Roundup: Formational films, Mary Magdalene exhibition, and more

WEBINAR: “Formational Films Round-Up: Movies That Matter,” hosted by Renovaré: Recorded August 24, this is an excellent eighty-minute conversation with film critic and professor Jeffrey Overstreet [previously], minister Catherine Barsotti, and theologian Chris Hall, led by Carolyn Arends [previously]. Each of the three guests identifies and discusses five films that have been spiritually formative to them—and what great selections! (Though there are four I have not yet seen.) Barsotti’s number one is one of my all-time favorites.

Because the movie ratings issue (that is, content like violence, sex, and/or language) is almost always raised by Christian audiences, Arends asks, “Are there some films that are bad for you to watch, and if so, why?” The question is wisely addressed from 34:52 to 49:40.

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INTERVIEW: “We must become poetry,” Still Life: For the September 13, 2021, edition of his weekly Still Life letter, Michael Wright [previously] interviewed Christian author Paul J. Pastor, having been intrigued by a recent tweet of his, which asks, “Where are the bardic preachers, wild at the eye, speaking not just to mind or heart, but to gut?” Pastor talks about the connection between the seen and the unseen; the relationality of poetry and finding shelter in the words, images, and emotions of another; holistic knowing; the disservice of reducing the Bible’s poetry to moral lessons with tidy applications; the nearness of Walt Whitman’s poetic vision to the Christian vision of sanctification; and more.

“My passion is for Christians to reclaim our way’s remarkable resources for living virtuously, beautifully, and well,” he says. Mine too!

To subscribe to Still Life, distributed for free every Monday over email, click here.

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Lecture by David Brinker for the 8th Catholic Arts Biennial, Verostko Center for the Arts at Saint Vincent College, Latrobe, PA, September 12, 2021: I mentioned the call for entries for this exhibition back in June. Of the 396 entries from artists from around the country, MOCRA director and guest juror David Brinker has selected 52. In this talk given the weekend after the exhibition’s opening (which starts at 14:47), he discusses the following three questions, pulling in artworks from the current exhibition and from his twenty-five-plus years as an art curator at a Catholic institution.

  • What identifies contemporary art as “Catholic”?
  • What contributions can Catholic art and artists offer to the broader contemporary art world?
  • What can Catholic art and artists receive from the broader art world?
8th Catholic Arts Biennial
Exhibition view, 8th Catholic Arts Biennial. From left to right are three retablos by Vicente Telles, Maternidad by Piki Mendizabal, Iesu in Utero by Rebecca Spilecki, and The Living Temple by Jesse Klassen.

8th Catholic Arts Biennial
The Heart of Man by Kristen van Diggelen Sloan; St. Laud Reliquary by James Malenda; Untitled, #33, Jersey City, NJ by Jon Henry

8th Catholic Arts Biennial
Foreground: Saintly Selfies by Annie Dixon

(The three photos above are provided courtesy of the Verostko Center for the Arts.)

Saint Vincent’s 8th Catholic Arts Biennial exhibition is on view through October 29, 2021; off-campus visitors are asked to make an appointment by emailing verostkocenter@stvincent.edu. While you’re in the area, you might also want to visit the Fred Rogers Center at Saint Vincent College, which houses artifacts from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as part of a larger permanent exhibition on his life, work, and influence. (Latrobe was Fred Rogers’s hometown.) And Pittsburgh is just an hour away!

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EXHIBITION: Maria Magdalena (Mary Magdalene), Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht, Netherlands, June 25, 2021–January 9, 2022: Curated by Lieke Wijnia. “Mary Magdalene is one of the most enigmatic women from the New Testament. Through a trans-historical display of artistic representations from the eleventh century to the present day, this exhibition explores the enduring fascination for this mysterious saint.” The catalog, Mary Magdalene: Chief Witness, Sinner, Feminist, is available in Dutch or English from the publisher Waanders. In addition to the exhibition page on the museum’s website, which hosts select images and a series of videos, resources in Dutch include an audio tour (with images), a podcast episode and accompanying article, and a video preview with commentary by Karin Haanappel.

Maria Magdalena art exhibition

I’m fascinated by Mary Magdalene, and while I won’t get to see this exhibition, it appears that it does an excellent job of exploring the many facets of her life and identity (including both before meeting Jesus and after his ascension), as told through canonical and apocryphal texts, and her complicated reception history. It addresses her role as the first witness to Jesus’s resurrection; the so-called Gnostic Gospel of Mary, which has Peter saying, “Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of the women. Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember—which you know (but) we do not, nor have we heard them”; the legacy of Pope Gregory the Great’s infamous Easter sermon of 591 CE, which, in its (many would say erroneous) conflation of the Magdalen with other New Testament women, identified her as a converted prostitute; the development of legends about her later life in southern France, as an evangelist, a miracle-worker, and a penitent, cave-dwelling ascetic; modern films and literature that cast her as a romantic lover, or even the wife, of Jesus; and Pope Francis’s elevation of her liturgical commemoration from an obligatory memorial to a feast day in 2016, in which she is to be celebrated not as a fallen woman doing penance but as the “apostle to the apostles,” a title of hers dating back to the High Middle Ages.

The poster above features Mary Magdalene Receives the Holy Spirit by American photographer David LaChapelle, Magdalena by contemporary South African artist Marlene Dumas, The Magdalen from a sixteenth-century Flemish workshop, and Mary Magdalene by nineteenth-century Belgian artist Alfred Stevens.

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ARTICLE: “700 Years of Dante’s Divine Comedy in Art”: In honor of the seven hundredth anniversary of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s death on September 14, the Public Domain Review has collected art directly inspired by his Commedia from over the last seven centuries—on the nine circles of hell, the beatific vision, and much more. Under the tutelage of literature professor Stefano Gidari, I read and studied Dante’s groundbreaking afterlife-adventure trilogy—in Italian!—in 2009 while living in Florence, where it was written, which was such an invaluable experience.

Galle I, Cornelis_Lucifer
Cornelis Galle I (Flemish, 1576–1650), Lucifer, after Stradanus, ca. 1595. Engraving, 27.5 × 20 cm.

Eagle of Justice
Giovanni di Paolo (Italian, ca. 1403–1482), Dante and Beatrice before the Eagle of Justice, ca. 1450. From Yates Thompson 36, fol. 162, British Library, London.

“Psalm” by Wisława Szymborska

Mural of Brotherhood (US-Mexico border)
A collaboratively painted “Mural de la Hermandad” (Mural of Brotherhood), initiated by Mexican artist Enrique Chiu, spans a mile of Mexico’s border frontage in Tijuana. Photo courtesy of Enrique Chiu.

Oh, the leaky boundaries of man-made states!
How many clouds float past them with impunity;
how much desert sand shifts from one land to another;
how many mountain pebbles tumble onto foreign soil
in provocative hops!

Need I mention every single bird that flies in the face of frontiers
or alights on the roadblock at the border?
A humble robin—still, its tail resides abroad
while its beak stays home. If that weren’t enough, it won’t stop bobbing!

Among innumerable insects, I’ll single out only the ant
between the border guard’s left and right boots
blithely ignoring the questions “Where from?” and “Where to?”

Oh, to register in detail, at a glance, the chaos
prevailing on every continent!
Isn’t that a privet on the far bank
smuggling its hundred-thousandth leaf across the river?
And who but the octopus, with impudent long arms,
would disrupt the sacred bounds of territorial waters?

And how can we talk of order overall
when the very placement of the stars
leaves us doubting just what shines for whom?

Not to speak of the fog’s reprehensible drifting!
And dust blowing all over the steppes
as if they hadn’t been partitioned!
And the voices coasting on obliging airwaves,
that conspiratorial squeaking, those indecipherable mutters!

Only what is human can truly be foreign.
The rest is mixed vegetation, subversive moles, and wind.

This poem was originally published in Polish in Wisława Szymborska’s 1976 collection Wielka liczba (A Large Number). It appears in English translation by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak, as here, in Map: Collected and Last Poems by Wisława Szymborska (Houghton Mifflin, 2015).

The Music of Dan + Claudia Zanes

Dan + Claudia Zanes are a husband-wife folk music duo who sing songs of joy, love, and justice for intergenerational and interracial audiences, harnessing the social power of music. Their first album together, Let Love Be Your Guide, was released September 10 by Smithsonian Folkways. Here’s the description from the label:

Let Love Be Your Guide, the first duo album by internationally renowned family musicians Dan + Claudia Zanes, is a collection of songs to spark intergenerational conversations about anti-racism, racial justice, and the joys of community. Conceived during the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprisings and coronavirus pandemic, the songs describe the new terms of togetherness—how we understand it, how we build it, and how we strive for more. Rooted in many different traditions, including gospel, R&B, and Haitian folk song, the eclectic, warm, and accessible music the duo makes reflects the kindness and openness that underpin their message: out of isolation and hardship we can learn how to accept and heal the wounds of the past, and how to change and face the future with grace and compassion, regardless of our age.

The title track, “Let Love Be Your Guide (For John Lewis),” is an homage to the late congressman and civil rights leader whose final New York Times opinion piece admonishes readers to “walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”

(There are also music videos for “Coming Down” and “Reparations Is a Must (4th of July Love Song).”)

“The music made it possible for us to show up in our fullness, singing about matters near and dear to our hearts,” Claudia wrote in a release-day email. “The songs remind us that there are reasons to celebrate and laugh from the gut. There’s joy in unifying and coming together. There are things to ponder, and of course moments to pause and take deep breaths.” The album has a real invitational quality.

In the 1980s Dan Zanes sang lead for the critically acclaimed rock band the Del Fuegos. After his daughter, Anna, was born, he began playing family music with a group of other fathers he had met at the playgrounds in and around Brooklyn. This originally informal collective that distributed self-produced cassette tapes around the neighborhood evolved into the Grammy Award–winning Dan Zanes and Friends.

Claudia, who is Haitian American, is a board-certified music therapist who often works with children on the autism spectrum, both verbal and nonverbal, as well as geriatric clients. She has also toured internationally as a jazz vocalist.

She and Dan met in fall 2016 (at a dining-room singalong!), married in 2018, and moved to Baltimore at the end of 2019, shortly before the city shut down because of the pandemic. On March 15, 2020, they started what they call their Social Isolation Song Series, posting daily videos on YouTube—for two hundred days! The series includes a mix of folk songs, show tunes, and pop songs (Little Richard, the Beach Boys, Whitney Houston, etc.), as well as gospel songs, hymns, and spirituals, some of my favorites of which I’ve posted below. They’re so much fun!

Dan and Claudia Zanes (photo by Anna Zanes)

Both musicians have been heavily shaped by the Black church tradition, which Claudia grew up in and Dan came to faith in after meeting her. “I owe my spiritual focus, growth, and understanding to Claudia’s tremendous inspiration and to these Black churches,” he says, referring to Bethel AME in Boston, Lenox Road Baptist Church in Brooklyn, and Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore, their current church home.

(Related post: “Songs of Lament and Justice by The Porter’s Gate”)

The couple integrates their music, activism, and Christian faith in a really beautiful way. “We try to go into it [music making] to do God’s work, whatever that might look like,” Dan said in an interview with podcaster Leo Sidran (I commend the whole interview to you!). Collective liberation is something they’re especially passionate about, so it’s a recurring theme in their music.

What follows are fourteen of their two hundred “social isolation” songs, in reverse chronological order (check out the rest on their YouTube channel). Sheet music for some can be found in Dan Zanes’ House Party!: A Family Roots Music Treasury (2018), a book that conveys “a love of songs as cultural currency—currency that tells us in poetic, emotional, nonsensical, sobering, and illuminating ways who we are and where we came from—and a belief that the joy of music making is something that’s available to one and all.”

“Woke Up This Morning with My Mind Stayed on Jesus”:

“Freedom Is a Constant Struggle” by Roberta Slavitt:

“In Gratitude” (original):

“Peace, Perfect Peace” by Toots Hibbert, a Jamaican singer-songwriter who passed away last year from COVID-19:

“Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” by Anthony Showalter and Elisha Hoffman:

“The Storm Is Passing Over” by Charles Albert Tindley:

“In These Troubled Times” (original, included on their album):

“Near the Cross” by Fanny Crosby (text) and William Doane (music):

“Go Down, Moses”:

“Salaam,” a Tunisian song from the Gnawa tradition, which the Zaneses learned from their Palestinian American friend, the buzuq player Tareq Abboushi:

(“Salaam alaikum,” Arabic for “peace to you,” is a traditional Muslim greeting.)

“This Little Light of Mine,” with a rap by Jendog Lonewolf:

“Come and Go with Me to That Land”:

“Daniel in the Lions’ Den”:

“How Great Thou Art” by Carl Boberg, with “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah”:

To learn more about Dan + Claudia Zanes, visit their website, www.danandclaudia.com. You can also follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and/or Instagram.

“Everything that is born must die” by Christina Rossetti

Maari Christante (American, 1982–), Anchored for Flight, 2019. Digital photograph, 30 × 24 in. [available as a print]

Everything that is born must die;
   Everything that can sigh may sing;
Rocks in equal balance, low or high,
   Everything.

   Honeycomb is weighed against a sting;
Hope and fear take turns to touch the sky;
   Height and depth respond alternating.

O my soul, spread wings of love to fly,
   Wings of dove that soars on home-bound wing:
Love trusts Love, till Love shall justify
   Everything.

This untitled poem was originally published in Time Flies: A Reading Diary (SPCK, 1885) and appears in The Complete Poems by Christina Rossetti (Penguin, 2001). It is in the public domain.

Roundup: Grief work, kintsugi, “The O in Hope,” and more

INTERACTIVE PERFORMANCE ART: DIG: A Hole to Put Your Grief In by Cara Levine: Last month artist Cara Levine led a weeklong collaborative project in which she invited those in and around Malibu to join her in digging a hole to visualize the depth of grief being experienced right now in response to personal losses as well as national and global crises. Carried out on a property owned by the Shalom Institute, the project was inspired in part by the Jewish ritual of shiva, the seven-day mourning period following the burial of a family member, during which the bereaved discuss their loss and accept comfort from the community.

“Whatever one is grieving is welcome—be it the loss of a loved one, or more nuanced and subtle grief—the grief that comes with aging, with watching children grow, loss of friendships, habitat, completions to other life cycles, opportunities, loves, that one won’t see flourish, and so on,” Levine wrote in an email to Hyperallergic.

Levine, Cara_Dig a Hole to Put Your Grief In
Cara Levine, DIG: A Hole to Put Your Grief In, August 14–21, 2021, Shalom Institute, Malibu, California. Photo: Nir Yaniv.

“Part of the act of inviting others to share in the digging, is an invitation for the collective to lift the burden of the individual. I think digging together, expressing the depth and weight of the grief all around us, can be a shared burden.”

At week’s end the hole was filled with water and transformed into a mikvah (ritual bath) for a ceremonial hand washing, before being refilled with the original dirt. As arts writer Matt Stromberg reported, participants were invited to write down what they were grieving on sheets of paper embedded with flower seeds, which were then buried in small pots that could be taken home, while native seeds were scattered in the hole, a symbol of renewal. Though I, living on the opposite coast, didn’t participate, it sounds like it was a meaningful time of healing and of giving and receiving support.

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VIDEO: “Mending Trauma” by Makoto Fujimura: In this video from the 2019 Theology of Making series from Fuller Studio, artist and author Makoto Fujimura describes the Japanese art of kintsugi (literally “golden seams”) and how it reflects the beauty that can emerge from our own fractured hearts and lives.

“Kintsugi theology,” he says, is the theology of the new creation, and it’s embodied by Jesus himself. His resurrection body retains the wounds of crucifixion, but there is light flowing through them, suggesting how our traumas will be carried into the new creation but wholly transformed. Like broken bowls mended with gold.

Check out the three other videos in the series:

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SONG: This video, taken in June 2015 by someone from the Free Burma Rangers humanitarian service movement, shows an Assyrian Christian woman in Kurdistan lingering behind after church let out, singing a praise song to Jesus alone in a pew. She had recently returned home after having fled an ISIS attack. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

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NEW BOOKS:

>> The O in Hope by Luci Shaw, illustrated by Ned Bustard: “Combining a joyful poem from the much-celebrated poet Luci Shaw with playful cut-paper art created by Ned Bustard, The O in Hope helps us experience the goodness of God’s gifts of hope and love.” I found out about this recent release from IVP Kids at a Zoom event, where Shaw [previously] read the poem—it’s so delightful!

>> First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament: “Many First Nations tribes communicate with the cultural and linguistic thought patterns found in their original tongues. The First Nations Version (FNV) recounts the Creator’s Story—the Christian Scriptures—following the tradition of Native storytellers’ oral cultures. This way of speaking, with its simple yet profound beauty and rich cultural idioms, still resonates in the hearts of First Nations people.

“The FNV is a dynamic equivalence translation that captures the simplicity, clarity, and beauty of Native storytellers in English, while remaining faithful to the original language of the New Testament.” The project was carried out by an eleven-member council selected from a cross-section of Native North Americans (elders, pastors, young adults, and men and women from different tribes and geographic locations) and overseen by Ojibwe storyteller Terry M. Wildman. Here is Wildman reciting the FNV translation of the Lord’s Prayer from the Gospels, accompanied by his wife, Darlene, on cedar flute:

“Bouquet” by Langston Hughes

Chihuly, Dale_Kobe Japan Workshop Ikebana Drawing
Dale Chihuly (American, 1941–), Kobe Japan Workshop Ikebana Drawing, 1997. Mixed media on paper. Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Gather quickly
Out of darkness
All the songs you know
And throw them at the sun
Before they melt
Like snow.

This poem was originally published in the Colorado Review’s Spring/Summer 1957 issue, and it appears in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, ed. Arnold Rampersad (Knopf, 1994; Vintage Books, 1995).

Roundup: “De-Colonizing Christ” art exhibit, “God in the Modern Wing” book launch, and more

ART EXHIBITION: De-Colonizing Christ, Riverfront Gallery, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Cathedral, September 12–December 19, 2021 (preview: September 11): St. Stephen’s Episcopal Cathedral in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is hosting a juried art exhibition that highlights non-Caucasian representations of Jesus. There are twenty-eight original artworks in the show, plus a dozen on loan from private collections. An opening reception (with hors d’oeuvres) will take place Saturday, September 11, from 7 to 9 p.m., which I’ll be attending! It is open to the public, and masks are required in the sanctuary and cloister gallery.

De-Colonizing Christ exhibition poster
The poster image is Pantocrator in Black and Brown by Brian Behm from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which has been awarded Best in Show.

“Recent events have opened conversations among churches, theologians, and biblical scholars, considering in what way the western portrayal of Jesus as a European has been used to marginalize people of color,” the press release reads. “Many suggest that the pursuit of racial justice demands the exploration of ways in which we can de-colonize the Christ—releasing the image of Jesus from a legacy of White Supremacy and exploring images of Jesus as a man of color. This exhibit invites the Central Pennsylvania community into the conversation.” Read more about the impetus behind the exhibition in this opinion piece by the dean of the cathedral, the Very Rev. Dr. Amy Welin.

In addition to the preview night, where many of the artists will be present, there are three related lectures scheduled:

  • September 12, 2 p.m.: “The Arts, Justice, and Faith: The Role of a Holy Imagination” by artist Steve Prince
  • October 17, 2 p.m.: “White Jesus: Mangling Christianity and the Birth of White Supremacy in the West” by Dr. Drew G.I. Hart, Assistant Professor of Theology, Messiah University
  • November 28, 2 p.m.: Discussion about the tensions inherent in inclusive worship in predominantly white congregations, led by the Rev. Dr. Catherine Williams, Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship, Lancaster Theological Seminary

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BOOK LAUNCH EVENTS: God in the Modern Wing: Viewing Art with Eyes of Faith, September 17–18, 2021: In anticipation of this book’s release on October 12, Upper House in Madison, Wisconsin, is hosting a string of free events two weekends from now. The two lectures can be attended in person or virtually, but the workshop is in-person only. Coeditors Cameron J. Anderson (an artist) [previously] and G. Walter Hansen (a theologian and art collector) will be present.

God in the Modern Wing grew out of a series of lectures that Hansen organized in 2015, one of which I wrote about. The book description is as follows: “Should Christians even bother with the modern wing at the art museum? After all, modern art and artists are often caricatured as rabidly opposed to God, the church—indeed, to faith of any kind. But is that all there is to the story? In this Studies in Theology and the Arts volume, coeditors Cameron J. Anderson and G. Walter Hansen gather the reflections of artists, art historians, and theologians who collectively offer a more complicated narrative of the history of modern art and its place in the Christian life. Here, readers will find insights on the work and faith of artists including Marc Chagall, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol, and more.”

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(IN-PERSON) ARTS FESTIVAL: Faith in Arts Institute, October 13–16, 2021, Asheville, North Carolina: “The inaugural Faith in Arts Institute hosted by UNC Asheville and the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, intended for anyone interested in the role of art in religious and spiritual experience, will be led and facilitated by artists and  scholars. The number of participants for the institute itself will be limited to create the possibility for rich and meaningful dialogue and engagement among the participants and faculty.

“In addition to talks on religion and art in the 21st century, sacred art in secular spaces / secular art in sacred spaces, and small group discussions on topics including devotion and discipline, revelation and inspiration, faith and hope, ritual and routine, vision and imagination, the institute will also include several workshops, film screenings and more.” Registration is $60. View a schedule and find out more information here.

Faith in Arts Institute

The presenters are:

  • Julie Levin Caro, Professor of Art History, Warren Wilson College (specializes in modern American art and African American art)
  • Curt Cloninger, artist, designer, writer
  • Marie T. Cochran, Founder and Director, Affrilachian Artist Project
  • David Hinton, essayist and translator of Chinese poetry
  • Rachel Elizabeth Harding, Associate Professor of Indigenous Spiritual Traditions, University of Colorado–Denver (specializes in religions of the Afro-Atlantic diaspora)
  • Jessica Jacobs, author of the coming-of-age memoir-in-poems Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Going
  • Kay Larson, author of Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists
  • Thomas Moore, pianist
  • Alicia Jo Rabins, writer, musician, composer, performer, Torah teacher (check out her Girls in Trouble, an indie-folk song cycle about the complicated lives of biblical women!)
  • Christopher-Rasheem McMillan, Assistant Professor of Dance and of Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies, University of Iowa
  • Aaron Rosen, Professor of Religion and Visual Culture, Wesley Theological Seminary
  • Pamela D. Winfield, Professor of Religious Studies, Elon University (specializes in the visual/material culture of Japanese Buddhism)

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SONG FOR SUKKOT: “Whoever Is Thirsty” by Marty Goetz: Every fall Jews celebrate Sukkot, aka the Feast of Tabernacles or Festival of Booths, a seven-day commemoration of God’s provision for their people during their desert sojourn after the exodus. This year the holiday falls on September 20–27. Four Sukkots ago singer-songwriter Marty Goetz, a Jewish believer in Jesus, posted this video of a song he composed, “Whoever Is Thirsty,” from his 2010 album Sanctuary. It is an original setting of Revelation 22:17 (a book that “herald[s] the return of Yeshua the Messiah,” he says), and he performs it here with his daughter Misha Goetz.

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

—Revelation 22:17

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NEW PLAYLIST: September 2021 (Art & Theology): I’m continuing to put together a short monthly Spotify playlist as a way to share great music mainly from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Per usual, it consists mostly of folk and gospel, which are my personal preferences. I realized after the fact that this month’s selection has quite a bit of banjo! (I do love that instrument . . .): a setting by bluegrass quintet Crooked Still of Wendell Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things”; Béla Fleck jamming with Ugandan kalimba player Ruth Akello on “Jesus Is the Only Answer” [previously]; Rhiannon Giddens playing and singing the spiritual “I’m Gonna Tell God All of My Troubles”; Ellen Petersen and her siblings covering the Mark Bishop song “With the Spirit of the Lord Inside”; “Esa Einai,” a setting of Psalm 121:1–2 in English and Hebrew by Jewish bluegrass duo Nefesh Mountain; and an original song by the Westbound Rangers [previously], led by one of my high school friends, Graham Sherrill.

The closing song is “Kia Hora Te Marino,” a collection of Maori blessings and proverbs set to music by Christopher Tin. The first stanza goes,

Kia hora te marino,
Kia whakapapa pounamu te moana,
Kia tere te rohirohi.
Kia hora te marino,
Te marino ara
Mo ake tonu ake.

English translation:
May peace be widespread,
may the sea glisten like greenstone,
and may the shimmer of light guide you.
May peace be widespread,
be widespread
now and forever more.

Music documentary: Throw Down Your Heart

Directed by Sascha Paladino, Throw Down Your Heart (2008) follows world-renowned banjo player Béla Fleck on his journey through Africa to connect with the banjo’s origins through jam sessions and conversations with local musicians. It’s full of intercultural exchanges that result in creative stylistic fusions that are amazingly seamless. It’s thrilling to hear the banjo so at home outside the US! Here’s the trailer:

Most people associate the banjo with white people from the American South, but it actually evolved from the akonting, a hide-covered gourd instrument from Gambia with three strings attached to a pole, brought to America by enslaved Africans. Among the many musical artists Fleck meets is the Jatta Family, a Gambian troupe dedicated to preserving akonting music in Africa.

The title of the documentary, Throw Down Your Heart, is a translation of the Swahili word Bagamoyo, the name of a trading port along the East African coast. According to John Kitime, Fleck’s guide and translator, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Tanzanians were captured inland and brought to the eastern shores for “export” to the Middle East as slaves. They knew that once they saw the Indian Ocean, they would never come home again, so they would “throw down [their] heart” in despair. Fleck wrote a banjo composition inspired by this painful history, which is performed on the Special Features of the DVD.

Besides Gambia and Tanzania, Fleck also visits Uganda and Mali, and the documentary highlights a variety of musical traditions and instruments from those countries—harps and panpipes and giant xylophones and guitars. I especially love the performance of “Jesus Is the Only Answer” by Ruth Akello from Jinja, Uganda, who plays the kalimba (thumb piano), an instrument consisting of metal tines of varying length attached to a wooden board. She also sings. She’s accompanied by the Ateso Jazz Band and by Fleck.

All the performances are wonderful, but another standout for me is by Grammy Award–winning Wassoulou singer Oumou Sangaré, a national icon in Mali. She sings “Djorolen,” a lament for the fatherless. An English translation of the Bambara lyrics is below.

The worried songbird cries out in the forest
Her thoughts go far away
For those of us without fathers
Her thoughts go out to them

Abandoned by her father when she was two, Sangaré dropped out of school as a child to help her mother raise the family by singing in the streets. She rose to stardom in her early twenties with the release of her first album, Moussolou (1990). She now tours internationally and is an advocate for women’s rights, opposing child marriage and polygamy.

(Related post: “Music making at Keur Moussa Abbey, Senegal”)

Though marketed as a film about the banjo, Throw Down Your Heart is more broadly a celebration of the diverse musics of the African continent. Through collaborations with virtuoso musicians, Fleck explores how a modern banjo can fit into that soundscape.

The documentary appears not to be available for online streaming, but I rented a copy of the DVD at my local library. There’s also a reasonably priced box set that was released last year, which includes not only the DVD but also a deluxe edition—forty-two tracks!—of the critically acclaimed companion album, featuring a complete disc of previously unreleased material from Fleck performing with kora master Toumani Diabaté.