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 iPhone app “Alight: Art and the Sacred,” which offers maps and audio commentary (my friend Peggy Parker is a contributor!). (If you don’t have an iPhone, 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.
— “Translate: Art as Mission” symposium, February 25, 9 a.m.–3:30 p.m.: This Saturday, Third Church of Richmond, Virginia, is bringing together twenty practitioners, advocates, and theorists of the arts as front-line missions (both local and abroad) for a series of presentations and discussions that is free and open to the public. “Our aim is to demonstrate that ‘art as mission’ is not about using people and objects merely as ‘tools’ for missions or proselytization, but is about recognizing that generative, creative practices can and should be intrinsically, inherently ‘missional’ because they put on display and draw people towards the rich, abundant life we were made to experience and have together as God’s children, renewed as the Body of Christ. Together we’ll explore how the arts are a distinctively integrative, incarnational way to be human, and to bear the image of our creator God.” Click on the link to see the schedule and to find out more about the speakers.
— “Charged with the Grandeur of God: Faithful Imaginations in a Meaningful Creation” lecture, February 25, 7–9 p.m.: Also on Saturday, Ken Myers, founder and host of Mars Hill Audio and author of All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture, will be speaking at Wallace Presbyterian Church in College Park, Maryland, on how alert imaginations enable us to receive the meaning in Creation and to rearticulate Creation’s meaning in works of art. A former arts and humanities editor for NPR, Myers writes of the mission of Mars Hill’s bimonthly “audio journal”: “We explore the various factors that have given modern Western culture its distinctive character. We also try to describe what cultural life — its practices, beliefs, and artifacts — might look like if it was the product of thoughtful Christian imaginations.” Each issue features guests from a variety of disciplines (poets, visual artists, scientists, philosophers, musicians and musicologists, social commentators, etc.); you can listen to back issues here, and read a 2013 profile on Myers from the Weekly Standard here. This event is sponsored by the Eliot Society, a new nonprofit in Washington, DC, that aims to “draw Christian faith and artistic culture back together, by promoting the thoughtful exploration of the work of creative men and women from both the past and the present.” Click here to RSVP.
— Last season’s Italia’s Got Talent featured a group called Quadri Plastici (“Living Paintings,” or “Tableaux”), which uses actors in period costumes and special lighting effects to recreate famous religious paintings in the flesh. According to the group’s website, the tradition of staging live reproductions of paintings originated in Avigliano in southern Italy in the 1920s: the participants, frozen in position, would be rolled into the town square on mule-drawn carts as part of the celebration of Saint Vitus’s feast day on June 15. In their television performance last year, Quadri Plastici recreated three Caravaggio paintings: The Crucifixion of Saint Peter, The Calling of Saint Matthew, and The Death of the Virgin. Gabriele Finaldi, director of London’s National Gallery, was impressed, and he commissioned the group to perform two of the paintings from the museum’s “Beyond Caravaggio” exhibition in October: The Taking of Christ and Salome Receives the Head of John the Baptist. To better engage the public, these stagings took place outside in Trafalgar Square.
— Through Paul Neeley’s Global Christian Worship blog, I discovered a gem of a song: a heavy-metal arrangement of the nineteenth-century Swedish hymn “Bred dina vida vingar” (Thy Holy Wings) by the Finnish worship band Metallmässa (Metal Mass). Unlike its marginal status in most countries, heavy metal music is mainstream in Finland, which has the most heavy metal bands per capita in the world. “Metal masses”—church services performed in a heavy-metal style—became a trend in 2006; into this current stepped the group Metallmässa, whose lead singer, Christer Romberg, was a contestant on the 2007 Finnish Idols. Their headbanging rendition of “Bred dina vida vingar,” performed in the music video below, is from their 2012 EP Sanctus. The words are by Lina Sandell, “the Fanny Crosby of Sweden”; the tune—which I think is just beautiful (and quite catchy!)—is a traditional Swedish folk tune. Metallmässa is no longer active, but Romberg can be found performing a cappella with his four siblings as part of Vokalgruppen Romberg.
Augustine is a remarkable exegete of cultural liturgies that beset us—the rites and rituals of ambition, consumption, privilege, that aren’t just things that we do but do things to us. The frat house, the football stadium, the rituals of Wall Street finance—these are quasi-religious sites in late modern culture, not because they purvey a message but because they are incubators of love that are rife with rituals that train and direct our hearts and our desires. And conversion is no magical panacea for that; belief doesn’t inoculate our loves from their immersion in those cultural liturgies. So we need to constantly take stock of the formation of our loves and longings, all the subtle ways that secular liturgies bend our desires toward earth rather than heaven.
Consider, too, the act of looking as a cultural liturgy: at our phones and computer screens; at the staged displays in store windows, and the staged photos on social media; at the thirty-second commercial the network forces us to watch before we get back to our show, or the billboard we can’t help but notice when we’re stuck in traffic. Sometime around the year 600, Pope Gregory I insightfully wrote that pictures teach us what to adore, what to imitate. What pictures do you see throughout the day? Is Christ one of them?
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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 US 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.
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.
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!
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.
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”→