Dead works, Damien Hirst & the macabre scent of formaldehyde

I was drawn & repelled in equal measure by the various animal body parts that used to be kept suspended in big dusty jars of formaldehyde on the high shelf in our biology lab at school - a jar of eyes bobbing around as you took it down & shook it like a snow globe had an endless, macabre fascination value for this schoolboy.

Damien Hirst must have seen a gap in the market. His horrible, provocative art collections of entire cows & other animal parts in formaldehyde has sold at auction for over £100 million. Essentially a collection of bits stolen from my school biology lab, this is quite a feat to pull off. I wish I had thought of it first instead of limiting myself to stealing the cow eyeballs one at a time to put in Toby Pass's lunch box!

This trade in literal dead works also blights the contemporary church today. We like to think that we are safe from dead religion & ritual - These old ways are the preserve of the tired denominations, those who display their formaldehyde jars of pennance, lenten fasts, saints, the rosary et al in the hope that they might get right with God. The truth is that it is far easier to see religion & deadness displayed in other contexts & cultures than our own. This week, I have had ointment applied to my eye after removing a wood chip. We perhaps need to take the log from our own eye as someone once taught us -we maybe need to wake up to the creeping danger of dead works on display in a contemporary church near you & me!

Church history teaches us that most breakthrough, pioneer movements become their opposite within a generation or two. Methodist, Salvationist, Pentecostal - take your pick, they have all collected their fair share of jars full of dead works. If Jesus can say to a New Testament Church in Sardis way back in the beginning, 'You have a reputation for being alive, but really you are dead!' then we ought to sober up & take a good look at ourselves.

Dead works creep up on us in all kinds of ways. Other than a shock artist like Damien Hirst, nobody deliberately sets out to create a dead work. But unwittingly we find ourselves immersed in them. Next time you find yourself saying, 'But we've always done it that way', or wondering if anyone remembers why it is that you are gathered this sunday morning - wake up & smell the formaldehyde!
The best antidote to the whiff of old age around our churches is the aroma of fresh faith, vibrant hope, total trust, absolute obedience, deep Christ like love - where such fragrance is present, the spread of deadness has been halted, indeed, here there is new life & health. Someone open a window in here & let's get started!


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