The Strife Is Over (Artful Devotion)

Resurrection by Otto Dix
Otto Dix (German, 1891–1969), The Resurrection, 1949. Oil on canvas, 213 × 163.5 cm. Kunstmuseum Stuttgart, Germany.

He . . . has risen.

—Luke 24:6a

The Lord is my strength and my song;
he has become my salvation.
Glad songs of salvation
are in the tents of the righteous:
“The right hand of the Lord does valiantly,
the right hand of the Lord exalts,
the right hand of the Lord does valiantly!”

I shall not die, but I shall live,
and recount the deeds of the Lord.

—Psalm 118:14–17

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SONG: “The Strife Is O’er” | Words: Anonymous Latin poem (first compiled 1695), translated by Francis Potts, 1861 | Music: Vito Aiuto, on Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices by the Welcome Wagon (2012)

 

The strife is o’er, the battle done;
The victory of life is won;
The song of triumph has begun:
Alleluia! Alleluia!

The pow’rs of death have done their worst;
But Christ their legions hath dispersed;
Let shouts of holy joy outburst:
Alleluia! Alleluia!

The three sad days are quickly sped;
He rises glorious from the dead;
All glory to our risen Head:
Alleluia! Alleluia!

He closed the yawning gates of hell;
The bars from heav’n’s high portals fell;
Let songs of praise his triumph tell:
Alleluia! Alleluia!

Lord, by the stripes which wounded thee,
From death’s dread sting your servants free,
That we may live, and sing to thee:
Alleluia! Alleluia!

(I’ve noticed several slight variations in the English lyric translation attributed to Francis Potts. This is the version used by the Welcome Wagon.)


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Easter Sunday, cycle C, click here.

Walking the Via Dolorosa through Amsterdam (Part 3)

This is the final part of my commentary on Art Stations of the Cross: Troubled Waters, a multisite exhibition in Amsterdam running from March 6 to April 22. (Read parts one and two.) Unless otherwise noted, all photos are by Eric James Jones/ArtandTheology.org.

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STATION 10. This is the one station I did not get a chance to see, due to its more limited opening hours. Anywhere, Anytime by Masha Trebukova is a temporary installation in the Mozes en Aäronkerk (Church of Moses and Aaron) in Amsterdam’s Waterlooplein neighborhood. It consists of a nine-foot-tall octagonal structure (a “columbarium”) covered with paintings on newspaper, as well as six large-format “books” of paintings on glossy magazine pages.

Columbarium by Masha Trebukova
Masha Trebukova (Russian, 1962–), Anywhere, Anytime, 2019. Temporary installation at the Moses and Aaron Church, Amsterdam, consisting of an eight-paneled “columbarium” with paintings on newsprint, each panel 60 × 290 cm, and “How to spend it,” six painted-over magazines. Photo courtesy of Sant’Egidio Nederland.

A columbarium is a room, building, or freestanding structure with niches for the public storage of funerary urns (which hold the ashes of the deceased). Ancient Romans decorated theirs with frescoes, often of peaceful scenes of the hereafter. Trebukova, on the other hand, has painted this columbarium with images of war and violence, exposing the savagery that causes death. This is not a celebration of paradise gained; it’s a lament for paradise lost.

Hear the artist briefly introduce the piece:

Columbarium (detail) by Masha Trebukova
Masha Trebukova, Anywhere, Anytime (detail). Photo courtesy of Sant’Egidio Nederland.

Trebukova used as her painting surface pages from newspapers and magazines, the headlines often creating consonance with the images while the ads create dissonance. The sleek photos selling vacations and luxury goods, enticing you to treat yourself, contrast starkly with Trebukova’s slashes and smears of color that depict masked gunmen terrorizing families, mass executions, refugees on the run, and individuals huddled over the corpses of loved ones. This contrast urges viewers to consider how our own self-absorption might be restricting our view of what’s going on in the larger world. What incinerations are being carried out as we casually engage in our leisure reading and other entertainments? The vaults in Anywhere, Anytime are fictive, but they prompt us to imagine the many bodies and places being turned to ash as armed conflict and acts of terrorism persist globally. [Images below sourced from the artist’s website]

The books are too fragile to be handled by visitors, so they are displayed open in glass cases, laid flat on a black-clothed table, and a video screen nearby loops through all the images in succession. Here is an excerpt from the video, a showcase of book five:

The book appears to have originally been a dance magazine, but Trebukova subverts the elegance associated with controlled bodily movement by recontextualizing these found images of dancers. A woman walking down a rustic road in pointe shoes is given a heavy burden on her back—a child—and a head scarf, recasting her as one of the many mothers fleeing violence in the Middle East. On the following page spread, another dancer’s graceful backbend is re-envisioned as an involuntary response to his having been shot; unlike on stage, this movement will end with a fall.

The Moses and Aaron Church is home to the Amsterdam chapter of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic lay association committed to prayer, the poor, and peace. Existing in over seventy countries, Sant’Egidio seeks especially to serve the sick, the homeless (including displaced persons), the elderly, and the imprisoned. “War is the mother of every poverty,” they say, and they have been key players in peace initiatives in Mozambique, Algeria, the Balkans, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other areas.

Trebukova, Masha_Columbarium (detail3)
Masha Trebukova, page spread from “How to spend it.” Photo courtesy of Sant’Egidio Nederland.

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STATION 11. Erica Grimm’s Salt Water Skin Boats, a collaboration with artist and arborist Tracie Stewart and soundscape specialist Sheinagh Anderson, is an installation of five sculptural coracles made of interwoven willow, dogwood, fig, and cedar branches; animal skin and gut; cheesecloth; and bathymetric ocean maps imprinted with scientific measurements of things like glacial melt, sea-level rise, and ocean acidification. These are suspended from the ceiling along the nave of the Waalse Kerk and are lit from inside, and they are accompanied by an ambient soundscape that viewers activate by scanning a QR code.

Salt Water Skin Boats by Erica Grimm
Erica L. Grimm (Canadian, 1959–), Salt Water Skin Boats, 2018. Willow, dogwood, fig, and cedar branches; cheesecloth; animal skin and gut; bathymetric ocean maps; layers of wax; earbuds; LED lights. Installation view at Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam, in March 2019, part of Art Stations of the Cross.

Small lightweight boats without rudder, anchor, or keel, coracles are unstable watercraft, easily carried by currents and wind. Back in the day, Celtic Christian pilgrims would set sail in them, not having any destination in mind but rather trusting that God would steer their little boats to wherever he saw fit. In a sense, we are all “skin boats” afloat on a vast ocean, not knowing where we’ll end up. But Grimm’s incorporation of numerical data that highlight the dangerous warming, acidifying, and expanding of the world’s oceans pushes this metaphor in a new direction; the work “proposes an analogy,” writes curator Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker, “between our bodies and the vast ecology of the global ocean: between the life-sustaining, precariously balanced ocean chemistry and the chemistry of our own salt-water-filled bodies.”  Continue reading “Walking the Via Dolorosa through Amsterdam (Part 3)”

He Went On Ahead (Artful Devotion)

Jesus Entering Jerusalem by Nathan Simpson
Nathan Simpson, Jesus Entering Jerusalem, 1999. Oil on canvas.

And when he had said these things, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem . . .

—Luke 19:28

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SONG: “My Lord” by Hiram Ring, on Home (2013)

 

This Sunday marks the start of Passion Week, with Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, where he is greeted by palm branches and Hosannas. By Thursday, though, these shouts of praise will devolve into “Is it I?,” “I do not know him,” and “Crucify him!”

In a series of simple verses, Hiram Ring’s blues-inflected song “My Lord” moves from Jesus’s triumphal entry to his agony in the garden (where he drinks heavily the bitter draft of suffering) to his crucifixion. The final two verses shift then to his resurrection and his exaltation in heaven.

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Agony in the Garden by Nathan Simpson
Nathan Simpson, Agony in the Garden, 1999. Oil on canvas.
Resurrection by Nathan Simpson
Nathan Simpson, Large Resurrection, 1999. Oil on canvas.

I’m compelled by the Gospel narrative paintings of contemporary Australian artist Nathan Simpson. These are a few I saved from his website a while ago before it went under construction. In Simpson’s Agony in the Garden, Christ’s anguish is palpable. The image combines the Gethsemane narrative with all the suffering that lies ahead, culminating in death. A row of olive trees forms the horizontal beam of a cross, while a rooster (alluding to Peter’s betrayal) forms the vertical; Christ’s head, with swollen eyes and gaping mouth (“My God, my God . . .”), is the point of intersection.

Simpson’s Resurrection painting, by contrast, shows a Christ who’s victorious over death, his face serene. The artist plays with the popular “tree of life” motif, fusing Christ’s body into this flowering, bird-filled plant. An arborescent Christ! See how the nail wound in his left foot is also the tree’s hollow.

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In their latest blog post, SALT Project suggests a simple at-home Holy Week ritual for families that I really like: a Tenebrae Wreath (tenebrae means “shadows”).

Imagine . . . a sort of Advent Wreath in reverse: four candles in a circle with a Paschal candle in the middle, extinguished one by one. Sunday night: beginning with only the Paschal candle lit, read Luke’s story of Palm Sunday, and then light all four candles in joy, hope, and thanksgiving. Thursday night: read Luke’s story of the Last Supper, and extinguish one candle; then read Luke’s story of Gethsemane, and extinguish a second. Friday night: read Luke’s story of Peter’s denials and desertion, and extinguish a third candle; then read Luke’s story of Jesus’ suffering, and extinguish the fourth; and then finally, read Luke’s story of Jesus’ death, and extinguish the Paschal candle. Saturday, the wreath remains unlit and bare, perhaps shrouded with cloth. And Sunday morning, the shroud is gone and all candles are lit, with a few more candles added—along with some flowers and Easter sweets! Read Luke’s story of the empty tomb, and sing your favorite Easter hymn (or two).


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Palm Sunday and the Liturgy of the Passion, cycle C, click here and here.

Walking the Via Dolorosa through Amsterdam (Part 2)

This is part two of my commentary on Art Stations of the Cross: Troubled Waters, a multisite exhibition in Amsterdam running from March 6 to April 22. (Read part one.) Unless otherwise noted, all photos are by Eric James Jones/ArtandTheology.org.

STATION 4. Ocean Eden by Lynn Aldrich is a whimsical coral reef assemblage made out of everyday household cleaning supplies—sponges, scrubbers, scouring pads, mop heads, brushes, plastic gloves, and plungers, a rich biodiversity. Sea urchins, sea anemones, starfish, and snails are among the animals evoked.

Ocean Eden by Lynn Aldrich
Lynn Aldrich (American, 1944–), Ocean Eden, 2008. Sponges, scrubbers, scouring pads, mop heads, brushes, rubber gloves, plungers, and wood, 234 × 168 × 61 cm.

Playful though it is, this bricolage of commercial products, arranged to represent an underwater ecosystem, creates a crass juxtaposition of natural and unnatural that makes the piece tragicomic. The subtext is ecological concern—in particular, for the endangerment of coral reefs. Let’s clean up our oceans, the work seems to say. The assignment of Ocean Eden to station 4, “Jesus meets his mother,” reinforces the traditional conception of nature as mother. Here we meet Mother Nature, who grieves our mistreatment of her.

Ocean Eden by Lynn Aldrich (detail)

Ocean Eden by Lynn Aldrich (detail)

Station 4 is sited at the Keizersgrachtkerk, a church built under the leadership of Abraham Kuyper just two years after the 1886 schism of the Dutch Reformed Church. (Kuyper led the conservative offshoot, the Doleantie.) Aldrich’s assemblage is visible from the street through the main glass entrance doors and so can be viewed even when the church is locked. Luckily, a staff member was there to let us in after hours through a side entrance, so we could see the work closer up. It’s located in a small lobby that dips between stairwells on either side.

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STATION 5. Next on the route is the Amsterdam Museum, whose building complex served from 1580 to 1960 as Burgerweeshuis, the city orphanage. Before that it was a monastery. To mark this change of function, a large entrance gate was built in 1581 off the Kalverstraat, which, as Marleen pointed out to me, features a relief sculpture of a group of orphans gathered around the Holy Spirit, entreating passersby for help:

Wy groeien vast in tal en last. Ons tweede vaders klagen
Ay ga niet voort door dese poort, of help een luttel dragen.

We grow steadily in number and burden. Our second fathers ask with heavy hearts:
“Do not go forth through this gate without helping us a little in our care.”

Orphanage relief sculpture
Relief sculpture by Joost Jansz Bilhamer (Dutch, 1541–1590), above the entrance to the courtyard of the former City Orphanage of Amsterdam. Address: Sint Luciensteeg 27. The inscription is by the Dutch poet Joost van den Vondel. The paint colors, which are not original, seem to me a bit gaudy; to view the sculpture in its pre-restoration state, click here.

Their “second fathers” are, of course, their new caretakers, who run the orphanage. These children are asking for someone to help them carry their burden (poverty, hunger, sickness, lack of education, lack of prospects for the future, feelings of abandonment, longing for love, etc.), which the fathers are helping to shoulder but who can do only so much with their limited power. This sixteenth-century sculpture and inscription resonate with the fifth station of the cross, “Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry his cross.”

But this is only supplementary to the main artwork we’ve come to see: Out of History by Iris Kensmil, located in the Schuttersgalerij (Civic Guards Gallery). Part of the Amsterdam Museum, this gallery is a covered passageway that visitors can enter for free, featuring portraits of Dutch citizens through the centuries. (Admission to the rest of the museum is €15.)

Out of History by Iris Kensmil
Iris Kensmil (Dutch, 1970–), Out of History, 2013. Triptych, oil on canvas, 105 × 465 cm.

An artist of Surinamese descent committed to highlighting black contributions to Dutch history, Iris Kensmil was commissioned by the Amsterdam Museum in 2013 to create a new work to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the Netherlands. (The Netherlands was a major player in the transatlantic slave trade from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries.) She chose to depict three strong black figures from eighteenth-century Surinam (a former Dutch colony in the Guianas) who rose above colonial oppression to secure a position and a future for themselves.

The left panel of this triptych shows Elisabeth Samson (1715–1777), who, through her business acumen, became one of the richest women in Surinam. After this socioeconomic rise, she then successfully petitioned the Dutch government to be allowed to marry a white man, and became the first black woman in Surinam to do so; this consolidated her power. But despite overcoming huge obstacles, Elisabeth’s legacy is somewhat controversial because she amassed and maintained her wealth the same way the rest of the Dutch of Surinam did at that time—through slavery. (She owned a coffee plantation and some forty slaves.) Hear Cynthia McLeod’s super-entertaining TedX talk about Elisabeth Samson, which is just fifteen minutes long. (I could listen to this woman teach me history all day long!)

Out of History by Iris Kensmil
Elisabeth Samson

The central panel of Out of History shows Wilhelmina Kelderman (1734–1836), about whom less is known. What we do know is that she was an enslaved woman from Surinam who purchased her own freedom and that of her son. I think that’s a moneybag she’s holding.  Continue reading “Walking the Via Dolorosa through Amsterdam (Part 2)”

Walking the Via Dolorosa through Amsterdam (Part 1)

Last month I undertook a contemporary art pilgrimage through Amsterdam, curated by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker and Anikó Ouweneel-Tóth under the aegis of Art Stations of the Cross, a project founded in 2016 by Dr. Aaron Rosen and the Rev. Dr. Catriona Laing. (Previous city-specific editions have been in London; Washington, DC; and New York.)

Inspired by the traditional Stations of the Cross, the pilgrimage comprises fifteen stops at thirteen locations across the city, where participants are invited to spend time before a specially chosen contemporary artwork that addresses some form of human or environmental suffering. The route starts at the Basilica of Saint Nicholas (Amsterdam’s patron saint) just across from the train station and weaves through, among other places, a park, the old Jewish quarter, a former orphanage, a church-cum–rock concert hall, a hidden house church where persecuted Catholics used to worship, and the red-light district, ending inside the Oude Kerk (Old Church), the city’s oldest extant building, located right in the heart. Not only the art but also the sites themselves were selected with intention, each one a part of the journey down this via dolorosa, “way of sorrows.”

This was my first time to Amsterdam, and it was such a good way to see the city, learn about the city, and pray for the city—all through the agent of art, which functions in this experience as a series of visual laments. When I encounter suffering or read about it in the news, I am often at a loss for how to bring it before God in prayer. I feel its heaviness but lack the words to express that feeling or to intercede in any concrete way. That’s why I’m so appreciative of artists, whose work so often becomes, for me, a nonverbal prayer addressed to my Maker, as I behold and internalize what the artist has first beheld and internalized and has then shared with me through whatever their medium. This is a gift that artists offer the church: vision, long and deep, that’s sensitive to the glories but also the woes of the world and that invites others in, through the skillful crafting of materials, to see right along with them. That act of seeing—of noticing, of giving attention to—can itself be prayer.

Troubled Waters

Amsterdam was founded as a fishing village at the end of the twelfth century with the building of a dam on the Amstel River. (The name Amstelledamme later evolved into Amsterdam.) Its sixty-plus miles of interconnected canals have earned it the nickname “Venice of the North” and make it the most watery city in the world. These navigable waterways led to Amsterdam becoming, in the seventeenth century, the foremost maritime and economic power in the world, and the wealth that came through international trade also enabled the arts and sciences to flourish throughout the country; that’s why the seventeenth century is known as the Dutch Golden Age. (Think Rembrandt and Vermeer.)

Amsterdam canal

The exhibition’s subtitle, Troubled Waters, alludes to the fraught nature of Amsterdam’s identity as a historic port city into which both goods and people travel. The pioneering Dutch East India Company, an amalgamation of trading companies that is now defunct, is important in global business history as the forerunner of modern corporations, but it also cannot be separated from its involvement in the slave trade. Although slavery was formally abolished in the Netherlands in 1863, it continues in Amsterdam’s sex industry, in which a percentage of workers are victims of human trafficking; girls and women sometimes arrive in shipping containers, enslaved by pimps and even further by ignorant customers.

Other residents of Amsterdam arrive as refugees, and for many of them, water is a formidable danger that must be traversed on the way to safety.

“Troubled waters” also references the acidification, pollution, and rising temperatures of the world’s oceans, which endanger the many marine species that live there. So even the water itself bears wounds.

Although the overall tone of the pilgrimage is one of sorrow, pockets of hope are dispersed throughout, as in the empowered Surinamese painted by Iris Kensmil (station 5), Paul van Dongen’s Rising drawing that counterbalances his Judgment (station 7), Janpeter Muilwijk’s afterlife vision of his dead daughter victoriously bounding over the earth (station 9), the soothing “streams of mercy, never ceasing” that provide an auditory accompaniment to Anjet van Linge’s chiseled “Kyrie eleison” (station 12), and, of course, the inclusion of a resurrection station (station 15).

(Related posts: “Stations of the Cross at the Smithsonian American Art Museum”“Remembering Charleston”)

Though modeled loosely after a medieval devotional practice, Art Stations of the Cross: Troubled Waters is thoroughly modern, incorporating audio and video components, 3-D technologies, and the distinctively contemporary genre of installation art. Figurative art is still present and in some cases interacts with the traditional religious images in its environs, but it often does so transgressively—for example, the photorealistic Madonna and Child wrapped in emergency blankets in station 1 and the decapitated corpus of Christ in station 13.

For more information about Art Stations, which runs through April 22, visit http://www.artstations.org/. There you can find a map, opening times, descriptions, tie-in events, and information on where you can purchase a catalog (available in Dutch or English). Most stops along the route host a stack of brochures that condense this info and that contain a stamp card on the back, where you can mark off the stations you’ve visited. All the exhibition sites are freely accessible. (Oude Kerk waives its admission fee if you present your Art Stations brochure at the entrance desk.)

Below and in two subsequent posts, I will share some of my photos and impressions of each station. Unless otherwise specified, all photos are by my husband, Eric James Jones, and are the property of ArtandTheology.org. Feel free to use them noncommercially, with credit to the artists and a link back to this webpage.

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Madonna del Mare Nostrum by Hansa
Hansa (Hans Versteeg) (Dutch, 1941–), Madonna del Mare Nostrum, 2017. Oil on canvas, 125 × 125 cm. Photo courtesy of the artist.

STATION 1. The route starts at the neo-Baroque Church of St. Nicholas, which temporarily houses one of my favorite and arguably the most confrontational of all the works on the tour: Hans Versteeg’s Madonna del Mare Nostrum: Of, Mantel der Liefde (Our Lady of the Mediterranean Sea: Or, Cloak of Love). A young dark-skinned mother holds her toddler son, both of them wrapped in a thermal blanket like the ones given to refugees to prevent hypothermia. Replacing Mary’s traditional ultramarine robe with a “robe” of metallized polyethylene terephthalate, whose gold surface glints in the sun, emphasizes how she and her boy are clothed not only in holiness but also in need. Because of how the artist chose to frame the composition, we don’t know if the figures are standing in a boat that’s still at sea or on the shore. Regardless, their strongly frontal positioning and their direct stares seem to ask the viewer, “Will you receive us?”  Continue reading “Walking the Via Dolorosa through Amsterdam (Part 1)”

Sowing Tears, Reaping Joy (Artful Devotion)

Sower with Setting Sun by Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890), Sower with Setting Sun, 1888. Oil on canvas, 162.5 × 204.5 cm. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us;
we are glad.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like streams in the Negeb!
Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
He who goes out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing his sheaves with him.

—Psalm 126

Psalm 126 is “a community lament that recalls a previous time of God’s mercy on his people and asks for a fresh show of that mercy” (ESV Study Bible). The second stanza anticipates not only a literal food harvest but also a more general flourishing of life in all its aspects, an abundant crop of joy.

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SONG: “Psalm 126” by Isaac Wardell | Performed by Molly Parden, on Bifrost Arts’ He Will Not Cry Out (2013)

 

Isaac Wardell’s musical adaptation of Psalm 126 was regularly programmed into the worship services of my former church, Citylife, usually as a going-out song, and it was always a favorite of mine. If you’d like to sing it at your church, you can license it through CCLI (#7023230).


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, cycle C, click here.

Down the Road (Artful Devotion)

Two Sons by James B. Janknegt
James B. Janknegt (American, 1953–), Two Sons, 2002. Oil on canvas, 24 × 84 in.

Once there was this man who had two sons. One day the younger son came to his father and said, “Father, eventually I’m going to inherit my share of your estate. Rather than waiting until you die, I want you to give me my share now.” And so the father liquidated assets and divided them. A few days passed and this younger son gathered all his wealth and set off on a journey to a distant land. Once there he wasted everything he owned on wild living. He was broke, a terrible famine struck that land, and he felt desperately hungry and in need. He got a job with one of the locals, who sent him into the fields to feed the pigs. The young man felt so miserably hungry that he wished he could eat the slop the pigs were eating. Nobody gave him anything.

So he had this moment of self-reflection: “What am I doing here? Back home, my father’s hired servants have plenty of food. Why am I here starving to death?I’ll get up and return to my father, and I’ll say, ‘Father, I have done wrong—wrong against God and against you.I have forfeited any right to be treated like your son, but I’m wondering if you’d treat me as one of your hired servants?’”So he got up and returned to his father. The father looked off in the distance and saw the young man returning. He felt compassion for his son and ran out to him, enfolded him in an embrace, and kissed him.

The son said, “Father, I have done a terrible wrong in God’s sight and in your sight too. I have forfeited any right to be treated as your son.”

But the father turned to his servants and said, “Quick! Bring the best robe we have and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet.Go get the fattest calf and butcher it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate because my son was dead and is alive again. He was lost and has been found.” So they had this huge party.

Now the man’s older son was still out in the fields working. He came home at the end of the day and heard music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. The servant said, “Your brother has returned, and your father has butchered the fattest calf to celebrate his safe return.”

The older brother got really angry and refused to come inside, so his father came out and pleaded with him to join the celebration. But he argued back, “Listen, all these years I’ve worked hard for you. I’ve never disobeyed one of your orders. But how many times have you even given me a little goat to roast for a party with my friends? Not once! This is not fair! So this son of yours comes, this wasteful delinquent who has spent your hard-earned wealth on loose women, and what do you do? You butcher the fattest calf from our herd!”

The father replied, “My son, you are always with me, and all I have is yours. Isn’t it right to join in the celebration and be happy? This is your brother we’re talking about. He was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found again!”

—Luke 15:11–32 (The Voice)

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SONG: “Prodigal Son” by Robert Wilkins, on Reverend Robert Wilkins—Memphis Gospel Singer (1964); re-released on Prodigal Son (2014)

Robert Timothy Wilkins (1896–1987) was a gospel blues guitarist and vocalist and a minister of the Church of God in Christ. Part African American, part Cherokee, he was born in Mississippi but spent his entire adult life in Memphis, where he became fairly well known for his music. In 1929 he wrote and recorded the predecessor to “Prodigal Son”: same melody and guitar lines, but with lyrics that bemoan cheating women, and he called it “That’s No Way to Get Along.” After he “got religion” (that is, converted to Christianity) in 1936, he gave up singing secular songs. He’d still play them on his guitar for private audiences—it was only the words he deemed sinful—and he even reworked several by replacing his original lyrics with religious ones, as was the case with “That’s No Way to Get Along,” which he retitled “Prodigal Son” and transformed into a retelling of the biblical parable. [Read the lyrics]

We probably would have never heard these gospel songs from Wilkins’s later years if it weren’t for American folk musicologist Dick Spottswood, who in the 1960s combed the South looking for blues singers whose decades-old 78s he had encountered, seeking to record new performances. Wilkins was in his seventies, but he agreed to perform for a recording (and subsequently, for the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island), insisting that he would do only gospel. The resultant album, released in 1964 by Piedmont Records, was Reverend Robert Wilkins—Memphis Gospel Singer, on which “Prodigal Son” first appears. The song was remastered, restored, and re-released in 2014 on a compilation album of Wilkins material, Prodigal Son, which adds four uncollected gospel songs to the original album’s track list.

Aaron Frazer at Black Grooves writes,

The song [“Prodigal Son”] did not appear in Wilkins’ church services, as it was deemed not exciting enough for his congregants. Instead, the piece was reserved as a late-night solo, played for small audiences in the comfort of his living room. The quiet picking, repetitious bass note run and Wilkins contemplative drawl make for a hypnotic mix and the quickest 10-minute song I’ve ever encountered. The open tuning allows for a richer low end and frees Wilkins’ left hand to speak easily with his slide.

Wilkins recorded “Prodigal Son” in 1964, but it wasn’t until 1968, when the Rolling Stones covered it on Beggars Banquet, that it gained a wide audience. They condensed the ten-minute song to just under three minutes, and I think they do quite a fine job with it. Royalties generated by sales of Beggars Banquet created a solid supplemental income for Wilkins until his death in 1987.

The Rolling Stones are heavily influenced by blues music (their name comes from a Muddy Waters song) and have done much to keep it alive and expand its popularity. Keith Richards says, “If you don’t know the blues . . . there’s no point in picking up the guitar and playing rock and roll or any other form of popular music.”

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The parable of the prodigal son—or, perhaps more accurately, the parable of the two sons—is a familiar one, and artist James B. Janknegt (previously) interprets it visually for the present day, localizing it to his native Texas.

After insulting his father and taking his money, the younger son flies off to pursue fleeting pleasures—strip clubs and all that. But those pleasures don’t satisfy. He ends up working at McDonald’s and, having squandered his wealth, is reduced to eating his meals from a dumpster. He feels cheap, trashy, and spiritually dry, as indicated by the cactus in the adjacent panel.

Janknegt, James B._Two Sons-001

Hungry for more, he decides to return home, so he hops on a bus, and when the bus can take him no farther, he hitchhikes, catching one, two, three rides, then walks the rest of the way until his shoes wear out. Finally he reaches the front-yard footpath of his father’s house, the dry ground he treads giving way to green grass that becomes increasingly lush the nearer he gets. Anticipating his return, the father comes running out to welcome him home with full forgiveness.

Janknegt, James B._Two Sons-002

But his big brother isn’t nearly as happy at this turn of events. Quite the contrary, he’s confused, upset: Why would Dad not punish little brother for his flagrant disrespect and waywardness? Why is he being thrown a party? In a fit of anger, he breaks the neck of his guitar across his thigh. Instead of joining the musical celebration, he stews in his own bitterness. His heart is as dead as the cattle skull at his feet.

Janknegt, James B._Two Sons-003

Still, the father looks on him lovingly, just as he does his other son, waiting patiently for him to experience a similar metanoia—a turning toward the light, a coming to the party.

Two Sons is one of forty of James B. Janknegt’s modernized parable paintings that appear in the book Lenten Meditations, which you can purchase from Jim’s website.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, cycle C, click here.

Roundup: Hymns for Lent; the insistence of spring; female Christian poets; prison art; summer courses

HYMNS FOR LENT: A list of fifty-plus hymns for Lent, including free sheet music downloads, compiled by Dean B. McIntyre, director of music resources at the Center for Worship Resourcing at the United Methodist Church’s Discipleship Ministries in Nashville. Most of these hymns—either their tune, their words, or both—are contemporary, and I believe they were all either written or arranged by members of the UMC. I love that so many of them are minor-key! (There’s such a dearth of minor-key hymns in my evangelical tradition.) “The Desolate Messiah Dies” is a real standout for me—WOW. Here are the others that I really like. The first three would work particularly well for a Good Friday service:

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SONG: “You Can Never Hold Back Spring” by Tom Waits, covered by Lowana Wallace: I’ve had this song on repeat for the past several weeks—Lowana Wallace’s rendition is simply gorgeous. “This cover is a tribute to Canadians in March. Winter will end, you guys,” Wallace writes. “And maybe Tom didn’t mean for this song to point Christians to the beauty of Lent leading to Easter, but it did for me.”

Lowana Wallace is a singer-songwriter from Caronport, Saskatchewan. If you’ve listened to the Porter’s Gate Worship Project’s acclaimed album Work Songs, you will have encountered her work: she cowrote the song “Day by Day.” Check out more of her music videos, a mix of covers and originals, on her YouTube channel—they’re all great! To help her make more of these, consider becoming a Patreon supporter. You can also download four of the nine tracks from her Christmas jazz album, Hymns and Carols (2009), on NoiseTrade.

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POETRY: “5 Female Poets of Faith”: March is Women’s History Month, and Jody Lee Collins has compiled a list of five women poets you should know, whose Christian faith infuses their work: Abigail Carroll, Barbara Crooker, Jeanne Murray Walker, Laurie Klein, and Marjorie Maddox. I heartily second these recommendations! For each poet, Collins has selected a representative poem, giving you a taste of their style, and has provided links to the poets’ published volumes.

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2 FILMS + ART EXHIBITION: Incarceration is the theme of two HBO movies that premiered on television last month (following a positive reception at 2018’s Tribeca Film Festival) and the tie-in pop-up art exhibition, sponsored by HBO, that ran from February 20 to 25 at Studio 525 in Chelsea, Manhattan.

Written by Stephen Belber and directed by Madeleine Sackler, O.G. is an introspective drama that follows Louis (Jeffrey Wright), who, after spending twenty-four years in prison for murder, is about to be released. Groundbreakingly, it was filmed almost entirely inside an active prison—Pendleton Correctional Facility in Indiana—with a cast made up largely of inmates and correctional officers, who also consulted on the script. Read an interview with Wright, a professional actor best known for Westworld, and one with supporting actor Theothus Carter, who is serving a sixty-five-year sentence at Pendleton. When he was offered the role of Beecher, Carter said, “I was so happy, it was like being jolted alive back from the dead. I know I’ve never been dead before, but being dead has to feel like being in prison, because here it feels like you don’t matter anymore. This made me feel like I mattered again.”

It’s a Hard Truth, Ain’t It is a companion film to O.G. that is directed by Madeleine Sackler and thirteen incarcerated men at Pendleton, who reflect on their lives and the consequences of their crimes in front of and behind the camera. When Sackler received permission from the prison to lead a filmmaking workshop for inmates, she hadn’t intended to make a documentary, but she was so moved by the depth and intimacy of the conversations that were arising in that workshop, as participants shared their personal stories, and they all decided these stories and perspectives needed to be captured on film, crafted together, and shared more widely. An animator was brought on to bring the men’s memories to life.

Coinciding with the HBO premiere of these two films was a six-day exhibition in New York City called The OG Experience, curated by Jesse Krimes and Daveen Trentman. Like the Hard Truth film, this exhibition offered an insider narrative about the US prison system, as the art was all by formerly incarcerated individuals. The pieces on display included an installation of reclaimed cafeteria trays, a re-creation of a prison cell that invited viewers to sketch on the wall with a screwdriver, a video of the artist boxing with a projection of himself, a self-portrait in pastels over legal documents, and a mural of newsprint images transferred onto prison-issued bedsheets using hair gel (a method developed, and a work begun, by Krimes while in solitary confinement).

On seeing his work on display, Krimes said, “It was really emotional because so much of that experience and what our prison system is designed to do is pretty much destroy you. It’s designed to take away your identity, it’s designed to take away your humanity, and I think in creating that work and investing myself in something meaningful, and coming home and getting to see the final thing . . . it was something that made me feel like I came out of this situation intact, like I’m still a whole human being, and that this thing did not destroy me and it did not take away who I am at my core or change me in a way that it was designed to do.” Since his release from prison, Krimes cofounded the Right of Return Fellowship to directly support formerly incarcerated artists.

I particularly like the works by Russell Craig (also), a self-taught artist from Philadelphia. In his seven-piece set of unstretched canvases, E-Val, pairs of eyes peer out hauntingly from within Rorschach blots made of ox blood; “Craig, who was given Rorschach tests as part of his psychological evaluations during his time in the foster care system, wanted to represent the trauma felt in black communities,” the exhibition text says. Another work, a self-portrait he drew over his prison documents, “symbolizes the stigma of being a criminal,” Craig explained. “No matter how much you change your life around, you’re still viewed as a criminal.”

E-Val by Russell Craig
Russell Craig (American), E-Val, 2017. Blood stains, canvas, acrylic, dimensions vary. Photo: Kisha Bari, courtesy Jesse Krimes.
Self-Portrait by Russell Craig
Russell Craig (American), Self-Portrait, 2016. Pastel over legal documents, 96 × 96 in. Photo: Jasmine Weber/Hyperallergic.

For more photos from the exhibition, see the Hyperalleric review, “Formerly Incarcerated Artists Visualize Healing.”

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SUMMER COURSES: Regent College, a graduate school of Christian studies in Vancouver, is offering six arts courses this summer—week-long intensives. The topics are prehistoric art and meaning making; George Herbert; John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress; grace and forgiveness in contemporary theater (with key scenes played out in class by guest actors from Pacific Theatre); love and longing in poetry and theology, taught by Malcolm Guite (the reading list includes Dante, Herbert, Tennyson, Eliot, Augustine, Aquinas, and Lewis); and “Moral Imagination: Peacebuilding Using the Arts.” There are no prerequisites, and you don’t even have to be enrolled as a seminary student to participate. The cost to audit is CAD$350 (about US$261), with for-credit options costing more. For more information or to register, visit the links.

Thirst (Artful Devotion)

Thirst by Stephen Watson
Stephen Watson (American), Thirst, 2013. Shorter University Arnold Art Gallery, Rome, Georgia.

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

—Psalm 63:1

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SONG: “Tzama Lecha Nafshi” (My Soul Thirsts for You) by Sasha Fishman | Performed by Shai Sol, 2016

Shai Sol is a singer-songwriter from Tel Aviv, Israel, and a Jewish follower of Yeshua (Jesus). Follow her on Facebook, Bandcamp, and/or YouTube.

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Artist Stephen Watson (previously) describes his 2013 installation Thirst: “These 2,500+ empty cups are arranged in the shape of a river. Unfilled, they create a dry river bed. In their multitude, they depict the severity of the thirst of an unquenched soul.”


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Third Sunday in Lent, cycle C, click here.

Wayfaring Stranger (Artful Devotion)

Painting by Andrew Gadd
Painting by Andrew Gadd (British, 1968–)

Our citizenship is in heaven . . .

—Philippians 3:20

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SONG: “Wayfaring Stranger” | 19th-century American folk song | Performed by Rhiannon Giddens (banjo, vocals) and Phil Cunningham (accordion) for BBC Northern Ireland, 2016

This “world of woe” is not our home; we’re just temporary residents. St. Paul reminds us that we are citizens of a new world, and while this statement needs a lot of fleshing out (hence the development of systematic “kingdom theologies”), the well-known American folk lament “Wayfaring Stranger” emphasizes simply, soul-baringly, the longing aspect of it, that anticipation of returning to the “bright land” or our (re)birth, “no more to roam.”

The Wikipedia entry for the song contains a select list of diverse covers, classical music adaptations, and appearances on television and film. Other versions I like are by the Crofts family (previously), Sister Sinjin, and Brent Timothy Miller.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Second Sunday in Lent, cycle C, click here.