Every morning I run. It’s usually below zero this time of year but it is just the best time of the day. Nothing beats it. In recent years I’ve also discovered the joys of the podcast. Seriously…how good is it? At no cost you can listen to some of the most interesting people and fascinating ideas in the world. There is so much darkness on the Internet but let’s not forget there is also some light if you know where to look.
Recently I discovered The Good Life Podcast by New Yorker Jonathan Fields. It’s full of all sorts of interesting audio goodness. So there I was a few days ago, powering along in the pre-dawn darkness listening to another great interview, this time with a young professor at New York University, Adam Alter. He’s recently authored a new book called Drunk Tank Pink. How’s that for a great title? His work focuses upon how much of our behaviour is conditioned by things we have no control over and that operate below the level of our consciousness.
For example, he has shown conclusively that a certain shade of the colour pink makes people behave in a more calm manner. Its effects were first discovered when used in the classrooms of tough inner city schools and then in the cooling off rooms for drunks within a certain district’s police stations – hence the name of the book, Drunk Tank Pink. Interestingly, some NFL football coaches took up the idea and began painting the dressing rooms of visiting teams in the same colour. At kickoff the visitors had no idea that they were probably keener to make love than war!
The really interesting idea from the interview that I wanted to share with you was in another description he gave of another experiment. In this one, people were given collections of jewellery to examine. They were allowed to hold and inspect a variety of different jewellery collections and then later were given a very specific series of follow up tests. As is the case with these sorts of experiments the group had no idea what they were being tested for or how they had been selected. Here is where it gets interesting. In summary, one of the findings was this. When Christians were given religious jewellery to examine they later scored much higher on a follow up test related to honesty. It seemed that viewing religious imagery triggered a response (below the level of consciousness) that reminded them of their religious nature and then stimulated them to behave in a particular way on the follow up tests on honesty.
A control group of other Christians who did not have the same exposure to religious imagery scored lower on the honesty test. To put it simply, religious art and imagery caused the individual to behave more congruently with their faith perspective.
On one level we’ve always known this in the Catholic tradition but I am convinced it’s something we may have forgotten. The NSW Bishops in their well known CrossRoads document on Catholic education made the point that a necessary aspect of a good Catholic school is the presence of fine religious art. I have been going on about this in seminars for a long time.
So, if we want to create a more Christ centred Christian community in our schools then we need to make sure we have great religious imagery where our young people can actually see it – and see it multiples times per day.
Years ago I spent 12 months at one of the worlds great Jesuit schools. Over 500 years old, it was the most incredible place to live. One of the things I always remember was the perfect, life-size replica of Michaelangelo’s Pieta. It was located in a central area where thousands of students had to walk past it every day. As such, they were given the simplest ongoing reminder of the the sacrifice of Jesus and the love of Mary and the role of beauty in art and life.
As I sit here now, summoning up the courage for another morning run in the cold that awaits, I am surrounded by some of the greatest religious art in history. Over the years I have made it a point to fill my office with the stuff. Within two metres of me right now are a huge painting of Daniel in the Lions Den by Briton Riviere, the sixth century icon of Christos Pantokrator from the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai, a moving photograph of Pope Francis with an autistic boy and a print of Fra Angelico’s Annunciation.
So, you can take it from me or you can take it from the professors at NYU, either way let’s think about creating positive behaviour change in your students by exposing them to a culture of great religious art in your school. It will make a difference.