“i thank You God for most this amazing” by E. E. Cummings

Chocorua Landscape by E. E. Cummings
E. E. Cummings (American, 1894–1962), Chocorua Landscape. Watercolor, 12 × 18 in.

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

This poem was originally published in Xaipe1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1950), reissued in 2004 by Liveright, an imprint of W.W. Norton & Company. Reprinted here by permission of the publisher. Copyright expires 2045.


Edward Estlin Cummings (1894–1962), known as E. E. Cummings,2 is one of America’s most famous twentieth-century poets. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he was raised in the Unitarian faith—a pastor’s son—with its emphasis on the oneness of God. As an adult he wed this spiritual framework to Emersonian transcendentalism, a philosophical movement that celebrates humanity and nature. Elements from these two complementary traditions can be detected in his praise poem “i thank You God for most this amazing,” in which the natural world triggers an awakening to Truth. And for Cummings, Truth is a person, a “You” with a capital Y.

Humanities students are always introduced to Cummings as a poet, but actually, painting is the endeavor he invested most of his time in.3 One of his favorite subjects to paint was the landscape surrounding his summer home at Joy Farm in Silver Lake, New Hampshire (see image above). The elation he felt in this environment of wooded hills, fields, and lake he worked into several of his poems. I wonder if “leaping greenly spirits of trees” and “blue true dream of sky” were inspired by a view from his farmstead one August day.

Cummings is notorious for his idiosyncratic poetic style, which is marked especially by unconventional syntax—that is, a nonlogical ordering of words. This device is at play in the awkward first line of our present poem, which dislocates “most”: instead of “i thank You God for this most amazing / day” (this day is so amazing) or even “i thank You God most for this amazing / day” (this day is what I’m most thankful for), we have “i thank You God for most this amazing / day.” By inverting the word order Cummings draws attention to the word “most,” traditionally an adverb but in this position an indeterminate part of speech.  Continue reading ““i thank You God for most this amazing” by E. E. Cummings”

A sweeping vision of all things made new

This Sunday’s reading in the Revised Common Lectionary is Revelation 21:1–6, in which John describes the renewal of the entire created order:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.”

Jesus’s resurrection was the beginning of a new creation that starts with man. Paul mentions this in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” But whereas Paul is talking about individual renewal, the renewal that John envisions is all-encompassing, touching everything—“an external order in full correspondence with the new nature,” in the words of Alexander Maclaren.

Theologians disagree on whether the “new” in this Revelation passage indicates that the present heaven and earth will one day be destroyed and then newly created, or rather that heaven and earth will one day be utterly transformed, made new in nature or quality. I hold the latter view, and it appears that American artist James B. Janknegt does as well.

Make All Things New by James B. Janknegt
James B. Janknegt (American, 1953–), Make All Things New, 2005. Oil on canvas, 96 × 48 in.

Janknegt’s painting Make All Things New shows the risen Christ standing triumphantly over the pit of death and under the blessing hand of God, sweeping up the things of earth into a whirlpool of color. Birds, balls, and bicycles; musical instruments and charcoal grills; plants and houses, pets and people, mowers and swing sets—all are on their way to the New Jerusalem. Beauty, work, and play.

Also present in the cosmic swirl are a loaf of bread and a glass of wine, symbols of God’s broken body and spilt blood, the activators of the new covenant. These two objects are evidence on multiple levels that God does indeed transform: he transformed the shame of the cross into glory, and at the Communion table again and again he transforms common, earthly elements into means of grace.

I appreciate Janknegt’s portrayal (through the upside-down skyscrapers at the top of the painting) of heaven coming down to meet earth as it did in the beginning, a biblical truth that has far too often been misrepresented in Christian art, music, and teaching. The restoration of the union between heaven and earth is pretty much the Bible’s main theme—one that’s beautifully explained in The Bible Project’s video on heaven and earth in terms of overlap between two spaces. We won’t eventually leave one space to fly over to the other; instead, heaven and earth will become the same space.

This is a vision that we are called to live into now! As new creations, we orient ourselves around the risen Christ, and we practice resurrection wherever we go. This can mean anything from turning vacant lots into gardens to beating guns into farm tools (literally!) to building wells in villages without access to clean drinking water to fostering or adopting an abused child to supporting a friend through rehabilitation. Where there is death, we bring life.

Make All Things New is a picture of what God has started to do in the world and will one day accomplish completely, at which point we can say along with him in praise and celebration, “It is done!” In the meantime, let’s join him in his work.

This painting is available for sale on the artist’s website and is also offered as a print.

Catching the sun with Frans Claerhout

Boy and Cart by Frans Claerhout
Frans Claerhout (Belgian/South African, 1919–2006), Boy and Cart. Oil on canvas laid down on board, 37 × 45 cm.

Father Frans Claerhout (1919–2006) was a Belgian Catholic missionary to South Africa as well as a self-taught artist whose painting sales helped support the church’s work in and around the impoverished towns of Bloemfontein and Thaba ‘Nchu. For him, painting was an extension of his mission, for through it, he said, he sought to communicate joy and beauty. He often depicted the everyday scenes he observed around him—farmers harvesting grain, women carrying water or flowers, children playing, donkeys, chickens, sweethearts. Sometimes he transformed such scenes into biblical ones, such as the Annunciation, the Flight to Egypt, Peter’s denial, or the Good Shepherd.

Claerhout understood himself as having a dual vocation. In a 1999 interview with Esté de Klerk, he said, “I am a priest, but I am also an artist, and I have always combined the two. I am one and the same, Father Claerhout—priest and painter. Not two sides of a piece of bread but the whole piece.” In other words, he saw the two as perfectly integrated. He couldn’t turn over his priestly duties for part of the day to focus on his art, nor vice versa, because they were one and the same. In both roles, he administered the gospel.

With the money Claerhout made from his paintings, he funded the building of twenty churches and several houses for families in addition to the purchase of eight vehicles for the transport of schoolchildren, the sick, and the elderly. He liked to think of himself as “a breadwinner for the church.”

One recurrent motif in Claerhout’s work is what he called the “sun catcher” (sonnevanger): a person cradling the sun in his or her arms or toting it by hand or by cart. “Catching the sun” is a phrase that Claerhout used often in his teaching and poetry in reference to possessing joy—warmth, light—in Christ. It engages a theological wordplay that’s been in use since the earliest developments of the English language: sun/Son. Christ is both.

Sun Catcher by Frans Claerhout
Frans Claerhout (Belgian/South African, 1919–2006), The Sun Catcher. Bronze sculpture.
Sun Catcher by Frans Claerhout
Frans Claerhout (Belgian/South African, 1919–2006), The Sun Catcher.
Woman with Sun by Frans Claerhout
Frans Claerhout (Belgian/South African, 1919–2006), Woman with Sun. Mixed media on paper, 60 × 42 cm.

Continue reading “Catching the sun with Frans Claerhout”

Roundup: Art & Theology on Twitter, Van Gogh earthwork, flowers overhead, God in pop culture, Raised documentary

After years of hesitance, I’ve finally decided to try out this whole Twitter thing. My handle is @artandtheology. I will be sharing posts from the blog as well as retweeting others in the field. Feel free to engage with me there.

Van Gogh’s Olive Trees reinterpreted as earthscape for aerial viewing: Last year the Minneapolis Institute of Art commissioned earthworks artist Stan Herd to recreate Vincent Van Gogh’s Olive Trees, an important painting in its collection, on a 1.2-acre plot of land so that people flying into the Minneapolis–Saint Paul Airport could look down from their windows and be welcomed to the city (and invited to the museum!). Watch Herd at work on the project in the video below.

Deconstructed flower garden suspended in air: To herald the start of spring, London-based installation artist Rebecca Louise Law has suspended 30,000 live flowers from copper wire in the atrium of the concept shopping mall Bikini Berlin in Germany, giving shoppers a perhaps unexpected taste of natural beauty. Natural materials, especially flora, are Law’s specialty. Visit her website to view more of her stunning works (The Yellow Flower from Sasebo, Japan, is probably my favorite), or stop by Bikini Berlin anytime through May 1 to experience Garten.

Garten by Rebecca Louise Law

Garten by Rebecca Louise Law

10 best representations of God in culture: My friend Paul Neeley alerted me to this recent list published in The Guardian. Culled from film, theatre, and visual art, several of these are new to me!

Book and documentary collaboration on the Resurrection: In 2014 Zondervan published Raised? Finding Jesus by Doubting the Resurrection by Jonathan K. Dodson and Brad Watson to demonstrate why the bodily resurrection of Jesus is believable and the possibilities it offers for a life of hope. As a tie-in to the book, Moving Works created a four-part documentary in which Benjamin and Jessica Roberts tell the story of how Christ’s resurrection has personally impacted them. Watch the documentary below, and click here to access related materials for small group study.

“Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep”: Death, Resurrection, and the New Exodus

Moses and the Sea by Zak Benjamin
Zak Benjamin (South African, 1951–), Moses and the Sea, 1982. Hand-colored etching.

The exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, where they had been held in bondage for at least two hundred years, through the miraculously parted waters of the Red Sea is the archetypal salvation event in the Hebrew scriptures. Throughout its books, one of the primary epithets for God is “he who brought us up out of Egypt,” or some variation thereof, for this action defined God’s character, assured the Israelites of his strength and will to save.

In addition to its historical sense, Christians have long understood the Old Testament exodus story as a prefigurement of the “new exodus” led by Christ, whereby we are liberated from the bondage of sin. As the New Moses, Jesus confronts evil—institutional evil, but also the evil inside each of us—and leads us out of its clutches. He stretched out his hands on a cross to create for us a clear path to freedom, then he stretched out his hands again three days later in resurrection victory, burying our former oppressors. Liturgical tradition acknowledges the link between the Exodus and the Resurrection by prescribing the reading of Exodus 14 at Easter Vigil.

In the farm fields of the antebellum South, African American slaves resonated strongly with the story of the Israelites. They looked to the Exodus—that literal, historic flight—in hopes that God would one day accomplish the same feat for them, and they even encoded this hope into the songs they sang. “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep” is one such example. The verses vary by performer, but the chorus is this:

Oh Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Oh Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Pharaoh’s army got drownded
Oh Mary, don’t you weep

One might be tempted to assume that the Mary referred to here is Moses’s sister, for narrative coherence. (“Miriam” is the Hebrew equivalent of the English “Mary.”) However, the more logical choice, given the weeping detail, is either Mary of Bethany or Mary Magdalene, both of whom the Bible records as weeping in response to death—Mary of Bethany, at the death of her brother, Lazarus (John 11:31–33), and Mary Magdalene, at the death of Jesus (John 20:11–13). In both stories, though, Christ demonstrates power over the grave. He brings Lazarus back to life, and he himself returns to life three days after his Crucifixion.

Melancholy by Odilon Redon
Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916), Melancholy, 1876. Charcoal on paper. Art Institute of Chicago.

The chorus applies equally well to either Mary, and perhaps the dual reference is intentional. Their stories are similar, the one a precursor to the other. Mary of Bethany, however, seems to be the more popular interpretation, as evidenced by adaptations of the song that add Martha’s name to the chorus, such as the Swan Silvertones’ version (“Oh Mary, don’t you weep / Oh Martha, don’t you mourn”). Either way, the song creates a link between God’s victory over the Egyptians in the Old Testament and his victory over death in the New. The chorus is a consolatory reminder that God is mighty to save.

As with most spirituals, “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep” operates on three levels:

  1. Jewish history
  2. Spiritual metaphor
  3. Present circumstances/anticipations

Continue reading ““Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep”: Death, Resurrection, and the New Exodus”

“The Dawning” by George Herbert

He Is Risen by Romare Bearden
Romare Bearden (American, 1911–1988), He Is Risen, 1945. Oil on gessoed board, 36 × 24 in.

Awake, sad heart, whom sorrow ever drowns;
     Take up thine eyes, which feed on earth;
Unfold thy forehead, gathered into frowns;
     Thy Saviour comes, and with him mirth:
                                    Awake, awake,
And with a thankful heart his comforts take.
     But thou dost still lament, and pine, and cry,
     And feel his death, but not his victory.

Arise, sad heart; if thou dost not withstand,
     Christ’s resurrection thine may be;
Do not by hanging down break from the hand
     Which, as it riseth, raiseth thee:
                                    Arise, arise,
And with his burial linen dry thine eyes.
     Christ left his grave clothes, that we might, when grief
     Draws tears or blood, not want a handkerchief.

This poem was originally published in The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations by George Herbert (1633).

Thomas in the dark

John 20:24–26 tells us that Thomas wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus appeared to them the day of his resurrection. It wasn’t until eight days later—the following Sunday—that Jesus came to Thomas. In that span of time, Thomas was left to wrestle with his doubt. “He is risen!” he heard from the other disciples. “We saw him!” But Thomas had not been granted any such encounter. Thinking it ridiculous that a dead man should rise from the grave, he chalked up the claims to mere gossip. Hallucinations, maybe. And he stewed uncomfortably in his disappointment and confusion. That is, until Jesus approached him and gave him the physical confirmation he needed.

Why did Jesus wait so long to seek out Thomas? Maybe to give him time to think over the events of the previous week—and even further back, to Jesus’s teachings about himself, his prophecies. Maybe Thomas needed to be kept in the dark a little longer than the others so that certain truths could settle in his heart and mind, so that he would be ready to receive the proof par excellence.

Imagining what these eight days of not knowing must have been like, Jess Strantz, lead vocalist for the folk soul duo Von Strantz, wrote a song called “Oh Tom.” Written from Thomas’s perspective, it takes us for a ride on his roller coaster of emotions following the death of Jesus—insecurity, hurt, fear—before pulling at last into the station of confident faith.   Continue reading “Thomas in the dark”

She mistook him for the gardener

In his Gospel John records that on the Sunday morning following Jesus’s crucifixion, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and, finding it empty, started to weep, for she thought someone had taken the body. In her worry and frustration, she “turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus . . . supposing him to be the gardener” (John 20:14–15). It isn’t until he says her name that she recognizes him.

Artists—mainly from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—have latched onto this detail of mistaken identity, representing Jesus carrying gardening tools, like a shovel or a hoe, and sometimes sporting a floppy gardener’s hat. A few artists, such as Lavinia Fontana, Rembrandt, and the illuminators of the book of hours and passional shown below, have even shown Jesus in full-out gardener’s getup. (In her commentary on John, Dr. Jo-Ann A. Brant mentions that the fact that Jesus left his burial clothes in the tomb, coupled with Mary’s confusion, might provoke the “fanciful speculation” that Jesus actually borrowed the gardener’s clothes. Nevertheless, a different understanding is more likely behind the artistic representations; read on.)

Noli me tangere by Jacopo di Cione
Attributed to Jacopo di Cione (Italian, 1365–1398/1400), Noli me tangere, ca. 1368–70. Pinnacle panel from a Florentine altarpiece, now in the collection of the National Gallery, London.
Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene
Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene, from a Biblia Pauperum (typological picture book), ca. 1405, Netherlands. British Library, London.
Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico
Fra Angelico (Italian, ca. 1395–1455), Noli me tangere, 1440–42. Fresco from the convent of San Marco, Florence, Italy.
Noli me tangere by Israhel van Meckenem
Israhel van Meckenem (German, ca. 1445–1503), Noli me tangere, 1460–1500. Engraving. British Museum, London.
Noli me tangere by Sandro Botticelli
Sandro Botticelli (Italian, 1445–1510), Noli me tangere, ca. 1484–91. Predella panel from an altarpiece from the convent of Sant’Elisabetta delle Convertite, Florence, Italy, in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Jesus as Gardener (Book of Hours)
Master of the Dark Eyes, “Christ Appears to St. Mary Magdalene as a Gardener,” from The Hours of the Eternal Wisdom: Lauds (KB, 76 G 9), fol. 88r, ca. 1490. Koninklijke Bibliotheek (National Library of the Netherlands), The Hague.
Jesus as Gardener (cca. 1503)
“Christ Appears to Mary Magdalene as a Gardener” (detail), ca. 1503–1504, England. Fol. 134v, Vaux Passional (Peniarth 482D), National Library of Wales.

Continue reading “She mistook him for the gardener”

Roundup: The art of celebration, cross-cultural exchanges in illuminated manuscripts, the history of color, and insect-wing blooms

The Art of Celebration (album): Rend Collective is a folksy worship band from the small coastal town of Bangor in Northern Ireland that is internationally known for its high-spirited, experimental songs of joy. The Art of Celebration is their fourth of five albums, the story of which is told in the video below. “This record is an attempt to reflect something of the irrepressible laughter in the heart of God,” says bandleader Gareth Gilkeson. “It’s a call to the cynical to once again choose celebration over condemnation and a reminder to the broken that ‘the joy of the Lord is our strength.’” You can preview songs from the album here and purchase it here, or catch the band on tour (they’re currently in the US). I’ve embedded one of my favorite songs from the album below: “My Lighthouse.”

“Traversing the Globe through Illuminated Manuscripts” (exhibition): Through June 26, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles is running an exhibition of illuminated manuscripts and painted book arts from the ninth through seventeenth centuries. From the website: “These highly prized objects allow us to glimpse, admire, and study a world gone by, as well as its peoples, different belief systems, and an interconnected global history of human thought and ideas about art.” Check out the Q&A with curator Bryan Keene—so fascinating. Also click the link above to find out about related events. Next up is a lecture on April 19 titled “A Medieval Picture Book and Its Judeo-Persian Lives: The Shah Abbas Bible in 17th-Century Safavid Iran.”

Virgin and Child (Ethiopian)
The Virgin and Child with the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, from a Gospel book, ca. 1480-1520, Gunda Gunde Monastery, Ethiopia. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
Northumberland Bestiary
Pen-and-ink wash-tinted drawing of a dragon riding an elephant, England, ca. 1250–1260. Northumberland Bestiary (Ms. 100), fol. 54, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

The Brilliant History of Color in Art (book): Victoria Finlay’s latest book from Getty Publications, full of fun facts about the origins and science of color. The trailer below tells how Prussian blue, Indian yellow, lead white, and Tyrian purple came to be. Lapham’s Quarterly has a nifty infographic on the same topic.

Mimesis (photomontage series): From 2012 to 2014 Paris-based artist Seb Janiak executed a series of twenty-two photographs that show insect wings pieced together in flower-like forms. Janiak says he believes that a spiritual reality undergirds the physical. “Using art to reveal what is behind the veil of matter is fascinating and full of discoveries,” he writes. See more Mimesis photos at the link above.

Mimesis by Seb Janiak
Seb Janiak (French, 1966–), Mimesis—Lacus Luxuriae, 2013. Chromogenic print, 180 × 180 cm.