We’re currently in the Octave of Easter, the first week of the church’s most festal season of the year. It may be that your church celebrates only one day of Easter (last Sunday). But those that follow the liturgical calendar extend the celebration for fifty days, all the way to Pentecost Sunday! The stores have already moved on, rushing us ahead to Mother’s Day, but counterculturally, we linger at the Resurrection, dwelling with its mystery and joy over a longer span.
Last summer I visited the Grand Rapids Art Museum in Michigan for the first time. One of the pieces that has stayed in my mind is Egg Sketches by contemporary small metals artist Autumn Brown. It’s an installation of thirteen mixed-media egg vignettes—bursting, melting, sprouting, stretching—arranged on a shelf and wall. The artist said these sketches were inspired by the work of Peter Carl Fabergé, whose egg-shaped objets d’art, commissioned annually as Easter gifts for the Russian empress between 1885 and 1916, contained surprises inside, and Hieronymus Bosch, who used the egg in some, shallwe say, abnormalways.
I immediately thought of the Resurrection when I saw it.
(See better photo, via ArtPrize, at bottom of post. The elements are arranged in a slightly different way.)
The egg as a symbol of fertility and rebirth predates Christianity, having been used in the ancient cultures of Egypt, Mesopotamia (the Near East), and Crete. For the early Christians, it had obvious crossover appeal: the extrusion of a living creature by incubation, after its vital principle has lain dormant, or seemingly extinct, became a picture of the incubation of Christ in the tomb, and his subsequent “hatching,” his being risen to new life. Traditions of egg dyeing, eating, and game playing emerged in Christian communities in connection to Easter, an extension of religious celebration. As you hard-boil eggs, paint them, display them in baskets, crack them together with friends, and snack on them, you are, the church taught, reinforcing the precious gospel truth that Christ has cracked open the shell of death that encased him—and us—making eternal life possible.
The first of Brown’s egg sketches that attracted me was the tomb-like one on the right. Its cracks lined with silver, it is reminiscent of kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery using gold, silver, or platinum. The front of this egg has a large aperture, which reveals a glass-encased pill. The egg sits atop a pile of stones—or is it the broken ceramic shell pieces?
Several constituent pieces of Brown’s Egg Sketches make use of cross-forms. One egg is pierced all around by them. But a hole provides a way out, from darkness into light.
Another egg is formed in outline only—a metal frame, arcing underneath a kneeling human figure who holds what appears to be a broken network of crosses (resembling telephone poles). The wire that once presumably held them together is snapped in multiple places, twisting every which way, as the crosses come tumbling down. The posture of the figure recalls Christ in Gethsemane, pleading with God to let the impending suffering pass him by. Life and death play together in this sketch, two elements of one story. Continue reading “Egg Sketches by Autumn Brown”→
“Journey to the Cross: Artists Visualize Christ’s Passion” (+ Part 2): As a devotional support for Passion Week and to show the breadth of Christian art across cultures, I’ve curated an online gallery of thirteen art images for the International Mission Board. Spanning the Last Supper through the Resurrection, the images come from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Japan, Bulgaria, the Philippines, China, Croatia, India, South Africa, Australia, Ecuador, Ukraine, Malaysia, and Slovenia.
FREE SONG DOWNLOADS:
“Into the Woods My Master Went”: Last summer singer-songwriter Seth Woods (The Whiskey Priest) discovered in an old Baptist hymnal an unusual nineteenth-century hymn text by Sidney C. Lanier, about Christ in Gethsemane—unusual not just for its content but for its rhyme and meter. In the first verse, Jesus enters the garden and receives the friendship of nature—the olive leaves caress him for comfort, and the thorns retract so as not to hurt him. In the second verse, Jesus departs from the garden, assured in his mission, and is forthwith arrested, taken from trees (olive grove) to tree (cross). Woods and Richard Kentopp (The Gentle Wolves) each took a stab at setting the text to music, and they invited four other friends—Jana Horn, Bruce Benedict, Alex Dupree (Idyl), and Chris Simpson (Mountain Time)—to do the same. These six retunings are available for free download via Bandcamp. The diverse results demonstrate how the same text can inspire different creative approaches.
“Wheat and Tares” and “Draw Me to You”: The Windtalkers is a Florida-based husband and wife duo (Benny and Ashley Permuy) backed by a band of musician friends who seek to create songs of life and truth unto the Lord. Through NoiseTrade they’re offering two of the seven tracks from their upcoming album All Creation Groans (available May 30): the blues-inflected “Wheat and Tares,” and the cello-backed “Draw Me to You.”
“Refiguring the Biblical” juried exhibition (includes cash prizes): Others Imagining Initiative hopes to organize a juried art exhibition featuring racially diverse depictions of biblical characters, awarding prize money to select artists. The purpose is to help promote a Christian visual culture that does not elevate white Jesus but rather is inclusive of minorities. Submissions would be limited to current and recently graduated art students (BA/BFA within the last two years), and the exhibition would open in January 2018 at Biola University, hopefully traveling to other US universities as well. The viability of this project is dependent on the raising of funds through Kickstarter.
“Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures” (The Met Cloisters): On display through May 20. “Small in scale, yet teeming with detail, miniature boxwood carvings have been a source of wonder since their creation in the Netherlands in the 16th century. On these intricately carved objects—some measuring a mere two inches (five centimeters) in diameter—the miracles and drama of the Bible unfold on a tiny stage. Many of the works can be opened and closed: masterfully crafted hinges and clasps still function today. . . . Offering new insight into the methods of production and cultural significance of these awe-inspiring works of art, this exhibition [organized in partnership with the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Rijksmuseum] highlights more than four years of research that has used cutting-edge technology to understand these elegantly precise miniature rosaries, prayer beads and altarpieces.” The AGO’s Boxwood Project is a fantastic resource—an online catalogue raisonné, with photos and essays.
Now Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You have said so.” But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?” But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed. —Matthew 27:11–14
Consider the incredible self-control Jesus exercises in his appearance before Pilate. He has just come from his religious trial, where he was passed from Annas to Caiaphas to the Sanhedrin and found guilty of blasphemy. But the Sanhedrin does not have the authority to issue death sentences, so they turn Jesus over to the civil authorities, claiming he’s a threat to Roman power, guilty of sedition.
Both charges are false, and yet Jesus gives no defense against either one. Why? Why not prove that he truly is the Son of God, and that he’s no insurrectionist? Why not clear his name? In John’s account of the trial before Pilate (18:33–38), Jesus is more verbal; he explains, “My kingdom is not of this world.” But still, he offers no hard evidence, calls no witnesses (they’ve scattered anyway). He essentially sits back and lets the judgment fall.
English poet and clergyman Richard Crashaw (ca. 1613–1649) was inspired by Christ’s silence under pressure to pen an epigrammatic verse unpacking its significance. As a teenager attending Charterhouse School in London, he and his fellow students were required to write epigrams based on the epistle and Gospel readings from the day’s chapel services, and it’s a practice Crashaw continued throughout his life. The following was originally published in Steps to the Temple: Sacred Poems, with Other Delights of the Muses in 1646.
“Matthew 27”by Richard Crashaw
And he answered them nothing.
O Mighty Nothing! unto thee,
Nothing, we owe all things that be.
God spake once when he all things made,
He sav’d all when he Nothing said.
The world was made of Nothing then;
’Tis made by Nothing now again.
In “Matthew 27,” Crashaw apostrophizes the word Nothing. (Apostrophe is a poetic device in which the speaker addresses an absent person, an abstract idea, or a thing; Paul does it, for example, in 1 Corinthians 15:55: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”) He plays on its opposite: everything. By no thing comes all things. Continue reading “The “Nothing” that won our salvation”→
“. . . circle through New York” project: What a clever way to foster relationships and spread cultural wealth! “In their new project A talking parrot, a high school drama class, a Punjabi TV show, the oldest song in the world, a museum artwork, and a congregation’s call to action circle through New York, artists Lenka Clayton and Jon Rubin create a complex system of social and material exchange that brings together city communities often separated by cultural, economic, geographic, or circumstantial boundaries. The artists have drawn an imaginary circle through Harlem, the South Bronx, Queens, and Manhattan’s Upper East Side and invited six public venues along the circle’s path to participate in a system of social and material exchange. These spaces, which include a pet store, a high school, a TV network, an academic research institute, the Guggenheim, and a church, serve as the project’s cocreators and hosts. The artists worked with the venues to select aspects of their identities—referenced in the project’s full title—that will rotate among the six locations over a period of six months.” Commissioned as part of the Guggenheim Social Practice initiative, the project is now in its second month and will wrap up in August.
“The Shimmering Glory of a Modern Indigenous New Zealand Chapel”: Completed in 1961, the Futuna Chapel in Wellington is, according to architect Nick Bevin, “New Zealand’s most significant building of the twentieth century.” Influenced by elements of wharenui (Maori meetinghouses), it was designed by John Scott, the country’s first university-trained Maori architect, as part of a retreat center for the Catholic Marist Brothers, and was built by volunteers from the order. Auckland artist Jim Allen was hired to design the acrylic glass windows, a Stations of the Cross frieze, and several mosaics, and to sculpt a crucifix for the main altar. The Society of Mary had to sell the retreat center in 2000 for financial reasons; the Futuna Trust has been formed to protect the chapel from demolition, but not before the surrounding land was turned into a townhouse development. The chapel is now deconsecrated, serving as host to lectures, concerts, and other events. Many great photos of its interior and exterior can be viewed at the link above, or, for further study, check out the recent book Futuna: Life of a Building.
Disney animator Glen Keane on spiritual transformation: Last month’s theatrical release of Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast has sparked renewed interest in the 1991 animated classic. On one of the special features of the DVD/Blu-ray release of the animated version, I was fascinated to hear that Glen Keane—who animated the original Beast along with Ariel, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Tarzan, Rapunzel, and many other beloved Disney characters—is a Christian whose own story of spiritual transformation was the driving inspiration, for him, behind the Beast’s transformation sequence at the end of the movie. (Visual influences included Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais and Michelangelo’s slave sculptures.) In an interview, Keane described his approach to animating this climactic moment:
For me, it’s really an expression of my spiritual life. There’s a verse in the Bible that says, “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creation. Old things have passed away, and all things have become new.” I wrote that on my exposure sheet there as I’m drawing this, because it’s really about an inner spiritual transformation that’s taking place with the Beast. And I saw it as a parable of my own life—that I got to express that. It was sincere, it was real for me. It was very real for the prince. I don’t know that there’s ever an illustration more clear as to what really can take place in a person’s life spiritually than this animated character transforming from an animal to the prince.
“The Dark of Doubt Dispelled: Odilon Redon’s Day appears at last . . .”: On March 26 I wrote a reflection for ArtWay on one of Odilon Redon’s lithographs. Showing the head of Christ haloed by the sun, his crown of thorns disentangling, it’s the last in a suite of twenty-four prints inspired by Gustave Flaubert’s novel/drama The Temptation of Saint Anthony.
Cities, a five-song cycle by Jonathon Roberts: “I have a personal goal of setting the whole Bible to music,” writes Jonathon Roberts. “The Bible is the starting point for most of my projects, regardless of the style. I connect best with a passage of Scripture when I explore it artistically. The challenge has led me down some interesting roads musically and lyrically, since the subject matter doesn’t always fit in a nice box.” Cities is Roberts’s most recent work; it’s a chamber-pop song cycle personifying the biblical cities of Bethlehem, Ephesus, Jerusalem, Jericho, and the “New City” described in Revelation. Listen to “Bethlehem,” inspired by Micah 5:2, below, and the rest here. The whole piece is a lot of fun!
Roberts’s interest in deepening his and others’ engagement with the Bible led him to found, with Emily Clare Zempel, the organization Spark and Echo Arts, which commissions works of visual art, music, theater, poetry, fiction, dance, and film that respond directly to scripture. Its aim is to “illuminate” the entire Bible, using various art forms, by 2020, creating a platform and framework for artists to explore this ancient sacred text, as well as a rich resource for the church. Look out for a major web redesign, to launch in the next few months.
Our digital age has taught us to consume content quickly rather than thoughtfully. Even fine art. People can go to a museum, spend hours looking at hundreds of works, and walk out exhausted, not really having seen anything. I am ashamed to say that this has sometimes been my approach. I’m traveling, I pay a $15 admission fee to the local art museum, and I have three hours to explore; to get the most out of my money, I figure, I want to see as much as possible within that time frame. Where permitted, I snap photos of the pieces I want to spend more time with later when I get home—but then they’re just pixels. I miss out on experiencing their materiality.
The same principle is often at play with buffets too: we pay a set price for access to a variety of foods, so naturally, we want to sample a little bit of everything, overstuffing ourselves so we can feel like we took full advantage of the “unlimited” perk. (Otherwise, we might as well have payed per menu item somewhere cheaper, right?) But as my wise mother once told me: You’re not paying to feel stuffed; you’re paying to feel satisfied. You’ll feel more satisfied if you choose a few good items in decent-size portions, rather than a spoonful here, a spoonful there, of everything from A to Z. That way, you’ll be able to better savor what you eat.
My mom’s advice translates well, I think, to museum going.
In 2008 art-world outsider Phil Terry discovered how nourishing, how energizing, it can be to actually spend time with a work of art for more than the standard eight seconds. In 2009 he officially launched Slow Art Day, a global, annual event whose mission is to help people discover the joy of looking at and loving art. It’s set for April 8 this year—a week from Saturday. The concept is simple: Go to a museum or gallery, look at five different works of art for ten minutes each, and discuss the experience with other participants. One hundred seventy venues (and counting) have signed up as hosts this year. One, the Rubin Museum, has published three tips for those who think, “What do I do while I’m looking?” Also check out the Artsy editorial “How Long Do You Need to Look at a Work of Art to Get It?”
Another resource is the Visual Literacy website of the Toledo Museum of Art. It outlines a six-step process for engaging with art called the Art of Seeing Art™: look, observe, see, describe, analyze, interpret. It elucidates the difference between looking and seeing (likening it to the difference between skimming and reading a text) and provides a vocabulary for discussion, covering the elements of art and the principles of design. I recommend this website to anyone who has ever said (or been told), “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be looking for.” Continue reading “Slow Art Day: April 8, 2017”→
The Swiss artist Albert Chavaz (1907–1990) is best known for his paintings, but he also worked in mosaic, ceramics, engraving, and stained glass. In 1963 the parish of Vercorin, a small village in the Swiss Alps, tore down the nave of its twelfth-century Saint Boniface Church, leaving the bell tower and chancel intact. Beside this site they built a new church, commissioning Chavaz to design and make a set of stained glass windows on the Stations of the Cross.
These windows were installed in 1965, a total length of about forty feet, running in a horizontal band above the entryway. They tell the story of Christ’s journey using large swaths of vibrant color to make up the figures, set against a ground of mainly grays and blues. For the last station, Chavaz chose to replace the traditional Burial of Christ with the Resurrection.
There are many people and organizations committed to integrating faith and the arts, and they often organize opportunities for public participation. Here are some such opportunities being offered this spring and summer, organized by date. The last one, a weeklong course taught by David Taylor, looks especially appealing to me and my context, and I’m considering registering.
A few early-bird registration/application deadlines are coming up very soon, on March 31, so give these a gander sooner than later. Click on the links for information on schedules/syllabi, speakers, accommodations, and fee breakdowns. Room and board are not included in the cost quotes I’ve listed unless specifically noted.
If you’re reading this post sometime after spring 2017, or the application deadlines are too tight for you, you’ll be pleased to know that some of these events occur yearly, and if not, you’re sure to find similar ones. Check out the websites of the organizing bodies to see what they have going on.
Title:“Art and Theology” (course) Dates: March 26–29, 2017 Location: Ripon College Cuddesdon, Oxford, England Organizer:Art and Christianity Enquiry (ACE) Cost: £225 (~ $280 US) (includes room and board) Instructors: Christopher Irvine; Alison Milbank; Sophie Hacker; Stephen Stavrou; Laura Moffatt Description: “This short course is designed to give participants the opportunity to both engage with Christian art and to reflect through class presentations and discussion how art is perceived. Each day will balance theoretical input with visits to see art in churches, galleries, and chapels in Oxford. We will examine the contexts in which Christian art is viewed, suggest ways of how we may reflect theologically on contemporary art, and look at the place of art in churches within its architectural and liturgical context.” (I’m intrigued by the lecture title “Museums and Galleries as a Theological Resource”!)
Title:“Lux Ecclesiae: The Light of the Church” (lecture series) Dates: April 25–29, 2017 Location: Paraclete Retreat House, Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts, USA Organizer:Community of Jesus Speakers: Msgr. Timothy Verdon; Filippo Rossi Cost: $1,000 (includes room and board; single-lecture options available) Description: “Practically from the beginning of its history, the Church has used architecture and the visual arts to express its life, investing thought, creative energies and resources. The reasons for this choice are theological and pastoral, but also anthropological: human beings want to ‘see’, are frustrated if they cannot see, define ‘seeing’ as understanding (as when, grasping a point, we say, ‘I see’), and desire above all things to see the God who, invisible in himself, became visible in Jesus Christ.” Monsignor Timothy Verdon, academic director of the Mount Tabor Ecumenical Centre for Art and Spirituality in Barga, Italy, will develop these themes in a series of seven lectures, and sacred artist Filippo Rossi will give a talk as well.
Title:Movies and Meaning Festival Dates: April 27–30, 2017 Location: KiMo Theatre, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA Organizer:The Porch Cost: $189 (Get 10% off using the code IMAGE at checkout) Speakers: Alice Walker; Mona Haydar; Gareth Higgins; Brian McLaren; Malidoma Somé Description: The third annual Movies and Meaning Festival, an interfaith initiative, is centered on the theme “Hope in the Dark.” Over one weekend, participants will be inspired and challenged on this theme by artists and activists who work at the intersection of creativity, peace, spirituality, and social change. Films will serve as touchstones throughout the event; screenings include Pete’s Dragon; The Red Balloon; Mary andMax; Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth; Embrace of the Serpent; Reds; I Am Belfast; The ColorPurple; and more. Participants will walk away with a renewed spirit for social justice and tools for community healing. Continue reading “Upcoming courses, workshops, conferences”→
Still wet behind the ears, he’s Spirit-pushed
up Jordan’s banks into the wilderness.
Angels hover praying ’round his head.
Animals couch against his knees and ankles
intuiting a better master. The Man
in the middle—new Adam in old Eden—
is up against it, matched with the ancient
Adversary. For forty days and nights
he tests the baptismal blessing and proves to his dismay
the Man is made of sterner stuff than Adam:
the Man will choose to be the Son God made him.
Mark dedicates a spare two verses to this initiatory event in the life of Christ: the forty days of temptation he endured immediately following his baptism: “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him” (Mark 1:12–13, ESV; cf. Matthew 4:1–11, Luke 4:1–13).
I’m intrigued by Mark’s use of the word driven (ekballō) to describe the manner in which the Spirit imparts motion to Christ. Whereas Matthew and Luke use the gentler led (anagō), Mark implies something more forceful: ejected, cast forth, hurled. In his idiomatic translation of the Bible, The Message, Eugene H. Peterson uses push: “At once, this same Spirit pushed Jesus out into the wild” (emphasis mine).
So the same Spirit who had just alighted on Jesus in the waters of the Jordan, presiding over God’s pronouncement that “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11), now pushes Jesus into the Judean desert, away from civilization. Why? So that in the quiet, he could get to better know himself and God, to better discern the task to which he had been called. This process necessarily involved doing battle with the prospects of other paths, other identities.
“Turn these stones into bread.” “Jump; let’s see if God saves you.” “Worship me; I’ll give you the kingdom of earth.”
Satan tries to draw Jesus from a messiahship of self-sacrifice to a messiahship of power. Performing miracles for his own self-benefit, to avoid any discomfort or pain in life; performing miracles for show, like a magician, to impress the masses; becoming an earthly king, with political control and dominion—these are all temptations Jesus would face again. Here he has the opportunity to confront them head-on in preparation for his imminent ministry to the Israelites. Over this period of forty days, Jesus solidifies his mission, rejecting the vision of himself and his life that Satan lays out for him. Instead of gratification, pride, and riches, Jesus chooses purity, humility, and poverty. Continue reading “Voices in the desert—whose blessing will we heed?”→
As you may have noticed, I’ve had to ease up lately on my self-imposed one-post-a-week rule to accommodate other projects. For February and March, I’ve been teaching an adult Sunday school course at my church called “Art and the Church: Seeing the Sacred in Global Christian Art”; I have a really great group of people exploring the topic with me, and I’ve enjoyed seeing which images they respond to most. I’ve also been invited by three separate entities to produce content on their platforms this spring: by a missions organization, to curate an online gallery of Passion art; by a divinity school, to write a post for its blog; and by a Christian ministry at Brown University, to deliver a talk to undergraduates. Moreover, I just returned from a trip to California, where I attended a Biola University–sponsored art symposium called “Art in a Postsecular Age”; I got to meet Matthew Milliner and Jonathan Anderson and hear from a panel of other distinguished speakers.
So, while I had every intention of getting this list out last week to coincide with the start of Lent, slide preparations, permissions e-mails, and travels have claimed my focus. I regret that all this revving up has come during a season dedicated to slowing down. Please forgive the slackness, but I’ve decided to practice the “holy pause” for the next forty days (through Easter Sunday). To fast from my obsession with productivity. I will still honor my obligation to those who have commissioned me for specific tasks, but I will be lightening up on the frequency of blog posts. In lieu of Lent-related Art & Theology content, I lift up the following supports for your journey.
Online devotional with visual art and music: Each Lenten season since 2012, Kevin Greene, an associate pastor at West End Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, has published an online devotional that comprises for each day an art image, a short scripture reading, a prayer, and a music file. I absolutely love this model, with its spare style: because the entries are light on text, they invite silence, contemplation, seeing, listening. Greene’s image selection is stellar. He doesn’t go for the obvious choices but rather aims at something more atmospheric, more slant. Among the painted subjects, for example, you’ll find a stairway, a storm, a dancer, a reaper; day 1, Ash Wednesday, was a sailboat on troubled waters (pictured below). Fine-art viewing isn’t something that’s typically a part of Protestant devotional practice, so in response to questions he’s received, Greene has described how art operates on the imagination and the spirit. I’ve been greatly blessed moving through the first week of Lent with this companion, and I can’t wait to dive into the backlist entries later on. You can sign up via e-mail in the left sidebar, or simply bookmark the website and visit it each morning.
Lent Photo Challenge: The UK-based Bible Society invites people to take one photo per day throughout the season based on rotating themes (e.g., wilderness, hospitality, ask), then share them on social media using the hashtag #LentChallenge. Today is the sixth day of Lent (Sundays are excluded from the traditional forty-day count), and the assigned theme is “fear.”
Essays, short stories, poems, art: Founded in 1989, Image journal seeks “to demonstrate the continued vitality and diversity of contemporary art and literature that engage with the religious traditions of Western culture.” This Lent they’ve curated a selection of literary essays, short stories, poems, and art images from their back issues and their blog, Good Letters, that relate to the season, as well as to Easter. I especially enjoyed “Jeffrey Mongrain: An Iconography of Eloquence.” A few selections might be accessible only to subscribers (you can subscribe here; you won’t be disappointed!). Also available: the book God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter, a full-color devotional with contributions by some of Image’s favorites. Lent is not about becoming lost in our brokenness, the description says, but about cleansing the palate so that we can taste life more fully.
“Lent Is Here to Throw Us Off Again: Finding healing in repetition, community, and art” by W. David O. Taylor: An excellent introduction to Lent, addressing unselfing, dying a good death, opening up vacant space, and praying with the eyes. This Christianity Today article is adapted from the foreword Taylor wrote for artist James B. Janknegt’s new book, Lenten Meditations, which features forty of Janknegt’s paintings on the parables of Jesus, along with written reflections. Artists like Janknegt, Taylor writes, “fix before us an image of a world broken by our own doing, but not abandoned by God. They question our habits of sight. They arrest our attention. See this image. See it for the first time, again. See what has become hidden and distorted. See the neglected things. See the small but good things. It is in this way that artists can rescue us from what the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge calls the ‘film of familiarity’ and the ‘lethargy of custom.’”
Stations of the Cross in Washington, DC: This Lent, Dr. Aaron Rosen and the Rev. Dr. Catriona Laing of the Church of the Epiphany have organized a combination pilgrimage and art exhibition, featuring works located throughout Washington, DC, in places both sacred and secular. Mostly contemporary, some newly commissioned, the works include George Segal’s Depression Bread Line, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial by Glenna Goodacre, Barnett Newman’s Stations cycle at the National Gallery of Art, a video installation at First Congregational United Church of Christ by Leni Diner Dothan, and more. Participants can follow the stations by downloading the app “Alight: Art and the Sacred,” which offers maps and audio commentary (my friend Peggy Parker is a contributor!). (If you don’t have a smartphone, you can view the maps and listen to the commentary through a browser by following the primary link above.) Also check out the accompanying devotional guide.
Lent by The Brilliance: This 2012 EP by The Brilliance, a duo comprising David Gungor and John Arndt, has seven tracks: “Dust We Are,”“Now and at the Hour of Our Death” (the rerelease on Brother removes the invocation to Mary), “Dayspring of Life,”“Does Your Heart Break?,” “Holy Communion,” “Violent Loving God,” and “Have You Forsaken Me?” Each one is a beautiful prayer, the words organized around a string quartet. Some take the shape of praise, others lament. God is supplicated for peace, mercy, light. The first track well captures the spirit of Lent: “Be still my soul and let it go, just let it go.” Click here to read a 2015 Hallels interview with The Brilliance, or here to listen to a podcast interview by David Santistevan.
Members of the majority white culture may not realize it, but white Jesus is a fraught symbol. According to black theologian Major J. Jones, when European colonialists came to Africa and began treating its people as less than human because of their color, it became “psychologically impossible” for Africans not to have problems with God’s color. How could they ever conceive of a God who looked just like their oppressor? This legacy of black oppression, of course, traveled to the Americas, where white Jesus is omnipresent in visual culture.
In her book Painting the Gospel: Black Public Art and Religion in Chicago (University of Illinois Press, 2016), art historian Kymberly N. Pinder unpacks some of the ways that twentieth- and twenty-first-century Christians have countered the dominance of white Jesus with alternative sacred imagery that is black-affirming. Lavishly illustrated with sixty color photographs and eight black-and-whites, the book explores African American religious images—murals, mosaics, stained glass, sculptures, even T-shirt designs—from Chicago churches and their neighborhoods between 1904 and the present, focusing on their intersection with the social, political, and theological climates of the times. The image of a black Christ, Pinder argues, participated in some of the most significant movements in black history, including gospel music, sermon broadcasts/televangelism, the Chicago Black Renaissance, the civil rights movement, Black Liberation Theology, and the Mural Movement. The stream of influence flowed both ways, as each church’s preaching and outreach, musical, and visual cultures fed into one another.
A collection of case studies rather than a comprehensive guide, Painting the Gospel features churches whose pastors consciously nurtured a strong visual culture. “These sites,” Pinder writes, “enable me to chart how the arts interact with each other in the performance of black belief in each space, explain how empathetic realism structures these interactions for a variety of publics, and observe how this public art sits within a larger history of mural histories” (2). “Empathetic realism” is a term Pinder develops throughout the book as she considers how religious images have the power to assert political agendas of equality and humanity and thereby empower viewers, providing social and spiritual uplift. “Christ’s own difference, for which he was persecuted, becomes a source of empathy and identity for the African American,” she writes (8).
Christ as a dreadlocked black man on the cross, hip-hop youth kneeling at his feet, and Mary as an African woman in traditional Nigerian dress activate personal narratives for a black audience where private and public, the personal and the holy, the real and the represented, all meld, allowing for a spiritually transformative experience. (22–23)
The book covers works of art that have been largely excluded from art historical, theological, and sociological scholarship because of their racial or religious particularity. Working at the confluence of these disciplines, Pinder is concerned not with the artistic merit of the images but rather how they make meaning, how they “work” for an individual or a community—and especially how they interacted with and impacted certain milestones in black history. Her approach, her angle of inquiry, is much in the vein of David Morgan and Sally Promey.