Wayfaring Stranger (Artful Devotion)

Painting by Andrew Gadd
Painting by Andrew Gadd (British, 1968–)

Our citizenship is in heaven . . .

—Philippians 3:20

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SONG: “Wayfaring Stranger” | 19th-century American folk song | Performed by Rhiannon Giddens (banjo, vocals) and Phil Cunningham (accordion) for BBC Northern Ireland, 2016

This “world of woe” is not our home; we’re just temporary residents. St. Paul reminds us that we are citizens of a new world, and while this statement needs a lot of fleshing out (hence the development of systematic “kingdom theologies”), the well-known American folk lament “Wayfaring Stranger” emphasizes simply, soul-baringly, the longing aspect of it, that anticipation of returning to the “bright land” or our (re)birth, “no more to roam.”

The Wikipedia entry for the song contains a select list of diverse covers, classical music adaptations, and appearances on television and film. Other versions I like are by the Crofts family (previously), Sister Sinjin, and Brent Timothy Miller.


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

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Second Sunday in Lent, cycle C, click here.

Roundup: Visual lament, shalom chant, song for the displaced, unfinished art, and “Roma”

The Arts of Lament (lecture)

UPCOMING LECTURE: “The Arts of Lament” by Margaret Adams Parker: I’m one of the artistic directors of the Eliot Society, a DC-based nonprofit that promotes spiritual formation through the arts. Our next event is a lecture on April 6, 2019, by printmaker and sculptor Margaret (Peggy) Adams Parker (previously), which I’m really looking forward to.

Most especially during Lent, we recall the prominence of lament in Scripture: the psalms of lament; David’s lament for Jonathan; the Lamentations of Jeremiah; Christ’s lament over Jerusalem. These laments bear witness to outrage, sorrow, suffering, fear, desolation. And through these passionate cries, the biblical authors allow us to experience and express—in God’s holy presence—our own stories of brokenness and loss.

The visual arts make these laments visible. In this program Parker will present images by Grünewald, Rembrandt, Goya, Käthe Kollwitz, Jacob Lawrence, and others, as well as some of her own work. We will ask, How might these depictions of the horrors of war, displacement, oppression, sickness, and death enlarge our appreciation of the scriptural laments and in turn illuminate our understanding of suffering? Further, we will explore the spiritual significance of the practice: how lament might ultimately serve to console and strengthen, helping to lead us out of dark places into the light.

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SHALOM CHANT: At the 2019 Brehm Conference, “Worship, Theology, and the Arts in a Divided World,” liturgist Julie Tai led attendees in a group chant of the word shalom, an exercise she picked up from the author, speaker, psychotherapist, songwriter, and Episcopal priest Ian Morgan Cron. I streamed in from afar, and even from this distance, I found it really moving. “Really think about the places and spaces that need shalom—shalom meaning not our flat language of just ‘peace,’” Tai said by way of preface. “It’s an embodied word, a disruptive word. And we don’t get to see the completeness of shalom until all of us are at the table.” She instructs that after chanting shalom in unison three times, everyone is to find a note, any note, and sing it. Dissonance is welcome. The thick texture and distinctive timbre that result are possible only because each and every person is contributing their unique selves. The exercise is about listening to your neighbor, seeing your neighbor, and praying for and committing to pursuing shalom, wholeness, in this world. It expresses, in community, a shared hope and intention.

Chanting is a practice found in almost all spiritual traditions. Through rhythmical repetition, a word or short phrase washes over you and settles into the mind. When done in a group, everyone’s biorhythms become synchronized; individual breaths and sound vibrations unite, a physical manifestation of a spiritual communion.

“Julie Tai is the director of chapel at Fuller Theological Seminary. She received a BA in Asian American Studies and studied vocal jazz at UCLA before earning an MA in Intercultural Studies from Fuller. She is a songwriter, worship leader, and liturgist who loves to explore creative and integrative ways to engage diverse people in worship. A proud second-generation Korean American, Julie has led worship experiences at Urbana, the Calvin Worship Symposium, and SIM’s Global Assembly. She passionately trains worship leaders, seminarians, and pastors to see liturgy as a unifying and artistic act of justice . . . the reordering of glory, honor, and praise to the One seated on the throne.” [source]

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NEW SONG: “Jesus, See the Traveler” by Sara Groves: “I wanted a way for Ruby [my daughter] and me to remember the number of people who are on the road, displaced and wandering on any given night,” said Sara Groves about this new song she wrote. “Due to war and violence, there are more displaced people right now than any other time in history, and I want to be in the number who are responding in love—both in person in my community, and in my music.” The official music video is below; purchase the single on iTunes or stream on Spotify. [HT: Tamara Hill Murphy, A Sacramental Life]

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ARTICLE: “Art Interrupted” by Sophie Haigney: Unfinished artworks, like La Sagrada Familia (whose architect was hit by a tram when the cathedral was only a quarter of the way done) or Elizabeth Shoumatoff’s famous FDR portrait (the president slumped over mid-portrait-sitting and died of a brain hemorrhage), are reminders of our mortality. [HT: Michael Wright, Still Life]

La Sagrada Familia
Cranes hover over the spires of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, whose construction began in 1882 under architect Antoni Gaudí and is still going on.

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PODCAST EPISODE: “Roma,” Technicolor Jesus (now Sunday Morning Matinee), January 22, 2019: To help me think more deeply and articulately about movies, I appreciate the work of, among others, Sunday Morning Matinee (formerly Technicolor Jesus), hosted by Matt Gaventa and Adam Hearlson. Back in January they discussed a movie that was one of my favorites of 2018, which is Roma, written, directed, and shot by Alfonso Cuarón. Set in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City in the early ’70s, it focuses on Cleo (played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio), a Mixtec domestic servant for a middle-class family. It was a very personal project for Cuarón, who based the character of Cleo on the real-life nanny who helped raise him, Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez.

Roma film still
This still frame from Roma captures a climactic moment of shared intimacy as Cleo (center), grieving a recent trauma, receives love and support from the family she works for.

“As artists, our job is to look where others don’t,” Cuarón said in his acceptance speech last month for the Academy Award for Best Director. (The movie also won Best Foreign Language Film and Best Achievement in Cinematography.) As an adult, Cuarón looked back and realized that Libo had another life, both internal and external, that he had not been aware of as a child, and this is his way of honoring Libo’s beautiful complexity. This podcast episode discusses the opening and closing shots of the movie, water symbolism, the contrast of the terrestrial and the heavenly, the role of memory, Cleo’s interiority and who gets access to it, the possibilities and limits of employer-employee relationships, and more.

Stomp (Artful Devotion)

Treading the Basilisk by Brian Kershisnik
Brian Kershisnik (American, 1962–), Treading the Basilisk, 2003. Oil on panel, 85 × 32 in.

Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place—
the Most High, who is my refuge—
no evil shall be allowed to befall you,
no plague come near your tent.

. . .

You will tread on the lion and the adder;
the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.

“Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
I will protect him, because he knows my name . . .”

—Psalm 91:9–10, 13–14

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SONG: “Anyataka” (Victory), a Congolese folk song | Performed by New City Fellowship, July 21, 2013

This video is from a Sunday worship service at New City Fellowship (previously here and here), a multicultural church in St. Louis, Missouri. The church contains a fair number of immigrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo, including on its leadership team, which has led it to partner with churches in the DRC, a relationship of mutual encouragement. “Anyataka” was introduced to the congregation by Athoms Mbuma, a visiting pastor and musician from Kinshasa and a member of the popular Congolese worship band Le Groupe Adorons L’Éternel (GAEL).

Anyati Satana lelo! (“We stomp on Satan!”), sing the worshippers, miming the action with gusto. “Victory! We have victory in Jesus.” And the refrain: “Yahweh, you reign.”

Click here for a leadsheet, as well as music for trumpet, alto sax, flute, and trombone.

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Many Christians read Psalm 91 as a messianic psalm, prophesying Christ’s victory over Satan. (Visual theologians included: check out the fascinating super aspidem motif, aka “Christ treading on the beasts.”) But it can also be applied more broadly, as the psalmist no doubt intended, to the people of God.

An adder, or viper, is a venomous snake; the word is sometimes alternately translated as “asp,” “cobra,” or even “basilisk,” a mythical reptile. According to the ESV Study Bible commentary, “The lion and the adder are probably images for people bent on harming the faithful (cf. Ps. 58:3–6; Deut. 32:33), or perhaps the demonic agents that inspire the harm.” I’m reminded of Luke 10:19 (cf. 9:1), where Jesus delegates his power over demons to his disciples: “Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you.”

The Christian’s power over evil is rooted in the very power of Christ, who by his death and resurrection has vanquished the Enemy. Now we, too, can put evil under our feet.

Both works of art in this post—the painting by Kershisnik and the Congolese worship song—are inspired by Psalm 91 (the song a little less directly), but they approach it with different tones. The song is very exultant, heightened by a demonstrative performance in which the singers enact the victory of which they sing. By contrast, the figure in the painting is very matter-of-fact about her crushing of the snake; by the power of the word (signified doubly by the book in one hand and the sword in the other), she quietly and assuredly renders it powerless. She appears completely undisturbed by the incident; it barely registers!

Both responses to the text are, I think, appropriate. Christ’s victory, which he grants to us, ought to elicit our loud and happy praise, befitting the context of a worship gathering. But what Kershisnik gives us in this private devotional painting is a calm assurance that in our day-to-day, when the Enemy rears its head, we need not fear one bit; we can carry on unfazed because the battle has already been won—we merely need to claim the victory.


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

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the First Sunday in Lent, cycle C, click here.

Treasure (Artful Devotion)

Crates by Pinturicchio
Crates of Thebes dumps out his wealth into the sea in this detail of the “Mount of Wisdom” marble mosaic inlay and graffito, designed by Pinturicchio in 1505, from the floor of Siena Cathedral in Italy.

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

—Matthew 6:19–21

Eugene Peterson paraphrases Matthew 6:21 as “The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.”

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SONG: “House of Gold” by Hank Williams, 1948 | Performed by the Secret Sisters, 2010

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In her poem “Storage,” Mary Oliver describes the total emptying of a storage unit she rented for years:

I felt like the little donkey when
his burden is finally lifted. Things!
Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful
fire! More room in your heart for love,
for the trees! For the birds who own
nothing—the reason they can fly.

Lent, which begins Wednesday, is a season for throwing out that which has been weighing us down—whether that be physical possessions, or things of the heart (such as unhealthy attitudes, habits, or dependencies; in a word, sins). It’s a spring cleaning of sorts, where we clear out those accumulations that have subtly edged out God. “Make a beautiful fire!” Oliver exclaims. A bonfire of vanities. Once you relinquish your burdens to the fire, you will be light as a bird, and free to fly.

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Giorgio Vasari described the floor of Siena Cathedral as “the most beautiful . . . , largest and most magnificent . . . ever made.” Read an excellent, beautifully photographed introduction to this allegorical masterwork, unique in terms of its technique and message, at https://operaduomo.siena.it/en/sites/floor/.

Siena Cathedral
View down the nave of Siena Cathedral

Is it a contradiction for the church to have poured much of its wealth into the making of this magnificent floor whose imagery, in part, categorizes earthly wealth as a potential pitfall on the path to Wisdom? No, I don’t think so. Its beauty glorifies Christ, proclaiming him the ultimate Treasure. This is not wealth hoarded away for personal security but wealth poured out before God, for the soul-nourishment of others. The spending of large sums of money on art when poverty persists is and will always remain a tricky conundrum (not least during Lent, when an ethic of simplicity and almsgiving are emphasized), but artist Makoto Fujimura navigates it quite well in his 1996 essay “The Extravagance of God.”


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 Ash Wednesday, cycle C, click here.

The savasana of Lent

I just finished proofreading a book on yoga, and one of its chapters in particular is going to stick with me through Lent: “Practice Dying.” In it the author, Michael Stone, discusses the significance of savasana (pronounced sha-VA-sa-na), literally “corpse pose,” which involves lying face-up on the ground, arms at your side, palms up, in a state of attentive relaxation. It is the final pose of every yoga session—and it’s the practice of death, of letting go.

In corpse pose, the practitioner embraces the impermanence of life and, by doing so, is empowered to live with greater gratitude for what is, right now, and with a continual attitude of surrender. Facing one’s mortality is seen as freeing rather than fearsome.

Savasana is a restorative pose, meant to rejuvenate the body, mind, and spirit. It’s widely considered the most important pose in yoga and also the most difficult. It’s deceptively hard to slow down and be still! And still more, to let the unwanted elements within us die.

Preparing for Flight by Michelle Kingdom
Michelle Kingdom (American, 1967–), Preparing for Flight, 2016. Embroidery.

This Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, Christians around the world will enter a savasana of sorts as they receive an ashen cross on their foreheads, along with the pronouncement that they are dust and will return to dust. Christians, like Buddhists, concede a great impermanence and teach nonattachment to the things of this life, but unlike Buddhists, we are theists who believe that there is One who is permanent, the only ground, the only stability, and that we are to attach ourselves to him at all costs.

In many ways, to observe Lent is to practice dying. We die to self—so that we can rise to new life in Christ. This act involves purging our hearts and lives of those things that only cause clutter, and relaxing into that empty space with God. In asana practice, it is, ironically, savasana, corpse pose, that wakes you up, that rebirths you into the rest of your day, the rest of your life. So, too, is Lent a putting-to-death posture that leads to resurrection.

Some people tend to associate Lent with extra exertion—and it’s true, there are disciplines associated with it (fasting, prayer, almsgiving). But what if Lent were reconceived as a time of “attentive relaxation”? Of meeting with the Breath (the Spirit) in stillness, listening and leaning into his promptings? Indeed, fasting and prayer are intended to open up that meeting space, and giving money and food to the poor is no burden to those who have relinquished their grasp on material possessions.

Like savasana, the “corpse pose” of Lent is both simple and difficult. Lying down and letting go. It can be painful to put to death those habits and things that have been keeping us from God, as can the sacrifice required to reach out to others in their need. But the life that awaits us when we die to self makes the choice obvious, and God’s very Spirit is active on our behalf.

Michelle Kingdom’s embroidery Preparing for Flight visualizes, for me, this idea of Lent as savasana. (That is, my theistic reinterpretation of it.) As the figure relaxes into the Ground of Being, she is made ready to soar.

Lent is about renewal, a coming to life that can happen only when we lie down and die (see, e.g., Jesus’s parable of the grain of wheat). In the stillness, in the dust, in the cessation of striving, is where God meets us and raises us up, as Rami M. Shapiro suggests in his poem “Renewal”:

Imagine not that life is all doing.
Stillness, too, is life;
And in that stillness
The mind cluttered with busyness quiets,
The heart reaching to win rests,
And we hear the whispered truths of God.

May your Lent be a time of blessed stillness that restores you to the abundant life of God.

The soundtrack for this post, embedded above, is “Death” by the Coptic Australian oud virtuoso Joseph Tawadros, inspired by Kahlil Gibran’s poem of the same name. “. . . [L]ike seeds dreaming beneath the snow, your heart dreams of spring. / Trust the dreams . . .”

Radiant (Artful Devotion)

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

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

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

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

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

—Luke 9:28–36

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Were You There? by Luke A. Powery

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take Delight (Artful Devotion)

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

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

—Psalm 37:4

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

 


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

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

New resource: The Visual Commentary on Scripture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Esther 8 (VCS Commentary)

Proverbs 31 (VCS commentary)

Doubting Thomas (VCS commentary)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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So what did I end up choosing?

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

Bodily Resurrection (VCS commentary)

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

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

Blessed Are (Artful Devotion)

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

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

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

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

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

—Luke 6:20b–23

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

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

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

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


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