“Everything that is born must die” by Christina Rossetti

Maari Christante (American, 1982–), Anchored for Flight, 2019. Digital photograph, 30 × 24 in. [available as a print]

Everything that is born must die;
   Everything that can sigh may sing;
Rocks in equal balance, low or high,
   Everything.

   Honeycomb is weighed against a sting;
Hope and fear take turns to touch the sky;
   Height and depth respond alternating.

O my soul, spread wings of love to fly,
   Wings of dove that soars on home-bound wing:
Love trusts Love, till Love shall justify
   Everything.

This untitled poem was originally published in Time Flies: A Reading Diary (SPCK, 1885) and appears in The Complete Poems by Christina Rossetti (Penguin, 2001). It is in the public domain.

Roundup: Grief work, kintsugi, “The O in Hope,” and more

INTERACTIVE PERFORMANCE ART: DIG: A Hole to Put Your Grief In by Cara Levine: Last month artist Cara Levine led a weeklong collaborative project in which she invited those in and around Malibu to join her in digging a hole to visualize the depth of grief being experienced right now in response to personal losses as well as national and global crises. Carried out on a property owned by the Shalom Institute, the project was inspired in part by the Jewish ritual of shiva, the seven-day mourning period following the burial of a family member, during which the bereaved discuss their loss and accept comfort from the community.

“Whatever one is grieving is welcome—be it the loss of a loved one, or more nuanced and subtle grief—the grief that comes with aging, with watching children grow, loss of friendships, habitat, completions to other life cycles, opportunities, loves, that one won’t see flourish, and so on,” Levine wrote in an email to Hyperallergic.

Levine, Cara_Dig a Hole to Put Your Grief In
Cara Levine, DIG: A Hole to Put Your Grief In, August 14–21, 2021, Shalom Institute, Malibu, California. Photo: Nir Yaniv.

“Part of the act of inviting others to share in the digging, is an invitation for the collective to lift the burden of the individual. I think digging together, expressing the depth and weight of the grief all around us, can be a shared burden.”

At week’s end the hole was filled with water and transformed into a mikvah (ritual bath) for a ceremonial hand washing, before being refilled with the original dirt. As arts writer Matt Stromberg reported, participants were invited to write down what they were grieving on sheets of paper embedded with flower seeds, which were then buried in small pots that could be taken home, while native seeds were scattered in the hole, a symbol of renewal. Though I, living on the opposite coast, didn’t participate, it sounds like it was a meaningful time of healing and of giving and receiving support.

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VIDEO: “Mending Trauma” by Makoto Fujimura: In this video from the 2019 Theology of Making series from Fuller Studio, artist and author Makoto Fujimura describes the Japanese art of kintsugi (literally “golden seams”) and how it reflects the beauty that can emerge from our own fractured hearts and lives.

“Kintsugi theology,” he says, is the theology of the new creation, and it’s embodied by Jesus himself. His resurrection body retains the wounds of crucifixion, but there is light flowing through them, suggesting how our traumas will be carried into the new creation but wholly transformed. Like broken bowls mended with gold.

Check out the three other videos in the series:

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SONG: This video, taken in June 2015 by someone from the Free Burma Rangers humanitarian service movement, shows an Assyrian Christian woman in Kurdistan lingering behind after church let out, singing a praise song to Jesus alone in a pew. She had recently returned home after having fled an ISIS attack. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

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NEW BOOKS:

>> The O in Hope by Luci Shaw, illustrated by Ned Bustard: “Combining a joyful poem from the much-celebrated poet Luci Shaw with playful cut-paper art created by Ned Bustard, The O in Hope helps us experience the goodness of God’s gifts of hope and love.” I found out about this recent release from IVP Kids at a Zoom event, where Shaw [previously] read the poem—it’s so delightful!

>> First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament: “Many First Nations tribes communicate with the cultural and linguistic thought patterns found in their original tongues. The First Nations Version (FNV) recounts the Creator’s Story—the Christian Scriptures—following the tradition of Native storytellers’ oral cultures. This way of speaking, with its simple yet profound beauty and rich cultural idioms, still resonates in the hearts of First Nations people.

“The FNV is a dynamic equivalence translation that captures the simplicity, clarity, and beauty of Native storytellers in English, while remaining faithful to the original language of the New Testament.” The project was carried out by an eleven-member council selected from a cross-section of Native North Americans (elders, pastors, young adults, and men and women from different tribes and geographic locations) and overseen by Ojibwe storyteller Terry M. Wildman. Here is Wildman reciting the FNV translation of the Lord’s Prayer from the Gospels, accompanied by his wife, Darlene, on cedar flute:

“Bouquet” by Langston Hughes

Chihuly, Dale_Kobe Japan Workshop Ikebana Drawing
Dale Chihuly (American, 1941–), Kobe Japan Workshop Ikebana Drawing, 1997. Mixed media on paper. Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Gather quickly
Out of darkness
All the songs you know
And throw them at the sun
Before they melt
Like snow.

This poem was originally published in the Colorado Review’s Spring/Summer 1957 issue, and it appears in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, ed. Arnold Rampersad (Knopf, 1994; Vintage Books, 1995).

Roundup: “De-Colonizing Christ” art exhibit, “God in the Modern Wing” book launch, and more

ART EXHIBITION: De-Colonizing Christ, Riverfront Gallery, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Cathedral, September 12–December 19, 2021 (preview: September 11): St. Stephen’s Episcopal Cathedral in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is hosting a juried art exhibition that highlights non-Caucasian representations of Jesus. There are twenty-eight original artworks in the show, plus a dozen on loan from private collections. An opening reception (with hors d’oeuvres) will take place Saturday, September 11, from 7 to 9 p.m., which I’ll be attending! It is open to the public, and masks are required in the sanctuary and cloister gallery.

De-Colonizing Christ exhibition poster
The poster image is Pantocrator in Black and Brown by Brian Behm from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which has been awarded Best in Show.

“Recent events have opened conversations among churches, theologians, and biblical scholars, considering in what way the western portrayal of Jesus as a European has been used to marginalize people of color,” the press release reads. “Many suggest that the pursuit of racial justice demands the exploration of ways in which we can de-colonize the Christ—releasing the image of Jesus from a legacy of White Supremacy and exploring images of Jesus as a man of color. This exhibit invites the Central Pennsylvania community into the conversation.” Read more about the impetus behind the exhibition in this opinion piece by the dean of the cathedral, the Very Rev. Dr. Amy Welin.

In addition to the preview night, where many of the artists will be present, there are three related lectures scheduled:

  • September 12, 2 p.m.: “The Arts, Justice, and Faith: The Role of a Holy Imagination” by artist Steve Prince
  • October 17, 2 p.m.: “White Jesus: Mangling Christianity and the Birth of White Supremacy in the West” by Dr. Drew G.I. Hart, Assistant Professor of Theology, Messiah University
  • November 28, 2 p.m.: Discussion about the tensions inherent in inclusive worship in predominantly white congregations, led by the Rev. Dr. Catherine Williams, Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship, Lancaster Theological Seminary

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BOOK LAUNCH EVENTS: God in the Modern Wing: Viewing Art with Eyes of Faith, September 17–18, 2021: In anticipation of this book’s release on October 12, Upper House in Madison, Wisconsin, is hosting a string of free events two weekends from now. The two lectures can be attended in person or virtually, but the workshop is in-person only. Coeditors Cameron J. Anderson (an artist) [previously] and G. Walter Hansen (a theologian and art collector) will be present.

God in the Modern Wing grew out of a series of lectures that Hansen organized in 2015, one of which I wrote about. The book description is as follows: “Should Christians even bother with the modern wing at the art museum? After all, modern art and artists are often caricatured as rabidly opposed to God, the church—indeed, to faith of any kind. But is that all there is to the story? In this Studies in Theology and the Arts volume, coeditors Cameron J. Anderson and G. Walter Hansen gather the reflections of artists, art historians, and theologians who collectively offer a more complicated narrative of the history of modern art and its place in the Christian life. Here, readers will find insights on the work and faith of artists including Marc Chagall, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol, and more.”

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(IN-PERSON) ARTS FESTIVAL: Faith in Arts Institute, October 13–16, 2021, Asheville, North Carolina: “The inaugural Faith in Arts Institute hosted by UNC Asheville and the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, intended for anyone interested in the role of art in religious and spiritual experience, will be led and facilitated by artists and  scholars. The number of participants for the institute itself will be limited to create the possibility for rich and meaningful dialogue and engagement among the participants and faculty.

“In addition to talks on religion and art in the 21st century, sacred art in secular spaces / secular art in sacred spaces, and small group discussions on topics including devotion and discipline, revelation and inspiration, faith and hope, ritual and routine, vision and imagination, the institute will also include several workshops, film screenings and more.” Registration is $60. View a schedule and find out more information here.

Faith in Arts Institute

The presenters are:

  • Julie Levin Caro, Professor of Art History, Warren Wilson College (specializes in modern American art and African American art)
  • Curt Cloninger, artist, designer, writer
  • Marie T. Cochran, Founder and Director, Affrilachian Artist Project
  • David Hinton, essayist and translator of Chinese poetry
  • Rachel Elizabeth Harding, Associate Professor of Indigenous Spiritual Traditions, University of Colorado–Denver (specializes in religions of the Afro-Atlantic diaspora)
  • Jessica Jacobs, author of the coming-of-age memoir-in-poems Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Going
  • Kay Larson, author of Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists
  • Thomas Moore, pianist
  • Alicia Jo Rabins, writer, musician, composer, performer, Torah teacher (check out her Girls in Trouble, an indie-folk song cycle about the complicated lives of biblical women!)
  • Christopher-Rasheem McMillan, Assistant Professor of Dance and of Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies, University of Iowa
  • Aaron Rosen, Professor of Religion and Visual Culture, Wesley Theological Seminary
  • Pamela D. Winfield, Professor of Religious Studies, Elon University (specializes in the visual/material culture of Japanese Buddhism)

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SONG FOR SUKKOT: “Whoever Is Thirsty” by Marty Goetz: Every fall Jews celebrate Sukkot, aka the Feast of Tabernacles or Festival of Booths, a seven-day commemoration of God’s provision for their people during their desert sojourn after the exodus. This year the holiday falls on September 20–27. Four Sukkots ago singer-songwriter Marty Goetz, a Jewish believer in Jesus, posted this video of a song he composed, “Whoever Is Thirsty,” from his 2010 album Sanctuary. It is an original setting of Revelation 22:17 (a book that “herald[s] the return of Yeshua the Messiah,” he says), and he performs it here with his daughter Misha Goetz.

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

—Revelation 22:17

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NEW PLAYLIST: September 2021 (Art & Theology): I’m continuing to put together a short monthly Spotify playlist as a way to share great music mainly from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Per usual, it consists mostly of folk and gospel, which are my personal preferences. I realized after the fact that this month’s selection has quite a bit of banjo! (I do love that instrument . . .): a setting by bluegrass quintet Crooked Still of Wendell Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things”; Béla Fleck jamming with Ugandan kalimba player Ruth Akello on “Jesus Is the Only Answer” [previously]; Rhiannon Giddens playing and singing the spiritual “I’m Gonna Tell God All of My Troubles”; Ellen Petersen and her siblings covering the Mark Bishop song “With the Spirit of the Lord Inside”; “Esa Einai,” a setting of Psalm 121:1–2 in English and Hebrew by Jewish bluegrass duo Nefesh Mountain; and an original song by the Westbound Rangers [previously], led by one of my high school friends, Graham Sherrill.

The closing song is “Kia Hora Te Marino,” a collection of Maori blessings and proverbs set to music by Christopher Tin. The first stanza goes,

Kia hora te marino,
Kia whakapapa pounamu te moana,
Kia tere te rohirohi.
Kia hora te marino,
Te marino ara
Mo ake tonu ake.

English translation:
May peace be widespread,
may the sea glisten like greenstone,
and may the shimmer of light guide you.
May peace be widespread,
be widespread
now and forever more.

Music documentary: Throw Down Your Heart

Directed by Sascha Paladino, Throw Down Your Heart (2008) follows world-renowned banjo player Béla Fleck on his journey through Africa to connect with the banjo’s origins through jam sessions and conversations with local musicians. It’s full of intercultural exchanges that result in creative stylistic fusions that are amazingly seamless. It’s thrilling to hear the banjo so at home outside the US! Here’s the trailer:

Most people associate the banjo with white people from the American South, but it actually evolved from the akonting, a hide-covered gourd instrument from Gambia with three strings attached to a pole, brought to America by enslaved Africans. Among the many musical artists Fleck meets is the Jatta Family, a Gambian troupe dedicated to preserving akonting music in Africa.

The title of the documentary, Throw Down Your Heart, is a translation of the Swahili word Bagamoyo, the name of a trading port along the East African coast. According to John Kitime, Fleck’s guide and translator, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Tanzanians were captured inland and brought to the eastern shores for “export” to the Middle East as slaves. They knew that once they saw the Indian Ocean, they would never come home again, so they would “throw down [their] heart” in despair. Fleck wrote a banjo composition inspired by this painful history, which is performed on the Special Features of the DVD.

Besides Gambia and Tanzania, Fleck also visits Uganda and Mali, and the documentary highlights a variety of musical traditions and instruments from those countries—harps and panpipes and giant xylophones and guitars. I especially love the performance of “Jesus Is the Only Answer” by Ruth Akello from Jinja, Uganda, who plays the kalimba (thumb piano), an instrument consisting of metal tines of varying length attached to a wooden board. She also sings. She’s accompanied by the Ateso Jazz Band and by Fleck.

All the performances are wonderful, but another standout for me is by Grammy Award–winning Wassoulou singer Oumou Sangaré, a national icon in Mali. She sings “Djorolen,” a lament for the fatherless. An English translation of the Bambara lyrics is below.

The worried songbird cries out in the forest
Her thoughts go far away
For those of us without fathers
Her thoughts go out to them

Abandoned by her father when she was two, Sangaré dropped out of school as a child to help her mother raise the family by singing in the streets. She rose to stardom in her early twenties with the release of her first album, Moussolou (1990). She now tours internationally and is an advocate for women’s rights, opposing child marriage and polygamy.

(Related post: “Music making at Keur Moussa Abbey, Senegal”)

Though marketed as a film about the banjo, Throw Down Your Heart is more broadly a celebration of the diverse musics of the African continent. Through collaborations with virtuoso musicians, Fleck explores how a modern banjo can fit into that soundscape.

The documentary appears not to be available for online streaming, but I rented a copy of the DVD at my local library. There’s also a reasonably priced box set that was released last year, which includes not only the DVD but also a deluxe edition—forty-two tracks!—of the critically acclaimed companion album, featuring a complete disc of previously unreleased material from Fleck performing with kora master Toumani Diabaté.

“Passion” by Gertrud von Le Fort (excerpt)

Duman-Skop, Tetiana_Christ in Blossoming Crown of Thorns
Tetiana Duman-Skop (Ukrainian, 1981–2020), Христос в розквітлому терновому вінку (Christ in a Blossoming Crown of Thorns), 2012. Encaustic on board, 70 × 50 cm.

Your voice speaks to my soul:

Be not afraid of my golden garments, have no fear of the rays of my candles,
For they are all but veils of my love, they are all but as tender hands covering my secret.
I will draw them away, weeping soul, that you may see I am no stranger to you.
How should a mother not resemble her child?
All your sorrows are in me.
I am born out of suffering, I have bloomed out of five holy wounds.
I grew on the tree of humiliation, I found strength in the bitter wine of tears.
I am a white rose in a chalice full of blood.
I live on suffering, I am the strength out of suffering, I am glory out of suffering:
Come to my soul and find your home.

This is section I of the poem “Passion” by Gertrud von Le Fort (1876–1971), translated from the German by Margaret Chanler and published in Hymns to the Church (Sheed and Ward, 1953). The icon is by Tetiana Duman-Skop, who died last year of brain cancer at age thirty-nine.

Roundup: Online literary retreat (Aug. 27), Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor interview, global Marian art, and more

ONLINE LITERARY RETREAT: “The Extraordinary Possibility of Ordinary Time: Retreat with Sarah Arthur,” August 27 (this Friday!), 1–3 p.m. ET: Hosted by Paraclete Press. “Come away for an afternoon of exploration, refreshment, and celebration of Ordinary Time. Sarah Arthur invites you to join her for a deep sip at the well of poetry and literature as devotional reading. Guest poets Luci Shaw and Scott Cairns will also take part in this mini-retreat for lovers of words and Spirit.” The $50 admission price includes a copy of Sarah’s book At the Still Point: A Literary Guide to Prayer in Ordinary Time. I attended her Lent retreat earlier this year and found it very meaningful. Sorry for the short notice.

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TRIBUTE: “My Benediction to the Beloved Storyteller Walter Wangerin Jr.” by Philip Yancey: Walter Wangerin Jr. died of cancer on August 5. He was a pastor; a storyteller; a National Book Award–winning author of novels, short stories, and spiritual essays, including The Book of the Dun Cow, The Book of Sorrows, and Ragman: And Other Cries of Faith; and a professor of literature, theology, and creative writing. His friend and fellow writer Philip Yancey has written this nice little tribute to him for Christianity Today.

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ONLINE EXHIBITION: A Global Icon: Mary in Context, created by the National Museum of Women in the Arts: Curated by Virginia Treanor, this digital resource was created as an expansion of the in-person exhibition Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea (see catalog), which ran from December 5, 2014, to April 12, 2015. Click through the pages to experience art images with descriptions, videos, and other content having to do with representations of Mary from across the world. The first video in the series is posted below, and here’s a playlist of all seven.

Christian canteen from Iraq
Canteen with Adoration of the Christ Child (detail), Syria or Northern Iraq, mid-13th century. Brass, silver inlay, 17 13/16 × 14 7/16 in. (45.2 × 36.7 cm). Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Click image to see full object.

Virgin and Child, from a Falnama (Book of Divination), Mughal India, ca. 1580. Gouache on cloth, 33.4 × 21.1 cm.

Dehua Madonna and Child
Madonna and Child, Dehua, China, 1690–1710. Porcelain, 15 × 3 1/2 × 3 in. (38.1 × 8.9 × 7.6 cm). Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts, inv. AE85957.

Ethiopian pendant icon
Double Diptych Icon Pendant, Ethiopia, early 18th century. Wood, tempera pigment, string, 3 3/4 × 6 × 5 1/2 in. (9.5 × 15.2 × 14 cm) (open, mounted). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Lady of Sorrows (Italy, 18th c)
Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, Italy, 18th century. Polychromed wood, human hair, 17 3/4 × 17 3/4 × 9 3/4 in. Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels, Inv. FB.514. Photo © RMAH, used with permission.

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INTERVIEW (+ upcoming virtual conversation): “A God Who Wails and Dances: A Conversation with Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor”: This interview by Erika Kloss, which appears in the current issue of Image journal (no. 109), is so. good. Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor is the author of the novels Dust and The Dragonfly Sea and award-winning short stories such as “The Weight of Whispers,” as well as the executive director of the Zanzibar International Film Festival. Here she talks about fiction, faith, coffee, and calling colonialism to account. To engage further, you can register for the Image-sponsored online event “The Art of Fiction: A God Who Wails and Dances with Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor,” which takes place September 23 at 3 p.m. ET.

Here’s just a snippet from her conversation with Kloss, where she describes what she would say to those who want nothing to do with Christianity because of all the evil that has been done in its name:

Dare to rescue God as Emmanuel from the dense debris of hubris, and from the weight and stench of whited sepulchers. For it is true, an excess of ghouls have appropriated for themselves the meaning and potency of the revolutionary One who dares to pronounce to humanity, “Love your enemies . . . Do good to those who hate you.”

Why should young people let themselves be revulsed by a legion who never fully entered into the depths of the subversive, seductive, paradigm-dissolving, drinking-and-hanging-out-with-sinners, beautiful, and heroic man-God? Why wouldn’t young people set out to experience for themselves the grand and compelling epic of a creator God in love, who loses his children and the earth to a defiant and rebellious once-beloved prince of light, and who struggles long and hard to regain the humanity he had loved and lost? So passionate and desperate is the creator in this endeavor that he will enter into humanity to try to court and secure these cherished children, even at the risk of his own murder—and even that does not stop the love. A love stronger than death? Don’t we all write anthems, in one form or another, yearning for this?

Let the next generation of seekers . . . visit old worlds that contain the spirit of the faith, not just in the Middle East, but also northern Africa, northern Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia, all those rubbed-out places (that colonialists presumed to suggest they were ‘civilizing’) from which Christianity entered into and transformed Europe and the world. . . . An historical quest for meaning at sites of origins might inspire young people to look again at the call to adventure and transcendent idealism that is the Way.

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VIDEO SERIES: How to Read the Bible by BibleProject: “Reading the Bible wisely requires that we learn about the ancient literary styles used by the biblical authors. . . . While the Bible is one unified story, it cannot all be read in the same way. The How to Read the Bible series walks through each literary style found in the Bible to show how each uniquely contributes to the overall story of Scripture.”

Led by Dr. Tim Mackie and Jon Collins, BibleProject is a crowdfunded animation studio that creates videos, podcasts, and small-group curricula. From 2017 to 2020 they executed a series called How to Read the Bible, which is nineteen episodes total. In it they examine the three major literary styles that comprise the Bible: narrative (chronicles, biographies, parables), poetry (celebratory, reflective, erotic, politically resistant, apocalyptic), and prose discourse (laws, sermons, letters). Each style lives by its own rules and structure, and we get into trouble, for example, when we don’t properly understand how metaphor works, or when we don’t recognize that Paul’s epistles were situated in a particular historical context. Here’s one of the videos in the series, on design patterns in biblical narrative:

“And He Shall Give His Angels Charge Over You” by Sharron Singleton

Thompson, Darren_Blonde with Sand
Darren Thompson (American, 1968–), Blonde with Sand, 2019. Oil on wood, 12 × 16 in. (A “blonde with sand” is coffee with cream and sugar.)

The waitress stands over me at 6:00 a.m. with pad
and pen. She recites her litany with weary kindness;
she says orange juice, coffee, two eggs over easy,
says whole wheat toast, marmalade, each word
a wafer I take from her hands and eat.

I stand before the white robed technician, my blouse
draped around my hips. She gently cups my breasts
in her hand, guides me between the cold steel wings
of the machine. It will aim its radiant eye to uncover
whatever mystery might be hidden there.

The beautician holds my head in her hands,
tips it backward over the white chalice of the sink,
sluices warm water through my hair again and again,
smoothing the wings of my emptiness with her fingers
until I am loosened and released.

This poem was originally published in Christianity and the Arts journal in 1999 and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

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Taking its title from Psalm 91:11, “And He Shall Give His Angels Charge Over You” by Sharron Singleton expresses gratitude for those who work in the service sector, such as diner servers, mammography technologists, and hairstylists, who care for us through things like a hot cup of coffee, a diagnostic X-ray, or a relaxing shampoo—gifts that should not be taken for granted. The speaker of the poem, in fact, receives them as sacraments of sorts, describing the waitress’s recitation of menu offerings as “a wafer.” Similarly, the mammography tech wears a white robe, like the alb of a priest; she guides and illumines. And at the salon, the sink is like a chalice, a liturgical vessel, holder of the sacred—or a baptismal font; the speaker leaves washed and unburdened, light of spirit.

Singleton’s first full-length poetry collection, Our Hands a Hollow Bowl (Grayson Books, 2018), is an artful celebration of the sacramentality of nature and of everyday life—gardening, peeling potatoes, working, hiking, sex, baseball, waiting in line, watching one’s son hold his son, selling a home full of memories. She also writes tenderly but without sentimentality about her mother and father, reflecting especially on her upbringing in rural Michigan, her mother’s slow death from cancer, and the pain of absence.

Singleton has recently completed the manuscript for her second full-length collection and is in the process of getting it published.

Album recommendation: Mercy by Natalie Bergman

Much has been written about Natalie Bergman’s debut solo album, Mercy, which she self-produced and released May 7 through Third Man Records. Described as “a psychedelic spin on vintage gospel-soul” (Brooklyn Vegan), it comprises twelve original songs that combine praises and intercessions to God with expressions of grief over the recent, sudden death of her dad in a car accident. It’s excellent, and I wish I had time to write about it in more depth. Instead, let me just share four of the music videos Bergman created to coincide with the album, and commend to you the interviews she did with Aquarium Drunkard and Hero magazine, both in which she discusses her Christian faith, her visual and musical influences, and the impetus behind the album.

Natalie Bergman, Mercy

Chicago-bred and Los Angeles–based, Bergman formed a band with her brother Elliot after high school, the psych-pop duo Wild Belle; they eventually signed to Columbia Records, and have toured internationally.

In October 2019, when Wild Belle was getting ready to go onstage at Radio City Music Hall, the siblings learned that their father and stepmother had been killed by a drunk driver. To process her grief, Bergman retreated to the Benedictine Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico’s Chama Valley in February 2020, where she spent time in silence and going to chapel, where the resident monks prayed the Divine Office seven times a day, starting at 4 a.m. The seeds for the album were planted there, as she talked to God and listened.

As evidenced by comments on social media, some people are incredulous that a singer of this status and level of artistry would choose to sing about Jesus in a nonironic way, from a place of genuine faith. Could contemporary Christian music really be this beautiful? Could a sung spirituality that straightforwardly proclaims things like “Jesus is our friend” and “Oh, I need you, Lord” really have a broad appeal, one that extends beyond churchgoers, as Bergman’s music does?

Unwilling to take her new music at face value, some have even suggested that Bergman’s videos are making fun of Christianity, or that she’s using the name “Jesus” as some kind of metaphor. Bunk!

In addition to referring to Mercy as a gospel album, Bergman speaks openly, in secular media, about her love of “traditional praise music” and her desire to share “the good news” and her “testimony”—of hope in the midst of sorrow, of the companionship of Christ, of a Love that calls us home.

  • “I have my own poems that I want to sing about God and about my father . . . my own Psalms.” [source]
  • “I’m a Christian fighting the good fight, and I want that to be the message. I want the message to be love and the goodness of the creator and why we were created.” [source]
  • “I think that God has given me this platform to praise his name in a loving way. I would love this music to work through people and become a sort of healing agent for others.” [source]
  • “I need my art and I need my faith. . . . Faith has become my greatest consolation, and it’s really allowed me to see the light. I think that the relationship between music and faith go hand in hand—one needs the other.” [source]

Because Mercy completely defies the expectations set by the contemporary Christian music industry, on the one hand, and alternative music on the other, it has confounded some listeners. Music podcaster John J. Thompson—rightfully, I think—sees the album as in line with the countercultural Christian music (sometimes referred to as “Jesus Music”) of the 1970s, an association Bergman embraces.

(Related post: “Of pain and praise: Cherry Blossoms by Andy Squyres”)

I see Mercy as a gorgeous (and groovy!) example of moving through grief with hope, clinging unabashedly to God’s promises and inviting others to do the same. Whereas doubt and cynicism seem to be the order of the day in US culture, Bergman demonstrates a trust in the Divine that is childlike but not childish, simple but not simplistic. She confronts the pain of loss while also consenting to the uplift that God brings. She sings praises in the valley, plays in puddles.

Not only do I love Bergman’s sound; I dig her style too! You’ll see what I mean in the music videos below.

Purchase Mercy on Bandcamp, or wherever else you get your music.

“Talk to the Lord”

This is my favorite song on the album, and the video is so enchanting! Bergman designed and made by hand her wardrobe as well as the set pieces. The blocks were inspired partly by Sister Corita Kent, a sixties pop artist and nun, and the banners were prompted by Bergman’s memory of the liturgical banners her mother made for their church growing up.

Bergman also made the kite in the video, which she yokes to her back—a reference, I’m assuming, to Matthew 11:28–30, where Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

In other video segments Bergman dances in the grass wearing a black leotard and a black cardboard cutout around her face with white stripes projecting outward like flower petals or rays of light. This recalls lines from the song: “He who makes the flowers face the sun / And all the creatures sing / He can make the heavens rain . . .” Her mourning is turned to dancing as she lets in the Light.

You can also watch Bergman perform “Talk to the Lord” with the Chicago Children’s Choir as part of GRAMMY.com’s Positive Vibes Only video series. What joy!

“Shine Your Light on Me”

This music video was filmed in 4:3 on television cameras from the 1960s, with an aesthetic inspired by a 1967 performance by Diana Ross and the Supremes. Bergman performs in a beehive hairdo and a vintage mirror dress that reflects the light (“light is the inherent message behind this music,” she says), on a set designed by Hanrui Wang.

The song includes contributions from Elsa Harris and the Larry Landfair Singers, whom Bergman previously sang with at her father’s funeral.

I Will Praise You”

This one has a reggae rhythm.

Home at Last”

“Home at Last” was filmed in and around the historic Lincoln Avenue Methodist Church in the Montecito Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, a Carpenter Gothic and Queen Anne–style building from the turn of the century that is now part of the Heritage Square Museum. Footage of the band inside the sanctuary is intercut with shots of them relaxing in a green space, eating fruit and enjoying one another’s company—a vision of paradise. They’re all dressed in white, per Revelation 7.

Roundup: Call for creation care songs; an ode to red hair; and more

SONGWRITING CONTEST: 2021 Creation Care and Climate Justice Songwriting Contest, sponsored by The Porter’s Gate: “We are working on new worship resources celebrating God’s creation and His call to care for the created world. Over the next year we’ll be writing new songs on this subject and recording them. As part of this project, we are looking for submissions from anyone who would like to write a song or has already written a song on this subject. If you are a songwriter or composer, or if you know a songwriter who would be interested, click on this link for all the details of the contest. Songwriters are invited to submit worship songs related to caring for God’s creation, and we are offering a $500 cash prize to the winner. We’ll also record the winning piece.” No entry fee. Deadline August 30, 2021.

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CINEPOEM: “First Grade Activist” – Poem by Nic Sebastian, video by Marie Craven: This 2014 short by Australian filmmaker Marie Craven takes a poem written and read by Nic Sebastian—one of many poems made freely available for “remixing” through the now-defunct Poetry Storehouse—and sets it to moving images and music. About bullying in schools and transforming perceptions, the poem suggests concrete ways to turn a personal attribute that elicits taunts into one that’s praiseworthy, merely by reframing it. It’s an ode to red hair!

Video poetry, sometimes called “cinepoetry,” is a hybrid genre that combines the best of both art forms to make dynamic new works. To explore more, visit Moving Poems, Poetry + Video, filmpoetry.org, and the Film and Video Poetry Society, which is currently accepting submissions for its fourth annual symposium.

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NEW SONGS BY IAMSON:

IAMSON is the alias of Orlando Palmer, a Christian singer-songwriter from Richmond, Virginia. Here are two of his recent songs, each of which he invited a friend to perform.

>> “Peace” by IAMSON, performed by Caleb Carroll:

>> “Always with Me (Song for Anxiety)” by IAMSON, Jessica Fox, Paul Zach, and Kate Bluett; performed by IAMSON and Caiah Jones:

(See the original solo recording by IAMSON here.)

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PODCAST EPISODE: “Worship and the Formative Power of the Arts” with Dr. W. David O. Taylor, Theology in Motion: An excellent conversation with one of my favorite people! Host Steve Zank, director of theology at the Center for Worship Leadership at Christ College, Concordia University Irvine, talks with liturgical theologian, author, and professor David Taylor about his book Glimpses of the New Creation: Worship and the Formative Power of the Arts, about how the arts help shape individuals and communities, particularly in corporate worship contexts.

They discuss the role of metaphor in the Bible, the unique powers of different art forms, and the ways our aesthetic choices open up and close down opportunities for formation in worship.

I so appreciate Taylor’s ecumenicism. He’s an Anglican priest in the United States but does not prescribe any one “right” way of using the arts in worship. In all his examples from across Christian traditions and even historical eras, he’s keen on exploring what motivates aesthetic choices and the benefits and drawbacks of any given choice. For instance, he compares the experiences of worshipping in a Gothic cathedral versus in a living room; neither one is inherently better than the other, but each setting will inevitably form worshippers in distinct ways. He also compares two songs centered on the idea of God as rescuer: the Gettys’ “In Christ Alone” and Hillsong’s “Oceans”; both have a similar aim but take very different approaches to reach it, and that’s OK.

Lots of great content here, folks, and a great intro to the themes in Taylor’s book.