Disciplining our eyes with holy images

Images shape our desires. As much as we like to think we’re immune to their influence, that we can encounter them without letting them tell us what is good or true or beautiful, they tend to work a subtle magic on us, especially after years of constant exposure.

I’m talking not just about advertisements and entertainment media, which perpetuate the myth that only one particular type of female body is attractive, and likewise one particular type of male body, and train us to desire that type for ourselves and for our partner.

I’m talking too about the seemingly innocuous images posted on social media. Studies have shown that regularly browsing Facebook, for example, can lead to depression, as users engage in social comparison that may cause them to resent both others’ lives as well as the image of themselves they feel they need to continuously maintain. A network member posts a photo of the just-because gift her amazing, so-thoughtful husband just bought her, and it makes you feel less loved. Another one posts a selfie taken from his scuba dive in Malta, and you wonder where all the adventure has gone in your life. A friend from high school posts a whole album of birthday photos of her two-year-old, and you are reminded of your ticking biological clock, or of her twenty-two-year-old in cap and gown, and you wish your kid had decided to go to college.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with images—creating or consuming. In fact, we need them. But we also need to beware of the propensity they have to plant themselves firmly in our minds and become idols. Whether it’s a perfume commercial on TV or an exotic dinner photo on Instagram, we need to break the power certain images have over us. Instead of allowing images to name us (“ugly,” “boring,” “unwanted,” “failure”), we must name them—denounce as false and unholy any image that claims ultimate authority in our lives, or that tries to redefine who we are against the definition scripture already gives us: we are Christ’s.

In his essay “The Desire of the Church,” published in The Community of the Word: Toward an Evangelical Ecclesiology (InterVarsity Press, 2005), Willie James Jennings discusses the distortion of sight and desire that is the result of the Fall. The tree of knowledge, he writes, was the first unholy icon in human history—an icon in the sense of being “a point of focus that facilitates desire and guides relationships” and “nurtures our seeing and knowing,” and unholy because to look on it was to begin the journey of disobedience. Gazing on the unholy icon of the tree, Adam and Eve saw themselves refracted through it, instead of gazing on God and seeing themselves reflected. By turning their gaze off God and fixating it on something lesser, they stopped seeing themselves, each other, and their Creator rightly.

“The only way to reverse this journey of disobedience,” Jennings says, “is to establish a new point of focus.” So into humanity comes the holy icon—Jesus Christ—whose life overcomes the fracture and fragment of desire. As the image of the invisible God, he reorients our gaze back onto the holy.   Continue reading “Disciplining our eyes with holy images”

Coming Home to North Carolina: The Christ-Haunted Terrain of Junebug

Junebug movie coverWhen Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), a Chicago gallerist, meets Southern boy George Johnsten (Alessandro Nivola), it’s a whirlwind romance, clinched by a marriage ceremony at the end of week one. Six months later, it’s time to meet George’s family, so it’s off to Pfafftown, North Carolina.

A culture-clash dramedy written by Angus MacLachlan and directed by Phil Morrison, Junebug (2005) explores the themes of homecoming—geographic and spiritual—and escape. It was shot primarily in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where both the writer and the director were born and raised, as well as in Greensboro and Wake Forest. Location is key to the story and aesthetic of the film, as the camera often fixates on empty rooms in the Johnsten house, or tracks through neighborhoods and past the local church.

Most scenes are played from the perspective of Madeleine, an outsider art dealer who herself becomes an outsider—an outsider to the religious and family culture of her husband. We are given a taste of the disorientation she feels in the very first frames: footage from a National Hollerin’ Contest, a folk tradition of the state’s Piedmont region.

Mama Peg (Celia Weston) is suspicious of Madeleine from the start, thinking her an ill-suited match for her son. The taciturn father, Eugene (Scott Wilson), on the other hand, is fond of Madeleine and spends most of the movie looking for his screwdriver so he can make her a wooden bird. Johnny (Ben McKenzie) is the sullen, underachieving brother who resents George for leaving home. Johnny’s pregnant wife, Ashley (Amy Adams), is exceptionally and demonstrably thrilled to have a new sister-in-law; she’s wide-eyed, loquacious, and doting, and the emotional center of the film.

Flannery O’Connor once wrote that the American South is “Christ-haunted,” and that observation rings true in Junebug, where Christianity saturates the culture. Jesus’s name is invoked at baby showers and potlucks, in Sunday-morning sermons and fridge magnets, in conversations and aphorisms.

This is the environment George grew up in, that shaped who he is. We get the sense that faith used to be an important part of his life but that it’s something he shook off, or maybe privatized, when he moved away. We’re never told why he moved away—only that it caused a major rift between him and his brother. Why does anyone leave home? It’s usually to see and experience the world beyond his or her one small corner of it.

The film’s most pivotal scene takes place at a church supper, where George is reunited for the first time in years with his “home flock.” After spending time laughing and bonding with old friends of all generations and receiving prayer from his former pastor (Madeleine peeks with interested surprise at the reverence George shows; this is presumably the first time she’s seen him pray), George is invited to sing a hymn for everyone: “Softly and Tenderly.”   Continue reading “Coming Home to North Carolina: The Christ-Haunted Terrain of Junebug

More things are wrought by prayer . . .

Wrought by Prayer by Bill Hemmerling
Bill Hemmerling (American, 1943–2009), Wrought by Prayer. Oil on canvas, 20 × 30 in.

“. . . More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.”

—King Arthur to Sir Bedivere, in “The Passing of Arthur” from Idylls of the King by Alfred Tennyson

“Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”

—James, the brother of Jesus, in a letter to Jewish Christians outside Palestine

Book of Romans concept album by Psallos

Paul’s epistle to the Romans is, I’d say, the most theologically foundational book of the Bible. As a young Christian I was taught the “Romans Road” method of sharing the gospel, using verses like Romans 3:23 (“For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God”), Romans 6:23 (“For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”), and so on to teach the doctrines of sin and salvation. The book is definitely Paul’s magnum opus.

Countless commentaries on Romans have been produced, but none takes the unique approach of Cody Curtis: exegeting the entire text with music.

The project began, loosely, in 2011, when Curtis’s pastor asked him if he could set to music Paul’s benediction in Romans 11:33–36 to supplement a sermon series. The result, “O the Depth!,” was well received, which gave Curtis the encouragement to experiment with lyrical adaptations and musical settings of other Romans passages. In 2014 he decided to pursue a full-out album in collaboration with other musical students, alumni, and friends of his alma mater Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. They call themselves Psallos, from the Greek verb psallō, translated in Ephesians 5 as “making melody”: “Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (vv. 18b–19).

Released in March 2015, Romans mines the theological depths of its eponymous book, bringing to life Paul’s teachings on sin, grace, sanctification, and divine promise with music. The predominant style could be described as orchestral folk pop, but elements of rock, soul, and jazz are also present on the album. (Read more about the eclectic style choices in Trevin Wax’s interview with Curtis from last year.) Besides your standard piano, guitar, and drums, other instruments include the violin, viola, cello, flute, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, and harmonium. Curtis’s compositions bring to bear his extensive music education—he’s a newly minted doctor of musical arts—as well as his experience leading music for church congregations. He presently serves as music minister at Pleasant Plains Baptist Church in Jackson, Tennessee.   Continue reading “Book of Romans concept album by Psallos”

Roundup: Free Bifrost Arts songs, civil religion hymn revised, Bono and Eugene Peterson talk Psalms, Crystal Cathedral transformation, mercy-themed movies

Entire Bifrost Arts catalog available for free download: For a limited time, the Christian music collective Bifrost Arts is offering all forty-eight of their songs for free download from NoiseTrade. Donations are welcome—100 percent of them will go to the Salt and Light Artist fund, which funds residencies for Christian artists in Arab countries, providing a platform for interaction with the local arts community.

Alternative song lyrics for “America, the Beautiful”: In 1993 Sister Miriam Therese Winter adapted the lyrics to “America, the Beautiful” to make the song more appropriate for a Christian worship service (i.e., less nationalistic). Her adaptation is #594 in the United Church of Christ’s New Century Hymnal.

Interview with Bono and Eugene Peterson on the Psalms: This short film, released in April, documents the friendship between Bono (of the band U2) and Eugene Peterson (author of contemporary-language Bible translation The Message) revolving around their common interest in the Psalms. Inspired by their conversation, interviewer David Taylor compiled a list of resources for exploring the Psalms.

Transforming a Protestant worship space into a Catholic one: The largest glass building in the world, the Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, California, has been undergoing renovations since having been sold in 2013 by the Reformed Church in America to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange. “Our charge is to convert an open, all-glass Evangelical church into a great Catholic cathedral to serve its centuries-old sacraments and ritual processions, and to reinforce the centrality of the Eucharist,” write architects Scott Johnson and Frank Clementi. This article published in Faith and Form describes some of the symbolic, aesthetic, environmental, and technical challenges of this project and includes renderings of the new space, which is scheduled to reopen next year.

Crystal Cathedral renovations

Top 25 films on mercy: I’ve been enjoying these top 25 film lists put together by the Arts & Faith online community—especially how they reach beyond the obvious choices, dipping into the silent era as well as non-American cinema. Here’s their latest, a list of films that “show us visions of a world so often lacking in mercy, as well as worlds in which one merciful act alters the landscape of human experience forever.” Click here to view their other lists: road films, horror films, divine comedies, films on marriage, and films on memory.