The Tate Britain has, as you probably know, a permanent ‘Walk Through British Art’ exhibition, which occupies a large number of rooms divided over periods, often by individual decade. The last time I visited I spent most of my time in the 1900-themed room.
What intrigued me most and caught my imagination was that these works were all done in an era when British imperial power was reaching its apex (all those pink countries on the map), and yet just a few years before the world would come to know devastation and change on an unprecedented scale: the Great War, the Great Depression, World War II and the advent of the atomic age, to name but a few significant events.
The artists knew nothing of what was to come. The paintings and sculptures of those early years of the 1900’s largely exude an air of bright confidence and optimism. The tender and powerful Ecstasy by Eric Gill, Furse’s Diana of the Uplands in silky white dress and flowered hat walking her dogs, the Mountains of Moab by John Singer Sargent casting a golden glow about the far reaches of empire. Why, even Albert Rutherston’s Laundry Girls somehow maintain a ruddy-cheeked contentment as they go about their tedium (the models were actually vegetable sellers from a local market stall).
But it was a London painting that held my attention the longest. Ludgate Circus by Jacques-Emile Blanche, painted circa 1910, to my mind perfectly captures the zeitgeist of the times.
See the lively city bathed in autumn sunshine. The men in their top-hats and jackets, the women in bright flowing gowns. See the few remaining horses and carriages jostling for space with bright red, new-fangled, motorised buses. A steam-powered train – one of the enduring icons of British ingenuity and industry – crosses Ludgate Hill railway bridge (only in recent times demolished to make way for Thameslink). And in the distance, presiding serenely over the hubbub of the streets, St. Paul’s, rising again from the billows of London’s smoke, already a phoenix-like emblem of the city’s resilience long before any Nazi bomb was to worry the heads of its proud congregants.
They never saw it coming.
That within 10 years 18 million people would die and 23 million would be wounded in the Great War; that a hopeful Roaring 20’s rebound would be immediately quashed by years of economic uncertainty and suffering, followed again by the most catastrophic warfare and genocide the world has ever seen, where an astounding 60 million people would die. A young person stepping forward into adulthood on that sunny midday in November of 1910 could never have imagined that the greater part of their most vital, productive years would be given over to so much collective pain and destruction. The bright amiability of Blanche’s painting seems hauntingly shallow and naive looking back with the hindsight of today.
Sometimes I wonder if we aren’t now on the cusp of the same kind of human tragedy, an era where everything changes comprehensively. When we witness even the early manifestations of global climate change – the fires, the hurricanes, the droughts, when we read of the mass extinction of mammal and plant species across the globe, when even the insect population – those creatures that account for two-thirds of all life on earth – now appears to have dropped unprecedentedly in the past 30 years; when we take all this into account can we disagree with those who say the earth is entering a new epoch in its history, the Anthropocene Epoch, whose hallmarks are largely determined not by geology or the elements but more directly by human behaviour? A topic for another time, perhaps; but I am quite sure that the world my grand-children are being born into is already vastly different than the one I knew as a child.
Shall we touch on the Scriptures? We probably should. They contain much of the wisdom of human experience, for all the ages.
The people of Asia Minor, with Ephesus particularly in focus, were faced with a completely unexpected paradigm shift. The Romans and the Greek-speaking populations had long ascribed spiritual power and well-being to a pantheon of (mostly) helpful gods and goddesses. The Jews living among them held to the rituals of the Law of Moses and service to a single, Almighty God. And there was plenty of folk religion too, people turning to all sorts of self-declared holy men and women, relying as they did on incantations and dark arts to tap the power of the unseen world.
And along comes a man named Paul, in Acts chapter 19, teaching that the Almighty God of the Jews has recently been revealed in human form by a common but extraordinary man named Jesus, and that this man – having been executed and rising again in glory – now reigns in unity with God, sharing greater authority than every other claimant to spiritual allegiance. Not only that, but Paul puts good to his claims with a string of remarkable demonstrations of curative powers, exorcising evil spirits and healing the sick in the name of Jesus, and generally threatening the livelihoods of the local holy men and women, who were accustomed to charging good money for their efforts.
In essence, a new age had dawned, significant life change had arrived, and the people of Ephesus were faced with a decision about how to respond.
What did they do? They reacted as humankind has always done: with a variety of approaches. Some couldn’t even contemplate the new thing: they were happy enough to dis Paul and his nascent religion, boot him out of their sphere and get back to what they knew. Others believed they might combine a new allegiance with the old: they tried to co-opt Paul’s teaching, picking and choosing the bits they liked (the parts they could make a living from) and grafting the new onto the old. Still others saw the new thing as an existential threat; the best thing to do was to rip it out, root and all: let’s kill Paul and his followers and be done with it.
And finally, some accepted Paul’s message for what it was, a new way of understanding the movement of God, finding it to be Good News, and embracing the new paradigm of Christ.
“If we are truly made in the image of God then to have gained a greater understanding of the character and purposes of the divine means that we will have gained a greater understanding of ourselves.”
No matter what you believe is factual in this story, it does beg the question: What is our response when God unexpectedly breaks into our life in a new way? What do we do when we are confronted with a message that might well threaten our long-held allegiances and ways of thinking but also holds out the promise of new vitality and purpose?
Nowhere do the scriptures indicate that when God finished the work of creating the earth, God was done with creation. Time marches on, history changes things, God is never done with God’s work.
And if we are truly made in the image of God then to have gained a greater understanding of the character and purposes of the divine means that we will have gained a greater understanding of ourselves.
What will we do? Cling to the old? Or move with God and our fresh perspective into the new day, whatever that day may bring.