Painting by Numbers…


by the Rt Revd Dr David Walker, Bishop of Manchester

I have to admit, I didn’t enjoy Art at school. The paint never went where I wanted it to go, and the splodges of colour I produced rarely looked anything close to what they were meant to resemble. At home it was very different. I had little kits full of tiny pots of paint, which I painstakingly applied to sheets on which the shapes and colours of the intended artwork had been pre-printed. My clumsiness thus constrained, I was able to produce images that bore a satisfactory likeness to the pictures on the lid of the box. I couldn’t paint, but I could turn a canvas covered in digits and lines into an acceptable picture. In short, I could paint by numbers.

The small amount of academic research I get to do these days comprises of writing articles in which careful lines of argument are typically supported by a wealth of numerical data. I analyse the self reported beliefs, behaviours and attitudes of people who engage with Anglican Churches, in the hope that this may help clergy and others understand and serve them better. When invited to turn some of my writings into a book* aimed at the popular Christian market I was faced with the problem that not everyone loves statistical calculations and tables, nor the neat lines of reasoning that connect them to the observed world, anything like as much as I do.

 My solution was to write a book that set out what I had discovered, but which left the numerical and academic analysis invisible to the reader. I overpainted them with as wide a range of anecdotes, biblical stories, uses of humour, and practical suggestions as I could cram in. I gave references as to where the academic papers justifying my ideas could be found, should anyone wish to follow the trail of evidence, but I didn’t anticipate many would. Looking back, what I was doing was very similar to my adolescent artistic activities. I was covering the numbers and lines with colour, allowing the picture to emerge in a form more easily grasped and appreciated.

A colleague said of me a year or two ago, “David’s not a typical bishop, he really does believe in evidence”. I took it as a compliment, but I’m having to learn to also take it as a warning. For years I had been arguing, with facts and figures, the benefits to the UK of allowing refugees to settle here. I had addressed both the humanitarian crisis our almost totally closed door policy was exacerbating, and the moral bankruptcy of successive governments’ positions. Nothing I said or wrote had anything like the impact achieved by a single picture of the body of a child washed up on a beach. By contrast we have seen populist movements coming to prominence across the world, which deem evidence as a best an unnecessary distraction, and more commonly as unwelcome truths for which “alternative facts” can be substituted. The pictures they paint need no lines or numbers to help them represent reality. They are content to throw emotional colour at the wall, in the knowledge that what is produced will be more appealing to their core audience than any amount of carefully presented and verified evidence. As one UK politician put it during an interview at the height of the Brexit campaign, “We’ve had enough of hearing from experts”.

I remain an unrepentant liberal intellectual. I’m not going to cast aside facts and figures in favour of rhetoric and emotion, but I am going to try harder to add colour on top of the lines and numbers of my arguments, and to do so in ways that more clearly bring out the picture they define.

 *David Walker’s book, God’s Belongers: How people engage with God today and how the church can help is published by BRF and available here.