The Host

Martin Firrell, 'The Question Mark Inside' (2008)

Martin Firrell’s The Question Mark Inside (light-projection, St Paul’s Cathedral, 2008) was discussed during a recent symposium on Art in Sacred Spaces at London’s National Gallery. The work received positive support but also notable contempt when one participant compared it to Reagan’s plans to project advertising on the moon!

The installation is probably St Paul’s best example of their expressed intention to ‘jolt’ visitors out of sleepy expectations of the Cathedral as mere monolithic relic, and to express a generosity of spirit toward the secular world. This is particularly so through the work’s stark contemporaneity, and its freedom to project upon the church’s exterior the words ‘I don’t think this is what God intended’.

However, this raises a wider ecclesiastical question of the Church’s role as a ‘host’ and its work in offering hospitality to the world around it. I wonder if works like these move the Cathedral from being a ‘host’ in one sense of the word, to that of another, in fact, opposite sense. In the first sense, one who acts as ‘host’ of, say, a party or a dinner, is implied to have a gracious responsibility and ownership of the place, or event. Whereas, in the second sense, the ‘host’ of a parasite has lost all power over itself and is utterly used.

Words like ‘Love’, ‘Strength’, or ‘الحز’ (‘Sorrow’), stripped of all Christian contexts, and presented as abstract and elemental, say nothing at all. That is, they are nebulous enough to allow anyone to identify their own worldview with the work, and be affirmed in it without the church contributing any pastoral insight into it. In this way, viewers may be blocked from, rather than drawn into, an encounter with God.

It is a misunderstanding to think that real hospitality is incompatible with the Christian tradition whereby the presence of God, mediated through the Church, brings a measure of disruption to the conscience. The western grand-narrative claims that, in order to be hospitable, nothing (be it spoken word or visual art) must disrupt the secular-religious mantra of ‘each to their own’.  And yet, anything that dims the light of the Gospel, no matter how cheerfully received, or how well it seems to ‘keep the peace’ with the outside world, is neither as loving nor beautiful, nor as high a doctrine of humanity, nor ultimately as peace-full, as the Gospel itself that proclaims the God who knows (deeply, through his incarnate experience) the human condition. The God who, in the most sincere act of ‘hospitality’, emptied himself of his very life, to create a space of communion between himself and humanity and between people and their ‘others’.

The abstraction that typifies contemporary art can helpfully serve the apophatic theological tradition that has maintained the ineffable, the unknowable and the un-representable nature of God. However, I wonder if today there is a thread of false apophaticism that seeks not to express the inexpressible, but to silence, perhaps even deny, what the church has been called to proclaim. It is not my intention that church art be restricted to the purely assertive or devotional and exclude works that may have ironies or other nuances at times. My hope is only to raise the question of true hospitality and to remind us that the Church’s role is to act as ‘host’ in the positive sense. This, in order that her first and highest role may be fulfilled: to glorify God. The chief symbol of this role is enacted in the Church’s own ’performance artwork’ – the raising of the True Host: the body of Christ in the Eucharist.

Jen Logan is studying for a Masters in Christianity & the Arts at Kings College London and The National Gallery London. Jen has previous degrees in Social Work and Theology. She lives in North-West London as part of Community Church Harlesden.

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Image credit: St Paul’s Cathedral. Fair use justification: This image depicts the particular aspect of the artwork that is under discussion.

2 Comments

  • Bruce Herman says:

    Jen — thanks for this nuanced distinction between host and host, between authentic welcome and it’s counterfeit. The irony of the prevailing zeitgeist is that tolerance trumps genuine empathy–a weak tea indeed. In the film Babette’s Feast, the famous French cook offers her entire life savings to create a single meal for a grumbling, uncharitable community whose love has long ago grown cold. Her sacrifice restores the people to convivial affection again–and that meal becomes a Eucharistic feast.
    There is a cavernous gulf between mere tolerance of difference and sacrificial love for those outside one’s native tribe. If the church were to become a Babette, there would be no doubt at least as to the quality of our hospitality.

    • Jen Logan says:

      Thanks Bruce- Babette’s feast is a great example. I think there is more imaginative work to be done by the church in the West, to find ways of offering true hospitality (or as you say, to ‘become a Babette’) within our contemporary context.

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