An Lanntair and the faith community: an unnecessary conflict

Folks — I have my first guest blogger. Many of you reading this right now will have already seen my recent post, ‘An Lanntair must not become a beacon for the Secular Society‘, exploring the problems surrounding the opening of the arts centre in our home town of Stornoway.  I have had a lot of reaction to that post. A lot. Some of it has been pretty hot and also seems to have missed the point, with people retreating to their usual battle lines regarding Sabbath observance.

One of the main issues I raised with my piece was that some artists of faith from the Gaelic community are withdrawing support from the Lanntair and no longer feel able to collaborate on arts projects because of its moves over the Sunday cinema trial. What concerns me most about some of the reactions to this was the apparent willingness to let these artists go from our arts community. As if, somehow, they are acceptable casualties in our march forwards.

I was very glad to see the people who did take it up, though. Much of the support I’ve received — in private messages mainly compared to the bulk of opposition which has been public on Facebook — has come from the arts community, mainly from local musicians, but other journalists and writers, politicians, academics and thought leaders have also expressed concern.

One person who wrote to me about it was Donald S Murray (author, poet, playwright, Hebridean and Gaelic speaker), who has explored the idea of faith and art in this guest blog which I am very pleased to share with you here. I think it is a valuable contribution to the debate, I think it moves that debate forward and I think it does raise some further questions that we need to explore.

Without further ado, let me hand over to DS Murray (who also wrote the headline)…

In much of European art, literature and music, to quote the rock singer, Paul Simon, ‘God comes up a lot’. Christian faith, after all, has been an important part of the output of artists as diverse as Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Tolkien, T S Eliot – all the way back to the likes of Michelangelo. It has inspired the likes of Leonard Cohen, Bach, Beethoven, even the many Gospel artists that feature on the annual Hootenanny with which Jools Holland introduces the New Year. This is true even over much of Scotland. Shetland, where I stay now, is a place where Christian musicians play and espouse their faith at both Christian and social events.

Over the years, there has been one exception to that general rule – my home town, Stornoway.

There is little doubt that, historically, the form of Christian faith we have often had in these islands bears much of the blame for that. In my youth, some of its proponents were – to put it at its kindest –  intrusive, telling the likes of me on more than one occasion that the drama which I enjoyed was the work of Satan, that the books I read were not exactly beneficial to my soul. It is not for me to justify or excuse these attitudes. They were indefensible and had a huge and negative effect on many in our community.

But that was then and this is now. Over the last few decades, I have met many Christians who value their creativity, believing it is their greatest gift. There has, in short, been a sea-change in their attitudes. They value both their faith and their imaginations, believing both are necessary for their personal fulfilment.

It seems to me that one of the tragedies of An Lanntair over the decades is that it has largely failed to recognise that change, rarely attempting to bridge the gap between faith and art. There have been occasional events, such as Ballantyne, a celebration of the Gaelic psalm, and a few recent sessions devoted to the Reformation, but, given the decades the organisation has been in existence, such approaches have been even more rare and infrequent than a calm winter’s day in Stornoway.

Instead, its attitudes have often widened that divide. The chairing, in particular, of the Dawkins debate which I witnessed in Stornoway was illuminating in the open and blatant nature of its bias. (Listen to it. I am sure recordings are still available.) I am aware of suggestions of ‘faith events’ being turned down, sometimes without explanation. (One local celebration was even performed in Edinburgh instead.) I have not been conscious of any ‘gospel groups’ ever being invited to perform there. Given the size of the Christian community in the island, one would have thought this would have been a sensible proposition – even on financial grounds.

It is in this context that the organisation’s suggestion to open An Lanntair on a Sunday should be judged. All this will serve to do is stretch and deepen a gulf that is already much too wide. Instead, the organisation would be well advised to spend time listening and responding to its community – those who express themselves both in Gaelic and English.

Even for someone for whom creativity and the arts is a passion, one thing is all too evident.

It has done too little of that in the past.

Donald S Murray
Donald S Murray

Donald S Murray was a teacher of English for 30 years. Since leaving that profession, he has written full-time. His non-fiction work includes ‘The Guga Hunters’, ‘Italian Chapel, Orkney’, (Birlinn) and ‘Herring Tales’ (Bloomsbury). The latter was widely reviewed – from the Daily Record to the Economist – and like his book, ‘The Guga Stone’, chosen as one of the Guardian’s Nature Books of the Year.

He has received the Jessie Kesson and Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowships in recent years. His forthcoming book is ‘The Dark Stuff – Stories from The Peatlands’ (Bloomsbury) which is to be published in April 2018. His Gaelic play ‘Sequamur’ was performed throughout Scotland, including the Edinburgh Festival, and also in Belfast, London and In Flanders Field Museum in Belgium. He was chosen as one of Scottish Literature’s representatives in the Pisa Book Festival, Italy (2016). His poetry has been widely published and several of his works chosen among the Scottish Poetry Library Poems of the Year.


Comments 12

  1. I disagree with you 100% Donald. The Lewis tradition has been an imposed one, not one voluntarily grasped. Now the control freaks who have ruled us for so long are being challenged, and they come out mudslinging, and you and Katie support that reaction. You’d both be better exploring how the Free Chruch/CNES/Masonic triumvirate has controlled us for so long and imposed their fundamentalist beliefs on a community scared to express itself.

  2. I agree with you 100% Donald (and a warm hello to you Martin, if you’re the same Flett as was at the Nicolson circa 1970). The religion we were raised in could be both warm and tyrannical. I vividly remember a primary school teacher explaining to us that dancing was a sin, because Salome had danced for the head of John the Baptist – and we all know of many other such examples, including the obscenity of punishments for not learning our Bible or Catechism.

    However, that all has to be set in the context of how hardline religion was introduced to the islands by the landowner in the 1820s, and, indeed, how punishment as a part of education was introduced in the 18th century (see my tweet on this yesterday, with an old Ronnie Black WHFP article in the context of Carol Craig’s new book).

    Only now are island churches recovering from that hardline fear-driven past, and what I see is a warmth, generosity, and forgiveness of the faith coming through more and more in the many discussions that I have about the matter when back visiting, speaking or researching. The Psalm Boat arts project, involving local precentors and your own great poem is a fine example of this fresh and open new approach.

    My worry is that under the relatively innocent move of wanting to show Sunday evening films, An Lanntair have misjudged the extent to which they are forcing open a door, and setting a new type of precedent that, replicated elsewhere, will damage the mood of the island and require folks who might be vulnerable in their employment to have to work Sundays. That’s what happens elsewhere, and it will be let in on the island too if this precedent succeeds. Wait until the cruise ship companies and all the rest latch onto that one.

    At the moment, very few have to work on Sundays on Lewis. Those who do are mainly involved in “works of necessity and mercy” such as lifeline services. The island risks losing something precious just when the wider world is beginning question its 24/7 frenzy and its effects, not least, in areas like mental health.

    I no longer live on the island and I’m not on the electoral role that votes in CNES or any other local governing body. This one’s not for me to decide. But in a psychological and spiritual sense, the island doesn’t end at the high tide mark. It extends through into the bones of all who have been shaped by it. I hope that the arts will not be used as a wedge to destroy something that is a beacon in the world. Not for nothing do the trades unions in France resist current moves to unravel the laws that block most Sunday trading there. The unions stand up for the vulnerable; the Sabbath does likewise where “made for man” and not just as a religious fetish.

    It’s all very well to say that this is about free choice, and nobody has to attend An Lanntair on the Sunday. But that misses the point about how a community, and employment within it, is deeply interconnected. I’d hate to see this matter turning back the clock, and reintroducing the unnecessary divide that in our childhoods often showed between the arts and faith. I hope that a dignified exit strategy can be found by the board of An Lanntair, and that its programme can be widened to include the whole community more fully in the ways such as you suggest.

    1. There is not much in the world that I agree or disagree 100% with, Alasdair. (Even Donald Trump I agree with around 5% of the time – not that I can pinpoint these any of these when I think about it.) However, you are right in arguing that Sunday is not only a ‘faith issue’. It is also a social issue. I remember Neil Kinnock arguing against the Sunday opening of shops many years ago. He was right in that. Sunday is not only faith time. It’s also family time.

    2. Hi Alastair, it is indeed me, I actually shared your views for much of the time I lived off the island, but when I came back the reality of a minority (and I’m pretty sure it is a minority) continuing to impose their values on the rest of the island became more and more intolerable. As a prime example, I am prevented from playing golf on a Sunday because of the fundamentalist views of a privileged minority elite. That is wrong. The shop I used to be associated with was subjected to huge pressure because it opened for a few hours on a Sunday during the tourist season. It has to generate earnings during the tourist season to be financially viable, but rather than either support it or ignore it, a boycott was organised from the pulpit. If that’s the sort of 19th Century approach that you wish to support, fair enough. But understand that many people who live here – ‘natives’ and ‘incomers’ alike – have had enough of this control. It will always be a quiet Sabbath up here. it’s a huge island with only 22,000 residents. Cromwell Street is pretty deserted during the week, farless Sunday. This is about control, not peace and quiet.

      1. Well hello, Martin. I’m with you on the golf. That doesn’t make others work so I struggle to see what the objection is. But trading opens avenues that leave me concerned for the relatively weak. I may be wrong on that, but I don’t like some of what I see elsewhere, and my wife and I try to minimise the extent to which we buy or engage services from others on Sundays. It also gives us reflection time. Not that we’re puritanical about it. As for a body like CNES, they are elected. There may be more feeling on a matter like this than meets the eye. All this said, it would be good to meet you face-to-face for a blether once again.

        1. Hi Alastair, yes I’m with you on the trading side. If you can’t organise yourself so that you need to go to Tesco on Sunday then you’re pretty disorganised. The golf course being open would require zero staff to work, it’s about control, not religion in many cases. And if a sole trader decides they need to open for a few hours on a Sunday during the tourist season, leave them alone. Interesting that Starbucks at the Castle, with quite a few staff working, is open on Sunday, and you have to drive past a closed golf course to get to it. Sometimes it’s the sheer hypocrisy and inconsistency that gets to you..

  3. I’m no stern Sabbatarian, Martin, and would share your views on golf and the Sports Centre. People nowadays need a different form of rest from the form they had for centuries on the island. Most are in sedentary occupations and as a result would feel the benefit of physical exercise at the weekend. However, I agree with Alasdair about Sunday shopping – for both spiritual and political reasons. Man needs a break from the commercial merry-go-round. My argument with An Lanntair, However, is different. As an arts and cultural centre, they have done little over the decades to reach out to those with faith. (If they are a minority, that doesn’t lessen their duty to do this.) Throughout that time, there has been a sense of ‘knowing’ what is good for the community rather than reaching out to it; excluding some and embracing others; the tyranny, I would argue, of personal taste. Until that attitude is jettisoned, they cannot move on. (PS – I would also argue that a showing of Star Wars is not the way of winning hearts and minds in the long term.)

  4. I’m from Austria, having lived there for 25 years. There is a similar structure there for Sundays, it being a largely catholic country – supermarkets are closed and most shops are closed (bar a few Turkish corner shops and maybe half a dozen big supermarkets, and the filling stations with their little shops). However there are sporting and community events on Sundays, cinemas and sports facilities are open. It’s in a lot of regards very similar to the Hebrides. Well, actually, the supermarkets often shut at 6.30 or 7pm, a few large ones in the larger cities are open until 8pm.

    I have lived in London for 13 years before moving up here because we want to start a crofting life. We LOVE it here. It’s an amazing island with the majority of people being fantastic, friendly and welcoming. I love the community feel.

    However: even in London on a Sunday it’s quieter than weekdays because the majority of shops are shut. Yes. supermarkets are open, but it’s still definitely quieter than during the week. This is London, a massive city. Now how on earth is the opening of an arts centre on a Sunday going to open the floodgates up here, I wonder. I don’t mind supermarkets and shops not being open, but if a shop wants to open, let them. It’s their choice. If someone doesn’t want to work on a Sunday, they don’t have to. I work on Sundays because I want to, I don’t need to.

    I’m not even going into the issue of young people wanting something to do on a Sunday that doesn’t involve sports outdoors (which often isn’t possible due to the weather). I can see why teenagers are desperate to leave the island. I know how hard it can be growing up in a rural area when the nearest city is too far away to get to on your own on a Sunday, no buses are running and you’re stuck without being able to do much in winter because the snow was hip high! And there’s only so much skiing and sledging you can do during one winter 🙂

  5. My wife and I came to visit Harris in our search for somewhere to live after moving from outside Inverness in 1972. What struck us forcibly then, and maybe it’s improved since, was the sense of oppression, a heaviness on the “sabbath.” Subjective I know but we moved on, finally settling on a croft in Shetland. A couple of years later we became Christians and a whole new dimension of life, as promised, abundant life became ours. It saddens me that we Christians are more identified by what we are against than the message we carry, which is truly ‘good news’. I suspect Jesus would go to the flicks and eat popcorn, probably at the children’s matinee. He wouldn’t be standing outside under a banner reading ‘God hates fun’.

    1. But sorry, Andy, much though I love you, I’m not going to let you away with that. You’re not like the majority of people who lived in Harris in 1972. Many of them were fisherman working in the shallow waters of the Minch – a place that doesn’t have the natural advantages of Shetland. Large numbers, too, were crofters, working the land six day a week. They needed a break on the seventh – and not just for spiritual reasons. I think many people from backgrounds – like ours perhaps – don’t really understand the harsh legacy of centuries where that was normal life in Harris. They need to be persuaded gently. You don’t win hearts and minds by behaving like a gang of Star War Stormtroopers from the Galactic Empire – in every sense of that word. There’s a lot of wooing to be done which hasn’t even been attempted in the past.

      1. Donald, I know you’re right when you say that I’m not like the majority of people who lived in Harris in 1972. But I suspect that the majority of people who live in Harris in 2018 are not like the majority of people who lived in Harris in 1972 either. Clumsy sentence but you get my drift? The times they are a changing and the position of us Christians is having to change too. 50 years or so ago the power of the church in public life was taken for granted but no longer and I for one say Hallelujah to that. Because now we have a unique opportunity to demonstrate and display the love of God from a position of weakness and guess who set that one in motion? I’m sorry if I seemed culturally insensitive, I try hard not to be and I genuinely love the Hebrides nearly as much as I love Shetland.

  6. Yeah. I get your drift, Andy, and I agree (largely) with you. However, bridges have to be built in every direction if we are not to be left with a split and fractured society – on both spiritual and linguistic grounds. Referring back to my original article, An Lanntair have hosted very few religious events in their history. The two that I mentioned brought in a) a large audience and b) money for the Arts Centre. They would earn both goodwill and a sizeable income if they did this more often. Reaching out is not something either side of this debate seems good at doing. Both seem frozen in the mindset of 1972 (approximately).

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