Lord of empty bowl and thrift store spoon,
of soil, of paint-flecked arms.
Lord of the mossed live oak, of blank paper, of lobe.
You are gingko leaf, its yellow tone,
an egg feather-stuck, a room.
The lingering scent of myrrh, of aloe, folded strips
of linen, cast light across the sandy floor of a tomb.
You live deep in ginger’s bite, snow’s precision,
the seed the wildflower’s thrown.
You are the Lord of all expectant
breath: height, cloud, vapor, mist.
You are the Lord of what’s been bitten down,
what’s dormant, the remaindered, the paused.
Molecule’s God, salamander’s God, ragweed’s
God, Lord of stones. Lord of green-bellied toad’s
burble and spit. Of broad-winged hawks,
of weather and wings, of wood mites’ burrows,
of whistles, of small things.
We balk, Lord, at how you nestle deep: our bulb, our bee,
juice, the Spirit of pear, the shadow of the dimple,
what’s under every ripple of the creek.
Lord of the hitch, the lob, the blink, the kiss, the shake.
Lord who rose, who wakes;
who lets us sleep, who satiates.
In our palms, cerebrum, nostrils, wrists,
your Spirit lives. What we miss,
In our liminal lives, Great and Patient Mystery,
bless us, and if you will,
share with us your margins today.
“Resurrection Psalm” by Kristina Erny, reproduced here with her permission, was originally published in the catalog for Again + Again (2021), a CIVA-organized photography exhibition that invites contemplation of the ordinary and extraordinary through the seasons of the Christian liturgical year. In the exhibition, as here, the poem is presented with Keith Barker’s photographic collage Stone of Help.
Kristina Erny is a third-culture person—an American raised in Seoul, who has spent much of her career teaching abroad. Most recently she has served as an assistant professor of English and the director of the creative writing program at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky. Her poetry has appeared in the Los Angeles Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Rattle, Yemassee, Bluestem, and elsewhere, and her manuscript Wax of What’s Left was a multi-award finalist. She and her family are currently preparing to move to Shanghai, where they will continue their journey as international school educators.
As a caveat, I am a Protestant, and while I do have a profound respect and appreciation for icons, my theology of images, including my definition of sacred art, is not the same as the Orthodox Church’s—even though elements of it are influenced by the Orthodox position. All the same, I believe it’s important for Christians of all denominations to understand the significance of icons and what differentiates them from noniconic religious images. Those lines are being blurred a bit by the new schools of iconography coming out of western Ukraine and Poland, which honor tradition even as they push it forward into the contemporary era. Here are a few icon-related videos, articles, and weblinks that I’ve gathered over the past several months.
>> “The Meaning of Icons” by Fr. Maximos Constas, November 13, 2019, Notre Dame Seminary: Father Maximos Constas, professor of patristics and Orthodox spirituality at Hellenic College Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, explains the significance of icons in the Orthodox Church, with special attention to their aesthetic features and theological meaning, which is informed by the church’s Christology and cosmology. He answers such questions as, Why do the figures in icons look bored and unnatural? And, Doesn’t the Second Commandment forbid representations of Christ? He does not address icon veneration or details of the making process.
Constas spends the first fifteen minutes juxtaposing Eastern and Western approaches to religious images, discussing how the Renaissance values of humanism and naturalism came to prevail in the West. The Orthodox, he says, see this as the “secularization” or “carnalization” of sacred art—in its commitment to depicting observable realities, Western art from the Renaissance onward typically lacks overt signs of transcendence.
Constas also discusses the dogmatization of sacred images in the East. Icons are never simply works of art or pedagogical tools, he says. “They were understood to be visual artistic expressions of the church’s theology. And in the same way that church doctrines could not be changed, neither could the image in which the doctrines were embodied.”
Here are some notes I took on the talk, including some transcriptions:
An icon can be a panel painting, a fresco, a mosaic, a relief carving, an enameled plaque, a manuscript illumination, etc. “What ultimately defines an icon has nothing to do with artistic medium or style but rather depends on how the image is used and, most importantly, what it is believed to be. And every icon is a means of spiritual encounter and dialogue. It offers us the possibility of such an encounter because it shares in the holiness of the sacred figure whose likeness it bears.”
An icon is not a work of art but a work of witness that makes use of art.
“Icons are not simply portraits but manifestations of human persons in their new heavenly condition. They are images of the spiritual character of human beings reborn, as it were, in the womb of eternity.”
“The icon has the ability to evoke within me the memory of the forgotten depth of my own being. It enables me to see my true face. It orients me toward my destiny in God. And this vision, this remembrance, this knowledge fills me with unspeakable joy and profound consolation.”
We not only can but must make images of Christ; “to deny the icon is to deny the reality of the Incarnation.”
“All created things are intrinsically good, and all, therefore, have spirit-bearing potentialities. And to this essential goodness and beauty of the material world, the icon bears joyful witness. In the icon, we see matter restored to harmony and so fulfilling its true vocation, which is to reflect and transmit the divine glory. The icon, then, safeguards not only the authenticity of Christ’s physical body, but also the true value of creation in its unfallen state as created by God. Inherent in the very fact of the icon is an optimistic, affirmative vision of the material creation. As spirit-bearing matter, the icon has what we would call eschatological significance—it anticipates the final transfiguration of the cosmos at the last day, when the created world will be delivered from its present bondage to corruption, to quote St. Paul, and will enter into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
windows, doors, thresholds into heaven (spiritual places of passage)
mirrors, a reflection of their living source
tracks or traces
32:40: Portrayal of figures in icons
Alteration of the natural symmetries and proportions of the body, including the features of the face (eyes and ears enlarged; nose elongated; mouth small and closed)
Full frontality—wholeness, completion, perfection; makes the icon dialogical and relational
Serene, controlled facial expression
No shadows cast; illumined from within
>> “Rajaton hengellinen kuva: Kärsimyksen ja ylösnousemuksen kuvat” (Boundless Spiritual Image: Images of Suffering and Resurrection) by Ari Luomajoki, March 26, 2021, Kuopio Cathedral, Kuopio, Finland: I don’t speak Finnish, but I share this seventy-minute video for the visuals (and of course for any Finnish speakers!) and to show how contemporary icons are spreading west. In August 2016 under the leadership of Pastor Ari Luomajoki, the Lutheran Monastic Community of Enonkoski in Ihamaniemi, Finland, organized its first international icon workshop (read more here, and follow @LutheranIcon on Facebook), which attracted iconographers from Poland and Ukraine, as well as a few domestic artists. It was reprised in 2017 (I mentioned this second workshop here). Icons that came out of these workshops have been exhibited several times in Finland, and have facilitated relationships that have led to new exhibitions—such as Kärsimyksen ja ylösnousemuksen kuvat (Images of Suffering and Resurrection) at Kuopio Cathedral, which ran March 26–April 11, 2021. Follow the boldface link to see a taping of the opening, which includes opening comments, a tour, and a lecture.
In the first sixteen minutes of the video, Pastor Olli Viitaniemi, one of the main organizers of the exhibition (with Pastor Salla Tyrväinen), shows screen captures from the website he built connected to the exhibition, https://sielunkuvat.net/. At around 16:24 he gives a tour of the exhibition around the church sanctuary.
At 32:48 Luomajoki—who is a Lutheran pastor in Kouvola, Finland, and has a master’s degree in art history—starts his half-hour lecture. He introduces Międzynarodowe Warsztaty Ikonopisów w Nowicy (International Iconography Workshop in Nowica) in Poland and Lviv National Academy of Arts and the Iconart gallery in Ukraine, two centers of contemporary Eastern iconography that inspired the icons project at the Enonkoski monastery in Finland. At 47:41 Luomajoki does side-by-side image comparisons to show similarities and differences across time. At 50:41 he discusses the use of images in early Lutheranism. He goes on to show some examples of religious art in Finland in the past century (including a really compelling Crucifixion painting by Helene Schjerfbeck and crucifix by Paavo Halonen!). He closes by spotlighting Hidden Life in Nazareth by Ivanka Demchuk and a Nativity by Arsen Bereza, participants in the workshop.
Luomajoki is a wonderful photographer of art. Follow him on Instagram @ari.luomajoki.
INTERVIEW with contemporary iconographer Khrystyna Kvyk, by Kevin Antlitz: OK, Patheos blog posts are painful to read because of all the obtrusive ads, which is why I rarely link to them. But I’m making an exception for this one, where American Anglican pastor Kevin Antlitz interviews Ukrainian Greek Catholic iconographer Khrystyna Kvyk, who earned a master’s degree in sacral art in 2020. She discusses her process of painting icons, what makes an icon an icon, timelessness and transfiguration, the relationship between tradition and innovation, the idea of divine light as reflected in two of her icons, and more. I really love her work and was delighted to hear some of her own words about it.
NEW CHURCH COMMISSION: Wall paintings at Iglesia de San Nicolás by Ivanka Demchuk and Arsen Bereza: Ukrainian artists Ivanka Demchuk and Arsen Bereza—a married couple!—have completed a monumental painting on the east wall of the Catholic church of Saint Nicholas in Granada. It was deeply influenced by Byzantine iconography, in which they’ve both been trained, but also contains some modern abstract and geometric elements.
The church building is from the sixteenth century and recently underwent extensive renovations, finally reopening to the public in April, which is when Demchuk and Bereza’s mural was unveiled. It portrays the Anastasis, the Eastern Orthodox image of Christ’s resurrection, which shows him breaking down the doors of hell to release its captives. In the video (which is in Ukrainian with Spanish subtitles), Demchuk describes how they painted two mandorlas behind him: the almond-shaped one symbolizing his divine light, and a round one symbolizing the cosmos.
BLOG POST: “The Meaning of Melchizedek in Icons” by David Coomler: Though he’s not religious, David Coomler is an expert on Christian icons and often consults on them. On his blog he unpacks the iconography of standard types but also more unusual ones, like You Are a Priest Forever After the Order of Melchizedek, inspired by Hebrews 7. This rare type is meant to show that Jesus is both the offering and the offerer. The variation pictured below shows, I think, three representations of Christ: as crucified seraph (still quite puzzling to me, but Coomler points out that the Greek of Isaiah 9:6 refers to the Messiah as the “Messenger of Great Counsel”), Holy Wisdom (aka Sophia), and high priest—hence the man in bishops’ garb in the back. Wild!
SPOTIFY PLAYLISTS by Lara Downes (with commentary!):
>> Songs for Freedom: A Juneteenth Playlist (2021): Award-winning pianist and NPR radio host Lara Downes curated an excellent Spotify playlist for Juneteenth last year—a mix of jazz, classical, and soul. It is full of wonderful surprises, introducing me to the work of several African American composers, new and old, such as Wynton Marsalis’s The Democracy! Suite for jazz ensemble; a symphony by William Grant Still titled “Song of a New Race”; “Adoration” by Florence Price (originally written for organ but arranged here for violin and piano); “Fanfare on Amazing Grace” by Adolphus Hailstork; and “Startin’ Sumthin’” by Jeff Scott, a French hornist who performs “urban classical chamber music.”
There are also several well-known names—Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Stevie Wonder—and more recent popular artists like Jon Batiste and Rhiannon Giddens. Batiste’s arrangement of “What a Wonderful World” is gorgeous, and the music video—wow (see below). It features a group of Black nuns having fun around London—picnicking on a park bench, traversing monkey bars, sharing Jesus with passersby, eating cotton candy, riding bumper cars. It captures the tone of the song perfectly.
From Downes’s list I also really like the blues song “I Knew I Could Fly” by Allison Russell and Leyla McCalla, excerpted in the following featurette. It’s from the album Songs of Our Native Daughters, which sheds light on African American women’s stories of struggle, resistance, and hope.
Be sure to read the NPR article that introduces the playlist. Downes calls out nine of the musical selections with blurbs that provide some background, and throughout there is a smattering of historical photographs of Black flourishing in and around Washington, DC, from 1904 onward, taken by the Black-owned Scurlock Studio.
>> Songs to Believe In: A Juneteenth Playlist (2022): As I was formatting this post I realized that Downes just published a brand-new playlist for Juneteenth 2022. I haven’t had time to listen yet, but it looks awesome. “I offer you a collection of music that insists on the promise of freedom, however long in coming,” she writes. “Music that counters the shrieking dissonance of conflict with the radiant warmth of its harmonies, that offers us comfort in our sorrow and sustenance in our struggle. Songs that ground us with the steadiness of their rhythms and embrace us in the lines of their melodies. Music that brings us hope and faith and even joy, urging us to stand and fight another day, reminding us that what we are celebrating on this holiday is our freedom to believe, even in the hardest of times.”
YOUTUBE PLAYLIST: Juneteenth Playlist by Victoria Emily Jones. Nineteen songs of freedom and faith—gospel, pop, funk, R&B, and spirituals. I wanted to choose all live performances or music videos so that there’s a visual element to engage.
One of the songs is “Clap Praise” by Diane White-Clayton, performed by Selah Gospel Choir. It’s a setting of Psalm 47, which opens, “Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy!”
Dr. Diane White-Clayton is a composer, conductor, pianist, and lecturer in ethnomusicology specializing in Black sacred music. I love the exuberance and all the body percussion in this widely performed piece of hers. I learned about Selah Gospel Choir through Bridge Projects, an art gallery in Los Angeles where they recently performed. The choir was founded in 2007 “as a space for people who want to sing gospel music birthed by the spirit of the Black church and the ancestry of Black community but are either unable to find it in their home place of worship or do not identify with being in a church at all.”
DANCE WORK: Revelations, choreographed by Alvin Ailey: This classic thirty-six-minute work choreographed by the pioneering Alvin Ailey premiered in New York in 1960 and since then has been performed continually around the globe. This particular performance at Lincoln Center premiered online on December 6, 2020, as part of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s virtual season during the pandemic. “Using African American spirituals, song-sermons, gospel songs, and holy blues, Revelations fervently explores the places of deepest grief and holiest joy in the soul.” Ailey said it was born of the “blood memories” of his childhood in rural Texas and his affection for the Baptist church that nurtured him.
All the numbers are great, but my favorite is “Wade in the Water” (part of the “Take Me to the Water” sequence that begins at 9:41). Second favorite: “Fix Me” (5:22).
Published last month by Brazos Press, the book consists of ten chapters, each one built around a theologically charged word or concept (such as “sin,” “image of God,” or “lament”) and a twentieth-century novel or poem(s) by a Black author that is then engaged through that lens. A potential danger with this approach is that the interpretations in either direction could be forced to fit into a box, but this turned out not to be the case at all. Reading Black Books is a two-way, mutually enriching exchange between theology and literature, one that is expansive rather than limiting and that takes each discipline seriously on its own terms.
Combining literary analysis and theological reflection, Atcho shows how “God’s truth addresses Black experience and how Black experience, as shown in the literature of our great writers, can prod readers from all backgrounds toward sharper theological thinking and more faithful living” (1). We are invited to inhabit the experiences of various characters and poetic voices and to be transformed as a result. As a middle-class white woman living in a Maryland suburb, I acknowledge that I move about the world with a very different set of experiences than those of people of color. With pastoral sensitivity but also directness, Atcho helps me enter into America’s racial narrative—and the narrative of the gospel!—from a different vantage point. This book is for Christians of any race who desire to be enlarged by story and to live more fully into the liberative arc of scripture.
Atcho provides enough context for each book—introducing us to characters, rehearsing relevant plot points, and highlighting specific scenes, often including quoted excerpts—that you don’t have to have read the work previously to benefit from his commentary. The book does contain spoilers, as all serious literary criticism almost inevitably will. But literature is way more than plot, and readers are encouraged to then engage with the primary texts in full on their own, equipped with frames for thinking about them and open to surprises.
I have attempted to come to this book about books as a guide who integrates my affections: my love for these stories, my love for what they say about Black experience in both trials and triumphs, and my love for Jesus and his kingdom.
Claude Atcho, p. 7
Chapter 1 examines the question “What does it mean to live as an image bearer when other image bearers try to limit your existence?” The protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (not to be confused with H. G. Wells’s sci-fi novel The Invisible Man) is not physically invisible; rather, he is rendered invisible by others’ refusal to see him. Atcho discusses the need for white sight—our warped “inner eyes”—to be redeemed.
Chapter 2 explores how systemic sin exacerbates personal sin through the controversial character of Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s Native Son, a Black man from 1930s Chicago who commits two murders (the first one accidental). Is Bigger a victim or a perpetrator? The question is too simplistic. Bigger is both trapped by Sin and an agent of Sin, Atcho says. Atcho’s explication of Sin with a capital S and sin, little s, is sophisticated and illuminates for me broader discussions going on in contemporary culture. Sin is not just personally experienced and personally enacted; it is also a dominating force that’s been set loose in our world and that has become embedded in systems.
The focus of chapter 3 is James Baldwin’s semiautobiographical debut novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, “a critical generational portrait of the toxic Christian practice that emerges from belief in a loveless God” (40). Baldwin gestures toward true religion through negation—by presenting the character of Gabriel, the protagonist’s minister stepfather, as a promiscuous and abusive binge drinker with a lust for power.
Chapter 4 visits “Christ Recrucified” and the nine-hundred-line “The Black Christ” (read the first stanza here) by Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, unpacking the picture they paint of a Jesus who suffers for, like, and with us. Published in the 1920s, both poems compare the crucified Christ to a lynched Black man.
In chapter 5 Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain, a folkloric retelling of the book of Exodus, opens up a quest into the doctrine of salvation. Atcho discusses salvation from and to, which story and script forms us most (the old empire or the coming kingdom?), the significance of the promised land, and Christian social concern as a biblical imperative.
The deliverance of the exodus elides the false dichotomy of a truncated salvation. Hurston’s Moses points in the same direction—toward imagining a fully orbed salvation, as did our enslaved ancestors: revelation and liberation.
Is it our attention, then, to be fixed on the sin of slavery or our slavery to sin? Personal piety in the power of the Spirit or social change in Jesus’s name? Liberation or revelation? In the exodus, the Lord frees his people so that they might exist in freedom for him. It is liberation through revelation and atonement. God’s revelation (Exod. 9:4, 16, 29; 10:1–2; 11:7; 14:4), the necessity of atonement (13:13, 15), the urgency of liberation (2:23–25), and the subsequent call to holiness (31:13; Lev. 20:8) cannot be isolated. In the exodus, each motif exists in relation, forming the full melody of salvation. The song of salvation is not played in only one key. The contextual pressures of human experience can force us, understandably at times, to prize piety or liberation when truly salvation expands and contains both—and more. (84–85)
Nella Larsen’s Passing—which was adapted into an acclaimed film last year—is the subject of chapter 6, on racism. The novella delves into the psyches of two light-skinned Black women in 1920s Harlem, one of whom passes for white in all settings as a means of survival, and the other of whom does so only when convenient. Atcho talks about the need to combat colorism with affirmation (e.g., “Black is beautiful”), with denial, and through the flesh of Christ.
Chapter 7 spotlights Beloved, a gothic novel by Toni Morrison that combines the historical and the supernatural to tell the story of a devoted mother named Sethe who is seeking freedom from enslavement. At one point she escapes with her children, but when the authorities find them she kills her two-year-old daughter (who is unnamed in the novel and referred to as “Beloved,” the sole word on her tombstone) rather than relinquish her to a life of slavery. Sethe is ultimately able to get away to an Ohio farmhouse, which becomes haunted by Beloved’s ghost.
Atcho discusses the traumas of enslavement that continue to compound and haunt the body, mind, and soul even after one becomes “free”; the need for righteous rage; enfleshment and bodily liturgy; chattel slavery’s theft of the mother-child relationship; memory as a muscle that needs to be exercised transparently, communally, and redemptively; new creation and anticreation; and exorcism, rescue.
One of the most compelling characters in the novel is Sethe’s mother-in-law, Baby Suggs. A shepherdess of bodies and souls, she creates a new space in the woods near the farmhouse where she enacts weekly liturgies of healing. She directs her people, in Atcho’s words, “to move and be in the sacred humanity that they are and that has so viciously been attacked by those who enslaved and debased them” (117). A key passage in Beloved describes this communal gathering:
After situating herself on a huge flat-sided rock, Baby Suggs bowed her head and prayed silently. The company watched her from the trees. They knew she was ready when she put her stick down. Then she shouted, “Let the children come!” and they ran from the trees toward her.
“Let your mothers hear you laugh,” she told them, and the woods rang. The adults looked on and could not help smiling.
Then “Let the grown men come,” she shouted. They stepped out one by one from among the ringing trees.
“Let your wives and your children see you dance,” she told them, and groundlife shuddered under their feet.
Finally she called the women to her. “Cry,” she told them. “For the living and the dead. Just cry.” And without covering their eyes the women let loose.
It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until, exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath. In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart. . . .
“Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh . . .”
Baby Suggs then goes on to list various parts of the body—eyes, skin, hands, mouth, neck, liver, heart—contrasting what “yonder” men do to those parts (gouge, flay, chop, beat, hang, expose and feed to hogs) with each part’s innate belovedness. Atcho’s comments on this passage—a passage that has stuck with me ever since I first read the novel some fifteen years ago—are among the best in the book.
Chapter 8 is on the theme of lament, and it considers that biblical practice in relation to the poem “A Litany of Atlanta” by W. E. B. Du Bois while also looking at the Psalms and the cross. “There is . . . power in lament that names injustice for what it is,” Atcho writes. “By naming it as such and placing it before God as counter to his moral will, lament teaches us to make no peace with injustice or oppression” (137). Bearing true witness against evil, the poem was written in response to the three-day reign of racial terror that white men unleashed on a Black community in Atlanta in September 1906, killing, maiming, and destroying homes and businesses. It opens, “O Silent God, Thou whose voice afar in mist and mystery hath left our ears an-hungered in these fearful days— / Hear us, good Lord!”
Chapter 9 takes a look at another novel by Richard Wright, The Man Who Lived Underground, published for the first time last year, sixty-one years after the author’s death. (Publishers rejected it during Wright’s lifetime.) It follows Fred Daniels, a Black man who, after being picked up by police and relentlessly tortured, confesses to a double murder that he did not commit, then flees into the city’s sewer system. “The underground” confers on him a new knowledge of the world’s foundations of falsehood and injustice. At the end, he meets his demise.
To imagine a more just world, one must reckon with the world that is.
Claude Atcho, p. 145
Even though the novel promotes a worldview that is bleak and fatalistic, reading it can still be constructive, Atcho says; as Christians, we carry our hope to bleak texts. What would it look like to see this senseless world reconfigured into wholeness and justice? Atcho calls us to action, away from discrimination, violence, and power abuse and toward the pursuit of justice for all people on earth as it is in heaven.
It’s fitting that the last chapter centers on hope, particularly as expressed through Margaret Walker’s poem “For My People.” Atcho describes the poem as “a living history, an ode, an exhortation, a lament, a prayer” that “embodies the fiery passion of a communal hope, a bond of persons and destiny” (160, 166). While the majority of the poem addresses Walker’s Black kin, at the end she expands “my people” to embrace all of humanity, “all the adams and eves.”
Throughout Atcho’s book we see the legacies of racial oppression in America—how it manifests today. Though the most recent of the featured literary works is from 1989, they all speak into our current moment. I appreciate how Atcho defines terms that show up a lot in public discourse, such as liberation and justice, comparing cultural definitions with biblical ones. But he leads with story. While in the public square our tendency is often to arm ourselves with arguments to bolster our views and defend against attacks, story has a way of disarming us. Abstract concepts become incarnate in the lives of characters. Literature can teach us the discipline of listening and can develop our empathy and understanding. It may prompt us to assess our own prejudices or complicities and impel us to repentance and real change.
Reading Black Books demonstrates the power of great literature to form us spiritually, regardless of the faith commitments of its author. Atcho presumes no theological agenda on the part of the writers, but rather chooses to read these works theologically—which can unlock more nuanced interpretations or deepened meaning. Applying a theological framework, Atcho draws out themes from the works that cannot be addressed quite as well, I’d say, without theological language. He connects our collective human story to God’s story.
The back matter includes discussion questions for each chapter.
Though I had previously read and studied all four poems Atcho discusses, I’ve read only one of the seven novels—and this despite my being an English major in college! This book makes me want to read more for sure. I’ve already stocked up my library accordingly. I’m grateful to Atcho for reactivating my interest in fiction and for extending it in the direction of these seminal African American novels.
EXHIBITION: Paula Rego: Secrets of Faith, Victoria Miro Venice, April 23–June 18, 2022: Portuguese-born British artist Paula Rego died last Wednesday, June 8, after a seven-decade career, and in the midst of four solo exhibitions of her work—including this one at Victoria Miro’s gallery in Venice, which explores her small but significant body of religious art. [HT: Jonathan Evens]
In 2002 Jorge Sampaio, then president of Portugal, commissioned Paula Rego to create eight pastel drawings based on episodes from the life of the Virgin Mary, to be installed permanently in the chapel of the presidential palace (Palácio de Belém) in Lisbon. Titled Nossa Senhora (Our Lady), the cycle comprises Annunciation; Nativity; Adoration; Purification at the Temple; Flight into Egypt; Lamentation; Pietà; and Assumption. Rego had such fun with the commission that she produced additional works on the subject, which she decided to keep for herself. It is these, along with her watercolor studies, that are currently on display in Venice. (The original eight pastels are not allowed to leave the chapel for which they were made.)
I learned about Rego’s Marian cycle a few years ago and became enthralled by it, though I’ve never seen it in person, and most of these supplemental works are new to me. It’s unique, in part because of Mary’s corporeality. In a 2003 interview with Richard Zimler, Rego said, “If there is anything new about these representations of the Virgin, it is the fact that they were done by a woman, which is very rare. . . . It always used to be men who painted the life of the Virgin, and now it is a woman. It offers a different point of view, because we identify more easily with her.”
While the president praised the cycle and Rego insisted that “these pictures were created with admiration and respect,” an open letter to Sampaio referred to it as an “outrage done to the vast majority of the Portuguese people,” an “outrage against their religious beliefs and an offence to the Virgin Mary.” In brief: “blasphemous and scandalous.” I can see why Rego’s larger oeuvre, with its often menacing and/or transgressive imagery (not least of which is her Abortion Series), would scandalize conservative viewers, but I am a bit confused by the outrage at Nossa Senhora, which to me seems very honoring. The objectors, it sounds like, are those who prefer Mary to be more ethereal and sedate; they don’t want to see her, for example, slouching or wincing or expressing astonishment, or awkwardly struggling to hold the weight of her son’s corpse. There will always be those who resist any kind of updating of religious art. If the scenes are restaged in an unfamiliar way or rendered in an unfamiliar style or introduce a new element or the figures don’t look like how we have always pictured them, then some will oppose them outright—which is a shame, because such art often invites us more deeply into the story, helping us to see it afresh.
PODCAST EPISODE: “Past Hymns for the Present Moment,”Tokens, May 26, 2022: “Hymns are often sentimentalized in the American church, cast aside as merely retired songs with dated language, bearing no real appeal or relevance. But of course it may be that our old hymnals have some crucial things to say to us in our current cultural moment. This is the challenge I [Lee C. Camp] posed to Odessa Settles, Phil Madeira, and Leslie Jordan: find and perform some old hymns which might be both indicting and encouraging to the modern church, and to the world at large. Beautiful conversation and moving performances, taped at Nashville’s Sound Emporium.”
POETRY UNBOUND EPISODES:
In each episode of this podcast from On Being Studio, host Pádraig Ó Tuama unpacks a contemporary poem in fifteen minutes. Here are two from season 5 (which just came to an end) that I particularly liked.
>> “Looking for The Gulf Motel” by Richard Blanco: “What happens when we remember?” Ó Tuama asks. “Why do we remember? Is it sweet or sad? Is it both? If you particularly associate warm memories, romantic memories, nostalgic memories with a place, and then that place is changed, does that mean that all those memories are gone?” In this poem from a collection of the same title (which I checked out from my local library at Ó Tuama’s recommendation, and it’s excellent!), Cuban American poet Richard Blanco, at age thirty-eight, reminisces about a family beach vacation from his childhood. Read the poem here.
If I were writing this poem, it would be called “Looking for The Blockade Runner,” as that’s the name of the Wrightsville Beach hotel in North Carolina that my family and I used to stay at for four days or so each summer. My little brother and I should still be running around on the waterfront lawn as our parents watch us from inside the giant window of the dining room, finishing up their breakfast. My dad should still be riding in a wave on a boogie board, teaching me technique. My mom should still be lounging at the pool in her black one-piece with sunglasses and a Vanity Fair, I feeling so grown up beside her sipping my virgin piña colada. My brother should still be exhilarated by the live hermit crabs at Wings, and I by the dried starfish and sand dollars. We should all still be walking back from the Oceanic, our bellies filled with she-crab soup and hush puppies and catch-of-the-day, down the shore at dusk.
>> “The change room” by Andy Jackson: A poet who’s interested in difference and embodiment, here Andy Jackson, who has severe spinal curvature due to Marfan syndrome, “is looking at the attention that he gets in his body and is refocusing it, extending it wider, looking at the deeper question of, what does it mean for any of us to be in a body, and how do we in bodies relate to others in bodies?” Read the poem here, from the collection Human Looking.
CORITO VIDEOS: A corito (literally “short song”) is a type of Latino Christian worship song. Coritos have “fairly simple tunes, often with repetitive words, that the people sing by heart,” writes Justo L. González in ¡Alabádle!: Hispanic Christian Worship. “Most of them are anonymous, and pass by word of mouth from one congregation to another. For that reason, the tune or the words of a particular corito may vary significantly from one place to another. They are often sung to the accompaniment of clapping hands, tambourines, and other instruments.” To learn more about this genre, see the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship interview with Rosa Cándida Ramírez and Analisse Reyes and the entry in the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the Global South, vol. 2.
>> Joseph Espinozasings a corito medley consisting of “Cuando el pueblo del Señor” (When the People of the Lord), “No puede estar triste” (The Heart That Worships Christ Cannot Be Sad), “Ven, ven, Espiritu divino” (Come, Come, Holy Spirit), “Cantaré al Señor por siempre” (I Will Sing to the Lord Forever), and “El Poderoso de Israel” (The Mighty One of Israel). Aaron Barbosa is on keyboard, Fabian Chavez is on percussion, and Yosmel Montejo is on bass.
Federico Apecena provides the following translation. (The slashes indicate the number of times that line or passage is sung.)
//The heart that worships Jesus cannot be sad The heart that worships God cannot be sad//
//That’s why I sing, I sing hallelujah The heart that worships God cannot be sad//
//There’s victory, there’s victory, there’s victory in the blood of Jesus// The enemy will not be able to defeat our souls //Because there is victory, because there is victory, because there is victory in the blood of Jesus//
//That’s why I sing, I sing hallelujah The heart that worships God cannot be sad//
///Those that wait, that wait in Jesus/// //Like eagles, like eagles, their wings will open//
They will walk and will not get tired, they will run and will not stop //New life they will have, new life they will have, those that wait, that wait in Jesus//
//That’s why I sing, I sing hallelujah The heart that worships God cannot be sad//
I first encountered the work of Welsh Catholic artist James Keay-Bright last year at the 8th Catholic Arts Biennial at the Verostko Center for the Arts at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where his Trinity Redemption painting was among the juried selections.
It shows God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit standing one behind the other against a black background, facing forward. They are semi-encompassed by a wave of fire that emanates from the foreground figure’s outstretched hand. Vigorous and bright, it swells up and around the trio, its branching tip reaching like arms into the darkness.
The young African man in front represents the Holy Spirit sending forth his presence, Keay-Bright told me. (The illumination of his face is wonderful!) Jesus Christ is shown as a Middle Eastern boy of about eight years old, while God the Father is modeled after an elderly Aboriginal Australian.
Unable to withstand the tidal wave of divine light, evil retreats into the shadows, symbolized by the satanic figure at the left.
In the Old Testament, fire often signifies the presence of God, as when Moses encounters God in the burning bush (Exod. 3:2), or as with the pillar of fire that leads the Israelites through the wilderness (Exod. 13:21).
In the New Testament, in Acts 2, the Holy Spirit descends like fire on the people who are gathered in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost. This “fire” ignites faith and has a sanctifying effect—purifying us of sin, making us holy.
Last Sunday the church celebrated the Spirit’s historic descent, and this Sunday is marked in liturgical calendars as Trinity Sunday. One of the scripture readings in the Revised Common Lectionary comes from Romans 5: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. . . . And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (vv. 1–2, 5). This passage describes the combined activity of the Triune God in bringing about salvation.
Commenting on his painting, Keay-Bright told me, “It’s about cycles of redemption. We respond to God’s call but then fall away. But we can always come back.” God’s “spirit and grace” are constantly extended to us, he says. The fire of divine love is always going out, sweeping through the world to reclaim and restore.
Keay-Bright is interested in non-Caucasian representations of biblical figures. That desire has sprung in part from his international humanitarian work, in which he has encountered the sacred through people of various races and ethnicities. He has worked with refugees in the Balkans, Uganda, and Algeria—first through an NGO and later through the UN Refugee Agency. This month he is traveling to Rwanda to serve refugees from Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
PRAYER COMPILATION: “Prayers for a Violent World” by W. David O. Taylor: “How exactly do we pray in the aftermath of violence? What words should we put on our lips? What can the whole people of God say ‘amen’ to and what might only one of us be able to say amen to in good conscience? These questions are, of course, far from easy to answer, but over the past couple of years I have attempted to give language to such matters and I have included here a number of those prayers, in the hope that they might prove useful, and perhaps comforting, to people who face the terrors and traumas of violent activities on a regular basis.” Included are prayers After a Mass Shooting, Against Bloodthirstiness, For Loving a Hurting Neighbor, For Enemies, For Bitter Lament, For Peace in a Time of War, For Those Who Weary of Doing Justice, and more.
Here’s Taylor’s Prayer of Allegiance to the Prince of Peace:
O Lord, you who deserve all our loyalties, we pledge allegiance this day to the Lamb of God and to the upside-down Kingdom for which he stands, one holy nation under God, the Servant King and the Prince of Peace, with liberty and justice for all without remainder. We pray this in the name of the Holy Trinity. Amen.
>> Sorrow’s Got a Hold on Me by Paul Zach: On May 20, singer-songwriter Paul Zachwrote on his Instagram, “My new album of thirteen sad church songs is out today! Many of these songs were written right after one of my weekly EMDR therapy sessions, as I have been working through the sorrow, trauma, and grief of the past few years. I’m learning to bring all of myself to God in prayer and songwriting, which includes my sorrow and anger. I’ve always heard that God shows up in a unique way in times of grief but that has not been my experience. These songs are an invitation for the ‘man of sorrows’ to join me in my grief.”
Zach often writes collaboratively (including as part of the Porter’s Gate! see below), and the cowriters on some of the songs here are Kate Bluett, Latifah Alattas (Page CXVI), Nick Chambers, Orlando Palmer (IAMSON), Jessica Fox, Alex Johnson, and Philip Zach. There are also a few guest vocalists.
Besides “Brother Sun,” my favorite tracks are “Satisfied,” a prayer that we would stop seeking to build our wealth (a motive that drives a lot of environmental injustices) and instead be grateful for God’s provision; “The Kingdom Is Coming,” a marchlike call-and-response song that rallies us to pray, wait, and work for an end to creation’s groaning; and “Water to Wine,” which wonders at the miraculous process of planting and growing grapes for harvest. There’s also “All Creatures Lament,” a minor-key arrangement of “All Creatures of Our God and King” with new lyrics that enjoin the animals to mourn habitat loss, air pollution, and other results of humans’ power abuses and irresponsible stewardship.
To learn more about the album, listen to this great interview with Porter’s Gate cofounder and producer Isaac Wardell; it’s from the RESOUNDworship Songwriting Podcast, hosted by Joel Payne. Wardell discusses the vision for Climate Vigil Songs, and especially the difficulty, with thematic albums, of avoiding the pitfalls of being too heavy-handed with the messaging on the one hand, and on the other, being so vague that people don’t see the connection. There’s also a need for tonal balance, and for songs that fill different functions.
We wanted to write for this album at least three different kinds of songs. One kind is essentially songs of lament—songs lamenting the state of creation because of human sin and the brokenness of the world. Secondly, we wanted to write hopeful, you might even call them eschatological, songs—songs that are joyful, that are about this is the world that God has made, this is God’s creative work, this is how God calls us into his creative work. . . . And lastly, we wanted to write mobilization songs—songs that have some kind of an ethical component of calling people to action in some way. . . . We want to make sure the record is not too much of a downer, like all lament songs; we want to make sure that it’s not too much of a happy-clappy “Isn’t creation beautiful!”; and we also don’t want to let it just delve into being a 100 percent political action record. . . . We want to balance those things.
Wardell also talks about the group’s collaborative songwriting approach (including all the theological and editorial work that’s put in), Te Fiti’s stolen (and later, restored) heart in Disney’s Moana, personified nature in the Psalms, creation as an experiencer of the fall and redemption, the role of provocation in church, and biblical imagery he wishes they could have included on the album but had to leave out for length.
POEM + CHORAL SETTING: “when god decided to invent” by E. E. Cummings: “Here’s a brief powerhouse of a poem from E. E. Cummings, two stanzas that draw a sharp distinction between God’s inventive, joyful creativity on the one hand, and our too-frequent turn toward violence on the other. As the mass shootings in Buffalo, Uvalde, and elsewhere continue to reverberate, Cummings’ poem helps us feel and think about what’s at stake – and what the way forward looks like.”
SALT Project reproduces the poem, provides brief commentary, and links to a musical setting by Joshua Shank—a composition for SATB, soprano saxophone, and finger cymbals that premiered in 2005. Shank says the arc of his piece is creation-destruction-recreation. “This final chord is the creator taking control of the creation again.”
“It’s easy to think of John Donne’s life falling neatly into two parts: the worldly man, and the spiritual seeker; the lover of women, and the lover of God; Catholic, then Protestant; before Anne, and after Anne; love poet, and religious poet. But life is rarely that clear. And rather, it’s the tension between these dynamics of him that gives birth to so much of his work.”—Pádraig Ó Tuama
“There’s an assumption that a poet working in this territory is sure of their ground and knows what they’re writing about. I don’t think that’s ever true, because why would you write the poems, if that were true? You’d just bathe in your certainty! The whole act of sitting down to write a poem is not to dress up something you already know in a way that makes it an enticing package for other people to be convinced by—and if you attempted that, it’s going to fall like the deadest thing on the page. Making a poem is an exploratory process. You don’t know where it’s going to end when you start it.”—Michael Symmons Roberts
As Luke records in Acts 2, ten days after Jesus ascended to heaven, during the feast of Shavuot, the Holy Spirit manifested as “tongues of fire” and descended on Jesus’s apostles, filling them with power before the multitudes that had gathered. Peter preaches this as a fulfillment of the prophet Joel: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams . . .” (Acts 2:17; cf. Joel 2:28).
As geographically and linguistically diverse pilgrims embraced the good news of Christ that day and carried it back to their homes, God’s Spirit spread throughout the ancient Near East and from there to other parts of the world, such that Christianity is the most global and multicultural religion. The fire that fell that one Sunday in Jerusalem has spread exponentially! First it caught the Twelve, and then some three thousand witnesses, and it’s been burning ever since.
Consider this untitled poem by Theodore Roszak*:
Unless the eye catch fire The God will not be seen Unless the ear catch fire The God will not be heard Unless the tongue catch fire The God will not be named Unless the heart catch fire The God will not be loved Unless the mind catch fire The God will not be known
In it the physical senses are ignited, as are the emotions and the intellect. The whole person—body, spirit, and soul—is set on fire. Sounds Pentecostal, no? With echoes of Moses’s meeting God in a burning bush on Mount Horeb (Exod. 2), as revelation is key.
Slowly read each of the five couplets, one at a time, considering how God makes himself known through that faculty. Ponder what it means for the eye to “catch fire,” the ear to catch fire, and so on. What does that image evoke?
Fire shows up a lot in the work of Indian Christian artist Jyoti Sahi, as in his painting Holding the Flame of Fire, which shows a pair of hands cradling a flame that fans out in bright oranges and yellows, forming a mandala (Sanskrit “circle”). Perhaps you see licking tongues, or dove’s wings, or I AM calling out from a blazing shrub.
This painting was inspired by aarti, a ritual expression of love and gratitude to a deity that originated and is widely practiced in Hinduism but that has been adapted by some Christians in South India. (Sahi demonstrated it to me in a Christian chapel in Bengaluru when I visited him a few years ago.) A lit oil or ghee lamp is placed on a tray, Sahi explains, “where different offerings are arranged representing the senses, such as flowers related to sight, incense sticks in relation to smell, water and fruit in a bowl in relation to taste, and earth and ash in relation to touch.” The priest or householder waves the tray in a clockwise motion, then brings it around from person to person, each of whom cups the flame with their hands and then touches their forehead, seeking divine blessing. Aarti is often accompanied by singing and can be performed at home or in public places of worship.
How awesome is it that the Spirit of God, the living flame, moves among us—even abides within us! The Spirit stirs, illuminates, regenerates, sanctifies, guides, comforts, intercedes, and empowers. What a gift.
* Note on authorship: This poem appears in Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Postindustrial Society by Theodore Roszak (Doubleday, 1972) as the epigraph to chapter 9, “Mind on Fire: Notes on Three Old Poets.” While Roszak provides attributions for all the other epigraphs in the book, he does not for this one, leading me to believe that the verse either originated with him or is from an unknown source. It is often misattributed to William Blake—probably because Roszak’s chapter focuses on Blake, in addition to Wordsworth and Goethe—but I confirmed with multiple Blake scholars that these lines are not Blake’s. P. K. Page wrote a short story in 1979 titled “Unless the Eye Catch Fire,” citing Roszak as the title’s source.