Savior-King (Artful Devotion)

Tree of Jesse (Armenian)
Toros Taronatsi (Armenian, 1276–ca. 1346), Tree of Jesse, 1318. Ink, pigments, and gold on parchment, 10 1/4 × 7 1/16 in. (26 × 18 cm). “Matenadaran” Mesrop Mashtots‘ Institute-Museum of Ancient Manuscripts, Yerevan, Armenia (MS 206, fol. 258v).

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.’”

—Jeremiah 23:5–6

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SONG: “Jesus, Name Above All Names” | Words and music by Naida Hearn, 1974 | Arranged and performed by Nick Smith, feat. Liz Vice, 2015

The song’s original lyrics are:

Jesus, name above all names
Beautiful Savior, glorious Lord
Emmanuel, God is with us
Blessed Redeemer, living Word

Jesus, loving Shepherd
Vine of the branches, Son of God
Prince of Peace, Wonderful Counselor
Lord of the universe
Light of the world

Praise him, Lord above all lords
King above all kings, God’s only Son
The Prince of Peace, who by his Spirit
Comes to live in us, Master and Friend

Smith’s arrangement uses the first verse, plus adds this bridge:

Oh holy Lord
Praise be to your name
Oh risen Son
Hear us as we sing

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In 1318 Esayi Nch‘ets‘i (1260/65–1338), abbot of the Monastery of Gladzor in Armenia, commissioned three scribes to copy a Bible for the monastery, and T‘oros of Taron to illuminate it. The sumptuous illumination above, showing a genealogical tree sprouting from Jesse’s reclining body, serves as the frontispiece to the book of Psalms. Jesse was the father of King David and hence an ancestor of Jesus, who is enthroned at the end of the dominant branch, at the top of the composition. (We’ll revisit this iconography in the second week of Advent.)

In Armenia: Art, Religion, and Trade in the Middle Ages, Sylvie L. Merian writes of this image,

According to Sirarpie Der Nersessian, this is the first example of a Tree of Jesse found in Armenian art; the inspiration for this image is derived from Western European manuscripts, where it was portrayed as early as the mid-twelfth century. However, T‘oros has modified the traditional Western European iconography: the top of the tree normally depicts the Virgin and Child, but in this example he has placed a youthful Christ in a mandorla holding a book in his left hand and blessing with his right. In the center of the trunk is the head of David, whereas in Western European traditions he is usually represented by a bust. In addition, T‘oros added an image of Samuel anointing the young David in the lower right, a scene not usually included with the Tree of Jesse. He also depicted the prophets and other figures seated cross-legged, a posture not commonly depicted in Western European manuscripts. (119)


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 29 (Reign of Christ), cycle C, click here.

An Advent Playlist

Advent Playlist (AndandTheology.org)

Advent, which begins December 1 this year, ushers in four weeks of holy longing for Christ’s coming into our dark and broken world to make all things new. With the Old Testament saints and the early Christians alike, we cry, “Come, Lord!” The anticipation that marks the season is both joyful and aching, as on the one hand, we have a sure hope that the Lord is coming, and that’s cause for celebration, but on the other hand, well, we’re tired and weak, and sometimes hope hurts.

Every Advent, my husband and I whip out the Spotify playlist that I’ve been building over the years, and we let the music shape our longings toward Christmas, toward new creation. Centuries worth of Christian song comes through our speakers to build up our hearts and minds with words and tunes that prepare us to welcome not just Christ’s birth but also the parousia. While I’m not a stickler for “no Christmas music before December 25!,” I have come to appreciate the distinctiveness of Advent and have found something sweet in the waiting rather than rushing headlong into the truth that “Christ is born!” Of course, Advent bleeds into Christmas, and both seasons contain both darkness and light, mourning and festivity—but setting aside a month to linger with the visions of the prophets and the stories of Elizabeth, Zechariah, John the Baptist, Mary, and Joseph can deepen one’s appreciation of the fullness of Christmas and how it fits into God’s bigger story.

People, I think, are generally unaware of the rich body of Advent-themed music that’s available to us. Apart from the classics “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” and maybe a selection or two from Handel’s Messiah, I bet many Christians would be hard-pressed to name a single Advent song.

Well, here are ten hours’ worth! Art & Theology presents an Advent playlist.

There’s intention to the structure of the list, which moves from God’s promise to Abraham that “all shall be well” to ancient prophecies of a redemption-to-come to Gabriel’s visit to Mary and her subsequent Magnificat to Jesus’s parable of the ten bridesmaids and other such warnings of / yearnings for his second coming, with glimmers and bursts of hope scattered throughout.

Sometimes the line between a “Christmas” song and an “Advent” song is blurry, but generally I characterize an Advent song as one that’s marked by a sense of longing or expectation. As I said before, this longing can be expressed joyously or with tears and groaning, and both these shades are present in the playlist.

The predominant musical style represented is indie-folk (Sufjan Stevens, Josh Garrels, The Welcome Wagon, The Oh Hellos [previously], The Brilliance, Ordinary Time, etc.), but there’s also some choral, gospel, jazz, Taizé chant, sixties rock, show tunes, a Harry Potter-esque celesta interlude, and an Irish reel! Oh, and a smattering of virtuosic oud solos by Joseph Tawadros, with evocative titles like “Dream with Me” and “Where It All Began.” I hope the list is full of surprises for you.

I must note that there are plenty more traditional Advent hymns that exist but that I’ve excluded either because I could not find suitable recordings on Spotify, or because the tunes are dull or awkward. (And I’m sure there are also many songs that I’m simply not aware of.) I put a lot of stock in musical composition and vocal quality.

As you move down the first third of the list, let me draw your attention to some of the biblical texts the songs are drawn from—various foretastes of the coming kingdom that God vouchsafed to certain Hebrew poets and seers. May we capture their vision this Advent:

“Come, Lord” is the cry of Advent, and you will find it manifest in many of the songs here, from the bright, guitar-picked “Come Into My Heart” by Reilly & Maloney or Isaac Wardell’s “Messiah” waltz to St. Ambrose’s fourth-century “Veni, Redemptor gentium”—translated variously into English as “Savior of the Nations, Come” and “Come Thou Redeemer of the Earth,” each set to a different tune—to the African American spiritual “Kumbaya” (Gullah for “Come by Here”) [previously]. (The African Children’s Choir has the best version of this song, in my opinion, but unfortunately it was just removed from Spotify this month. I’ve substituted my second-favorite version, by Nina Simone.)

I’ve included only a few non-English songs, and where you encounter them, I encourage you to look up lyric translations, so as not to miss their full impact. The Swedish “Jul, Jul, Strålande Jul” (Christmas, Christmas, Glorious Christmas) by Edvard Evers and Gustaf Nordqvist, for example, prays, “Come, come, blessed Christmas: lower your white wings, / over the battlefield’s blood and cry . . .”

The “Come, Lord” song that makes me the most emotional, that taps deeply into my longing for the world, and my own heart, to be made new, is “Immanuel” by Jason Morant. “God with us, where are you now? . . . Be here somehow . . . in this desert of prosperity.” I’ve prayed through this song for years but have only just now discovered the music video Morant made for it, which attaches to it a story of desperation:


Perhaps my favorite Advent song is “The Trumpet Child,” written by husband-wife duo Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist of Over the Rhine. The two are superb songwriters, here giving us some stunning imagery and a really unique take on Advent:

The trumpet child will blow his horn
Will blast the sky till it’s reborn
With Gabriel’s power and Satchmo’s grace
He will surprise the human race

The trumpet he will use to blow
Is being fashioned out of fire
The mouthpiece is a glowing coal
The bell a burst of wild desire

The trumpet child will riff on love
Thelonious notes from up above
He’ll improvise a kingdom come
Accompanied by a different drum

The trumpet child will banquet here
Until the lost are truly found
A thousand days, a thousand years
Nobody knows for sure how long

The rich forget about their gold
The meek and mild are strangely bold
A lion lies beside a lamb
And licks a murderer’s outstretched hand

The trumpet child will lift a glass
His bride now leaning in at last
His final aim to fill with joy
The earth that man all but destroyed

The song intertwines Christ’s first and second advents, combining incarnation with apocalypse. The trumpet is a heralding instrument, announcing the arrival of a ruler or dignitary—but the aural image here is not of a ceremonial fanfare, formal and rigid, but of a fiery, improvisatory jazz solo, blaring soulfully into the night, and played by the comer himself. At his arrival, Christ will “blast the sky till it’s reborn,” rupturing the old world order. (I think of Isaiah 64:1–2: “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood . . .”) A fearsome thought, that sudden splitting, that roar . . . and yet at the same time, the arrival is smooth and graceful. Strength and tenderness, hand in hand.

Christ’s mouthpiece, the part of the trumpet you blow on to make sound, is a burning coal, the song says; this picks up on imagery from Isaiah 6:6–7 and evokes notions of the sacred, sacrifice, purgation. The bell, or flare—the part of the trumpet where sound comes out—is “a burst of wild desire.” Christ’s song is full of passionate intensity. This smoky, smoldering, bursting quality is reflected in the playing of piano, double bass, and percussion throughout, and by the trumpet and sax that come in after the final verse. (Note: The live performance above has no trumpet or saxophone.) Appropriately for Advent, the song does not end on the tonic, the home chord, but rather remains unresolved, playing out the tension that we presently live in, between the “already” and the “not yet” of Christ’s kingdom—that is, the space between his first and second comings.

Major props to Rob and Amy Seiffert of Madhouse for the album’s brilliant cover illustration, by the way, which converts the flaring horn of a vintage record player into an open white lily. The result is a hybrid image of “power” and “grace,” which is how Christ comes to us. His gospel packs a punch, blaring into our lives, but it’s also full of delicate beauty. The choice of a lily to allude to the “trumpet child’s” advent has precedent in countless traditional paintings of the Annunciation, where the angel Gabriel holds such a flower out to Mary just before Jesus is conceived in her womb.

The Trumpet Child album cover

“The Trumpet Child” references legendary jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong (nicknamed “Satchmo”) and jazz pianist Thelonious Monk, as well as the “peaceable kingdom” prophecy of Isaiah 11, where predation is no more, and the end-time Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:6–9). Jesus’s final aim, Bergquist sings, is to fill the earth with joy. Joy to the world.

So lastly, that joy: Christy Nockels. Her hand-clapping, foot-stomping “Dance at Migdal Eder,” played on the Irish fiddle, never ceases to get me excited for Christmas! Although it uses the present progressive tense, not the future, I have it on my Advent list because it creates for me a sense of Love’s call revving up, coming closer, beckoning me to dance. And it amplifies my yearning for “home.” It’s from Nockels’s 2016 album The Thrill of Hope, and indeed, it captures that thrill.

Can you hear it calling
Mercy is falling down
Heaven rejoices
This Christmas
Love is calling
Love is calling you home

I had to look up the name in the title: Migdal Eder (literally “tower of the flock”) is an ancient geographic locale on the outskirts of Bethlehem, where shepherds tended their sheep. So Nockels likely had in mind the rejoicing of the shepherds (Luke 2:8–20) when she wrote this song.

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So there you go. I offer this lovingly crafted Advent playlist, with many thanks to all the contributing artists, as an invitation to slow down and reconnect with the amazing, ongoing salvation narrative that God’s authoring. Christ has come, Christ will come again. And in the Spirit, he is with us now, Emmanuel. Let’s reorient our desires and expectations toward him.

If 170-plus songs is too overwhelming a list for you to work through, use this abridged Advent playlist instead, which contains just an hour’s worth of highlights:

As you prepare room for Christ Jesus this season, may you come to experience more deeply and intimately all the hope, peace, joy, and love that are yours in him.

Advent Playlist (ArtandTheology.org)

Playlist cover art: Jan Mankes (Dutch, 1889–1920), View from a Studio in Eerbeek (detail), 1917

God Who Saves (Artful Devotion)

Bearden, Romare_New Orleans, Ragging Home
Romare Bearden (American, 1912–1988), New Orleans: Ragging Home (from the Of the Blues series), 1974. Collage of plain, painted, and printed papers, with acrylic, lacquer, graphite, and marker, mounted on Masonite panel, 36 1/8 × 48 in. (91.8 × 121.9 cm). North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

You will say in that day:

“I will give thanks to you, O LORD,
for though you were angry with me,
your anger turned away,
that you might comfort me.

“Behold, God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid;
for the LORD GOD is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation.”

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day:

“Give thanks to the LORD,
call upon his name,
make known his deeds among the peoples,
proclaim that his name is exalted.

“Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously;
let this be made known in all the earth.
Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”

—Isaiah 12:1–6

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SONG: “Surely, It Is God Who Saves” | Text: Adapted from Canticle 9, “The First Song of Isaiah,” in the Book of Common Prayer (based on Isaiah 12:2–6) | Music by Uptown Worship Band, performed on Songs from Earth, Our Island Home (2014)

For another Artful Devotion featuring the Uptown Worship Band, see “Exalted Trinity.”


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 28, cycle C, click here.

Roundup: Four talks and an interview

Hi friends. I’m preparing for a trip to Bangalore, India, later this month, to meet an artist whose work I admire, Jyoti Sahi [previously]. I apologize for being slow to respond to emails lately, but I do appreciate each and every message I receive from my readers! I read them all and will try my best to respond just as soon as I get the chance. Please note: email is the best way to get in touch with me, as I’ve found that Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter messages tend to get buried under a slew of notifications and are harder for me to tag and track. Thank you again for your support of Art & Theology, and for all your questions, encouragements, personal introductions, invitations, and art recommendations.

In this roundup I want to share a few recorded lectures that I’ve listened to in the past month and have really enjoyed; I hope you will too. The first two are by art historians speaking to secular audiences at museums about the (Protestant) art of the Dutch Golden Age—which I saw a lot of this spring during my visit to the Netherlands! The second two are by Christian professors speaking at Christian academic institutions, from different angles, about prophetic art. And lastly, Biola University interviews Krista Tippett, one of my absolute favorite podcast hosts.

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“Dutch Art of the Golden Age, 1600–1675” by Dr. Eric Denker, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, July 14, 2019: In this hour-long lecture, Eric Denker discusses some of the highlights from the National Gallery of Art’s seventeenth-century Dutch art collection: paintings by Emanuel de Witte, Jan van der Heyden, Salomon van Ruysdael, Aelbert Cuyp, Ludolf Bakhuizen, Hendrick ter Brugghen (of the Utrecht Caravaggisti), Frans Hals, Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck, Judith Leyster, Thomas de Keyser, Rembrandt, Jan Steen, Pieter de Hooch, Willem Claesz Heda, Johannes Vermeer, Ambrosius Bosschaert, and Adriaen Coorte. These include scenes of everyday life (such as church and domestic interiors), landscapes, portraits, and still lifes.

Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam by Emanuel de Witte
Emanuel de Witte (Dutch, ca. 1616–1691/92), The Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, ca. 1660. Oil on canvas, 31 11/16 × 39 3/8 in. (80.5 × 100 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

I especially appreciated him pointing out details from de Witte’s Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, which brings together death (a burial plot has just been dug up under the stone floor, with a skull visible in the upturned dirt heap) and life (a woman nursing her infant on a bench at the right). Unlike the French and Italian painting of the time, Denker says, in Dutch painting “there is nothing too vulgar . . . to portray. They felt that they inhabited God’s world, and that everything that existed in that world was necessarily of God’s making.” Hence the dog relieving himself on a column!

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“Food for Thought: Pieter Claesz. and Dutch Still Life” by Dr. John Walsh, Yale University Art Gallery, September 25, 2015: The Dutch coined the word “still life” (stilleven) to describe pictures of things that are incapable of movement or that lack a soul. In the Dutch conception, such paintings weren’t just for looking at but also for meditating on; the aim, in other words, was visual pleasure and moral edification. John Walsh outlines various categories: vanitas paintings, breakfast pieces, kitchen still lifes, pipe-smoking pieces, arrangements of food and wares on a table, fruit pieces, compositions of dead game and weapons, and flowers.

Walsh discusses many different paintings in detail, by many different artists (not just by the premier one in the lecture title), including a few examples of contemporaneous still lifes from Italy and Spain. He really made them come alive for me! The feasts of meats and cheeses, fruits and vegetables, for example, with all their subtle richness of texture and color, are a celebration of God’s goodness. In honor of Thanksgiving in a few weeks, here’s Pieter Claesz’s Still Life with a Turkey Pie:

Claesz, Pieter_Still Life with a Turkey Pie
Pieter Claesz (Dutch, 1597/98–1660), Still Life with a Turkey Pie, 1627. Oil on panel, 29 1/2 × 51 9/10 in. (75 × 132 cm). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

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“Practicing the Prophetic: Liturgy, Formation, and Discernment for Public Life” by Dr. James K. A. Smith, Seattle Pacific University, October 16, 2019: James K. A. Smith has made a name for himself writing about worship, worldview, and cultural formation, through such books as You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit and his Cultural Liturgies series. The first half of this talk, which starts at 6:15, is a good introduction to his work in that arena, as he discusses the liturgical nature of public life—how “the rhythms and rituals of public life aren’t just something we do; they are also doing something to us.” Cultural forces can de-form us, he says, in often insidious ways, such that we don’t even realize the deformation. Smith is all about getting us to take stock of what we’ve been conscripted to want, to love, to hope for; to perform a “liturgical analysis” on the social imaginary that we’ve absorbed through our culture’s images, stories, myths, rituals, practices, etc. And for a toolkit, he offers St. Augustine.

The second half of the talk (starting at about 33:40) is devoted to “the art of prophetic hope,” which “requires both the renewal of the Christian imagination and an outward offering of a Christian imagination for the sake of the world.” He continues: “What’s at stake in our liturgical formation is really a restorying of the imagination. It’s a restoring of the imagination because it’s a restorying of the imagination. And if Christianity has something to offer our neighbors, I think that will be most powerfully and prophetically embodied in the arts, which meet people on the register of the imagination.” I am always so compelled by Smith’s words; they’re all so quotable. But particularly germane to the Art & Theology project I have going here, and also to the upcoming Advent season, is what he says about a truly “Christian” art being that which holds together hurt and hope:

There is nothing more scandalous than Christian eschatology, I realize. And yet nothing speaks more directly to a hurtful and fearful world. This eschatological orientation, which is at the heart of the prophets, fuels art that is suspended between the already and the not yet. The unique imaginative capacity of the arts speaks to this ineffaceable human hunger for restoration even while honoring the heartbreak of our present pilgrimage. A Christian eschatology nourishes a distinct imagination that refuses to be constrained by the catalog of the currently available and instead imagines a world to come breaking into the present. Art that is infused with this eschatological imagination at once laments and hopes. In its lament, it honors our experience of brokenness, the heartbreak of the now. And in its hope, it gives voice to our longings. It neither wallows in romanticized tragedy nor escapes to sentimental naivete. Such eschatological art is like an embodied form of the Lord’s Prayer. Each such work is its own requiem, such that what Jan Swafford says of Mozart’s Requiem could be true of all such eschatological art. He says, “It’s full of death and hope, lacerating sorrow and uncanny beauty.”

I like this “uncanniness” metaphor. Uncanniness is an apt descriptor of such art that paints beauty with ashes, that can walk the soul through the valley of the shadow of death on the way to a feast in the wilderness. Such art stops us short in its uncanny, even paradoxical, ability to embody both hurt and hope.

By way of example, he discusses the Tomb of Maria Magdalena Langhans (1723–1751), who died in childbirth, along with her baby, on Holy Saturday; the Memorial to Fallen Workers in Hamilton, Ontario; and Sugar and Spice by Letitia Huckaby [previously].

Nahl, Johann August_Tomb of Madame Langhans
Johann August Nahl (German, 1710–1781), Tomb of Mme. Maria Magdalena Langhans, 1751–53. Sandstone. (This is an 18th-century replica; the original is in the village church of Hindelbank in Bern, Switzerland.)

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“Turn and Face the Strange: Thoughts on Ergonomics and Artistry” by Jeffrey Overstreet, Sacrament & Story conference, Brehm Cascadia, Bellevue, Washington, April 5, 2019: “This is a presentation about the courage that artists must have in order to behold, and then bear witness to, new visions of beauty and truth,” says film critic and professor Jeffrey Overstreet [previously here and here]. He teaches his students at Seattle Pacific University (a Christian institution) to ask, like Miles Morales, “What’s up, danger?” To go outside the walls, to the wild edges, and be still, and then to report on that encounter. Films he discusses, whose characters (or director) “go to the edge of the water,” so to speak, include Babette’s Feast, The Secret of Kells, The Fits, Moonrise Kingdom, and 24 Frames.

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An Interview with Krista Tippett by Jonathan A. Anderson, Biola University presidential luncheon, La Mirada, California, February 22, 2017: Journalist Krista Tippett is the most talented interviewer I know—time after time initiating open, hospitable, genuinely mutual conversations with a range of subjects. (It’s no wonder she’s won a Peabody Award and a National Humanities Medal! The latter for “thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence.”) Here Jonathan A. Anderson, the director of Biola University’s Center for Christianity, Culture, and the Arts, interviews her, and it’s so rich!

After graduating from Brown in 1983, Tippett became a foreign correspondent in divided Berlin. After years of that, she earned an MDiv from Yale. In 2003 she created the NPR show Speaking of Faith, which, despite initial skepticism from many corners, became wildly popular and evolved into On Being. Her upbringing was Christian, but she interviews people from all different faith traditions—poets, clergy, scientists, doctors, historians, activists, etc.—always opening with the question “What is your spiritual background?” The show’s tagline is “Pursuing deep thinking, social courage, moral imagination and joy, to renew inner life, outer life, and life together.” Again and again, On Being brightens my outlook, builds my compassion, and gives me hope and inspiration, and I’m so grateful to Tippett for creating that space.

In her interview at Biola, Tippett describes what it was like to discover theology as “one of humanity’s great disciplines,” as “carrying questions and virtues and substantive riches that should be able to find a way in public life true to their depth and their wisdom.” She discusses her desire to be true to the intellectual and spiritual content of faith—the latter almost absent in public talk; how she responds to the criticism of being “soft” on religious voices; and she gives tips for conversing with those you disagree with. When Anderson opened up the Biola project to critique by asking her the problems and possibilities with their approach to Christian liberal arts education, she had this beautiful response: “Whatever our particularity is, that is our gift to the world.” To immerse oneself fully in a particular religious tradition is not a narrowing but a deepening, she said; being deeply who you are and having convictions and seeking truth is not incompatible with living lovingly and peaceably in a pluralistic world!

Tippett is the author of Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters—and How to Talk About It (Penguin, 2008) and Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living (Penguin, 2016). Her radio show / podcast, On Being, has a vast archive, and I only just became a listener two years ago, but here are some episodes that I remember particularly enjoying:

Tell the Story (Artful Devotion)

Lawrence, Jacob_Harriet Tubman and the Promised Land
Illustration from Harriet Tubman and the Promised Land by Jacob Lawrence (New York: Windmill Books, 1968; repr. Simon & Schuster, 1993). © Simon & Schuster

Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised,
and his greatness is unsearchable.
One generation shall commend your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.
On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.

—Psalm 145:3–5

Young Harriet Tubman (born Araminta Ross) was shaped, among other things, by stories of the mighty acts of God in history, especially his bringing his people into freedom. Her parents, who were devout Methodists, and others in her Maryland slave community fired her imagination with stories of the Red Sea crossing, Pharaoh overthrown, and a land flowing with milk and honey. Harriet craved that kind of freedom for her people and, as we all know, later led many into it.

In the 1960s, Windmill Books founder Robert Kraus commissioned the famous New York artist Jacob Lawrence to paint a series of pictures on any subject in American history to serve as the basis of a new children’s book. Lawrence chose Harriet Tubman (whom he had also painted a series on in 1939–40, The Life of Harriet Tubman [previously]). After Lawrence completed seventeen new paintings, Kraus wrote rhymed verse to go along with them, and the book was published in 1968 as Harriet and the Promised Land. (It was reissued in 1993 by Simon and Schuster; Kraus’s contribution is uncredited by choice in both editions.) It was the first children’s book to be reviewed in the Art section of the New York Times. The book emphasizes Harriet’s faith in God and his provision along the Underground Railroad, and Harriet’s role as a Moses figure.

Jacob Lawrence is one of my favorite artists, and I particularly love this painting of his that shows little Harriet sitting on a rock in rapt attention as an elder woman gives a performative telling of the biblical exodus story, recounting in detail how God brought his children up out of Egypt. In this nighttime scene, abnormally large bugs creep around on leaf and ground as the North Star shines bright above, a light that beckons and that will come to guide Harriet and others in a nineteenth-century exodus. Kraus’s text for the painting reads,

Harriet, hear tell
About “The Promised Land”:
How Moses led the slaves
Over Egypt’s sand.

How Pharaoh’s heart
Was hard as stone,
How the Lord told Moses
He was not alone.

Harriet Tubman is also the subject of a new dramatic film directed by Kasi Lemmons, currently in theaters. I haven’t seen it yet but plan to.

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SONG: “I Love to Tell the Story” | Words by Kate Hankey, 1866; refrain by William G. Fischer, 1869 | Music by William G. Fischer, 1869 | Performed by Emmylou Harris and Robert Duvall, on The Apostle soundtrack, 1998

Arabella Katherine Hankey (1834–1911) was a contemporary of Harriet Tubman’s (ca. 1822–1913), but she grew up in a much different context, as the (white) daughter of a wealthy English banker. Her family, though, used their wealth and influence to serve others. Her father, Thomas Hankey, was a leading member of the Clapham Sect, a group of evangelical Anglican social reformers whose avid campaigning, in society and in Parliament, led to the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833. Though the group was waning as Kate was growing up, social justice (alongside personal conversion) remained a key aspect of the gospel her parents taught her, which impelled her to embark on ministry to young female factory workers in London, teaching them the Bible and, I presume, advocating for better working conditions, as her father had a generation earlier.

In her early thirties, a serious illness left Kate bedridden for a year. During her convalescence she wrote a long poem in two parts that she called “The Old, Old Story,” which tells the story of redemption, from the Garden of Eden to Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection to the Spirit’s outpouring, in fifty-five quatrains. “I Love to Tell the Story,” as well as her other famous hymn, “Tell Me the Old, Old, Story,” are derived from this longer work.

I like the paradox of “old” and “new” in Kate’s hymn, underscoring the enduring relevance and impact of Jesus’s self-giving. His sacrifice for sin was planned since the foundation of the world and accomplished in first-century Palestine but continues to resound anew today as it’s received into countless hearts and lives. It reminds me of Augustine’s famous exclamation to God in his Confessions: “O Beauty, so ancient and so new!”

“I Love to Tell the Story” features in the 1997 movie The Apostle, starring Robert Duvall as a charismatic preacher, with many flaws, who starts a church in the Louisiana bayou. Jeffrey Overstreet writes that it “may be the most unapologetic, intimate portrayal of a religious man in the history of American cinema.” Duvall wrote, directed, and, since Hollywood wasn’t interested, produced the movie himself. He said it was important to him to show Sonny as a complex character with a genuine faith rather than as a caricature of southern Christianity.

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Sunday’s reading from Psalm 145 celebrates the “wondrous works” of God, told down through the ages. Whether it’s God’s work through Moses or Harriet or the Clapham abolitionists to bring people out of literal enslavement, or God’s salvation of an individual soul from the bondage of sin, these are wonders to proclaim, stories that are part of God’s story, that we should love to tell.

Read the whole psalm.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 27, cycle C, click here.

How Long? (Artful Devotion)

Guayasamin, Oswaldo_The Cry
Oswaldo Guayasamín (Ecuadorian, 1919–1999), El Grito [The Cry], 1983. Oil on three canvases. Fundación Guayasamín, Quito, Ecuador.

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see iniquity,
and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law is paralyzed,
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
so justice goes forth perverted.

—Habakkuk 1:2–4

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SONG: “How Long, O Lord?” by Justin Ruddy, July 13, 2016

About this song, Ruddy wrote,

I haven’t really known what to say about the violence in our nation and around the world. There are specific events that I’m grieving, and then there’s just the toll of senseless violence stacked on senseless violence. I’m exhausted, and I’m not even a member of any of the affected communities. Lord have mercy. This lament just kind of poured out of me last week. How long O Lord?

Justin Ruddy is the founding pastor of Resurrection Church in East Boston, which just launched this fall. As a former minister at Citylife Boston, where I attended for five years, he has been influential in shaping my faith—especially my appreciation of liturgy and my practice of lament. When he wasn’t preaching or singing/playing music in worship, he often served as “presider” over the service, connecting together the various liturgical elements, weaving a narrative through line that illuminated the gospel for me week after week. When he spoke theology, he did so in such thoughtful and relevant ways. He also occasionally led us in responding to national or global tragedies or crises. His prayers in the wake of such events, such as the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, have taught me a way to pray through suffering. His song “How Long, O Lord?” exemplifies his approach—a biblical one—of bringing pain, grief, anger, exasperation fully before God.

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A theology that has no place for lament is left only with thin, inadequate murmurings. The covenantal relationship is reduced to a mere shell, maneuvered about with smoke and mirrors rather than serious and faithful engagement. . . . A theology which takes our covenantal relationship with God seriously must then also take the laments seriously. One cannot happen without the other.

—Logan C. Jones, The Psalms of Lament and the Transformation of Sorrow

Guayasamin, Oswaldo_El Grito I
Oswaldo Guayasamín, El Grito I
Guayasamin, Oswaldo_El Grito II
Oswaldo Guayasamín, El Grito II
Guayasamin, Oswaldo_El Grito III
Oswaldo Guyasamín, El Grito III

This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 26, cycle C, click here.

Forever Blessed (Artful Devotion)

Kussudiardja, Bagong_Christ and the Fishermen
Bagong Kussudiardja (Indonesian, 1928–2004), Christ and the Fishermen, 1998. Oil on canvas. Source: Ron O’Grady, ed., Christ for All People: Celebrating a World of Christian Art (Asian Christian Art Association, 2001), page 67

But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever.

—Daniel 7:18

And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.

“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets. . . .”

—Luke 7:20–23

Christians believe that the forever kingdom foreseen by the Old Testament prophet Daniel (in the vision that precedes the above verse) is the same kingdom that Jesus inaugurated in the New Testament. As Jesus preached the Beatitudes, he described those who would possess said kingdom: the meek, the merciful, and so on.

Daniel’s vision was of “one like a son of man” who was given, by the Ancient of Days, everlasting dominion over all peoples. Jesus uses the title “Son of Man” for himself all throughout the Gospel of Luke. He is the ruler of that expansive kingdom that had been prophesied about centuries earlier. It’s a kingdom that extends across the realms of earth and heaven, which will one day be joined back together. Its citizens are the saints of old (who trusted in God’s promises) and the saints of today.

On All Saints’ Day (November 1) we remember the powerful spiritual bond we have with our fellow “citizens” in heaven. We celebrate the examples they have left us, giving thanks for their lives.

Below is a song by a living saint that invites us into God’s kingdom and to “see with new eyes,” paired with a painting by a saint who has passed on, which shows Jesus building the kingdom.

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SONG: “Behold Now the Kingdom” by John Michael Talbot | Performed by John Michael Talbot and Terry Talbot, on The Painter (1980)

Grammy Award–winning singer-songwriter John Michael Talbot came to faith in 1975 while rock-’n’-rolling and shortly after joined the Jesus Movement. He converted to Catholicism in 1978 and two years later founded the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, an integrated monastic community with celibate brothers and sisters, singles, and families. He now lives at St. Clare Monastery in Houston, where he is still writing and producing music, donating all his proceeds to charities. On the album The Painter, he sings with his brother, Terry.

John Michael Talbot

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Bagong Kussudiardja (1928–2004) [previously] was a well-known dancer and choreographer from Indonesia who combined classical Javanese dance with modern dance, the latter of which he studied under Martha Graham in the 1950s. He was a Christian, and several of his dance-dramas were based on events from the life of Christ: the Nativity, the Crucifixion, and the Ascension, for example. He was also a visual artist who pioneered batik painting in Indonesia, although he worked in oils too. In 1958 he founded Pusat Latihan Tari Bagong Kussudiardja (Bagong Kussudiardja Center for Dance), followed by Padepokan Seni Bagong Kussudiardja (Bagong Kussudiardja Center for the Arts) in 1978, which is still flourishing. He was honored with a Google Doodle on his birthday in 2017.

Bagong Kussudiardja

Kussudiardja’s Christ and the Fishermen shows Jesus on an Indonesian beach (notice the traditional fishing boats in the background) wearing modern dress: a blue bathing suit, a white tank top, and yellow-rimmed sunglasses. He gestures expressively as he preaches to his new disciples who, in their contouring, are reminiscent of shadow puppets (wayang).

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For All Saints’ Day devotions from the previous two lectionary cycles, see:

  • “Sky World,” featuring a song in Mohawk by Theresa Bear Fox and a fancy dance by Apsáalooke hip-hop artist Supaman
  • “Around the Throne,” featuring an early Renaissance altarpiece from Italy and a late Renaissance motet from Spain

For other thematically related Artful Devotions, see:

  • “Shine Like a Star,” featuring a contemporary Ukrainian icon and an American folk song from the 1953 Ruth Crawford Seeger songbook, American Folk Songs for Christmas
  • “Cloud of Witnesses,” featuring a Paduan dome fresco of heaven and a hymn by Brian Wren and Gary Rand

This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for All Saints’ Day, cycle C, click here.

Roundup: “Say Yes!” Advent video, “Neighbor Songs,” poetry prescriptions, global art history, and more

ADVENT RESOURCES: Advent is just over a month away, and once again, SALT Project [previously] has produced some wonderful new devotional resources: (1) a customizable “Say Yes!” video for churches (see below), (2) a set of five unique “Say Yes” placements in three different color schemes, including black-and-white to be colored in by you and/or your family (note: these are sold as a digital download, so you will have to print and laminate them yourself), and (3) “Advent and Hygge: The Art of Coziness,” five devotional table tents, one for each week of Advent and a fifth for Christmas Eve/Day (promo video below).

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NEW ALBUM: Neighbor Songs by The Porter’s Gate Worship Project: Released October 25, an album themed on loving our neighbors across lines of difference. Contributing artists include Urban Doxology, Josh Garrels, Audrey Assad, Paul Zach, Casey J, Leslie Jordan, Zach Bolen (of Citizens), Diana Gameros, Latifah Alattas, Lauren Goans (of Lowland Hum), and others. Below is a promo video, followed by two songs from the album, “Blessed Are the Merciful” and “The Earth Shall Know.”

“The Porter’s Gate is a sacred ecumenical arts collective reimagining and recreating worship that welcomes, reflects and impacts both the community and the church. The group was founded in 2017 by Isaac and Megan Wardell with a mission to be a ‘porter’ for the Christian church—one who looks beyond church doors for guests to welcome. It started as a group of 50-plus songwriters, musicians, scholars, pastors and music industry professionals from a variety of worship traditions and cultural backgrounds who gathered to discuss challenges in the church and write songs in response.”

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ARTICLE: “The Best Christian Albums of the 2010s”: Three of my choices for top Christian albums of the decade were selected for this Gospel Coalition article—and I got to write about them! Liz Vice (whom I saw in concert this year), Psallos, and Poor Bishop Hooper are creating excellent, exciting, soul-nourishing music that every Christian should know about; these albums of theirs that I’ve blurbed make a good entryway into their fuller body of work.

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POETRY COLUMN: “Poetry Rx,” The Paris Review: Launched in March 2018, “Poetry Rx” is a column in which “readers write in with a specific emotion, and our resident poets—Sarah Kay, Kaveh Akbar, and Claire Schwartz—take turns prescribing the perfect poems to match.” Some letter writers need hope or forgiveness; others, self-motivation or courage. Others want to feel love, or want to know how to express immense gratitude, or joy. Schwartz writes, “When I sit down to answer these letters, I often find myself reflecting on the purpose of my response. What should the poem offer? Challenge? Company? Direction? Language for an old feeling? A way toward new possibility?”

I’ve so appreciated not only the prescribed poetry but also the vulnerability of the letter writers, who present complex cocktails of feelings that show the multifariousness of being human. For example, the September 5 write-ins were: someone who is terrified of forgetting little pieces of a loved one who has died; a college student experiencing a growing apart from her childhood BFF and who is therefore lamenting the loss of “the magic that is young female friendship”; and a novelist who is hurt that her boyfriend and mother are not interested in reading her latest book (“I am destroyed that those who urged me to chase my dreams now cannot be bothered to witness them. . . . Do you have a poem for me that can ease the loneliness of being a writer? Of creating a world that those you love will not step into?”). How to be optimistic for your partner, how to work through feelings of restlessness, how to deal with a loved one’s addiction, how to manage the inevitable losses inherent to the medical profession, how to navigate the disorientation following a loss of faith, how to make last an ecstatic moment in nature, how to persevere as a schoolteacher who is pouring all her intellectual passion into a seeming void (bored students)—these are all situations for which poetic wisdom or solace is sought.

One woman wrote in looking for a poem “for a mother’s love.” (“My love for my daughter sometimes feels terrible and desperate and weighty with responsibility. But also sweet and tender and silly.”) Kay prescribed “Saying Our Names” by Marianne Murphy Zarzana, which begins,

Notice how just one syllable—
say Jack—can expand and become
the world, round and whole,
when it is a child’s name
being formed by a mother’s mouth.

For someone who is “unfamiliar with the geography of joy” and wants to learn how to navigate that space, Akbar recommends “So Much Happiness” by Naomi Shihab Nye, which begins,

It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.

But happiness floats.

I got a kick out of the poem Kay prescribed to a “patient” who is experiencing loathing for the first time and doesn’t know what to do with it: “Grief, Not Guilt” by Jeanann Verlee. Its first three lines are

I wish you a tongue scalded by tea.
A hangover. Burnt toast. Stubbed toes. A lost job.
I wish you weeping in the shower. Salt in the sugar bowl.

For the death of a loved one, Schwartz prescribes W. S. Merwin’s “Separation,” which reads in full,

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

If you’re feeling discouraged by the onslaught of terrible news reports, try “Self-Portrait with No Flag” by Safia Elhillo, which begins,

i pledge allegiance to my
homies      to my mother’s
small & cool palms     to
the gap between my brother’s
two front teeth      & to
my grandmother’s good brown
hands       good strong brown
hands gathering my bare feet
in her lap

Introducing the column, the “doctors” wrote,

No, I don’t think that poetry will save us. And yet, and yet . . . The “and yet” is what this column is for. And yet, maybe we can find poems that vibrate at the same frequency that your heart is humming. And yet, maybe we can find a poem you can escape inside of for a few minutes. And yet, maybe you just needed an excuse to share the vulnerable parts of yourself, and what better way to honor that courage than to offer you the poems that carry us through our own vulnerable times.

If you’re feeling something that you want to see reflected back to you in poetry or through which you want poetry to guide you, write in!

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TV SERIES: Civilizations: Released last year and available on Netflix, Civilizations is a global art history series in nine episodes that “examine[s] the formative role of art and the creative imagination in the forging of humanity.” It expands on Kenneth Clark’s 1969 landmark series, Civilisation, which was criticized for covering only Western art history. Its three presenters are Simon Schama, Mary Beard, and David Olusoga.

As with any project of this scope, criticisms are bound to arise (several are mentioned, for example, in the mixed review from Hyperallergic), especially in how cultural interaction and exchange are discussed. But this focus on said interactions is, in my opinion, a hallmark of the series, and I think it was handled well overall. Rather than showing cultural production happening all over the globe in isolated pockets, it shows a mutual influencing in various directions. Episode 4, “Encounters,” is particularly dedicated to this theme, though it recurs throughout. Narrator Liev Schreiber opens that episode:

From the moment they meet, civilizations begin to influence one another’s art. During the 15th century, European sailors embarked on a new age of exploration. Cultures that previously were vast oceans apart now met for the first time. But before this became a story of conquest, plunder, and empire, there was a forgotten era of discovery. And for many, this was a golden age, when curiosity, mutual respect, and the exchange of goods and ideas were recorded in the art of countless human encounters.

So yes, you can see from this quote that the series does tend toward Westocentrism—but given that it was produced by Nutopia for PBS and BBC, I’d say that was unavoidable. This episode highlights, among many other artworks, Benin bronzes from modern-day Nigeria (whose artists acquired their raw materials from Muslim merchants crossing the Sahara and, later, the Portuguese); namban screens from feudal Japan; the folk art associated with Day of the Dead in Mexico (a fusion of Aztec beliefs and Catholicism), as well as the Aztec influence on the gory religious art of the Spanish Baroque; and zoological and botanical illustrations, including Dürer’s famous rhinoceros woodcut (based on a written description of a rhino that was sent to Lisbon as a diplomatic gift from India) and the revolutionary drawings of naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian, a woman from seventeenth-century Holland who traveled unaccompanied to Surinam in South America to document the plants and insects there.

In episode 5, “Renaissances,” I learned that at the same time Michelangelo was building St. Peter’s dome in Rome, the famous Turkish architect Mimar Sinan was building Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, both men vying for world’s biggest dome, to eclipse the Hagia Sophia. Michelangelo was aware of Sinan’s building projects through diplomatic and commercial reports. The East was also aware of the West—the Ottoman sultans invited Michelangelo and Leonardo in the early 1500s to build bridges in Istanbul.

Religion, of course, is a major through line, and there’s a whole episode (number 3), “God and Art,” devoted to it.

I also really enjoyed episode 6, “Paradise on Earth,” about landscape art around the world. It covers, among others, Chinese ink brush paintings, carpet weaving in Pakistan and Morocco, Jacob van Ruisdael and other Dutch landscape painters, J. M. W. Turner and Romanticism in England, the Hudson River School in America, Anselm Adams, and Hubble Space Telescope photography.

The whole series is beautifully shot and presented, and I recommend it. It enlarged my vision of the beauty of other cultures.

Highways to Zion (Artful Devotion)

Choumali, Joana_Ca Va Aller 54
Joana Choumali (Ivorian, 1974–), Ça Va Aller #54, 2018. iPhone photograph printed on cotton canvas and hand-embroidered with cotton, lurex, and wool thread, 9 2/5 × 9 2/5 in. (24 × 24 cm).

Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.

—Psalm 84:5 ESV

Alternate translation (NKJV):

Blessed is the man whose strength is in You,
whose heart is set on pilgrimage.

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SONG: “Marching to Zion” | Words: Isaac Watts, 1707, and Robert Lowry, 1867 (adapt.) | Music: Traditional black gospel | Performed by The Long Walk Home Gospel Choir, led by Dr. Clifford Bibb, on The Long Walk Home original motion picture soundtrack (1991)

I first heard this song years ago in the end credits of The Long Walk Home (1990), a historical drama film about the impact of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott on a black maid and her white employer. I was so moved by the spirited communal singing of this song about the people of God heading confidently through the fray of this world toward heaven, which alludes to the literal ascent of ancient Jewish pilgrims up the hill to Jerusalem. I looked up the song afterward to find that it is a gospelized adaptation of the Isaac Watts hymn “Come, we that love the Lord” and the nineteenth-century refrain added by Robert Lowry, which goes, in 6/8 time,

We’re marching to Zion,
Beautiful, beautiful Zion;
We’re marching upward to Zion,
The beautiful city of God.

Writing during the rise of American revivalism, Lowry also gave the hymn the tune by which it is commonly known and sung today, reproduced in many hymnals. Despite my being raised Baptist, I never recall having sung this hymn before.

The version of the song used in The Long Walk Home has a completely different meter (4/4) and tune, and it also foregrounds this revised refrain:

We’re marching, marching up to Zion
That beautiful city of God
We’re marching, marching up to Zion
That beautiful city of God

Despite extensive searching, I’ve not been able to find the composer of this version. The soundtrack liner notes credit it as a “Traditional” arranged for the movie by Bernard Sneed, who’s on piano, and Dr. Clifford Bibb, the song leader. The version they’ve arranged almost surely originated in the black church in America and appears to have risen to popularity in the late 1940s. Some early recordings include the Roberta Martin Singers, feat. Eugene Smith (1953); the Blind Boys of Alabama (formerly the Happyland Singers), feat. Clarence Fountain (1954, 1971, etc.); Rev. James Cleveland; the Swan Silvertones; and the Ward Gospel Singers, feat. Viola Crowley (1963). These are all great—but I think I still like the Long Walk Home Gospel Choir recording the best. The intro and outro, which use other musical motives from the film, were composed by George Fenton, who wrote the score not only for this film but also for Dangerous Liaisons, Groundhog Day, You’ve Got Mail, Anna and the King, Sweet Home Alabama, Hitch, The Lady in the Van, and others.

The song also appears under the titles “We’re Marching to Zion,” “Marching Up to Zion,” or “Marching On to Zion.”

If you have any info on the history of, or piano music for, this particular version of the song, please do share! Black churches, from what I can tell, sing both versions, but all the hymnals I’ve consulted use Lowry’s version.

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Joana Choumali from Côte d’Ivoire is doing beautiful mixed-media work that combines photography and embroidery. The above work is from her series Ça va aller (“It will be OK”). She began this series three weeks after the 2016 terrorist attack in Grand-Bassam, a historic southeastern seaside town where she used to spend peaceful Sunday afternoons on the beach. With her iPhone, she took photos of residents going about their daily business in the aftermath of this traumatic event, bearing their melancholy quietly. She said that adding the colorful stitches to the printed photographs was healing for her and an act of defiant hope. View more on her website.

In Ça Va Aller #54, a man walks a dusty road that erupts before him into a spectacular upward whirl of tiny cross-shapes that evoke a flock of wild birds or flower blossoms. I see joy, I see hope. I see a man stepping into and being led forward by these virtues.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 25, cycle C, click here.

Visio divina with Aaron Douglas’s “The Creation”

On September 15 I was invited by North Decatur Presbyterian Church in Georgia to lead a visio divina exercise during their morning worship services. Visio divina, or sacred seeing, is the practice of gazing on an image and opening yourself up to receive the gift that it holds. I approach images this way all the time, and while some people formalize the practice with a set of steps to follow, timed silences, restrictions, and such, my approach is a bit looser.

Because Pastor David Lewicki was preaching on Genesis 2, I chose Aaron Douglas’s painting The Creation. The leadership had already programmed in a reading of the James Weldon Johnson poem that directly inspired the painting, so introducing this visual corollary seemed particularly appropriate.

Note: I disagree with the popular notion, perpetuated by Johnson, that God created humanity because he was lonely; because he is in himself a loving community of Three, he did not lack companionship. Lewicki addresses this concern somewhat in his sermon and rightfully notes how the Genesis 2 creation account presents a God who is closer to humanity and the created world (he digs in the dirt!) and more vulnerable and improvisational than the God we meet in Genesis 1. I don’t believe Johnson’s beautiful poem should be scrapped because of those two (in my opinion) theologically problematic lines, but discretion should be used before presenting it in a worship context. For example, this wouldn’t fly at my church. The NDPC congregation, however, is more welcoming of imaginative engagements with the biblical story that might challenge traditional readings, so those lines were not for them impediments to worship, and I appreciated that Lewicki commented on them in his sermon, wondering about the “holy longing” the Creator must have felt for us.

Below are Johnson’s poem, Douglas’s image, and the transcript of my contribution, which I peppered with substantial pauses. To promote a better visio divina experience on your computer, I’d recommend right-clicking the image and selecting “Open link in new window,” then split-screening that window with this one; that way, you can more easily reference the image while you read. (In the future, I will try to produce audio for exercises like these.)

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Douglas, Aaron_Creation
Aaron Douglas (American, 1899–1979), The Creation, 1935. Oil on Masonite, 48 × 36 in. Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

“The Creation” by James Weldon Johnson

And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’m lonely—
I’ll make me a world.

And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.

Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That’s good!

Then God reached out and took the light in his hands,
And God rolled the light around in his hands
Until he made the sun;
And he set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
Then down between
The darkness and the light
He hurled the world;
And God said: That’s good!

Then God himself stepped down—
And the sun was on his right hand,
And the moon was on his left;
The stars were clustered about his head,
And the earth was under his feet.
And God walked, and where he trod
His footsteps hollowed the valleys out
And bulged the mountains up.

Then he stopped and looked and saw
That the earth was hot and barren.
So God stepped over to the edge of the world
And he spat out the seven seas—
He batted his eyes, and the lightnings flashed—
He clapped his hands, and the thunders rolled—
And the waters above the earth came down,
The cooling waters came down.

Then the green grass sprouted,
And the little red flowers blossomed,
The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky,
And the oak spread out his arms,
The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground,
And the rivers ran down to the sea;
And God smiled again,
And the rainbow appeared,
And curled itself around his shoulder.

Then God raised his arm and he waved his hand
Over the sea and over the land,
And he said: Bring forth! Bring forth!
And quicker than God could drop his hand,
Fishes and fowls
And beasts and birds
Swam the rivers and the seas,
Roamed the forests and the woods,
And split the air with their wings.
And God said: That’s good!

Then God walked around,
And God looked around
On all that he had made.
He looked at his sun,
And he looked at his moon,
And he looked at his little stars;
He looked on his world
With all its living things,
And God said: I’m lonely still.

Then God sat down—
On the side of a hill where he could think;
By a deep, wide river he sat down;
With his head in his hands,
God thought and thought,
Till he thought: I’ll make me a man!

Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in his own image;
Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
Amen. Amen.

This poem was originally published in The Book of American Negro Poetry, ed. James Weldon Johnson (1922), and subsequently in God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse by James Weldon Johnson (1927).

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We are filled with the divine breath; we breathe God.

Take a moment to meditate on Aaron Douglas’s painting The Creation, made in response to the James Weldon Johnson poem that was just read.

What colors do you notice? What shapes? What movement? What shimmers for you in this image? Whatever it is, fix your eyes there. Now expand your gaze to encompass the whole image.

For me, what shimmers are the purples and blues, and especially the hand of God that reaches through the undulating atmosphere. In this image, creation swirls and dances, rises and rolls—the colors river every which way. Eight spheres—the planets, perhaps—float playfully like bubbles. It’s all a wondrous, dynamic, primordial burst of life, and we’re a part of it.

At the bottom, man emerges plant-like from the shadows, his face extending into an arc of light, the light of God. His feet are planted in the soil of earth, but heaven blazes all around him. He is an amphibious creature, belonging to both worlds, which here are united.

The poet uses maternal language to describe God’s ultimate creative act, saying that he knelt down at a riverbank and gently scooped up clay from its bed—then, like a mother coddling her baby, he formed humanity. Majesty stooping down in tenderness.

“Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
Amen. Amen.”