Some Thoughts on Tradition, Visuals and Phoenixes

Oli Higham

Greater Glasgow June 02, 2017

White Canvas Collective exists to further the conversations between pioneers within the missional context of Scotland. So in the name of pioneering and exploring something different I’m going to start this article by looking at early twentieth century neurology journals. Specifically, I’d like to start with the editors of the journal Brain. In 1905, Sir Henry Head became the editor of Brain, or if you will, Mr. Head was the head of Brain. He remained the head of Brain until 1923 when he was replaced by Russell Brain. So Mr. Head was the head of Brain before he was replaced as the head of Brain by Mr. Brain and the staff at Brain had to transition from Mr. Head being the head to Mr. Brain being the head of Brain.

And all of this discussion on nominative determinism has nothing to do with what I wanted to write about except to say that I recently met Mr. Wood the Woodturner.

Mr. Wood carved us some beautiful wooden quaichs for us to use as communion cups.

I attended a citizenship ceremony a few years ago. One of the things which stood out to me was a simple gift given by the provost to those becoming British citizens. He handed each individual a quaich and explained the tradition of this cup of friendship, a cup to be shared, a cup to be passed between friends, a cup to be used in community. I found myself thinking…“that sounds like the cup of communion.”

It made me ask, what if we shared communion using the quaich, steeped in both the history of our Scottish context and the imagery of the good news of Jesus? So we asked Mr. Wood to make us some quaichs.

This itself asks a deeper question for me. A question which is the real heart of this article.

How do we create fresh imagery which helps us tell the story of the Christ within an evolving expression of church?

Honest answer…I’m not sure.

But I’d like to explore this thought.

Some Thoughts on Tradition, Visuals and Phoenixes

Let me take a step back and offer a few thoughts which might help me, and perhaps you too, to wrestle with this question. As with most creatives and artists, my thoughts are very rarely linear but rather an interweaving of many strands.

Thought 1: Our Churches have a Strong Literary Tradition

Our traditions in the Scottish church, at least within many protestant churches, are primarily literary. We hold the written expression of God, the Bible, above the visual. We have historically valued the passing on of words, being able to orate doctrine, learn Bible verses, and preach sermons as the primary place of learning. While there is huge value and massive beauty in the words we use, there must also be space for imagery as a means to communicate.

Thought 2: Images Aren’t Just for Kid’s Books

Last summer I spent a day visiting a series of Moldovan monasteries. I have an aesthetic love for religious icons. I find a real beauty in their style. These monasteries, painted head to toe in visual representations of Biblical stories, reminds me of the importance down the centuries of visual storytelling.

We can often be guilty of relegating pictures to something for kids. As we grow up our books have less pictures. As we grow up our expressions of faith become less visual. As an artist and comic book fan, I’ve never grown out of a love of pictures. I believe we need to not relegate visual storytelling to a lesser value than word-based expressions of truth.

Thought 3: Traditions Tells Stories

Tradition, in and of itself, has never been a formative part of my church journey. However, I believe there is something we need to learn from the long term traditions of our faith and our long standing church expressions. I admire the use of colour within the different seasons of the liturgical calendar. I like the focus that remembering certain feast days and celebrations offers us. This makes me question the value of constantly striving for the “new” in our fresh expressions and therefore what traditions we can borrow and what new traditions we can start to use to tell the stories of our faith.

Thought 4: We Live in a Visual Culture

It’s not really a fresh insight to suggest we live in a visually dominated culture. However, we need to take this seriously. There is something important in reflecting on the way we use and reuse objects, colours, and shapes. What do our eyes latch onto when we are telling the stories of our faith? What does the paraphernalia of church life say about our story? Do we deliberately let it add to the story? How does the shape of our seating tell a story? How do objects which return to our gatherings time and time again affect the story we tell?

Thought 5: Traditions Can Lead Us Deeper

I’m in no doubt that some traditions are kept for tradition’s sake. That some traditions are done for specific reasons which go over the heads of everyone but a select few. But, there is also an ability for tradition to take us deeper into the story. It would be easy for communion to be a dead tradition. We drink wine. We eat bread. We do it because it’s what we do. However, I can’t remember the last time I took communion and wasn’t pulled deeper into the story of Jesus. It is a tradition. It is a repetition. It is nothing new in itself. Yet, it widens my view of God every time I pause and share in that moment.

Thought 6: Consistency Within Change

I think it’s relatively easy to keep strong, meaningful traditions and imagery within a stable context. We can plan the rhythms into our calendar. We can find the heartbeats which allow the imagery of our faith to be celebrated. This, though, is more difficult, when the shape of church is evolving and in flux and always open to change and flow. There must however be possibilities to create rhythms that work in seasons of change. What they look like is going to be shaped by the context. They might be regular meals. They might be words of welcome. They might be colours which repeat across time. They might be a thematic rhythm within the ways we meet together. They might be the regular planting of a tree, the shape of a communion cup, the colour of table clothes, the words we use before we share coffee with one another.

Thought 7: Context Defines the Legitimacy of the Stories we Craft

There are images, colours and objects which will tell a different story depending on where they are. Green and white hoops in Glasgow tells a different story than in rural Rwanda. There is imagery that is intrinsically Scottish. There is imagery that is intrinsically relevant to Falkirk and other imagery that is relevant in Dumbarton and different imagery in Inverness and again imagery that will tell a specific story in Dundee. Our challenge is to ask ourselves questions of context and culture. The imagery of the phoenix is deeply relevant in the community I live in while having no real meaning to the estates on the other end of my town. How we use these objects and images can be fluid but the stories that are shaped around them can be incredibly poignant.

Our Context Doesn’t Change the Story but it Changes the Narrative

We, as churches, will tell the story of Jesus. That is not going to change. The story behind the way we do things will always be Jesus. However, the narrative we use to tell this must be contextualized.

Let me give an example. In John 6, we read of a story of Jesus feeding five thousand with some bread and fish and then having a conversation about the ancient Jewish story of Manna. Jesus then tells His story by rooting it in this conversation. Here, he doesn’t say “I am the Shepherd” or “I am the vine.” Here, in the context of feeding the hungry he says, “I am the bread of life.” He takes the context and tells the story through a specific narrative, one of hunger, sustenance and provision.

To be able to adapt the way we tell the story of Jesus within our contexts we need to know our communities. This isn’t just a passive knowledge of living there but a deliberate and intentional asking of questions. What are the motifs, images, objects, etc which have a story in my context? For me, in Dumbarton, the imagery of Dumbarton Rock, shipbuilding heritage, and rivers could all have potential as means to tell the story of Jesus. Perhaps in Falkirk the story is told through narratives of wheels, kelpies, and bairns. Perhaps in Dundee we tell the story of Jesus through discovery and docks. Perhaps in Edinburgh we tell the story through government, Arthur’s seat, castles, and dungeons.

Let me finish with our communion quaichs. We don’t presume everyone will understand why we are using these specific cups. When we use them we build a narrative around them that tells us some of the story of Jesus. A cup of friendship, a cup of community and communion, a cup of sharing in His story. When we use imagery within our contexts we must also let people engage with these images. The beauty of image is that it allows multiple stories to be told at the same time. However, we must offer people some doors into these stories and space to engage with the conversation they offer

Join in the discussion on Facebook

Oli Higham

Oli Higham

Oli is the pastor at Rock Community Church. Born in Brighton but long term resident of Dumbarton with his wife, Aliona, and kids, Sofia and Theo. He is really into Jesus and to a lesser extent comic books, spoken word poetry, street art, Arsenal FC, rugby, cooking and coffee.