Playing catch-up

Before I continue, I note that in the Northern Hemisphere, today starts the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This year’s focus is on peace in the Holy Land, especially in Jerusalem, and it is something for which people must work and pray. Increasingly, Christians are facing threats to their existence in the Middle East, and I think it is the vocation of Christians who chronologically stand between Jews and Muslims to witness to the power of a God who is at once transcendent yet very much among humanity–a witness which is at the foundation of true democracy and human rights. Yes, so-called “secular” democracy has a theo-logical foundation, and the whitewashing of this account is one of the great tragedies of our time, even by the churches themselves.


One of the interesting things I am learning about art in the Philippines these days is that this country is at least one generation behind when it comes to the visual arts. The major commercial galleries and those wanting to play catch-up prioritize a kind of art from which many Western countries have moved, and it would not be surprising if this year, a year marking a certain milestone, will prove to be a little tedious for those who are writing about the arts–unless they look hard enough. The market, however, is still very much open to that kind of art, and this is mainly because our neighbors are playing the same catching-up game as we are.

I have also learned that catching up is easier in two spheres than in anything else. For one, street art is fast becoming respectable in the US and Europe where the playfully subversive is equally becoming normative in the post-modern context. Here, we see the trend being manifest in the collaborative work by a key street art collective, Pilipinas Street Plan, with the Lopez Museum and Manuel Ocampo’s recent group show at the Manila Contemporary gallery, respectively. The growth of the trend is primarily attributable to the Internet and the ease by which information and art can be shared across continents. (There is also the question of the commonality of the language, as pointed out to me by an interlocutor.) It remains to see whether this will be a flash in the pan, because I suspect that the art market here is far too conservative for a trend such as this one.

Surprisingly, Manila Contemporary, which is a gallery known to be more solidly in the camp of which I spoke, is opening a show concerning another of the key trends, which is the legitimation of graphic design and illustration as a form of art. I consider 2010 a watershed year for the graphic design/illustrative arts community primarily because of the opening of the Yupangco-run Collective in Makati and the consequent availability of alternative art spaces such as Vinyl on Vinyl Urban. (Much of the community is centred on the Makati area, where the major advertising agencies are based.) The other reason is the first staging of Graphika Manila, the first major event of its kind for the community, and a few months later, the Philippine Graphic Design Awards.

I find these trends intertwining in many ways because the sensibilities are similar, and more importantly because the art and commerce issue finds clearer resolution with the graphic design/illustrative art community than anywhere else. They have made peace with the market and we all benefit from it, both the big corporations and the art galleries.

But there is a challenge which was brought to my attention recently. The creative arts form a small community, and there is much blurring of boundaries in practice. Would it not be much better, it is argued, for the different “communities” to converge and take off in previously unknown directions? The origins of the concept which became Cubao X, a place whose impending death I can attribute to the abject failure of some communities to open themselves to working with others, is precisely in that convergence. 2011 is a time to reassess whether the arts in the Philippines ought to be crossing boundaries more often than is being done now.

I think we skipped about five hundred years in the process of building our society, and part of that skipping involves getting past the Middle Ages far too quickly. Counter-intuitive, yes, but one need not look further than the last medieval city on our planet to see what I mean. The City of London is a very modern version of a system of government, or a way of organizing the city, that emerged in Europe, and it holds lessons for the arts communities.

All the trades in medieval cities were organized into guilds. They had the key function of ensuring that skills were passed on from one generation to the next, especially by mentoring younger persons who were invariably apprenticed to their members. But they had another function, equally important: together, they collectively ensured the welfare of the city. The guilds were social organizations that got the members of their respective professions together. The guilds of the Middle Ages had a responsibility to the community. They did so by being part of the government, and (at the time) a part of the wider religious community.
Next time, I will revisit exactly why the “guild system” as it emerged in our setting has to be re-cast in a more interdisciplinary and, yes, socially responsible direction.


Epiphany Essay (3) – Freedom

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”
The third of the three wonders of Epiphany is celebrated today, the Feast of the Baptism of  the Lord. Earlier in the week, I spoke of the wedding at Cana and the visit of the wise men, which are traditionally understood as the other manifestations of Christ to the world. The Baptism of the Lord brings together the messianic calling of Christ and, once again, draws our attention to the mystery of the Incarnation.
I have a lot less to say about this particular feast–many good reflections, I suppose, are available online, but I note one important point that has to be raised about how this is connected to the mystery of the Incarnation. By choosing to be baptized just like everyone, Jesus shares in our humanity, our frail condition. But by doing so, he reveals who he truly is. In the same way, baptism, a sacrament making present God’s grace in the world, is a baptism into one’s true identity as a child of God, part of God’s family. I think what ought to be liberating, what ought to be good news, is that our dignity stands and falls not merely on some biological or evolutionary fact, but about something much stronger than that.
I think it is unfortunate that people forget the religious roots of the modern regime of human rights. I am thinking of course of the faith traditions that claim Abraham as an ancestral figure, especially the Christian faith. But it is good news to realize that the roots of my freedom is first of all that I was freed–not by my own merit or choice, but by a free gift–and that is where it all starts.


And next week, back to regular programming.

Epiphany Essay (2) – Party!

“Now there was a wedding at Cana…”

I have never had much for puritanical attitudes that smack more of that frontier religion that got imported into our country at the turn of the century than of the Gospel of Christ. The Rule of St Benedict, for instance, permits half a bottle of wine a day, or a hemina, which it says is sufficient for moderate consumption. And while the Epistle of Paul does frown upon drunkenness, one must read it in the light of what was prevalent in Greco-Roman culture as the preferred mode of partying. (Plato’s sometimes rowdy and bawdy Symposium, from which we get the name of the discussion group, is taken from the Greek word for “to drink together.”) So what to make of the wedding at Cana? Here–horror of horrors–is the first of the signs Jesus did: he turned water into wine. One cannot explain it metaphorically. To have more wine at the wedding party that got carried away must have delighted everyone no end. Jesus turned water into wine to keep the party going.

This is not a new insight. I must credit Fr. Joe Mock, one of my mentors, who brought this up at a discussion we had some years back, and who preached (or, as he insists, praught) on the subject at a wedding abroad. Fr. Joe, an Episcopal priest, recounts that when he spoke on this, someone came to him after the wedding and said, “I’ve never heard someone preach like that before. If he did, I wouldn’t have left the church!” (This was in Europe, by the way.) The second of the wonders we honor this day of Epiphany is indeed good news.
First of all, it reminds us of Mary’s role as a pointer to Christ. It is a role rediscovered by some evangelicals who have departed from the marioclasm (cf. iconoclasm) practiced by their brethren mainly in largely Catholic countries. While the understandable excesses of mariolatry often miss the point, honoring Mary–here described as Woman–for telling the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” is worth doing, as with all our forebears in faith in the great cloud of witnesses. And those who use this reference polemically forget that later on, in an exercise of what biblical scholars call a chiasmus, the same descriptor is used when Jesus commends the beloved disciple to her, and her to John.
Second, and this is where we return to where we began, this is good news because it reveals that God in Christ has come to ensure that we have life to the full. This sign is a scandal because we have super-human expectations at times of what Jesus can do. But what it says about Christ is what we must continue to celebrate on Epiphany and as our lives continue. He assumed our humanity, with all its foibles, its joys and griefs, meetings and partings, in order that we may participate in the life of the Triune God. If he assumed our humanity, we must conclude that he would celebrate as we do. I admit that it will be a while before I can fully come to accept this implication, but I have been getting hints and intimations of what this means over the past year.
To find Christ’s hand away from the “usual channels” or the “usual suspects” is a challenge for anyone, but it was more of a trial for me. I began last year working with an organization of evangelical Christians, from which I learned much both about how and how not to live the faith. At the same time, I was also observing the heavily secularized and, dare I say, hedonistic, field of the arts. In this sense, I wonder what they would have been in Jesus’ day, and I suspect that a number of artists would be treated with the same passionate disdain as sinners and tax-collectors. But would it not perhaps be better to see this is a reminder that it is beyond anyone’s purview to presume how God’s creativity continues to be manifest in the world, and how we have, in our frailty, seemed to have fallen short? (Peccavimus, I say.) But I will confess that I will not dare use “preachy shit” in those circles, as one old friend once chastised me for doing a very long time ago. Bishop Pierre Whalon warned against this kind of Christianity some time ago, and I will heed that warning and follow his advice.
Precisely because the sin of presumption, which Aquinas opined was one of the “sin[s] against the Holy Spirit,” is just too tempting to commit, I find it amusing that I am being forced at this point to wax theological about a scene which is getting far too interesting (and in a later essay, to be published elsewhere, I will have more to say). But it is to a party that Jesus came, a gathering of friends, family, and virtually everyone in Cana and environs, and who am I to say that I ought to be a party pooper!

Epiphany Essay (1) – Reflected glory

In the run-up to the real date of Epiphany, not the “pastoral” alternative on the “nearest Sunday,” I am writing a multi-part essay on ruminations that have started to occupy my mind since the end of last year. Today, I will start with something that arose from reflecting upon the first of the three events that are marked traditionally at Epiphany, the visit of the wise men.

“We have seen his star rising in the East and have come to worship him.”
Being drawn by the glory of something or someone, basking in reflected glory, is a temptation to which some of us succumb. I can admit feeling some guilt about this the past year, especially with respect to someone whom I cannot name for certain sundry reasons. The line between respectful admiration and something else gets thin at times, and that is what worries me.
I do admit that being aware of the signs that this is becoming a problem is what a friend would call “over-thinking,” but I feel it is a necessary corrective. Sometimes what I say or do tends to contradict what I believe–say, that I should put all my loyalties relative to God, for example–and a bit of an examination is what is needed. The temptation here is, as was recently brought to mind in a conversation with an acquaintance, to feel a great deal of guilt. And it matters. Sometimes, we do get it wrong.
The wise men knew that the temptation to linger in the corridors of power, to flatter power with the right answers, may bear worse consequences that they needed to know. I would suppose that what they told Herod was perfectly innocent, but not without a tinge of irony. They knew, as we know, that he was not really in power, but only so because of Rome, of an Empire who had the final say on what he said and did. So to suggest that there was someone who was out to challenge Herod’s ultimately non-existent authority was indeed stunning. Herod, it is discovered, did not have the right Davidic credentials to become ruler of Israel. And sometimes the stars we follow turn out not to point the right way.
Maybe this is where the trouble starts. Whenever we exaggerate our connections, bask in reflected glory, do all these things to gain fame and notoriety, is it possible to ask whether we thus make ourselves more than who we really may be, and when the time comes, will we be exposed for it? Perhaps this is the way the world works, and perhaps there is wisdom in being as cunning as “the world” is, and there is, I suppose, a kind of pragmatism in operating that way.
Perhaps the wise men were bloody idealists who wandered around believing strange things and not knowing how to behave around power. We mask this unfortunate judgment by calling them “kings” and (incidentally) reducing what I suspect was a much larger band of brothers to “three.” (There were three kinds of gifts, not necessarily three givers; the story is not specific on the numbers.) If they were rulers themselves, surely they would know about power and protocol and going “through channels.” But no! They came forward and merely said that there was a “newborn king of the Jews” and didn’t they hear the damn herald announce who Herod is?
Bloody idealists they may have been, but they had the right idea. Herod was there to prop up a system that stood in the way of “his people” getting what they truly deserved: a chance to be truly what God called them to be–a nation whose God, whose Lord, was the Holy One, and whose only ruler was God alone. And by merely saying there was someone who just might get the trick right, because the right signs were there, was not comfortable hearing.
And so it is uncomfortable hearing for us too. If we are to see any real change in the world, perhaps it should start with the way we make relative our allegiances, our priorities, and more importantly the way we seek power, influence, and so forth. To make relative the desire for glory is meant to remind ourselves that, as the old Roman slave assigned to do so used to say to a conquering hero, holding the wreath above him:

“sic transit gloria mundi”

And after that, we are warned to go another way. More lives, and indeed more reputations, may be lost in the process. What was revealed to the nations was a new way of proceeding, of thinking about our relation with God, the world, and each other. It is no longer the way of the world, pragmatic and necessary that way sometimes may be. It is the world’s way, receiving a course correction from the same star that rose in the East.