Over the month of October, St Peter Mancroft in Norwich hosted an artwork exhibition entitled 'Gaia'. Dave Brennan from Brephos (Church ministry of CBRUK) has already written a fantastic article regarding Gaia which you can read here, however I want to consider here the confused message hosting and celebrating Gaia gives to those both inside and outside the church. Just because something is found in a church does not make it Christian.
Before discussing the exhibit, it is important to understand what Gaia is. Many have viewed this exhibition believing that Gaia is just another name for the planet, however this is not the case. The Gaia exhibition website says, 'In Greek mythology, Gaia also spelled Gaea, is the personification of the Earth and one of the Greek primordial deities. Gaia is the ancestral mother of all life: the primal Mother Earth goddess.'
In discussions with the Associate Priest of St Peter Mancroft, I was told that Gaia 'was just a name' and that the pagan origins had nothing to do with the 'artwork' on display, ignoring the fact that the artist acknowledges these links in his research and explanation of the work. It does not take much to find the explicit mythological pagan links to Jerram's work. The EDP reports, 'An installation designed for a multi-denominational audience, Gaia is sure to spark religious, mythological and scientific thoughts about the Earth. All three disciplines are incorporated through Jerram's work with NASA, his naming after the Greek deity Gaia - the personification of Earth and mother of all life - and in Norwich's case, the work's temporary religious home.' (Emphasis added)
Gaia is the pagan goddess of the earth, supposedly from whom all living things find their origin.
That this is recognised on the exhibition website and in secular media is one thing, but it is also acknowledged on the church website, as the Lord Mayor of Norwich in his speech at the launch event referred to 'Gaia, named after the Mother of All in Greek Mythology hung in the church “like a mother patiently waiting”.' This is not a case of ignorance as to what Gaia is, except many Christians are unaware of the pagan links that this 'artwork' has. Indeed, an image of the earth named after a godess of the earth is nothing short of idolatry in the church.
Despite the objections of the church, there is no escaping the idolatrous links with this 'artwork' which has been on display in a place of worship. But even if it was 'just a name,' what worries me is the confused message this sends to the world. Neo-paganism is on the rise in the UK, particularly through wicca and witchcraft, groups who honour and worship this goddess Gaia. What witness is it for them to walk past a church and see, for all intents and purposes, an idol to the goddess they worship? How confusing for them to see what they understand to be the mother goddess celebrated in a place of Christian worship.
In an article entitled 'Contemporary Paganism in the UK,' Denise Cush highlights the role of nature in neo-paganism. She writes, 'For many followers of Goddess spirituality, the Goddess IS nature, an immanent rather than transcendent deity, not a female version of the God of Abrahamic traditions.' With this in mind, does it not appear that Christians are also worshipping this goddess, described as nature itself, when you walk into a church and all you see is the earth looming larger than life above the altar? Where is the clarity and simplicity of the gospel message that stands in contrast to the ways of the world?
Rather than being set apart, distinct from the world, the line between creation and Creator has been blurred. As Paul writes in Romans 1:25, 'they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator.'
The vicar of the church justified bringing the 'artwork' into the church by comparing it to Paul in Acts 17. 'Like Paul at the Areopagus beginning with the statue of the unknown god, bringing Gaia into Mancroft has been a way of opening a conversation and inviting others to reflect on the beauty and fragility of God’s gift of the earth and to address the damage caused by human sin and greed.' (You can read further his response to the article by Dave here).
But Paul does not invite a pagan god into the precincts of the temple as a means to spark discussion or to invite reflection by looking at the idol. Instead he goes to the place of debate and explicitly exposes the futility of their idol worship and the necessity of repentance and a return to the God who made them. In Acts 17:22-31, Paul subverts pagan idolatry in order to direct people to the living God:
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
There is no confusion as to the gospel message in Paul's sermon; the people are left under no impression that Paul worships their gods. In the same way, we need to redirect people from Gaia to the One True God. Gaia is an idol to the deification of the earth, but we worship the One who created the earth and gives 'everyone life and breath and everything else.' The eternal God created it and is disctinct from it- creation is not God incarnate, nor is it God's greatest gift to humanity to which we must submit ourselves.
What we see happening in the world today are part of the 'labour pains' Jesus warned us that we would see before His second coming. Rather than continuing down our paths of idolatry and self-sufficiency, as if we can work out our own salvation and the salvation of our planet, this should bring us back to God- 'God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him.'
Scripture is clear that 'as long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease' (Genesis 8:22) whilst also 'we know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time' (Romans 8:22). God sustains His creation, and yet we see that the curse of decay placed on humanity for our sin also applies to creation, and we look forward to the day when God will bring a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1).
As Paul exhorts the Athenians, 'but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed,' so today the church needs to return the focus to the Sovereign, Sufficient, Creator God and call on all people to repent of the ways we have disobeyed Him and worshipped other gods. What is this repentance? A veiw that merely sees repentance as needed for our treatment of the earth is narrow and unbiblical. We have not sinned against the earth, but against God Himself by following the ways of the world and our own sinful desires. David writes, 'Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge' (Psalm 51:4, emphasis added).
We are in need of repentance for so much more than simply the mistreatment of creation. What about the millions of children we have silently allowed to be slaughtered on our watch? What about the lies about gender and sexuality we are accepting in the name of tolerance and 'love'? What about our self-idolatry found in self-sufficiency, self-righteousness and 'bodily autonomy'? What about our arrogance in thinking that we can solve the injustices in the world without the cross of Christ and our submission to Him?
Perhaps this Gaia exhibition will be a wakeup call to the church which has been asleep for too long. Perhaps this Gaia exhibition will require us to give a clear account of the gospel to a world that is desperate for hope.
Image of the 'artwork' taking centre stage in the church.