Roundup: “Incarnation and Imagination” lecture, Planet Drum, and more

PODCAST EPISODE: “Incarnation and Imagination (with Malcolm Guite),” Imagination Redeemed: On March 28, 2015, the Anglican poet-priest Malcolm Guite from Cambridge, England, gave a talk in Colorado Springs for the Anselm Society, an ecumenical Christian organization whose mission is a renaissance of the Christian imagination. They have just released it on their podcast.

Guite discusses how the job of the arts is to link earth and heaven, heaven and earth; where a poem or other work of art stays on only one of those planes, it typically fails. He unpacks Theseus’s monologue from Act 5, scene 1 of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, focusing on these six lines: “The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling, / Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven. / And as imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen / Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.”

Shakespeare, Guite says, is riffing on the prologue to John’s Gospel.

The Logos . . . is bodied forth perfectly and beautifully in the living, walking poem of Jesus Christ, in whom everything eternal is made particular, and who invites everybody to come towards him . . . because he is a habitation with open doors. So of course in John’s Gospel he says, ‘I am the door’! . . . Open up, walk in! (48:51)

And one more quote from Guite!

The church . . . is founded by one who is himself artistically embodied meaning—meaning made visible, meaning made beautiful, meaning made habitable and hospitable and welcoming in the touch of the body and in the physical event, which is then transfigured, because it is also a meaningful event, because earth and heaven meet. (55:34)

It’s a brilliant and inspiring talk, and it integrates other poetic verse besides Shakespeare’s.

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MUSIC:

>> “More Love, More Power” by Paul Livingstone and Benny Prasad: This sitar-guitar duet is performed by Paul Livingstone (a multi-instrumentalist and composer of “ragajazz chamber music” who was one of the few American disciples of the late Ravi Shankar) and gospel musician Benny Prasad [previously]. The performance took place June 11 at Chai 3:16, a four-hundred-seat café and community space that Prasad founded in Bengaluru to reach out to college students. (Chai is Hebrew for “life,” and “3:16” refers to the famous verse in the Gospel of John about God’s love.) [HT: Global Christian Worship]

>> “King Clave” by Planet Drum: In 1991 Mickey Hart (best known as a drummer of the Grateful Dead) and Zakir Hussain (a classical tabla virtuoso from Mumbai) formed the Grammy-winning global percussion ensemble Planet Drum, bringing together the world’s greatest rhythm masters into a one-of-a-kind improvisational supergroup. Prompted by ongoing international strife, Planet Drum reconvened over the past two years to record their third album, In the Groove, which released August 5. It features six unique compositions led by Hart, Hussain, Sikiru Adepoju of Nigeria, and Giovanni Hidalgo of Puerto Rico.  

The centerpiece of the album is “King Clave” (the clave is a rhythmic pattern), created in partnership with Playing for Change and with funding from the United Nations Population Fund. The four core musicians mentioned above are joined by other percussionists and dancers from around the world. The music video uses the “Alternate Version” of the performance, released separately as a single.

Learn more about the Planet Drum project in this six-minute video:

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STILL LIFE EDITION: “The History of the Peace Symbol” by Michael Wright: Did you know that the peace symbol that spread worldwide during the 1960s was designed by a Christian from the UK? (Christian pacifism was one of the underappreciated drivers of the nuclear disarmament and antiwar movements.) Learn more about the symbol’s history and art historical and nautical influences in the August 15, 2022, edition of Michael Wright’s weekly letter on art and spirit, Still Life. Also included is the poem “Wildpeace” by Yehuda Amichai, and four weblinks of interest, such as an article on how the patristic tradition agrees with cognitive neuroscience, and a video of FKA Twigs performing in a church!

Holtam, Gerald_Peace
Sketch of nuclear disarmament symbol by Gerald Holtom, created for the first Aldermaston March in 1958. © Commonweal Collection, University of Bradford, England.

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VIDEO LECTURE: “Symbolism and Sacramentality in Art: Medieval and Postmodern Representations of the Little Garden of Paradise” (Religion and Art Talks) by Tina Beattie: Dr. Tina Beattie is a professor emerita of Catholic Studies at the University of Roehampton whose research is at the intersections of art, gender, and theology. In this talk she explores the sacramental imagination of the medieval world through a Late Gothic painting from the Rhineland known as The Little Garden of Paradise. (You can zoom in in tremendous detail on the Städel Museum’s website.) It shows Mary reading in an enclosed garden in the company of saints, her little boy Jesus playing a psaltery at her feet. “Christ retunes the cosmos,” Beattie says. “The harmonies of creation were disrupted by sin. But all of creation is brought back into harmony through the Incarnation.”

Symbolism and allegory abound in medieval religious paintings, encoding profound meanings that can be discerned if we would but take the time to look and to meditate and to understand the world from which these images arose. “The visual image can say things that the theological text can’t,” Beattie asserts. “It can play with the doctrinal truth in ways that allow other meanings to emerge discreetly.”

Though many interpretations of hortus conclusus imagery focus on Mary’s virginity, and indeed that was a primary aspect motivating the creatives who developed such imagery, Beattie draws out themes of new creation and discusses the garden as the human soul.

The Little Garden of Paradise
The Little Garden of Paradise, Upper Rhine, ca. 1410–20. Mixed media on oak, 26.3 × 33.4 cm. Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

The Little Garden of Paradise (detail, dragon)
A small, slain dragon lies belly-up beside a man in greaves and chain mail, probably Saint George.

The other artworks she glosses are:

The last half hour of the video features audience engagement.

“A Blessing for Back to School” by Sarah Bessey

Hsu Tung Han_The Trend of Autumn
Han Hsu-Tung (韓旭東) (Taiwanese, 1962–), The Trend of Autumn (秋天の潮), 2013. Walnut wood, 155 × 98 × 50 cm. [artist’s website]
As we head back into our classrooms, may you go forth fully convinced of our love and your capacity. May you be the head and not the tail, leading others—and yourself—on a path of flourishing. 

May your roots go down deep into God’s soil so you will bear the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. 

May you remember your people, where you come from, and find your place of belonging. 

May you become even more fully who you were always meant to be this year. We delight in you, darling.

We pray that you would sow seeds of life and hope wherever you find yourself, cultivating a harvest of shalom.

May you be prepared for every good work that lies ahead of you. 

May your mind be clear and engaged, your memory sharp, your wisdom beyond your years. May you ask for what you need without fear or shame.

May you be safe, beloved child, protected from anything that seeks to steal, kill, or destroy in any measure. When you are afraid, may you feel our love wrapped around you and take heart.

When disappointments or disasters come—and they will—may you find the depths of the resilience we already see in you and rise, rise, rise again. 

May you do what is right and good and kind and just, no matter what everyone else might do. Don’t submerge your true self into the dreams, plans, behaviors, or agendas of others. Bring your full beloved self to these days, knowing you are created in the image of God.

We pray that you would be a blessing to your teachers and the school staff, and we pray that they, in turn, would see and affirm you in the fullness God has created. 

We pray for good friendships that will sharpen and delight you. 

We pray you would have eyes to see the lonely ones. May you have many opportunities to practice being both brave and kind. 

Beloved child of God, we send you out in the power and peace of Love itself, prepared and anointed, knowing you walk upon steady ground.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit, one God and Mother of us all.

Amen.

This adaptable parental benediction for a child’s return to school is from the August 8, 2022, edition of Sarah Bessey’s Field Notes and is reproduced here with Bessey’s permission.

Pádraig Ó Tuama on using power well

Gollon, Chris_Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery
Chris Gollon (British, 1953–2017), Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery (Jesus Draws in the Dust) (triptych), 2015. Acrylic on canvas, each panel 48 × 36 in. (122 × 91 cm).

Jesus of Nazareth was not a powerless man. . . . Jesus knew exactly what he was doing, and he just used a different kind of power. When, in John’s Gospel [8:1–11], I read about a woman being stoned, I see Jesus using power. He bent down and scribbled in the ground, writing words that we do not know. He did that, knowing—I am guessing—that many of those who were about to throw stones couldn’t read the words even if they could have strained their necks to see them. He used his privilege to deflect attention, and in so doing he undid the story that held the slew of stoners together. This was not powerlessness. It was power and it is deep in us.

The woman was about to be stoned because of the addictions of the stoners. They were addicted to a violent kind of belonging, a kind of community that forges its borders through selective exclusion. She was about to be stoned with their bone-breaking morals that would prefer to kill a woman rather than examine their own complicity. We all need to be rescued from this kind of power—from both its appeal and its effect. An undoing of this power is seen when power is used for love. Power, used well, should be empowering, contagious, and protective. It should be self-critical, curious, and brave. It should know its own limits and be prepared to risk its own reputation. This kind of power asks questions to which it does not know the answers and listens because in listening is learning, and in learning is life.

Hello to the power of learning.

—Pádraig Ó Tuama, In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2015; Minneapolis, MN: Broadleaf Books, 2021), 240–41

“O Christ, Thou Art Within Me Like a Sea” by Edith Lovejoy Pierce (poem)

Parlar, May_Salt IV
May Parlar (Turkish, 1981–), Salt IV, 2018. From the photograph series Once I Fell in Time.

O Christ, thou art within me like a sea,
Filling me as a slowly rising tide.
No rock or stone or sandbar may abide
Safe from thy coming and undrowned in thee.

Thou dost not break me by the might of storm,
But with a calm upsurging from the deep
Thou shuttest me in thy eternal keep
Where is no ebb, for fullness is thy norm.

And never is thy flood of life withdrawn;
Thou holdest me till I am all thy own.
This gradual overcoming is foreknown.
Thou art within me like a sea at dawn.

This poem appears in Therefore Choose Life by Edith Lovejoy Pierce (Harper and Brothers, 1947).

Edith Lovejoy Pierce (1904–1983) was a Christian poet and pacifist. Born in Oxford, England, she married an American in 1929 and moved to the US the same year, settling in Evanston, Illinois. In her writing she drew inspiration from the Bible, Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance, music, history, and mysticism, among other sources.

Roundup: West African praise medley, reading poetry and fiction, and more

SPOTIFY PLAYLIST: August 2022 by Victoria Emily Jones: Most months I compile thirty songs and other musical selections into a nonthematic playlist as a way to share good music, mostly from the Christian tradition but otherwise Christian-adjacent. This month’s list includes a traditional Black gospel song performed by Chris Rodrigues and professional spoon player Abby Roach (featured here); a Zulu song from South Africa about holding on to Jesus (bambelela = “hold on”); a song in the voice of Christ Our Mother by Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor, from her album Gospel Oak; a portion of Barbados-born Judy Bailey’s Caribbean-style setting of the Anglican liturgy; a brass arrangement of a Golden Gate Quartet classic; Palestrina’s beautiful multivoiced setting of a Latin hymn by Bernard of Clairvaux; a future-looking song of celebration by country artist Naomi Judd, who passed away in April; a condensation of “In Christ Alone” by Texas soul artist Micah Edwards; and more.

The two videos below are from the list: a medley of the Twi praise chorus “Ayeyi Wura” (King of Our Praise) from Ghana and “Most High God” from Nigeria, led by Eric Lige at the 2018 Urbana missions conference, and a new arrangement by Marcus & Marketo of “I’ve Got a River of Life,” a song that I have fond memories of singing in children’s church as a kid (with hand motions!) (you can hear a more standard rendition here). The first line is derived from Jesus’s saying in John 7:38 (“Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water”), and the refrain “Spring up, O well!” comes from Numbers 21:17, where the Israelites praise God for providing them water in the desert.

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Reading books is a key way that I grow intellectually and spiritually, and books are often where I find content to highlight on the blog, be it poems, visual art, people, or ideas. Because I’m not affiliated with an academic institution, I don’t have easy access to a lot of the books I need for my research, and I rely heavily on my personal library (as well as the Marina interlibrary loan system). If you’d like to support the work of Art & Theology, buying me a book from my wish list is a great way to do that! I’ll consider it a birthday gift, as my birthday is Saturday. 😊

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ESSAYS:

>> “Poetry’s Mad Instead” by Abram Van Engen, Reformed Journal: “I believe that poetry has a particular place in the church. I think it responds directly to the call and the invitation of God to ‘sing a new song,’” says Abram Van Engen, chair and professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis and cohost of the podcast Poetry for All. “And in the singing of poetry, the faithful can begin to understand and experience and engage God’s world afresh.” He adds, “Poets often invite us to practice thinking and noticing at a different pace. It is only at a slower speed of processing that we can begin to observe what we have too often missed or ignored.”

In this essay, Van Engen walks readers through the sonnet “Praise in Summer” by Richard Wilbur, which is what he begins with whenever he teaches poetry at church. He teaches you some of the poet’s tools so that you can feel more confident in approaching poems on your own.

>> “In Defense of Fiction: Christian Love for Great Literature” by Leland Ryken: An excellent article, by a professor emeritus of English at Wheaton College and author of The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing, A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible, and more. “With so many valuable nonfiction books available to Christians, many wonder if reading fiction is worth the time. Others view fiction as a form of escapism, a flight from reality and the world of responsibility. But rightly understood, reading fiction clarifies rather than obscures reality. The subject of literature is life, and the best writers offer a portrait of human experience that awakens us to the real world. Fiction tells the truth in ways nonfiction never could, even as it delights our aesthetic sensibilities in the process. Reading fiction may be a form of recreation, but it is the kind that expands the soul and prepares us to reenter reality.”

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VISUAL MEDITATION: On Christ and the Samaritan Woman by Jacek Malczewski, by William Collen: William Collen introduced me to this unusual painting on the subject of Christ’s meeting with the woman at the well from John 4—a subject the artist painted several times (e.g., here, here, and here). Whereas Christ is traditionally shown pontificating to the woman with an air of formality, here there is an appealing casualness to their interaction, and the woman dominates the composition.

Malczewski, Jacek_Christ and the Samaritan Woman
Jacek Malczewski (Polish, 1854–1929), Christ and the Samaritan Woman, 1912. Oil on plywood, 92 × 72.5 cm. Borys Voznytskyi Lviv National Art Gallery, Ukraine.

Collen is an art writer and researcher from Omaha, Nebraska, who is a Christian and who blogs at Ruins. I’ve enjoyed following his posts, which include “The proper response to an art of sorrow”; “Dikla Laor’s photographs of the women of the Bible”; how household chores are approached differently by Koons, Picasso, Degas, and Vermeer; “Good art / bad art / non-art”; and “Artists and agency: assumptions and limits.” He writes in a conversational manner that’s really refreshing.

Emily Dickinson on heaven

I’ve been working my way through Emily Dickinson’s complete poems and falling in love with her all over again.

Dickinson wrote a lot about death, eternity, immortality, the afterlife. Most people are familiar with “This World is not Conclusion,” “Because I could not stop for Death –,” and “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –,” to name a few—all mainstays of middle school English curricula in the US. Below I’ve selected three of her lesser-known poems about heaven, which she describes as: Being truly known. Full sight. Day. The quenching of a deep thirst that nothing on earth can satisfy. Permanence.

I’ve reproduced them as they appear in Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them, edited by Cristanne Miller (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016). Dickinson did not title her poems, so scholars refer to them by their first line.

Hong, Seonna_World Without End
Seonna Hong (American, 1973–), World Without End, 2015. Acrylic and oil pastel on canvas, 48 × 60 in. (121.9 × 152.4 cm). [artist’s website]

At last – to be identified –
At last – the Lamps upon your side –
The rest of life – to see –

Past Midnight – past the Morning Star –
Past Sunrise – Ah, what leagues there were –
Between Our feet – and Day!

Late 1862 (revised from the 1860 version)

We thirst at first – ’tis Nature’s Act –
And later – when we die –
A little Water supplicate –
Of fingers going by –

It intimates the finer want –
Whose adequate supply
Is that Great Water in the West –
Termed Immortality –

Second half of 1863

It is an honorable Thought
And makes One lift One’s Hat
As One met sudden Gentlefolk
Upon a daily Street

That We’ve immortal Place
Though Pyramids decay
And Kingdoms, like the Orchard
Flit Russetly away

Late 1865

“Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me”: Three tunes and multiple stylings

Jesus, Savior, pilot me,
Over life’s tempestuous sea;
Unknown waves before me roll,
Hiding rock and treach’rous shoal;
Chart and compass come from Thee:
Jesus, Savior, pilot me!

As a mother stills her child,
Thou canst hush the ocean wild;
Boist’rous waves obey Thy will
When Thou say’st to them, “Be still!”
Wondrous Sov’reign of the sea,
Jesus, Savior, pilot me!

When at last I near the shore,
And the fearful breakers roar
’Twixt me and the peaceful rest,
Then, while leaning on Thy breast,
May I hear Thee say to me,
“Fear not, I will pilot thee!”

The hymn text “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me” was written in 1871 by Edward Hopper (1818–1888), pastor of the Church of Sea and Land in New York Harbor. Hopper ministered to sailors coming and going, many of whom became lost at sea; his was thus a transient congregation, and one well acquainted with grief and uncertainty.

This is the only hymn of Hopper’s to have survived. It uses nautical imagery to speak of how Christ guides us through life’s stormy waters, all the way safe to the other shore, heaven. It is a petitionary hymn that beseeches Jesus to be present and active, but it is also a hymn of consolation.

Though it has been published in a number of hymnals, I first encountered “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me” through the Bifrost Arts retune released on the collective’s first album in 2008. In fact, several artists have composed new melodies for the hymn or revamped it since it was first set to music by John E. Gould a few months after the publication of Hopper’s text, and it continues to live on even in nonmaritime contexts.

I’m really interested in how hymns evolve. How one text can inspire a variety of musical settings and arrangements—and how they move around the globe into different languages and cultural contexts! The original tune of “Jesus, Savior” doesn’t particularly resonate with me, but the creative arrangements of it, and some of the modern retunes, do.  

1. Music by John E. Gould, 1871

I found a straightforward choral rendition of Gould that was performed in 2012 by a choir from Salt Lake University, but it’s very bland.

So for an introduction to the hymn’s original tune, as reproduced in hymnals, I actually recommend this video by Siviwe Mhlomi and friends, who sing the hymn a cappella in four-part harmony in the Bantu language of Xhosa:

The Xhosa title is “Yesu Nkosi Ndiqhube,” and it’s widely popular in South Africa.

Xhosa uses the Roman alphabet, but the letters c, x, and q are pronounced with clicks that linguists call dental, lateral, and alveolar, respectively—so that’s why you hear some clicking speech sounds in the song.

>> Gospel

Mahalia Jackson recorded a slower, gospelized rendition with lush orchestral accompaniment in 1960:

The original tune is more difficult to recognize in the heavily stylized arrangement by the Roberta Martin Singers from 1968, which features Delois Barrett-Campbell on lead—but Gould was still used as the basis:

>> Country/Bluegrass

The hymn has been performed in a bluegrass idiom since at least the fifties. I don’t know who first arranged it in this style, but Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs recorded it with their band the Foggy Mountain Boys in 1951 (see them perform the song at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in 1961 in the video below). In addition to using bluegrass instrumentation, their arrangement changes the traditional 3/4 meter (with dotted eighth notes) to 4/4 and adds more space between phrases. The Stanley Brothers recording from Hymns of the Cross (1964) follows this arrangement pretty closely—and Ralph Stanley later revisited the song with the Clinch Mountain Boys in 1977.

I first encountered the bluegrass version through the album A Hymn Revival, volume 1 by the sacred music collective The Lower Lights. They perform the song live in the following video, with Sarah Sample and Ryan Tanner on vocals (their singing style is more “indie folk” than bluegrass):

Other artists have sung “Jesus, Savior” with the 4/4 time signature popularized by Flatt & Scruggs, including Rumbi Lee, self-accompanied on ukulele:

(Lee puts out lots of hymn-sing videos on her YouTube channel.)

2. Music by Robbie Seay, 2004

Here’s CCM artist Robbie Seay in 2020 performing his retuned version of the hymn, which churches can license through CCLI:

It does a good job drawing out the emotion of the lyrics, especially the aspect of mournful yearning.

For an album recording, see Aaron Hale’s Lenten Hymns, volume 1 (2011)—or watch Hale lead the song from his living room for a virtual worship service in 2020.

3. Music by Isaac Wardell and Joseph Pensak, 2008

Like I said, although I grew up in church, I never heard of “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me” until Bifrost Arts released it with a fresh tune in 2008. It was written by the cofounders of the collective, Isaac Wardell (a worship leader who now heads up The Porter’s Gate) and Joseph Pensak (a pastor from Vermont who ran a community art gallery for eight years and whose latest musical album, from 2019, is Hallowell). Laura Gibson is the vocalist on the recording, and Matthew Kay created this charming little stop-motion animation video for it:

Since its premiere, this tune has also been recorded by Pacific Gold (formerly Wayfarer) (2012) and Door of Hope (2012), among others.

Roundup: Feast of Mary Magdalene; holiness of people and place; black squares

Richardson, Jan_The Hours of Mary Magdalene
The Hours of Mary Magdalene by Jan L. Richardson

ART CYCLE: The Hours of Mary Magdalene by Jan L. Richardson: July 22 is the feast day of Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’s closest disciples and the first witness and preacher of the Resurrection. American artist, writer, and minister Jan L. Richardson created a sequence of collages picturing events from her life, drawing on both the biblical narratives and medieval legends. The structure and presentation (decorative borders, Latin script) were inspired by medieval books of hours, used for the praying of the Divine Office. The text below each image reads, Deus, in adiutorium meum intende; Domine, ad adiuvandum me festina (“O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me”), the first verse of Psalm 70, which is prayed at the start of each of the canonical hours.

According to legend, after Jesus’s ascension Mary Magdalene moved to southern France, where she preached the gospel and performed miracles. The last thirty years of her life she lived as a hermit in a cave. Each time she prayed the hours, she was lifted up to heaven by angels, then brought back down at the end of her devotions.

Richardson put together a delightful little video showcasing the art cycle as well as the song “Mary Magdalena” by her late husband, Garrison Doles.

You can purchase these images as digital downloads from Richardson’s website:

  1. Matins: The Blessing Cups: Mary Magdalene and Jesus at Tea
  2. Lauds: After the Cross: The Magdalene’s Farewell
  3. Prime: Shopping for Spices: The Three Marys on Holy Saturday
  4. Terce: Touch Me Not: Resurrection Morning
  5. Sext: Release: Mary Magdalene Freeing Prisoners
  6. None: L’Evangeliste: Mary Magdalene Preaching in France
  7. Vespers: At Her Prayers: Mary Magdalene with a Book of Hours
  8. Compline: Magdalene Ascending: The Divine Hours

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DANCE: “Holy, Holy, Holy”: Choreographed by Betsey Beckman to a song by Karen Drucker, this dance number affirms the sacredness of every human being. It was filmed inside St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, a church that “invites people to see God’s image in all humankind, to sing and dance to Jesus’ lead, and to become God’s friends.” Beckman dances with Dawon Davis and Corey Action throughout the worship space, which comprises a rectangular room where the Liturgy of the Word is celebrated and an octagonal rotunda for the Liturgy of the Table. The Dancing Saints icon that covers the walls is by Mark Doox. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

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MUSIC:

>> “Locus iste” by Anton Bruckner, performed by VOCES8: The British vocal ensemble VOCES8 performs Anton Bruckner’s sacred motet “Locus iste” (This Place) at Les Dominicains de Haute-Alsace in Guebwiller, France. Bruckner composed it in 1869 for the dedication of the Votivkapelle (votive chapel) at the New Cathedral in Linz, Austria, where he had been a cathedral organist. The text—a Latin gradual for church dedications and their anniversaries—is informed by Jacob’s saying, after his dream of the ladder uniting heaven and earth, that “surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not” (Gen. 28:16), and by the story of the burning bush where Moses is told to “put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” (Exod. 3:5).

Locus iste a Deo factus est,
inaestimabile sacramentum;
irreprehensibilis est.

This place is made by God,
a priceless sacrament;
it is without reproach.

(Or, alternatively:)
This dwelling is God’s handiwork;
a mystery beyond all price,
that cannot be spoken against.

>> “Tabernacle” by Josh Rodriguez, performed by Mary Vanhoozer: A modernist piano composition inspired by Psalm 19, dedicated to the composer’s father-in-law, the theologian Kevin Vanhoozer.

Tabernacle is a musical triptych shaped by the drama of Psalm 19. While this word, tabernacle, is loaded with religious affection within both Jewish and Christian traditions, some modern readers may not be familiar with its implications. Merriam-Webster offers three related definitions: “a house of worship, a receptacle for the consecrated elements of the Eucharist, or a tent sanctuary used by the Israelites during the Exodus.” By extension, it has come to represent a “dwelling place” or a “temporary shelter.” In short, this is no ordinary space, rather it is a place that is set apart, made holy for a terrifying transformative encounter with the Divine.

Fragments of a prayerful hymn-like melody appear underneath this canopy of sounds. Shifting metric changes, polyrhythms, and percussive primal-sounding harmonies climax in a loud, noisy quote from the 16th-century Genevan Psalter.

More extensive program notes can be found in the YouTube video description.

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ESSAY: “Precedents of the Unprecedented: Black Squares Before Malevich” by Andrew Spira, Public Domain Review: Considered one of the seminal works of modern art, Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915) has been cast as a total break from all that came before it. Yet searching across more than five hundred years of images related to cosmology, religious devotion, mourning, humor, politics, and philosophy, art historian Andrew Spira uncovers a slew of unlikely foreshadows to Malevich’s radical abstraction.

Et sic in infinitum
Robert Fludd’s black square representing the nothingness that was prior to the universe, from his Utriusque Cosmi (1617). On each side of the square is written “Et sic in infinitum…” (“And so on to infinity…”).

Blood of Christ
Black pages with red drops of blood, signifying the wounds of Christ, from a psalter and rosary of the Virgin, ca. 1500. The recto is worn from devotional engagement, damaged through kissing and rubbing, perhaps.

For a much more extensive treatment of the topic, see Spira’s Foreshadowed: Malevich’s “Black Square” and Its Precursors, published this month. And for a faith-positive (non-nihilistic) reading of Malevich’s Black Square that honors the artist’s own views, see pages 209–25 of Jonathan A. Anderson and William A. Dyrness’s Modern Art and the Life of a Culture, where they discuss the work in relation to the Russian icons tradition and “apophatic or ‘negative’ theology—a mode of theology that meditates on the absolute Fullness and Otherness of God by way of negating the verbal, visual and conceptual forms used to signify (and to ‘grasp’) God” (220).

Abby the Spoon Lady, Americana percussionist

Abby Roach, known as Abby the Spoon Lady, is an American roots musician from Kansas, specializing in playing the spoons. It’s a skill she picked up in her late twenties while hopping freight trains around the United States and staying in homeless encampments. (A Peruvian man named Gil taught her.) Since then she has made a living performing primarily on the streets, creating a variety of sounds and rhythms with the simple castanet-like instrument. Her repertoire consists of early jazz, gospel, ragtime, country blues, jug band, Western swing, and Appalachian folk.

Abby grew up in Wichita but left her hometown at age twenty-five to start a new life. “Homeless by choice,” she used Nashville as a hub for a while until the police started discouraging busking in 2012. She spent 2013 to 2019 in Asheville, North Carolina, where she struck up a musical partnership with singer-guitarist Chris Rodrigues. The two are featured in Erin Derham’s Buskin’ Blues (2015) (watch for free!), an hour-long documentary about the street performance culture in Asheville, and they recorded an album together, Working on Wall Street (2017), titled after the picturesque side street where they regularly performed.

In Asheville Abby hosted a weekly radio broadcast at WPVM 103.7 FM and became president of the Asheville Buskers Collective, advocating for the interests of the busking community to the city council and local businesses. 

“The real reason that street performance is important, and the reason it should be preserved, is because it turns our sidewalks into our front porch,” Abby says. “Since the invention of the air conditioner, we have all gone inside. Nobody’s sharing anything anymore. Nothing’s raw anymore. And when you do experience any kind of culture, it’s through a lens of some sort—on a screen. What street performance provides is a live avenue where people can experience, witness, and even sometimes partake in these cultures, and have it put in front of them.”

In 2019 Abby moved back to Kansas, purchasing a little green bus that she converted into a mobile home and, more recently, a house in Winfield, which she is fixing up. She releases YouTube videos through what she calls Spooniversal Studios, sharing music and stories, and travels the US, performing outside in downtown areas, at festivals, and at small music venues. Besides Rodrigues, she has also performed with the Tater Boys (Tub Martin and Dusty Whytis), the Steel City Jug Slammers, Matt Kinman, Les Blackwell, and others. Though the spoons are her primary instrument, she also plays the mountain dulcimer and the musical saw.

Abby doesn’t romanticize the nomadic life; she says it’s dangerous (especially for women), dirty, tiring, and often lonely. People love to ask her about her train-hopping days, and while she does have tales to regale, she emphatically warns folks not to ride freight trains—you don’t need to do that to be free, she says.

Below are filmed performances of some of the traditional gospel songs Abby has done over the past five years, starting with “Angels in Heaven” (aka “I Know I Been Changed”), which went viral in 2017 and currently has over 59 million views! Her beagle, Willie, often appears in the videos.

“John the Revelator,” which intersperses a refrain about the apostle John writing the Apocalypse with verses about Adam hiding from God in Eden, Jesus in Gethsemane the night of his arrest, and Jesus on Easter morning commissioning Mary Magdalene to preach the Resurrection:

“Jesus on the Mainline,” about how Jesus is always available to talk to:

“Don’t Let the Devil Ride,” not giving sin a foothold:

“Soldier in the Army of the Lord”:

“Gospel Plow,” a call to perseverance:

“Laid My Burden Down”:

“Ain’t No Grave” (a version of this song appears on Abby’s 2020 album with the Tater Boys, In the Dirt and Thriving):

“He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”:

“I Feel the Lord Stretching Out in Me” (“I feel the Lord stretching out in me. I cleaned up my house, and I kicked the devil out. I feel the Lord stretching out in me!”):

You can support Abby the Spoon Lady through PayPal or Venmo (@SPOONIVERSALSTUDIOS), or by purchasing merchandise. View her travel schedule here, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Roundup: Ukrainian Madonnas and songs of peace

UKRAINIAN MADONNAS: Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 and even still continues to aggress, artists have taken up their art to address the war—several drawing on iconography of the Madonna and Child, particularly the Maria lactans (breastfeeding Mary) type. Two Ukrainian artists were inspired by different news photos of young mothers protecting their infants from the shelling in Kyiv in March—one of whom was photographed in a hospital being treated for wounds she sustained from fallen glass while shielding her daughter with her body, and the other hiding from the blasts in a subway station.

Kyivan Madonna
Maryna Solomennykova, Kyivan Madonna, 2022, digital painting [purchase] [see news photo]

Frirean, Anta_Madonna
Anta Frirean, Ukrainian Madonna, 2022 [see news photo]

These images show the vulnerability of Christ, who is with us in our suffering, and indict those who cause such suffering.

In his response to the war in Ukraine, Serbian artist Michael Galovic, who lives in Australia, also uses Christian iconography: the Theotokos Kyriotissa (Mother of God enthroned with Christ); Archangel Michael, the patron saint of Kyiv, fighting a dragon (Rev. 12:7–8) in an ethereal rendering of a scene from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, a fifteenth-century French book of hours; and a hellmouth from the twelfth-century Winchester Psalter. These three medieval images are superimposed on Picasso’s masterwork Guernica, named after the Spanish town bombed by Nazis in 1937 and representative of the horrors of war.

Ukraine Response by Michael Galovic
Michael Galovic (Serbian Australian, 1949–), Ukraine Response, 2022. Egg tempera and gold leaf on linen on board, 170 × 80 cm. Collection of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, Canberra, Australia.

Whereas Frirean’s and Solomennykova’s paintings are more intimate, Galovic takes a more cosmic approach, showing wails of lament from abstracted forms intercut with epic battles between good and evil—but at the calm center, Christ is on the throne, holding the scroll of his good word. History is going somewhere. Hate will be damned. Love will triumph.

Thanks to Art/s and Theology Australia for introducing me to the Galovic painting.

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SONGS:

>> “Galoba (The Prayer),” performed by Trio Mandili: A sung performance of a poem written in 1858 by the Georgian poet and statesman Ilia Chavchavadze (1837–1907). An English translation follows.

Our Father, who art in heaven,
With tenderness I stand before thee on my knees.
I ask for neither wealth nor glory;
I won’t debase my holy prayer with such matters.
I desire instead for my soul to be enlightened by heaven,
My heart to be radiant with thy love.
Even if my enemies pierce me in the heart,
I beg thee: “Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do!”
Even if my enemies pierce me in the heart,
I beg thee: “Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do!” [source, adapt.]

>> “Peace All Over the World” by Robert Bradley: Written and performed by Detroit musician Robert Bradley, this song originally appeared on the film Playing for Change: A Cinematic Discovery of Street Music (2005). To celebrate their twentieth anniversary, Playing for Change [previously] has remastered it and added new footage from Ukraine.

>> “Du som gick före oss” (You Who Went Before Us) | Words by Olov Hartman, 1968 | Music by Sven-Erik Bäck, 1959 | Performed by VOCES8, 2022: The melody uses all twelve semitones of the octave! I’ve provided a literal English translation of the Swedish below with the help of Google Translate; for a looser but more poetic translation by Fred Kaan, from 1976, see here. Note: The video identifies the song parenthetically as Psalm 74, not because it’s a setting of Psalm 74 from the Bible, but because it is no. 74 in Den svenska Psalmboken, the official hymnal of the Church of Sweden.

Du som gick före oss
längst in i ångesten,
hjälp oss att finna dig,
Herre, i mörkret.

Du som bar all vår skuld
in i förlåtelsen,
du är vårt hjärtas fred,
Jesus, för evigt.

Du som med livets bröd
går genom tid och rum,
giv oss för varje dag,
Kristus, det brödet.

Du som går före oss
ut i en trasig värld,
sänd oss med fred och bröd,
Herre, i världen.
You who went before us
in the depths of anxiety,
help us to find you,
Lord, in the dark.

You who bore all our guilt
into forgiveness,
you are the peace of our hearts,
Jesus, forever.

You who are the living bread
offered abundantly through all the earth,
give us each day,
dear Christ, that bread.

You who go before us
out into a broken world,
send us out likewise, Lord, 
with peace and bread.