What or who sets our moral compass? | photo: iStock

What or who sets our moral compass? | photo: iStock


It shook thousands of people out of their homes and onto the streets in protest.

Crossing the culture from Rachel Helen Smith: The slipperiness of the soul

Crossing the Culture

(view original article here)

‘Virginia Woolf was one of Britain’s most important writers and thinkers, who played a pivotal role at the heart of modernism in the early twentieth century.’

So says Sandy Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery. The gallery’s current exhibition on Woolf is the first to use portraiture to explore her life and includes a collection of over 140 items. Her walking stick, letters to her sister, portraits of her friends and copies of her diaries have all been brought together by guest curator Frances Spalding, author of the accompanying catalogue Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision.

The Bloomsbury Group

Virginia Woolf was born in 1882 as Adeline Virginia Stephen. Her father was a biographer and editor, her mother sat for Burne-Jones. Both of her parents had been widowed and brought into their union children from their previous marriages. This meant that Virginia lived with a medley of siblings; for much of her childhood she was one of eight children living at 22 Hyde Park Gate, Kensington.

Woolf soon became a prominent figure in the Bloomsbury Group, which she hosted with her sister Vanessa Bell. Also within the group were her good friends Roger Fry, Lytton Strachey and Leonard Woolf, who she would marry in 1927. Together, she and Leonard founded the Hogarth Press, publishing Virginia’s modernist novels as well as groundbreaking work by T.S. Eliot, Sigmund Freud and Virginia’s lover, Vita Sackville-West.

Woolf is primarily remembered by literary scholars for her unique writing style, which is often described as ‘stream of consciousness’. However, the National Portrait Gallery exhibition reveals that she was also deeply involved in politics, fashion and art. She raised funds for victims of the Spanish Civil War, posed for photographs printed in Vogue and was listed as a patron for a London showing of Picasso’s painting Guernica. The exhibition does a fascinating job of exposing this variety. However, there is at least one further aspect of Woolf’s vision that merits exploration: that of her religious belief.

‘Religion is detestable’

Like her father, Woolf seemed tired of conventional Christianity. She declared herself an atheist, was known to call religion ‘detestable’ and referred to God as an ‘old savage’. Often she wrapped her objections in jokes, as in one letter to Lytton Strachey where she declares: ‘I read the Book of Job last night – don’t think God comes well out of it.’

Nonetheless, she was always impressed with Russian novelists like Dostoyevsky who dealt with ‘the stuff of the soul’ and who ‘confound us with a feeling of our own irreligious triviality’. She was also, at times, drawn to Christian symbolism in her own writing and even seemed to experience a ‘mystical impulse’. It’s enough to convince the academic Pericles Lewis that Woolf’s work does not reject religion altogether, but rather ‘seeks new forms of the sacred that will accommodate the pluralism of modern life’.

Interestingly, he goes on to claim that Woolf was not opposed to Christianity any more than she was to atheism. Instead, she sought to explore multiple spiritual perspectives, refusing to allow one to have dominance over another. Indeed, when she does approach religion in her own writing, it is with a tone of questioning and inquiry. Of the novel Mrs Dalloway she wrote in her diary: ‘I want to give the slipperiness of the soul.’

Tortured soul

For Woolf, religion was not a source of truth and security. Instead, her multifarious moments of mysticism seemed to be connected to her struggles with depression. In one diary entry she wrote: ‘I wished to add some remarks […] on the mystical side of this solitude […] It is this that is frightening [and] exciting in the midst of my profound gloom, depression, boredom, whatever it is….’

Woolf had long suffered with mental illness. In 1941, when she was just 59, she committed suicide by drowning herself; she filled her coat pockets with stones and walked into the River Ouse. She left her walking stick on the river bank, a recent letter to her sister that explained her pain, and a collection of novels that have endured as classics of modern literature. All of them are on display at the National Portrait Gallery, and all of them point to a writer and a woman whose ‘religious vision of life’ (to quote Auden) is worth exploring further.

Rachel Thorpe writes the ‘Crossing the culture’ column for en and works as an events planner and freelance writer in Cambridge. More of her articles can be found at www.rachelthorpe.com

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision runs until October 26, 2014 at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

This article was first published in the September 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, visit us online or subscribe to en for monthly updates

Crossing the culture from Rachel Helen Smith: Courtship and the courts

Crossing the Culture

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‘Politics, art, history and race all tied in a big bow.’

That’s how director Amma Asante describes her latest film, Belle. Released in the UK in mid-June, it has met with huge acclaim both from audiences and film critics. Much of its success lies in the fact that it combines the traditional elements of a Jane Austen romance with a nuanced awareness of the difficult politics of the period.

A shocking painting

The story behind the film was inspired by a painting in Scone Palace, Scotland. Screenwriter Misan Sagay spotted the unusual image of two richly-dressed young women, one black and one white. The painting dates from 1779 yet shockingly, for that time, the women are portrayed as equals. After doing some research, Sagay discovered that it depicted Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray. The two women were cousins and were both raised by their aristocratic great-uncle Lord Mansfield, one-time Lord Chief Justice.

This skeletal true life story allowed the film’s two crucial themes to come together. As Dido and Elizabeth, or ‘Belle and Bette’, negotiate the world of courtly romance, Lord Mansfield is fighting a fierce legal battle against slavery. The contrast of the genteel courting rituals and the brutality of the infamous Zong case allow the film to become more than just a simple period piece. Instead it is, in the words of the film critic Mark Kermode, ‘a ripe costume drama with teeth’.

Too high, too low

The British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as Belle, the illegitimate mixed-race child of a Royal Navy Admiral, Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode). She gives a moving portrayal of a young woman caught between two worlds. She is deemed too high in rank to dine with the servants, yet too low to dine with her family. Her colour makes her an object of fascination for some, repulsion for others, and affection for only a few.

Among her suitors are the highly appropriate Oliver Ashford (James Norton), who is entranced by her beauty despite her ‘unfortunate’ heritage, and the idealistic young lawyer John Davinier who declares her beautiful. Belle nonetheless struggles to find a comfortable identity and a place to belong. In one moving scene she sits at her dressing-table mirror, crying and clawing at her skin. No amount of money or status can overcome the weight of the prejudice that is targeted against her.

Breaking the rules

As much as the film is about Dido’s struggle to find her place in the world and to find someone to love her, it is also about Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson). He holds a hugely influential position in society at a moment when the British slave trade is being challenged. Today, he is remembered for contributing to the process that culminated its abolition in 1883. In the film Lord Mansfield has an unusual combination of gravitas and warmth. He is wedded to the conventions of his time, yet able to think far more progressively than many of his peers. ‘There are rules in place which dictate how we live’, he tells Belle, yet she reminds him, ‘You break every rule when it matters enough, Papa’.

Fatherly love

Alongside his firm moral core, Lord Mansfield is a wonderful example of fatherly love. Defying the conventions of his time, he agrees to raise Belle as his own daughter. He constantly reassures her: ‘You may not understand in this moment, but know in your heart you are loved’. Indeed, the real-life painting that inspired the film was his gift to her, a way of showing her that she was entirely equal to Elizabeth in his eyes. Lord Mansfield, as depicted in the film, may not be perfect, but he does everything in his power to show Belle that he loves her.

It is this picture of fatherly love that will appeal to many believers who will see in it a reflection of the father heart of God for us. No matter what our rank, background, gender, race, appearance or anything else, God the Father loves us. It’s a heart-warming message to draw from a film that doesn’t shy away from the difficult side of life, but rather reveals the redeeming power of true fatherly love in the midst of our ‘barbaric world’.


Rachel Thorpe writes the ‘Crossing the culture’ column for en and works as an events planner and freelance writer in Cambridge. More of her articles can be found at www.rachelthorpe.com

This article was first published in the August 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, visit us online or subscribe to en for monthly updates

Crossing the culture from Rachel Helen Smith: Heartbreak and Hope

Crossing the Culture

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Coldplay’s latest album, Ghost Stories, has been hitting the headlines.

There are three reasons. 1. It has become the fastest-selling UK album of the year. 2. The band signed an exclusive deal with iTunes meaning that the album was not available on free music streaming websites like Spotify. 3. In an impressive publicity stunt, the band created an international scavenger hunt by hiding handwritten lyrics from the album in libraries across the world.

The album itself has almost been lost in the chatter, but among fans who have been waiting for it for three years the response to the music is mixed. Those who know Coldplay for their buoyant, stadium-filling anthems have found it surprising. Aside from the album’s first single, ‘Magic’, and the penultimate track, ‘A Sky Full of Stars’, the songs are mellow and downbeat. For other fans, this is its strength: it’s a return to the soothing ‘bath rock’ music that appeared on the band’s first album, Parachutes, released in 2000. But Ghost Stories is not just ambient; it has more than a tinge of sadness, and with good reason.

Conscious uncoupling

It seems to be impossible to talk about Ghost Stories without mentioning the fact that it was it was released less than two months after the band’s frontman Chris Martin announced his ‘conscious uncoupling’ from his wife of ten years, the actress Gwyneth Paltrow. The couple, who have two children, announced their separation on Paltrow’s lifestyle website Goop. The article claimed amiably, ‘we have come to the conclusion that while we love each other very much we will remain separate’. It immediately drew criticism from people who objected to their euphemistic language. What did ‘unconscious uncoupling’ even mean?

Paltrow’s spiritual advisers, Dr Habib Sadeghi and Dr Sherry Sami, explain: ‘It seems ironic to say that a marriage coming apart is the cause of something else coming together, but it’s true. Conscious uncoupling brings wholeness to the spirits of both people who choose to recognise each other as their teacher. If they do, the gift they receive from their time together will neutralise their negative internal object that was the real cause of their pain in the relationship’.

Ghost Stories, which has repeatedly been dubbed a ‘breakup album’, is full of descriptions of this pain. Martin describes the art of songwriting as like keeping a diary, and the album is clearly very personal.


But Ghost Stories does not languish in depression. The album’s dramatic narrative moves on; by track eight there is a musical release and a lyrical turn to acceptance and joy. Speaking to the BBC, Martin explains: ‘What Ghost Stories means to me is you’ve got to open yourself up to love and, if you really do, of course it will be painful at times, but then it will be great at some point’. The album’s title also refers to this sense that you cannot let the ghosts of your past continue to haunt you. You have to move on and embrace the future.

More importantly, Martin’s great revelation in this album is that in order to live a satisfying life you have to let go of your fears and make yourself entirely vulnerable. You have to embrace everything life throws at you, whether happy or sad. You have to be completely honest. You have to be grateful for every moment, whatever it brings. Only in doing so can you find the capacity to love unconditionally and to experience deep-seated, euphoric joy. ‘I’m very proud of that message’, says Martin, who hopes that by listening to this album, fans will experience this soul-cleansing catharsis.


Listening to Martin talk about the album it’s clear that his ‘new approach to life’ does have a spiritual component. Perhaps it’s not surprising given his background. Paltrow raised their children as Jews in honour of her father, who was a rabbi. Martin himself was raised in a Catholic family, but subsequently turned to a combination of other faiths. He’s experimented with a range of religions, finally settling on the self-invented term ‘all-theist’ to describe his belief in all kinds of gods.

For Ghost Stories he consulted a teacher of Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam, who told him to let his negative experiences ‘alchemise’. The result was that the music on the album simply flowed through him, he claims. He’s conscious of sounding too New Age, but he says: ‘I’ve been given that gift from the universe, or from God, or whatever you want to believe in, that ideas for songs get sent through wherever they get sent from and then I take them to the rest of the band.

In the face of his heartbreak, Martin’s defiant response is to keep singing. He uses the album to declare that his spirit is not crushed: ‘If you were to ask me / After all that we’ve been through / ‘Still believe in magic?’ / Well yes I do / Of course I do!’ This sense of magic is a relief and a release, but only inasmuch as it points to a deeper, more freeing truth. A single true God does exist and he is a source of comfort, inspiration, joy, hope, healing and real, unconditional love. Martin may not have found him yet, but for us, whatever the trials of life, that really is something to keep believing in.

Rachel Thorpe writes the ‘Crossing the culture’ column for EN and works as an events planner and freelance writer in Cambridge. More of her articles can be found at www.rachelthorpe.com

This article was first published in the July 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, visit us online or subscribe to en for monthly updates

Crossing the culture from Rachel Thorpe: Shock, paper, scissors

Crossing the Culture

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The Snail. Blue Nude. Icarus. The Dance.

Matisse’s works are some of the most recognisable images in modern art. Now Tate Modern in London is hosting an exhibition devoted to his cut-outs, which he made during the final 17 years of his life.

Master of colour

Henri Matisse (1869–1954) was born in a cloth-making town in northern France. He worked in the courts until a bout of appendicitis left him bedridden. His mother bought him a set of art supplies to keep him amused, and he soon became fanatical about painting. He gained traditional technical skills by copying the works of the great masters in the Louvre, but it was a visit to southern France that inspired his unique, colourful style.

His shocking paintings were dismissed by the establishment, who called him a madman and a Fauve (wild beast). However, he soon became friends with Picasso, Braque and Gertrude Stein. He began painting popular images of nude women and in the 1930s he received his largest ever commission: to create a mural for the Barnes Foundation. This project allowed him to develop fully the distinctive style that characterised all of the works that followed. By the end of the 1940s he was acclaimed as the master of colour, and one of the greatest modern artists.

Painting with scissors

However, Matisse’s health was sharply declining. Although he was elderly, tired and frail, his final years were a period of determined creativity. No longer able to paint, he turned instead to paper collages, known as gouaches découpés. Confined to a wheelchair or sometimes to his ‘taxi bed’, Matisse began to ‘paint with scissors’ – as he put it – in order to ‘cut directly into colour’. He used large shears and painted paper, working quickly and intensely. The works too are vibrant and energetic. Matisse himself described the dazzling cut-outs as being most akin to stained glass, saying: ‘I cut out these gouache sheets the way you cut glass: only here they’re organised to reflect light, whereas in a stained-glass window they have to be arranged differently because light shines through them’. At the time, he did not realise the significance of the comparison.

During this period Matisse developed a close friendship with Sister Jacques-Marie, who had earlier been his nurse and model. Although a staunch atheist, Matisse recognised something of himself in her life at the convent, saying to her: ‘I live with my forces directed towards that same spiritual horizon. My effort differs from yours only in appearance’. Sister Jacques approached him to ask for advice about the design of a stained-glass window, but soon Matisse had taken on the project of designing an entire Dominican Chapel.

His work on the Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence is shown in Room 7 of the Tate’s exhibition. The project took him four years to complete. He designed everything from his bed, using paper cut-outs that he stuck all around his room. As well as the luminous stained glass, he also created huge images of the Virgin, the Stations of the Cross and St Dominic. He planned every detail, from the crucifix on the altar to the priest’s garments. When he had finished, he declared the chapel was his masterpiece and called it ‘the result of all my active life’.

All art is religious

With the Chapel of the Rosary, Matisse had finally managed to use light not just as his inspiration, but as his material. He had always been fascinated by this idea, claiming: ‘the artist or the poet possesses an interior light which transforms objects to make a new world of them … which is in itself an infallible sign of the Divinity, a reflection of Divinity’. What might an atheist artist mean when he speaks of Divinity? Matisse explained: ‘All art worthy of the name is religious. Be it a creation of lines, or colours: if it is not religious, it does not exist’.

In fact, Matisse has been described as ‘instinctively religious’ and he repeatedly used the language of spirituality when speaking about his work. Through painting, cut-outs and stained glass, he was able to express what he called his ‘almost religious awe towards life’.

Of painting, he once claimed: ‘The essential thing is to put myself in a frame of mind which is close to that of prayer’. By comparison, the frame of mind that he wished to create for viewers was one of ‘balance, purity and calmness’. Through art, he said: ‘I wish to create a spiritual remedy … which provides relaxation from physical fatigue’.

Such comments led essayist W.S. Di Piero to claim: ‘Matisse’s career was the most sustained and variegated exercise of religious imagination of our time’. Even the Tate exhibition booklet states that Matisse’s work ‘conveys the spirit of religious expression without explicitly addressing religious subject matter’. What would the atheist Matisse make of this interpretation? ‘Do I believe in God?’, he asked. ‘Yes, when I work’.


Rachel Thorpe writes the ‘Crossing the culture’ column for EN and works as an events planner and freelance writer in Cambridge. More of her articles can be found at www.rachelthorpe.com

This article was first published in the June 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, visit us online or subscribe to en for monthly updates

Crossing the culture from Rachel Thorpe: About a writer

Crossing the Culture

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A Long Way Down, which came out in March, is the fourth of Nick Hornby’s books to reach the big screen.

First there was the semi-autobiographical Fever Pitch, in which Colin Firth played a fanatical Arsenal supporter. (An American version was also released featuring Drew Barrymore and the Boston Red Sox.) Then came High Fidelity, in which music-lover Rob reflects on a string of failed relationships. About A Boy featured the laddish Will, played by Hugh Grant, who befriends a young boy with a troubled home life. Now A Long Way Down presents an unlikely foursome as they contemplate suicide. With subjects like these, it’s little wonder Hornby is known for his dry, dark humour.

Invisible style

I’m a big fan of Nick Hornby’s writing. I admire his understated, self-deprecating wit. I like his wry observations about the seemingly trivial details of human relationships and family life. I appreciate the insight he offers into the psyche of a certain brand of bumbling nineties males. I love the way that he handles heavy topics with a relaxed, cheerful and poignant tone that feels utterly appropriate. I’m not the only one to praise his so-called invisible style, which is often described as being ‘deceptively simple’. There is, of course, a good dose of bad language, adultery, obsessiveness and family breakdown in his novels. But what else would you expect from a writer committed to exploring the emotional and social responsibilities of 21st-century individuals?

Hornby returns repeatedly to the same question: to what extent are people entitled to live selfish lives? His characters make various attempts to work out the answer to this question. In About A Boy, Will is determined to do as he pleases and disprove the idea that ‘no man is an island’. David and Katie in How To Be Good find themselves in all kinds of moral quandaries as they struggle to live selflessly. The characters in A Long Way Down consider cutting their ties altogether. But, try as they might, Hornby’s characters cannot seem to isolate themselves from the world, and the people, around them. They’re constantly drawn back to relationships and community.

Resorting to religion

Hornby’s website features an interview in which he responds to the question, ‘How vital a force is religion in contemporary culture?’ He claims: ‘Most contemporary Western writers are a pretty godless lot, myself included, so religion plays less of a part in contemporary fiction than perhaps it should, when you think about what kind of a role it plays in contemporary life’.

His novels do make vague attempts to engage with the idea of spirituality and organised religion in a godless culture. In How To Be Good, the Christian faith is enacted as a ‘sad, exhausted, defeated’ duty. In Juliet, Naked, one of the characters claims that religion is supposed to make you ‘love people more, forgive them their petty transgressions’. However, great art somehow seems more capable of performing this task. Perhaps art is, in some cases, a kind of religion?

In fact, in one of Hornby’s early short stories, faith is defined as ‘one simple thought that renders everything else in life temporarily insignificant’. Whether a religion, a hobby, a career, a musician, a football team, a love affair, or children, faith is just some kind of all-consuming idea.

Emotional benefits

Hornby does seem drawn to the idea that Christianity ‘might be used to assist thought’. It might, he suggests, help us to consider ‘who we are and what we’re doing here and how we intend to negotiate the difficulties and tragedies that are unavoidably a part of being human’. At times he even seems slightly nostalgic for the seriousness of Christian thought, quoting Philip Larkin’s poem Church Going: ‘And that much never can be obsolete, / Since someone will forever be surprising / A hunger in himself to be more serious.’

In his own life, Hornby finds it hard to escape the emotional narratives of Christianity. When his youngest son was troubled by the death of pop star Michael Jackson, he found himself relying on the language of faith. He said: ‘The terrible thing is how quickly one resorts to religion. I have staunch atheistic principles, but the moment Jesse became upset, I’m going, “It’s alright, don’t worry. Michael Jackson’s gone to heaven” ’. Yet elsewhere he claims to be repelled by the Christian idea of the afterlife. It seems that, for Hornby, religion is something which may have emotional benefits at particular moments in life, regardless of whether or not it is true.

One of the characters in How To Be Good says: ‘I don’t believe in Heaven, or anything. But I want to be the kind of person that qualifies for entry anyway. Do you understand?’. You have to wonder how closely Hornby would align himself with this view, and how strongly it would resonate with many of his readers.

Rachel Thorpe writes the ‘Crossing the culture’ column for EN and works as an events planner and freelance writer in Cambridge. More of her articles can be found at www.rachelthorpe.com

This article was first published in the May 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, visit us online or subscribe to en for monthly updates

Crossing the culture from Rachel Thorpe: The fabric of modern life

Crossing the Culture

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When I asked my friends what the Bible has to say about The Great British Sewing Bee, one suggested that I read ‘The Parable of the Sewer’.

Other recommended references included the three-strand cord mentioned in Ecclesiastes, and the needle through which the camel struggles to squeeze during Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man. Such comments were meant to be playful rather than profound, but they hinted at the Bible’s fondness for fabric imagery.

From the moment that Adam and Eve stitched together multiple fig leaves to cover their essentials, people have been fascinated by clothes.

Sewing ministry

Throughout Scripture we’re treated to vivid descriptions of characters’ garments, from Joseph’s fancy coat to the camel-skin robe of John the Baptist. We read about Tabitha’s sewing ministry in Acts 9, and perhaps the richest description of the act of sewing itself comes in Exodus 35, where people make offerings for the Tabernacle: ‘All the women who were skilled in sewing and spinning prepared blue, purple, and scarlet thread, and fine linen cloth. All the women who were willing used their skills to spin the goat hair into yarn.’

Human beings have incessantly yearned for yarn and there is always ‘a time to tear apart and a time to sew together’ (Ecclesiastes 3.7).

Bake-off to Bee

Now 21st-century Brits are cottoning on to the trend. The Great British Sewing Bee (GBSB) is enjoying strong viewing figures as the nation tunes in each week to find out who will be crowned Britain’s best home sewer. The popular show comes from the makers of The Great British Bake Off (GBBO) and lures viewers with the same format: ten amateurs gather in the sewing room to complete a series of increasingly difficult challenges. Each episode begins with a pattern challenge. Then there’s the alteration challenge, a brief history lesson and, finally, a more creative task that echoes GBBO’s showstopper.

At the helm is Claudia Winkelman, who acts as a kind of one-woman Mel and Sue. Claudia is better known for hosting Strictly Come DancingComic Relief and BBC1’s film programme.

She regularly confesses that she’s terrible at sewing. But this may be part of the same self-deprecating approach that causes her to describing herself as a ‘shrill moron with a big fringe’ whose job consists of ‘dying my skin orange and reading aloud’.

Saville Row and WI

By her side are GBSB’s answer to Paul and Mary – Savile Row designer Patrick Grant and Women’s Institute sewing teacher May Martin. They’re dedicated experts in their field, but even Patrick was sceptical that the show would be a success. ‘I don’t think sewing’s a fun thing to watch, full stop!’ he said. Claudia agreed. On the first day of filming she phoned her agent to say, ‘I’m in a room of people bent over machines… nobody’s going to watch it.’ But they were both proved wrong. The show has gained a loyal following and the Daily Mail described it as, ‘more gripping than The Wire. More innovative than Breaking Bad ’.

Keep calm and sew on

GBSB has a gentle retro charm that resonates perfectly with the spirit of the moment, combining crafting, hand-made products and a kind of austere make-do-and-mend mentality. Although stitching a nightgown might not seem as DIY-able as baking a GBBO-style Victoria sponge, viewers are keen to try it for themselves; John Lewis reported a 180% increase in the sale of some sewing machines after the first episode of GBSB aired.

The show proceeds with a balance of drama and gentility which some viewers find infuriating but many more find endearing. The contestants frantically keep one foot on the sewing machine pedal, but meanwhile they nibble biscuits and drink tea from ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ mugs. They panic, but only about whether they’ll have time to attach enough diamante to the lace trim. Although the show is competitive at its core, the diverse group of contestants help and support one another and regularly weep when one of them is sent home.

More than almost any other reality show, GBSB has a reputation for featuring people who are genuine and interested in their craft, rather than those desperate to appear on TV. It’s their personalities and reactions that make the show, as Grant explains: ‘It’s not about watching the sewing. It’s more about watching the characters … failing and succeeding and crying and laughing’. It’s these human stories that keep viewers hooked on the show. After all, who doesn’t love a good yarn?

Rachel Thorpe writes the ‘Crossing the culture’ column for EN and works as an events planner and freelance writer in Cambridge. More of her articles can be found at www.rachelthorpe.com

This article was first published in the April 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, visit us online or subscribe to en for monthly updates

Crossing the culture from Rachel Thorpe: Girl on top?

Crossing the Culture

Billboard magazine recently named the R&B singer Beyoncé and her rapper husband Jay-Z the most powerful people in the music industry.

Beyoncé first rose to fame as the centrepiece of the best-selling group Destiny’s Child, before launching her multi-platinum solo career in 2003. She quickly became known as a diva with a soulful voice and a powerful persona.

I am…

Both her first album, Dangerously in Love and her second, B’day (2006), were hugely successful. Her third, I Am… Sasha Fierce (2008), was inspired by her marriage to Jay-Z and revealed a more sensual and aggressive side to her personality. She also began to show a strong feminist streak, singing controversially confused songs about gender ideology and female empowerment. After a hiatus she released (2011) and announced that she was pregnant; Blue Ivy Carter was born in January 2012.

Yet Beyoncé shows no signs of slowing down. On December 13, 2013 she launched her much anticipated fifth album on iTunes, along with 17 music videos, unannounced. There was no media fanfare, no advanced radio airplay and – according to the accompanying press release – definitely no ‘gimmicks, teasers and marketing campaigns’. Her risk paid off and excited American fans purchased 430,000 copies of the self-titled Beyoncé in a single day. Perhaps only the most powerful person in the music industry could have pulled it off.

I am… about faith

Beyoncé has always described herself as a devout Methodist and often speaks about her Christian upbringing. In one interview with a Christian newspaper she claimed: ‘I am about faith and spirituality more so than religion. Doing right by others and not judging. The thing that keeps me grounded is knowing that I’m always protected and that God is in control of things’. In her autobiographical film Life Is But a Dream she speaks about listening to God and following his plan for her life. ‘God is real’, she claims, ‘and God lives inside of me. It doesn’t matter where I am, I know that and I feel it.’ She also thanks Jesus for the beautiful moments in life.

Reflecting on her influential position, she quotes Luke 12.48: ‘to whom much is given, much is required’. ‘I guess I can handle that’, she muses. Some of her fans are less convinced. Her skimpy outfits and suggestive dance routines seem to contradict her stated Christian convictions. Yet she claims: ‘I honestly believe [God] wants people to celebrate their bodies so long as you don’t compromise your Christianity in the process’. Back in 2001 she belted out the lyrics to ‘Survivor’, claiming the same thing: ‘I’m not gonna compromise my Christianity’. But many would ask whether, in the process of becoming a global celebrity and one half of the music industry’s first billionaire couple, Beyoncé has already compromised her faith?

I am … Sasha Fierce

A number of bloggers have described the seeming contradictions between the star’s faith and her image in terms of two distinct personalities: Beyoncé and Sasha Fierce. While filming the video for her debut solo single, Crazy in Love (2003), Beyoncé came up with the idea of creating an alter-ego for herself. She claims: ‘Sasha Fierce is the fun, more sensual, more aggressive, more outspoken and more glamorous side that comes out when I’m working and when I’m on the stage’. She assures interviewers: ‘I’m not like her in real life at all’.

The singers Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga have made strikingly similar statements about their own stage personas. Katy Perry and Jennifer Lopez have also created alter-egos for themselves. Why do all of these female stars feel a need to create alternative personalities? Beyoncé suggests a disturbing answer – she wants to escape herself: ‘I do when performing what I would never do normally. I reveal things about myself that I wouldn’t do in an interview. I have out-ofbody experiences. If I cut my leg, if I fall, I don’t even feel it. I’m so fearless, I’m not aware of my face or my body’. Should we allow our celebrities to distance themselves from their actions in this way? Should they be able to shirk responsibility for what they do and say, blaming it on some other self?

Put off your old self

The Bible is clear that as Christians we must not find ourselves living as two selves. ‘Put off your old self’, Paul writes in Ephesians 4, ‘to put on the new self.’ For believers, there is no excuse for blaming things on our ‘old selves’. Instead, we must leave them behind and embrace our new identities, proclaiming: ‘I am… created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness’. Perhaps such people are particularly needed in a culture where even the most powerful figures are undergoing a deep identity crisis.


Rachel Thorpe writes the ‘Crossing the culture’ column for EN and works as an events planner and freelance writer in Cambridge. More of her articles can be found at www.rachelthorpe.com

This article was first published in the March 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057

Crossing the culture from Rachel Thorpe: Back down the Crow Road

Two names have appeared in the media countless times recently: Iain Banks and Peter Capaldi.

The popular novelist Banks died in June having announced two months earlier that he was dying of gall bladder cancer. Peter Capaldi made the headlines for a rather different reason — in August he was revealed as the new star of BBC’s Doctor Who. Do you know what connects these two men?

I’ll tell you. Capaldi recorded the audio versions of many of Banks’ most famous novels and also appeared in BBC Scotland’s 1996 television drama based on Banks’ novel The Crow Road. The series was repeated on BBC Four over the summer and revealed something of Banks’ approach to religion. Banks was a self-proclaimed ‘evangelical atheist’ who described religious faith as ‘basically bananas’. His novels often explored and critiqued Christianity and The Crow Road is no exception.

Searching for meaning

The Crow Road tells the story of Prentice’s family, who seem to be cursed. When his grandmother dies after falling through the conservatory roof, Prentice is reminded of his aunt Fiona who died in a car crash. He also thinks of his uncle Rory, who has been missing for eight years. The only clues as to the mysterious pattern of tragedies are the notes left by Rory, who was writing a book called The Crow Road. Prentice becomes obsessed with piecing together the evidence and discovering the dark truth.

Faced by the mysteries of his family, the trials of adolescents and the death of a close friend, Prentice desperately needs answers. He cannot accept that the universe has no meaning and that death is final. He tells his friend Ash that he believes in God, if not as ‘an actual thing’ then as ‘a sort of interconnectedness; a field effect’.

All he wants is to know that there is ‘something out there, just to witness, just to know’ about the suffering of humanity. He continues: ‘It didn’t even have to do anything; it didn’t have to act on prayers or have us singled out as a special species, or play any part in our history and development; it didn’t even necessarily have to have created us, or created anything, all it had to do was exist and have existed and go on existing, to record, to encompass’. Does such a being exist? Faced with the same question, and the same problem of suffering, the three male figures in Prentice’s family give him very different answers.

Three alternatives

Firstly, Prentice and his father Kenneth have fallen out over the issue of God. Kenneth harshly insists that any theory about a higher being is merely a sick story for cowards, telling Prentice: ‘Trouble is, people can’t believe they’re not the centre of things, so they come up with all these pathetic stories about God and life after death and life before birth, but that’s cowardice. Sheer cowardice’. Further, Kenneth claims that Christianity simply cannot provide a robust answer to suffering. He ridicules a family friend who lost her faith after suffering a string of personal tragedies, calling her outlook ‘blinkered’.

Secondly, Prentice’s missing uncle Rory looms large in his imagination. Rory himself believes in some kind of higher meaning, but it is vaguely defined. He tells Prentice: ‘I started to think for myself when I was about your age’ and subsequently stopped believing in God. ‘I knew there was no Santa Claus, and no fairies and elves […] I mean how did I really know I could trust adults? Even Mum and Dad? There were so many things I didn’t really understand about people, about life’. His questions and doubts didn’t send him in search of answers, they simply persuaded him that there were none.

Thirdly, there is Prentice’s Uncle Hamish. He is the novel’s only overtly religious character and provides Banks with an opportunity to poke fun at the language and ritual of religion. Hamish has created his own bizarre version of Christianity which involves convoluted prayers and candles. He tells Kenneth: ‘Only religion gave any meaning to life; only God, as an absolute, gave us a peg to hang our philosophies on. What was the meaning of life, otherwise?’ Yet his own philosophy is warped and worrying. Hamish sees suffering as the punishment inflicted on disobedient humanity by a heavenly father who is ‘terribly, terribly strict’. His attempts to persuade Kenneth of his beliefs have disastrous consequences.

A fourth way?

In The Crow Road, suffering prompts three very different responses to religion: angry denial, vague reluctance or fervent Christian legalism. Prentice is left looking for a fourth.

The Crow Road is another reminder that our culture needs to be shown this fourth way too. It does not want Christian faith forced down its throat, but it does want answers to the issue of suffering and it does crave meaning in the face of death. Let’s help society find the solutions to the mysteries of suffering and meaning, starting with the words of Jesus: ‘In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world’ (John 16.33).

Rachel Thorpe writes the ‘Crossing the culture’ column for EN and works as an events planner and freelance writer in Cambridge. More of her articles can be found at www.rachelthorpe.com

This article was first published in the October 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057

Crossing the culture from Rachel Thorpe: Itsy bitsy teeny weeny

‘I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety’ (1 Timothy 2.9).

A hot summer saw many of us dashing to the shops in search of new swimwear.

But who says it has to be itsy bitsy? That’s the question Jessica Rey is asking. The Catholic actress-turned-author launched a swimwear company in 2008 and simultaneously started a personal campaign to promote modesty. One of her YouTube videos on the evolution of the female swimsuit — posted in mid-June — has already been viewed over 800,000 times.

She’s obviously touched a nerve. How have bikinis become so popular and what does it say about our society’s approach to the issue of modesty?

A brief history

The bikini arrived with a bang in 1946 when it was unveiled by its creator, the French engineer Louis Réard. Its name was a reference to ‘The Bomb’, a recent design of Réard’s rival Jacques Heim. It also paid tribute to the atomic bomb testing site ‘Bikini Atoll’: Réard was sure that people’s reaction to it would be more drastic than their shock after America bombed Japan.

He was right. Made from four triangles of fabric totalling a mere 30 square inches, his bikini was so scandalous that no model would wear it. Réard was undeterred and hired a 19-year-old nude dancer called Micheline Bernardini to preview his itsy bitsy newspaper-print-patterned two-piece. It was a hit with the media and the men: Bernardini had soon received fan mail from over 50,000 of them.

For the next 20 years the bikini remained the preserve of the few, who were considered to be both tactless and licentious. Then came the sexual revolution of the 60s, which made the bikini a symbol of women’s emancipation and power. Now it is, perhaps, a new power symbol in the world of fashion; according to the New York Times, the bikini is ‘the millennial equivalent of the power suit’.

The tide is turning

However, new voices, like that of Jessica Rey, are promoting a different view. Rey says: ‘My goal is to disprove the age old notion that when it comes to swimsuits, less is more’. Writer Joan Jacobs Brumberg agrees that it is imperative for us to move away from the bikini and the way it promotes bodily exposure, which can ‘exert a noose-like grip on the psyche and physical health of girls and women’.

These are strong claims, but will they be enough to discourage the shoppers who spent $8 billion on bikinis last year? According to Rey, there is hope that the tide may turn.

She believes that women have a natural, God-given ‘sense of modesty […] that has been stripped away by today’s culture’. Indeed, the woman in Brian Hyland’s 1960 novelty song ‘Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’ is the original proof. Wearing her bikini, she is ‘as nervous as she could be’ and constantly ‘afraid that somebody would see’. Why is she so concerned? Not just because the bikini is a controversial item of clothing, but because she has an innate sense of dignity and modesty which make her feel uncomfortable exposing so much of her body in public.

Revealing our dignity

Modern society has anesthetised many to this kind of concern. But, in Rey’s definition, this sense of modesty is what we need to recapture. As those made in God’s image and likeness, women need to reclaim their true source of beauty: ‘Your beauty should not come from outward adornment […] Instead, it should be that of your inner self […] For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful’ ( 1 Peter 3.2-5, NIV).

It is not about hiding our bodies because they are bad, but about revealing our dignity. It is not about dressing frumpily and rejecting fashion, but about reclaiming our images as daughters of God. It may not be a popular view, but it is essential that we continue to live by it and promote it. Who knows, it may be that such a view could become as explosive as the bikini itself. Jessica Rey’s book on modesty, entitled Decent Exposure, is due to be released soon.

Rachel Thorpe writes the ‘Crossing the culture’ column for EN and works as an events planner and freelance writer in Cambridge. More of her articles can be found at www.rachelthorpe.com

This article was first published in the September 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057