Near (Artful Devotion)

Praying Youth (early medieval fresco)
Fragment of a Roman Christian fresco, 8th–9th century. Dumbarton Oaks Museum (BZ.1938.59), Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

—Luke 21:28

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This upcoming Sunday marks the beginning of Advent, a yearly church season of waiting, watching, hoping, praying, and preparing for the coming of the Savior.

There are theological reasons for observing a serious Advent without being swallowed up prematurely by the Christmas rush. Advent offers an unparalleled opportunity to take a fearless inventory of the darkness in our world and in our hearts, into which the True Light will come.

Fleming Rutledge

The season of Advent is an opportunity both to discover the nature of our enfeebled waiting muscles as well as our tired practices of anticipation and to discipline our hearts and minds, bodies and lives so that we might become, together, a people who wait with hope, who anticipate with faith, and who welcome the arrival of the Lord with courage in our hearts.

W. David O. Taylor

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SONG: “Christmas Is Now Drawing Near at Hand” (Roud 808) | English folk carol, 16th century | Performed by James Elkington, 2017

 

This carol, likely from the sixteenth century, was traditionally sung by beggars, travelers, and the “roaming folk” of England around Christmastime. Because of its strong moralism, it has fallen out of favor, but interest in it revived somewhat when it was recorded by the Watersons on their 1965 album Frost and Fire. Their version is based on one of those found in the 1914 edition of the Journal of the Folk-Song Society, compiled by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp from the West Midlands and counties adjoining Wales. James Elkington’s rendition adds a blues tilt, as his “masterful picking style tumbles and curls around the mournful melody,” accompanied by organ and slide guitar.

Christmas is now drawing near at hand
Come serve the Lord and be at his command
God a portion for you will provide
And give a blessing to your soul besides

Down in the garden, where the flowers grow in ranks
Get down on your bended knees and give the Lord thanks
Down on your knees and pray both night and day
Leave off your sins and live from pray to pray

So proud and lofty is some sort of sin
Which many take delight and pleasure in
Whose conversation doth God smirch as lie
And yet he shakes his sword before he strikes

So proud and lofty do some people go
Dressing themselves like players in a show
They patch, paint, and dress with idle stuff
As if God had not made ’em fine enough

Well, even little children learn to curse and swear
They can’t rehearse one word of godly prayer
Teach them better, oh teach them to rely
On Christ, the sinner’s friend, who reigns on high


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

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

Roundup: Peaceable Kingdom; Mary Poppins; art writing contest; “On Reading Well”; new Advent/Christmas albums

Congrats to the three winners of the Wounded in Spirit book giveaway. Thank you all for entering. I will be giving away another free book, from Eerdmans, sometime in the next month or two, so stay tuned!

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The Peaceable Kingdom (detail) by Edward Hicks
A bear and a cow share a snack of grass, and a child pets a leopard without consequence, in this charming little detail from Edward Hicks’s 1834 Peaceable Kingdom in the National Gallery of Art.

ADVENT ART VIDEO: The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks: This year I was invited to make a guest contribution to art historian James Romaine’s annual Art for Advent video series on YouTube. For 2018, he is spotlighting paintings from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, my neck of the woods. I chose to write about The Peaceable Kingdom by the nineteenth-century Quaker preacher-artist Edward Hicks, which visualizes the prophecy of Isaiah 11 about predators and prey lying down together in friendship, and a little child leading them. But Hicks’s image of “peace on earth” is not as simplistic as it may seem at first; there is tension. See the video below, and be sure to check back on the Seeing Art History YouTube channel next week for subsequent videos. For more on Hicks and this favorite subject of his, see this post of mine from 2016. Thank you to Rain for Roots for letting me use their wonderfully playful musical rendition of Isaiah 11 from their family Advent album Waiting Songs.

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Mary Poppins

PODCAST EPISODE: “Mary Poppins,” Technicolor Jesus, episode 49: “If you want a movie that really shows the foolishness of the gospel next to what the world thinks is wise and is turned on its head . . . if you want a movie about the great reversals that are present in the kingdom of God, you don’t need to look any further than Mary Poppins,” says Pastor Becca Messman. The oppressive orderliness booming over people’s lives “is contrasted with something unpredictable and joyful—the wind, dancing chimney sweeps, and this beautiful bird woman giving her crumbs away.” The movie is about what happens when both adults and kids relax into joy.

It’s also about charity. Last year Niles Reddick wrote an article about Mary Poppins as the first female Christ figure in American film, and “Feed the Birds” as a “song-parable” that serves as the linchpin of the movie. While the world would have us pile up our coins in a bank vault, Jesus calls us, against the world’s wisdom, to give them away.

Feeding the Birds (Mary Poppins)

I love this movie. My mom says that from a young age she would play it for me, and I would sit mesmerized for the entire 139 minutes. I remember trying to soothe my baby brother many a time by singing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” Once we were elementary school–age, we would eagerly await the “Step in Time” scene, at which point we would rush to grab brooms from the garage, using them as props as we danced along with Dick Van Dyke—which sometimes ended in injury . . . Now as an adult, I can appreciate some of the movie’s deeper themes, and pick up on its resonances with the upside-down nature of Christ’s kingdom. Can’t wait to see the new Mary Poppins Returns next month!

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WRITING CONTEST FOR UK TEENS: “Write on Art”: In an effort to get teenagers learning and writing about art, Art UK and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art are co-sponsoring “Write on Art” for the second year in a row. Any kid between the ages of 15 and 18 who is enrolled in a UK school (Years 10–13) is eligible to enter to win up to £500 by submitting a short personal write-up (400–600 words) on any artwork in the UK’s national collection. “With a disturbing decline in the teaching of art and art history in schools, our Write on Art competition . . . is designed to highlight the importance of art as an academic discipline.” The website includes tips on how to write about art, including where to find relevant vocabulary and other resources. All entries must be submitted by January 31, 2019.

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BOOK REVIEW: On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books by Karen Swallow Prior, reviewed by Nick Roark: In September, Brazos Press released Prior’s latest book on reading widely and well, which received a starred review and a Best Book of 2018 in Religion from Publishers Weekly. I’m a big fan of her previous Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, so I’m really looking forward to this one. “Covering authors from Henry Fielding to Cormac McCarthy, Jane Austen to George Saunders, and Flannery O’Connor to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Prior explores some of the most compelling universal themes found in the pages of classic books, helping readers learn to love life, literature, and God through their encounters with great writing. In examining works by these authors and more, Prior shows why virtues such as prudence, temperance, humility, and patience are still necessary for human flourishing and civil society.”

On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior

Purchase the book between now and Christmas, and receive a piece of free downloadable art by Ned Bustard. Instructions are on her website, https://karenswallowprior.com/.

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NEW ADVENT/CHRISTMAS ALBUMS

Watches of the Night; After the Longest Night

Watches of the Night by Matt Searles: “Christian believers are like watchmen, longing to see the first rays of dawn. We long for the darkness of this world to be finally taken away, and the light of Christ to rise in all its splendour. This album is intended to help us as we wait; to lament the brokenness of this world, but to look to the riches of that which is to come. It is an album of longing, but also of profound hope. Light has dawned. Christ has been raised. But we await the full revelation of him in glory. We are still watchmen. Still waiting.

 

“This is not a loud album. It is one I hope you might be able to listen to if you lie awake unable to sleep, as I so often find the case. I pray it is an album that might help you – like David in Ps 63:6 – to meditate on God in the watches of the night. An album that will orient you to the future, and help you increasingly be someone whose mind is set on the city that is to come. Songs to help you fix your eyes on Christ, and long above all else for his return when we see him face to face.”

After the Longest Night: Songs for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany by Steve Thorngate: These fourteen songs are a mix of originals, including settings of the Lukan Canticles (the songs of Zechariah, Mary, and Simeon), and traditionals: “Creator of the Stars of Night,” “What Child Is This,” “Bright Morning Stars,” and “Let the Light of Your Lighthouse Shine on Me.” Best $7 I’ve spent in a while! (Purchase even includes lead sheets.)

 

He Reigns Forever (Artful Devotion)

Christ Enthroned (Koutloumousiou Monastery)
Christ in Glory, 1744. Fresco on a dome of the katholikon (major church building) of Koutloumousiou Monastery, Mount Athos, Greece. Photo: Jim Forest.

As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne. . . . To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.

—Daniel 7:9, 14

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SONG: “He Reigns Forever (We Sing Praises)” | Words and music by Marshall Carpenter, 2002 | Choral arrangement by Carol Cymbala | Performed by the Times Square Church Choir, 2015


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

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Reign of Christ Sunday, cycle B, click here.

Book Giveaway: Wounded in Spirit: Advent Art and Meditations by David Bannon

My friends at Paraclete Press are offering a free copy of this brand-new book to three lucky readers of Art & Theology. Entry rules are below.

Wounded in Spirit by David Bannon

For many, the holiday season is difficult to get through, as it stirs up painful reminders of loss or reveals fractures in present relationships. Author David Bannon knows. Wounded in Spirit: Advent Art and Meditations grew out his grief over the death of his twenty-six-year-old daughter, as well as his brokenness over his criminal past.

The book comprises twenty-five daily readings, each centered on an artist who walked through his own dark valley, groping for the light—and producing extraordinary art in the process. Most of these valleys were ones of death—death of children, parents, siblings, spouse. Some of the featured artists struggled with mental illness, the stigma of illegitimacy, or racial discrimination; others led violent or lascivious lives, and had grave personal sins to overcome. The premise of the book, though, is that Christ meets us in our fallibility and sorrow; he is our hope, our peace. “In their [the artists’] wounds, in our wounds, we may once again encounter ‘God with us.’”

Wounded in Spirit excerpt (Bartolome Murillo)

Wounded in Spirit excerpt (Paul Gauguin)

Illustrated in full color and with a foreword by Philip Yancey, Wounded in Spirit combines painting reproductions, commentaries, Bible verses, and quotes about beauty and suffering that prepare us to welcome the coming Messiah in the fullness of his glory and healing grace. Artists include Caravaggio, Murillo, Dürer, Cranach, Friedrich, Tanner, van Gogh, Gauguin, and more. Most of the artwork subjects are biblical, but not all; there are a few landscapes, self-portraits, allegories, and genre scenes as well.

HOW TO ENTER

Clicking on the entry button below will bring you to the entry form on the Rafflecopter website. You can enter up to three times by: subscribing to Art & Theology (to receive semiweekly posts by email), following @artandtheology on Twitter, and/or visiting Art & Theology’s Facebook page. (If you are already an email subscriber or a Twitter follower, you still qualify.)

The contest ends Sunday, November 25, at 12 a.m. Eastern Time. Three winners will be randomly selected and contacted by email later that day for shipping address information, using the email address provided on the entry form.

Unfortunately, this contest is restricted to US addresses only. My sincerest apologies to my international readers!

Giveaway button

Roundup: Norman Rockwell updated; snow-crystal photography; Good Samaritan icon; and more

Freedom of Worship by Hank Willis Thomas and Emily Shur
Hank Willis Thomas (American, 1976–) and Emily Shur (American), Freedom of Worship, 2018. While Norman Rockwell’s illustration of the same name contains specific representations of Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism, this reinterpretation goes even further to include Islam, Native American spirituality, and Sikhism.

NEW PHOTOGRAPH SERIES: “The Four Freedoms” by Hank Willis Thomas and Emily Shur: In his 1941 State of the Union address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt insisted that people in all nations share Americans’ entitlement to four basic freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. This famous speech became the basis for Norman Rockwell’s set of four illustrations, originally published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1943, that have become some of history’s most iconic representations of the American idea.

Artist Hank Willis Thomas and photographer Emily Shur decided to reimagine these scenes with a cast that’s more representative of American diversity. One of the eighty-two final images they created is published on the cover of the current issue of Time magazine. It and others will form the backbone of a national billboard campaign by the nonpartisan organization For Freedoms to encourage civic engagement. “We believe that if artists’ voices replace advertising across the country, public discourse will become more nuanced,” their website says.

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IN CONCERT: Eric and I went to see brother-sister folk duo The Oh Hellos (Tyler Heath and Maggie Heath Chance) in Baltimore earlier this month and had a great time. My favorite song from their set list was “Soldier, Poet, King,” which describes Jesus’s coming in all three roles—perfectly appropriate for the upcoming Advent season! Jesus, the Word of God, comes to tear down Satan’s kingdom and establish his just rule in our lives and world (1 John 3:8bRev. 19:11–16). The final verse affirms Jesus’s status as Messiah, the waited-for “Anointed One,” and celebrates his power marked by humility, even unto death. The blood he wears into battle is his own.

There will come a soldier
Who carries a mighty sword
He will tear your city down
O lei o lai o lord

There will come a poet
Whose weapon is his word
He will slay you with his tongue
O lei o lai o lord

There will come a ruler
Whose brow is laid in thorn
Smeared with oil like David’s boy
O lei o lai o lord

The Oh Hellos’ nationwide tour continues through the end of the year, so visit their website to see if they’ll be stopping near you.

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NEW ALBUM: Crumbs by Liturgical Folk: Liturgical Folk (previously here and here) released its third album this month, which “build[s] on the themes of eucharist and the mission of the church to bring peace and reconciliation to the world.” The title comes from the track “Prayer of Humble Access,” a verbatim setting from the “Holy Eucharist Rite I” in the Book of Common Prayer that alludes to the story of the Syrophoenician woman.


Most of the song texts on the album come from that traditional Anglican prayer-book and were set to music by Ryan Flanigan, though a few texts are contemporary. “Lord, Lord, Lord,” for example, was written in the wake of the August 9, 2014, shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and amid the subsequent escalation of racial tensions in the country. “As a privileged, white, middle class, American man,” Flanigan wrote,

I felt for the first time in my life the systemic injustice against black males in our country. What I found most troubling, besides death itself, was the response of some white, privileged people to the shooting, particularly the response of some Christians on social media and the News. When we should have been mourning with those who mourn, confessing our fears and sins, and seeking reconciliation, many of us turned a blind eye or, worse, assumed a posture of defensiveness and denial. I wrote this song as a corporate confession of sin to God and our fellow men, a plea for God to forgive us and restore our broken trust with him and with those we’ve failed to love.

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WORLD’S FIRST SNOWFLAKE PHOTOS: “The Man Who Revealed the Hidden Structure of Falling Snowflakes”: Maryland saw its first snow of the season this week, as did most of the East Coast, which means Twitter saw a flurry of snowflake images! The Smithsonian posted about Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley (1865–1931), whose perfection of innovative photomicrographic equipment and techniques (which included chilled velvet and a turkey feather) enabled him to photograph thousands of individual snowflakes without their melting, providing valuable scientific records of snow crystals and their many types.

The first person to photograph a single snowflake, . . . Wilson A. Bentley used a microscope with his bellows camera—plus years of trial and error—to get a photo of one flake in 1885. But he didn’t stop there. Bentley went on to take thousands more, . . . which helped support the belief that no two snowflakes are alike. In 1903, he sent 500 prints of his snowflakes to the Smithsonian, hoping they might be of interest to our Secretary. The images are now part of the Smithsonian Archives.

Snowflake photo by Wilson Bentley

Snowflake photo by Wilson Bentley

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BALKAN ICON: “Transforming a Parable: The Good Samaritan”: Run by David Coomler, a museum researcher, Icons and Their Interpretations discusses aspects of traditional Russian, Greek, and Balkan iconography, inviting people to submit photos of icons for identification of subject or meaning, and translation of inscriptions. Recently he wrote about a fourteenth-century Serbian Orthodox fresco that, like many of the church fathers, promotes an allegorical reading of the parable of the good Samaritan. In this interpretation, the man en route to Jerusalem is Adam, or Everyman, who is beaten by demons; the priest and the Levite represent the law of Moses and the priesthood of Aaron, which cannot help the wounded man. But the “good Samaritan,” Jesus, stoops down to save, carrying the man not on a beast of burden but on his own back, to an “inn,” the church. He hands two “coins,” the Bible and tradition, to the innkeeper, and promises to return. See further image details and commentary at the web link above.

Good Samaritan fresco (Balkans)
Parable of the Good Samaritan (see bottom register), 14th century. Fresco in the narthex of the Patriarchal of Pech, a Serbian Orthodox monastery in Kosovo.

Good Samaritan fresco (Balkans) (detail)

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OBITUARY: Christian composer Kurt Kaiser dies at 83: On November 12, Kaiser passed away at his home in Waco, Texas, after a six-decade-long career in composing, playing, arranging, and producing Christian music. A Gospel Music Hall of Famer and a progenitor of CCM, he’s best known for his song “Pass It On,” but I know him for “Oh How He Loves You and Me,” two renditions of which are posted below; the first is a solo performance by Vanessa Williams with gospel piano accompaniment by Richard Smallwood, and the second is performed a capella in four-part harmony by Kaoma Chende with the use of overdubbing.

“Leavetaking” by Anne Porter

Starry, Starry Night by Kiki Smith
Kiki Smith (American, 1954–), Starry, Starry Night, 2013

“Leavetaking” by Anne Porter

Nearing the start of that mysterious last season
Which brings us to the close of the other four,
I’m somewhat afraid and don’t know how to prepare
So I will praise you.

I will praise you for the glaze on buttercups
And for the pearly scent of wild fresh water
And the great crossbow shapes of swans flying over
With that strong silken threshing sound of wings
Which you gave them when you made them without voices.

And I will praise you for crickets.
On starry autumn nights
When the earth is cooling
Their rusty diminutive music
Repeated over and over
Is the very marrow of peace.

And I praise you for crows calling from treetops
The speech of my first village,
And for the sparrow’s flash of song
Flinging me in an instant
The joy of a child who woke
Each morning to the freedom
Of her mother’s unclouded love
And lived in it like a country.

And I praise you that from vacant lots
From only broken glass and candy wrappers
You raise up the blue chicory flowers.

I thank you for that secret praise
Which burns in every creature,
And I ask you to bring us to life
Out of every sort of death

And teach us mercy.

This poem appears in Living Things: Collected Poems (Hanover, NH: Zoland Books/Steerforth Press, 2006) and is used here by permission of the publisher.

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Anne Porter (1911–2011) is one of the last century’s foremost poets of thanks and praise. She wrote all her life, occasionally sharing poems with friends and family, but she focused mainly on raising five kids with her husband, Fairfield Porter, who was a painter.

Motherhood paintings by Fairfield Porter
Fairfield Porter (American, 1907–1975): Anne Reading to Laurence, 1947, oil on Masonite, 30 × 24 in., Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York; Katie and Anne, 1949, oil on board, 30 × 24 in., Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York; Anne, Lizzie and Katie, 1958, oil on canvas, 78 × 60 in., Sheldon Museum of Art, Lincoln, Nebraska.

She wrote “Leavetaking” upon entering old age, and after her husband had died. As her body grew weaker and more burdensome and death drew nearer, she still found much to praise God for—for the regal shape of swans’ wings overhead, for the “rusty diminutive music” of crickets on starry nights, for the vast love between mother and child, for the hope of resurrection preached in abandoned lots where flowers rise out of debris.

Some years later, Porter’s friend David Shapiro, a literary critic and fellow poet, asked if for his birthday, she could compile some of her poems for him. She gathered up what she could find in the house, and without her foreknowledge, he submitted it to a publisher. The resulting collection, An Altogether Different Language (1994), was published when she was eighty-three and was named a finalist for the National Book Award.

In the foreword to that first book of hers, Shapiro wrote,

If we have problems, because so much of the language of belief has grown connotatively encrusted, then we wait for the poets who believe enough and can freshen this dialect.

Anne Porter is one of the rare poets who believes enough, who lives in days and holidays, and who has stunningly found a language to transmit her Franciscan joy in created things.

Also from the foreword:

  • “Her faith has enlarged her, not the reverse, and her poetry has the grandeur of seeing things ‘as if for the first time.’”
  • “Her greatest emotional perspective is that of praise.”
  • She is “an American religious poet of stature who reminds us that the idea of the holy is still possible for us.”
  • “For Anne Porter, the holy is found in a commitment to Christ the Mediator and his triumph in suffering for a suffering world. However, she gives a constant, almost pantheistic pressure to the theme that the Kingdom of God is within and without, so that her radiant if concise imagism is all in the service of God.”

Whereas many modern and contemporary poets write about the hiddenness of God, the deus absconditus, Porter wrote unabashedly about the myriad ways in which God reveals himself in the world. Her second and last book, Living Things: Collected Poems (2006), brings together thirty-nine new poems with those published in the previous volume.

In 2010, theologian and biblical scholar Ellen F. Davis wrote a beautiful article for the Christian Century titled “Our proper place: The poetry of care and loss,” in which she discusses Porter’s poetry alongside that of Mary Oliver. Like Oliver, she says, Porter is a “direct descendant of the psalmists”; she “clarif[ies] what is at stake in the Psalter: nothing less than the possibility of praising God truly.”

Approach (Artful Devotion)

Christ exalted (Santa Prassede)
This 9th-century mosaic of Christ between the cherubim is located above the apse of the Basilica of Santa Prassede in Rome. Photo: Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP.

Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

—Hebrews 10:19–22

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SONG: “Approach, My Soul, the Mercy Seat” | Words by John Newton, 1779 | Music by Kevin Twit, 1999 | Performed by Indelible Grace on Indelible Grace Side B, 2008

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Lord, how excellent are Thy ways, and how devious and dark are the ways of man. Show us how to die, that we may rise again to newness of life. Rend the veil of our self-life from the top down as Thou didst rend the veil of the Temple. We would draw near in full assurance of faith. We would dwell with Thee in daily experience here on this earth so that we may be accustomed to the glory when we enter Thy heaven to dwell with Thee there. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

—A. W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God


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

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 28, cycle B, click here.

Eugene Peterson and the poetic imagination

American-born pastor, professor, author, and poet Eugene H. Peterson passed away on October 22 at age eighty-five. He’s best known for his idiomatic translation of the Bible, The Message, which has sold twenty million copies worldwide since its publication in 2002. He developed this translation over his nearly three decades as a Presbyterian pastor in Bel Air, Maryland, as a way to reinvigorate his congregation’s engagement with scripture. Its most quoted verse is John 1:14, describing the incarnation: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”

Eugene Peterson

The church culture I grew up in regarded The Message with disdain, as they thought it plays fast and loose with the words of scripture and lacks all reverence. Nurtured on a KJV-only diet, I felt rebellious purchasing an NIV Study Bible in middle school, and though I had overcome a lot of this kind of unhealthy narrowness by the time I had finished college, adding a used copy of The Message to my checkout basket at the Montague Bookmill a few years later still felt a little awkward. But I was finally ready to imbibe this translation (or as some would say, paraphrase) of which I had heard so much but read so little.

What I found was that Peterson’s scripture translation, while no doubt sounding very different than the translations arrived at by committee, is full of reverence—and joy, and play, and wonder. It takes the familiar words of the Bible and re-presents them in a new way so as to really bring out their tone and meaning. Take, for example, Psalm 96:4–7. The King James Version reads,

For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
he is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols,
but the Lord made the heavens.
Splendor and majesty are before him;
strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!

The Message has

For God is great, and worth a thousand Hallelujahs.
His terrible beauty makes the gods look cheap;
Pagan gods are mere tatters and rags.
God made the heavens—
Royal splendor radiates from him,
A powerful beauty sets him apart.
Bravo, God, Bravo!
Everyone join in the great shout: Encore!
In awe before the beauty, in awe before the might.

Now, I love the poetry of the King James Version. But I also love Peterson’s renderings. They enliven the texts. That’s not to say God’s word isn’t already living and active, but that sometimes it can grow stale in the ears of those who have been reading it for a lifetime. The jubilance of Psalm 96 in The Message is amplified by the use of contemporary expressions—Bravo! Encore!—to denote enjoyment and praise. As I read this, I am enticed to “join in the great shout.”

While I wouldn’t advise using The Message as your sole or even primary Bible (which Peterson himself agrees with in the preface), I do uplift it as a wise, fun, and spiritually nourishing supplement. You’ll see that I occasionally feature Peterson’s verse translations in Artful Devotions because they communicate God’s truth with such color and force (see, e.g., Ps. 19, Ps. 51, Rom. 8:6, 2 Cor. 4: 1–6Eph. 2:1–10). His motivation all along was to expose a new generation to the beauty of the gospel. “Getting the words of the Bible into [people’s] heads and hearts, getting the message lived,” is what he characterized as the primary work of his life (preface, The Message).

When I think of Eugene Peterson, I think imagination. He exemplified that Christian duty not only in his Bible translation but in his various professional ministries: as pastor, professor, and author. In each role, he sought to awaken Christians to the goodness of imagination. Listen to him speak on the topic with On Being’s Krista Tippett, in a podcast episode recorded in 2016.

My pursuit of the arts has been indirectly influenced by Peterson, because he was a critical influence on and mentor to W. David O. Taylor, one of the three people in the field whom I look up to most. An assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, Taylor wrote a beautiful personal tribute to Peterson the other week. “It’s one thing to be given permission to do a thing,” Taylor writes. “It’s quite another to be encouraged, and supported, and patronized, and inspired, and resourced to do a thing. Eugene’s one of those key people in my life who encouraged me to pursue the arts.”

Peterson was Taylor’s professor of spiritual theology at Regent College in Vancouver. “He used the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the literature of George Eliot, Karl Barth’s theology and Frederick Buechner’s novels, Greek mythology and stories from his Pentecostal childhood as a way to help his students understand who God was and what God was on about it in this expansive vision of Holy Scripture,” Taylor says. “All of it felt immensely exhilarating to me; it still does.” I’ve come to Peterson’s other writings mainly through Taylor, who cites them with deep respect.

Peterson was an especial lover of poetry. He discussed the topic on film with former Poetry editor Christian Wiman and with U2 star Bono (in an interview by Taylor on the Psalms, above), and he has written about it in numerous books of spiritual theology. He’s even written a volume of original poetry called Holy Luck, from which I featured the poem “Aaron’s Beard” last year, and has contributed to some of Luci Shaw’s poetry anthologies, like A Widening Light: Poems of the Incarnation (see “Tempted”). Here is some of what Peterson had to say about poetry:

  • Poets are caretakers of language, shepherds of words, protecting them from desecration, exploitation, misuse. Words not only mean something, they are something, each with a sound and rhythm all its own. Poets are not primarily trying to tell us or get us to do something. . . . I do not have more information after reading a poem; I have more experience.” (Holy Luck, xiv)
  • People who pray need to learn poetry, even if they’re not adept at it.” (source)
  • “Poets tell us what our eyes, blurred with too much gawking, and our ears, dulled with too much chatter, miss around and within us. Poets use words to drag us into the depth of reality itself. Poetry grabs us by the jugular. Far from being cosmetic language, it is intestinal.” (Answering God, 11)
  • “We cannot speed-read a poem. A poem requires rereading. Unlike prose which fills the page with print, poems leave a lot of white space. . . . There is a lot to see, to feel, to sense. We sit before the poem like we sit before a flower and attend to form, relationship, color. We let it begin to work on us. When we are reading prose we are often in control, but in a poem we feel like we are out of control. . . . In prose we are after something, getting information, acquiring knowledge. . . . But in poetry we take a different stance. We are prepared to be puzzled, to go back, to wait, to ponder, to listen. This attending, this waiting, this reverential posture, is at the core of the life of faith, the life of prayer, the life of worship, the life of witness. . . . Read it again, read it again, read it again.” (Subversive Spirituality, 180)
  • “It takes a while to get the poets. . . . It takes a while to get the gospel. . . . We have to quit getting in a hurry. . . . I think the besetting sin of Americans is impatience.” (source)

Though I never met Eugene Peterson, I am so grateful for his witness, and for the many ways he has blessed the church over the years. His words, be they on the screen or on the page, have tutored, and continue to tutor, my imagination and, yes, deepen my love for Jesus and his gospel.

C’mon! (Artful Devotion)

Resurrection of the Dead (stained glass)
The angel Gabriel awakes the dead on Resurrection Day in this medieval stained glass tondo from the Musée de Cluny in Paris. Photo: Spencer Means.

And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

—Hebrews 9:27–28

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SONG: “Get Happy” | Words by Ted Koehler, 1930 | Music by Harold Arlen, 1930 | Performed by the Puppini Sisters, on Hollywood (2011)

See also the Judy Garland version from Summer Stock (1950), below, which the American Film Institute ranked #61 in its survey of top tunes in American cinema.

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“The Day of Judgment” by Henry Vaughan

O day of life, of light, of love!
The only day dealt from above!
A day so fresh, so bright, so brave,
’Twill show us each forgotten grave,
And make the dead, like flowers, arise
Youthful and fair to see new skies.
All other days, compared to thee,
Are but Light’s weak minority;
They are but veils, and cypress drawn
Like clouds, before thy glorious dawn.
O come! arise! shine! do not stay,
Dearly loved day!
The fields are long since white, and I
With earnest groans for freedom cry;
My fellow-creatures too say “Come!”
And stones, though speechless, are not dumb.
When shall we hear that glorious voice
Of life and joys?
That voice, which to each secret bed
Of my Lord’s dead,
Shall bring true day, and make dust see
The way to immortality?
When shall those first white pilgrims rise,
Whose holy, happy histories
—Because they sleep so long—some men
Count but the blots of a vain pen?
Dear Lord! make haste!
Sin every day commits more waste;
And Thy old enemy, which knows
His time is short, more raging grows.
Nor moan I only—though profuse—
Thy creature’s bondage and abuse;
But what is highest sin and shame,
The vile despite done to Thy name;
The forgeries, which impious wit
And power force on Holy Writ,
With all detestable designs,
That may dishonor those pure lines.
O God! though mercy be in Thee
The greatest attribute we see,
And the most needful for our sins,
Yet, when Thy mercy nothing wins
But mere disdain, let not man say
“Thy arm doth sleep,” but write this day
Thy judging one: descend, descend!
Make all things new, and without end!

(Related post: “Get Ready (Artful Devotion)”)


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

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 27, cycle B, click here.

Exhibitions

James Webb: Prayer, Art Institute of Chicago, September 6–December 31, 2018: A sound installation that began, said the artist, with the question “What would it be like to listen to all the prayers of a city simultaneously?” “Prayer is an ongoing project, remade around the world since its first presentation in Webb’s home city of Cape Town in 2000. The Chicago version is the 10th and largest to date, as well as the first in North America. The work consists of recordings of prayer from individuals who belong to dozens of faiths and spiritual affinities in the host city. Listeners are invited to remove their shoes and walk the length of the carpet . . . or to kneel or otherwise lower themselves next to a speaker to listen more closely to particular prayers.”

Prayer by James Webb
Photo: Anthea Pokroy
Prayer by James Webb
Photo: Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune

In his review for the Chicago Tribune, Steve Johnson interviewed several listener-participants. One woman said she stumbled into the museum after missing her train stop on her way home from work; it was a fortuitous accident, she said, because she had been feeling overwhelmed by the suffering in the city (addiction, gun violence, etc.), and hearing the praying, singing, chanting in the gallery helped give her hope.

Click here to see a short video feature of the Stockholm version of Prayer, which took place last year.

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Encounters, St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London, September 18–November 19, 2018: For the past decade, artist and visual social historian Nicola Green has been granted access to private meetings between religious leaders around the world from a variety of faith traditions. These meetings have gone largely unreported in the media, and there has been limited reflection on the encouraging trend they represent. To help remedy the situation, Green has produced thirty-one portraits depicting leaders like Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former Grand Mufti of Egypt Ali Gomaa, Emeritus Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and many more—each set against a unique patterned background inspired by liturgical vestments or objects, manuscript illuminations, or sacred architecture particular to the sitter. The faces are obscured to prompt reflection on the relationship between the individual and his office.

“Green makes a compelling case through her art and writings that we have entered a new era in interreligious relations. What is remarkable today is the depth of relationships being formed by faith leaders across historically deep divides. . . . At its heart, the Encounters project is an exploration of difference. It asks: How can people of different faiths, or none, communicate strongly held convictions, whilst respectfully allowing others to do the same? What can be gained from such encounters, and how can we identify common goals whilst working from different perspectives? And how can deep religious commitments become an asset rather than an impediment to understanding and appreciating diversity? Green invites viewers to think about our relationship to those we consider wholly ‘other’ to ourselves, and how this, in turn, shapes our own identity.”

Encounters by Nicola Green

The exhibition is accompanied by the publication of a new multiauthor book, Encounters: The Art of Interfaith Dialogue, as well as a series of lectures, the most recent of which will be taking place Monday.

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Armenia: Art, Religion, and Trade in the Middle Ages, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, September 22, 2018–January 13, 2019: “This is the first major exhibition to explore the remarkable artistic and cultural achievements of the Armenian people in a global context over fourteen centuries—from the fourth century, when the Armenians converted to Christianity in their homeland at the base of Mount Ararat, to the seventeenth century, when Armenian control of global trade routes first brought books printed in Armenian into the region. Through some 140 objects—including opulent gilded reliquaries, richly illuminated manuscripts, rare textiles, cross stones (khachkars), precious liturgical furnishings, church models, and printed books—the exhibition demonstrates how Armenians developed a unique Christian identity that linked their widespread communities over the years.”

Adoration of the Shepherds (Armenian)
Astuatsatur Shahamir, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1691. Repoussé silver book cover with jewels and enamel, made in present-day Kayseri, Turkey. Inside is an illuminated Gospel from the 13th century.

Read the Washington Post review by Philip Kennicott, and see the exhibition catalog put together by Helen C. Evans.

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Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, British Library, London, October 19, 2018–February 19, 2019: This “largest ever exhibition on the history, literature and culture of Anglo-Saxon England, spanning all six centuries from the eclipse of Roman Britain to the Norman Conquest,” brings together art objects, manuscripts, and other artifacts from various European collections and from the British Library itself. Because Christianization of the kingdom began in the sixth century, much of its art reflects that. Two highlights are the Codex Amiatinus (a giant Northumbrian Bible taken to Italy in 716 as a gift to the pope and returning to England for the first time since) and the Lindisfarne Gospels (the earliest surviving example of the Gospel texts in English and an exemplary fusion of Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Pictish, and Mediterranean art styles)—which will be the subject of a lecture on Monday.

Other illuminated manuscripts in the exhibition include the St. Augustine Gospels, the Echternach Gospels, the Utrecht and Eadwine Psalters, the Junius manuscript (a volume of religious poetry), and, from the British Library’s collection, Ælfwine’s Prayerbook, the St. Cuthbert Gospel, and the Vespasian, Harley, and Tiberius Psalters. And manuscripts represent only a portion of the vast number of objects on display! To learn more, see the new webpage launched by the library and the catalog edited by Claire Breay and Joanna Story.

Cross (Lindisfarne Gospels)
Carpet page from the Lindisfarne Gospels, ca. 698. British Library Cotton MS Nero D.IV, fol. 26v.
King David and his musicians
King David and his musicians, from the Vespasian Psalter, 8th century. British Library Cotton MS Vespasian A. I, fol. 30v.
Eadwine Psalter
From the Eadwine Psalter, ca. 1150. Trinity College, Cambridge (MS R.17.1, fol. 108v). Illuminates Psalm 64:1-3: “Hear me, my God, as I voice my complaint; protect my life from the threat of the enemy. Hide me from the conspiracy of the wicked, from the plots of evildoers. They sharpen their tongues like swords and aim cruel words like deadly arrows.”
Harrowing of Hell (Tiberius Psalter)
“The Harrowing of Hell,” from the Tiberius Psalter, ca. 1050. British Library Cotton MS Tiberius C.vi, fol. 14r.

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Attending: Paintings and Prints by Julie Shelton Snyder, Gallery at Convergence, Alexandria, Virginia, October 26–December 22, 2018: This exhibition features new work by the artist completed during her residency at the foot of Mount Fuji in Japan, which she spent studying the mokuhanga traditional woodblock printmaking technique. “In my work,” says Snyder, “I explore movement and stillness, being in control and letting go. . . . My longing for stillness is a physical and spiritual quest, and this quest has led me to the practice of Centering Prayer. Through art making, I am given the means to express spiritual truths I cannot otherwise articulate. Expressing the ineffable and the invisible is the aim of my work, and I view abstraction as the best means for this expression.”

Attending exhibition (Julie Shelton Snyder)

Accompanying the exhibition is a series of events, including workshops, prayer services, and, on December 2, “Attending to Advent: A Multisensory Advent Experience”—which I will be, ahem, attending.

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The Renaissance Nude, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, October 30, 2018–January 27, 2019: “Inspired by a renewed interest in classical sculpture and closer study of nature, Renaissance artists made the nude body ever more vibrant, lifelike, and central to their practice. Yet, pious European Renaissance society was troubled by the nude and its new sensuality—a conflicted response echoed in the world today, where images of nudity have become ubiquitous. This exhibition, with more than 100 objects by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, Dürer, and others, traces the nude’s controversial emergence and its transformative effect on European art and culture.”

Madonna and Child (detail) by Jean Fouquet
Jean Fouquet’s Virgin and Child, which forms the right wing of the Melun diptych, shows Mary baring her breast in what most read as an erotically charged manner. (click to see full image)

It was interesting to hear from curator Thomas Kren that “artists’ and viewers’ attitudes toward the nude were as varied and complex centuries ago as they are today,” provoking conflicting feelings of shame, admiration, curiosity, desire, disgust, anger. Learn more in his fascinating Getty blog post “Deconstructing Myths about the Nude in Renaissance Art,” and in the catalog he edited. Also worth checking out is the blog post by art historian Jill Burke: “Sex, Power, and Violence in the Renaissance Nude.” The exhibition focuses on the period 1400–1530, but even within that narrow slice of history, the unclothed body, male and female, functioned in diverse ways in art.

A large number of biblical figures are represented in the exhibition’s list of artworks, including Adam and Eve, Job, Bathsheba, Mary and the infant Christ, Christ at his baptism and in his passion, and the saved and the damned on the last day, as well as extrabiblical martyrs (especially Saint Sebastian) and devout ascetics.

Man of Sorrows by Michele Giambono
Michele Giambono (Italian, active 1420–1462), Man of Sorrows, ca. 1430. Tempera and gold on wood, 54.9 × 38.7 cm (21 5/8 × 15 1/4 in.). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
The Way to Paradise by Dieric Bouts
Dieric Bouts (Netherlandish, ca. 1415–1475), The Way to Paradise, 1469. Oil on panel, 115 × 69.5 cm (45 1/4 × 27 3/8 in.). Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille, France.