5 min read

Art makes life worth living

Why society, and churches, need the Arts.

Jonathan is Team Rector for Wickford and Runwell. He is co-author of The Secret Chord, and writes on the arts.

A choir sing at the front of a church while an audience looks on.
St Martin-in-the-Fields choir performance.

Arguing for the significance and role of the arts and culture during an election in an era where a cost-of-living crisis has followed austerity and a pandemic, may seem to be a hard task. The Arts being thought of often as frivolous and unimportant in comparison with the basics of survival. Yet it is essentially a task that the current government has attempted, as in June 2023, a ‘Creative industries sector vision’ was published which included a commitment to an additional £77 million in funding. 

At that time, the government estimated that creative industries generated £126bn in gross value added to the economy and employed 2.4 million people in 2022. A range of research has also been examining the way in which creative industries and the arts can positively impact wellbeing, for example through public health interventions.  

The foreword to ‘Creative industries sector vision’ stated: 

“Our creative industries are world-leading, an engine of our economic growth and at the heart of our increasingly digital world. From 2010 to 2019 they grew more than one and a half times faster than the wider economy and in 2021 they generated £108bn in economic value. In 2021, they employed 2.3 million people, a 49% increase since 2011. Their impact reaches beyond their borders to other sectors, with advertising, marketing and creative digital innovation supporting sectors across our economy. 

The importance of the creative industries also goes well beyond the economy. They provide the news that informs our democracy, the designs that shape our cities and the content and performances that enrich our lives and strengthen our global image. The sector has proved that it is an essential positive force for society, bringing joy, inspiration and opportunity to our lives. The creative industries form the national conversation through which we define our shared values.” 

The arts and culture help tackle social injustice as theatres, museums, galleries and libraries are the beating heart of our towns and cities bringing communities together and making life worth living. 

This positive view of the creative industries was echoed in a report ‘The arts in the UK: Seeing the big picture’ published in November 2023 by management consulting firm McKinsey. The report described the UK as a “cultural powerhouse” with a globally recognised arts sector and 91 per cent of UK adults engaging with the arts in the previous 12 months. 

The Arts Council estimates that art and culture contribute £10.6 billion to the UK economy as the UK has a creative economy worth £27bn and culture brings £850m to UK, through tourism, each year. They also contend that the arts and culture help tackle social injustice as theatres, museums, galleries and libraries are the beating heart of our towns and cities bringing communities together and making life worth living. In addition, our creative industries are successful throughout the world - our leading cultural institutions are a calling card worldwide and have important trading links from the US or Germany to China and South Korea. Last year our National Portfolio Organisations earned £57m abroad. 

Churches feature within these arguments because they often host or organise cultural events, exhibitions, installations and performances which contribute towards the economic, social, wellbeing and tourism impacts achieved by the arts and culture. The Arts are actually central to church life because, as well as being places to enjoy cultural programmes such as concerts and exhibitions and also being places to see art and architecture, many of the activities of churches take place within beautiful buildings while services combine drama, literature, music, poetry and visuals. 

The artist Makoto Fujimura has suggested the creation of cultural estuaries in churches, schools and informal associations as a strategy for enhancing culture. Estuaries are where salt-water mixes with fresh in a confluence of river and tidal waters. They are environments not of protection but of preparation as critical nursery areas for fish that come downstream after hatching.  

This suggestion has been taken up by Sam Wells, Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, who advocates for churches to minister in and through the 4Cs; commerce, culture, compassion and congregation. He writes in ‘A Future that’s Bigger than the Past’ that: 

“… the image of an estuary is helpful for a church regarding itself as a meeting place of human and divine, gospel and culture, timeless truth and embodied experience, word and world. 

Churches work hard to make themselves inspiring locations where people are drawn into a sense of the presence of God; but they can work equally hard to make themselves hospitable locations where people of varied backgrounds may gather in a spirit or mutual appreciation, generous regard and constructive challenge. The two purposes of church need not be mutually exclusive.”  

The arts, he suggests, provide a perfect example of how such an estuary space may flourish with participatory, aspirational and commercial activities all taking place in the same space. In a short time, he suggests, “a secluded, secretive space may be opened out to become a centre of community activity, energy, and creativity.” All that’s needed “is for a church to let go of the need for direct outcomes and linear trajectories and to let the Holy Spirit govern the interactions and catalyse its own surprises.” 

The Bible adds to this missional assessment of the importance of the arts. At the point we are told of human beings as having been made in the image of God the one thing we know for certain of God is his creativity, making our own creativity central to our understanding of how we live in his image. Later, the very first people to be spoken of in terms of being filled with the Spirit of God are the artists and craftspeople who make the Tent of Meeting for the people of Israel as they journey through the wilderness. The Bible, itself, is a library of various genres of literature with many of its texts having been preserved through oral performance, whether spoken or sung.  

Given these theological, missional, social and economic reasons for seeing the arts and culture as central to personal wellbeing and to national life, in this election period it surely makes sense to check the commitment of politicians in all parties to maintaining and developing the cultural industries and the vital place that the arts and culture have in the life of our nation. 

Film & TV
5 min read

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: 20 years on

Memory and the meaning of suffering.

Beatrice writes on literature, religion, the arts, and the family. Her published work can be found here

A coupe sit on outdoor steps against a blue sky. One holds a plate and the other looks towards them.
Carrey and Winslet as Joel and Clementine.

Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind came out in 2004. Twenty years on, its stubborn insistence that the memory of pain gives meaning to our lives is as relevant as ever.  

I first watched Gondry’s cult classic earlier this year, in the midst of recovering from postnatal PTSD. When we are faced with heartbreak, it can be easy to wish that we could retreat from painful memories, hiding them away until the initial pang has seemingly died down. That was my experience, at least. But I quickly learnt that the traumatic memory of my daughter’s birth would continue to resurface until I processed it and accepted it as part of my life. Just so, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind teaches us that being vulnerable to suffering is a gift, that suffering itself is necessary to our moral growth, and that our ability to remember the past is an invaluable faculty of the human mind.  

The film begins simply, with a meeting between its protagonists, Joel Barish and Clementine Kruczynski. As Joel and Clementine start making small talk, they seem immediately comfortable, almost familiar with each other, and yet the atmosphere is eerie. Soon enough, we discover that Clementine was a patient at Lacuna, a clinic which erased every memory of Joel from her mind after their two-year relationship ended in a painful breakup. When Joel finds out, he asks Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, the director of Lacuna, to do the same for him. As viewers, we now start to wonder: was that meeting we witnessed their very first, or have they met again after their memories were erased, unaware that they loved each other in a ‘past’ life? 

This tone of disorientation continues throughout the film, and that’s what makes it so special. As Joel’s memories of Clementine are erased one by one, he realises that the removal of one’s painful experiences is in itself a kind of trauma; what promises to be a relief, turns out to be nothing more than loss.  

We experience this sense of disorientation and loss alongside Joel as we jump through snippets of his and Clementine’s happiest and saddest moments together, trying to piece together in our minds a linear narrative of their relationship. While this is happening, the film’s subplot focuses on Stan, Patrick, and Mary, three young people working for Lacuna. As Stan and Patrick, the ‘technicians’, work on Joel’s memory removal, Mary, Lacuna’s naive receptionist, muses on the beauty of their mission. She begins quoting aloud the passage of poetry which inspires the film’s very title, taken from Alexander Pope’s verse epistle Eloisa to Abelard (1717): 

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot! 

The world forgetting, by the world forgot. 

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! 

Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d. 

Mary has an idealistic vision of her work: she believes she is helping suffering people experience the kind of ‘eternal sunshine’ that only a ‘spotless mind’ can achieve. But the human mind is not so simple. Joel’s desire for forgetfulness quickly turns nightmarish. As he realises he has made a mistake, he starts fighting to retain the memory of his love for Clementine, but his is a hopeless quest. Dr. Mierzwiak’s intervention ensures that the procedure is completed.  

Left alone without Stan and Patrick, Mary confesses to the married Dr. Mierzwiak that she is in love with him. It is at this point that her idealism crumbles down. He reveals that they’ve already had an affair in the past and that she agreed to let him erase its memory from her mind. Mary is devastated. She decides that what Lacuna is doing is unethical - even if Mierzwiak technically has the patients’ consent to the procedure - and releases the clinic’s files back to the patients. It is this decision which leads Clementine and Joel, just a few days after they ‘meet’ again, to discover that they’ve already loved each other in the past.  

Accepting suffering and holding it in our hearts, not with bitterness, but rather with courage, requires endless patience and infinite hope. 

Although the script of the film doesn’t spell it out, Mary’s story emphasises that the absence of painful memories is in itself experienced as a painful loss. What’s more, it shows that, without the memory of the suffering which we have inflicted on others, and which others have inflicted on us, we are incapable of moral growth. Thanks to the knowledge of the past, Mary is able, this time around, to resist having an affair with a married man. Just so, the final scene of the film, which sees Joel and Clementine vow to renew their relationship, is hopeful not in spite of the fact that they have regained the memory of the ways in which they hurt each other in the past, but precisely because of it.  

Accepting suffering and holding it in our hearts, not with bitterness, but rather with courage, requires endless patience and infinite hope. But that is what we were made for. Each one of us is called to endure pain in imitation of Christ, and, out of that pain, to discover a greater capacity for sacrificial love. We make meaning out of pain: that’s what human beings do.  

The very last lines of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind perfectly express the fruits of this Christ-like acceptance. As Joel reassures Clementine that he can’t see anything he doesn’t like about her, she expresses her doubts and anxieties: ‘But you will! But you will.’, she repeats, ‘You know, you will think of things. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.’ Joel and Clementine look at each other, and, after a pause, they simply say to each other: ‘Okay’. Their ‘okay’ is not an indication that they are doomed to repeat old mistakes. Rather, it signals a new choice: this time, when their relationship becomes difficult, they won’t just run away; this time, they will face discomfort, heartbreak, and disappointment, armed with the knowledge that seeking a sense of permanence by loving another person completely is an inherently valuable pursuit. In accepting the most traumatic parts of our past we grow closer to God; and in bravely deciding to look ahead to the future with hope, we catch a glimpse of the unadulterated joy which we will finally experience in God’s eternity.