Roundup: Alabaster Gospels, the lone cathedral-builder, Pacheco at Chichester, lamenting racial injustice

Alabaster page spread

^^ New Gospel-book set promotes aesthetic reading experience: Photographer Bryan Chung and designer Brian Chung, both campus ministers (and no relation), believe that beauty is fundamental to understanding who God is. So they’ve teamed up for project Alabaster: a brand-new design of the holy Gospels, in four volumes, integrated with contemplative photographs. They’ve already well exceeded their funding goal on Kickstarter, which means there’s already a lot of interest in having Bible reading be a visual experience—and at a 7½ × 9½ trim, the books are definitely wieldy, meant to be regularly handled and read! If you want a guaranteed copy, be sure to back the project on Kickstarter, as the number of names in the system will determine the size of the print order. You have until October 7; the publication month is April 2017. This project aligns so well with my mission here at Art & Theology, and I’m thrilled to see it in the works.

^^ 90-year-old man spends lifetime building a cathedral by hand: From Great Big Story: “For 53 years, Justo Gallego has been building a cathedral by hand on the outskirts of Madrid almost entirely by himself. Gallego has no formal architecture or construction training, but that hasn’t stopped him from toiling on this herculean task. At 90 years old, Gallego knows that he will not be able to finish the project in his lifetime. But he keeps at it anyway, day after day, driven by his faith.”

Shadows of the Wanderer by Ana Maria Pacheco
Ana Maria Pacheco (Brazilian, 1943–), Shadows of the Wanderer, 2008. Polychromed wood sculpture, 260 × 390 × 605 cm. Installation view at Norwich Cathedral, 2010, via Pratt Contemporary Art.

^^ Art installation at Chichester Cathedral speaks to the refugee experience: Shadows of the Wanderer by Brazilian-born artist Ana Maria Pacheco is on display in the north transept of Chichester Cathedral through November 14. A multipiece figurative sculpture in polychromed wood, it has as its centerpiece a young man carrying an elderly man on his back—a reference to the Aeneid’s Aeneas carrying his lame father out of the ruins of Troy. The cathedral has organized events around the installation, including a lecture by Christopher Wintle on the representation of suffering in Pacheco’s art (audio here, transcript here); a series of workshops for schools and colleges exploring the refugee experience, developed in partnership with Amnesty International; a debate titled “Refugees: Problem or Gift?”; an interview with the artist; and a woodcarving workshop. The photo below is an installation view from 2010 inside Norwich Cathedral; to see photos of the work in its current location at Chichester, click here.

Addressing racial injustice as a church: Paul Neeley at Global Christian Worship has compiled an excellent list of resources for churches looking for ways to address racial tensions in America with an eye toward healing, including a prayer service of lament by Paul Burkhart; two litanies by Fran Pratt; a list of relevant hymns, curated by the Hymn Society; an article by Sandra Van Opstal, “Reconciling Witness And Worship: Six Ways To Begin”; and materials from the 2016 Reconciliation and Justice Network conference. I’d like to add to it the lecture series “Race and the Church,” especially Jemar Tisby’s “Understanding the Heart Cry of #BlackLivesMatter,” which I live-streamed with my church back in July. (It definitely sparked fruitful conversation.) For common objections to the movement, like “What about black-on-black crime?” and “Don’t #AllLivesMatter?,” he refers listeners to the video below, produced by MTV.

SONG: “Light a Candle”: Also on Neeley’s website I found a video performance of the song “Light a Candle” by Mary Louise Bringle (words) and Lori True (music). It’s sung here, to a ukulele accompaniment, by Becky Gaunt, director of music and liturgy at St. Jude of the Lake Catholic Church in Mahtomedi, Montana.

She posted it on her Facebook page in July along with this note:

We cannot continue to let language divide us. We cannot continue to let language distract us from loving one another. We cannot continue to let words like “black lives matter” or “all lives matter” cause us to keep missing the point!

I’m sad and tired. And you probably are too. But now is NOT the time to be neutral! The Sun may be shining outside, but we need to come together and light a candle in this oppressive darkness. This beautiful song by Lori True (amazing text by Mary Louise Bringle) is my prayer right now. I invite you to pray this with me.

Boy with a Candle by Gerard Sekoto
Gerard Sekoto (South African, 1913–1993), Boy with a Candle, 1943. Oil on canvas, 46.2 × 36 cm.

“When the heart is hard and parched up . . .”

Thy Kingdom Come by Jyoti Sahi
Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Thy Kingdom Come. Oil on canvas.

When the heart is hard and parched up, come upon me with a shower of mercy.

When grace is lost from life, come with a burst of song.

When tumultuous work raises its din on all sides, shutting me out from beyond, come to me, my lord of silence, with thy peace and rest.

When my beggarly heart sits crouched, shut up in a corner, break open the door, my king, and come with the ceremony of a king.

When desire blinds the mind with delusion and dust, O thou holy one, thou wakeful one, come with thy light and thy thunder.

This untitled poem is no. 39 from the collection Gitanjali (Song Offerings) by Rabindranath Tagore. Originally written and published in Bengali in 1910, it was translated into English by Tagore himself in 1912, along with other poems of his from various sources, and published by the India Society of London with an introduction by W. B. Yeats. For this volume he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature—the first non-European to receive such a distinction.

Here the speaker entreats God to break into his life, bestowing divine gifts: mercy, like rainwater, to moisten his dry heart; grace, like a song, to lift his spirit; and peace and rest to counteract the overwhelm of daily work. He asks God to come like a king and lavish his riches on all us spiritually impoverished, and like thunder and lightning, to jolt us awake from our sin and delusion. Each line of the poem works by contrast: man in his neediness, and the need-meeting God.

Tagore’s poetry bears Hindu influence but has wide cross-religious appeal and has inspired numerous musical settings in his native India and abroad. The composition below (a setting of “When the heart is hard and parched up”) is by the famous Indian classical singer and composer Jagjit Singh.

In 2010 American composer Joan Szymko wrote A Burst of Song, a short three-movement choral cycle that sets three poems from the English Gitanjali. Movement 1, “A Shower of Mercy,” excerpts our familiar text. Listen to a performance below (the first movement goes through 1:56) by Portland University’s Man Choir and its female choir, Vox Femina:

(To follow along with the words or to purchase scores, go to http://www.joanszymko.com/works/ind/burst-song-3-mvts.)

Roundup: Bad-news blessing, the transfiguration of Marilyn Monroe, Christian speculative fiction anthology, European sacred art tour

BLESSING: “Blessing for Getting the News” by Jan L. Richardson: August brought two devastating pieces of news to me; I wasn’t in the line of direct impact, but I hurt for the two families who were. A blessing by artist-author Jan L. Richardson came at just the right time. Here’s an excerpt:

. . . when
the news comes,
may it be attended
by every grace,
including the ones
you will not be able
to see now.

When the news comes,
may there be hands
to enfold and bless,
even when
you cannot receive
their blessing now.

When the news comes,
may the humming
in your head
give way to song,
even if it will be
long and long
before you can
hear it,

before you can
comprehend the love
that latched onto you
in the rending—
the love that bound itself to you
even as it began its leaving
and has never
let you go.

Read more, and view original accompanying artwork, at http://paintedprayerbook.com.

ESSAY: “Transfiguring Gold: Andy Warhol’s Gold Marilyn Monroe” by James Romaine: In his latest visual meditation for ArtWay, art historian James Romaine writes on external versus essential beauty, and the Orthodox aesthetic, in one of Warhol’s most famous paintings. “A revelation of uncreated and transfiguring light” in the icon tradition, the use of gold, Romaine posits, was a theological choice on Warhol’s part, one influenced by his Byzantine Catholic faith. Warhol drew on celebrity imagery to encourage a transformation in viewers from material sight to metaphysical vision. This essay is adapted from a more extensive one titled “The Transfiguration of the Soup Can,” published in Beauty and the Beautiful in Eastern Christian Culture and linked to here with the author’s permission.

Gold Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987), Gold Marilyn Monroe, 1962. Silkscreen ink on synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 211.4 × 144.7 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

BOOK: Mysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian Faith, edited by Donald Crankshaw and Kristin Janz: Last week the husband and wife team of Donald Crankshaw and Kristin Janz published an anthology of science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories that engage with Christianity. It features twenty of the 450-plus submissions they received, all but four of which are published here for the first time. Describing their criteria for selection, Crankshaw writes in the introduction, “We wanted stories that were as untidy and as theologically imprecise as the Bible itself.” The result is a collection of diverse voices and approaches, exploring such topics as sin, forgiveness, the afterlife, the soul, mission, miracles, and supernatural agents. To read excerpts from the book, visit www.mysterionanthology.com.

Mysterion cover

TOUR: “Reformanda 2017: Sacred Arts Today, Catholic and Protestant”: The Mount Tabor Ecumenical Centre for Art and Spirituality, founded by the Community of Jesus in Massachusetts, has organized a four-leg European tour for next May 10–30 that will explore the face of sacred art from the last five hundred years since the Reformation. With stops in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, the itinerary includes visits to churches and contemporary art exhibitions, symposium lectures and discussions led by Msgr. Timothy Verdon, and Gloriae Dei Cantores choral concerts. Registration is now open.

Reformanda Tour Map

Christian-themed portraits by Kehinde Wiley

“Painting is about the world we live in. Black people live in the world. My choice is to include them. This is my way of saying yes to us.”—Kehinde Wiley

Last weekend I visited the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where the exhibition “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic” is showing through September 5, a fifteen-year survey of Wiley’s art organized by the Brooklyn Museum. An academically trained artist, Wiley paints black and brown bodies in proud poses against ornate decorative backgrounds on monumental canvases, riffing on art-historical masterpieces from the Renaissance and Baroque eras. He “street casts” his models: walks the streets of inner-city neighborhoods, inviting black males, ages eighteen to thirty-five, to sit for portraits. In this collaborative process, the model chooses a reproduction of a painting from a book and reenacts, in his streetwear, the pose of the painting’s figure.

In the exhibition catalog, Connie H. Choi, a research associate at the Brooklyn Museum, writes,

In inserting the urban black male figure into the art-historical canon, the artist brings the canon up to date and at the same time questions its centuries-long exclusion of such figures. His manner of portraying African American men is Wiley’s way of affirming their presence in a society that has long discounted or undervalued them. (24)

Cultural critic Touré describes Wiley’s oeuvre as an “attempt to rehabilitate black images”—in the media (especially before the presidency of Barack Obama), often simplistically skewed toward hip-hop music videos and newsreels of urban gang violence—“by putting them in the context of nobility, of import, of beauty” (52).

Kings, nobles, and wealthy merchants are among the subjects depicted in Wiley’s source material. But biblical and extrabiblical saints, and Christ himself, are also present. For centuries religious imagery had a commanding presence in churches, palaces, homes, and government buildings, exercising sway over the imagination and steering popular devotion. By translating European devotional paintings—fashioned in the image of the white ruling class—into a contemporary idiom that places black bodies up front and center, Wiley rectifies the lack of representation of racial minorities in and as the body of Christ.

His Down series, which seeks to capture the majesty and severity of fallen warriors and entombed saints, features three paintings of the dead Christ. Hans Holbein’s life-size predella panel on the subject was the starting point; showing Jesus’s putrefying corpse, it is regarded as one of the all-time most grotesque paintings of Jesus. In The Idiot, Dostoyevsky’s Prince Mishkin says that viewed in isolation from the Resurrection, the painting has the power to make one lose one’s Christian faith.

Dead Christ by Kehinde Wiley

In Wiley’s reconceptualization, Jesus’s body is fit, his skin shining. Gone are the blue face, puncture wounds, and emaciation of the prototype. Art critics have recognized in this and many more of Wiley’s paintings a homoeroticism, reading them in light of Wiley’s sexuality. Notice how the eyes of Wiley’s dead Christ turn out toward the viewer rather than roll up and back.

The Down series predates the Black Lives Matter movement but speaks powerfully into that context. It challenges the public—especially the white public—to see the rampant shooting deaths of unarmed black men by police and to name it what it is: an injustice, a tragedy.

Veiled Christ by Kehinde Wiley

Lamentation (Kehinde Wiley)-01

For all their visual engagement with and meditation on the Passion, Christians at large have proven deficient in their willingness to mourn the suffering and death of black brothers and sisters. Maybe, just maybe, gazing on a dead black Christ could produce more empathy in us when we see news photos of black people whose lives have been taken from them. Maybe these paintings can lead us into lament. In Wiley’s Lamentation, for example, we’re invited to poke our heads into the void left by the excision of Mary and John and to wail and moan. (For more on racial tensions in America from a Christian perspective, I commend to you the lecture “The Heart Cry of #BlackLivesMatter” by Jemar Tisby, cofounder of the Reformed African American Network.)

In these three paintings Wiley continues the legacy of those Harlem Renaissance artists—poets, illustrators, musicians—who linked the nation’s destruction of black bodies through lynching to the Crucifixion of Christ.   Continue reading “Christian-themed portraits by Kehinde Wiley”

John Berger on how to see

John Berger—essayist, novelist, poet, screenwriter, art critic—loves to help people see what is around them, teach them how to look at the world. His life’s work is dedicated to this endeavor.

One of his most celebrated achievements is the BAFTA Award–winning Ways of Seeing, a four-episode television program written and presented by Berger and originally airing in 1972 on the BBC. “A British arts broadcasting landmark” and “a key moment in the democratisation of art education,” The Guardian calls it. The script was adapted the same year into a book, a collaboration among Berger, Mike Dibb (BBC producer/director), Richard Hollis (graphic designer), Chris Fox (consultant), and Sven Blomberg (artist). It’s still in print!

Berger’s super-conversational style and his bucking against tradition no doubt contribute to his appeal. In the first episode, he establishes his aim: to get people to cut the mumbo-jumbo that always rises up around art and instead approach art directly, much like children.

Here it is:

The episode points out the ways in which photographic technology has changed the way we look at art—it has made it more accessible, but it can also manipulate. When a painting is reproduced in a textbook, for example, details may be cut out to force your focus somewhere, or arranged to form a narrative, or compared with other works, and words surround the painting that will influence your reading of it. If presented on film, camera movement and music also play a part. Berger gives examples using, among others, Pieter Bruegel’s The Procession to Calvary [14:03]; Vincent Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows [16:12]; and Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808 [18:28].

He says,

The camera, by making the work of art transmittable, has multiplied its possible meanings and destroyed its unique original meaning. Have works of art gained anything by this? They have lost and gained.

Paintings (especially sacred ones) used to be an integral part of the buildings for which they were designed, says Berger, but now they are often experienced outside that context, rendering their meanings ambiguous. Of paintings in churches, he says, “Everything around the image is part of its meaning. Its uniqueness is part of the uniqueness of the single place where it is. Everything around it confirms and consolidates its meaning” [05:20]. He briefly addresses icons, which I know some Orthodox believers are averse to having displayed in museums, where they cannot even be touched and thus lose part of the function for which they were created.   Continue reading “John Berger on how to see”

ESSAY: “The Poetry of Jesus” by Edwin Markham

Edwin Markham (1852–1940) was a popular American literary figure during the first half of the twentieth century whose oeuvre fuses social justice concerns with religious faith. He gained international renown with his poem “The Man with the Hoe,” which, inspired by a Jean-François Millet painting of the same title, protests the plight of the exploited laborer. In addressing the issues of his day Markham looked to Jesus, who he considered an embodiment not only of peace, love, and other such virtues but of poetic genius as well. His essay “The Poetry of Jesus,” reprinted below, first appeared in the December 1905 issue of The Homiletic Review. Emphasis is mine.


Earth gives us hint and rumor of a divine beauty that broods above us, an ideal splendor that completes the real. To express that beauty is the perpetual aspiration of the poet. Poetry expresses this beauty in words; religion in deeds. So Jesus, as the supreme religious genius of the world, carried the vision of the poet—

The light that never was on sea or land,
The consecration and the poet’s dream.

This light is the light of the ideal; this consecration is the consecration to the service of humanity; and this dream is the dream of the social federation of the world. Toward these glorious finalities all religion labors and all poesy aspire.

Jesus, like every great poet, was stung with the pain of genius, the passion for perfection, the yearning for the ideal. No wonder, then, that He was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” Out of the long collision between the is and the ought-to-be, between the world that exists and the world that awaits us in the future, springs that majestic sorrow, that noble reticence, that touches with its shadow all elevated and poetic natures.

Upon Greece came the passion for beauty, upon Palestine the passion for righteousness. Jesus carried both ideals in His heart, for He saw the glory of the lilies in the furrow and also the perfidy of the oppressors who walk over graves. He was moved not only by the beauty of holiness, but also by the holiness of beauty.

Jesus preached artistically as the true poet always preaches; He twined the truth with the beauty. For the most part He spoke in symbol, in parable, leaving His hearer to point the moral—leaving the truth to be inferred from the beauty. If His art-feeling seems meager and His insistence upon beauty scant, let us remember that He was forced to spend most of His priceless life in teaching a few of the primary principles of conduct. Still, in spite of all obstacles, the inborn poetry of His nature was continually breaking forth through the crevices of His conversation. His message was flung forth in telling metaphor, vivid simile, pointed parable—the chief machinery of the poet. He unsouled Himself in the poet’s way, because the poet’s way is the natural and spontaneous utterance of the heart.

Feeling ever the pity and terror of our existence—its sad perversity, its pathetic brevity, and its tremendous import—still His poet’s heart took loving note of the beauty and wonder never wholly lost from these gray roads of men. He did not fail to note the wayward wind that bloweth where it listeth, the red evening sky that means fair weather, the cloud out of the west that brings the shower, the tempest in the sea, and the calm that follows after the storm. Nor did He overlook the birds of the air that feed on the Father’s bounty in the open fields and lodge in the branches of the mustard-trees; nor the green grass that glories in the field to-day and to-morrow is cast into the oven.

He knew all these, and He knew also the homely aspects of the day’s work—the bottling of the new wine, the sifting of the wheat with fans, the digging of the fallen ox from the pit, the casting of the fish-nets into the sea. He saw the young virgins trimming the lamps, the bowed women grinding at the mill, the housewife hiding the leaven in the measure of meal, and the mother forgetting the pangs of labor in the joy over the new-born child.   Continue reading “ESSAY: “The Poetry of Jesus” by Edwin Markham”

Roundup: Controversial Eve painting, liturgy, protest, visualizing belief, and “Ya Hey”

“Mormon painting of a black Eve draws fire, but not for the reasons you might think” by Peggy Fletcher Stack, Salt Lake Tribune: Early this year a new painting of a seminude black Eve by Mormon artist J. Kirk Richards went on display at Writ & Vision gallery in Provo, Utah. While many Mormons have expressed how captivated and inspired they are by it, a few have insisted it’s wrong for a white man to depict a nude black woman because it conjures up collective memories of sexual brutality and enslavement. The article features some interesting perspectives by black Mormon feminists. In addition to the issue of racial representations (and I’ll just note, black figures are extremely rare in Mormon art), I’m intrigued by how Richards’s painting illustrates a distinctly Mormon view of the Fall, which differs from the orthodox Christian view—a fact he alludes to in his March 14 gallery talk.

Eve and the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge by J. Kirk Richards
J. Kirk Richards (American, 1976–), Eve and the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, 2016. Oil on panel.

“A Conversation about Creativity and the Liturgical Calendar,” panel discussion presented by Brehm Center and Fuller Studio: Moderator Edwin M. Willmington, composer-in-residence at Fuller Theological Seminary, talks with an all-star trio of creatives and liturgists comprising David Gungor of The Brilliance [00:50], on authenticity in songwriting and introducing liturgical practices to the evangelical church he attended; Todd E. Johnson [10:40], on the history, purpose, and major observances of the church calendar; and Lauralee Farrer [26:18], on discovering the Canonical Hours in a New Mexico desert and later developing them into characters for a film project. Questions: [34:02] How has liturgy shaped you? [36:20] Advice for artists on how to bring the church year to bear in their art? [37:11] Have you found that lament is generally embraced or resisted? [39:41] Advice for worship leaders?

“An Art Historical Perspective on the Baton Rouge Protest Photo that Went Viral” by An Xiao Mina and Ray Drainville, Hyperallergic: During a July 10 protest following the fatal killing of Alton Sterling, Reuters photographer Jonathan Bachman captured the moment of twenty-eight-year-old Ieshia L. Evans’s arrest. As heavily armored policemen pressed in, the other protestors dropped back, but Ieshia stood assuredly in the middle of the three-lane highway, prepared to be bound. This article lauds the strength of this image of confrontation by citing compositionally and thematically similar paintings, including Briton Riviere’s Daniel in the Lion’s Den and Giotto’s The Arrest of Christ, and other works of art.

Ieshia Evans arrest photo

Ieshia considers herself a vessel of God, eager to be used by him to bring justice and peace. Here’s what she wrote on her Facebook wall the night of her release from jail:

Ieshia Evans statement

“Things Unseen: Vision, Belief, and Experience in Illuminated Manuscripts”: Running through September 25 at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, this exhibition “explores the visual challenges artists faced as they sought to render miraculous encounters with the divine, grand visions of the end of time, the intricacies of belief, and the intimate communications of prayer.” It includes a September 15 talk, “How Do We Depict Religious Experiences?”—that is, how do we convey metaphysical essence in physical form? I appreciated the Getty’s blog post this week featuring a newly acquired choir book leaf that’s part of the exhibition. Curator Bryan C. Keene writes about the difficulties of identifying the illuminator and about discovering, through an examination of the back and a search on the Cantus database, that the illumination depicts the wiping of tears from saints’ eyes, not, as previously assumed, the healing of the blind.

Christ wiping the tears from the eyes of the saved
Initial A: Christ Wiping the Tears from the Eyes of the Saved, attributed to the Master of the Antiphonary of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas, ca. 1345–50. Tempera and gold leaf on parchment, 5 1/3 × 5 1/3 in. (13.5 × 13.5 cm). The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 113, recto. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

“Ya Hey” song cover by The Brilliance: Written by Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend, “Ya Hey” is a modern-day psalm that expresses frustration with God’s seeming unresponsiveness—to being spurned and being sought, to brokenness and suffering, to sin and struggle. The title is a play on the word Yahweh, the Hebrew name for God. The chorus references the burning bush of Exodus 3: “Through the fire and through the flames / You won’t even say your name / Only ‘I am that I am.’” The Brilliance’s acoustic cover of “Ya Hey” was released last month as a music video on YouTube featuring four New York City ballet dancers. It abandons the shrill vocoder and heavy percussion of the original song in favor of a softer, purer sound. Read the lyrics and an analysis at Sound: Interrupted.

Disciplining our eyes with holy images

Images shape our desires. As much as we like to think we’re immune to their influence, that we can encounter them without letting them tell us what is good or true or beautiful, they tend to work a subtle magic on us, especially after years of constant exposure.

I’m talking not just about advertisements and entertainment media, which perpetuate the myth that only one particular type of female body is attractive, and likewise one particular type of male body, and train us to desire that type for ourselves and for our partner.

I’m talking too about the seemingly innocuous images posted on social media. Studies have shown that regularly browsing Facebook, for example, can lead to depression, as users engage in social comparison that may cause them to resent both others’ lives as well as the image of themselves they feel they need to continuously maintain. A network member posts a photo of the just-because gift her amazing, so-thoughtful husband just bought her, and it makes you feel less loved. Another one posts a selfie taken from his scuba dive in Malta, and you wonder where all the adventure has gone in your life. A friend from high school posts a whole album of birthday photos of her two-year-old, and you are reminded of your ticking biological clock, or of her twenty-two-year-old in cap and gown, and you wish your kid had decided to go to college.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with images—creating or consuming. In fact, we need them. But we also need to beware of the propensity they have to plant themselves firmly in our minds and become idols. Whether it’s a perfume commercial on TV or an exotic dinner photo on Instagram, we need to break the power certain images have over us. Instead of allowing images to name us (“ugly,” “boring,” “unwanted,” “failure”), we must name them—denounce as false and unholy any image that claims ultimate authority in our lives, or that tries to redefine who we are against the definition scripture already gives us: we are Christ’s.

In his essay “The Desire of the Church,” published in The Community of the Word: Toward an Evangelical Ecclesiology (InterVarsity Press, 2005), Willie James Jennings discusses the distortion of sight and desire that is the result of the Fall. The tree of knowledge, he writes, was the first unholy icon in human history—an icon in the sense of being “a point of focus that facilitates desire and guides relationships” and “nurtures our seeing and knowing,” and unholy because to look on it was to begin the journey of disobedience. Gazing on the unholy icon of the tree, Adam and Eve saw themselves refracted through it, instead of gazing on God and seeing themselves reflected. By turning their gaze off God and fixating it on something lesser, they stopped seeing themselves, each other, and their Creator rightly.

“The only way to reverse this journey of disobedience,” Jennings says, “is to establish a new point of focus.” So into humanity comes the holy icon—Jesus Christ—whose life overcomes the fracture and fragment of desire. As the image of the invisible God, he reorients our gaze back onto the holy.   Continue reading “Disciplining our eyes with holy images”

Coming Home to North Carolina: The Christ-Haunted Terrain of Junebug

Junebug movie coverWhen Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), a Chicago gallerist, meets Southern boy George Johnsten (Alessandro Nivola), it’s a whirlwind romance, clinched by a marriage ceremony at the end of week one. Six months later, it’s time to meet George’s family, so it’s off to Pfafftown, North Carolina.

A culture-clash dramedy written by Angus MacLachlan and directed by Phil Morrison, Junebug (2005) explores the themes of homecoming—geographic and spiritual—and escape. It was shot primarily in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where both the writer and the director were born and raised, as well as in Greensboro and Wake Forest. Location is key to the story and aesthetic of the film, as the camera often fixates on empty rooms in the Johnsten house, or tracks through neighborhoods and past the local church.

Most scenes are played from the perspective of Madeleine, an outsider art dealer who herself becomes an outsider—an outsider to the religious and family culture of her husband. We are given a taste of the disorientation she feels in the very first frames: footage from a National Hollerin’ Contest, a folk tradition of the state’s Piedmont region.

Mama Peg (Celia Weston) is suspicious of Madeleine from the start, thinking her an ill-suited match for her son. The taciturn father, Eugene (Scott Wilson), on the other hand, is fond of Madeleine and spends most of the movie looking for his screwdriver so he can make her a wooden bird. Johnny (Ben McKenzie) is the sullen, underachieving brother who resents George for leaving home. Johnny’s pregnant wife, Ashley (Amy Adams), is exceptionally and demonstrably thrilled to have a new sister-in-law; she’s wide-eyed, loquacious, and doting, and the emotional center of the film.

Flannery O’Connor once wrote that the American South is “Christ-haunted,” and that observation rings true in Junebug, where Christianity saturates the culture. Jesus’s name is invoked at baby showers and potlucks, in Sunday-morning sermons and fridge magnets, in conversations and aphorisms.

This is the environment George grew up in, that shaped who he is. We get the sense that faith used to be an important part of his life but that it’s something he shook off, or maybe privatized, when he moved away. We’re never told why he moved away—only that it caused a major rift between him and his brother. Why does anyone leave home? It’s usually to see and experience the world beyond his or her one small corner of it.

The film’s most pivotal scene takes place at a church supper, where George is reunited for the first time in years with his “home flock.” After spending time laughing and bonding with old friends of all generations and receiving prayer from his former pastor (Madeleine peeks with interested surprise at the reverence George shows; this is presumably the first time she’s seen him pray), George is invited to sing a hymn for everyone: “Softly and Tenderly.”   Continue reading “Coming Home to North Carolina: The Christ-Haunted Terrain of Junebug

More things are wrought by prayer . . .

Wrought by Prayer by Bill Hemmerling
Bill Hemmerling (American, 1943–2009), Wrought by Prayer. Oil on canvas, 20 × 30 in.

“. . . More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.”

—King Arthur to Sir Bedivere, in “The Passing of Arthur” from Idylls of the King by Alfred Tennyson

“Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”

—James, the brother of Jesus, in a letter to Jewish Christians outside Palestine