Thought for the Day - Rev Dr Giles Fraser

According to the architectural theorist, Charles Jencks, Modernism died at half past three on the 15th March 1972 when a notorious modernist housing estate in St Louis, Missouri was detonated to rubble. This estate had become a by-word for crime and social depravation. It represented the modernist dream that order and progress would create for humanity a rational space for human flourishing. But for Jencks, the dream was over. Technology had become an end in itself and modernism had spectacularly failed to appreciate that architecture must have a human scale.

What came next was called Post-Modernism, a period of design currently featured in an exhibition at the V&A. Beginning in the world of architecture, Post-Modernism replaced order with disorder. It was suspicious of the grand plan and the big story. Throughout the seventies and eighties, design turned playful, ironic, kitsch. It celebrated impermanence and ad-hoc juxtapositions. Post-modernism was like broken mirror, with shards of glass reflecting in all sorts of crazy directions. But by the end of the 1980’s, many were despairing of all this cultural chaos. And so the exhibition ends with the wistful lyrics of a song by the 80’s band New Order: “Why can’t we be ourselves like we were yesterday?” It’s a question that expresses a longing to reclaim something bigger than individualism and impermanence. But what on earth might this look like?

As if to answer that very question, the first art work you bump into when you leave the exhibition is a 16th century sculpture of three women weeping over the body of Christ. It’s a reminder of when Christianity provided the European imagination with a big story that bound people together and from which ethics and aesthetics drew their inspiration. This is precisely what it was like to be ourselves yesterday. But can we really have it back again? Which is just what I wondered when I heard the Prime Minister celebrating this country’s Christian inheritance, as he did before Christmas. Is this anything more than nostalgia for a lost world that was united by a common Christian story - that is, a world that existed before multiculturalism and religious diversity?

Maybe, maybe not. Nonetheless, the desire to be a part of something bigger than oneself seems to be bubbling up all over the place. After all, what is the resurgence of Scottish nationalism but a desire to be a part of, and loyal to, some larger story – the story of the Scottish people. Indeed, nationalism does not have to be chauvinistic, but can grow out of a profound need to set one’s life within a wider picture. Likewise with religion. The exhibition at the V&A tells us that the age of impermanence and individuality failed. And so we are struggling once again to find a new big story to live by. Or could it be an older one? Little wonder that religion is back on the cultural and political agenda.

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