[. . .] you’ve got yourself
a common name but a name I can’t
forget a name like honey Boss
you pour it in my ear you pour
it in my mouth you make me say
it Boss your name it’s like a bird
that’s come to roost upon my lips
no matter what it will not stir
it sings a single note sometimes
it’s just a whisper others it’s
a shout [. . .]
is that you Boss is that
you hooting in the hollow
are you a night bird Boss
is that your face behind
the moon is that your hand
cupped to the cricket’s ear
do you tell the cricket how
to sing do you say that’s it
now softer softer now
you little bug do you
pour moonlight on the river
do you say river let
this silver ride on you
you’re up to something Boss
you’re like a treetop there
against the sky a wave
you’re like a neighbor Boss
is your favorite game a game
of peep-eye Boss are you
as sweet as you can be
you cutie-pie I can’t
keep track of you Boss you’re just
too many things at once
you’re like a lullaby
that never ends a breath
that makes the moment last
again again again
[. . .] that’s what
I do when I can’t sleep a wink I think
about you Boss I wonder all those yellow
fireflies even though they never make
a peep do they still call you Boss
Excerpts from Bucolics: Poems by Maurice Manning (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007), used by permission of the author. A new twist on the traditional genre of pastoral poetry, this Pulitzer Prize–nominated collection comprises seventy-eight unpunctuated, untitled poems about the natural world, all addressed to a higher power called “Boss.”
In September 2019 I visited Atlanta, Georgia, and one of the two art stops I made was the Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, whose purpose is “to collect, preserve, research, and exhibit fine art works that document the role of African Americans in American history and culture.” When I got there I was bummed to see that the museum was closed in preparation for three exhibitions that were to open that Sunday. But graciously, even though the signage and lighting hadn’t been installed and some of the objects were still being moved around, the curator allowed me in for a little glimpse.
I was stopped in my tracks by a mixed media sculpture in the gallery of recent acquisitions: Float by Alfred Conteh.
It shows a Black female Christ figure rising up in a whirl of energy, her hat blown aloft. Wounds are visible on her hands and feet, but these are taken up into new, greening life. At the bottom is a broken chain, indicating that she has been set free. The piece expresses the exhilaration of emancipation, of being shackled no more.
I would classify Float as a resurrection image, which its staging reinforces. To its far left is a wooden crucifix by Dilmus Hall, followed by The Mourners by Frederick C. Flemister, from 1942. (Note that the two crucifix photos in this post are courtesy of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, who donated the pieces to the museum.)
Drawing on iconography of the Lamentation over the Dead Christ, Flemister’s The Mourners shows a mother holding the corpse of her grown son, who has just been deposed from a lynching tree. Behind her a woman in a pink dress throws up her arms in grief, and a preteen boy runs into his own mother’s arms for comfort. Like many artists before and after him, Flemister connects the killings of innocent Black men to the killing of Jesus—not because their deaths are salvific but because both they and Jesus were unjustly “crucified,” and because Black men bear God’s image, which the visual conflation reminds us of. As Jesus told his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40).
Death and resurrection, suffering and hope, are the theme of this temporary exhibition. A second wooden crucifix, by Thornton Dial Jr., adorns the opposite wall. It’s titled I’ll Be Back, which, as the sculpture was made a few years after The Terminator came out, may be a playful reference to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s famous line, but it is first and foremost an affirmation that Jesus will return to earth, as promised, to fully set things right. (By the way, I wonder if Conteh, in making Float, was inspired by the hubcap component of another of Dial’s crucifixes . . .)
The last piece in the room is Ceres by John W. Arterbery. Ceres was the Roman goddess of agriculture, grain crops, and fertility, the equivalent of the Greek mother-goddess Demeter. In Arterbery’s painting she wears a crown of sprouting wheat stalks and holds a pitchfork in one hand and a leafless plant with buds and berries in the other. I think the flowers may be poppies, as Ceres is associated with those.
It appears as though Arterbery is depicting the imminence of spring, when Ceres will be reunited with her daughter Proserpine (Persephone) and life will grow and flourish. It shows Ceres looking toward the sun in anticipation of such a time. Read in conjunction with the other pieces in the room, Ceres could be interpreted as an Advent image—a waiting for the final fulfillment of God’s good purposes for his creation, which includes a definitive end to suffering and oppression and a universal thriving.
The Clark Atlanta University Art Museum is typically open Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., as well as by appointment, but you may want to email ahead of time (cauArtMuseum@gmail.com) to confirm. It’s definitely worth a visit, though I can’t guarantee that the works featured here will be on display. If you wish to browse photos of pieces from the museum’s collection, see In the Eye of the Muses: Selections from the Clark Atlanta University Art Collection (2012).
Organized by Image journal every summer, the Glen is equal parts craft workshop, arts festival, and spiritual retreat. It’s framed by the Christian tradition but welcomes spiritual wayfarers of all stripes. This year, due to the pandemic, it’s entirely online, with twelve different classes on offer, taught by renowned artists, writers, and critics. Visit https://imagejournal.org/the-glen-workshop-2021/ for more information.
“The last year has invited many of us into a thicker relationship with place: with the homes where we quarantine, the public spaces we navigate with new caution, the vacation destinations we dream about, and the neighborhood streets we walk to avoid going stir-crazy in the meantime. Even our computers have transformed from objects to places, ushering us into the homes of loved ones, yoga studios, concert halls, museums, and countless other virtual gatherings, including the 2021 Glen Workshop! This year we’ll be exploring the ways in which our surroundings feed our creative vision. And we’ll also consider how art—both making it and sitting with it—sharpens our capacity for attention to the places we live and move and have our being.”
Each class costs $950 and is open to all experience levels. The schedule is such that attendees can choose just one. Registration to any class gives you full access not only to five days (about three hours each) of expert instruction, in-depth conversation, and practice, but also to additional programming that includes faculty presentations, “experiments with poetry and place” with artist in residence Billy Mark, chapel services led by musician Charles Jones and chaplain Marilyn McEntyre, coffee hours, open-mic nights, centering prayer sessions, and yoga sessions. Again, it’s all online.
If you don’t want to register for a class but want access to the other content or just a sneak peek, there are “retreat registration” and “festival pass” options. Click here to view registration options. You can get a 25% off discount if you register in a group of three or more.
What follows is a full list of the workshops (hands-on, craft-based classes) and seminars (immersive, discussion-based classes). I’m considering registering for either the Rosen seminar on contemporary biblical art or the Overstreet seminar on film. The cost is reasonable, but it’s still high, so I have to see if I can make it work.
“Poetic Text as Provocation” with Scott Cairns: “We will embrace an approach to poetry that privileges poetic text as a scene of meaning-making, distinct from any approach that would understand the poem as a site of meaning already made. We will begin most days with a reading of a great and provocative poem and discuss the provocations each of us registers in response to that poem. Then, we will share our works-in-progress, and each of us will offer our ideas about what might make each draft a richer, more suggestive, provocative occasion for the reader.”
“The Attention We Owe Each Other”with Shane McCrae: “It is important to almost every poet to find a community of fellow poets with whom they can share their work, and from whom they can expect serious and good-humored attention, and honest and direct critiques. Together, we will make that community. Our poetry workshop will not operate according to any particular idea save the idea that poetry is serious—that it is, in fact, among the most serious things in our lives—and that, consequentially, we owe each other seriousness, and intelligence, and sensitivity when we workshop each other’s poems. We will read and critique each other’s poems closely; we will prioritize whatever particular issues each poem asks us to prioritize while keeping in mind the issues its author has asked us to consider; and we will have fun together, the highest seriousness being joy.”
“Writing the Moveable Feast” with Alissa Wilkinson: “Food is what binds us together as humans. We all eat it. We all make it, or someone makes it for us. We all have opinions about it and preferences for it, which often come from the things that make us, well, us: our families of origin, our nationalities and ethnicities, our individual tastes, our beliefs about God and ethics, and our access to it. Food is the gateway to every aspect of human life; when we eat it, we’re participating in history, culture, and the economy.
“Feasting is one of the most important activities we can do as people. It’s an act of community-building, celebration, and even resistance to the forces that try to tear us apart. Many religious and spiritual traditions are built around feasting; the Bible ends at a wedding feast.
“So in this class, we’re going to talk about food, think about food, make food, and eat food. We’ll talk about how writers have interacted with food and food writing. We will try to understand what it might mean to feast together even when we can’t actually be together. And then we’ll do our own food writing, with the goal of exploring that common experience through our writing (in any genre).”
“Strange Countries: Writing the Inner and Outer Journey” with Fred Bahnson: “In sixth-century Ireland, groups of monks began the practice of peregrinatio, “going forth into strange countries.” The peregrini set off alone or in small groups in tiny coracles made of willow and animal hide, abandoning themselves to the winds and currents of the North Atlantic. A journey into the unknown.
“We moderns find it difficult to grasp the enormity of such an undertaking. Given how frequently we travel, we barely notice the existential threshold crossed upon leaving home. The peregrini remind us that we go on pilgrimage not to consume experience, but to be consumed. To feel again the porous borders between our inner and outer lives. If our rational age has obscured what Seamus Heaney called ‘a marvelous or magical view of the world,’ pilgrimage helps us find it again.
“In this class we will take a very ancient metaphor—the journey—and use it to explore our lives in the age of climate change, pandemics, and fragile democracies. We’ve all gone forth into a strange country, a journey in which we measure distance in time and cortisol levels rather than miles. Setting off in our coracles of narrative—essay, memoir, literary journalism, travel writing, nature writing—we’ll use our peregrinations to map our inner lives against the great stories of our age. We will write our physical journeys (working from memory), and we will write about shelter, intimacy with place, our yearning to be at home. As we traverse the continuum between pilgrimage and place-making, we will discuss various craft topics of literary nonfiction: form, character development (including place-as-character), narrative arc, and, perhaps most important, how to create the fictional ‘I’ that is your nonfiction narrator.”
“The Landscape of the Lyric Essay” with Molly McCully Brown: “The lyric essay combines the density, muscle, and music of the poem with the expansiveness, narrative momentum, and overt desire to engage with information of the essay form. Tied to the original notion of an essay as an effort, a trying, an attempt at making sense, its combined allegiances to the fragment and the whole, the actual and the imaginative, the image and the story, make it the perfect form for exploring and charting the landscapes—both exterior and interior—that make and mark our lives.
“Designed as an opportunity for poets craving a little space to move around, for essayists hungry to drill down to the core of language, or for any writer longing for a chance to experiment, investigate, and attempt, this generative workshop will serve as an introduction to the associative logic of the lyric essay and a chance to try your own hand at the form.
“In class we’ll read and unpack lyric essays from a variety of writers; work together to identify some unique features and possibilities of the form; write in response to prompts designed to help us explore a variety of geographical, sociological, emotional, and intellectual landscapes; and share and discuss our work as it develops. My hope is that you leave the workshop with many attempts and beginnings which might prove fertile ground for later work, and with at least one piece that feels more complete, or further along in its development.”
“Writing Research-Based Narratives for Young Adults” with Marilyn Nelson: “Our curiosity can nourish our reading and our writing, which can nourish the curiosity of our young readers and encourage them to ask questions and follow their own research paths. In this class we will examine some books recently published for middle-grade and young adult readers and based to varying degrees on historical events, asking what questions led to the necessary research, how the research was conducted, and how the material was organized and presented so it is appropriate for younger readers. How do we write for younger readers? How might an author write over their heads? How might an author write down to them? What questions does an author allow to linger? How much information is too much? How does an author find the right voice?”
“Developing Your Authentic Voice” with Charles Jones: “This workshop will focus on teaching artists how to bring their authentic selves to the craft of songwriting and successfully communicate what they want their audiences to hear and feel. We will listen to the music of some of the greatest songwriters of all time and examine what we feel when we listen back. We will explore why we connect deeply with some music, look at the connective tissue these masters created in their songs, and learn how we apply these techniques and tools to our own craft in service of our own unique stories and voices.”
“The Creative and Spiritual Practice of Calligraphy” with David Chang: “From the practical to the ethereal, writing a letter by hand offers a deeper connection to the text and to the viewer. We will cover both aspects of the art form of calligraphy as we learn the basics—including developing your own personal handwriting style—and learn to use handwriting as a creative practice that can also forge a deeper spiritual practice. Through meditational writing we will explore the art of handwriting as a tool for personal expression and as a means to connect with ourselves and also with others.”
“Landscapes and the Art of Seeing” with Suzanne Dittenberg: “In Sargy Mann’s article ‘On Cezanne’ he opposes the popular notion that Paul Cezanne was intentionally distorting the landscape through superimposed affectated abstraction, re-tooling visual information to titillating effect. Instead, Mann makes the case that Cezanne’s painting practice was more straightforward. He describes Cezanne as a relatively unremarkable draftsman who gave himself intensely to the act of looking. ‘As dedicated a realist as you could ever find.’ In Cezanne’s letters, we are given a window into his motivations when painting. He writes, ‘Now the theme to develop is that, whatever our temperaments or power in the presence of nature may be, we must render the image of what we see, forgetting every-thing that existed before us. Which, I believe, must permit the artist to give his entire personality whether great or small.’
“This is a class about seeing. Observational painting serves as a means to explore one’s individual spirit when encountering nature. Each day we will gather together on Zoom and also venture out to work en plein air in our own vicinities. Painting and drawing will serve as a mechanism for finding a new lens with which to view the natural world. A better understanding of nature’s underlying frameworks will result.
“Through daily discussion of drawing and painting techniques, we will cover basic strategies for seeing relative proportions, identifying values structure and understanding color in context. We will also address the use of limited palettes, strategies for achieving harmonious color and methods of paint application. Each afternoon will include time for reflection on the day’s process, experience and results.”
“Contemporary Visual Artists Read the Bible” with Aaron Rosen: “The mere mention of a contemporary artist reading the Bible summons competing stereotypes. On one side stands the artist as clamoring missionary, producing pious kitsch. On the other sits the talented but godless iconoclast, scorning the Bible to the applause of intellectuals. It’s high time to get beyond these stereotypes, rooted in the culture wars of the 1980s, yet sadly back in fashion. There are brilliant artists of faith working with the Bible who have the power to challenge even the most ardent atheists, aesthetically and theologically. And there are artists without a spiritual bone in their bodies who engage scripture in ways that can teach devout viewers a thing or two about faith.
“In this seminar, we will see the Bible with fresh eyes, with the help of cutting-edge art across multiple media, from painting to video to virtual reality. Not only will they look at art, they’ll talk to top-notch artists themselves, who will join us by video from their studios around the world, from Los Angeles to London to Lahore. As one of the world’s foremost experts on religion and art, as well as a practicing curator, Dr. Rosen brings together scholarly and practical insights. And as a Jew married to an Episcopal priest, he has a special interest in how art can help us see difference more clearly and creatively at the same time.”
“How Place Becomes Poetry in Cinema” with Jeffrey Overstreet: “For most filmmakers, place is just a backdrop. But great artists of cinema know that place is as influential and as eloquent as any character. Whether he’s in the heat of Texas or the despair of a divided Berlin, director Wim Wenders is listening to what his location has to say. Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee both read New York City closely, but they see very different cities and zones defined by differing forms of prejudice. We’ll consider how one story, told by both Yasujiro Ozu and Claire Denis in different locations, is transformed by the context in which it is told. And we’ll watch the world opened up by the cinematographers of Terrence Malick as well as the animators Tomm Moore and Martin Rosen. A variety of special guests—filmmakers, film critics, and scholars—will join us for these journeys as we watch how human beings are shaped by the ground beneath their feet. The current guest list [subject to change] includes Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange, Sinister), Justin Chang (film critic for the Los Angeles Times), Dr. Yelena Bailey (author of How the Streets Were Made: Housing Segregation and Black Life in America), and Doug Strong (My Angel Larry, River Road).”
“The Art of Contemplative Reading” with Richard Chess: “In this seminar, we’ll explore reading practices (poetry and prose) that may help us cultivate a contemplative mind. As we practice directing our attentions to different aspects of our experiences as readers—noting our physical experience, quieting our inner voices to enable us to hear more clearly the voice of a text, discerning the difference between noting elements of the text itself and commenting on, reacting to, or interpreting the text—we may also discover ways of engaging with texts (mostly literary) that will help us with our practice as artists and/or our spiritual practices. We’ll also do some writing—reflective writing and generative creative writing—to explore writing itself as a contemplative practice.”
PLAYLIST: I can’t keep up with all the quality Christian (or, for artists who eschew that label, spiritually inflected?) music recordings that are out there—recent releases as well as back catalogs dating as far back as the thirties. There really is a breadth, and I sometimes get frustrated when I hear people claim otherwise. (Yes, there’s a lot of really crummy Christian music too . . . but that doesn’t mean the entire genre should be dismissed!) During this season of Ordinary Time I’m going to endeavor to release a monthly Spotify playlist consisting of a random assortment of thirty psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, each by a different artist. Here’s June’s:
CALL TO ARTISTS:8th Catholic Arts Biennial: Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, has issued a call for submissions for its eighth biannual juried exhibition of Christian-themed art. “This Biennial encourages submissions that expand representations of Christ, the Virgin Mary, biblical narratives, and the lives of the saints beyond Eurocentric presentations. Artwork made by women and persons of color is strongly encouraged. In addition to depictions of traditional Christian subjects, artists are urged to submit works that address social concerns from perspectives of faith pertinent to the contemporary moment. Works investigating the diversity of the human experience enlivened by Gospel values are also desired.”
Artists can be of any religious or denominational affiliation and can submit up to three works by the deadline of June 25. In addition to being exhibited September 6–October 29, 2021, at the Verostko Center for the Arts, the finalists will also be eligible for a top prize of $1,000, plus other cash prizes. The juror this year is David Brinker, director of the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art at Saint Louis University. (The painting on the promotional poster is The Holy Family by Janet McKenzie, a previous winner.)
>> “Prarthana Kelkaname” (Hear Our Prayer): Jijo Hebron, a Christian worship leader from Kerala, India, and his wife Niveda Jijo released this YouTube recording on Sunday, in which they sing to God in the Malayalam language. The song’s English meaning is below. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
Hear our prayer and supplication, oh Lord It is the promise in your Son’s name: Whatever we ask, it will be granted. There is no one to take care of my worries apart from you Who stands as my father and mother
>> “Morning Prayer” by Langhorne Slim: From the album Strawberry Mansion, released this January.
ANIMATED SHORT: If Anything Happens I Love You: “In the aftermath of tragedy, two grieving parents journey through an emotional void as they mourn the loss of a child.” Written and directed by Will McCormack and Michael Govier and animated by Youngran Nho and team, this thirteen-minute film won Best Animated Short at the 2021 Oscars. It’s amazing how much I feel for these characters after such a short time of getting to know them. Streaming on Netflix.
ARTICLE: “Art and Interfaith Conversation” by Andrew Smith: Birmingham, England, is a religiously diverse city, home not only to Christians but also to Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and others. The Church of England recognizes this rich presence and has on staff a director of interfaith relations for the bishop of Birmingham, Canon Dr. Andrew Smith. Smith is interested in how art and artifacts can be used to develop conversations between people of different faiths and to create new conversations, and here he discusses a Birmingham Conversations project he led along that vein: multifaith group tours at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and St. Philip’s Cathedral. These he embarked on with a posture primarily of learning, not teaching. [HT: Still Life]
Smith served as a consultant for the museum’s faith gallery, which highlights religious objects from various traditions. He discusses the importance of honoring the integrity of each object’s spiritual significance, and some of the difficulties of creating a space that’s welcoming to people of all faiths when certain faiths regard certain imagery as problematic or even forbid it. He also shares some of the responses of non-Christian participants to specific works of Christian art, in both the museum and the cathedral. Some from the latter are recorded in the following video:
The Birmingham Conversations also commissioned two local artists, Jake Lever and Mandy Ross, to produce work informed by their visits over a yearlong period to different places of worship around Birmingham.
Sarah, you massaged my sacrum
with a tennis ball when I was in labor.
Like a priestess of the body, you
wiped the newborn Ismail clean
of birthblood and whispered first
holy words into his ear. You are his mother
too. We are kin. No decrees
of man or God can make this truer
than it is, nor can it be cloven.
We did not begin with the husband we shared,
but in Egypt, with divine
intelligence arrowed from eye to eye
across a patio of pagan strangers,
when I was royalty and you were trembling
in the house. You knew exile and I
knew exile. You suffered and I suffered.
Like matter, kinship can be changed
but not destroyed. Cruelty tarnishes,
but cannot dissolve it. We are kin
from bread baked together,
salted, broken, eaten, sacred
as a challah braid at sunset on the Night of Power;
from the battering waters of the sea we crossed;
from the Tree of Life whose branches
we burned to stay alive. Kin
we are from knowledge of the Name;
you had the first letters, I had the last
and, putting them together, we
spelled out the Secret.
“Kin” by Mohja Kahf is from Hagar Poems (University of Arkansas Press, 2016). Reprinted by permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., acting on behalf of the publisher.
Mohja Kahf is a Syrian American poet, novelist, and scholar of Arabic literature, postcolonial studies, and Arab and Arab American feminism. Born in Damascus but moving to the Midwest as a child, she was raised in a devout Muslim household. In her creative work and scholarship, she both respects and interrogates her own faith tradition.
Her second poetry collection, Hagar Poems, gives voice to several female characters from the Qur’an and Islamic history, many of whom are also present in the biblical narrative. Part 1 focuses on Hajar (or Hagar, as she’s called in the Bible) and, to a lesser extent, Sarah, the ancient feuding matriarchs of Islam and Judaism, respectively. The remaining two parts spotlight Zuleikha (Potiphar’s wife); Asiya (Moses’s adoptive mother); Balqis (the queen of Sheba); Maryam (Mary); Khadija, Aisha, and Fatima (wives of Muhammad); Nusaiba (a disciple of Muhammad’s); and Hamamah (an Ethiopian princess-turned-slave known primarily as the mother of Bilal, a Muslim convert). The stories of these women are sometimes transposed into contemporary times. For example, Hajar goes to the moon, sees a therapist, participates in an AIDS march, and is visited by a caseworker responding to a report of domestic violence.
Like a few others in the volume, the poem I’ve selected here explores the relationship between Hagar and Sarah as a metonym for the relationships between modern-day adherents of the two religions they represent, on both personal and political scales (e.g., the Arab-Israeli conflict). But “Kin” is revisionist and aspirational, reimagining a more congenial, mutually supportive, compassionate sisterhood between the two matriarchs, and therefore also a brighter future for their descendants. It might be said that patriarchy made Hagar and Sarah rivals. Both suffered abuse within the system and at different points inflicted it as each gained privilege over the other and vulnerabilities and power dynamics shifted.
According to the biblical story (Gen. 12:10–20), a famine in Canaan drove Abraham and his wife Sarah to seek relief in Egypt. Fearful that his life would be endangered because of Sarah’s beauty (kings were, after all, known to go to extreme measures to get what they want), Abraham presents Sarah to the royal court as his sister, implying that she is sexually available. Pharaoh thus acquires her for his harem and, in gratitude for the giving over of his “sister,” lavishes Abraham with livestock and servants. But as judgment against Pharaoh’s act of (unwitting) adultery, God strikes him and his household with plagues, which is when Pharaoh realizes that he has been deceived. He orders Abraham and Sarah to leave Egypt.
It’s not until Genesis 16:1 that we meet Hagar, identified as “an Egyptian slave” (or, as some translations have it, a handmaid or servant) owned by Sarah. Presumably Sarah acquired—and yes, I use that disgusting term again, because women were treated as possessions in ancient Mesopotamia—Hagar during her time in Egypt.
When Sarah cannot get pregnant, she forces Hagar to have sex with Abraham to bear him an heir. But when Hagar conceives Ishmael, Sarah becomes jealous, and the abuse worsens to the point that Hagar runs away. But God visits Hagar in the wilderness with words of comfort and reassurance. She returns to Abraham’s household and gives birth to Ishmael. Sometime later, Sarah herself miraculously conceives and gives birth to a son, Isaac, after which she casts out Hagar and Ishmael, no longer having need of them. God again comes to Hagar and to her son, both of them weak from thirst and on the verge of death. He reveals to them a well and promises to make of Ishmael a great nation, just as he promised of Isaac. “You are the God who sees me,” Hagar exults (Gen. 16:13).
According to Jewish midrash, before her enslavement to Sarah, Hagar was actually an Egyptian princess—that is, a daughter of Pharaoh’s. When Pharaoh witnessed the miracle that Sarah’s God performed for Sarah’s sake, he gave Hagar to her, saying, “Better that my daughter be a maidservant in this house than a mistress in another house” (Genesis Rabbah 45:1). In other retellings, Pharaoh gives her away reluctantly as penance, not wanting to incur any more of God’s wrath. And in yet another version, leaving Egypt with Sarah is Hagar’s idea, as she wishes to follow the one true God.
Islamic tradition also affirms Hagar’s royal birth, though according to the Qisas Al-Anbiya, she was the daughter of the king of Maghreb, whom Pharaoh killed, thus capturing her. Notably, neither Sarah nor Hagar are mentioned by name in the Qur’an; they are only briefly alluded to in Surah Ibrahim 14:37, where Abraham says in prayer, “I have settled some of my family in a barren valley near your Sacred House.” Hagar is, however, mentioned amply in the hadith.
In “Kin,” Kahf is interested in what binds Sarah and Hagar—and Jews and Muslims—together. Both women were subjected to gendered oppression, including sexual abuse, and had no recourse against it. Both were, at different times, strangers in a strange land—first Sarah in Egypt, then Hagar in Canaan and later the wilderness of Paran. Both experienced miraculous interventions by God and even heard his voice. Both were mothers. They shared, at least initially, a husband and a home—they baked and broke bread together. Their family lines would diverge, but the two, Kahf writes, were as intertwined as the braids of a challah loaf. “Kin / we are from knowledge of the Name”—both knew and embraced the same God, as would their spiritual descendants.
The poem is written to Sarah from Hagar’s perspective. Hagar looks back with empathy to their first meeting, when “I was royalty” (as rabbinic tradition has it) “and you were trembling / in the house.” Kahf idealistically envisions an intimacy between the two, and a cooperative spirit—for example, Sarah giving Hagar a sacral massage while she’s in labor, afterward welcoming Ishmael into the world with love and devotion.
This picture is not what we get in the sacred texts, where Sarah regards Hagar with bitterness and hostility and mistreats her, and, if Sarah’s complaints can be trusted, Hagar lords it over Sarah when Hagar becomes pregnant with Abraham’s first son.
But what if the women had been friends? What if Ishmael and Isaac had been raised together as brothers? How might those strong familial ties and goodwill have impacted subsequent generations and influenced Jewish-Muslim relations in the present day?
Like Kahf, Indian American Jewish artist Siona Benjamin also explores gender and religious identity through her work, focusing especially on the biblical matriarchs. Also like Kahf, she is interested in the midrashic process by which exegetes, be they scholars or artists, approach the stories of scripture with a spirit of seeking and inquiry, responding with creative interpretations that read between the lines and ponder implications.
In her painting Beloved (Sarah and Hagar), Sarah wears a kippah on her head and tefillin (small boxes with passages from the Torah curled inside) on her arms, while Hagar wears a hijab and a misbaḥah (string of prayer beads). The two women are wound together in a tight embrace—“reflections of each other,” the artist says. They’re also wounded together, their bodies blown apart, blood dripping like tears from the rifts. To the side is a pair of amputee Israeli soldiers, whose surveillance camera has identified three Palestinian suicide bombers. Integrated into the foliate decoration around the border are guns and grenades.
Benjamin says this painting represents the eventual reuniting of Sarah and Hagar after Hagar’s banishment, an invented outcome but one that expresses hope for reconciliation between Jews and Muslims, and particularly between Israel and Palestine. When we recognize the shared humanity of the “other,” and how they are just as beloved of God, it becomes impossible to view them as the enemy, to be occupied or killed.
Did Sarah and Hagar ever share the kind of closeness Benjamin envisions in Beloved? Probably not. But does that mean the two nations they founded must forever be at war? Let us pray for peace and pursue it.
Instead of finger-pointing or offering political solutions, these two artistic works—one by a Muslim, one by a Jew—serve as prayers of lament and hope. They probe beneath the surface of Sarah and Hagar’s story and imagine future possibilities.
The Rothschild Canticles is the name of a lavishly illuminated manuscript of Franco-Flemish origin, produced at the turn of the fourteenth century. “A potpourri of biblical verses, liturgical praise, dogmatic formulas, exegesis, and theological aphorisms, . . . the manuscript leads its user step by step through meditations on paradise, the Song of Songs, and the Virgin Mary to mystical union and, finally, contemplation of the Trinity,” describes Barbara Newman in her excellent essay “Contemplating the Trinity: Text, Image, and the Origins of the Rothschild Canticles.” It’s a diminutive little book, with a trim size of just four and a half inches by about three and a quarter.
The manuscript lacks any provenance before 1856, but Newman proposes that it was made at the Benedictine abbey of Bergues-Saint-Winnoc in Flanders, located at what is today the northern tip of France. The compiler of its texts, she suggests, was probably the same person who designed its remarkable images—most likely a monk of Saint-Winnoc, who probably employed a professional lay artist from Saint-Omer to execute the designs. The book’s patron was probably a canoness at the nearby abbey of Saint-Victor. It is now preserved at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. All photographs in this post are courtesy of the Beinecke. Click here to page through the fully digitized manuscript.
The most extraordinary section of the book is a florilegium (collection of literary extracts) on the Trinity, which comprises folios 39v–44r and 74v–106r and draws especially on Augustine’s De Trinitas. Within these pages are nineteen full-page miniatures that exhibit “the most stunning iconographic creativity, . . . bearing witness to a distinctive Trinitarian theology.”
The representation of the Holy Trinity poses one of the most difficult iconographic problems in Christian art. How is one to portray three distinct, divine persons who share one essence? Historical attempts have included the following:
Three identical Christomorphic men (this one is relatively rare)
Three mystically conjoined faces, or three separate heads sharing one body (nicknamed the “monstrous Trinity” and condemned by the Roman Catholic Church)
The Gnadenstuhl (Throne of Mercy, or Throne of Grace), in which the Father is shown holding a crucifix or, in a later variation known as the Mystic Pietà, his slumped Son, while the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove hovers between them
Triangles, trefoils, triquetras, or other abstract geometric designs that suggest Three-in-Oneness
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Holy Trinity is represented by three angels seated at a table. These are the three mysterious visitors of Abraham in Genesis 18, believed to be a theophany (visible manifestation of God).
The artist of the Rothschild Canticles relies on none of these conventions, inventing instead an almost wholly original visual language to express the rich yet daunting doctrine. In contrast to other depictions of the Trinity, in the Rothschild Canticles we find, says Newman,
a playful, intimate approach to the triune God, marked by spontaneity rather than solemnity, dynamism rather than hieratic stasis, wit rather than awe. There is no hint of narrative, but something more like an eternal dance. . . . The divine persons are caught up in an everlasting game of hide-and-seek with humans while they enact among themselves, in ever-changing ways, that mutual coinherence that the Greek fathers called perichoresis—literally “dancing around one another.” (135)
Jongleurs (itinerant medieval entertainers proficient in juggling, acrobatics, music, and recitation), angels, and various pointing figures play the role of implied viewers and manifest a joyous attitude. For example,
on fol. 79r a celestial percussionist attacks a row of bells with mallets; on fol. 84r, angels in the upper left and right play a game of ring toss; on fol. 88r, musicians . . . strum whimsically shaped zithers embellished with animal heads. . . . In the lower right corner of fol. 96r, an elfin figure bends over backward to play an instrument whose pinwheel shape mimics the great solar wheel behind which divine Wisdom hides. Four characters in the corners of fol. 98r stretch their arms as if to join hands in a cosmic dance, while on fol. 100r, three spectators raise their hands in wonder beneath a divine apparition, imitating the stunned postures of Peter, James, and John at the Transfiguration. . . . Collectively, they seem to proclaim that the reader need not be ashamed or afraid, even though all human attempts to comprehend the Trinity are comically inept. Nonetheless, she can merrily follow the Lord of the Dance. (135–36)
The quirkiness is so endearing!
In the Rothschild Canticles, coinherence is the dimension of Trinitarian theology to which the artist seems most profoundly committed. The complex relationality of the three persons is conveyed through the delicate interplay of touch, gesture, and changing positions. Sometimes the Father and Son join hands; on fol. 104r they touch feet behind the wheel they hold. Sometimes they grasp the sides, wings, or talons of the dove, and sometimes they unite around a fourth figure representing the Divine Essence. (143–44)
the artist invented some simple devices to keep the paradox of triunity before the mind’s eye at all times. For example, a prime signifier of divinity—the golden sun with its waving, tentacle-like rays—is sometimes single (fols. 44r, 81r, 88r, 90r), sometimes triple (fols. 40r, 83r, 94r). Elsewhere the artist complicated this formula. On fol. 79r, three small suns for each person are superimposed on one large sun; fols. 92r and 100r insert a smaller sun inside a bigger one; and on fol. 96r, two suns interlock to form a double wheel with spokes radiating both inward and outward. (141)
I particularly like fol. 94r, where the three persons of the Godhead wear the sun like a collar. And fol. 100r, where we see just three feet and three hands, each belonging to a different person, peeping out from behind a giant sun disc!
Another recurring and versatile motif in the Trinity cycle is the veil, which signifies both God’s presence and God’s hiddenness. Sometimes it forms a hammock in which the Trinity rests, partially covered (fols. 75r, 88r); or is braided in an enclosing circle, dangling down for humans to touch (fol. 81r); or is looped about the Father, Son, and Spirit, nestling them snugly (fol. 84r); or is knotted and clutched (fol. 92r); or is draped over bands of cloud (fol. 106r). In this artistic program, veils both conceal and reveal, communicating the paradoxical nature of God who is ensconced in mystery—incomprehensible—and yet accessible, wanting to be known.
Notably, the profusion of Trinitarian imagery is supplemented in the manuscript with textual reminders of the limitations of images. In De Trinitate 8.4.7, for example, Augustine says that all manmade images of God are false, and yet, he says, they are useful insofar as they help the mind cling to the invisible reality to which they point.
Below is a complete compilation of Trinity miniatures from the Rothschild Canticles, reproduced in the order they appear in the manuscript. I have prefaced most with one or more of the quotations that appear on its facing page (thanks to Newman’s identifications) so that you can see how intricately text and image relate. If you wish to reproduce any of these images singly, I suggest the following credit:
Trinity miniature from the Rothschild Canticles (MS 404, fol. _), made in Flanders, ca. 1300. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.
“Dominus in orisunte eternitatis et supra tempus” (The Lord is on the horizon of eternity and beyond time):
“Tu es vere Deus absconditus” (Truly you are a hidden God) (Isa. 45:15):
“Bene ergo ipsa difficultas loquendi cor nostrum ad intelligentiam trahit, et per infirmitatem nostram coelestis doctrina nos adjuvat: ut quia in Deitate Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus sancti nec singularitas est, nec diversitas cogitanda, vera unitas et vera Trinitas possit quidem simul mente aliquatenus sentiri, sed non possit simul ore proferri.”—Pope Leo I, Sermo 76.2
(“This difficulty in expressing clearly by speech draws our hearts to the power of discerning, and, through our weakness, the heavenly doctrine helps us, that, because of the divinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, neither singularity nor diversity is to be considered. The true unity and true Trinity can be apprehended ‘at the same time’ by the mind, but cannot be produced at the same time by the lips.” Trans. Jane Patricia Freeland, CSJB, and Agnes Josephine Conway, SSJ)
“Pater complacet sibi in Filio et Filius in Patre, et Spiritus sanctus ab utroque” (The Father is well pleased in the Son, and the Son in the Father, and the Holy Spirit is from both):
“Dicebat enim intra se si tetigero tantum vestimentum eius salva ero” (She said within herself, if I touch the hem of his garment, I will be healed) (Matt. 9:21):
(Also illustrated on fol. 81r is the Holy Spirit as the person “qui facit ex utroque unum” [who makes both one; cf. Eph. 2:14], as cited on the facing page. Notice the shared halo.)
“Trinus personaliter et unus essentialiter” (Three in persons and one in essence):
“Dominus Deus noster Deus unus est” (The Lord our God is one God) (Mark 12:29):
“Ita et singula sung in singulis, et omnia in singulis, et singula in omnibus, et omnia in omnibus, et unum omnia. Qui videt hec vel ex parte, vel per speculum et in enigmate, gaudeat cognoscens Deum.”—Augustine, De Trinitate 6.12
(“They are each in each and all in each, and each in all and all in all, and all are one. Whoever sees this even in part, or in a puzzling manner in a mirror [1 Cor. 13:12], should rejoice at knowing God.” Trans. M. Mellet, OP, and Th. Camelot)
“Sapientia sua, que pertendit a fine usque ad finem fortiter et disponit omnia suaviter” (His wisdom, which reaches from end to end mightily and orders all things sweetly) (Wis. 8:1):
“Tres vidit et unum adoravit” (He saw three and worshipped one), a liturgical verse referring to the Trinitarian epiphany in Genesis 18:1–3, in which Abraham saw three men, fell down in worship, and then addressed his divine visitors in the singular:
“Gyrum caeli circuivi sola et in profundum abyssi penetravi et in fluctibus maris ambulavi” (I [Wisdom] have circled the vault of heaven alone) (Ecclus. 24:8):
“Abscondes eos in abdito faciei tuae” (Thou hidest them [the saints] in the covert of thy presence) (Psa. 30:21):
“Optime et pulcrius loquitur qui de Deo tacet” (He speaks best and most beautifully who is silent about God):
“Centrum meum ubique locorum, cirumferentia autem nusquam” (My center is in all places, my circumference nowhere). Also, “Quod Deus est, scimus. Quid sit, si scire velimus, / Contra nos imus. Qui cum sit summus et imus, / Ultimus et primus, satis est; plus scire nequimus.” (We know that God is; if we wish to know what he is, / We go against ourselves. That he is the highest and the lowest, / The last and the first, is enough; we can know no more.) And another: “Deus fuit semper et erit sine fine; ubi semper fuit, ibi nunc est. / Et ubi nunc est ibi fuit tunc.” (God always was and shall be without end; where he always was, there he is now. And where he is now, there he was then.)
(I love this detail of the Father and Son touching feet behind the wheel to brace themselves up! And the implosion of the sun.)
And lastly, the final text page in the Trinity cycle, which faces a nonfigural miniature of concentric rings of fire and cloud, contains this unidentified apophatic dialogue:
—Domine, duc me in desertum tue deitatis et tenebrositatem tui luminis, et duc me ubi tu non es. —Mea nox obscurum non habet, sed lux glorie mee omnia inlucessit. —Bernardus oravit: Domine duc me ubi es. —Dixit ei: Barnarde, non facio, quoniam si ducerem te ubi sum, annichilareris michi et tibi.
(—Lord, lead me into the desert of your divinity and the darkness of your light; and lead me where you are not. —My night has no darkness, but the light of my glory illumines all things. —Bernard prayed, Lord, lead me where you are. —He said to him, Bernard, I will not, for if I led you where I am, you would be annihilated both to me and to yourself.)
My hope is that pastors, theologians, seminarians, and Christians in general spend time studying, meditating on, and delighting in these artworks, which present profound theological content in a compact and sensory format. Visual theology at its best.
Though our efforts to visualize the Trinity will always be clumsy and imperfect, I do think the Rothschild Canticles artist has been more successful than anyone before or since. His miniatures convey, with whimsy and warmth, the eternal relationship of love at the heart of the universe.
“I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled” (Luke 12:49).
In the churches in which many of us were raised, we were taught to live in fear of this fire of God.
We are not going to repeat that lie. The ancient Christians show us a better way of perceiving this divine fire as we encounter it in the Scriptures and in our experiences.
I want the children listening to me today to know and trust they can welcome and embrace the fire of God, that there is no reason to live in terror about the fire that has come from God, is coming even now, and will come at the end of time.
We welcome the fire of God because we know the character of the God who meets us in the flesh of Jesus Christ.
This God comes among us not to destroy humanity but to burn everything out of us that is not of love, that does not have its origin in the divine life.
Like all healing, deliverance, and reconciliation, there is pain involved in being set free and made well. It is not easy. It is not a cake walk.
But here is the good news: we are free from anxiety and fear as we embrace the cleansing fire of God. “With its fire, love makes better whatever it touches” (Ambrose).
We became cold in our self-imposed exile from God, and like any object, the further it gets away from the fiery source of its life, the colder it becomes.
Remember that God makes his ministers flames of fire, that we shine like the sun in the kingdom of heaven.
Remember that Cleopas, later in Luke, describes that their “hearts burned within them” as Jesus taught them from the Scriptures.
Remember at Pentecost that flames of fire come to rest on the heads of the gathered men and women.
As John promised, Christ baptizes us with fire and the Spirit.
For Cyril of Jerusalem, these words of Jesus about casting fire upon the earth find their fulfillment at Pentecost.
Remember that the flames of the fiery furnace do not consume the Hebrew children, but the angel—Christ himself—stands with them in scorching flames and they emerge from the fire unharmed.
Remember that the burning bush is aflame, is entirely engulfed, but never consumed by the fire of God.
So it is with us: the fire of the love that is the Spirit of God—Ambrose describes this fire of love as having wings—flies through us, consuming whatever is not of Love and trying whatever is good in us in order to purify the good and make it ready for the kingdom.
And we can trust this fire because it comes from the human who is God, who has journeyed through death and hell to bring us back alive with him.
We walk confidently into the fire that is God, knowing that his fire will keep us unto everlasting life.
Kenneth Tanner is the pastor of Church of the Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Michigan, and a contributing writer for Mockingbird, Sojourners, Clarion Journal, and more. He frequently posts theological reflections and sermon excerpts on Facebook, such as the one above [source], which he preached August 18, 2019, the tenth Sunday after Pentecost. I’ve reposted it here with his permission. The liturgical quilt is by fiber artist Linda S. Schmidt.
This call-and-response song is from the December 31, 2015, morning session of the Urbana student missions conference in St. Louis, Missouri. It’s performed by the University of Hawaii’s Hui Poly student group, a ministry of InterVarsity Hawai‘i geared toward Pasifika Christians, along with some new conference friends. The song (and ministry) leader is Moanike’ala Nanod-Sitch, who establishes the rhythm on the djembe and issues the calls. She is the pastor of Ka ‘Ohana o ke Aloha church in Kaneohe and is of Native Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, and Ukrainian descent.
The first half of the song is in English (lyrics below), but starting at 3:51, the singers launch into seven different Polynesian or Native American languages: Yup’ik, ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian), Fijan, Tongan, Samoan, Hawaiian Pidgin, and Lakota. Subtitles are included in the video. There’s also dancing!
Holy Spirit, come (Holy Spirit, come) Won’t you rain down (Rain down) Rain down (Rain down)
Come like fiyah, come like flames Come like thundah, come like rain Won’t you rain down (Rain down) Rain down (Rain down)
Fill us up, fill our cup Fill us up, fill our cup Won’t you rain down (Rain down) Rain down (Rain down)
We want more, we want more We want more, we want more Won’t you rain down (Rain down) Rain down (Rain down)
Till we overflow Till we overflow Won’t you rain down (Rain down) Rain down (Rain down)
The Son of righteousness will rise With healing in his wings We will be free And dance before our king Let your kingdom come And let your will be done Here on earth as it is In heaven (In heaven) In heaven (In heaven)
We will walk in your love As we advance your kingdom Bringing your word To every nation Let your kingdom come And let your will be done Here on earth as it is In heaven (In heaven) In heaven (In heaven)
Glossolalic and disincarnate, interfere
in me, interleave me
and leave me through my breathing: like some third
person conjugation I’ve rewhispered
in a language I keep trying to learn, a tongue
made only of verbs, and all its verbs irregular.
Because doves have no gall bladder
they have come
to stand for mildness. They stand
for You, warble, blue
underwing-flash and quaver, con-
Squab of the Holy Ghost.
Some Ark’s scraping some
mud-ridged, just-dried Ararat now
inside me, some dove’s
dropped an olive sprig on its bow, meant to stand
once more for the passing of the gall.
Through “spiration” and not “generation” You are said
to proceed, but the question of Who ex-pires You—
Father or Son, or both—has led to a thousand years of anathema and schism.
The Wikipedia on just that question goes twenty pages.
Ungenerative, ungenerated, You’re like me: recessive and proceeding nonetheless, like the wick’s
wax-wet and sizzle as it hardens into self-douse.
Fricative, constrictive, like a gush
of burnt scrapwood smoke from a neighbor’s yard,
its wintercleared thornbushes and rattlesticks in firepit,
greencrackle and sap-hiss, late March Lent-smoke
ash-smack in back of tongue and eyes, forehead-and-cheek stream of char.
Numinous, pneumatic, Who
bloweth where You listeth, Whom
the world will never know, list to blow
These are four of the nine sections in “Having Read the Holy Spirit’s Wikipedia” by Bruce Beasley, from Theophobia (BOA Editions, 2012). Reprinted by permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of the publisher.
EXHIBITION: “God is . . . ,” May 14–23,gallery@oxo, London: The winning entry from the second Chaiya Art Awards competition, along with forty-nine shortlisted others, are being exhibited in London’s South Bank starting tomorrow. The exhibition also has a virtual option, which I received an advance preview of, along with the catalog. Read my review at ArtWay.eu. There is a diverse range of responses to the theme of “God is . . . ,” in a range of media!
VIRTUAL CONCERT: “I Should Be Glad”: On May 2 the Choral Society of Durham and the Duke University Chorale put on a virtual concert, performing songs of lament and hope. They sing of “hours that go on broken wings” and “the unchanging ache of things”; of “this long, hard climb, carr[ying] ancestral sorrow”; of violence and murder; of God’s seeming absence; of feeling like a “moanin’ dove.” But they also sing invitations to be glad, to lay down one’s burden, to see beauty, to soar. Click here for a copy of the program, which contains credits, texts, and translations. I really enjoyed the selection of pieces—most were new to me—and the execution (technical and artistic) is excellent. An hour very well spent. Note that in lieu of a ticket charge, a $10 donation is recommended.
Among the songs are contemporary choral settings of traditional prayers, a civil rights hymn, and the world premiere of the five-movement Where We Find Ourselves by Michael Bussewitz-Quarm (she/her), inspired by the photographs of Hugh Magnum. Magnum, who was white, ran an integrated portrait studio in the Jim Crow South from 1897 until his death in 1922, photographing white and Black clients with equal dignity. The glass plate negatives and contact prints languished in his family’s moldering tobacco barn in Durham, North Carolina, until the 1970s, when they were discovered prior to the property’s slated demolition. They were transferred (many of them damaged) to the Duke University archives, where they again lay mostly dormant until being recently dug out by photographer-writers Margaret Sartor and Alex Harris, who compiled and presented them as an exhibition and accompanying book. Bussewitz-Quarm’s composition is a moving meditation on these timeworn photographs, and the lyrics by Shantel Sellers are pure poetry.
“I Should Be Glad” by Susan LaBarr (composer) and Sara Teasdale (lyricist)
“Sometimes I Feel,” traditional African American spiritual, arr. Alice Parker and Robert Shaw
“Hymn to Freedom” by Oscar Peterson (composer) (arr. Paul W. Read) and Harriette Hamilton (lyrics)
POEM COMMENTARY: “The Night” by Henry Vaughan, commentary by Dr. Grace Hamman (blog post | podcast episode): I’ve featured poems by Henry Vaughan several times on this blog but not the one that just might be his most famous: “The Night,” about the Pharisee Nicodemus’s midnight rendezvous with Jesus (see John 3). It contains the beautiful and much-lauded line “There is in God, some say, / A deep but dazzling darkness . . .” Medieval literature scholar Grace Hamman [previously], podcaster and blogger at Old Books with Grace, reads and unpacks the poem, first giving some historical and biographical context. Vaughan was an Anglican Welshman living during the English Civil War when the Puritans were in power, which means he was cut off from the forms of worship through which he was used to encountering Christ. This, Hamman says, influenced his writing of the poem and of the larger collection, Silex Scintillians, it’s a part of.
She has made the commentary available in both written and audio form.
EDITORIALS by JAMES K.A. SMITH:
When I see a James K.A. Smith [previously] byline, I know what follows is going to be good. He’s a fantastic thinker, writer, and speaker—and he’s the editor in chief of my favorite arts journal, Image. Below is a link to the opening editorial he wrote for each of the last two issues. (The whole journal is full of rich content. Subscribe!)
>> “Healing the Imagination: Art Lessons from James Baldwin,”Image no. 107 (Winter 2020): Here Smith engages with James Baldwin’s 1964 essay “The Uses of the Blues,” in which Baldwin discusses how we “project onto the Negro face, because it is so visible, all of our guilts and aggressions and desires”; white America invents stories and images of Black Americans that reflect our disfigured imaginations. “The imagination is a form of habit, a learned, bodily disposition to the world. . . . It’s the imagination—well- or malformed—that determines what I see before I look,” Smith writes.
He connects Baldwin’s essay to Jesus’s parable of the good Samaritan, showing how the priest and the Levite had different habits of perception than the protagonist. “To see the person before me as an enemy or animal”—or, I would add, a burden—“is a failure of imagination; to see a neighbor instead is a feat of the imagination. Our society is grappling with a soul-sickness that is ultimately an infection of our imagination.” We reflexively imagine others as threats, competitors, adversaries.
The arts can play a huge role in reshaping our imaginations, in retraining us to see people rightly. “I dream of a third Great Awakening,” he says, “in which our imaginations would be reborn, a sanctification of sight baptized by stories and images such that even our first glance is holy. The tents for this revival would be galleries and cinemas; we’ll sing from poems and novels; the altar call will invite us to attend plays and contemplate sculpture.” He’s not saying art should replace church or religion but that art is a powerful agent of spiritual and perceptual formation; “the arts pluck the strings of our imagination uniquely.”
In their March 3 episode, “Healing the Imagination, with James K.A. Smith,”The Weight podcast had Smith on to expound on some of the points in the editorial, to unpack this musing: “Could it be that the arts are more likely to move the needle on our collective perception of one another?” He discusses definitions of “culture” and “art,” both creational goods (God has deputized human beings to unfurl the tacit possibilities he has folded into creation!); the influence of Augustine and Kuyper on his thought; the “transcending, opening, decentering” potential of artistic encounters; his experience of becoming an American citizen; and why he believes national healing will come not primarily through politics but through the arts. He mentions a few commendable recent examples of churches’ hospitality toward artists, citing Pope John Paul II’s 1999 Letter to Artists, written “to all who are passionately dedicated to the search for new ‘epiphanies’ of beauty so that through their creative work as artists they may offer these as gifts to the world,” and Redeemer Church of Knoxville, who converted the unused rooms of their building into artist studios for the larger community to use.
“Christian communities, if they actually really care about healing the soul of a nation, could do no better than to invest in the arts,” Smith says. “Not so we can go make Thomas Kinkade paintings or Kirk Cameron movies or whatever, but so that we have artists who are actually speaking to our neighbors in ways that meet them as human.”
>> “How to Visit a Museum: Disciplines of Availability,”Image no. 108 (Spring 2021): “Aesthetic experiences I didn’t go looking for that burrow their way most deeply into my psyche . . . are only possible if I am cultivating a way of life that puts me in front of artworks that don’t conform to my preferences. That might mean signing up for the disciplines of an aesthetic way of life in which I am puzzled or frustrated or decentered by the feeling of ‘not getting it.’ It means approaching paintings and poems without expecting immediate returns. In my experience, the way of surprise lies in listening to a community of friends bear witness to what has captivated them and letting my puzzlement be an impetus to explore new territory. When Shane McCrae gushes about a poet who has felt inaccessible to me, I assume I have something to learn. And so I taste and see. A life hungry for aesthetic surprise does not settle for daily doses of predictably poignant comfort; instead, I need to expose my palate to strange, maybe even unsavory tastes as a way of making myself available for the sublime. While we can’t manufacture the surprise, we can learn to make ourselves available.” Read more at the link.
Reminds me of a creative prompt given last November by Corey Frey of The Well Collaborative in Frederick, Maryland: “Find a challenging poem or work of art or piece of music that doesn’t trigger your appreciative mechanism quite so easily. Sit with it. Let it confuse you. Allow its toe to creep in the crack of the door of your respect (re-spect: look a second time).”