Signs and wonders

 

 

This week, we welcome a guest blog by James Rawls. James and Linda Rawls are sometime parishioners at St Peter’s, Hammersmith, who divide their time between London and California. James is the author of the forthcoming book, On the Way: 100 Reflections on the Journey of Faith (2018).

 

A recent reference in a sermon at St Peter’s Church Hammersmith to the seven-headed red dragon in the Book of Revelation, and the universal theme of good and evil in cultures around the world, brought to mind a current exhibition at the British Museum.

Called Living with gods: Peoples, places and worlds beyond (through 8 April 2018), the exhibition explores how beliefs in spiritual beings and worlds beyond nature are characteristic of all human societies, and led me to ponder how our experience of the “beyond” as Christians is paralleled by expressions of faith in other cultures. These are some of the universal elements noted in the exhibition:

  • Sacred Space. While the gods may be sensed everywhere, cultures universally designate certain places where the perception of divinity is heightened. The ancient Celts called these “thin places.” Churches are surely such spaces for us, are they not?
  • Music. The exhibition introduces “sensing other worlds” with an insight from St Augustine of Hippo: “God gave us music that we may pray without words.” Isn’t that what we experience in worship as musicians and choirs lift our voices in praise?
  • Effigies. Common to many cultures is the placement of personal emblems within a sacred space; effigies which may remain after a person has “passed beyond.” Consider the memorial plaques along the walls of many of our church buildings.
  • Fire. The exhibition reminds us that “the shapes and shadows of flames suggest spiritual presence.” How many candles do we have in our churches? And what are the glorious chandeliers found in our places of worship but gleaming emblems of the divine light?
  • Water. “Ritual use of blessed or holy water unites believers to their communities.” I’m reminded of the painting at St Peter’s Church on the left side of the eastern wall which portrays Peter standing ankle deep in water as Christ bids him become a fisher of men. The painting on the right shows Peter preaching: “Repent and be baptized every one of you….” The baptismal font stands ever ready to usher newcomers into the Body of Christ.
  • Iconic Creatures: Images of animals imbued with spiritual meaning abound in the exhibition. On the reindeer-skin coat of a Siberian shaman are portrayed loons. The accompanying text explains: “Loons dive in water, walk on land and fly, so they can guide the shaman through the realms of the cosmos.” The beautifully embroidered green kneelers in St Peter’s feature a host of creatures, but my favourite image is the nesting pelican pictured in the roundel high above the altar to the left. An early emblem of the self-sacrificing Christ, the pelican transcends the boundaries of earth and sea and sky.

So what are we to make of all this? Are we to conclude that Christian expressions of faith are but exemplars of cleverly devised myths common to all humankind?

You may recall the conversation between J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, both of whom came to a profound Christian faith by way of myth. Prior to his conversion, Lewis once told Tolkien that myths were nothing but “lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver.” “No,” Tolkien replied, “they are not lies,” and he went on to explain that myths often are the best way to convey truths that would otherwise remain inexpressible. As Roman Catholic scholar Joseph Pearce observes, “Building on this philosophy of myth, Tolkien explained to Lewis that the story of Christ was the true myth at the very heart of history and at the very root of reality.”

Our Christian faith is founded on the one who bids us follow him as “the way, the truth, and the life.” In Christ Jesus we have the supreme revelation of the great mystery that is God—a mystery that ever remains beyond all our best efforts to express. With a heartfelt prayer of gratitude for that beloved revelation of truth, I received the exhibition’s closing benediction:

“It is entirely ineffable.”

  

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