Monday, 24 February 2014

Foundations of art

In the series of Oxford "conversations" in which we are engaged – the latest being described as "Humanising Work" in the post below, we plan to include one of the Foundations of Christian and Islamic Art. We will get a foretaste already in the session on Saturday, as we discuss architecture and the arts and crafts. The Foundations of Islamic Arts – indeed more than the foundations – are described brilliantly here. The article begins:
"The art of Islam is essentially a contemplative art, which aims to express above all, an encounter with the Divine Presence. The origin of Islamic art has often tried to be explained through tracing it back to some precedent in Byzantine, Sassanid, Coptic or other art, yet what is lost sight of, is the intrinsic and original unity of Islamic art and thus the 'seal' that Islam conferred on all borrowed elements."
The emphasis is on the geometrical, understandably enough, given the restrictions on naturalistic imagery. The emphasis in Christianity, at least after the defeat of the Iconoclasts in the 8th century, was almost the exact opposite. The Incarnation of Christ, and the images of Jesus clasped in the arms of his Mother (an icon that even Muhammad pbuh refrained from destroying when when he purged the Ka'bah), overcame all resistance to the idea of naturalism, even though such images were both natural and symbolic to the highest degree. The two key images that determined the foundations of Christian art were that of Christ on the Cross, and that of the Madonna and Child, the child's face pressed lovingly against that of his Mother.

From these (or from the tension between these) exploded the treasures of Christian civilization: the shapes of churches, the glories of stained glass, and gradually the splendors of naturalism, as the golden backgrounds gave way to atmospheric landscapes, and the formalized poses of the icons were transmuted into detailed portraits of people known to the painter and his patrons. The accurate naturalism of the earlier Fayum portraits was retrieved and rescued for the tradition of Christian painting, even if it led through the Renaissance to the Baroque and (in its decline) to a period of degeneracy and sentimentality from which we are still trying to escape.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014


The next in our series of colloquia in which Christian and Islamic thinkers engage in a conversation about notions of society, the secular, and the human vocation takes place on Saturday afternoon 1st March at St Benet's Hall, Oxford (free admission).

Saturday 1st March 2014 2:00 – 5:00 pm
2:00 – Crafts: Karim Lahham (Tabah Foundation)
2:30 – Architecture: Warwick Pethers (Gothic Design Practice)
3:00 – Teaching: Roy Peachey (Woldingham School and Cedars School, Croydon)
    and Dr Talal al-Azem (Oriental Institute and Pembroke College) 
4:00 – Discussion: chaired by Stratford Caldecott and Karim Lahham

For further information look at this page or contact us at 

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Education and Evangelization

The call for a New Evangelization – the “urgent need to proclaim the Gospel afresh in a highly secularized environment” (Benedict XVI) – has huge implications for Catholics in education, both at home and at school. Both are places of evangelization. “The mission of the Church is to evangelize,” according to the Congregation for Catholic Education, “for the interior transformation and the renewal of humanity. For young people, the school is one of the ways for this evangelization to take place.” The home is the first and most important school we attend, and parents our primary educators, no matter where we go later.

The Catholic understanding of evangelization places a priority on personal conversion and “interior transformation” – in that sense it is radically distinct from proselytism, which aims at exterior measures and effects (bottoms on seats, faces in pews, money in the collection). This is something we need to get right, as Pope Francis keeps insisting. If we do, there is just a chance that fewer of our children will lapse as they grow older, and more will find themselves able to speak of their faith with confidence to the world around them.

Evangelization does not stop with religious instruction or liturgy but even affects what is taught and the way it is taught. The Incarnation is not some piece of historical information that, once communicated, can be forgotten while we turn our minds to geography or biology or mathematics. If true, faith changes everything, even the way we view the cosmos. Once that primary lesson is learned, there are no “boring” subjects any longer. Nothing can be ugly or pointless unless we make it so. (Chesterton once said, “Is ditchwater dull? Naturalists with microscopes have told me that it teems with quiet fun.”) Faith alters the way every subject is taught as well as the relationships between them. It connects them severally and together to our destiny, to the desire of our hearts for union with infinite truth (what used to be called the saving of our souls).

(This post is based on a longer article from Columbia magazine, now available.)

Saturday, 11 January 2014

GKC and modernity

Chesterton is often thought of as an amusing journalist and man of letters, a literary critic and novelist, but he was many other things besides – among them an artist, a poet, a playwright, a philosopher, and a theologian. Gilson praised him as a Thomist, while Ian Ker regards him as the worthy successor to Newman as Christian apologist. A new book called G.K. Chesterton, London, and Modernity presents him as a sophisticated commentator on the urban environment. His views on modernity and on reality itself have been widely quoted, and he is an influence on a surprisingly wide range of thinkers, such as Marshall McLuhan, Ivan Illich, Antonio Gramsci, Rene Girard, S.R.L. Clark, Slavoj Zizek and John and Alison Milbank.

So what was his critique of modernity, and what was the alternative he proposed?

First, here is a passage that will evoke a snort from Neoconservatives. “It cannot be too often repeated that what destroyed the Family in the modern world was Capitalism. No doubt it might have been Communism, if

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Why Chesterton?

Part of my recent interview with Maica Rivera concerned the G.K. Chesterton Library, which used to be looked after by the Centre for Faith & Culture. The following is slightly edited.

Q: What is the most important book/collection in the Chesterton Library at the Center for Faith & Culture in Oxford?

A: The Chesterton Library is no longer a part of the Center for Faith & Culture. It is owned by an independent charitable trust and located at the Oxford Oratory. The details are online here. Among the important books in the collection are many first editions, also many books inscribed by Chesterton himself (not just with signatures, but with drawings and comments).

Q: What is your favourite Chesterton book? Why?

A: It is hard to name a favourite, but perhaps I should say The Catholic Church and Conversion, because it reflects so accurately my own experience of becoming a Catholic. Or Orthodoxy, which is also about conversion, but contains a much more detailed argument and many famous passages. That is undoubtedly one of the greatest books of the 20th century.

Q: How can Chesterton's books impact our lives in the 21st century?

A: Chesterton understood many of the problems that afflict our culture, for example consumerism and the loss of a sense of meaning in modern life. He wrote: “People are inundated, blinded, deafened, and mentally paralysed by a flood of vulgar and tasteless externals, leaving them no time for leisure, thought, or creation from within themselves.” He wrote perceptively about these problems of modernity, and his arguments and insights are completely relevant to us now. He was a great influence on Marshall McLuhan, Ivan Illich, and Jorge Luis Borges. Pope Francis seems to be a fan. And new books about Chesterton continue to appear. For example, Chesterton, London and Modernity. Also, an book called Chesterton and the Jews by Ann Farmer will appear later this year, based on important new research. Ann has an article on her site that will give you an idea of what she says.

Q: Can a non-Catholic reader really enjoy and understand Chesterton´s work?

A: Certainly! He wrote for everyone, and many of his friends were non-Christians or even anti-Christians – witness his debates with George Bernard Shaw. He loved argument, and he wrote in a way that anyone can understand. He did not assume that his readers were Christian.

For further information and links visit the G.K. Chesterton Library site.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

The Centre for Faith & Culture

The Centre is above the art gallery in King Street, Oxford.
I was recently asked by Maica Rivera from Madrid (CEU San Pablo) to give a brief email interview about the Centre and what we have been trying to do in Oxford over the last twenty years. The year 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of our founding, so it seems like a good moment to look back. 

Q: What can you explain to Spanish Chesterton readers about the Centre for Faith & Culture in Oxford?

A (Stratford): My wife and I founded it in 1994 as a partnership between Westminster College (later absorbed into Oxford Brookes University) and the Edinburgh publisher T&T Clark (later absorbed by Continuum). It was a research centre, its work being the organisation of conferences and the publication of books. Our aim was to explore the meaning of evangelization, and to understand the relationship between faith and culture. We were both