Radiant (Artful Devotion)

Transfiguration by Ventzislav Piriankov
This Transfiguration painting is by Ventzislav Piriankov, a Bulgarian artist born in 1971 and living in Poland.

Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said.

As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.

And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.

—Luke 9:28–36

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MUSIC: “Radiant,” third movement of the Concerto for Violoncello and Strings by Dobrinka Tabakova, 2008 | Performed by cellist Kristina Blaumane, violinist Maxim Rysanov, and the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra, on Dobrinka Tabakova: String Paths (2013)

https://soundcloud.com/dobrinka_tabakova/d-tabakova-concerto-for-cello-strings

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SALT Project (previously) is a production company that puts out a weekly e-newsletter filled with good, true, and beautiful things—one of which is commentary on the coming week’s lectionary readings. Here’s an excerpt from their commentary on Luke 9:28–43:

In the verses preceding this passage, Jesus has just articulated what is arguably his most disturbing, difficult teaching of all: that he must suffer, die, and rise again – and that anyone who wishes to follow him must “deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). The Transfiguration’s light, then, acts as a kind of reassurance for Peter, John, and James (and for the rest of us!). It’s as if Luke is saying: We’re now making the turn toward Golgotha, and that means descending into the valley of the shadow of death. But fear not! Keep this astonishing, mysterious mountaintop story in mind as we go. Carry it like a torch, for it can help show the way – not least because it gives us a glimpse of where all this is headed . . .

They work their way through the passage in bulleted format, discussing the significance of “eight days after” and the word departure, its harking back to Moses’s radiance at Sinai and forward to Jesus’s resurrection, Peter’s response to the event, and more. Then they bring it home:

Epiphany concludes today: Jesus has “shown forth” to be a healer and a liberator; a teacher and a shining prophet. Peter has just called him “the Messiah” (Luke 9:20). But most fundamentally and decisively, he is God’s chosen, God’s beloved child. His path of love will lead down into the valley, through the dry cinders of Ash Wednesday and the tears of the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrow. But this week, from here on the mountaintop, we can survey the 40 days ahead, take a deep breath – and remember that the journey through ashes and sorrow is never for its own sake. It’s for the sake of what comes next. In a word, it’s for the sake of transfiguration: a radiant new life and a dazzling new world.

To subscribe to SALT’s newsletter, click here, scroll to the bottom, and enter your email address.


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 Transfiguration Sunday, cycle C, click here.

Roundup: Culture care, top 10 movies of 2018, new Lent songs, and more

MORE ARTS CONFERENCES: I added two more April conferences to my recent post on spring arts events: “Sacrament & Story: Recasting Worship Through the Arts” in the Pacific Northwest and “Majesty: An Art & Faith Incubator” in Nelson, New Zealand. Check them out! https://artandtheology.org/2019/01/17/upcoming-conferences-and-symposia/

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ESSAY: “Makoto Fujimura and the Culture Care Movement” by Victoria Emily Jones (that’s me): Japanese American artist, author, and lecturer Makoto Fujimura has been at the forefront of the “culture care” movement for the past decade, whose aim is to love and to nourish culture rather than to war against it. This essay is an introduction to Mako’s teachings on the subject, as well as to a few of his major painting projects. He’s such a refreshing voice for evangelicalism, witnessing to the goodness of God’s creation and cogently articulating the Christian calling to be stewards of that goodness. YouTube and Vimeo are chock-full of Mako interviews, lectures, panel discussions, and short films. Here’s just one, to give you a taste of the work he’s doing—in it he describes some of the themes in his book Silence and Beauty, including the experience of personal “ground zeroes.”

I saw some of Mako’s paintings in person last year at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC. It was a quiet day in the gallery, so I had the privilege of being alone with them—those finely pulverized precious minerals and flecks of gold dancing abstractly across the canvases. Photographs really cannot do the works justice, but regardless, here’s a detail shot I took of In the Beginning, which Mako painted as a frontispiece to the Gospel of John for the Four Holy Gospels project commissioned by Crossway.

In the Beginning (detail) by Makoto Fujimura
Makoto Fujimura (American, 1960–), In the Beginning (detail), 2011. Mineral pigments and gold on Belgium linen, 60 × 48 in. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

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TOP TEN MOVIES: “Favorite Films of 2018: The Top Ten” by Jeffrey Overstreet: The Oscars are tonight, and lots of writers have already published their “top 10” lists in anticipation. One film critic, a Christian, whom I really respect is Jeffrey Overstreet [previously]—I love the way he talks about film. He started writing movie reviews in the nineties after realizing how most reviews by Christians were simply long lists of ways in which the movie might offend us. He wanted to go deeper.

“When we focus on the dangers of moviegoing, it can distract us from the purpose and the strengths of storytelling, and from the fact that we are encountering someone else’s perspective on the world,” he said in a 2007 interview. “If we treated people the way we treated movies in the past, we would shy away from them because of some particular aspect of their lifestyle or personality. I think engagement is a much healthier approach. We should avoid imitating bad behavior, but we should be open to engaging with, listening to, and understanding our neighbors through their art.”

I’ve seen only three of his top ten recommendations for 2018 but am adding a few of the others to my watchlist. His number ten, Private Life, was a favorite of mine too, certainly one of the most memorable, most wrenching movies I watched all year. It’s on Netflix.

For another “top 10” list, see the one compiled by the Arts and Faith Ecumenical Jury, a body of film critics and cinephiles seeking “to enlarge or expand the perception of what is meant by either labelling a film a ‘Christian’ film or suggesting that it should be of interest to Christian audiences.”

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NEW BOOK: Were You There? Lenten Reflections on the Spirituals by Luke A. Powery: “Valuable not only for their sublime musical expression, the African American spirituals provide profound insights into the human condition and Christian life. Many spirituals focus on the climax of the Christian drama, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the ways in which those events bring about the liberation of God’s people. In these devotions for the season of Lent, Luke A. Powery leads the reader through the spirituals as they confront the mystery of Christ’s atoning death and victory over the grave. Each selection includes the lyrics of the spiritual, a reflection by the author on the spiritual’s meaning, a Scripture verse related to that meaning, and a brief prayer.”

Published last month, this book is a follow-up to Powery’s popular Rise Up, Shepherd! Advent Reflections on the Spirituals (2017). I’m a big proponent of liturgically themed devotionals that utilize the arts as a resource (for others for Lent, see last year’s roundup), so this title stood out to me when I saw it in a magazine ad. Using Spotify or some other music-streaming service as a companion while going through the book is, I’d imagine, a must, as the power of the spirituals lies largely in their expressive vocal deliveries.

Were You There? by Luke A. Powery

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NEW ALBUM: Lent by Liturgical Folk (previously here and here): Liturgical Folk’s fourth album is now out! Featuring the vocals of Lauren Plank Goans (of Lowland Hum), Liz Vice, Josh Garrels, and Ryan Flanigan, Lent comprises ten original songs that extend from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday and that are inspired by the Book of Common Prayer. As always, the songs are lyrically rich and musically interesting, and I appreciate the inclusion of guest vocalists this time around, as each voice brings a unique quality. You can purchase the album on Bandcamp; devotional e-book and lead sheets are sold separately. You’ll also want to check out the group’s upcoming tour dates in the western US.

On Wednesday I posted a song about delighting in the Lord by Luke Morton; here’s one on the same theme, but with a decidedly Lenten tone, conceding human weakness:

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NEW MEDLEY: “Smile / I Smile” by Sara Niemietz and W. G. Snuffy Walden: This medley combines new arrangements of Charlie Chaplin’s melancholic pop standard “Smile” with the upbeat modern gospel song “I Smile” by Kirk Franklin. The former is an absolutely beautiful melody, which Chaplin composed for the final sequence of his 1936 semi-talkie Modern Times (one of my favorite films ever). The two main characters—the “tramp” (Chaplin) and the “gamin” (Paulette Goddard), a homeless couple—walk down a dusty road together into a sunrise. The whole movie they’ve been scraping and scrounging to get by, having endured unemployment, hunger, a mental breakdown, prison, family separation, and police harassment. Goddard’s character is ready to throw in the towel, but Chaplin encourages her to keep on going, that they’ll make it through.

In 1954 John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons added lyrics to Chaplin’s melody based on lines and themes from the film, creating the song that we all know today. While I could quibble with the admonishment to “hide every trace of sadness” and the like, as if we must push down the very real pain that we feel, I recognize that ultimately, the song is about hope, about pushing through darkness into the light.

By pairing this song with Franklin’s “I Smile” (2011), Niemietz locates that hope in God, who showers us with “Holy Ghost power.” The speaker acknowledges that “it’s so hard to look up when you’ve been down,” and asks God where is the love and joy he promised? It’s dark in my heart, he laments, no blue skies in sight, but regardless, he smiles, because “I know God is working.” This sentiment echoes Paul’s call to “rejoice always” (1 Thess. 5:16) and to be content in all circumstances (Phil. 4:11). I’d say that even if we can’t muster a literal smile when life hurts, it’s OK; what’s more important is that we develop an inner bending toward joy, a heart-smile, which trusts that God holds us in his love and carries us in his power.

Purchase the single on iTunes or wherever music is sold; also available on Spotify. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

Take Delight (Artful Devotion)

Untitled (4 Dancing Figures) by Sara Kathryn Arledge
Sara Kathryn Arledge (American, 1911–1998), Untitled (4 Dancing Figures), 1958. Watercolor on paper, 15 3/4 × 29 3/4 in.

Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

—Psalm 37:4

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SONG: “O Lord, I Will Delight in Thee” | Words by John Ryland, 1777 | Music by Luke Morton, 2010, on Beggar (2013)

 


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 Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, cycle C, click here.

New resource: The Visual Commentary on Scripture

I’m super-excited to share with you all a major new project I’ve contributed to, which is the Visual Commentary on Scripture (VCS), a free online publication that provides theological commentary on the Bible through the skillful selection of works of art. Launched November 6, 2018, at a reception at the Tate Modern, the VCS is directed by Professor Ben Quash of King’s College London and is funded in large part by Roberta and Howard Ahmanson.

As Quash explains in the introductory video, the VCS aims to demonstrate how visual art itself can serve as biblical commentary, and when placed in conversation with other “visual commentaries” on the same text, the meaning of said text potentially becomes all the more clear. This practice of compiling diverse theological perspectives on a biblical text for their dialogical potential has ancient roots. The Jewish Talmud, for example, gathers together the viewpoints of different rabbis, not because they all necessarily agree but often because they constructively disagree—and there’s value in that conversation. The equivalent in the Christian tradition is the Catenae.

Translating this tradition into a modern, visual format, the VCS comprises virtual “mini-exhibitions” of three works of art per biblical passage, along with a short textual commentary on each artwork and one comparative commentary. (Currently about one hundred passages have gone live, and the goal is to cover the entire Bible.) The commentaries are written for nonspecialists but are grounded in detailed theological and art-historical research. Care is taken to secure the highest-quality images, which you can zoom in on.

Art historian Matthew Milliner calls the VCS “the Biblia pauperum of our time,” referring to the relatively accessible block-printed picture Bibles of the Middle Ages:

Let’s face it: new commentaries, and the academic library subscriptions necessary to come with them, are expensive. Add to that the fact that attention spans are famously declining, and increasingly privilege (for better or for worse) the visual. Perhaps these factors make the Visual Commentary on Scripture, which is actually . . . wait for it . . . free, the biblia pauperum (Bible for the poor) of the twenty-first century. Every minister should be talking about this homiletical goldmine.

YES. I would love to see pastors and seminary students using the VCS as a resource for their biblical and theological studies and sermon preparation.

(Related posts: “John the Baptist at the National Gallery, London”; “Two unlikely characters sharing the same space”)

The exhibitions are arranged by biblical text for easy searching—and there are so many fantastic ones. I especially enjoy the ones that include a contemporary art selection. For example, Ayla Lepine ingeniously chose Patricia Cronin’s Shrine for Girls from the 2015 Venice Biennale to converse with Esther 8, in which Esther pleads for the deliverance of her people. Ursula Weekes curated an eclectic trio of portraits—of Florentine noblewoman Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni, German Reformer Katharina von Bora (Martin Luther’s wife), and former US First Lady Michelle Obama—to interact with the famous “wife of noble character” passage from Proverbs 31. And Pablo Perez d’Ors places Michael Landy’s kinetic sculpture Doubting Thomas, made of found objects and inviting viewer participation, side by side with Old Master paintings to probe the significance of that famous resurrection encounter.

Esther 8 (VCS Commentary)

Proverbs 31 (VCS commentary)

Doubting Thomas (VCS commentary)

“Physical sight can be a pathway to spiritual insight,” Quash says, affirming the eighth-century monk John of Damascus, who wrote that “just as [through] words perceived by the senses we hear with bodily ears, and understand what is spiritual, so through bodily vision we arrive at spiritual contemplation” (In Defense of Icons 3.12).

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I curated the “Bodily Resurrection” exhibition for the VCS, which takes as its basis 1 Corinthians 15:35–58. After reading the passage many times, including in the context of the whole epistle, and meditating on it, I wanted to investigate how the church has interpreted it over the centuries, so I read Caroline Walker Bynum’s excellent book The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200–1336, which quotes from and summarizes a wealth of patristic and medieval writings on the topic. That led me to Tertullian’s On the Resurrection of the Flesh, an extensive treatise from the early second century. They were both fascinating reads.

In addition to the Pauline metaphor of the seed, Bynum writes,

the resurrection of the body is also described by theologians as the flowering of a dry tree after winter, the donning of new clothes, the rebuilding of a temple, the hatching of an egg, the smelting out of ore from clay, the reforging of a statue that has been melted down, the growth of the fetus from a drop of semen, the return of the phoenix from its own ashes, the reassembling of broken potsherds, the vomiting up of bits of shipwrecked bodies by fishes that have consumed them . . . (6)

I realized that I had never really thought about the logistics of the doctrine of the general resurrection, and although, as with other doctrines, the mechanics are not what’s important, it was interesting to consider what my resurrected body might look like, and how (and whence) it will be reconstituted once it decomposes, turns to dust. Some of the conjectures I found to be quite amusing—like Gregory of Nyssa’s claim that in heaven we will have neither genitals nor intestines, because there will be no procreation or digestion. Or Augustine’s suggestion that we will receive back all the bits of ourselves that we ever had, including nail and hair clippings, but the excess will not necessarily go to our fingers and heads but rather will become absorbed into our flesh (so that we don’t look freakish).

I spent a lot of time wrestling through the paradox, held consistently by the church throughout the ages, that the resurrection body will be both identical to the one we have now and new. This particular passage from Paul seems to emphasize the new aspect. He contrasts “physical”/“terrestrial” and “spiritual”/“celestial” bodies. What does he mean by the latter?

Choosing only three images to open up this rich theological doctrine was a real challenge, and I cycled through dozens before landing on the ones I did.

At the outset, I was cognizant that the resurrection Paul writes about, which will occur “at the last trumpet,” is distinct from the spectacular rising from the graves that occurred on the day Jesus was crucified (Matthew 27:52)—so although there are many fine examples of that latter episode in art, I passed them over for this assignment. I also passed over images of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones, since that narrative is rooted in a different passage (see the VCS exhibition), even though there is an obvious intertextual link between the two.

I was intrigued by the “second Adam” motif present in the Pauline text, and I considered several artworks that follow that vein, including ones depicting the “Harrowing of Hell,” or, as it’s called in the Orthodox tradition, the Anastasis, in which the resurrected Christ pulls up Adam, Eve, and other Old Testament saints from Sheol. This iconographic type would have made a particularly apt pairing with the passage’s triumphant ending: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” But strictly speaking, the harrowing has already taken place (according to church tradition, on Holy Saturday), and although it prefigures the future resurrection, I wanted to keep the focus on the yet-to-come event that Paul is talking about. Plus, I figured that the harrowing will almost surely make an appearance in some other VCS commentary.

Anastasis (Istanbul)
Anastasis fresco in the parecclesion of Chora Church, Istanbul, Turkey, ca. 1315.

A related image I found, a contemporary one, very unique in its approach and theologically loaded, is a life-size painting by Caleb Stoltzfus that shows the glorious nude Christ, his puncture wounds visible, pulling up a man from the dust. It’s titled Resurrection. I love this image, and there’s much that could be said about it—but ultimately, I felt that it fit better with the passage preceding mine, in particular 1 Corinthians 15:20: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Read the artist’s commentary at http://www.calebstoltzfus.com/blog/resurrection.

Resurrection by Caleb Stoltzfus
Caleb Stoltzfus (American), Resurrection, 2016. Oil on linen, 6.5 × 5 ft.

In my image search, I also examined a lot of symbolic bird imagery of the resurrection—that is, phoenixes and peacocks. The phoenix is a mythological bird that dies but then rises up from its own ashes, and the flesh of the peacock was thought to not decay, giving both birds a theological weight since the earliest era of Christian art, where they sometimes stand in for Christ’s resurrection and, by extension, our own. Thinking I’d draw this visual tradition into conversation with 1 Corinthians 15, I came close to selecting Hope, a Renaissance painting from Umbria, Italy, from a set of three allegorical paintings on the theological virtues; in it Hope is personified as a woman who squints her eyes toward the sun and catches a wind as she stands beside a phoenix on its pyre—suggesting the Christian hope of life after death. Although hope is implicit in the Corinthians passage, it’s not a keyword, so I ultimately decided not to include the Umbrian painting in my selection. Peacocks, however, did make the cut! (See below.)

Theological Virtue Hope
Italian (Umbrian) painter, Hope, ca. 1500. Tempera and gold on wood, 29 1/8 × 17 7/8 in. (74 × 45.4 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Another shortlisted artwork was the Last Judgment triptych by Jean Bellegambe, a French-speaking Flemish painter of the early sixteenth century. I was particularly drawn in by a detail at the bottom of the central panel, which shows skeletons in the process of acquiring flesh, and an angel reassembling body parts. It is very common in historical works of art for the resurrection of the dead to be subsumed under a larger visual program of the Last Judgment—but Paul doesn’t discuss judgment in my given passage, so I decided to move away from that context.

Last Judgment by Jean Bellegambe
Jean Bellegambe (French/Flemish, ca. 1470–1535/36), Triptych with the Last Judgment (detail), ca. 1525. Oil on oak panels. Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin.

Probably the most unusual thing I discovered in the course of my research was the “regurgitation motif,” which shows animals vomiting up human body parts (from the corpses they have eaten) for reassembly on the last day. Several early church fathers mentioned that this would happen in their theologies of the resurrection, but its visual origin is attributed to the posticonoclastic East and the Carolingian-Ottonian West; it continues down into modern times in Greek, Bulgarian, and Russian frescoes. One of the best-known examples (in the West) is from the monumental twelfth-century mosaic at Torcello near Venice.

Resurrection of the Dead (Torcello)
Last Judgment (detail), 12th century. Mosaic, west wall, Church of Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello, Venice, Italy.
Sea giving up its dead (Torcello)
Last Judgment (detail), 12th century. Mosaic, west wall, Church of Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello, Venice, Italy.

Bynum cites a handful of other examples in her aforementioned book and discusses the motif in depth, contributing to one of her main theses: damnation is swallowing, salvation is regurgitation. An absolutely brilliant argument, drawing heavily on visual theology.

It’s likely that Revelation 20:13 (“And the sea gave up the dead which were in it . . .”) influenced the creation of this motif. Because Paul himself doesn’t mention the mouths of animals giving up their dead, I decided not to go with the extraordinary Torcello mosaic. But I was able to sneak in a reference to that tradition by way of a side detail in one of the paintings I chose. It’s almost comical to look on, how literal it is. But it’s also thought-provoking. If our dead bodies are eaten and digested by worms or carrion beasts—or, God forbid, we meet our end through the mouth of a wild animal—then what remains of us, if we are divided into parts, mere particles, even? Will we ever be made whole again? If we are both body and soul, as Christianity attests, then isn’t our material continuity essential?

Other runners-up that didn’t make the cut were Wassily Kandinsky’s eschatological paintings—for example, All Saints I and Composition V. I wanted to choose artworks from three different countries and eras, and for the modern period, I just had to go with Stanley Spencer, who is renowned for his many resurrection paintings, localized to his hometown of Cookham in the UK. (I also felt a little out of my depth writing about Kandinsky’s radical style and spiritual approach to painting.)

All Saints Day by Wassily Kandinsky
Wassily Kandinsky (Russian, 1866–1944), All Saints I [Allerheilgen], 1911. Reverse glass painting, 20 × 24 in. Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, Germany.
Composition V by Wassily Kandinsky
Wassily Kandinsky (Russian, 1866–1944), Composition V, 1911. Oil on canvas, 6 1/4 × 9 ft. (190 × 275 cm). Private collection.

The inclusion of Spencer also influenced my choice, after some consideration, not to go with the Harrowing panel from Nicholas Mynheer’s Wilcote polyptych. (Two twentieth-century British paintings would have presented too limited a range.) It would have fit well with the Corinthians passage, which talks about us being sown in dust and reaped in glory—and its juxtaposition with Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise, on the opposite wing of the altarpiece, further underscores this theme. I wrote about the altarpiece as a whole a few years ago at Art & Theology.

The Harrowing by Nicholas Mynheer
Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), The Harrowing, extreme right inner panel of a polyptych, 1999. Wilcote Chapel, St. Mary’s Church, North Leigh, Oxfordshire, England.

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So what did I end up choosing?

  • A fifth-century Christian sarcophagus from Italy, emphasizing Paul’s metaphor of the body as seed that, once buried, will flower forth in life
  • A thirteenth-century German psalter illumination that shows the dead casting off their grave-clothes and “putting on” immortality
  • A twentieth-century painting by the British master Sir Stanley Spencer, who set the resurrection in a local churchyard, using his friends and neighbors as subjects

Bodily Resurrection (VCS commentary)

I feel that these three artworks give sufficient variety and engage meaningfully with Paul’s text. Hop on over to the Visual Commentary on Scripture for high-resolution viewing and to learn more! I recommend that you start by reading the comparative commentary: https://thevcs.org/bodily-resurrection/last-trump.

And be sure to check in periodically at the VCS website, as new content is added regularly.

Blessed Are (Artful Devotion)

Come ye blessed by Nathaniel Mokgosi
Nathaniel Mokgosi (South African, 1946–2016), “Come, ye blessed . . . ,” 1980. This linocut is one of ten in a series on the Beatitudes. Source: Christliche Kunst in Afrika, p. 274

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.

Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.

Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.

—Luke 6:20b–23

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SONG: “Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit” | Traditional, performed by Mitchell’s Christian Singers, on Mitchell’s Christian Singers, vol. 2 (1936–1938)

The Great Depression had a devastating effect on America’s recording industry, but a gradual recovery started in 1934, and that’s when the gospel quartet climbed to ascendancy within the broader genre of African American religious music. One of the most celebrated groups of this period was Mitchell’s Christian Singers from Kinston, North Carolina, originally called the New Four but then renamed for manager Willie Mitchell.

Each of the members had a different day job—tobacco warehouse laborer, truck driver, stonemason, coal salesman—but they formed a habit of singing together in the evenings and were discovered by a local talent scout. They went on to record more than eighty sides from 1934 to 1940, and in 1938 they even appeared onstage at Carnegie Hall alongside other greats, including Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Count Basie, for a landmark program titled “From Spirituals to Swing.” (One review of the concert noted how Mitchell’s Christian Singers sang “with touching solemnity . . . intensity and abandon . . .”) But despite their extensive output and relative popularity, none of the members opted for full-time professional musicianship. They traveled out of state to make records from time to time but generally stayed close to home, performing at churches and community functions.

The recording above, from an August 11, 1937, studio session, features Louis “Panella” Davis, Julius Davis, William Brown, and Sam Bryant. It was reissued in 1996 by Document as part of a four-volume CD set of the group’s complete works.


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 Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, cycle C, click here.

Fishers of Men (Artful Devotion)

Fishing for Souls by Bill Hemmerling
Bill Hemmerling (American, 1943–2009), Fishing for Souls. Oil on canvas, 60 × 10 in.

On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets.

Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat.

And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”

And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink.

But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon.

And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”

And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.

—Luke 5:1–11

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SONG: “Fishers of Men” by Becky Buller | Performed by Rhonda Vincent, on One Step Ahead (2003)

Rhonda Vincent and the Rage is the most awarded band in bluegrass history. This studio version of their “Fishers of Men” cover is great, but there is also a commercially available live recording on Vincent’s Sunday Mornin’ Singin’ (2012), plus several live-performance videos on YouTube. I like this one from a 2007 bluegrass festival in Miamisburg, Ohio:

The other singers are, from left to right, Mickey Harris, Kenny Ingram, and Darrell Webb.


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

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

Mary Oliver, poet of quietude and wonder

Articles and essays have been pouring forth from the web in tribute to the poet Mary Oliver since her passing on January 17. America’s most-read contemporary poet by far, Oliver approached the world with open-eyed wonder and delight, writing simply about nature and spirituality. “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement,” she wrote in “When Death Comes.”

Mary Oliver
Photo: Angel Valentin / New York Times

Although Oliver won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, she has been dismissed by many poetry critics as trivial, unsubtle, just an old-fashioned romantic. But that’s precisely what so many of her readers love about her: her uncomplicated free verse that finds beauty and mystery in the ordinariness of the natural world. She always insisted that poetry “mustn’t be fancy”; it should be clear, so as to be understood.

The subjects of most of her poems are the flora and fauna of, most especially, New England, where she lived most of her adult life. Herons, egrets, swans, geese, goldfinches, owls, loons; turtles, snakes, and toads; foxes, porcupines, moles, bears, deer, and dogs (a whole volume on dogs!); ants and grasshoppers, beetles and bees; whelks and whales and sea mice; daisies and goldenrod, roses and poppies and peonies; and so forth.

Oliver, though influenced by the Christianity of her youth, did not ultimately join the church. But, like Whitman and Thoreau before her, she perceived an unseen, transcendental Presence within the natural world. She even sometimes called that Presence “God” and even “Lord,” especially in her later poems. She carried on the long tradition of reading with relish the “book of nature”—nature as a source of divine revelation, a teacher of spiritual lessons. For example, in “Some Herons,” she describes the bird as “a blue preacher,” and in “The Chat,” she writes,

oh, Lord,
what a lesson
you send me
as I stand

listening
to your rattling, swamp-loving chat
singing
of his simple, leafy life—

how I would like to sing to you
all night
in the dark
just like that.

Oliver’s “How the Grass and the Flowers Came to Exist, a God-Tale” is one of my favorite Creation poems, and this isn’t the only poem of hers that acknowledges a Creator God. “Spring at Blackwater: I Go Through the Lessons Already Learned” opens tenderly, sweetly, “He gave the fish / her coat of foil, / and her soft eggs.”

Some things I’ve learned from Mary Oliver: Gratitude. Awe. Silence. Prayer. Attention. And these five qualities are all interconnected. Her personal manifesto can be summed up by the fourth section of her poem “Sometimes”:

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

If you’d like to read Mary Oliver, I highly recommend her final book, Devotions (2017), a compilation of 200+ previously published poems selected by Oliver herself and put out by Penguin. Spanning her career of more than fifty years, the book, though not exhaustive, presently serves as the definitive collection of her work.

Devotions by Mary Oliver

Coincidentally, I was in the middle of reading this volume when I found out about Oliver’s death. Several of her poems confront mortality, the transience of life, and many of her obituary writers have been fond of recalling those oft-quoted final lines of “The Summer Day.” But I am drawn to her “Prayer,” which when I read it instantly made me think of my play-full, wonder-full aunt whose ashes, too, now dance in the ocean:

May I never not be frisky,
May I never not be risqué.
May my ashes, when you have them, friend,
and give them to the ocean,
leap in the froth of the waves,
still loving movement,
still ready, beyond all else,
to dance for the world.


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