Scorsese’s “Silence”: Critical praise, interviews, resources

I first learned about fumi-e (“stepping-on pictures”) while reading about the history of Christian art in Japan. These objects are bronze likenesses of Jesus, sometimes shown together with his mother, Mary, that the religious authorities of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan required suspected Christians to step on in order to prove that they were not members of that outlawed religion. If the apprehended persons refused, they were tortured and, if that didn’t break them, killed—sometimes by being boiled to death in the volcanic springs of Mount Unzen.

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e-fumi ceremony
This painting by Keiga Kawahara, ca. 1826, shows an e-fumi (“picture stepping”) ceremony in Edo Japan, in which a man proves his aversion to Christianity by trampling an image of Christ. Location: National Library of the Netherlands.

This period of persecution lasted from 1629 to 1858.

Fumi-e factor heavily into Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 historical novel Chinmoku (Silence), which tells the story of two Jesuit missionaries who travel to Japan in 1639 to find their missing mentor—rumored to have apostatized—and to continue the work he started there with the underground church. Written by Endō partly in response to the discrimination he experienced as a Japanese Catholic, the novel is about the struggle for faith in a world marked by God’s seeming absence. It received the highly esteemed Tanizaki Prize the year of its release and instantly became a best seller; it was translated into English in 1969.

Silence book covers
Two cover designs. Left: Christ is crucified on the Japanese kanji for “silence.” Right (illustration by Yuko Shimizu): Father Rodrigues, driven to a cliff’s edge, prays desperately with the aid of rosary beads as a blood-drenched moon drips into a choppy river that’s likewise stained with blood.

Since then it has been the basis of several artistic adaptations: a stage play, also by Endō; a Japanese film by Masahiro Shinoda; a Portuguese film by João Mário Grilo; an opera by Teizo Matsumura; a symphony by James MacMillan—and now an American film by Martin Scorsese, the same director who brought us Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Departed, and The Wolf of Wall Street. He dedicates it “to Japanese Christians and their pastors.”

Twenty-eight years in the making, Scorsese’s “passion project,” Silence, has been lauded as “one of the best films ever made about Christian faith.” The Telegraph calls it a “plangent, scalding work of religious art . . . soul-pricklingly attuned to matters transcendent and eternal.” Time Out says it “ranks among the greatest achievements of spiritually minded cinema.” “An anguished masterwork of spiritual inquiry,” the Los Angeles Times declares, that “ponders the dogmas, riddles and anxieties of Christian faith with a rigor and seriousness that . . . has few recent equivalents in world cinema. . . . A work of insistent, altogether confounding grace.” Eric Metaxas says, “This may be the most Christian film I have ever seen—and that includes The Passion.”

Released in theaters December 23, 2016, Silence stars Andrew Garfield as lead character Father Sebastião Rodrigues, and Adam Driver as his compatriot, Father Francisco Garrpe. Liam Neeson plays the apostate Cristóvão Ferreira. See the trailer below.

Before I found out Scorsese was adapting Endō’s Silence, I learned of the novel from visual artist Makoto Fujimura, whose own work and theology have been very much influenced by it. Last May he published the book Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering, about his journey with Endō through art, trauma, and cultural heritage.   Continue reading “Scorsese’s “Silence”: Critical praise, interviews, resources”

Roundup: Free arts conference, new book series, Liturgical Folk, Jesus in Israeli art, Hacksaw Ridge

SYMPOSIUM:

“Art in a Postsecular Age,” hosted by Biola University’s Center for Christianity, Culture, and the Arts: The twelfth annual Biola Arts Symposium is taking place Saturday, March 4, in La Mirada, California, covering “What is Postsecularity?,” “Seeing in a Postsecular Age,” “Making in a Postsecular Age,” and “Art in a Postsecular Age.” The all-star speaker lineup includes Sally Promey (The Visual Culture of American Religions), James Elkins (On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art), Jeffrey Kosky (Arts of Wonder: Enchanting Secularity), and more. I’m super-excited to be going. I hope to see you there! It’s free, and no registration is required.

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CALL FOR BOOK PROPOSALS:

Arts and the Sacred (ASAC) series: Brepols Publishers has launched a new academic series of richly illustrated books on theology and the arts, with a focus on visual art—historical and contemporary—and they’re looking for proposals. The series editors are Chloë Reddaway (Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery, London) and Aaron Rosen (author of, among other titles, Art and Religion in the 21st Century). First-time authors are welcome.

DOUBLE ALBUM RELEASE:

Table Settings and Edenland by Liturgical Folk: This month Ryan Flanigan, worship director at All Saints Dallas, released the first two albums of his Liturgical Folk project, the aim of which is to root historical church language in the inherently joyful sounds of the American folk tradition. I love how Flanigan describes it: “a vision of something refreshingly old for churches that have grown tired of the same new thing.” The first volume, Table Settings, offers twelve traditional prayers and creeds—among them the Lord’s Prayer, the Gloria, and the Trisagion—for churches and families, set to singable tunes; accompanying Flanigan on vocals are his wife, Melissa, and his three kids. The second volume, Edenland, is a collaboration with retired priest and contemplative poet Nelson Koscheski, who wrote all the lyrics; it features a wider range of vocalists. The intergenerational partnership is one element that drew producer Isaac Wardell to the project and that is highlighted in last month’s Dallas News feature story, in addition to the project’s contributions to the liturgical renewal movement in North America.

 

ART EXHIBITION:

“Behold the Man: Jesus in Israeli Art,” December 22, 2016–April 16, 2017, Israel Museum, Jerusalem: “From the 19th century until today, Jewish and Israeli artists have engaged with the figure of Jesus, addressing complex questions of collective and individual identity. This exhibition, the result of extensive scholarly research, presents multivalent, unexpected, and at times subversive artistic responses: European artists reclaimed Jesus as a Jew and portrayed him as a symbol of Jewish suffering, and Zionist artists used the resurrection as a metaphor for the rebirth of the Jewish homeland; some Israeli artists related to Jesus as a social rebel or misunderstood prophet, while others identified with his personal torment or his sacrifice for the sake of humanity, which they connected to more recent victims of intolerance and warfare.” Click here to listen to audio commentary on fourteen of the works from the exhibition. See also this essay from the IMJ on the figure of Jesus in the work of Reuven Rubin.

Via Dolorosa by Motti Mizrachi
Motti Mizrachi (Israeli, 1946–), Via Dolorosa, 1973. Lambda print. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
Lamb by Menashe Kadishman
Menashe Kadishman (Israeli, 1932–2015), Untitled (Lamb), 1999. Acrylic on canvas. Rachel and Dov Gottesman Collection, Tel Aviv.

MOVIE TRAILER:

Hacksaw Ridge, directed by Mel Gibson: The hero of one of this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Picture is a Christian whose beliefs impel him to enlist in the American Army only on the condition that he not be made to carry a weapon—and this during World War II, when pacifism was far less acceptable than it is today. “While everybody else is takin’ life, I’m gonna be savin’ it,” says Desmond T. Doss, played by Andrew Garfield, in the trailer below. “That’s gonna be my way to serve.” Based on the true story of Desmond T. Doss, who served during the Battle of Okinawa and became the first man in American history to receive the Medal of Honor without firing a shot.

Flying our faith out over the gorge

Prior to 1848, anyone wanting to cross the Niagara River had to do so by ferryboat, making it difficult for people and cargo to travel between New York and Upper Canada. Endeavoring to better connect the Atlantic coast with new territories in the West, entrepreneur William Merritt got permission to build a railway suspension bridge over the river, two and a half miles north of Niagara Falls. Charles Ellet Jr. was hired as the chief engineer.

Ellet’s first challenge was how to get a line across the gap. Cannonballs, rockets, and steamers were among the proposals, but Ellet ultimately decided to use a kite. To generate publicity, he held a kite-flying contest in January 1848, offering a cash prize to the first boy to anchor a string from country to country, 800 feet across the chasm and about 240 feet above the Whirlpool Rapids. Sixteen-year-old Homan Walsh won, flying his kite from the Canadian shoreline to the American side, where he had it fastened to a tree. Ellet’s team attached a light cord to Walsh’s kite string, then pulled the joined lines back across. Over the next month or so, they pulled successively heavier and stronger lines back and forth, back and forth, until the final bridge cable was in place.

Niagara kite-flying contest
Donna Marie Campbell, Kite Flying Contest Held To Get The First Line Across [The Gorge] For The Suspension Bridge (after a 19th-century sketch by an unknown artist), 1975. Watercolor, 23.7 × 31.4 cm.
Edwin Markham (1852–1940) interprets this story as a parable in his poem “Anchored to the Infinite,” likening faith and love to cords that grow in strength the more they are sent out, and that have their anchor in God.

“Anchored to the Infinite” by Edwin Markham

The builder who first bridged Niagara’s gorge,
Before he swung his cable, shore to shore,
Sent out across the gulf his venturing kite
Bearing a slender cord for unseen hands
To grasp upon the further cliff and draw
A greater cord, and then a greater yet;
Till at the last across the chasm swung
The cable then the mighty bridge in air!

So we may send our little timid thought
Across the void, out to God’s reaching hands—
Send out our love and faith to thread the deep—
Thought after thought until the little cord
Has greatened to a chain no chance can break,
And—we are anchored to the Infinite!

(Related post: “ESSAY: ‘The Poetry of Jesus’ by Edwin Markham”)

This poem is very close in form to a Petrarchan sonnet—it consists of an octave and a sestet in iambic pentameter, with a caesura (turn) between them, but it doesn’t rhyme.

The first stanza recounts the construction of Ellet’s suspension bridge across the Niagara River, especially his use of a kite to hang the initial cable.

The second stanza identifies in this historic building project an extended metaphor of spiritual significance. We are the children who stand at the edge of a vast unknown, timidly putting our faith and love out there, just hoping it will be received and answered. Sure enough, God stands on the other side, reaching out to grab ahold of our most feeble efforts to know him and to trust him, and anchor us to himself.

The last phrase (and the poem’s title)—“anchored to the Infinite”—is not quite a paradox, but it is difficult to visualize: being fixed to that which has no limits. Infinity cannot be pinned down, and yet it (or should I say “he”) pins us down, stabilizes us. We need only faith as small as a mustard seed, or as thin as a kite string, and God will catch it from across the void, attaching us securely to himself.

Terry Widener produced a beautiful, impressionistic illustration on page 32 of the children’s book The Kite That Bridged Two Nations that shows Homan Walsh flying his kite over Niagara Gorge. Although it is meant to be taken literally—an artistic interpolation of a historic event—it speaks volumes to me about what it means to exercise faith. Unfortunately, my request to reproduce it here was denied by the publisher, but I can describe it: Two rocky, snow-capped precipices rise up on either side of the picture, and a turbulent river courses between them, moving down a slight fall and crashing against four large rocks that protrude from the riverbed. The top fifth of the painting is blue sky, and a cumulus cloud hangs dead center, making visible a tiny red speck of a kite on a wisp of a string. Follow that string to the right side, and you can just barely make out a human figure holding the reel on the edge of the cliff. Because the gorge dominates the painting, the mood at first glance is one of panic and tumult. But in the upper register there’s a sense of peace and calm, as the kite drifts above the waves in search of an anchor. It’s still a scary endeavor—the small traversing the vast—and there’s the risk of losing the kite altogether, but there’s a thrill in it, in putting yourself out there.

One aspect of the metaphor that’s not addressed in Markham’s poem is the wind, which in the Bible is associated with the Holy Spirit. Just as the wind gives the kite lift, so does the Spirit give flight to our faith and love, powering us forward toward God.

As we unreel those two virtues, God works with us to “thread the deep”—to bridge the gap between finite and Infinite. And he strengthens us in them so that one day we will be able to walk out over the rapids, all the way across to the other side.


“Anchored to the Infinite” by Edwin Markham originally appeared in The Shoes of Happiness and Other Poems (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1919) and is now in the public domain.

MLK, Pippin, and the Holy Mountain

Holy Mountain III by Horace Pippin
Horace Pippin (American, 1888–1946), Holy Mountain III, 1945. Oil on canvas, 25.3 × 30.3 cm. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC.

(This post was originally published on theJesusQuestion.org in 2014.)

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I’d like to highlight the work of one who shared Dr. King’s vision, but whose microphone was a canvas.

The painting Holy Mountain III by self-taught African American artist Horace Pippin depicts the peaceable kingdom that’s prophesied about in the biblical book of Isaiah, chapter 11. When the Messiah establishes his rule on earth, writes the prophet,

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (vv. 6–9)

In spring 2013, this painting was featured in the exhibition “Ashe to Amen: African Americans and Biblical Imagery,” curated by the now-defunct Museum of Biblical Art in New York City. A MOBIA commentator pointed out the shadows of violence in the forest: a lynched black man (left), planes dropping bombs above a graveyard of crosses (center), and two armed soldiers and a tank (right). Yet, the commentator writes, Pippin chose to foreground the Holy Mountain, demonstrating his hope that such a scene would one day be actualized: “Rather than turning a blind eye to the painful realities of a sad and violent world, Pippin presents a vision of mankind moving out of the shadows and into the brilliant light of a peaceful clearing.”  Continue reading “MLK, Pippin, and the Holy Mountain”

Spiritual imagination in the art of Igor Paneyko

I spend a lot of time “art surfing” the Internet, following click-trails that start maybe with a Google image search of a subject I’m researching and then end up somewhere totally different. One of those trails this weekend led me to the work of Ukrainian New Wave artist Igor Paneyko.

Paneyko was born on March 2, 1957, in the city of Stryi in the Lviv Oblast region of western Ukraine, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. From 1975 to 1981 he studied at the Lviv State Institute of Applied and Decorative Art (now the Lviv National Academy of Arts), then spent a year working in Khiva, Uzbekistan. He currently lives and works in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, near the Hungarian border, in the region known as Transcarpathia.

Other than this general biographical information, I can find little else about the artist. An exhibition promo from 2012 suggests that he is a private person who’s “wary of publicity,” though he does exhibit his work. Using the Ukrainian spelling of his name, Игоря Панейка, yields more results than a search in English, but information is still sparse.

Many of Paneyko’s paintings are of visionary landscapes with floating, haloed figures. Candles, moons, and ladders (see Genesis 28:12) are often featured. Much of his work seems to me to carry on the legacy of Symbolism, a late nineteenth-century art movement that developed new and often abstract means to express psychological truth and the idea that behind the physical world lay a spiritual reality. Symbolists sought to give form to the ineffable, such as dreams and visions, and they emphasized emotions, feelings, ideas, and subjectivity over realism, often addressing the themes of religious mysticism and death. Gustav Klimt and Odilon Redon are two of Symbolism’s greatest artists.

(Related post: “Christ Crowned with Thorns interpreted by Symbolist artist Odilon Redon”)

Below is a compilation of some of Paneyko’s paintings that I find particularly appealing. I don’t know the specs for any of them, besides the year of those that have it painted large enough on the canvas, but I’ve linked each of them to its online source.

These first five are, to me, visually stunning. Ground and sky are not discernible from each other but rather interpenetrate, creating sacred space and evoking wonder.

igor-paneyko2

^ From 2005, we have a woman with a candle standing in contrapposto and covered in multicolored roses. The thin gold band around her head suggests a halo, and the purple burst behind her an aureola. It appears that she has come to pay devotion to Christ, as a wayside crucifix, whose patibulum supports the candles of previous pilgrims, is planted in the background. In the center of the woman’s chest, a little red kernel is encircled with light, representing the love that’s set aglow by her encounter; her loins, too, bear this mark—a possible allusion to the erotic language used by medieval mystics to describe their union with Christ.

igor-paneyko

^ Here a haloed woman—maybe an angel (are those wings behind her?)—carries a load of pears and apples. To the left is a rowboat with four other haloed figures, one of them a baby; to the right, a garden. Some associations that come to my mind are Eden, Flight to Egypt, ship of salvation, fruit of the Spirit.

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^ In this one, the focal point is the bottom left corner, where a yellow-green-blue crescent moon balances atop a patchwork mountain, and a row of nightcapped sheep saunters sleepily away. On the other side of the mountain a newspaper party hat floats over a cross-marked graveyard. Maybe it’s because we’ve just come out of Christmas, but I think of Bethlehem after Christ’s birth: the Judean hills alive and vibrant, having been touched by angel song; the shepherds’ charges seeking rest after the flurry of activity; and spreading a shadow over the celebration, the Massacre of the Innocents—Herod’s extermination of the town’s infant male population.   Continue reading “Spiritual imagination in the art of Igor Paneyko”

Songs about the Flight to Egypt

On the heels of Jesus’s birth came his frantic flight, with parents Mary and Joseph, from the sword of an egomaniacal politician who swore death to all the male children of Bethlehem under the age of two. To secure his own power and advantage, Herod had to squash all potential threats.

Thus the birthday festivities were cut short as the Holy Family packed up what little they had and hit the road running, seeking asylum in another country.

Flight to Egypt by Jean-Francois Millet
Jean-François Millet (French, 1814–1875), The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1864. Conté crayon, pen, ink, and pastel over gray washes on paper, 31.1 × 39.4 cm. Art Institute of Chicago.

Many families are still making this difficult journey today: fleeing home in order to escape persecution and/or death.

Even though the Flight to Egypt is a part of the Christmas story, it’s often omitted from present-day nativity pageants and carol services because we prefer to bask in that which is quaint and cozy and cute and joyful, and we want that happy ending. We don’t want the darkness to rain on all the Christmas light. This is a real shame. By leaving out this event from our retellings of Jesus’s birth narrative, not only do we do a disservice to his memory, we neglect an opportunity to see Christ in our refugee neighbors.

(Related post: “Maria von Trapp, plus seven artists, on Jesus the refugee”)

To help remedy this omission, I’ve compiled a list of songs based on the Flight to Egypt so that churches can consider using them (or be inspired to write their own!) as part of their Christmas observances. I’ve purposely excluded “The Cherry-Tree Carol,” a centuries-old ballad derived from an apocryphal story about the Flight to Egypt from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (chapter 20); I did so not only because the anonymous lyricist reset the episode during the Journey to Bethlehem, when Jesus was still in the womb, but because, though charming, there’s nothing historic, spiritually valuable, or socially conscious about it, and it perpetuates a popular stereotype of Joseph as stubborn and unkind that I believe scripture itself does not bear.

Also excluded are the several carols about the Massacre of the Innocents—the episode that prompted the Flight to Egypt. The two episodes are obviously related, but I want to focus here on the Flight.

CONGREGATIONAL HYMNS

I could find only one song on the topic that was written with congregational singing in mind, and that is “Flight into Egypt” by the Rev. Vincent William Uher III (1963–). It’s made up of four verses and the refrain “Kyrie eleison” (Lord, have mercy), a common prayer in Christian liturgies. Because the hymn uses a plainchant tune, it has an irregular meter and may therefore be a little tricky for congregations to pick up right away. But the words are so beautifully crafted and set, and Rev. Uher gives his permission for noncommercial use, as long as credit is given. I put together a printable hymn sheet, reproduced below the lyrics. (Click on the image to open up the sheet as a PDF in a new tab.)

“Flight into Egypt” (1997) – Words: Vincent Uher | Music: Plainchant mode V, 13th century

Lonely travelers from the stable
Out beneath the hard blue sky
Journeying, wandering, hoping, praying
For the safety of their child
While our mother Rachel’s weeping
Fills the streets of Bethlehem.
Kyrie eleison.

Warned by angels moved to save him
Who was born our kind to save
Joseph leads his holy family
Far from Herod and harm’s way
Mary shielding and consoling
Jesus Christ the Son of God.
Kyrie eleison.

Fleeing from the land of promise
They in Egypt find a home
Strange the workings of God’s mercy
House of bondage now God’s throne
But for sons who all were murdered
Sorrow breaks the House of Bread.
Kyrie eleison.

True the tale of flight and exile
Out of Egypt comes God’s Son
Angels tell of Herod’s dying
All is ended, all begun
Jesus will grow up in Nazareth
And the world will all be stunned.
Kyrie eleison.

flight-into-egypt-by-vincent-uher

Because of the scarcity of carols referencing the Flight to Egypt, I took to writing some verses of my own, using already-popular hymn tunes. Each of these verses is intended not as an additional stanza to the carol whose tune it shares (that would render the narrative structure incoherent) but as a standalone reprise of sorts. I envisioned any one of them being sung as part of a Christmas Eve service following the reading, as part of the total Christmas story, of Matthew 2:13–14.   Continue reading “Songs about the Flight to Egypt”

Yoruba Christmas carol and art (Nigeria)

A popular song in choir repertoires, “Betelehemu” is a Yoruba Christmas carol by the Grammy-nominated drummer Babatunde Olatunji, arranged for men’s choir by Wendell P. Whalum. It came into being while Olatunji was a student on scholarship at Morehouse College in the 1950s: he shared it with Whalum, director of the school’s glee club, and that spawned a collaboration.

There have been numerous recordings of “Betelehemu” over the years, and each one has its own distinct flavor, especially in the percussion sections. I really like the one by The Young People’s Choir of New York City from the 2003 album It Is Possible. But here’s a version from Brazil, arranged for SATB by Jonathan Crutchfield:

You might also be interested in performances by the Morehouse College Glee Club (from their one hundredth anniversary concert in 2012) and the African Children’s Choir.

Here are the Yoruba lyrics and English translation to follow along with, provided courtesy of my friends Ezekiel Olagoke and Temidayo Akinsanya. For a pronunciation guide, click here.

Betelehemu
Awa yio ri Baba gbojule
Awa yio ri Baba fehinti
Nibo labi Jesu
Nibo labe bi i
Betelehemu, ilu ara
Nibe labi Baba o daju
Iyin, iyin, iyin nifun o
Adupe fun o, adupe fun o, adupe fun ojo oni
Baba oloreo
Iyin, iyin, iyin fun o Baba anu
Baba toda wasi
Betelehemu

Bethlehem
We shall see that we have a Father to trust
We shall see that we have a Father to rely on
Where was Jesus born?
Where was he born?
Bethlehem, the city of wonder
That is where the Father was born for sure
Praise, praise, praise be to Him
We thank You, we thank You, we thank You for this day
Blessed Father
Praise, praise, praise be to You, merciful Father
Father who delivered us
Bethlehem

The lyrics are simple, rejoicing in the Father’s glory and grace in giving his Son over to be born in Bethlehem. I asked my Yoruba friends about the line “That is where the Father was born for sure,” which seems problematic from a Trinitarian perspective, because it was the Son, Jesus—not the Father—who was born in Bethlehem. The Yoruba word Baba has more nuance than the English “Father”; it is used to signify a biological relationship but also as an honorific for wise men or elders. But still I wondered whether it is theologically appropriate.

Ezekiel told me that Yoruba Christians understand the distinctions between the three persons of the Trinity and that Baba is not commonly used to refer to Jesus, but in defense of it, he pointed me to scripture passages like Daniel 7:9–14 (cf. the book of Revelation), which describes Jesus as “the Ancient of Days”; John 8:58, in which Jesus tells his disciples, “Before Abraham was, I am,” ascribing to himself a status greater than that of the greatest Jewish patriarch; and Colossians 1:15–17: “He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” In Yoruba culture and other African cultures as well, says Ezekiel, Jesus is sometimes called “Chief” or “Ancestor,” a similar notion that emphasizes his being before all things, the eternal Source in whom all things consist.

Temi said that to avoid confusion, he would probably recommend a revision from Nibe labi Baba o daju to Nibe labi Jesu o daju (or else he’d drop the name so that the indefinite pronoun “he” is implied instead).

Both friends felt that the phrase Awa yio ri (“We shall see”) in the second and third lines is awkward in this context. All the other lyric translations I’ve found translate the phrase as “We are glad,” but that would be Awa ni, Ezekiel said—and that doesn’t quite fit the musical meter. It’s possible that the song is merging Advent with Christmas: it starts with looking forward to the birth, then it acknowledges the birth as having happened, eliciting appellations of praise.

Yoruba nativity by George Bandele
Wooden door detail by George Bandele, 1962, showing the Adoration of the Magi. Collection: SMA Fathers, Cadier en Keer, Netherlands. Source: Christliche Kunst in Afrika, p. 144

It seems that “Betelehemu” is more popular outside Nigeria than inside. Ezekiel and Temi and one other Yoruba friend (from different generations) said that despite growing up in Christian homes in Nigeria, they’ve never heard it before, but they’ve heard ones similar to it. So while some sources credit “Betelehemu” as a “Yoruba folk text” and “Yoruba folk tune,” leaving Olatunji out entirely, I think it’s more likely that Olatunji drew on the song traditions of his people to create a new composition. At the very least, Olatunji introduced the song to the United States—and our Christmas concerts are all the richer for it!   Continue reading “Yoruba Christmas carol and art (Nigeria)”

Roundup: Purpose of Advent, light installation, book list, interview, TheoArtistry

WHY CELEBRATE ADVENT? Some of my evangelical friends don’t understand why I observe Advent. Cheryl Bridges Johns’s recent Seedbed article “Advent and the Winter of Our Disenchantment” answers the question so well, opening like this: “Advent is the time to open the first pages of the Church’s story of salvation. It is an enchanted portal into a world of darkness, deep mystery and the Spirit’s hidden brooding. Advent asks us to sit a while in the darkness, waiting for the light of God.” It’s a counterweight to “the unbearable lightness of Christmas,” a space to groan alongside our spiritual forebears. See also the Desiring God articles  “Christmas Is Too Big for One Day” and “Seven Reasons to Celebrate Advent.” Christmas didn’t occur in a vacuum! Advent makes us mindful of the larger story of God’s promise to his people.

LIGHT MASONRY: Michael Wright tipped me off to this stunning light installation by Jason Bruges Studio in the main nave of York Minster. It was one of six works commissioned for Illuminating York, an annual nighttime festival supported by Arts Council England that encourages visitors to explore and discover the historic city through the imagination of artists who use the medium of light in all its forms. Designed to highlight the cathedral’s Gothic architecture, Light Masonry was constructed using a bespoke system of forty-eight computer-controlled, icon-beam moving-head luminaires (see the “making of” video) and was complemented by the live performance of Arvo Pärt’s Pari intervallo on organ. It ran October 26–29, 2016. The video below captures some of its magnificence.

Light Masonry by Jason Bruges
Light Masonry installation by Jason Bruges Studio, York Minster, York, England, October 26–29, 2016.

BOOK LIST: I recently compiled an annotated bibliography of books published in English between 2014 and 2016 on the subject of Christianity and art: http://www.artway.eu/content.php?id=2204&action=show&lang=en. The thirty-four entries, from a variety of authors and publishers, cover topics such as iconographic exegesis of the Hebrew Bible, the religious art of Pablo Picasso, contemporary church art commissions, visual culture in the Christian kingdom of Kongo, black public religious art in Chicago, a theology of human creativity, how to launch and manage a church gallery, and building a curriculum for the fine arts in Christian education. Let me know if I’m missing any!

INTERVIEW: Earlier this month I was interviewed by Joan Huyser-Honig for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship about my vocation as a Christian arts blogger, the two Advent art resources I developed, and my participation in the “Bodies of Christ” seminar at Calvin this summer. (Read the interview: “Victoria Emily Jones on Gazing as a Spiritual Practice.”) Joan had some good questions, including

  • When you post to your Art & Theology blog, who do you hope will see it and what do you hope they’ll do with it?
  • Your blog’s tagline is “Revitalizing the Christian imagination through painting, poetry, music, and more.” What might or does happen in Christians and congregations who are open to revitalizing imagination?
  • Picture a worship planner without your deep knowledge of art and theology. How might he or she start using resources from your blog in planning public worship?

THEOARTISTRY: TheoArtistry is a new initiative of the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “Through new projects and research, TheoArtistry celebrates the practice, making, performance, curatorship, and reception of Christian art. It also seeks to inform the scholarly and public perception of the role of the arts in theology and church practice.” The first project they’ve launched is a collaboration between internationally selected composers and PhD candidates in the St. Andrews Divinity School to set to music “annunciation” texts from the Hebrew Bible. (Two of the participants talk process in the recent Transpositions article “Setting Fire to Music.”) TheoArtistry will also be launching a new database that links artists interested in working with Christian themes, theologians interested in creative collaborations with artists, and commissioners of Christian art. I am SO stoked about all this! For more information, see http://theoartistry.org.

“For the Nativity” by John Heath-Stubbs + choral setting

Shepherds, I sing you, this winter’s night
Our Hope new-planted, the womb’d, the buried Seed:
For a strange Star has fallen, to blossom from a tomb,
And infinite Godhead circumscribed, hangs helpless at the breast.

Now the cold airs are musical, and all the ways of the sky
Vivid with moving fires, above the hills where tread
The feet—how beautiful!—of them that publish peace.

The sacrifice, which is not made for them,
The angels comprehend, and bend to earth
Their worshipping way. Material kind Earth
Gives Him a Mother’s breast, and needful food.

A Love, shepherds, most poor,
And yet most royal, kings,
Begins this winter’s night;
But oh, cast forth, and with no proper place,
Out in the cold He lies!

This poem is published in Collected Poems 1943–1987 by John Heath-Stubbs (Carcanet Press, 1988) and is reprinted here by permission of David Higham Associates.

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John Heath-Stubbs (1918–2006) was an English poet, translator, critic, and anthologist whose lifelong fascination with world history and literature was borne out in his career. He translated poetry from Greek (Sappho, Anyte, Anacreon), Latin (Horace, Catullus), Persian (Hafiz, Omar Khayyam), Italian (Dante, Giacomo Leopardi), and French (Paul Verlaine) and wrote many verses of his own influenced by classical myths, including an Arthurian epic, Artorius.

Described by friends as a “devout” and “committed” Christian, Heath-Stubbs sometimes turned to the lives of Christ and the saints as subjects for his poetry, as in “‘Through the Dear Might of Him That Walk’d the Waves,’” “Dionysius the Areopagite” (on a pagan’s response to the eclipse during the Crucifixion), “Canticle of the Sun” (on the Resurrection), “Alexandria,” “Maria Aegyptiaca,” and “Virgin Martyrs,” to name a few. In his introduction to his Collected Poems, he wrote that he was interested in “the reaffirmation of orthodox religious themes in the poetry of TS Eliot and Charles Williams and others.”

Among other distinctions, Heath-Stubbs was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1973 and in 1989 was appointed OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire). At his death, publications celebrated his style and influence:

  • “His distinctive achievement was to forge a modern pastoral out of unlikely sources, a style which can encompass Yeatsian symbolism and dry irony.”—Poetry Archive
  • His diction was conservative, but his lyricism was always modern.—The Telegraph
  • “His finest work is to be found in his huge output of shorter poems. In their technical mastery, wry wisdom and gloriously deceptive lightness, these place him in the company of W.H. Auden and Robert Graves, a major English poet of the 20th century.”—The Independent

Heath-Stubbs was nearly blind from age three, his eyesight progressively worsening until he lost it completely at age fifty-nine. But rather than regard his blindness as a disability, he regarded it as a gift. “As a poet, I have found that blindness actually tends to stimulate the imagination,” he said.

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First published in 1965, “For the Nativity” by John Heath-Stubbs is an ode to the infant Jesus—to he who is Hope, Seed, Star, and Love.

The first stanza is a loose paraphrase of the Annunciation to the Shepherds in Luke 2:10–13, in which an angel tells a group of Jewish night workers that Emmanuel, God-with-us, has been born. Heath-Stubbs uses horticultural imagery: Jesus was planted in Mary’s womb, and now he breaks through into air, blooming for all the world to see. Foreshadowing future events, the “tomb” refers not only to the cave he was born in but also to the cave he’d be buried in. He’d be seeded once again (in death), and again (in resurrection) he’d flower forth with new life. The fourth line embraces the paradox of the Incarnation: that infinite God became a finite human being; the omnipotent Creator, an impotent babe reliant on his mother’s milk.   Continue reading ““For the Nativity” by John Heath-Stubbs + choral setting”

Book Review: 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know by Terry Glaspey

Whenever I meet new people and they ask what I do, I always tell them I’m a Christian arts blogger (even though my income source is freelance copyediting and proofreading). The follow-up question is often, “Oh, are you an artist?,” to which I respond with something like “No, but I love to study art, and I want to make Christians aware of the church’s rich artistic heritage.”

When I read the introduction to Terry Glaspey’s latest book—75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Baker Books, 2015)—I couldn’t believe how much like me it sounds! Not because Glaspey has lifted anything I’ve written or vice versa but because we share the same desire to see Christians more educated about art, especially art that’s rooted in the Christian tradition.

75-masterpieces-every-christian-should-know

In this full-color survey, Glaspey—curator and tour guide—invites us to be “inspired, entertained, and challenged” as we encounter artists’ material witness to their faith through the ages. An Orthodox icon, a Renaissance altarpiece, a metaphysical poetry collection, a jazz suite, a rock album, children’s fantasy stories, an Italian neorealist film, a radio drama, and contemporary nihonga are just some of the many creative works featured. Organized chronologically from the Roman catacomb paintings to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, the book encompasses almost all the major artistic disciplines (dance is conspicuously absent) and a variety of styles and eras, with a focus on Western art. (Sadao Watanabe’s Last Supper stencil print and Japanese American artist Makoto Fujimura’s illuminated Gospels project are the only two Eastern/Eastern-influenced works.) I’m impressed by how fluent Glaspey is in each area. He can speak just as easily about silent film as he can about Gothic architecture and contemporary folk art!

The author says his selection process was guided by these criteria:

  1. works that are universally esteemed for their craftsmanship and creativity, not only admired by Christians but also by those outside the faith
  2. works that stand up well to repeated exposure, the kind of art that can be visited again and again, because there is always something new to discover
  3. works that speak to people across time, cultures, national boundaries, and denominational divides

Preempting readers’ tendencies to object to certain omissions, Glaspey adds,

This is most emphatically not a list of the absolute best or greatest works, nor does it imply any ranking system. Instead, it attempts to represent the breadth and depth of what Christians have accomplished in the arts, and is an intentionally quirky mix of the widely known and the mostly unknown.

Each of the seventy-five entries contains not only discussion of the content, formal qualities, and historical context of the highlighted work but also an overview of the artist’s oeuvre and a mini spiritual biography. These are not generic glosses or impassive info dumps. On the contrary, Glaspey devotes individualized care to each one in the space of about four pages, giving us both concision and substance. He likens his offerings to movie trailers: they are meant to give you a sense of the artwork’s flavor and entice you to explore it more fully on your own.

La Sagrada Familia ceiling
Ceiling detail of La Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona, designed by Antoni Gaudí, begun 1882.

Continue reading “Book Review: 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know by Terry Glaspey”