SPOTIFY PLAYLIST: October 2022 by Victoria Emily Jones: This month’s thirty-track assortment includes the jaunty “Now I’m on My Way” by Howard Smith and Frederick D. Fuller, performed by the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir under the direction of Carol Cymbala, and the recently released “Good Tree” by the Hillbilly Thomists, a bluegrass band of Dominican friars.
GOSPEL PERFORMANCE: “I’ve Got the Joy / It Is Summertime in My Heart / Give Me Oil in My Lamp” and “Do Lord” by The Four Girls: Did you know that Hollywood Golden Age actress Jane Russell was part of a traveling gospel music quartet, The Four Girls? In 1954, a year after starring with Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she sang this medley on an Easter Sunday broadcast alongside fellow group members Connie Haines, Beryl Davis, and Rhonda Fleming (replacing Della Russell), who were Baptist, Episcopalian, and Mormon, respectively. Quite the interdenominational group! All four were active in the Hollywood Christian Group, founded in 1947 by Henrietta Mears.
That choreo, haha! And boy are they aggressive in their evangelism/catechesis of that little girl in the last number!
The Four Girls grew out of an impromptu performance at a fundraising event for St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Los Angeles in fall 1953. A representative of Coral Records was in the audience, and he signed the women immediately. Their recording of the spiritual “Do Lord” sold over 2 million copies.
I get a kick out of Jack Black’s hammy character performances, especially the ones that involve singing. In each of the last two movies I saw him in, he plays a strangely likeable Christian criminal based on a real-life person.
In the dark comedy Bernie (2011) by Richard Linklater, Black plays Bernie Tiede, a small-town Texas mortician who befriends a wealthy widow but, when the emotional toll of her possessiveness and persistent nagging becomes too much, ends up killing her. The opening credit sequence (which comes after a scene of Bernie teaching a class, with great tenderness, on how to prepare a deceased body for viewing) shows him driving in his Lincoln Town Car, jamming to the Florida Boys’ “Love Lifted Me” on the radio. Millennium Entertainment has released a singalong version on YouTube, featuring a take from the movie with added lyrics and a bouncing Jack Black head!
Six years after this Golden Globe–nominated performance, Black starred in The Polka King (2017) as local Pennsylvania polka legend Jan Lewan, who was imprisoned in 2004 for running a Ponzi scheme. Although he’s a con artist, the movie portrays him as sympathetic—bright-eyed, kind, gentle—and devoutly Catholic. (Yes, he really did meet the pope!) The end credits feature Black as Lewan singing “Thank You So Much, Jesus,” written by Stephen Kaminski, Maya Forbes, and Wallace Wolodarsky for the movie. Enjoy the Polish accent.
SONG: “Morning Star Rise” by Josh White: Josh White is a singer-songwriter, the founding pastor of Door of Hope church in Portland, Oregon, and cofounder, with Evan Way, of Deeper Well Records. In the early 2010s he formed the neo-gospel collective The Followers, and encouraged one of his parishioners, Liz Vice, to get involved as a vocalist. She is featured on Deeper Well’s first record, Wounded Healer (2012), including on the song “Morning Star Rise”—performed live in 2012 in the video below, with White on lead. (Vice is on the left; Holly Ann is on the right.)
White recognized Vice’s musical talent and wrote a batch of songs for her to record on her own, which became her debut solo album, There’s a Light (2015)—an immense hit. Yay for pastors who notice and nurture the gifts of their people!
Last month when I was driving home to Maryland from Connecticut, I decided to stop for an hour or two at the Newark Museum of Art in New Jersey. I wanted to see a monumental Nativity painting in their collection by Joseph Stella. It didn’t end up being on display, but I did find many other compelling works. Chief among them was the acrollage painting Christ of the Christians by Nuyorican (New York Puerto Rican) artist Rodríguez Calero, a variation on the Crucifixion that portrays the violence of the cross in the abstract.
Made with acrylic paint, rice paper, imaged paper, colored glazes, and gold leaf, the work is heavily layered. Its focal point is the direct gaze of a young Black man, his head framed by a shaded gray box and haloed in gold. His face is cut off just above the mouth. The Word is muted.
This figure fragment is at the top terminal of a rough-edged cruciform that is rendered in a harsh tar-black embedded with deep splotches of red. Body merges with cross—blood, wood, and flesh.
The whole background is covered in pinks and reds. The color pools and splatters and permeates, representing the pouring out of life.
Standing upright alongside the cross are three stenciled palm branches, alluding to Christ’s entry into Jerusalem just five days earlier. Palm branches were a symbol of triumph in ancient Judaism, hence their being waved to greet the Christ, the “Anointed One,” at the city gate. (Jesus’s followers anticipated a political victory over Rome, little knowing that God had other plans.) In Christian iconography palm branches are associated with martyrdom; in portraits and heavenscapes they are held by saints who met an early end because of their spiritual convictions, just like their Lord.
Their presence in this scene can be read on the one hand as an indictment of human fickleness (lauding Jesus as savior one day, crucifying him the next) and on the other as an assertion of triumph through the unlikely means of death on a cross.
The work can also be read through the lens of Black suffering and liberation. The late Christian theologian James Cone writes about such themes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, a landmark book published in 2013, anticipating the Black Lives Matter movement. Cone explains how powerful a symbol the cross has historically been to Black American communities who face racial terror, violence, and oppression. They see in the Crucifixion, in addition to its spiritual implications, a demonstration of God’s solidarity with the oppressed, and hope on the other side. “I’m with you in your suffering,” says the God who hangs on a tree at the behest of a mob, “and death will not have the final word.”
Cone describes the thousands of lynchings of Black men, women, and children in the US as “recrucifixions”—the killing of sons and daughters of God. Two decades earlier, Jamaican American artist Renee Cox made the same connection in her photographic collage It Shall Be Named, just one in a line of artistic works to do so, going as far back as the Harlem Renaissance. Calero’s Christ of the Christians contributes to this tradition.
The gaze of the Christ in her piece is arresting. It confronts. It asserts the sacred humanity of its wearer, despite attempts to blot it out.
However, the artist tells me that for her, Christ of the Christians is about sacrifice, not violence, racial or otherwise. The man in the painting is the “people’s Messiah,” she says, “the anointed Savior to humankind who was sent to save all from the pain, darkness, and injustices that we see on a regular basis.” The cross is “willful humility, the culmination of prophecy, and the fulfillment of promises,” and the crown is heavenly reward. The trinity of branches represents hope.
One of the features that most struck me about this piece is its raised and varied textures, a hallmark all across the artist’s larger body of work. Calero coined the term “acrollage” to describe her mixed-media technique in which she uses an acrylic emulsifier to transfer collaged images (from found elements or her own photographs) onto painted canvas, adding further embellishments with gold leaf, stenciled patterns, and rice paper. This technique of layering materials, producing veils, suggests a theme of hiddenness and revelation.
Rodríguez Calero, or RoCa for short, was born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, in 1959 and moved to Brooklyn when she was a year old. She returned to Puerto Rico after high school to study at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas at the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, under master artist Lorenzo Homar, who specialized in printmaking. Then she returned to New York for additional training in painting and collage under artist Leo Manso. She currently resides in New York and New Jersey.
Calero’s work merges Catholic iconography and hip-hop culture, drawing her personal community into the visual lexicon of the sacred. Raised Catholic, she was influenced from an early age by religious imagery at church and school. She brings this influence to bear in her artistic work while also integrating and reflecting the multiracial, multiethnic, urban environment she grew up in. “My inspiration really comes from just being in the neighborhood . . . the people walking the streets,” she says.
Alejandro Anreus, art historian and curator of the major 2015 exhibition Rodríguez Calero: Urban Martyrs and Latter-Day Santos at El Museo del Barrio in New York, describes the Nuyorican art aesthetic that was just getting off the ground while Calero studied at the Art Students League of New York from 1976 to 1982:
Starting before 1970—crystalizing possibly with the foundation of the Taller Boricua in New York City—and emerging and developing throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, a specific aesthetic that can be defined as Nuyorican came into being. The aesthetic of New York Puerto Rican art was a diverse fusion of abstract expressionism and geometric abstraction, surrealism and social realism, as well as assemblage and constructions incorporating cultural and ethnic icons. The ethnic and cultural icons reflected several thematic preoccupations, which included Taino and Afro-Hispano imagery, depictions of barrio life, a popular, even populist Catholicism, and the belief that everyone, particularly the poor and marginalized of the neighborhoods, has dignity and inner worth regardless of social status. [exhibition catalog, p. 23]
The Christian doctrine of the imago Dei—that all human beings bear God’s image—is a central theme in Calero’s work. In His Image even adopts this theological language from the book of Genesis in its title, reminding us that God created each and every person with intrinsic and objective value, a reflection of his own divine self.
The piece shows a Black man dressed in a coat and beanie looking pensive and forlorn, his eyes downcast. Rectilinear pieces of teal-blue handmade paper form a cross behind him, and the outline of a manhole cover labeled “PUBLIC SERVICE” is superimposed over his face, doubling as a halo. In Christian art the halo signifies the light of Christ shining around and through a person, and Calero often adopts that device to underscore the sacred humanity of her subjects.
But the cross-hatching of this round form across the man’s face gives the impression of prison bars. Is he headed to prison, or is that destination merely what others, those with shallow or skewed vision, see when they look at him? Maybe he feels imprisoned by his circumstances. Or perhaps he is experiencing some kind of mental captivity. Whatever the nature of the confinement, those bars need to be broken. God wants every human being to be free and flourishing.
The youth in El Hijo de Dios also shines forth God’s image. He looks straight out at the viewer from under his red Karl Kani sweatshirt hood, with a softness and a self-awareness that evoke empathy. A gilded pattern of crosses in diamonds cuts across the middle third of the acrollage, and a dot-rimmed semicircle, a halo fragment, seems to embrace the boy. The delicacy of this intervention over the thick, heavy folds of the cotton sportswear creates an intriguing mix.
To the boy’s right is a collaged face of a male in profile that looks like it could have been taken out of a Picasso painting. He could be an extension of the primary figure, his face set on a path. Or he could be someone who is at cross-purposes with him, as they are oriented at a ninety-degree angle from each other.
Translated “The Son of God,” the title of this acrollage could refer to Jesus Christ, who bears this title in a special sense, as the only begotten of God the Father. The man does seem to embody the vulnerability and determination that characterize Christ in his passion. Alternatively, it could refer to a child of God more generally, as the Spanish hijo is not necessarily male-specific. The particular and the universal are both at play here. We are all God’s children (Acts 17:28–29), equally and eternally beloved.
God’s love reaches especially into places of darkness, even though we don’t always feel it. In Cruz de Loisaida, our eyes are drawn to a monochrome found image of a hand injecting heroin into an arm. This fragment forms part of an abstracted cross, that archetypal symbol of deep suffering. The title, which translates to “Cross of Loisaida,” references a Lower East Side neighborhood with a strong Puerto Rican heritage. The piece laments the pain and anguish of drug addiction and, the artist says, the burdens forced on the Puerto Rican community by the government (“we are the sacrificial lambs”). Red pigment spills forth from the arm, evoking blood.
Another acrollage that alludes to Christ’s passion is Crowned with Thorns, which is dominated by a large orange halo filled with linear and organic designs and cut out narrowly to reveal the face of a Black man. This headpiece is not obviously a crown of suffering; instead, it seems to convey an unironic air of royalty. It contains palm branches and irradiating gold lines that branch out like the veins of a leaf. And it smolders like fire. Could this be I AM speaking from the burning bush? The lush floral patterns, the Voice abloom?
By virtue of its historical associations, the title connects the man to Christ. With his hands he touches his Sacred Heart.
One piece that appropriates unmistakable imagery of Christ is The Chosen: it contains a fragment of a Dutch Renaissance painting in the National Gallery of Christ crowned with thorns. Calero has cropped a detail of the gnarly crown piercing (a Caucasian) Christ’s forehead and collaged it with the face of a Latino man and the locs of a third (presumably a Black man). Her multiracial Jesus is nimbed twice over and emerges as if from a behind gold curtain, his brown eyes holding our gaze. He is surrounded by black-ink prints of flowers and crosses and flanked, as in Christ of the Christians, by golden palm branches. Droplets of red paint are splattered about his face and torso, one resting prominently on his upper right cheek like a tear.
Like Jesus, the Virgin Mary, his mother, is a major religious figure in Puerto Rican culture, and Calero references her in several of her artworks. Ángel y Maria depicts the moment of Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel comes to Mary to tell her that she has been chosen to bear God’s Son (Luke 1:26–38).
It’s a stunning image, bringing new life to a subject that has been painted hundreds of thousands of times over the course of history, starting with the ancient Roman catacombs. In Calero’s take, Mary is portrayed as a beautiful young woman of African descent who sits in profile, contemplating the gravity of what has just been asked of her. She holds a bouquet of flowers to her chest—perhaps she was in the midst of picking or arranging them when Gabriel arrived.
Gabriel stands in formality, cognizant of the weight of his message, patiently awaiting a response. His body is rendered in a wash of colors that blend into one another, producing an ethereal look.
Mary’s lips are parted, speaking her yes.
“The theme is love,” Calero told me. “The flowers are a representation of the blessing already inside.”
In the gospel story, this supernatural encounter results in a miraculous pregnancy, pictured in Calero’s La Madonna Negra (The Black Madonna). The image is of the Madonna del Parto (Our Lady of Parturition) type—that is, the pregnant Mary. We don’t often see Mary’s bare belly in all its pregnant glory, but here we are given a glimpse and reminded of the bodiliness of the Incarnation. We can even see the linea nigra extending across her bellybutton!
Calero’s Afro-Latina Madonna has two sets of arms. With one, she cradles her third-trimester baby bump and clenches the veil near her face, and the other she extends outward in a gesture of giving, offering the fruit of her womb for the life of the world (notice the printed impression of a fetus in her upper left hand). I love how these multiple gestures capture the conflicting instincts she must have felt—on the one hand, to keep the child to herself, to protect him from harm, and on the other, knowing her ministry is to support his, to share him with everyone. I see both Mary’s fear and her surrender in this image; her very human “What if I’m not ready for this?” and her “Welcome; come, receive.”
There’s also a hybridity in Virgen María, which shows a woman whose face is an amalgam of “every woman,” says the artist. Strong and confident, this Mary takes up space. Streaks of red paint cut across her torso like cords—but she spreads her arms, breaking what binds her. The bottom half of the canvas consists of blues and reds, Mary’s traditional colors, while the top half is gold, signifying the light of God.
“Mary, for me, has always been pictured as passive, and dressed in blue,” Calero told me. “Think about God in heaven, searching the world for the perfect woman to bear his Son. Now, in that state of mind, I thought Mary was chosen for her beauty, strength, compassion, intellect, and sexiness, and must represent all women, hence my Virgen María.”
Just as Calero often composites people of different races and ethnicities, she also occasionally mixes genders, as in Divine Prophet.
This prophet’s face is made up of three collaged elements. A male with long hair and closely cropped facial hair forms the base, but the two eyes, underlined in blue shadow, are clearly a woman’s. And a mystical third eye is patched onto the forehead.
In Eastern spirituality, the third eye, also called the inner eye, provides perception beyond ordinary sight. The prophet, for example, sees visions of a reality that is presently invisible but that will one day be made manifest. The third eye symbolizes a state of enlightenment.
The prophet in this piece could be Jesus, or an Old Testament seer, or a prophet from another faith tradition. If the former, it’s interesting to consider how male and female are both contained in the Godhead, per Genesis 1:27. Although the second person of the Trinity incarnated as a male, there’s a long tradition of ascribing feminine attributes to Christ, from Clement to Ephrem to Anselm to Marguerite d’Oingt to Julian of Norwich. Christ is our Mother, they say, who labors to bring us to birth and feeds us at his breast. Moreover, the biblical book of Proverbs personifies Wisdom as a woman, and that woman is associated with Christ.
Centuries of European religious art and its mass-produced derivatives have harnessed the popular imagination to a narrow view of what the sacred looks like. Because of this conditioning through images, most people all over the world, not just in the West, conceive of Jesus, Mary, and the saints—those due honor—as white. Calero challenges that conception, not erasing whites but broadening the tent of sacred imagery to encompass people of color as well.
Most of her “saints” are not historical. They’re ordinary folks from New York’s barrios, or from other US cities—and from today. With their strong frontal poses, direct gazes, and haloes, they reflect the dignified, divine image–bearing status of those whom traditional Christian iconography has tended to exclude.
“Her saints—santos—are latter day and among us, her martyrs are our contemporaries,” says Alejandro Anreus. “They all live and struggle in an urban world filled with tension, even violence, as well as humor, yet open to epiphanies, where miracles can happen.” And, he continues, “her representations of Jesus Christ become all of us, as if reflecting the variety of humanity redeemed by Christ.”
(Regarding Anreus’s crucial last point: I articulated some of my thoughts on the matter a few years ago in this Instagram post.)
Black and brown bodies are beautiful and good, bearing the imprint of God their Creator. Rodríguez Calero helps us see and celebrate that. Bringing her cultural heritage to the fore, she cuts and combines, mixes and matches, contemplates, plays, and intuits, constructing affirming figure-based images of flesh and spirit that, while borrowing Christian visual tropes, are not tethered to Christianity but rather can live and move beyond an orthodox framework.
Psalm 91 (Psalm 90 in the Vulgate) is a psalm of protection, commonly invoked in times of hardship or before embarking on a journey. It conveys the sheltering presence of God, using the metaphor, tender and intimate, of a mother bird who cares for her fledglings, shading them under her wings and lifting them up out of danger. This image recurs throughout the Psalter and the Bible at large (see Pss. 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 63:7; Exod. 19:4; Deut. 32:11).
Let me quote the psalm in full, using the King James Version, whose poetic quality cannot be beat:
1 He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
2 I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.
3 Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.
4 He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.
5 Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day;
6 Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.
7 A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.
8 Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked.
9 Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation;
10 There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.
11 For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.
12 They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.
13 Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.
14 Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he hath known my name.
15 He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honour him.
16 With long life will I satisfy him, and shew him my salvation.
The righteous will be protected, sings the psalmist, from sickness and attack, whether by arrow or by wild animal. Because of the psalm’s specific mention of plagues, or “deadly disease,” it became especially popular during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, we know from experience that some of these statements cannot be taken at face value. Physical harm does befall those who love God. Believers were among the “ten thousand” (and more) felled by the most recent raging pestilence. It’s wrong to conclude that this was a result of their lack of faith.
Biblical scholar J. Alec Motyer clarifies that “the promise [in Psalm 91] is not security from but security in.” That God looks after us is an absolute principle, but the Bible makes clear that no one is immune from suffering. Still, we can trust in God’s grace and strength and ultimate deliverance, and entreat him for specific protections. Bodily salvation won’t come in full until the new heavens and the new earth are ushered in, but we are kept spiritually in the shelter of our loving God.
That doesn’t mean Psalm 91 is a lie; it is poetry, and poetic language is often not meant to be literal. The assurances are still worth praying. God does often intervene on our behalf.
The ancient Jewish community at Qumran near the Dead Sea, through whom the oldest manuscript fragments of the Hebrew Bible come to us, referred to Psalm 91 as a “psalm against demons,” and it is thought to have been used by that community in exorcisms. Jewish midrash interprets many of the listed threats as veiled language for demons, and there is Christian precedent for that interpretation as well. In Luke 10:17, Jesus’s followers marvel that “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!,” to which Jesus affirms that yes, “I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing will hurt you”—language very similar to that in Psalm 91.
In the Late Antique era, both Jews and Christians wore the words of Psalm 91 on amulets, to attain or simply feel God’s guarding power. In the church it is traditionally sung or recited during Compline services and on the first Sunday of Lent (in Matthew 4:6 the devil manipulatively quotes verse 11 in his temptation of Christ in the desert).
This psalm has also influenced popular culture, as from it comes the concept of guardian angels (vv. 11–12).
Below I have selected fifteen musical settings or adaptations of Psalm 91 from diverse sources, including homophonic and polyphonic choral works, songs in indie folk and soul styles, a Puerto Rican hymn, a Nepali bhajan, and more.
For each I have embedded either a YouTube video or Bandcamp track, and if a Spotify link exists, I’ve included it at the end of the description. If you cannot see these music players in your email client or RSS feed reader, open the post in your browser.
This is a curation, not a collation, meaning that I’ve intentionally picked these songs from among hundreds of options, for both excellence and variety. I tried to limit the list to ten and just couldn’t, but I thought twenty would be too overwhelming, so I compromised by choosing fifteen with five honorable mentions. I’ve added almost all twenty to a YouTube playlist (the Sister Sinjin song isn’t available on that platform), if you prefer to listen that way.
1. Gregorian chant performed by Harpa Dei: Born in Germany and raised in Ecuador, siblings Nikolai, Lucía, Marie-Elisée, and Mirjana Gerstner form the sacred vocal quartet Harpa Dei. Here they sing Psalm 91 in Latin in the medieval plainchant tradition. Subtitles are provided in Spanish and English.
For a plainchant in English, albeit of verses 4–5 only, see here.
2. “Psalm 91” by Victory Boyd: This is probably my favorite of all the selections. Victory Boyd is one of seven musical siblings, and before she started her solo career, she was a member of the vocal-harmony sibling act Infinity Song. Her voice is gorgeous, as is this simple musical setting she wrote, conveying both the vulnerability and confidence present in the psalm.
3. “Psalm 91” by Poor Bishop Hooper: Every Wednesday since January 1, 2020, married couple Jesse and Leah Roberts, who record music under the alias Poor Bishop Hooper, have been releasing a new psalm-based song for free download as part of their EveryPsalm project. Handling them consecutively, they have just eight left to go! They made a live video for “Psalm 91,” which shows them playing their own piano four hands accompaniment. [Spotify]
4. “Qui habitat in adjutorio altissimi” (He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High)by Josquin des Prez, adapted by Laurel MacDonald: Josquin des Prez (pronounced “joss-can day pray”) was a highly influential Franco-Flemish composer of the High Renaissance. In 1542 he wrote a setting of Psalm 91:1–8 in Latin for twenty-four voices (SATB ×6)—that is, six distinct soprano parts, six distinct alto parts, etc.
Inspired by this choral motet, in 2007 composer and video artist Laurel MacDonald worked with longtime associate John Oswald to create qui, a sound installation of twenty-nine voices singing an adaptation of des Prez’s “Qui habitat” in twenty-nine languages over twenty-nine speakers, for the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. MacDonald revisited the project in 2010, creating the short video “XXIX” (below) with twenty-one of the original qui singers, each singing in the language of his or her personal heritage. They weave a complex tapestry with interlocking threads of Krio, Spanish, Korean, Hungarian, Hindi, Greek, Finnish, English, French, Italian, Latin, Zulu, Xhosa, Sesotho, Georgian, Russian, English, Tamil, Hebrew, Swahili, Japanese, and Arabic—a multilingual declaration of God’s protective power.
To hear Josquin des Prez’s motet as originally conceived, click here.
5. “Your Wings” by Lauren Daigle: Lauren Daigle is one of the most popular CCM (contemporary Christian music) artists of the past decade. Two-time-Grammy-winning and with two platinum records, she is often compared to Adele in terms of her vocal style—soulful, rich, in a husky register. In April 2020 she released on YouTube a stripped-down, “social distancing” version of her Psalm 91–based song (written with Jason Ingram and Paul Mabury) from Look Up Child, with just her and a piano. You can get a sense of her strong stage presence from the video; here she hits the melody with both her voice and her body—bouncy on the verses, smooth on the refrain! [Spotify (studio version)]
6. “Whomsoever Dwells” by Sinéad O’Connor: “Whomsoever Dwells,” written with Ron Tomlinson, is one of five adaptations of Hebrew Bible passages that appears on Sinéad O’Connor’s stellar 2007 double album, Theology. (Thanks to Art & Theology reader Koen Desmecht for introducing me to this!) The acoustic performance below—from November 8, 2006, at The Sugar Club in Dublin—was released on disc one, subtitled “The Dublin Sessions,” and features guitars, fiddle, harp, and tin whistle; the same song, arranged for a pop-rock band and recorded in a London studio, is on disc two. (I much prefer the acoustic version.)
“Theology is an attempt to create a place of peace in a time of war and to provoke thought,” O’Connor said. It is very “personal” and “emotional.”
7. “El que habita al abrigo de Dios” (Those Who Dwell in the Shelter of God) by Luz Ester Ríos de Cunaand Rafael Cuna: This 1943 hymn from Puerto Rico is a versification of Psalm 91 in Spanish by Luz Ester Ríos de Cuna, with music by her husband, Rafael Cuna (1907–1995). I learned of it from the bilingual hymnal Santo Santo Santo: Cantos para el pueblo de Dios (Holy, Holy, Holy: Songs for the People of God). Here it’s performed by musicians from Iglesia Central del Movimiento Misionero Mundial en el Perú (Central Church of the World Missionary Movement in Peru) in Lima. Their names are not given.
8. “Denn er hat seinen Engeln befohlen” (For he shall give his angels charge),MWV B 53by Felix Mendelssohn: Early Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn, a Reformed Christian with Jewish ancestry, wrote this setting of Psalm 91:11–12 in German in 1844 for Berlin Cathedral, where he was serving as Generalmusikdirektor (royal composer of church music). It is for an unaccompanied eight-part choir, but he later reused it with orchestral accompaniment as movement 7 of his oratorio Elijah.
9. “No Harm Befall You (Psalm 91)” by Sister Sinjin: Released on the 2022 compilation album Joy to the World (Psalms 90–106) from Cardiphonia Music, “No Harm Befall You” was written by Elizabeth Duffy and is sung by her and Kaitlyn Ferry, who make up the Indianapolis folk duo Sister Sinjin. Their harmonies are a hallmark of their music.
10. “Psalm 91” by Sharyn:Sharyn (pronounced “sha-REEN”) is a Ugandan-born, London-based gospel/R&B singer-songwriter “whose mission is to spread the gospel through adventurous, original, and engaging music,” she says. She wrote “Psalm 91” during the height of the coronavirus, as that scripture passage is one she would read again and again as a source of comfort amid the uncertainty. “This song is an affirmation and a reminder of who God is, what He can do, will do and has done,” she says. “Never forget that God is faithful and his promises are the greatest form of protection we can ever have. His promises are your armor and shield.” The recording features Calibleubird on backing vocals. [Spotify]
11. “Shelter Me” by Buddy Miller: In a 2010 episode of PBS’s Soundstage, country-rock artist Buddy Miller performed a set with other Americana greats Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin, and Patty Griffin, including this original song (written with Julie Miller) from his 2004 album Universal United House of Prayer. “Shelter Me” is about not being scared in the face of disaster or war, for God is our hiding place. The song could apply to Psalm 57 just as well, which addresses the same themes as Psalm 91 and even uses the same language of sheltering under the wings of the Almighty. [Spotify (studio version)]
12. “Underneath the Shadow” by Tom Wuest: This is one of twelve quiet, sparsely instrumented songs that Tom Wuest recorded with his wife, Karen, which were written as their two young sons fell asleep. They all “draw their lyrics from the psalms and from our family’s joy in and meditation upon the good creation of God,” he says. Fitting indeed for meditation, “Underneath the Shadow” comprises just three simple lines: “Underneath the shadow of Your wings / We dwell underneath the shadow of Your wings / Hidden close to Thee, we find rest.” [Spotify]
13. “Mero Saransthaan (My Shelter)” by Suraj Khadka: A Nepali adaptation of Psalm 91, this bhajan (devotional song) from 2021 features traditional instruments from the Indian subcontinent: sarangi (vertical fiddle), bansuri (bamboo flute), and dholak, madal, and tabla (drums). Thanks to Dr. Paul Neeley at Global Christian Worship for alerting me to this one.
14. “Lang en gelukkig (Psalm 91)” (Long and Happy) by Psalmen voor Nu: Founded in 2002, Psalmen voor Nu (Psalms for Now) was a project in the Netherlands to set all 149 psalms (they combined Psalms 42 and 43) in Dutch to music, a task they completed in 2014 with the release of their eleventh album. Seeking “to introduce as many people as possible to the beauty and power of the psalms,” the team comprised some twenty theologians, poets, and composers, plus a band. They wanted the texts to be understandable and the melodies modern and singable. This particular song from the project was written by Liesbeth Goedbloed (words) and Roeland Smith (music) and released in 2013. It has a smoky nightclub vibe. I’ve copied the lyrics below. [Spotify]
 Als je bij de Allerhoogste woont, mag je in zijn schaduw slapen. Als je zegt: ‘De Hoogste is mijn huis. mijn God, ik kan op u vertrouwen’, dan mag je in zijn schaduw slapen.
 Het is God die jou bevrijdt van de dood, de zwarte dood. Hij dekt je met zijn vleugels toe. Ga maar slapen. Je bent moe. Zijn trouw zal jou beschermen. Dan kun je slapen, dan kun je slapen. God waakt over jou. Dan kun je slapen.
 Voor de angst die elke avond komt, hoef je niet meer bang te wezen, ook al spookt de zwarte dood weer rond, al sloopt een ziekte alle mensen, jij hoeft niet meer bang te wezen.
 Ook al komt de dood dichtbij, vallen duizend mensen om, toch zul jij altijd veilig zijn wat de rest ook overkomt en slechte mensen krijgen, durf je te kijken, durf je te kijken? hun verdiende loon. Durf je te kijken?
 Jij zei ooit: ‘Mijn God, u bent mijn huis. Geen ziekte komt de drempel over.’ Die ellende gaat je deur voorbij, sinds je dicht bij God ging wonen. Geen ziekte komt je drempel over.
 Zijn engelen staan klaar. Ze dragen je op handen. God stuurt ze met je mee. Je stoot je nergens aan. De leeuw, de draak, de adder jij loopt over ze heen.
 Want je houdt van mij, zegt God, en die liefde maakt je vrij. Ik dek je met mijn vleugels toe, omdat jij weet wie ik ben. Je kent mijn naam en roept me. Ik kom je redden, ik kom je redden. En ik antwoord jou: ik kom je redden.
 In de zwartste nacht blijft ik bij jou. Ik red je en ik geef je leven. Deze keer is alle eer voor jou. Ik zeg: Ik ben voor jou een zegen! Voor jou een lang gelukkig leven!
[Outro] Lang en gelukkig, lang zul je leven, lang zul je leven, lang en gelukkig, lang zul je le ven! [source]
15. “In Him I Will Trust” by Sherri Youngward: Covering Psalm 91:1–5, this is one of sixteen psalm-passage settings by Bay Area singer-songwriter Sherri Youngward. For more, see her two Scripture Songs albums.
I have been out today in field and wood,
Listening to praises sweet and counsel good
Such as a little child had understood,
That, in its tender youth,
Discerns the simple eloquence of truth.
The modest blossoms, crowding round my way,
Though they had nothing great or grand to say,
Gave out their fragrance to the wind all day;
Because his loving breath,
With soft persistence, won them back from death.
And the right royal lily, putting on
Her robes, more rich than those of Solomon,
Opened her gorgeous missal in the sun,
And thanked him soft and low,
Whose gracious, liberal hand had clothed her so.
When wearied, on the meadow-grass I sank,
So narrow was the rill from which I drank,
An infant might have stepped from bank to bank;
And the tall rushes near,
Lapping together, hid its waters clear.
Yet to the ocean joyously it went,
And, rippling in the fulness of content,
Watered the pretty flowers that o’er it leant;
For all the banks were spread
With delicate flowers that on its bounty fed.
The stately maize, a fair and goodly sight,
With serried spear-points bristling sharp and bright,
Shook out his yellow tresses, for delight,
To all their tawny length,
Like Samson, glorying in his lusty strength.
And every little bird upon the tree,
Ruffling his plumage bright, for ecstasy,
Sang in the wild insanity of glee;
And seemed, in the same lays,
Calling his mate and uttering songs of praise.
The golden grasshopper did chirp and sing;
The plain bee, busy with her housekeeping,
Kept humming cheerfully upon the wing,
As if she understood
That, with contentment, labor was a good.
I saw each creature, in his own best place,
To the Creator lift a smiling face,
Praising continually his wondrous grace;
As if the best of all
Life’s countless blessings was to live at all!
So with a book of sermons, plain and true,
Hid in my heart, where I might turn them through,
I went home softly, through the falling dew,
Still listening, rapt and calm,
To Nature giving out her evening psalm.
Phoebe Cary (1824–1871) was an American poet whose verse focuses on themes of religion, nature, and feminism. She grew up on a farm near Cincinnati, Ohio, the sixth of nine children. She was particularly close with her older sister Alice, also a writer, with whom she copublished a volume of poetry in 1849 before going on to publish books of her own. Buoyed by the recognition they received from such luminaries as Edgar Allan Poe and John Greenleaf Whittier, in 1950 the two sisters moved to New York City together, where they contributed regularly to national periodicals and hosted a weekly Sunday evening salon attended by East Coast literati. Phoebe was active in the early days of the women’s rights movement, serving as an assistant editor for The Revolution, Susan B. Anthony’s suffrage newspaper. She died of hepatitis at age forty-six, just six months after Alice.
>> “The Music of the Psalms in Church History” by W. David O. Taylor, Christ Church, Austin, Texas, October 1, 2022: “For two thousand years, Christians have found the Psalter to be an invaluable resource for worship and prayer. And, like the original psalmists, Christians have felt compelled and inspired to set the text of the psalms to music, of all sorts: from a cappella to choral, from folk to rock, from reggae to gospel, and more. In collaboration with local musicians, David Taylor, Associate Professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary and author of Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life, will explore how Christians in different periods of church history have sung the psalms within corporate worship,” spanning the apostolic, medieval, Renaissance, Reformation, modern, and contemporary eras.
A choir will perform several chants (Hebrew, Byzantine, Gregorian) and a motet, and then attendees will be led in a handful of Psalm-based songs, from a hymn of German origin to an African American spiritual to CCM classics. Along the way Taylor will provide historical context and trace a narrative.
>> Baylor Symposium on Faith and Culture: Art Seeking Understanding, Baylor University, Waco, Texas, October 26–28, 2022: Every fall the Institute for Faith and Learning at Baylor University organizes a symposium around a given topic, and this year’s topic is the arts. Registration is still open! The standard cost is $250, or $125 for students. “The notion of art seeking understanding (ars quaerens intellectum) invites association with the notion of faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum). Just as faith is a gift of grace that grows toward deeper knowledge, so it seems that art is a gift whose practice leads to a deeper order of understanding. This seems true not only for the person who experiences art, but also the artist—whether musician, painter, sculptor, or poet. The 2022 Baylor Symposium on Faith and Culture invites contributions from across the disciplines (including scholars, artists, and other practitioners) as we explore together how art seeks understanding and thus contributes to human flourishing.”
Their line-up of presenters includes several from within Baylor’s own distinguished ranks, such as composer and liturgist Carlos Colón, theologian Natalie Carnes, art historian Heidi J. Hornik, and literature scholar David Lyle Jeffrey, in addition to famous outside guests like theologian-pianist Jeremy Begbie, contemporary nihonga painter Makoto Fujimura, and Early Christian art historian Robin M. Jensen. See a full list by clicking on the boldface link above.
The website does not provide a list of presentation titles, but among the topic suggestions on its call for proposals page are how art contributes to moral and spiritual perception, sensitivity, and/or character formation; the power of imagination; the relation of poetic art to the communication of moral truth; art therapy in pastoral counseling; how musical settings of biblical texts add value to those texts; and how to reconcile the making of religious art with the commandment in Exodus 20:4.
SONG: “The Lord Is My Light” by Lillian Bouknight | Performed by the Notre Dame Folk Choir, dir. Emorja Roberson: “Very little is known about Lillian Bouknight (d. 1990), except that she was an African American from North Carolina, and a soloist and composer in the Pentecostal Holiness movement in the Aliquippam, PA, Community, also serving as a prayer warrior and on the Mother’s Board.” This setting of Psalm 63 that she composed appears in the African American Heritage Hymnal #160.
VIDEO: “Theology through the Arts” by Jeremy Begbie: A pioneer of the field of theology and the arts, UK-born and US-based scholar Jeremy Begbie is the headliner for the Baylor symposium mentioned above. I met him briefly at a Duke conference a few years ago, and he’s such a delightful person, not to mention a phenomenal teacher who often dispenses wisdom from a piano bench. If you’re not familiar with his work, this fourteen-minute video is a great introduction to it. He’s all about demonstrating how instrumental music (his specialization is Western classical) can help unlock the truths of the Christian gospel. Here he talks about the given, the improvised, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Geoffrion’s blog is a wonderful free resource for those looking to engage prayerfully with the art treasures of Chartres Cathedral. New content is typically posted in batches a few times a year, and the archive goes back to 2015. Sometimes Geoffrion digitally isolates certain details of the stained glass to aid in a more concentrated focus.
As I said when I featured the Tree of Jesse window several years ago, Chartres is high on my list of places to visit, for aesthetic, historical, and spiritual reasons. I hope to make it there sometime in the next five years.
The song “Compassionate and Wise,” which appears on an album of the same name recorded by Father Cyprian Consiglio in 2006, represents a cross-pollination of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity.
An earlier version, simply called “Dedication of Merit,” was first sung at a Buddhist-Christian conference at a Benedictine convent in Indiana the week after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. The Rev. Dr. Heng Sure, an American Chan Buddhist monk, was asked to offer a dedication of merit (similar to what Christians would call an intercessory prayer, though it’s phrased more like a benediction). For this he and a colleague translated a passage from the Mettā Sutta, the Buddha’s discourse on developing and sustaining loving-kindness. Their translation reads:
May every living being, Our minds as one and radiant with light, Share the fruits of peace With hearts of goodness, luminous and bright.
If people hear and see How hands and hearts can find in giving, unity, May their minds awake, To Great Compassion, wisdom, and to joy.
May kindness find reward; May all who sorrow leave their grief and pain; May this boundless light Break the darkness of their endless night.
Because our hearts are one, This world of pain turns into paradise. May all become compassionate and wise, May all become compassionate and wise.
In reciting the dedication, Sure spontaneously matched it with a melody by Canadian singer-songwriter Loreena McKennitt, which she had written in 1994 for the song “Dark Night of the Soul,” a setting of verse by the sixteenth-century Spanish Catholic mystic Saint John of the Cross. Conference attendees, their hearts full of grief over the falling of the Twin Towers, joined in singing, lifting up their collective longing for light to break through the darkness.
A few years later at a different Buddhist-Christian gathering, Sure met Father Cyprian Consiglio, a Camaldolese Benedictine monk, author, and musician from California. He shared the song with him, struck by its similarity to some of the prayers Consiglio had offered that week.
With the blessing of Sure and McKennitt, Consiglio and his regular collaborator John Pennington, a percussionist, recorded a new arrangement of the song in 2006 under the title “Compassionate and Wise.” Here they are performing it with friends on June 28, 2018, at the “Arise, My Love” concert in Santa Cruz to raise money for New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California, where Consiglio has been the prior since 2013:
(The song starts at 2:43, following Consiglio’s spoken introduction.)
Their version has slight lyrical alterations and opens with two Sanskrit chants that Consiglio learned from the monks and nuns at Saccidananda Ashram (nicknamed Shantivanam, “Forest of Peace”), a Camaldolese Benedictine monastery in Tannirpalli, South India. The first chant, which is from the Rig Veda but also appears in the Yajur Veda, is known as the Mahamrityunjaya Mantra (Great Mantra for Conquering Death). The second is a svasti pāṭhaḥ, an invocation for the welfare of all.
The following Sanskrit and its English translation were provided to me by Consiglio:
We worship the true God who is the Supreme Being Who is fragrant and nourishes all beings May he liberate us from death for the sake of immortality Like a cucumber is severed from its bondage to the creeper
May all be happy May all be free from disease May all realize what is good May none be in misery May the nonvirtuous be virtuous May the virtuous attain tranquility May the tranquil be freed from the bonds of death May the freed make others free Peace, peace, peace
And here is the sung English that follows:
May every living being, Our minds as one and radiant with light, Share the fruits of peace, Our hearts of goodness luminous and bright.
If people hear and see, Our hands and hearts can find, in giving, unity. May their minds awake To Great Compassion, wisdom, and to joy.
May goodness find reward; May all who sorrow leave their grief and pain; May this boundless light Dispel the darkness of their endless night.
Because our hearts are one, This world of pain turns into paradise. May all become compassionate and wise, May all become compassionate and wise.
This song is full of interfaith exchanges. A melody written to set the text of a Carmelite Christian friar was adapted to fit a Buddhist dedication of merit and is introduced by a Benedictine Christian monk with a passage from the Hindu scriptures! For more information on the song’s history, see urbandharma.org.
Explaining the significance of a dedication of merit (and metta practice) to his Christian readers, Consiglio writes on the hermitage blog, “We can dedicate whatever closeness to God we have to the good of someone else.” I myself wouldn’t use the phrase “dedication of merit” or its derivatives to describe what I’m doing when I intercede to God for others, but I see what Consiglio means, and I think it’s this: “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (James 5:16). Through Christ, God hears our prayers, and it is our duty in prayer to think more widely than just our own needs or the needs of those in our immediate circles—though that can be a good starting point. As the apostle Paul says, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone” (1 Tim. 2:1, emphasis mine).
What if our prayers extended to enfold all living beings? I was always taught to avoid genericisms in prayer, and while there is value in direct naming, there is also a beauty to those kinds of broad prayers often heard on the lips of children—for “the whole world,” for “peace everywhere.”
Perhaps you are uncomfortable by the lack of doctrinal specificity in “Compassionate and Wise,” or by what you might call “syncretism” (the mixing of belief systems). But as Consiglio says, there is nothing in the song that contradicts Christianity. The song arose out of an interreligious context, so it’s meant to invite the participation of people of various faith backgrounds.
“Because our hearts are one” refers to a unity of intention or desire. The singers may not be united in theological particulars, nor even around the deity they’re addressing, but they are one in their wish for universal well-being, for liberation from the bonds of death and a walking together in friendship across boundaries of difference.
I cannot dance, O Lord,
Unless You lead me.
If You wish me to leap joyfully,
Let me see You dance and sing—
Then I will leap into Love—
And from Love into Knowledge,
And from Knowledge into the Harvest,
That sweetest Fruit beyond human sense.
There I will stay with You, whirling.
Mechthild de Magdeburg (ca. 1207–ca. 1297) was a medieval Christian mystic from a wealthy German family. In 1230 she entered a local house of the Beguines, independent communities of laywomen devoted to leading a life of good works, poverty, chastity, and spiritual practice; and around 1272 she joined the Cistercian convent at Helfta, where she lived until her death. Her seven-volume book Das fließende Licht der Gottheit (The Flowing Light of the Godhead), written in Middle Low German over the course of three decades, is a compendium of visions, prayers, and dialogues that centers on her experience of God as lover. Her feast day is November 19.
Jane Hirshfield (b. 1953) is an American poet, essayist, and translator whose nine collections of poetry have won multiple awards. Her work encompasses a large range of influences, drawing from the sciences as well as the world’s literary, intellectual, artistic, and spiritual traditions. She lives in California.
Addendum, 9/5/22: Composer Thomas Keesecker has just alerted me to a choral setting he wrote of this passage, “Unless You Lead Me, Love.” Lovely!
SPOTIFY PLAYLIST: September 2022 by Victoria Emily Jones: This month’s thirty-song lineup includes a tango, a Pentecostal praise song, a playful setting of the Heidelberg Catechism Q&A number one, an Americana lament for hard times, a Negro spiritual on sax, Christina Rossetti, guitar evangelist Mother McCollum with a unique Jesus metaphor (!), a 9/11-inspired interfaith prayer that I will write about in a separate post, and songs in Turkish (“Kutsal, Kutsal, Kutsal Allah” = Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God) and Sepedi (“Modimo re boka wena” = God, we praise you).
LECTURE (AUDIO): “God’s Thumbprint” by Frederick Buechner: Ordained minister and Pulitzer Prize– and National Book Award–nominated author Frederick Buechner died August 15 at age ninety-six. He was a wonderful writer (of both fiction and spiritual nonfiction) and preacher, and I hear him quoted all the time. He once summed up the theme of all his work as “Listen to your life.”
In 1992 Buechner spoke for the biennial Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, about how “art and religion are twin expressions of the human spirit.” Discussing poetry, painting, and music, he shows how the arts help us to pay attention. Listen to the talk, “God’s Thumbprint,” on FFW’s Rewrite Radio podcast. It is an expansion of the “Art” entry Buechner wrote in his book Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized (1988); read the full excerpt here.
LECTURE (VIDEO): “Difficult Beauty: Contemporary Art as Spiritual Discipline” by James K. A. Smith: In its content selection and development, the arts quarterly Image, says editor in chief James K. A. Smith, resists both nostalgia (old is better) and progressivism (new is better), charting a third way that he calls “archaic avant-garde.” The journal’s focus is on contemporary art, but contemporary art funded by tradition. Most of the writers and artists they feature see the tradition of religious art as a gift and a launchpad.
In this lunchtime Zoom talk from May 19, 2021, Smith considers why contemporary art so often feels alienating. He focuses on painting, giving a brief history of the onset of modernism in that medium, starting with the impact of photography, which pushed painters beyond the representation of objective reality. He shares compelling quotes by art critic Peter Schjeldahl and philosopher John Carvalho, about how we look and when thinking happens. Smith discusses the need for humility—to be comfortable with the not-knowing, to surrender our desire for mastery and control (i.e., demanding that paintings explain themselves).
What if the art that first alienates us is the art that might also stretch us? Or what if the literature that’s intimidating might also be the literature that has the possibility to kind of break us open in new ways, open us up to others, and even open us up to God? What if the difficulty of contemporary art is a virtue? And what if experiencing that difficulty is actually what we need? (12:42)
The last twenty minutes consists of Q&A and addresses icons, art as propaganda, whether and how to engage art that comes out of a place of despair, and more.
I admit that I find much of contemporary art difficult, often unpleasantly so. A few readers have requested that I feature more abstract art, but I struggle to know how to talk about it. But I do want to learn. Image helps me do that.
ESSAY: “Venice Undone” by Matthew J. Milliner: A core publication of Cardus, Comment magazine is committed to “the difficult work of being faithfully present in culture.” This summer they published an essay by art historian Matthew Milliner reflecting on the Anish Kapoor and Anselm Kiefer exhibitions at the 59th Venice Biennale, one of the art world’s largest and most significant recurring events.
In part 2 of the essay, Milliner considers how the Kiefer show at the Doge’s Palace critiques Venice’s history of military conquest, replacing Titian’s The Conquest of Zara (1584) with an image of an empty tomb that evokes Jesus’s conquest over death. Apocalyptic themes have long been noted in Kiefer’s work; Milliner sees in particular traces of St. Paul and an interrogation of historic Venice’s bombastic displays of wealth and splendor, which are not lasting. And of course there’s the Jacob’s ladder motif. For a silent video tour of the exhibition, see here.
Prompted in part by their use of darkness, Kapoor and Kiefer have been read by some scholars through a lens of despair, but Milliner looks with eyes of hope and sees plenitude and light.
SONG: “Jordan” by Jana Horn: One of Art & Theology’s subscribers sent this to me, and I’m not sure what to make of it, but I definitely find it intriguing, if a bit unsettling. A song from Jana Horn’s debut solo album, Optimism (2022), which Pitchfork calls “cryptic, bewildering, and daringly simple.” “Jordan” is full of veiled biblical allusions and touches on themes of pilgrimage, belief, destruction, incarnation, and burden bearing. I share it here in the spirit of Jamie Smith’s talk above, about not needing to nail down meaning in an artwork—even though I can’t help but ask, “Just who are the two dialogue partners?!” (God the Son and God the Father?)
Horn is a singer-songwriter from Austin, Texas, and a fiction-writing graduate student at the University of Virginia–Charlottesville.
Earlier this month I visited the American Folk Art Museum in New York City and was struck by a large ensemble of painted driftwood sculptures by “outsider” artist Annie Hooper (1897–1986). Arranged on a broad platform in the main gallery, the figures are a mixture of apostles, prophets, patriarchs and matriarchs, pilgrims, pray-ers, angels, dancers, and mourners. They are but a small fraction of the thousands such figures that filled Annie’s remote coastal North Carolina home, where they beckoned friends and strangers alike to come in, take a look around, and hear God’s good word. Annie loved to tell stories through these her “symbols,” as she called them, interweaving her own life experiences with the narrative of scripture to communicate the hope of the gospel.
Annie (Miller) Hooper was born in 1897 in Buxton, North Carolina, on Hatteras Island in the Outer Banks. She was raised in a devout Methodist household that included her twelve siblings—one of them her twin sister, Mamie—and fourteen foster children.
After taking a few courses at Blackstone College for Girls in Virginia, she married John Hooper and moved across Pamlico Sound to Stumpy Point, North Carolina, where John was a commercial fisherman. Their son, Edgar, was born a year later, when Annie was nineteen.
Annie was very involved in her church community—playing the organ for services, preaching sermons when called upon, teaching Sunday school for children and adults, writing poems for the church newsletter, composing songs.
During World War II, when Edgar was deployed to the South Pacific and John left to work in the naval shipyards in Norfolk, Annie experienced her first bout of depression, which was accompanied by blackouts. Her second bout came when Edgar, after returning safely home from overseas, developed lung problems that required him to convalesce for a year in the mountains. Overcome with the fear of losing him, she suffered a nervous breakdown that led her to seek treatment in Raleigh (likely electroconvulsive therapy).
Shortly before her four months of psychiatric care, Annie and John had moved back to her hometown of Buxton and opened a motel. She returned to Buxton in need of recuperation, and she turned often to a large illustrated Bible for diversion and comfort, filling her mind with images of the Divine at work.
Then one day in her fifties, Annie “heard voices and angels guiding her to create figures” that “were to reveal the more pleasant, life-affirming aspects of Christian storytelling,” as she later reported to folklorist Roger Manley. She went out to the beach, picked up a suggestive piece of driftwood, fashioned a face on it with English putty, and colored it with leftover house paint. It was Moses on Mount Nebo, at the end of his life, looking over the river Jordan into the promised land (Deut. 32:48–52; 34:1–5).
Pleased with the result, she crafted more biblical figures using those same simple materials. She would often add seashells for eyes and cement limbs.
This art practice seemed to have a healing effect on her.
As her number of sculptures grew, Annie arranged them into tableaux around her house, starting in the dining room and a bedroom and expanding over a thirty-five-year period into every square inch of empty space—hallways, stairs, closets, tables, piano tops, stove burners, etc. “She had a kind of Cecil B. DeMille vision of the sweep of multitudes with casts of thousands,” Manley told me, “while her house was all but uninhabitable from the sheer volume of work packed into it. She used yardsticks to reach the light switches, and could barely get to the kitchen sink. The overall effect was dazzling, if a bit claustrophobically breathtaking.”
Annie made use of preexisting furniture to raise elements of certain scenes, creating a spatial dynamic. “In Annie’s house,” Manley said, “angels gazed down on the shepherds with their flocks from atop dressers and chairs, the golden calf was elevated on a stool, the ‘mount’ in the Sermon on the Mount was the dining room table, and so on.” She separated the scenes with garlands of tinsel and bouquets of plastic flowers and strung Christmas lights through them. “Changing colored light played over the groupings to impart movement and dazzle.”
By the time Annie died in 1986 she had made about 2,500 figurative sculptures inspired by the Old and New Testaments, on subjects like Jacob’s Ladder, the Exodus, Daniel in the Lions’ Den, Belshazzar’s Feast, the Visitation, the Flight to Egypt, the Sermon on the Mount, the Holy Women at the Tomb, Paul and Silas in Jail, and many more. Notably, there’s no Crucifixion scene; Annie said she couldn’t bear to put nails in the hands and feet of Christ. And so we get empty crosses instead.
The final group she worked on, left unfinished when she died, was forty-seven grieving Hebrew mothers who had lost their sons to Pharaoh’s death edict (Exod. 1:22). This story of infant male genocide, along with its correlative in Matthew 2:16–18, is one she returned to frequently throughout her four decades of art making, as it held strong resonances for her. She likened her son’s being sent away to war to his being thrown to crocodiles.
Mournful moms are everywhere in Annie’s work, Manley said—“surrounding Lazarus, overlooking scores of dead babies, at the foot of the cross(es). She identified with all women experiencing loss. In WWII dead sailors (mostly American and British) occasionally washed up on the beaches near her house after their ships had been sunk by U-boats, and she pitied their mothers as well. It was a major thread running through the whole display.”
Not all the figures correspond to characters in the Bible. Some are simply “bringing the message,” Annie said. They may illustrate a hymn, such as “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown?,” “It Is Well with My Soul,” “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” or “The Old Rugged Cross.”
Wanting to share these visual stories, Annie frequently welcomed visitors into her home, giving performative tours that involved narration and interactivity. For example, she would lean the Jesus figure over the prone Lazarus figure and bid him rise, or she would roll the stone away from Christ’s tomb while saying, “This is what God wants each of us to do—to roll away the stone of unbelief from our hearts.”
In 1978 Annie’s husband became paralyzed from a stroke, and she stopped creating until John’s death in 1982 so that she could take care of him. She was devastated by the gradual loss of her best friend to whom she had been married for sixty-plus years and who had always supported her (some would say eccentric) calling. But even as John lay ill and as she grieved, she still welcomed people in to experience the mixed-media spectacle she had built in their living quarters, as she wanted it to continue fulfilling its main purpose of edification.
She set up hundreds of signs with messages—handwritten in marker on pieces of paper and foam meat trays—to accompany the figures so that people could take their own self-guided tours. Some of these consist of Bible quotations or hymn lyrics, but most are distillations of her own spiritual wisdom, in her own words, or else personal prayers. Examples include:
“God’s intent is that man should come to Him and enjoy Him forever.”
“Through the ages, heaven will never cease to resound with the glad hallelujahs from the grateful hearts of the redeemed.”
“The cry of the heart for God is the cry that brings down blessings from that high source.”
“There is a place where the tears of the forgiver and the forgiven mingle together (at the foot of the cross).”
“God’s work on the cross brought a world estranged by sin back to its Creator.”
“Whatever honors God, help me to take delight in.”
“Lord, bring me to the place where mine eye seeth Thee.”
(And the occasionally humorous) “Keep out of the manger, Santa Clause [sic]. That belongs to the Baby Jesus.”
Reflecting back on her life’s work, Annie said,
I feel like I’ve been dedicated and set apart for God’s work. I believe that, but I haven’t gotten to the point that I’m perfect. I’m not an angel, I’m an aged imp. I can only live in hope, fully believing that God will bless me by making me a blessing to others, and I think I have been. When people come, they come seeking something of the supernatural, and they get it when they get God’s word. Here they get not only God’s word but they get a symbol resembling the thought that they have.
My work is all the work of love, working out the biblical scenes that will last through the ages long after I’m gone. That is my motive, that is my purpose, making figures with some spiritual thought to go along. When I look back over the work I’ve done it amazes me—but still it is not something to be worshipped. It is something that will tell a story.
In a different interview, at age eighty-seven, Annie described how she works in collaboration with God, in a sense, who has uniquely equipped her for the work:
I feel like I’ve had help. I feel like the Lord’s given me the desire to do, and the talent to do, and the material to work with, and the time to do. So I really feel like I’ve been a coworker, not only in making the material that I have, but also explaining it to those who come.
Brimming with faith and battling emotional and mental distress, Annie created a world, channeling her pain and anxieties as well as her hopes and joys into the making of hundreds upon hundreds of sculptures inspired by sacred scripture. Some of the figures look lost or forlorn, whereas others look peaceful, even beatific; still others appear playful. She felt she could identify with many of the people represented—e.g., Job in his affliction, the Virgin Mary in her surrender.
Annie saw in these biblical stories a reflection of the human experience and assurances of how God meets us in our brokenness (in our doubts, fears, failures, sickness, grief, or what have you), bringing salvation. Lament and praise are joined together in her oeuvre.
Unfortunately, the AFAM exhibition does not preserve the narrative groupings of the figures, instead arranging them roughly by size and placing them all on the same level facing forward, rather than having them interact with one another. There are no visual dividers or spotlights to help viewers navigate the bunches. As such, and lacking much of Annie’s interpretive signage, it’s nearly impossible to precisely identify any of the characters or to discern a plot—though Manley was able to confirm a few of my hunches (labeled in my captions) and to guide me in identifying a few other figures.
I was puzzled by the presence of what I thought might be a bear.
Manley suggested that it is probably a Gadarene swine from the story of Jesus healing a demoniac (Mark 5:1–20) but that it could also be from Annie’s “Valley of the Shadow of Death” scene, which featured a large human figure lying down on a piece of green shag carpet (a green pasture) surrounded by scary black and purple creatures.
Even in her lifetime, Manley informed me, Annie’s scenes were unfixed, constantly shifting and evolving. “Many of Annie’s figures played multiple roles,” he said. “If she had to move a scene to a different part of the house to make way for more, and the new location was too small to accommodate the entire scene, she would repurpose the ‘extras’ and make them part of some other scene. Her environment was not static—every time I went (perhaps 20 times?) a majority of the scenes would have been relocated and rearranged. Only a few ‘stayed put.’”
Roger Manley, whose friendship with and research on Annie I’ve relied on extensively for this article, became the caretaker of Annie’s work after her death. He first encountered it in 1970 when, on Christmas break after his first semester at Davidson College, he was hitchhiking and happened to be picked up by one of Annie’s grandsons. Thinking Manley would be amused by his grandma’s sculptures, he brought him to the house. Manley was enthralled by what he saw. He took photos and returned many times since, each time developing a keener sense of responsibility to preserve the work for posterity.
At Manley’s behest, Catherine Peck, a graduate student in the folklore program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, spent August 1984 at Annie’s house in Buxton, labeling and photographing her work and interviewing her. When Annie died in 1986, she bequeathed all her sculptures to the Jargon Society in Highlands, North Carolina, which Manley helped arrange.
In 1995 Manley organized a much larger exhibition at NC State, A Multitude of Memory: The Life Work of Annie Hooper, that displayed the whole lot they had inherited.
In 2017 the Gregg Museum (of which Manley is the director) transferred the Annie Hooper Bequest to the Kohler Foundation for conservation treatment and stewardship. While many of the sculptures remain in the permanent collection of the Gregg and the John Michael Kohler Arts Center kept 233, the rest have been donated to nine other museums across the country—including the American Folk Art Museum, where I had the pleasure of being introduced to Annie’s work!
All photos in this article, except the one of Annie Hooper, were taken by me (Victoria Emily Jones) at the multi-artistMultitudesexhibitionat the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan in August 2022. The exhibition runs through September 5.
1. ^“The Life Summary of Edgar Ormond,”FamilySearch. Cf. Annie Hooper, interview by Catherine Peck, 1984, tape 1: Side 1, Catherine Peck Collection, 1981–1988, in the Southern Folklife Collection, Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC.
3. ^ Roger Manley, email to the author, August 23, 2022.
4. ^ Roger Manley, email to the author, August 21, 2022.
5. ^ “As for numbers of objects, there are about 2500 human and angel figures, dead babies, birds, crocodiles, sheep, lions, etc., and some 500 more ‘accessories’: bases for inserting artificial flowers, driftwood stumps that provided landscaping, gold-painted miniature furniture (all crudely made by Annie), textiles (shrouds, swaddling cloths, etc.), concrete food items (for various suppers and feasts, loaves and fishes). The original inventory included everything—bunches of plastic flowers, rotating color-wheel lights, garlands of tinsel—hence the 5000 number. The materials these were made of did not survive long-term storage, however; over time, low-grade plastics begin to turn gooey or brittle, tinsel sheds, etc., so the object count shrank.” Roger Manley, email to the author, August 21, 2022.
In 1971 Gavin Bryars was working as a mixer and editor for a film documenting street life in and around the Elephant and Castle area of South London. Sifting through all the material that filmmaker Alan Power had recorded for the project, Bryars was struck by a twenty-six-second audio fragment of an elderly homeless man singing a simple song of Christian faith:
Jesus’ blood never failed me yet Never failed me yet Jesus’ blood never failed me yet That’s one thing I know For he loves me so
The clip didn’t make it into the film, but Power gave Bryars permission to keep it. Unfortunately the singer’s name and likeness were never recorded, and Bryars’s attempts to find him were unsuccessful. And despite scouring various hymnals and archives, neither Bryars nor anyone else has been able to find any other record of the song, which means it very likely could have been written by the man himself.
Inspired by the beauty and sincerity of the man’s song, Bryars ended up using the unwanted audio as the basis of a major orchestral composition. He made a loop of its thirteen bars (which the man sings perfectly in tune) and wrote a simple chordal arrangement, which he then developed into a rich ensemble piece with strings and brass, lasting about thirty minutes. The first three and half minutes feature a playback of the man’s bare vocals, the clip gradually increasing in volume until the strings enter in layers, then the brass, building to a swell that supports (but crucially, does not overwhelm) the voice for the entire duration.
“In a loose narrative sense, the frail, forsaken man is given a dignity and a sense of comradeship from the supporting musicians,” writes British journalist Oliver Keens, who also says that this “work of experimental classical music . . . as accessible as any pop song . . . is the closest we have in [England] to an underground national hymn.”
Music writer and sound artist Marc Weidenbaum says the piece “takes the melody inherent in a creaky recording of a homeless man singing a hymn in a painfully sweet and wavering rendition and renders it in a gentle, sensitive setting that suggests a heavenly chorus if not outright beatification.”
It is meditative; trancelike, even. And it has such emotional power. I cried when I first heard it.
The orchestration honors the anonymous man’s faith and the object of his faith, Jesus Christ—particularly the efficacy of Jesus’s blood, shed for the life of the world. An expression of divine love, that blood flows into every dark corner, bringing hope, forgiveness, and healing. The man on the tape clung to its promise. Even though his circumstances might suggest that the blood did fail him, he testifies otherwise: Jesus’s blood has never failed me.
“Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” was originally released on LP on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records label in 1975 (a few minutes had to be shaved off for it to fit on vinyl) and was re-released in 2015. A shortened version was recorded in 2002 on Gavin Bryars: A Portrait, featuring Tom Waits, with the Gavin Bryars Ensemble.
Widely performed, the piece exists in many iterations, with different lengths (from four minutes to twelve hours) and instrumentation. Bryars said he reinvents it every time he conducts it, usually writing parts for the musicians he has available.
The video above captures a performance by Psappha, conducted by Clark Rundell, which took place October 12, 2016, at the RNCM Theatre in Manchester.
In a Luminous podcast interview with Bryars last year, host Peter Bouteneff, reflecting on how Bryars recovered the old singer’s brief improvised performance from the cutting-room floor, said something that has stayed with me: “It makes you wonder how at any given moment, there’s something passing being said or sung, that if we cared enough to isolate it and love it, it could become exactly as beautiful.”
Recognizing the sublimity of the man’s song, Bryars shone a light on it, developing it into a full-fledged concert piece that doesn’t compete with the original homespun quality, but rather elevates it, broadens it. “Jesus’ Blood” is a merging of “fine” and “folk” cultures that exhibits the unique strengths of both.
It’s a pity that the man has never received named authorship credit—although, as mentioned, due diligence was taken to identify him prior to the song’s going public, and no new leads have emerged since, now surely decades after the man has passed. We don’t know whether the song is one he heard long ago in some church or mission hall, or from a friend, or something he composed himself. Either way, his heartfelt presentation of the song is a gift, and Bryars’s stewardship of that gift and creative engagement with it has extended its reach all over the globe.