Loved (Artful Devotion)

Bonnard, Pierre_The Open Window
Pierre Bonnard (French, 1867–1947), The Open Window, 1921. Oil on canvas, 46 1/2 × 37 3/4 in. (118.1 × 95.9 cm). Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.

—Psalm 90:14

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SONG: “Oh to Be Loved” by Thad Cockrell, on To Be Loved (2009)


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

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 25, cycle A, click here.

Roundup: CIVA art auction, lament album, Kaphar and “things unseen,” empathy

Several readers have asked if there’s a way to donate to the work of this blog. After much thought I’ve decided to go ahead and add a Donation page, where those who wish to send a small financial gift to support the blog’s upkeep and development can do so through PayPal if they feel so inclined. Thank you!

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CIVA ART AUCTION, November 13–15, 2020: In a few weeks CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts) is hosting an online auction of art created and/or donated by CIVA members. The lots comprise a range of media, sizes, and styles—a little something for everyone. It’s a great way to support artists of faith (by supporting CIVA), and to acquire beautiful art for your home!

The first artwork I ever purchased was through a CIVA auction: a linocut by Steve Prince, who has three new works up for bid this year. Sandra Bowden has donated several works from her extensive and esteemed collection of religious art, including an Adoration of the Magi lithograph by the major modern artist Otto Dix and a mola (handmade textile) from Panama, which I’m eyeing. I also noticed 40 Days, Forty Sacraments, a set of gouaches painted by Kari Dunham over the course of Lent one year as a way to rediscover beauty in the ordinary. And a mixed-media piece by Joseph di Bella, whose theme of redemption is underscored by the making of the substrate, which consists of “failed and unfinished works on paper” that “are destroyed, then reformed into new, yet still imperfect sheets.”

Steve Prince, Faith Walk. Linocut, 12 × 9 in. “Shows a woman walking in faith while the ancestors encourage, uplift, and guide her along the way.”

Jehovah Is My Light (Panama)
Jehova es mi luz (Jehovah Is My Light), San Blas Islands, Panama, 1980s. Reverse embroidery, 14 × 17 1/2 in.

di Bella, Joseph_Tree Parables (Generations)
Joseph di Bella, Tree Parables (Generations), 2017. Gouache, dry pigment, and ashes on handmade paper, 38 1/2 × 30 1/2 × 1 1/2 in. (framed).

If you plan on bidding, be sure to register; you will be able to see all the other bids and can set up notifications. And if you don’t win, don’t be discouraged: you can always go to the artist’s website, and there will likely be other works available for purchase there.

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ALBUM: Daughter Zion’s Woe: Produced by Rachel Wilhelm and released last month by Cardiphonia, this new album features thirteen lament songs written, arranged, and performed by women. It will be available on Spotify after Christmas, but until then, all Bandcamp sales benefit Hagar’s Sisters, an organization that serves victims of domestic violence. My favorite song on the album is “The Glory Shall Be Thine” by Christy Danner, a retuning of the late nineteenth-century “Transformed” by F. G. Burroughs (pseudonym for Ophelia Burroughs, later Adams, née Browning); this hymn text is completely new to me, and what a gem! Danner’s music really draws out its poignancy. Other highlights include Eden Wilhelm’s “Lord, Draw Near” (Psalm 88), Sister Sinjin’s “Silence,” and Lo Sy Lo’s “Let It Be So” (Psalm 12).

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EXHIBITION: The Evidence of Things Unseen by Titus Kaphar, October 16–November 28, 2020, former Église du Gesù, Brussels: Titus Kaphar’s [previously] art, which reinterprets traditional Anglo-centric imagery through a Black lens, has grown out of his “spending time in European museums and longing for pictures that looked like they actually made space for individuals that look like me.” In this new exhibition, staged by the Maruani Mercier gallery in a deconsecrated church in Belgium, Kaphar revises Christian paintings by silhouetting, covering in tar, or duct-taping over likenesses of white Jesus, drawing attention to unseen people and narratives. The exhibition’s title is taken from Hebrews 11:1.

Kaphar, Titus_Untitled (Entombment)
Titus Kaphar, Untitled, 2020. Oil and tar on canvas. Photo courtesy Maruani Mercier.

The press release reads: “It is virtually impossible to tell the story of Renaissance art without an exploration of Christianity. While the personal faith of the individual artist varied from devotee to atheist opportunist, the largest patron of the arts was the Church, and Catholic iconography the artist’s lingua franca. . . .

“In The Evidence of Things Unseen, Kaphar utilizes Catholic iconography as a ground on which to explore ideas beyond simple proselytization. Kaphar utilizes his whole vocabulary of formal innovation in this exhibition: canvases aggressively fold, crumple, undulate, and project from the wall, forcing themselves into the space of the viewer. Through Kaphar’s physical interventions, works like Susan and the Elders and Eve exist as bodies transformed into landscape and typography rather than polite easel paintings. In Jesus Noir Kaphar duct-tapes a portrait of a young black man over the face of Christ. Christ’s outstretched right hand, originally pointing to the heavens, now appears as a plea for help. The application of duct tape – a utilitarian material known to be used in all kinds of industrial and household repairs – suggest urgency and impermanence.

“Even though many biblical stories take place in the Middle East and Africa, representations of Christ and his followers are almost always depicted as European. It is not surprising that the devoted attempt to see themselves in the stories of the Bible, and to envision a Christ they can recognize: Christian tradition teaches that mankind was created in God’s own ‘image and likeness.’ And yet, religious paintings from the Renaissance unwittingly oversimplify an understanding of God by excluding a part of his creation. There are no black angels of the Renaissance. The Evidence of Things Unseen is Kaphar’s latest attempt at revision.”

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ANIMATED SHORT: “Brené Brown on Empathy”: In this 2013 video from the RSA (Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), Katy Davis animates an excerpt from a talk by Professor Brené Brown, “The Power of Vulnerability.” “The Webby Award-winning RSA Shorts animation series provides a snapshot of a big idea, blending voices from the RSA Public Events Programme and the creative talents of illustrators and animators from around the world. It responds to the ever-increasing need for new ideas and inspiration in our busy lives and acts as a jolt of ‘mental espresso’ that will awaken the curiosity in all of us. If you’re interested in the opportunity of animating one of our Shorts, please email your bio and links to your portfolio to shorts@rsa.org.uk.” Other RSA shorts include Jonathan Haidt on Why We’re Convinced We’re Right, David Brooks on Character in a Selfie Age, and David Graeber on the Value of Work.

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PANEL DISCUSSION: “Perspectives on Empathy and the Arts”: In 2017 Roots of Empathy brought together a panel of three—Cameron Bailey, artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF); Martha Durdin, chair of the board of trustees of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM); and Raymond Mar, professor of psychology at York University—to discuss the connection between art and empathy and why it’s so important. The conversation is moderated by Mary Ito. I especially appreciated from 42:32 onward.

4:10: Children who take acting lessons are more prosocial and empathetic
5:48: Films and empathy
9:34: Fiction and empathy
12:42: Moonlight (2016)
21:54: Learning from mistakes: Into the Heart of Africa (1989) and point of view
28:38: Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano (2015)
30:37: Forced assimilation of Native people in church-run residential schools
31:18: Can art museums institutionalize empathy?
34:48: How does me empathizing with a character in a book or a painted figure translate to me being empathetic to actual people?
39:05: Superhero comics and movies
41:22: Are we suffering from an empathy deficit?
44:37: Empathy for ideological opponents
46:10: Where does empathy run up against morality/ethics? Are we to empathize with abusers?
46:56: How do we do better through the arts?

Hidden in the Cleft (Artful Devotion)

Living in the side-hole
Moravian devotional image by Marianne von Watteville, 18th century. Embroidery and watercolor on cardstock, 11 × 16 cm. Unity Archives, Herrnhut, Germany.

Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” And [the LORD] said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” And the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”

—Exodus 33:18–23 (emphasis added)

Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock.

—Numbers 20:10–11

Our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.

—1 Corinthians 10:1b–4

O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the crannies of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.

—Song of Solomon 2:14

But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.

—John 19:34

Exodus 33:12–23 is assigned in Sunday’s lectionary; the other Bible passages I’ve added because I want to show how an intertextual reading yielded our song of the week.

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HYMN: “I Thirst, Thou Wounded Lamb of God” (Ach! mein verwundter Fürste!) | Words by Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, Anna Nitschmann, and Johann Nitschmann, 1735; English translation by John Wesley, 1740 | Music by Bethany Brooks, 1997 | Performed by Bethany Brooks on the Cardiphonia compilation album Songs for the Lord’s Supper, 2011 (also on Quarry Street Hymnal, vol. 1, 2012)

I thirst, thou wounded Lamb of God,
to wash me in thy cleansing blood,
to dwell within thy wounds; then pain is
sweet, and life or death is gain.

Take my poor heart and let it be
forever closed to all but thee!
Seal thou my breast and let me wear
that pledge of love forever there.

How blest are they who still abide
close sheltered in thy bleeding side,
who life and strength from thence derive,
and by thee move, and in thee live.

What are our works but sin and death
’til thou thy quick’ning Spirit breathe?
Thou giv’st the power thy grace to move;
O wondrous grace! O boundless love!

Hence our hearts melt, our eyes o’erflow,
our words are lost; nor will we know,
nor will we think of ought beside
my Lord, my Love, is crucified.

Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, one of the authors of this German hymn, was the leader, patron, and protector of the Moravian Church from 1727 to 1760 and its major theologian and liturgist. Anna Nitschmann was chief eldress in the church since age fourteen, serving as spiritual mentor to female congregants, and a missionary for a time to the Native Americans of Pennsylvania and New York; she married Zinzendorf in 1757, but both of them died within a couple of years. Johann Nitschmann was Anna’s brother.

John Wesley, who translated “I Thirst” into English just a few years after it was written, was well acquainted with the Moravians. His journal, covering the years 1736–38, is full of comments and observations about them, starting with a transatlantic sea voyage he was on, during which a storm arose, and everyone panicked, except the Moravians, who sang hymns of praise and prayed with great calm. When he returned to London he attended a Moravian meeting in Aldersgate Street, where he experienced an evangelical conversion. After that he joined the Moravian society in Fetter Lane and in August 1738 traveled to the denomination’s headquarters in Herrnhut, Germany, to study. He corresponded with Zinzendorf, and the two met face to face on more than one occasion. In late 1779 he broke with the Moravians and soon after founded Methodism, greatly influenced by Moravian pietism.

Eighteenth-century Moravians were fascinated with Jesus’s wounds, especially his “little side hole” (where a Roman soldier pierced him on the cross to confirm he was dead), which they described as “warm,” “hot,” “beautiful,” “sweet,” and “today still open.” They wrote hymns about the side wound and created side-wound art—indeed, centered much of their devotional practice on it. As one hymn goes, “Dearest Side-hole! I do covet thy warm Blood above all Things. O thou art the most beloved of all other Wound-hole-Springs. Side-hole’s Blood, bedew me! Cover and go thro’ me! Take thy Course thro’ all my Veins, Heart and Reins, so that nought unbath’d remains.” “I Thirst” is comparatively mild (though granted, I couldn’t find the German original).

Historically, much Christian hymnody and art have fixated on the blood and woundedness of Jesus, but Zinzendorf and his followers took it to another level. To them such graphic imagery was not morbid but comforting and affective. Even I, who have a low tolerance for blood and gore, find myself strangely compelled by this devotional language and visuality of the womblike side wound.

“I Thirst, Thou Wounded Lamb of God” is one of many Moravian hymns that picture Jesus’s side wound as a shelter, a place of refuge where the blessed enter into and reside. “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me,” written some forty years later by the Anglican cleric Augustus Toplady, is a more widely sung hymn that employs similar imagery—so, too, the less explicit and far less poetic “He Hideth My Soul” by Fanny Crosby.

Moses’s being hidden away in the cleft of a rock so that he can glimpse a glimmer of God’s glory is partly in view, in an implied way, in “I Thirst.” The Song of Songs also refers to “the cleft of a rock”—to a dove, a beloved, nesting there; a lot of Christian commentators read the rock as Christ and the dove as his church, sheltered in his torn flesh (his body was cleft by the spear). Added to the hermeneutical mix is the Numbers passage of water from the rock: during Israel’s desert wanderings, Moses strikes a rock and water streams forth to quench the people’s thirst. (Like Jesus, the rock was beaten, giving issue to a river of life.)

All these biblical stories and images come together to create a constellation of meaning.

(Related post: “Our Sweet, Travailing Mother Christ,” on a Bible moralisée illumination of the birth of Ecclesia)

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Living in the side-hole

The mixed-media needlework reproduced here, from the Unitätsarchiv in Herrnhut, is by an eighteenth-century Swiss German woman named Marianne von Watteville. In embroidery and watercolor, she shows a rocky hillock topped with grass and flowers, into which a little cave is carved, which is Christ’s side wound. She kneels inside the wound in prayer and is showered by the blood of Christ. The inscription on the lip of the wound reads, “O, I rejoice, I rejoice so much that I have found the sea from the wound, where I am a blessed little sinner. I have everything.”

For further reading:


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

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 24, cycle A, click here.

An Affirmation of Faith

Painting by Jyoti Sahi
Painting by Jyoti Sahi, based on John 20:22

We believe in Jesus Christ,
our savior and liberator,
the expression of God’s redeeming
and restoring love,
the mark of humanness,
source of courage, power, and love,
God of God,
light of light,
ground of our humanity.

We believe that God resides in slums,
lives in broken homes and hearts,
suffers our loneliness, rejection, and powerlessness.

But through death and resurrection
God gives life, pride, and dignity,
provides the content of our vision,
offers the context of our struggle,
promises liberation
to the oppressor and the oppressed,
hope to those in despair.

We believe in the activity of the Holy Spirit
who revives our decaying soul,
resurrects our defeated spirits,
renews our hope of wholeness,
and reminds us of our responsibility
in ushering in God’s new order here and now.

This affirmation of faith originally appeared in the December 1986 issue of iGi, a publication of the Asian Women’s Resource Centre for Culture and Theology. Used by permission.

Remember Me (Artful Devotion)

Picasso, Pablo_The Old Guitarist
Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973), The Old Guitarist, 1904. Oil on panel, 48 3/8 × 32 1/2 in. (122.9 × 82.6 cm). Art Institute of Chicago.

Remember me, O LORD, with the favour that thou bearest unto thy people: O visit me with thy salvation.

—Psalm 106:4 (KJV)

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SONG: “Sing Your Song Over Me / Do Lord, Remember” by Tim Coons, on Potomac (2012)

In his Potomac album, Tim Coons combines American folk songs—mostly African American spirituals, blues, and gospel—with originals in the same track. Track 4 is based on “Do Lord,” Roud 11971. I actually learned this spiritual not in church but in Girl Scouts! Notable recordings include those by Mississippi John Hurt [previously] and Johnny Cash.

More recently Tim has been working on collaborations with his wife Betony, a visual artist, under the name Giants and Pilgrims [previously].

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The Art Institute of Chicago, which owns Picasso’s The Old Guitarist, writes,

Pablo Picasso made The Old Guitarist while working in Barcelona. In the paintings of his Blue Period (1901–04), the artist restricted himself to a cold, monochromatic blue palette, flattened forms, and emotional, psychological themes of human misery and alienation related to the work of such artists as Edvard Munch and Paul Gauguin. The elongated, angular figure of the blind musician also relates to Picasso’s interest in Spanish art and, in particular, the great 16th-century artist El Greco. The image reflects the twenty-two-year-old Picasso’s personal struggle and sympathy for the plight of the downtrodden; he knew what it was like to be poor, having been nearly penniless during all of 1902.


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

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 23, cycle A, click here.

“Annunciation” by Vinícius de Moraes

Montevideo
Virgin! Daughter of mine
Where have you been
You’re all dirty
You smell of jasmine
Your skirt’s stained carmine
And your earrings are clinking
Tlintlintlin?
Mother dear
I’ve been in the garden
I went to look at the sky
And I fell asleep.
When I awoke
I smelled of jasmine
An angel was scattering petals
Over me . . .

Translated from the Portuguese by Natalie d’Arbeloff, from Annunciation: Sixteen Contemporary Poets Consider Mary, ed. Elizabeth Adams (Montreal: Phoenicia, 2015). Used by permission of the translator. (Read the poem in its original language.)

Jasmine tree (Photo: Raita Futo)

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Vinícius de Moraes (1913–1980) was a Brazilian poet, lyricist, essayist, playwright, and diplomat who contributed to the birth of bossa nova music. Natalie d’Arbeloff (b. 1929) is a London-based painter, printmaker, cartoonist, and maker of artist’s books, born in Paris of French and Russian parents; she has also lived in Mexico, Paraguay, Brazil, Italy, and the United States.

“Annunciation” takes as its subject the teenage Mary’s mystical encounter with an angel (Luke 1:26–38), after which she becomes pregnant with the Son of God. Moraes sets the event in Montevideo, Uruguay, imagining a dialogue, after the fact, between Mary and her mother.

The central image of scattered jasmine petals is a lovely inversion of the “deflowering” euphemism for first-time sex. In the Holy Spirit’s coming upon her to conceive Jesus, Mary was flowered—her prime beauty bestowed, not (if we were to use the outdated, sexist metaphor) taken away.

While Christianity maintains that Mary remained a virgin at least until Jesus’s birth, her becoming pregnant marked her physically, indelibly. Moraes goes so far as to suggest there was a tearing of the hymen—hence her red-stained skirt, which I read as blood. However, his retelling is nonliteral, more in the mode of magic realism, so there’s no need to get all clinical or to try to “explain” the imagery. It’s dreamlike.

The Gospel-writer suggests that Mary interacted with the angel Gabriel in a vision (i.e., a waking dream), but in Moraes’s poem the primary interaction takes place during sleep. In her dream, Mary hears the divine call and consents to its demands, and when she awakes, like in the movies, a material manifestation of the spiritual experience is there to tell her it was real: she is covered in sweet-smelling jasmine.

What is your reaction to or interpretation of the poem?

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Annunciation-themed posts from the Art & Theology archives include:

Roundup: Jewish prayer song, stolen paintings, graphic novels by John Lewis, and new VCS videos

SONG: “Ahavat Olam”: Back in April the Platt Brothers—Jonah, Henry, and Ben—posted a home-recorded video of themselves singing this traditional Jewish prayer arranged by Gabriel Mann and Piper Rutman. (I know actor-singer Ben Platt from The Politician, which is probably how the video came to be recommended to me by YouTube!)

It stoked a lot of public enthusiasm, so on September 21 they released a studio recording, available for streaming and download from all major music platforms.

A translation of the Hebrew is as follows:

With an eternal love have You loved your people Israel, by teaching us the Torah and its commandments, laws, and precepts. Therefore, Adonai our God, we shall meditate on Your laws when we lie down and when we rise up, and we shall rejoice in the words of Your Torah and Your commandments forever. For they are our life and the length of our days, and we shall reflect upon them day and night.

O may You never remove Your love from us. Blessed are You, Adonai, Who loves your people Israel. [source]

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PIANO CONCERTO: Tomás de Merlo by Xavier Beteta: In February 2014 six religious paintings by the early eighteenth-century Guatemalan painter Tomás de Merlo were stolen from a church in Antigua. Although the thieves have been caught, the paintings have disappeared into the black market and have likely been smuggled out of the country. Wanting to preserve the essence of the paintings in music, Guatemalan composer Xavier Beteta wrote a piano concerto whose three movements, titled after the stolen paintings, are “La Oración en el Huerto” (The Prayer in the Garden), “La Piedad” (The Pietà), and “El Rey de Burlas” (The Mocking of Christ). Beteta said he may eventually compose three additional movements, one for each of the other three lost paintings.

Tomás de Merlo (Guatemalan, 1694–1739), El Rey de Burlas (aka La Coronación de Espinas), 1737

Last year the Camellia Symphony Orchestra in Sacramento, California, premiered the concerto. Listen to excerpts, interspersed with interview clips of the composer by Josh Rodriguez, in the video below—which is itself excerpted from the Deus Ex Musica podcast episode “How Stolen Sacred Paintings Inspired a New Piano Concerto.”

See photos of the other paintings at https://www.soy502.com/articulo/capturan-dos-robo-valiosas-obras-iglesia-calvario.

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DOCUMENTARY: The Painter and the Thief (2020), dir. Benjamin Ree: A story of crime and trauma, love and redemption, this documentary follows Oslo-based Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova as she confronts one of the men, Karl-Bertil Nordland, who stole two of her most prized paintings. A mutual friendship develops, and it’s so beautiful to watch.

What I love about the film is how it captures the rehabilitation of both subjects—in a way that honors the complexity, the nonlinearity of that process—and the role art can play in healing. “Barbar” forgives “the Bertilizer” and helps him on his road to sobriety, and he helps her access deep parts of herself and come to grips with the history of abuse she’s suffered. They become, in a sense, each other’s muses. His stunned, tearful reaction when he sees the first portrait she paints of him melted me—someone sees him for the first time.

With documentaries I always wonder who’s the person making it and why. I had cynically assumed the project was instigated by the artist to try to vitalize her career, but no, the filmmaker, who has had an ongoing interest in art theft, contacted Kysilkova after reading about the gallery break-in in the news. As is true with most documentarians, he had no idea when he started filming that the story would evolve the way it did and shift genres, and even become feature-length. Streaming on Hulu.

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INTERVIEW: In 2016 Adelle M. Banks of the Religion News Service interviewed Rep. John Lewis about the National Book Award–winning graphic novel trilogy March, the role of music and religious faith in the civil rights movement, protest (and getting into “good trouble”) as a form of Christian ministry, the urgent need for the church to be a headlight, not a taillight, and more.

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VCS VIDEO EXHIBITION SERIES: The Visual Commentary on Scripture [previously] is an online, open-access resource for those looking to explore the biblical text through art. For every passage of scripture, an art historian, artist, theologian, media theorist, or other is solicited to select and comment on three art images that illuminate the text in some way. The site’s typical format is written commentaries, but by way of experimentation, the VCS has just released video commentaries instead for four new texts. Ben Quash comments on the story of Lot’s Wife through the lens of an early English stained glass panel, a Flemish Renaissance landscape, and a stunning photograph taken after the Allied bombing of Dresden. For Belshazzar’s Feast from the book of Daniel, Michelle Fletcher is guided by paintings from the Dutch Golden Age and the English Romantic period, which she juxtaposes with a contemporary room installation. But here I’ll highlight the videos for two New Testament passages.

The Burial of Christ, with commentary by Italian Renaissance art expert Jennifer Sliwka [previously], covers Andrea Mantegna’s innovatively foreshortened Christ on a marble slab; an altarpiece painting by Michelangelo, in which Christ’s dead body is held up for display, evoking the presentation of the eucharistic host; and a contemporary Pietà, of sorts, by Swiss artist Urs Fischer, which involves a skeleton and a fountain.

Michelle Fletcher, a feminist scholar and specialist on the book of Revelation, comments on the controversial apocalyptic figure known as The Whore of Babylon, which she discusses as a symbol of a city, as a satirization of the goddess Roma, and as bequeathing a legacy of vilification of prostitutes. Fletcher selected a didactic painting by street evangelist Robert Roberg, an ancient Roman coin, and William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress.

Determined (Artful Devotion)

Anderson, Akili Ron_Space Face
Space Face by Akili Ron Anderson (American, 1946–)

Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

—Philippians 3:13b–14

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SONG: “I’m Determined to Run This Race” by Rev. James Cleveland, 1953 | Performed by the Meditation Singers, 1962


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

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 22, cycle A, click here.

“A Wild Turn” by Donelle Dreese (excerpts)

Gestel, Leo_Autumn
Leo Gestel (Dutch, 1881–1941), Autumn, 1909. Oil on canvas, 53.5 × 61 cm. Museum Kranenburgh, Bergen, Netherlands. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

You, Sunshine,
strand of pearls,
lay yourself down
on a country pond
one at a time
. . . . . . . . . . .
You, Sunshine,
bountiful benefactor,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
dangle your golden earrings
never grow old
teach me to roam.

This poem is published in A Wild Turn (Finishing Line Press, 2008), http://donelledreese.com/.

“Turn Back, O Man” as motet and showtune

Early this week I was searching the Hymnary database for hymns based on or referent to Sunday’s lectionary reading from Ezekiel 18, where God calls on his people to “repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin” (v. 30b), and the very similar passage later in the book: “As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek. 33:11).

One of the search results was “Turn Back, O Man” by the English poet and playwright Clifford Bax. Written in 1916, it doesn’t explicitly reference World War I, but it’s likely that that was the intended subtext.

Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways.
Old now is earth, and none may count her days,
Yet thou, its child, whose head is crowned with flame,
Still wilt not hear thine inner God proclaim,
“Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways.”
 
Earth might be fair, and people glad and wise.
Age after age their tragic empires rise,
Built while they dream, and in that dreaming weep.
Would they but wake from out their haunted sleep,
Earth shall be fair, and people glad and wise.
 
Earth shall be fair, and all its people one,
Nor till that hour shall God’s whole will be done!
Now, even now, once more from earth to sky
Peals forth in joy the old, undaunted cry,
“Earth shall be fair, and all its people one.”

The tune it’s set to in hymnals, OLD 124TH, is by Louis Bourgeois and is from the 1551 edition of the Genevan Psalter. Gustav Holst arranged the tune as a motet (a polyphonic, unaccompanied choral composition) in 1916 and in fact is the one who approached Bax with the request for a new text.

Here is a performance by the University of Texas Chamber Singers, from their 2008 album Great Hymns of Faith:

When I read the first line, it sounded familiar, and I was reminded that the song (with a much different tune and style!) opens the second act of Godspell. This 1971 musical created by John-Michael Tebelak and composed by Stephen Schwartz is based on Jesus’s teaching ministry as told in the Gospels, especially Matthew’s. (The show’s title is the archaic English spelling for “gospel.”) In addition to Jesus and John the Baptist/Judas, the cast consists of eight nonbiblical, “holy fool” characters who use their own names and sing and act out the parables and other sayings.

Tebelak, who wrote the play as his master’s thesis at Carnegie Mellon, was studying Greek and Roman mythology when, in his last year at school, he started reading the Christian Gospels in earnest and was enraptured by the joy they exuded and compelled by their emphasis on community. He tells the story of how on March 29, 1970, in pursuit of knowing more, he attended an Easter Vigil service at a church in Pittsburgh, wearing his usual overalls and a T-shirt—and he was frisked for drugs. “I left with the feeling that, rather than rolling the rock away from the Tomb, they were piling more on,” he said. That experience motivated him to write Godspell.

Tebelak’s Godspell was produced at Carnegie Mellon in late fall 1970, featuring an original song by cast member Jay Hamburger (“By My Side”) and a handful of old Episcopal hymns played by a rock band.

After leaving university, Tebelak took the show to New York City, where prospective producers suggested a new score and brought in Stephen Schwartz for the job. The rescored show, which retained Hamburger’s single song contribution, opened May 17, 1971, at the off-Broadway Cherry Lane Theatre and became a hit.

Six of Godspell‘s eighteen song texts, including the chart-topping “Day by Day,” are actually taken straight from the Episcopal Hymnal. Schwartz liked the idea of dusting the cobwebs off some of these stodgy hymns and giving them new melodies with a catchy seventies pop vibe that would leave audiences singing them as they exited the theater.

“Turn Back, O Man” is one of those. It’s sung by Sonia, the sassy character with a put-on sensuality, a role originated by Sonia Manzano (of Sesame Street fame). Here’s the scene from the 1973 film adaptation directed by David Greene, with “Sonia” played by Joanne Jonas:

Isolated from the rest of the musical, this song seems completely irreverent and unbefitting the serious nature of God’s call to repentance. Its zaniness and sense of play, punctuated by Jesus’s pensive delivery of the third verse, is on a par with the tone of the whole—and that unique approach to telling the gospel works, I think, really well overall in Godspell, bringing to mind how “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:25). The characters embody the countercultural aspect of Jesus’s teachings, which appear ridiculous, clownish, to the rest of the world.

“The characters in Godspell were never supposed to be hippies,” Stephen Schwartz clarifies.

They were supposed to be putting on “clown” garb to follow the example of the Jesus character as was conceived by Godspell’s originator, John-Michael Tebelak, according to the “Christ as clown” theory propounded by Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School (among others). . . . Because the show was originally produced in the hippie era, and because the director of the Godspell movie somewhat misinterpreted the characters as hippie-esque, that misunderstanding has come to haunt the show a bit.

In this particular song, performed by a hammy character in a feather boa, the lyrics entreat hearers to give up their “foolish ways,” going on to suggest that what is truly foolish is living as if asleep—building “tragic empires,” chasing empty dreams. Though endowed with the flame of reason and conscience, humanity at large, generation after generation, keeps rejecting God’s will, hence the lack of global unity and gladness.