Review
Change
Freedom of belief
4 min read

Face to face with the danger of faith

In the face of compassion fatigue, connecting with the humanity of a cause requires the artistic, not just the imperative. Belle Tindall reviews Clay and Canvas.

Belle is the Reporter at the Centre for Cultural Witness, writing for Seen &Unseen 

A refugee looks out from a cover photograph of a book resting upright against a cylinder
The cover of Clay & Canvas.
Open Doors.

In 2018, in the Houses of Parliament, Hannah Rose Thomas displayed a collection of radiant portraits she had painted of Yazidi women who had escaped ISIS captivity. She did this to bring their ongoing plight to the attention of the Government. In 2019, at the London Riverside Development, three photographers (Chris de Bode, Abbie Trayler-Smith and Nora Lorek) used their photographs to powerfully tell the story of the hunger crisis in Sudan, Liberia, and the Central African Republic. In 2021, a 3.5-metre-tall interactive puppet of a 10-year-old Syrian girl named Amal was walked from Turkey to Kent, and in so doing, gave the world a glimpse of what such a journey entails for thousands of refugee children. And in 2022, the advocacy group, Open Doors, published a striking book entitled Clay and Canvas, which compellingly tells seven stories of individuals who have faced un-imaginable trauma because of their belief in Jesus.  

While these projects were created by different people, at different times, highlighting different situations, it seems to me that the powerful impact of all four artistic offerings is twofold. Firstly, they each force us to move beyond numbers and statistics, inviting us to come face-to-face with the humanity behind the headlines. And secondly, the utter beauty with which these pieces have been both created and curated hints at the startling beauty that can be found in the midst of pain. The glimmers of light that are ever present, even in the darkest of contexts.  

This is most certainly the case with Clay and Canvas.  

Its strikingly minimal aesthetic ensures that it can comfortably sit alongside the most classic of ‘coffee table books,’ but instead of being filled with recipes, interior decoration inspiration, or the complete lyrical works of Paul McCartney, this holds within it stories that will simultaneously break and inspire its reader’s heart.  

There are around 360 million people in the world who are currently under some sort of threat because of the Christian beliefs that they hold, and this book tells just seven of those harrowing stories.  

It introduces us to Baheer and Medet, two friends who played together as children, but now find themselves in a torture chamber. One of them is being electrocuted because of his Christian beliefs, while the other is looking on at the torture of the friend that he himself had reported to the authorities. Both are utterly terrified.  

We also meet Rebekah, Eti and Ratina as they are thrown into the back of a police van, sentenced to five years in a high-security prison for telling children about their belief in a man called Jesus.  

And then there’s Kirti, who is being continually hounded by a violent mob, her body repeatedly broken and battered by their sheer anger at her refusal to deny her faith.  

These stories are an afront to the comforting habit one may have of disassociating individual realities from vast statistics.

These stories don’t give their readers the blissful luxury of ignorance. They are an afront to the comforting habit one may have of disassociating individual realities from vast statistics, of regarding this epidemic of violence as some sort of faceless or nameless phenomena.  

Rather, readers are brought face-to-face with the detail of religious persecution. We are shown the thought-processes of a man on the brink of death, we are walked through the moment-by-moment decisions of a person attempting to flee for their life, we are exposed to the agony of three women being separated from their children.  

The writing is heart-wrenchingly powerful, the stories its telling, infinitely more so. This is certainly not your average ‘coffee-table book.’ 

As well as the written stories, there are photographs of these persecuted individuals dotted through-out the book. Readers are not only told their stories, they are also shown their faces. These pictures serve to remind us that this discrimination isn’t happening to people who resemble cinematic-style heroes, it is happening to husbands, wives, daughters, sons, neighbours, friends, mothers, fathers. 

2023 is the most dangerous year to be a Christian on record, it is integral to the increasing number of people who are losing their right to hold their beliefs that this reality is continually, and indeed creatively, amplified. 

And yet, as noted earlier, the darkness of these stories is not devoid of glimmers of light. There is a distinct thread of redemption that is weaved through this resource, and indeed, these people’s lives. The beauty is found in the forgiveness shown by those who have been betrayed, the hope found by those who have nothing else to hold onto, the ‘gentle, defiant glow’ of those who are stubborn in their selflessness – all of it all the more staggering for being completely true.  

This book presents its readers with a costly kind of goodness. A truly counter-cultural form of beauty. If you sit with it long enough, it will begin to chip away at the modern and ever-so-Western tendency we have to consider pain and beauty as forces that are mutually exclusive.  

Art, in its various forms, is one of the most powerful tools we humans have, and that is never more evident than when it is used to communicate circumstances with a depth that statistics alone could never reach. Clay and Canvas is certainly one such example.  

 

Clay and Canvas has been produced by Open Doors in Partnership with Something More Creative  

Explainer
Creed
Freedom of belief
4 min read

Why should society care about the persecution of Christians?

Believers revere martyrs, but others are also inspired by sacrifice.

Ryan Gilfeather explores social issues through the lens of philosophy, theology, and history. He is a Research Associate at the Joseph Centre for Dignified Work.

A stone monument within which set, in the shape of a cross are statues of numerous standing praying figures.
Martyrs monument, Nagasaki, Japan.

The story of Christian martyrdom began with the death of St Stephen. On the 26th December 36 AD, Stephen the Deacon proclaimed the Christian faith before the rabbinic court in Jerusalem. His apology enraged the crowd before him. They dragged him outside of the city gates and stoned him until he perished. Looked at from one angle, all we see is chaos, fear and violence. Viewed from another perspective, however, we see remarkable courage and love for God. Stephen’s love for God so consumed his heart and mind, that he preferred to die violently than turn against Him. He became the first Christian martyr, a term which means ‘witness’ in the original Greek, because he would rather testify to his belief in Christ than live. We also use this term because his death says something about the character of God. Those who follow Christ take on his virtues. Stephen’s death showed how he possessed God’s virtues of courage and love more than the average believer.  

More stories of martyrdom emerged from the first three centuries after the death of Christ. A number of sources have told of the harrowing death of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. Each presented it differently. Basil of Caesarea recounted how the Roman emperor enacted a law, making it illegal to confess faith in Christ. As an imperial official was posting up the law in a public place and demanding obedience, forty soldiers stood up and declared, ‘I am a Christian.’ The official promised them riches and high office to deny their belief in Christ. But they did not relent. He threatened violence and they remained steadfast. They said that because of their love for God they would readily accept torture on the wheel, by screws, and being burned alive. In response the official exposed them to the cold, where they stood until they froze to death. In this story, these same two perspectives emerge. One reveals violent death at the hands of a state scared of the consequences of people refusing to sacrifice to the pagan gods. The other speaks of people full of love for God, and the courage and integrity to refuse to turn their backs on Him.  

The martyrs show us that the virtues we need so often grow out of suffering and struggle.

Stories about martyrdom punctuated the worshipping life of the Early Church. Each year as the anniversary of a martyr’s death rolled around, crowds would gather at their tombs. Singing hymns, they held a candlelit vigil all night. In the morning the crowds processed into the tomb, where the bishop celebrated the eucharist and gave a speech commemorating their violent deaths. By the fourth century, each region celebrated dozens of different martyr festivals. These were joyful and ecstatic occasions. Early Christians treasured the opportunity to honour the martyr’s memory through commemoration. 

They also invested these stories with great spiritual potential. The martyrs were seen to be guides in the path of holiness. The deaths of St Stephen and the Forty Matyrs of Sebaste revealed how to express one’s love for God: to treasure Him so much in one’s heart, that nothing is worth denying one’s belief and trust in Him. Additionally, early Christian writers began to articulate that these stories also inspire and embolden their audiences to imitate the martyrs. Until the early fourth century, when Christianity became legally tolerated, some Christians faced the choice of denying Christ or death. For these Christians, the stories of the martyrs showed them that the Christian life involved proclaiming their faith and facing death, and crucially it gave them the inner strength to follow it through. After Christianity was made legal, Christians still saw the martyrs as spiritual guides. They revealed how to express courage and love for God in the face of hardship. These stories ignited a fire of zeal to imitate the martyrs in some way.   

They are, I propose, also of great inspiration to those who do not think of themselves as Christians.  The martyrs reveal to us how a love for God generates virtues we prize so greatly in society, namely courage, integrity, and faithfulness. If it were not for love for God, Stephen and the other martyrs would not have chosen to suffer, and they wouldn’t have expressed these precious qualities. In short, they give insight into how Christians understand love for God to be the wellspring for those precious virtues. The martyrs show us that the virtues we need so often grow out of suffering and struggle. In a sense, they reveal the value of suffering for virtue. However, they do not encourage us to suffer for its own sake. Rather, they reveal that the full expression of love for God can so often involve suffering and struggle. When Christians faithfully say yes to this hardship out of love for God, it transforms them into the embodiments of these precious virtues, which perhaps we need more than ever today, in an age where comfort and ease seems the goal of life.