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.

“Passion” by Gertrud von Le Fort (excerpt)

Duman-Skop, Tetiana_Christ in Blossoming Crown of Thorns
Tetiana Duman-Skop (Ukrainian, 1981–2020), Христос в розквітлому терновому вінку (Christ in a Blossoming Crown of Thorns), 2012. Encaustic on board, 70 × 50 cm.

Your voice speaks to my soul:

Be not afraid of my golden garments, have no fear of the rays of my candles,
For they are all but veils of my love, they are all but as tender hands covering my secret.
I will draw them away, weeping soul, that you may see I am no stranger to you.
How should a mother not resemble her child?
All your sorrows are in me.
I am born out of suffering, I have bloomed out of five holy wounds.
I grew on the tree of humiliation, I found strength in the bitter wine of tears.
I am a white rose in a chalice full of blood.
I live on suffering, I am the strength out of suffering, I am glory out of suffering:
Come to my soul and find your home.

This is section I of the poem “Passion” by Gertrud von Le Fort (1876–1971), translated from the German by Margaret Chanler and published in Hymns to the Church (Sheed and Ward, 1953). The icon is by Tetiana Duman-Skop, who died last year of brain cancer at age thirty-nine.

Roundup: Online literary retreat (Aug. 27), Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor interview, global Marian art, and more

ONLINE LITERARY RETREAT: “The Extraordinary Possibility of Ordinary Time: Retreat with Sarah Arthur,” August 27 (this Friday!), 1–3 p.m. ET: Hosted by Paraclete Press. “Come away for an afternoon of exploration, refreshment, and celebration of Ordinary Time. Sarah Arthur invites you to join her for a deep sip at the well of poetry and literature as devotional reading. Guest poets Luci Shaw and Scott Cairns will also take part in this mini-retreat for lovers of words and Spirit.” The $50 admission price includes a copy of Sarah’s book At the Still Point: A Literary Guide to Prayer in Ordinary Time. I attended her Lent retreat earlier this year and found it very meaningful. Sorry for the short notice.

+++

TRIBUTE: “My Benediction to the Beloved Storyteller Walter Wangerin Jr.” by Philip Yancey: Walter Wangerin Jr. died of cancer on August 5. He was a pastor; a storyteller; a National Book Award–winning author of novels, short stories, and spiritual essays, including The Book of the Dun Cow, The Book of Sorrows, and Ragman: And Other Cries of Faith; and a professor of literature, theology, and creative writing. His friend and fellow writer Philip Yancey has written this nice little tribute to him for Christianity Today.

+++

ONLINE EXHIBITION: A Global Icon: Mary in Context, created by the National Museum of Women in the Arts: Curated by Virginia Treanor, this digital resource was created as an expansion of the in-person exhibition Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea (see catalog), which ran from December 5, 2014, to April 12, 2015. Click through the pages to experience art images with descriptions, videos, and other content having to do with representations of Mary from across the world. The first video in the series is posted below, and here’s a playlist of all seven.

Christian canteen from Iraq
Canteen with Adoration of the Christ Child (detail), Syria or Northern Iraq, mid-13th century. Brass, silver inlay, 17 13/16 × 14 7/16 in. (45.2 × 36.7 cm). Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Click image to see full object.

Virgin and Child, from a Falnama (Book of Divination), Mughal India, ca. 1580. Gouache on cloth, 33.4 × 21.1 cm.

Dehua Madonna and Child
Madonna and Child, Dehua, China, 1690–1710. Porcelain, 15 × 3 1/2 × 3 in. (38.1 × 8.9 × 7.6 cm). Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts, inv. AE85957.

Ethiopian pendant icon
Double Diptych Icon Pendant, Ethiopia, early 18th century. Wood, tempera pigment, string, 3 3/4 × 6 × 5 1/2 in. (9.5 × 15.2 × 14 cm) (open, mounted). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Lady of Sorrows (Italy, 18th c)
Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, Italy, 18th century. Polychromed wood, human hair, 17 3/4 × 17 3/4 × 9 3/4 in. Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels, Inv. FB.514. Photo © RMAH, used with permission.

+++

INTERVIEW (+ upcoming virtual conversation): “A God Who Wails and Dances: A Conversation with Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor”: This interview by Erika Kloss, which appears in the current issue of Image journal (no. 109), is so. good. Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor is the author of the novels Dust and The Dragonfly Sea and award-winning short stories such as “The Weight of Whispers,” as well as the executive director of the Zanzibar International Film Festival. Here she talks about fiction, faith, coffee, and calling colonialism to account. To engage further, you can register for the Image-sponsored online event “The Art of Fiction: A God Who Wails and Dances with Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor,” which takes place September 23 at 3 p.m. ET.

Here’s just a snippet from her conversation with Kloss, where she describes what she would say to those who want nothing to do with Christianity because of all the evil that has been done in its name:

Dare to rescue God as Emmanuel from the dense debris of hubris, and from the weight and stench of whited sepulchers. For it is true, an excess of ghouls have appropriated for themselves the meaning and potency of the revolutionary One who dares to pronounce to humanity, “Love your enemies . . . Do good to those who hate you.”

Why should young people let themselves be revulsed by a legion who never fully entered into the depths of the subversive, seductive, paradigm-dissolving, drinking-and-hanging-out-with-sinners, beautiful, and heroic man-God? Why wouldn’t young people set out to experience for themselves the grand and compelling epic of a creator God in love, who loses his children and the earth to a defiant and rebellious once-beloved prince of light, and who struggles long and hard to regain the humanity he had loved and lost? So passionate and desperate is the creator in this endeavor that he will enter into humanity to try to court and secure these cherished children, even at the risk of his own murder—and even that does not stop the love. A love stronger than death? Don’t we all write anthems, in one form or another, yearning for this?

Let the next generation of seekers . . . visit old worlds that contain the spirit of the faith, not just in the Middle East, but also northern Africa, northern Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia, all those rubbed-out places (that colonialists presumed to suggest they were ‘civilizing’) from which Christianity entered into and transformed Europe and the world. . . . An historical quest for meaning at sites of origins might inspire young people to look again at the call to adventure and transcendent idealism that is the Way.

+++

VIDEO SERIES: How to Read the Bible by BibleProject: “Reading the Bible wisely requires that we learn about the ancient literary styles used by the biblical authors. . . . While the Bible is one unified story, it cannot all be read in the same way. The How to Read the Bible series walks through each literary style found in the Bible to show how each uniquely contributes to the overall story of Scripture.”

Led by Dr. Tim Mackie and Jon Collins, BibleProject is a crowdfunded animation studio that creates videos, podcasts, and small-group curricula. From 2017 to 2020 they executed a series called How to Read the Bible, which is nineteen episodes total. In it they examine the three major literary styles that comprise the Bible: narrative (chronicles, biographies, parables), poetry (celebratory, reflective, erotic, politically resistant, apocalyptic), and prose discourse (laws, sermons, letters). Each style lives by its own rules and structure, and we get into trouble, for example, when we don’t properly understand how metaphor works, or when we don’t recognize that Paul’s epistles were situated in a particular historical context. Here’s one of the videos in the series, on design patterns in biblical narrative:

“And He Shall Give His Angels Charge Over You” by Sharron Singleton

Thompson, Darren_Blonde with Sand
Darren Thompson (American, 1968–), Blonde with Sand, 2019. Oil on wood, 12 × 16 in. (A “blonde with sand” is coffee with cream and sugar.)

The waitress stands over me at 6:00 a.m. with pad
and pen. She recites her litany with weary kindness;
she says orange juice, coffee, two eggs over easy,
says whole wheat toast, marmalade, each word
a wafer I take from her hands and eat.

I stand before the white robed technician, my blouse
draped around my hips. She gently cups my breasts
in her hand, guides me between the cold steel wings
of the machine. It will aim its radiant eye to uncover
whatever mystery might be hidden there.

The beautician holds my head in her hands,
tips it backward over the white chalice of the sink,
sluices warm water through my hair again and again,
smoothing the wings of my emptiness with her fingers
until I am loosened and released.

This poem was originally published in Christianity and the Arts journal in 1999 and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

+++

Taking its title from Psalm 91:11, “And He Shall Give His Angels Charge Over You” by Sharron Singleton expresses gratitude for those who work in the service sector, such as diner servers, mammography technologists, and hairstylists, who care for us through things like a hot cup of coffee, a diagnostic X-ray, or a relaxing shampoo—gifts that should not be taken for granted. The speaker of the poem, in fact, receives them as sacraments of sorts, describing the waitress’s recitation of menu offerings as “a wafer.” Similarly, the mammography tech wears a white robe, like the alb of a priest; she guides and illumines. And at the salon, the sink is like a chalice, a liturgical vessel, holder of the sacred—or a baptismal font; the speaker leaves washed and unburdened, light of spirit.

Singleton’s first full-length poetry collection, Our Hands a Hollow Bowl (Grayson Books, 2018), is an artful celebration of the sacramentality of nature and of everyday life—gardening, peeling potatoes, working, hiking, sex, baseball, waiting in line, watching one’s son hold his son, selling a home full of memories. She also writes tenderly but without sentimentality about her mother and father, reflecting especially on her upbringing in rural Michigan, her mother’s slow death from cancer, and the pain of absence.

Singleton has recently completed the manuscript for her second full-length collection and is in the process of getting it published.

Album recommendation: Mercy by Natalie Bergman

Much has been written about Natalie Bergman’s debut solo album, Mercy, which she self-produced and released May 7 through Third Man Records. Described as “a psychedelic spin on vintage gospel-soul” (Brooklyn Vegan), it comprises twelve original songs that combine praises and intercessions to God with expressions of grief over the recent, sudden death of her dad in a car accident. It’s excellent, and I wish I had time to write about it in more depth. Instead, let me just share four of the music videos Bergman created to coincide with the album, and commend to you the interviews she did with Aquarium Drunkard and Hero magazine, both in which she discusses her Christian faith, her visual and musical influences, and the impetus behind the album.

Natalie Bergman, Mercy

Chicago-bred and Los Angeles–based, Bergman formed a band with her brother Elliot after high school, the psych-pop duo Wild Belle; they eventually signed to Columbia Records, and have toured internationally.

In October 2019, when Wild Belle was getting ready to go onstage at Radio City Music Hall, the siblings learned that their father and stepmother had been killed by a drunk driver. To process her grief, Bergman retreated to the Benedictine Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico’s Chama Valley in February 2020, where she spent time in silence and going to chapel, where the resident monks prayed the Divine Office seven times a day, starting at 4 a.m. The seeds for the album were planted there, as she talked to God and listened.

As evidenced by comments on social media, some people are incredulous that a singer of this status and level of artistry would choose to sing about Jesus in a nonironic way, from a place of genuine faith. Could contemporary Christian music really be this beautiful? Could a sung spirituality that straightforwardly proclaims things like “Jesus is our friend” and “Oh, I need you, Lord” really have a broad appeal, one that extends beyond churchgoers, as Bergman’s music does?

Unwilling to take her new music at face value, some have even suggested that Bergman’s videos are making fun of Christianity, or that she’s using the name “Jesus” as some kind of metaphor. Bunk!

In addition to referring to Mercy as a gospel album, Bergman speaks openly, in secular media, about her love of “traditional praise music” and her desire to share “the good news” and her “testimony”—of hope in the midst of sorrow, of the companionship of Christ, of a Love that calls us home.

  • “I have my own poems that I want to sing about God and about my father . . . my own Psalms.” [source]
  • “I’m a Christian fighting the good fight, and I want that to be the message. I want the message to be love and the goodness of the creator and why we were created.” [source]
  • “I think that God has given me this platform to praise his name in a loving way. I would love this music to work through people and become a sort of healing agent for others.” [source]
  • “I need my art and I need my faith. . . . Faith has become my greatest consolation, and it’s really allowed me to see the light. I think that the relationship between music and faith go hand in hand—one needs the other.” [source]

Because Mercy completely defies the expectations set by the contemporary Christian music industry, on the one hand, and alternative music on the other, it has confounded some listeners. Music podcaster John J. Thompson—rightfully, I think—sees the album as in line with the countercultural Christian music (sometimes referred to as “Jesus Music”) of the 1970s, an association Bergman embraces.

(Related post: “Of pain and praise: Cherry Blossoms by Andy Squyres”)

I see Mercy as a gorgeous (and groovy!) example of moving through grief with hope, clinging unabashedly to God’s promises and inviting others to do the same. Whereas doubt and cynicism seem to be the order of the day in US culture, Bergman demonstrates a trust in the Divine that is childlike but not childish, simple but not simplistic. She confronts the pain of loss while also consenting to the uplift that God brings. She sings praises in the valley, plays in puddles.

Not only do I love Bergman’s sound; I dig her style too! You’ll see what I mean in the music videos below.

Purchase Mercy on Bandcamp, or wherever else you get your music.

“Talk to the Lord”

This is my favorite song on the album, and the video is so enchanting! Bergman designed and made by hand her wardrobe as well as the set pieces. The blocks were inspired partly by Sister Corita Kent, a sixties pop artist and nun, and the banners were prompted by Bergman’s memory of the liturgical banners her mother made for their church growing up.

Bergman also made the kite in the video, which she yokes to her back—a reference, I’m assuming, to Matthew 11:28–30, where Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

In other video segments Bergman dances in the grass wearing a black leotard and a black cardboard cutout around her face with white stripes projecting outward like flower petals or rays of light. This recalls lines from the song: “He who makes the flowers face the sun / And all the creatures sing / He can make the heavens rain . . .” Her mourning is turned to dancing as she lets in the Light.

You can also watch Bergman perform “Talk to the Lord” with the Chicago Children’s Choir as part of GRAMMY.com’s Positive Vibes Only video series. What joy!

“Shine Your Light on Me”

This music video was filmed in 4:3 on television cameras from the 1960s, with an aesthetic inspired by a 1967 performance by Diana Ross and the Supremes. Bergman performs in a beehive hairdo and a vintage mirror dress that reflects the light (“light is the inherent message behind this music,” she says), on a set designed by Hanrui Wang.

The song includes contributions from Elsa Harris and the Larry Landfair Singers, whom Bergman previously sang with at her father’s funeral.

I Will Praise You”

This one has a reggae rhythm.

Home at Last”

“Home at Last” was filmed in and around the historic Lincoln Avenue Methodist Church in the Montecito Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, a Carpenter Gothic and Queen Anne–style building from the turn of the century that is now part of the Heritage Square Museum. Footage of the band inside the sanctuary is intercut with shots of them relaxing in a green space, eating fruit and enjoying one another’s company—a vision of paradise. They’re all dressed in white, per Revelation 7.

Roundup: Call for creation care songs; an ode to red hair; and more

SONGWRITING CONTEST: 2021 Creation Care and Climate Justice Songwriting Contest, sponsored by The Porter’s Gate: “We are working on new worship resources celebrating God’s creation and His call to care for the created world. Over the next year we’ll be writing new songs on this subject and recording them. As part of this project, we are looking for submissions from anyone who would like to write a song or has already written a song on this subject. If you are a songwriter or composer, or if you know a songwriter who would be interested, click on this link for all the details of the contest. Songwriters are invited to submit worship songs related to caring for God’s creation, and we are offering a $500 cash prize to the winner. We’ll also record the winning piece.” No entry fee. Deadline August 30, 2021.

+++

CINEPOEM: “First Grade Activist” – Poem by Nic Sebastian, video by Marie Craven: This 2014 short by Australian filmmaker Marie Craven takes a poem written and read by Nic Sebastian—one of many poems made freely available for “remixing” through the now-defunct Poetry Storehouse—and sets it to moving images and music. About bullying in schools and transforming perceptions, the poem suggests concrete ways to turn a personal attribute that elicits taunts into one that’s praiseworthy, merely by reframing it. It’s an ode to red hair!

Video poetry, sometimes called “cinepoetry,” is a hybrid genre that combines the best of both art forms to make dynamic new works. To explore more, visit Moving Poems, Poetry + Video, filmpoetry.org, and the Film and Video Poetry Society, which is currently accepting submissions for its fourth annual symposium.

+++

NEW SONGS BY IAMSON:

IAMSON is the alias of Orlando Palmer, a Christian singer-songwriter from Richmond, Virginia. Here are two of his recent songs, each of which he invited a friend to perform.

>> “Peace” by IAMSON, performed by Caleb Carroll:

>> “Always with Me (Song for Anxiety)” by IAMSON, Jessica Fox, Paul Zach, and Kate Bluett; performed by IAMSON and Caiah Jones:

(See the original solo recording by IAMSON here.)

+++

PODCAST EPISODE: “Worship and the Formative Power of the Arts” with Dr. W. David O. Taylor, Theology in Motion: An excellent conversation with one of my favorite people! Host Steve Zank, director of theology at the Center for Worship Leadership at Christ College, Concordia University Irvine, talks with liturgical theologian, author, and professor David Taylor about his book Glimpses of the New Creation: Worship and the Formative Power of the Arts, about how the arts help shape individuals and communities, particularly in corporate worship contexts.

They discuss the role of metaphor in the Bible, the unique powers of different art forms, and the ways our aesthetic choices open up and close down opportunities for formation in worship.

I so appreciate Taylor’s ecumenicism. He’s an Anglican priest in the United States but does not prescribe any one “right” way of using the arts in worship. In all his examples from across Christian traditions and even historical eras, he’s keen on exploring what motivates aesthetic choices and the benefits and drawbacks of any given choice. For instance, he compares the experiences of worshipping in a Gothic cathedral versus in a living room; neither one is inherently better than the other, but each setting will inevitably form worshippers in distinct ways. He also compares two songs centered on the idea of God as rescuer: the Gettys’ “In Christ Alone” and Hillsong’s “Oceans”; both have a similar aim but take very different approaches to reach it, and that’s OK.

Lots of great content here, folks, and a great intro to the themes in Taylor’s book.

Object Narratives (Material and Visual Cultures of Religion)

MAVCOR Journal is an open-access, peer-reviewed digital publication published by the Center for the Study of Material and Visual Cultures of Religion at Yale University. Its “Object Narrative” division is for explicating religious images, objects, monuments, buildings, spaces, performances, or sounds in 1500 words or less.

Visual culture encompasses not just “art” but also ephemera and what we might call “kitsch.” Because my field is art, I gravitate more to research in that vein, which is reflected in the five object narratives I’ve selected to highlight below. In addition to describing the object’s content, each writer also addresses, if applicable, its liturgical or devotional uses and includes relevant historical or cultural context. Click on the links to read more, and spend some time perusing the other offerings on MAVCOR’S website, https://mavcor.yale.edu.

“Christ Crucified in the Gellone Sacramentary” by Lawrence Nees: This eighth-century manuscript illumination from the Frankish kingdom of Charlemagne is one of the earliest surviving images of Jesus on the cross, its viewership restricted to clergy. “He is . . . shown as if nailed to a cross, but this is no wooden cross and indeed no cross at all. It is colored deep blue, studded with white and red flower-like shapes suggesting stars, and indeed it actually is the letter T of the opening words of the Canon of the Mass, the consecration of bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ, in the Latin version here ‘Te igitur clementissime Pater . . . rogamus’ (‘Therefore we beseech Thee, most merciful Father’) . . .”

Crucifixion (Sacramentary of Gellone)
Crucifixion from the Gellone Sacramentary (Latin 12048, fol. 143v), made in France, ca. 790. Housed at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.

+++

“Kongo Triple Crucifix” by Cécile Fromont: The west central African kingdom of Kongo, which emerged in the fourteenth century, declared Christianity its official religion in 1509. Kongo participated in the commercial, political, and religious networks of the early modern Atlantic world, and its artists reformulated Christian figures from Europe into objects that are distinctly African—including the many brass crucifixes produced from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. (Read more in Fromont’s 2014 book The Art of Conversion: Christian Visual Culture in the Kingdom of Kongo, which I reviewed here.)

Triple Kongo crucifix
Triple Crucifix, central figure 16th–17th century; top and bottom figures 18th–19th century. Brass, iron nails, copper, wood, ultramarine pigment, 10 1/4 × 5 3/4 × 1 in. (26 × 14.5 × 2.5 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

+++

“Death Cart (La Muerte en su Carreta)” by Miguel de Baca: “Death carts” were instruments of penance used by the Penitente brotherhood of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth; this is the earliest known one. They were built in the style of an old oxcart, and seated inside was Doña Sebastiana, an allegorical figure of Death, wielding her bow and arrow. Each Good Friday, “an elected brother attached the heavy chassis to his torso with a horsehair rope and dragged it from the morada (meetinghouse) along the path to the calvario (Calvary site), inflicting abrasions upon his body as a demonstration of his faith and desire for closer union with God.” I must say, this skeletal figure with the close-set eyes and large forehead (and is that human hair and teeth?) terrifies me!

Lopez, Nasario_Death Cart
Nasario López, Death Cart (La Muerte en su Carreta), ca. 1860. Gesso, leather, cottonwood, pine, 51 × 24 × 32 in. (129.5 × 61 × 81.3 cm). Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

For more on the topic, see Thomas J. Steele, “The Death Cart: Its Place among the Santos of New Mexico,” The Colorado Magazine 55, no. 1 (1978): 1–14.

+++

“Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Cross with Stars and Blue by Jeffrey Richmond-Moll: During a four-month stay in Taos, New Mexico, in the summer of 1929—her first visit to the Southwest—Georgia O’Keeffe painted four canvases of Penitente crosses with Taos Mountain visible in the distance. The Penitentes were a lay Catholic brotherhood whose rituals centered on the remembrance of Christ’s passion. They erected crosses all over the region, outside their moradas (meetinghouses) and along roadsides, which they picked up and carried on holy days.

O'Keeffe, Georgia_Black Cross with Stars and Blue
Georgia O’Keeffe (American, 1887–1986), Black Cross with Stars and Blue, 1929. Oil on canvas, 40 × 30 in. (101.6 × 76.2 cm). Private collection.

+++

“James Latimer Allen, Madonna and Child by Camara Dia Holloway: “Allen operated a studio in Harlem between 1926 and 1943, producing artistic and commercial photographs. . . . By contributing to the development of a new racial iconography, Allen’s Madonna and Child and other black Madonnas offered positive visual and material rejoinders to widely reproduced images that represented black women’s failure to parent their own children. The Mammy stereotype, the legend of Margaret Garner (known as the Black Medea), and portraits of white children held by their black nannies belong to this latter and negative set of portrayals.” This is a religious icon by and for African Americans, Latimer writes—one that reflects and affirms their own self-image.

Allen, James L._Madonna and Child
James L. Allen (American, 1907–1977), Madonna and Child, 1930s. Photograph, 24.4 × 18.7 cm. New York Public Library.

“Giacometti’s Dog” by Robert Wallace

Giacometti, Alberto_Dog
Alberto Giacometti (Swiss, 1901–1966), Dog, 1951 (cast 1957). Bronze, 18 × 39 × 6 1/8 in. (45.7 × 99 × 15.5 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York.

lopes in bronze:
     scruffy,
          then. In

the Museum of Modern Art
     head
          down, neck long as sadness

lowering to hanging ears
     (he’s eyeless)
          that hear

nothing, and the sausage
     muzzle
          that leads him as

surely as eyes:
     he might
          be

dead, dried webs or clots of flesh
     and fur
          on the thin, long bones—but

isn’t, obviously,
     is obviously
          traveling intent on his

own aim: legs
     lofting
          with a gaiety the dead aren’t known

for. Going
     onward in one place,
          he doesn’t so much ignore

as not recognize
     the well-
          dressed Sunday hun-

dreds who passing, pausing make
     his bronze
          road

move. Why
     do they come to admire
          him,

who wouldn’t care for real dogs
     less raggy
          than he

is? It’s his tragic
     insouciance
          bugs them? or is

it that art can make us
     cherish
          anything—this command

of shaping and abutting space—
     that makes us love
          even mutts,

even the world, having
     rocks
          and the wind for comrades?

It’s not this starved hound,
     but Giacometti seeing
          him we see.

We’ll stand in line all day
     to see one man
          love anything enough.

“Giacometti’s Dog” by Robert Wallace was originally published in Ungainly Things (Dutton, 1968) and is included in the collection The Common Summer: New and Selected Poems (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1989). Used by permission.

+++

When artists take the time to sculpt (or paint, film, lyricize, etc.) a subject, they inevitably give their careful attention to that person, place, or thing. And attention is a form of love. The best artworks succeed in conveying that love.

In his poem “Giacometti’s Dog,” Robert Wallace muses on how modernist sculptor Alberto Giacometti poured heart, mind, body, and soul into portraying something so “unworthy” and unattractive as a stray dog. Why dignify the malnourished, matted canine with a bronze cast and prominent display in a world-class museum? And why do all the gallery visitors crowd around to see him?

Wallace determines that it is the artist’s love for the dog that attracts people to it. If Giacometti thought him a fitting subject for a sculpture, then he must matter. He is worth attending to. “Art can make us cherish anything,” Wallace writes. Artists show us where to look and teach us what to love.

Roundup: Call for Jubilee-themed submissions; “coronasolfège for 6”; and more

NEW PLAYLIST: August 2021 (Art & Theology): This month’s thirty-song roundup opens with a 1936 recording by blues guitarist and singer Blind Roosevelt Graves and goes on to include “Amazing Grace” sung to the tune of HOUSE OF THE RISISNG SUN; “Amaholo,” a song in Luganda performed by a youth choir from Kkindu Village, Uganda (its first line is “God’s blessing can’t be blocked by the devil!”); some Joan Baez and Johnny Cash; “Pretty Home,” a Shaker hymn by Patsy Roberts Williamson, an enslaved African American woman whose freedom was purchased by the Pleasant Hill Shaker community in the early 1800s; Psalm 118:1–4 in Hebrew, set by one of the most popular contemporary singer-songwriters of Jewish religious songs, Debbie Friedman, and sung by a trio of brothers; a gospel song from one of my favorite films of 2019, Peanut Butter Falcon; and “God Yu Takem Laef Blong Mi,” a Melanesian choir rendition of “Take My Life and Let it Be” from Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.

+++

CALL FOR PITCHES: Geez 63 Jubilee: “What would the biblical practice of Jubilee look like today? Geez magazine is looking for submissions that reimagine ideas of debt forgiveness, reparations, trumpets singing, and a whole lot of radical rest. Deadline for pitches: August 12.” [HT: ImageUpdate]

Creative nonfiction essays, investigative articles, “flash nonfiction” (short insights, as few as fifty words), photographs, and poems are among the forms accepted. To get you started, Geez provides a whole host of questions for pondering, as well as specific prompts, such as:

  • Rewrite Isaiah 61, “The year of the Lord’s favor,” in the context of today’s struggles for justice.
  • Take a nap. Write a poem about it.
  • Write a street liturgy for the front steps of Navient, American Educational Services, or other student loan debt collectors.
  • Explore global social movements that have employed practices of Jubilee, implicitly or explicitly.
  • Describe the sounds of a great Jubilee party.

If you want to stay apprised of what the quarterly is up to in the future, sign up for their newsletter (there’s an option to receive contributor pitch emails) and/or follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

+++

THE GESUALDO SIX:

The Gesualdo Six is an award-winning British vocal ensemble directed by Owain Park. I’ve really been enjoying all the content on their YouTube channel, which includes original performances of sacred motets, hymns, carols, chansons, and contemporary pieces—like the two below, both written specifically for the group. Be sure to check out their website for information about live concerts!

>> “The Blue Bird” by Andrew Maxfield: The composer writes, “The text [see below]—a beloved poem by Mary Elizabeth Coleridge—evokes ‘blueness’ not just in its title; every image is blue: the lake, the bird’s wings, the sky above and beneath. Far from being monochromatic, though, this poetic meditation reveals a multiplicity within the narrow spectrum we label ‘blue.’ Royal. Navy. Cobalt. Tiffany. Sky. Midnight. All of these flash, but only briefly, as our winged protagonist catches his fleeting reflection in the lake’s glassy surface. Blue, then, is the subject and substance of my musical setting. Harmonically, the piece hovers, as the bird does, in what feels to me like a cool, gentle, blue sound—little variations and reflections on the wings and water here and there, but the piece attempts to remain ‘blue in blue’ (or what Miles Davis might have called ‘Kind of Blue’) and, after not too long, disappears, as the birds shifts, glides, and vanishes. Melodically, this bird nods to another: to William Byrd, one of the great composers of the English Renaissance, whose contrapuntal inventiveness inspires me. And—I couldn’t help myself—my setting alludes to Joni Mitchell’s song ‘Blue,’ but I leave it to you to locate the reference.”

The lake lay blue below the hill.
O’er it, as I looked, there flew
Across the waters, cold and still,
A bird whose wings were palest blue.

The sky above was blue at last,
The sky beneath me blue in blue.
A moment, ere the bird had passed,
It caught his image as he flew.

>> “coronasolfège for 6” by Héloïse Werner: Super-fun and quirky!

+++

ONLINE EVENTS:Origin, an Art House Dallas program, seeks to establish a wholeness and connectedness between spiritual formation, imagination, and the arts with the ultimate intent to establish a sacred perspective on how we individually and collectively live and create. We believe that beauty shown through the arts, culture, and creation holds a powerful ability to form the way we see ourselves, the world, and our interaction with both.”

This summer’s iteration of the program consists of a series of online Thursday night talks by artists or pastors, followed by facilitated discussions. Two of these have already passed, but two are still upcoming: “Embodiment” with Guy Delcambre on August 12, and “Beauty” with Kelly Kruse on August 26. RSVP at Eventbrite.

In addition to the free events, there’s an accompanying anthology of articles, poems, visual art, scripture, and questions for prayerful reflection, which is on sale for $8.

+++

MOVIE OPENING: I’m working my way through all the Best Picture Oscar winners since the award’s inception in 1928 and have come upon 1980’s Ordinary People, Robert Redford’s directorial debut. Based on the novel by Judith Guest, it’s about the fragmentation of an upper middle-class family, the Jarretts, following the death of the eldest son, Buck, in a sailing accident and a subsequent suicide attempt by the other son, Conrad (played by Timothy Hutton).

I was really struck by its opening, which features a sacred choral version of Pachelbel’s Canon in D by Noel Goemanne. Although the film is not a religious one, the choice to open it with a prayer from the lips of Conrad, albeit one assigned by his high school choir teacher, is very fitting, as it voices the character’s longings. Throughout the film Conrad will struggle to find that peace, joy, and love he sings about in class—learning over time to assert with sincerity, in spite of grave tragedy, “Alleluia.”

The full lyrics by Goemanne are below, and you can watch a performance of the full song by the Meridian Community College Chorus and Guitar Ensemble here.

In the silence of our souls
O Lord, we contemplate Thy peace
Free from all the world’s desires
Free of fear and all anxiety

O Lord our God
Wisdom, joy, and peace and love divine
O Lord our God
Glory, praise, and honor be always thine

O dearest Lord, come to us now
Have mercy on us, stay with us and protect us all

O Lord our God
Wisdom, truth, and love and peace and joy
O Lord our King
Thy praises we will always sing

Alleluia

Roundup: Conferences, recorded talks by Jyoti Sahi and Patty Wickman, and the arts in spiritual formation

UPCOMING CONFERENCES:

>> (Virtual) Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers, October 23, 2021: The CFAMC is soliciting videos of live musical performances (or works designed with videography), original hymns, and papers. Twelve art music pieces will be chosen to be shown at the conference, followed by conversations about each, as will three hymns, to be sung during a time of worship.

>> (In Person) Transcend, CIVA Biennale, November 4–6, 2021, Austin, Texas: I’ll be attending! “Beauty is compelling. It binds itself to the Truth and the Good in such a way that, as Dante said, ‘Beauty awakens the soul to act.’ It moves us from the rooted realities of canvas, clay, notes, or language into the transcendental nature of God Himself, our Beautiful, True, and Good Creator. Join CIVA [Christians in the Visual Arts] as artists, pastors, curators, and cultural leaders explore the divine spark of the image of God in each of us that initiates and propels our journey to perceiving anew an intuitive, expressive, and fulfilling reality.” The conference will include a juried art show, plenary talks, paper presentations, times of worship, workshops, portfolio reviews and mentoring sessions, author signings, “explore groups” around the city (I signed up for the Blanton Museum of Art and Ellsworth Kelly’s “Austin”), and artists’ show and tell.

+++

ARTIST PRESENTATIONS:

It can be so illuminating to hear an artist discuss their work—their influences, their process, how particular artworks came about. Below are two virtual talks I attended last month and really enjoyed, both by artists who are Catholic.

>> Jyoti Sahi, June 19, 2021: In this virtual talk organized by the UK-based organization Christians Aware, my friend Jyoti Sahi [previously] shares several of the paintings he has produced during the past year in quarantine in and around his home in Silvepura Village in Karnataka, South India, inspired by the local landscapes and vegetation. Over the years Jyoti has developed a Christian spirituality that is very earthy, one that sees the natural world as reflective of, and even participating in, the divine mysteries. His Jesus is in and of the land. Images start at 11:20.

Sahi, Jyoti_Flight of the Holy Family
Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Flight of the Holy Family, 2021. Oil and acrylic on canvas.

Sahi, Jyoti_Jesus the Gardener

In his recent body of work, Jyoti shows, among other things:

  • Jesus being born in a makeshift encampment beside a kere (manmade lake), among the brick kilns, a child of migrant laborers.
  • Jesus giving a sermon in a sacred grove underneath a yellow bodhi tree, where herdsmen graze their flocks. The snake-stones, erected by the Adivasi (tribal peoples of India), allude to healing and to Jesus’s being lifted up on the cross like the serpent on Moses’s staff (John 3:14–15; cf. Num. 21:4–9).
  • Jesus entering Jerusalem, his face gloriously framed by palm fronds. He’s reminiscent of the leafy-headed Green Man present in the mythologies of many ancient cultures but found particularly in medieval English church carvings.
  • Christ crucified in the palash tree, the “flame of the forest.” (Jyoti notes that in the Sanskrit epic poem the Mahabharata, the hero’s wounds are compared to the flowers of the palash tree.)
  • Jesus in the garden of the resurrection, standing in front of a flowering datura tree, which is poisonous but also medicinal. (“Poison can be a way of discovering healing,” Jyoti says—a truth that has implications for a theology of the cross.)
  • The journey to Emmaus, showing two of Jesus’s disciples entering the garden, a metaphor for wholeness or home.

>> “Gift Paintings: The Invitation to See Anew” with Patty Wickman, June 24, 2021: As part of its Art & Faith series, Holy Family Church in South Pasadena, California, hosted a virtual talk by one of its members, Patty Wickman [previously], a nationally exhibited artist and longtime professor in UCLA’s art department. Her paintings are figural, and she describes several of them as “gifts,” sparked by things like the discovery one of her mother’s unusual rest rituals, encounters with unhoused persons in San Jose, a cut-paper environment inside a Disney World ride, flea market finds, a plate of dirt her young daughter served her, and a little boy’s eating apples stark naked on a hot summer day in her backyard.

Among her influences are Shaker gift drawings and worship spaces; Victorian hair wreaths; the illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen; performance art pieces by Joseph Beuys, Chris Burden, and Ana Mendieta; Cindy Sherman’s photographic self-portraits; and historical religious paintings by Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca, Georges de La Tour, Geertgen tot Sint Jans, Caravaggio, and others.

At twenty-four minutes in she starts discussing her own work, with reference to specific artworks that informed her. Compare her Entheos, for example, to Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of Saint Peter; her Struggle Garden to frescoes by Giotto of Anne and Joachim at the golden gate, and Judas betraying Jesus in Gethsemane; and her A Thief in the Night to Peter Menzel’s Material World project. When her early days of motherhood prevented her from having the time to plan and execute large-scale paintings like these, she painted smaller, quicker works—daily during Lent—with subjects including dust bunnies, daddy longlegs, a stick of incense, and a birdbath with the first blooms from her camellia tree having fallen inside. Her work has a sacramental quality to it that’s really compelling.

Wickman, Patty_Passion Painting
Patty Wickman (American, 1959–), Passion Painting, 1997. Oil on canvas, 60 × 90 in.

Wickman, Patty_Circumscribe
Patty Wickman (American, 1959–), Circumscribe, 2017–19. Oil on linen, 84 × 104 in.

The last half-hour of the video is Q&A.

+++

ARTICLE: “Artful Discipleship: The Role of the Arts in Spiritual Formation” by Carolyn Arends: Singer-songwriter Carolyn Arends discusses four ways the arts are important in our training to follow Jesus: (1) the arts help us train to pay attention; (2) the arts help us train in longing; (3) the arts help us train for the renewing of our minds; and (4) the arts help us train to appreciate things (and especially people) for more than their ​“usefulness.” She closes with a list of suggestions for practicing intentional engagement with the arts.

(See also a recent interview with Arends, “Art and Spiritual Formation,” on the Art & Faith Conversations podcast.)