonomy at the heart of our identity.

Now Debretts are yet to publish a guide to the etiquette of frape, but most polite people seem to work on the principle that it’s acceptable to leave your mark, but not to write anything which would cause an employer or grandparent to raise an eyelid. But what happens when your login, laptop or smartphone falls (or is placed) into the wrong hands?

I wrote last week about the way we examine social media to build up a profile of people we haven’t met and those we want to check out. In many ways Facebook is replacing traditional references. Its strength is that often the writer (you) are not holding back for fear of being sued for writing a bad reference.

So what does your future employer think when what’s in your status wasn’t written by you? DO I think ‘poor them, its terrible to be the victim of identity fraud’? OR, do I think ‘are they going to be as careless with my personal information as they are with their own?’. ‘Are they going to give other people access to our computer systems, our office, our client mailings, our corporate Twitter feed?’ ‘What if these others say to our clients the same sort of things which they write here?’

I guess that the moral of the story is to be as careful with access to your social media networks as you would with your living room or your bank account. And keep an eye on what’s there on your timeline. If you didn’t write it, for the time being there’s always ‘delete’.

Getting to Know You – Part I: The Real You?

In the small province of the blogosphere which I inhabit, there’s been quite a lot of chat recently about how Christians use social media to interact with one another and with the wider world. A lot of this focuses on the interactions we can have in 140 characters or longer, and on the dangers of creating an online persona which doesn’t match our meatspace reality (see Tim Chester, Cat Caird, Bryony Young and others).

What I find even more fascinating, however, is the image we unintentionally allow all this public soul-searching, liking and linking to convey about ourselves. I want to suggest that, put together, this information is more likely to tell us the truth about ourselves than to mislead people that we are more exciting than we really are.

I was talking to a friend recently who made the observation that their ‘year in status’ word-cloud talked more about alcohol than about Jesus. This illustrates the point that however we try and present ourselves, the truth is hard to hide when so much is public.

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about this in the context of my new role in the Church of England, which is as a part of the team in the Exeter Diocese who help people through the process of selection to ordained ministry. I’m also currently in the process of appointing new staff at church, which is a shorter process, but with the same aim of finding out if a candidate is a good fit for the role.

Now I’m not alone in this, but you need to know that whenever you contact me about selection, or about a job, the first thing I’ll do is type your name or e-mail address into Google, Facebook and Twitter to see what you look like and what you’re prepared to tell the world about yourself. If you’re a friend of a friend (as more and more people are) then it’s likely that I’ll be able to see your children, your holiday photos and stag night pictures as well, which might not always be the image you want me to have during an interview.

But the flip-side is true as well. What if I can’t dig up anything on you? Is that better or worse?

Well, If these three searches don’t throw anything up then I’ll assume one of three things:

  1. You’re really paranoid about internet security;
  2. You’re not really cut out for communicating in the modern world; or
  3. You have a secret online life under another alias or username.

Needless to say, two out of these three reasons are not going to help you as you go forward for selection to a public teaching ministry or church job.

But enough about my snooping (I’m just giving your fair warning that when I ask you questions I might already know the answers) how can you put this confession to good use?

I want to suggest that as well as being a goldmine to an employer or selector, social media is a great tool for auditing your own life.

Here are some initial questions you could ask yourself:

  • What are the most important things in my life? (what/who do I photograph, tag, name-check, stalk?)
  • Do people think they are better friends with me than they are?
  • Am I using social networks when I should be asleep, listening, in church, etc?
  • If you are a follower of Jesus, would anyone know from your Facebook profile or twitter feed?
  • Do you have an outlet for negative emotions that isn’t quite so public?
  • Am I a leader or a follower? (do you retweet/share/like more than you create new content?)
  • Do my posts or status updates show ‘quality of mind’? (This one particularly relevant to those seeking to meet ordination selection criteria.)

I could go on, but I’ll get a better list if others wade in, what questions would you add to the list of self-assessment questions for users of social media?

P.S. I know there are other networks out there, but I’m a late adopter, so I’m pretending they don’t exist until I really can’t avoid them. (That’s why I’ve ignored your Linkedin Request – sorry.)

Is it OK to disagree with the Artist?

Looking out of the window at the chilly rain this Monday morning, the weekend’s sunshine seems to belong to another season rather than being just a day ago. On those days when the sun does shine, I’m increasingly spending time down at Plymouth’s Royal William Yard enjoying the coffee, freshly made pastries, local cheeses from the deli, the passage to the beach and the art.

On most of our visits we pop in to see what’s new in the gallery of local abstract artist Martin Bush. That might be because my son insists on going in and peeking tentatively around the labyrinth of paintings until he finds an impressive three metre high sculpture of the minataur. But on the wall facing the minataur is what I’m going in to see, a 1.5 metre wide abstract painting called “In the Element”.

In the Element - Martin Bush 2011

In the Element – Martin Bush 2011

This picture is part of a series of works inspired by the America’s Cup sailing competition, which came to Plymouth last summer. Almost effortlessly, Martin manages to capture the movement and the energy of that competition, the constant action and attention needed to harness the elements and keep ahead of the competition. Discussing the picture, Martin wants the viewer to imagine themselves looking back from the bow of a racing yacht, the folds of the sails forming an expectant concertina of canvas on the deck as they are hauled down out of the wind.

When I first saw this picture, there was something disturbing about it, which didn’t sit easily with the adrenaline rush of having the sun on your back, the wind in your hair (and sails) and the spray of salt water in your face. For me the picture seemed more foreboding, and the title conveyed a sense of menace. For me this was not a picture of elements being harnessed for sport, but a darker vision of elements being fought back as they threaten to engulf the onlooker and dislodge them from their precarious perch above the waves.

Eventually I realised why I saw such a hostile scene. It was because there was another image lurking in the back of my mind, which Martin’s work evokes in its composition and in the positioning of the flashes and swirls. The scene which I now see when I look at “In the Element” is this one, Théodore Géricault’s 1819 paining of the Raft of the Medusa.

The Raft of the Medusa - Théodore Géricault (1791–1824)

The Raft of the Medusa – Théodore Géricault (1791–1824)

At over seven metres wide, the Raft of the Medusa towers over the viewer from its permanent home on the walls of the Louvre. In contrast to the Mona Lisa, which always appears smaller than expected, this massive work of art overpowers rather than charms those who stand before it. It tells the horrific story of the survivors of the Shipwreck of the Medusa, who clung to this hastily constructed vessel as they awaited rescue. A rescue which eventually came to just fifteen of the 147 passengers in the form of the French ship the Argus. This ship can just be seen as a hopeful speck on the horizon in the top right of the picture.

Once you’ve seen the similarity, the composition of “In the Element” makes it impossible to disassociate it (for me at least) from the Raft of the Medusa. In the top left corner the dark patch of the towering waves and the brooding clouds sit beside the flash of light of a hopeful dawn. The only bright colour in Géricault’s vision are the red flashes of garments, one of which is being waved in hope of being sighted. These are mirrored by the bursts of red in the abstract work which infuse the canvas with hope. The diagonal ropes holding the mast are evident in both works and, most powerfully, where the Argus sits on the horizon as a beacon of hope to the stricken souls on the raft, in the corresponding spot there is a blue cross – a symbol of salvation above the tumultuous waves.

In my dark vision of In the Element, instead of folds of canvas, lifeless as they wait to be hoisted into the wind, the swirls become the wasted and inert forms of those for whom the deliverance of the Argus would not come in time.

But which of us is right?

As I look at In the Element, I can see both the sporting scene Martin describes, and also the despair and hope of the dying passengers of the Medusa. But should it be possible to see both? Should the artist be able to dictate what we see, or is it OK to disagree with the artist?

As I reflect on this question, it seems that the answer to this question is bound up with the level of abstraction in the work itself. If this was a photo-realistic image of the bow of a modern racing yacht then we wouldn’t be discussing the similarities with the two hundred year old representation of a maritime tragedy. But because the work is abstract, because it leaves room for interpretation by the viewer, we are free to see more in here than what the artist intended. And once we’ve seen a bigger picture, the abstract often becomes clearer.

Now I’m no expert when it comes to art, so let’s move this discussion into a field with which I’m more familiar – making sense of the Bible.

I often hear people accuse the Bible of being incomprehensible and unconnected, but the Bible too has different levels of abstraction. Some parts of the Bible are meant to be photo-realistic: Histories, Letters, Gospels and all those parts which have the voice of a narrator showing us clearly what God wants us to think. We can’t read these bits and argue with the author about what they meant.  But there are some parts of the Bible which are more abstracted: Poems, dialogues, visions and proverbs all leave room for us to see layers of meaning, and are often the bits that leave us confused. But there is a bigger picture, an overarching story which once we’ve seen it will shape our understanding of even the most abstract sections.

Like the Raft of the Medusa, the big picture of the Bible has at its centre a scene of despair and hope where at first glance we cannot see whether the darkness of the clouds or the light of the dawn will triumph.  But like the Argus, like the cross on the horizon, the Cross of Jesus is the beacon of hope which makes sense of the whole picture. And once we’ve seen that the Bible is about one man, we can’t help but see Him across the whole canvas of scripture.

So what do you see?

If you want to make up your own mind about In the Element, then its on show at Martin’s Gallery in the Brewhouse in Plymouth’s Royal William Yard. Martin’s current show includes his current projects and older works. You can also book the gallery for private events and functions.  

VIsit Martin Bush's Website

Chill Out, It’s just Porn

There is one youth group teaching session that no-one wants to be at. Neither the leaders nor the young people want to be talking about pornography, but that isn’t because it’s not relevant.

As part of a recent series looking at relationships with our 14-18s group at church, we spent an evening exposing some of the lies which pornography tells us. At the start of the session I conducted a little bit of casual research as asked why sort of things they were being taught at school about pornography. Initially, the answer took me by surprise: “Nothing”. Those at the top end of the group had sat through nearly a decade of biology, PSHE, citizenship and religious studies lessons teaching them about sex, but no-one had every had the courage to talk about pornography, even though this is probably the area of sexual behaviour which effects a larger number of teenagers than any other.

Maybe it has taken a while for curriculums to catch up with technology, or maybe teachers underestimate the scale of the issue. As one youth leader once explained it: “When I was a teenager, the only way I could get hold of pornography was to go to our village newsagent and ask buy magazines from someone who not only knew my mum, but was also my Sunday School teacher. Now teenagers don’t even have to search for porn, every other e-mail in their inbox and every nearly every pop-up advert is herding them towards it”.

What is more likely, though, is that more of us have bought into the biggest lie that porn tells us, which is that this is normal. Back in 2002 the band Trucks hit the nail on the head when they sang:

“It’s just porn, mom, you’re running away
You wouldn’t believe what the kids see today
It’s just porn, mom, and it won’t go away
Wherever you turn you find porn everyday”

Trucks, 2002

So should we be bothered, or should we take the advice to Trucks’ mothers and Chill Out, because “It’s just porn”?

As I was preparing for the teaching session, I turned to one of the most significant websites for those seeking to stay pure online, Covenant Eyes. The flagship service Covenant Eyes offer is internet accountability software, but the site also has a host of research, information and advice on the subject. One of their online publications is called ‘Your Brain on Porn’ written by Luke Gilkerson, it’s where most of the statistics and research in the following post came from. You’ll have to give your e-mail, but you can download it here.

What follows is uncomfortable and at times disturbing, and this is the sanitised version for general publication! But my guess is that you’ll think twice about using pornography once you realise how it lies to you. Here are four way you are being deceived:

#1 Porn lies about other people.

From the very start of the Bible we are meant to see our fellow human beings as having intrinsic value. Chapter one of the book of Genesis (‘the Book of Beginnings’) describes us as being made “In God’s Image” and that as His image-bearers we reflect his character and glory. But Pornography help us to forget that other people, especially women, have value as we learn to compare them to ‘Porn girls’.

This comparison was powerfully described by Naomi Wolf, writing for New York Magazine: “Today real naked women are just bad porn.”

But this comparison is not simply anecdotal. One of the most interesting studies into the effects of watching pornography was conducted in the early 1980s among North American college-age participants. This research, by Zillmann and Bryant, draws a number of conclusions, including establishing that consumers of pornography eventually compare their partner or spouse with images of porn models. More recent research (2002) backs this up, reporting that when men and women were exposed to centrefold images from Playboy and Penthouse magazine, their assessment of the ‘attractiveness’ or normal people was significantly lowered.

Now we might expect this sort of comparison, after all, when we listen to a great symphony or study a renaissance masterpiece, we can’t help but judge whatever we subsequently listen to or see against it. But pornography doesn’t just open our eyes to what is available, it reprogram our eyes to want fantasy over reality and it also seems to warp our minds and our judgement about people in other spheres.

Zillmann and Bryant divided the participants up into three groups. One control group did not view any pornography. One group watched a ‘moderate’ amount and the final group viewed a ‘massive’ amount of pornographic material over a six week period. As we would expect from 25 year old research, some aspects are now outdated, but it is not the analysis that is no loner true. What has changed since the 1980′s is that what was then considered to be ‘massive’ exposure to pornography could now be described, using Dr. Mary Anne Layden’s phrase, as the ‘Friday Afternoon Group.’

Gilkerson reveals the scale of the issue on page 10 of ‘Your Brain on Porn”:

“A recent survey of 29,000 people at North American universities shows 51% of men and 16% of women spend up to five hours per week online for sexual purposes, and another 11% of men spend anywhere from five to 20 hours per week. What used to be “massive” exposure is now common practice”

To see how pornography alters our perceptions in the non-sexual sphere, Zillmann and Bryant asked the male participants in the three groups to answer the question “do you support women’s rights?” 71% of those in the control group answered ‘Yes’ compared to 48% in the intermediate group and just 25% in the ‘massive exposure group’. It seems that the simple act of watching pornographic films significantly reduced the likelihood of a man giving value to women. Gilkerson concludes:

“Often pornography, and even mainstream media, portrays women as people who are glad to be used and objectified. It isn’t surprising to find women increasingly devalued in our porn-saturated culture.”

#2 Porn lies about relationships.

But these days we are more sophisticated in our judgment about what we allow to influence our thoughts, aren’t we? After all, countless TV sit-coms proclaim how porn is no longer a ‘dirty little secret’, but something to be enjoyed together with your partner and even given as a gift or used as a vaccination against adultery.

But if we think that pornography is a positive factor in relationships we are kidding ourselves, because pornography blinds us to the most important thing that intimate relationships are designed for – giving ourselves to the other person and seeing our satisfaction and happiness as secondary to theirs.

C.S. Lewis, writing in the 1960′s talked about the consequences of sexual intimacy where the focus is on ones own satisfaction. In ‘The Four Loves’ he says:

“We use a most unfortunate idiom when we say, of a lustful man prowling the streets, at he “wants a woman.” Strictly speaking, a woman is just what he does not want. He wants a pleasure for which a woman happens to be the necessary piece of apparatus. How much he cares about the woman as such may be gauged by his attitude to her five minutes after fruition (one does not keep the carton after one has smoked the cigarettes).”

With pornography, the ‘necessary piece of apparatus’ is no longer even another person, which further distances us from the purpose of intimate relationships. Dr. Gary Brooks, author of The Centerfold Syndrome, explains it like this:

“The glossy magazine pictures or pixels on the screen have no sexual or relational expectations of their own. This essentially trains men to desire the cheap thrill of fantasy over a committed relationship. Pornography trains men to be digital voyeurs, to prefer looking at women more than seeking out genuine intimacy”

Zillmann and Bryant’s study also confirmed that pornography damaged relationships and even made sex less satisfying for those who used pornography. “Participants from the Massive Exposure Group reported less satisfaction with their intimate partners: they were less likely to be pleased with their partner’s physical appearance, affection, and sexual performance.” (Gilkerson, p3)

So pornography is not a marital aid, but a barrier to genuine intimacy and a killer of pleasure. Increasingly too, once a relationship has ended, it becomes a weapon. This week I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who rejoiced to hear that the website was closed down by its owner Hunter Moore and the domain sold to anti-bullying site The site was live for more than a year, and it encouraged users to submit pornographic images and videos of the ex-partners, which were linked to social networking profiles. This genre of website is known as ‘revenge porn’ and it was very popular. IsAnyoneUp was receiving 300,000 hit per day and Hunter Moore had plans to develop the site with a mobile app and a TV spin-off, increasing the $20,000 per month which he was earning from advertising revenues.

Only the most naive of partners, then, would think that pornography is going to strengthen their relationship. But part of the deception is that porn not only lies about other people, it also lies about us, and causes us to devalue ourselves and doubt that we have any right to refuse to join in.

#3 Porn lies about us.

With all this pressure put on ‘normal people’ to try and live up to the fantasy promoted by pornography, is it any wonder that self-image is the biggest casualty? But again, the most worrying aspect of how pornography warps our judgement is not to do with image, but with what we think is acceptable.

To gauge how pornography might effect self-worth, Zillmann and Bryant asked their participants to consider a case study where a female hitchhiker had been raped and the rapist brought to trial. Participants were asked to rate how long they thought an appropriate prison sentence would be. In keeping with what we have seen before, male participants in the ‘massive exposure’ group recommended shorted sentences. The shock, however, came in the responses of female participants. Those in the ‘massive exposure’ group recommended sentences half the length of those in the control group. (77 months and 144 months respectively). The lesson is clear, women who are exposed to pornography consider sexual violence against women to be less serious then those who are not. They have also bought into Porn’s lie that we are less valuable than we are.

Now this is the really ugly side of the pornography industry and it is the secret that should turn casual users right off. Pornography promotes violence against women and seeks to silence those who speak against it. It does this by lying about what is normal and acceptable.

#4 Porn lies about what is normal.

Every so often a story hits the headlines about a young man who has been caught out by a comment he made on a social media site of some sort. a recent example (February 2012) was the comments written in an article on the UniLad website which suggested that with unreported rape statistics at 85%, it seems like “pretty good odds” they men might get away with forcing a girl to have sex with them. Following a brief media storm (and the threat of disciplinary action from Plymouth University against Jamie Street, the site’s CEO) the article has subsequently been withdrawn and the site re-launched, but when I visited today the lead article was a helpful guide to finding girls with such low-esteem or lack of judgement that they can’t refuse to take part in degrading sexual acts. So at least the sex is consensual now, but only just.

Social commentators have been quick to try and tease out the difference between harmless banter and incitement to sexual assault, but I’m not sure that the distinction is really there. Both seem to rely on the assumption that attractive women are simply there for the satisfaction of men, and that anyone or anything that might hinder that process is the legitimate target for abuse.

One such target for abuse were members of the Bristol Feminist Network, who has the audacity to be pleased that the Bristol branch of ‘Hooters’ had closed down. The group had been vocal in their opposition to the opening of the restaurant in the first place, and saw its closure due to as an indicator that the people of Bristol had voted with their feet and not become customers. On the afternoon of the closure, a member of BFN was asked to comment by the BBC, and they subsequently issued a press release, but the nature of the comments (on Facebook and personally directed against BFN) by ‘supporters’ of the restaurant was nothing short of open bullying and intimidation, promising to “kick [her] in the vagina” and that she was “a **** who needed to pay”. You can read the full saga, without my redactions here.

So why is it that seemingly rational men think that it is appropriate to talk like this, even among themselves, let alone on public forums? Part of the problem is that we have bought into the narrative which porn feed us about what is normal and acceptable.

Middlesex University recently published research that explored attitudes to this sort of sexualised banter by comparing statements which were published in these magazines with comments taken from interviews with convicted sex offenders. The magazine comments typically accompanied ‘soft-porn’ images in Lad’s Mags such as FHM, Nuts, Zoo & Loaded.

If you’ve got a strong stomach then you can try the experiment for yourself. Simply look through this list of statements and see which you think are the rapists, and which are the lad’s mags. The results were quite disturbing, with participants largely failing to distinguish between the sources. They were also more likely to identify with the quote if they were told it was from a magazine, even if the true source was a rapist.

And this is the narrative that not only accompanies pornographic images, it is built into the very fabric of the medium. To illustrate the problem we can look at the research of Robert Wosnitzer, Ana Bridges, and Michelle Chang, who analysed aggression in the adult DVDs

In their 2007 study of the 50 top selling adult DVDs, Wosnitzer, Bridges, and Chang recorded an act of aggression on average every minute and a half. Three quarters of the aggressors were men and nearly all of the recipients were women, but in 95% of the scenes the person receive the aggression acted neutrally or positively to it. The message is clear, violence against women is part and parcel of normal sexual behaviour. Is it any wonder that young men consider sexualised banter about rape and abuse to be normal, and that turning their boasting into action is a cause for celebration, rather than facing any negative consequences.

So is anyone still chilled out about porn? By this point in the youth group even the most nervously giggling member was sitting in stunned silence. But this is a subject we cannot afford to be speechless about. Porn is widespread, but it is not ‘normal’, and by refusing to discuss it we buy into the lie that it isn’t really an issue.

Pornography distort our view of ourselves and other people, which causes us to have impossible exceptions of real relationships. It also normalises violence against women and the right to take sexual satisfaction whenever we want. So let’s make sure that an alternative narrative is seen as the norm:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

(Philippians 4:8 – The Bible – NIV11)


How much does it cost to buy-off God?

Today Christians across the country can breath a sigh of relief as the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government announced his plans to allow a small North Devon town council to continue its 400 year old tradition of saying prayers at the start of council meetings.

Following last week’s announcement that the National Secular Society (NSS) had won a ruling that local councils could not lawfully include prayers as part of their formal business, Eric Pickles is quoted to have said:

“While welcoming and respecting fellow British citizens who belong to other faiths, we are a Christian country, with an established church governed by the Queen.

“Christianity plays an important part in the culture, heritage and fabric of our nation. Public authorities – be it parliament or a parish council – should have the right to say prayers before meetings if they wish. The right to worship is a fundamental and hard-fought British liberty.”

Source: Guardian Online

The announcement that Mr Pickles will rush section 1 of the new ‘Localism Act’ into force ‘within a week’ will no doubt mute the celebrations of the National Secular Society, as the new act will restore the rights of local councils to say prayers as part of their proceedings if they choose to.

So why is it that Mr Pickles’ assertion that we are a ‘Christian Country’ sticking in my throat?

It isn’t that I don’t applaud the decision to give councils the right to decide for themselves if they include prayers. Neither is it that I don’t enjoy the schadenfreud of seeing the NSS defeated in their latest attempt to remove the trappings of faith from public life. No, what I find so distasteful is the comparison between the Government’s reaction to the NSS case and their relentless pursuit of the Welfare Reform Bill.

In the former case, the Government are keen to cite our Christian heritage as a reason to keep religious rituals in public life. In the latter case they seem hell-bent on taking away financial aid from those in out society who are most in need of it. Could it be that the price of a clear conscience is allowing a little bit of public religion?

As I think of those who think that God is somehow pleased when we remember to name-check him, I’m reminded of Jesus’ words to the religious rulers of his time as he tells them that God cannot be bought-off with their religion:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices— mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law— justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former.”

Jesus Christ – Matthew 23:23

The big problem with public religion, especially the sort which we are forced to take part in, is that it tends to inoculate us against the real thing. And Jesus calls those who would come after him (and call themselves Christian) to pursue justice, mercy and faithfulness, not just to say a few prayers before we get down to business. Being a ‘Christian country’ must surely mean that we pursue matters of justice as well as maintaining those traditions which remind us of our Christian heritage.

I’m currently reading Timothy Keller’s book ‘Generous Justice‘, in which he presents the compelling case that through His Word, God is calling Christians to pursue social justice in their churches, local communities, nations and worldwide. Keller explains that God’s command in the Mosaic law that ‘there shall be no poor among you’ (Deuteronomy 15:4) is much more than an empty aspiration:

“God’s concern for the poor is so strong that he gave Israel a host of laws that, if practiced, would have virtually eliminated any permanent underclass”

Timothy Keller – Generous Justice, p27

I get the feeling that this assertion that ‘there shall be no poor among you’ is going to be increasing important to my church community over the next few year. This isn’t just because people around us are getting poorer (although many in our fellowship and parish will be hit hard by the ongoing financial crisis and associated austerity measures), but because I sense we are being called to live out this reality in our church family and our local community.

What this is going to look like I don’t know, but I do know that if we get anywhere near it we won’t be able to be accused of preaching an empty and irrelevant religion. Real faith in real action is what the Kingdom of God is all about.

Where are the stand-out preachers?

There’s been a lot of excitement this afternoon about the forthcoming interview with Mark Driscoll in Christianity Magazine in which he makes the following comment:

“Let’s just say this: right now, name for me the one young, good Bible teacher that is known across Great Britain. You don’t have one – that’s the problem. There are a bunch of cowards who aren’t telling the truth.”

Now, usually when this sort of quote is released ahead of the interview, the content is much less interesting than the hype. Without waiting for the full interview though, I thought it was worth saying that not having a “young, good Bible teacher that [sic] is known across Great Britain” is something to be celebrated.

When John Stott began to emerge as a nationally recognised evangelical Bible teacher, it was because he was one of a kind. In the generation that followed names such as Sandy Miller, Michael Green, Dick Lucas, David Jackman and many notable others were part of a growing cohort of preachers who followed in Stott’s footsteps. They were followed by countless others (now in their 50s and leading churches, theological colleges, missions and other ministries). So by the time I began to lead a church in 2010, (in my mid thirties, and in my mind still ‘young’) the cohort of well trained, gifted, passionate and ‘good’ young Bible Teachers was so large that few stand out from the crowd.

In addition to this, these preachers are not well known, because they are doing what they have been called and trained to do – leading church congregations up and down the country, not just pastoring mega-churches.

Far from being ‘cowards who aren’t telling the truth’, Bible teachers in the UK are often young men and women who are committed to telling the truth in places where the Gospel hasn’t been heard, and growing congregations that will outlast the transient culture of celebrity.

So I’m glad not to stand out as a preacher, but I’m still striving to be outstanding whenever I open up the Bible and bring God’s word to my congregation.