Juneteenth roundup: Documentary, playlists, Alvin Ailey’s Revelations

DOCUMENTARY: Juneteenth: Faith and Freedom, dir. Ya’Ke Smith: Released June 7 by Our Daily Bread Ministries, this film follows Where Ya From? podcast host Rasool Berry to Texas to talk with pastors, historians, activists, artists, and elected officials about the spiritual significance of America’s newest federal holiday, and to visit historic sites associated with it. You can watch the full seventy-five-minute film for free on YouTube. Here’s the trailer:

The interviewees, in order of appearance, are:

  • Dr. Michael W. Waters, pastor, Abundant Life African Methodist Episcopal Church
  • Sam Collins, president, Juneteenth Legacy Project
  • Lisa Fields, founder, Jude 3 Project
  • DJ Norman-Fox, historian, author of Juneteenth 101: Popular Myths and Forgotten Facts
  • Lawrence Thomas, Juneteenth organizer
  • Dr. Carey Latimore, history professor, Trinity University
  • Sharon Batiste Gillins, genealogist, Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research
  • Diane Henderson-Moore, member, Reedy Chapel AME
  • Deborah Blacklock-Sloan, historical researcher and genealogist, Rutherford B. H. Yates Museum
  • Jacqueline W. Bostic, chairman, Fourth Ward Redevelopment Authority
  • Jacqueline Bostic-McElroy, assistant district attorney, Fort Bend County
  • Rev. Art McElroy, senior pastor, Antioch Missionary Baptist Church
  • Opal Lee, civil rights activist and “grandmother of Juneteenth”
  • Lecrae, hip-hop artist

+++

SPOTIFY PLAYLISTS by Lara Downes (with commentary!):

>> Songs for Freedom: A Juneteenth Playlist (2021): Award-winning pianist and NPR radio host Lara Downes curated an excellent Spotify playlist for Juneteenth last year—a mix of jazz, classical, and soul. It is full of wonderful surprises, introducing me to the work of several African American composers, new and old, such as Wynton Marsalis’s The Democracy! Suite for jazz ensemble; a symphony by William Grant Still titled “Song of a New Race”; “Adoration” by Florence Price (originally written for organ but arranged here for violin and piano); “Fanfare on Amazing Grace” by Adolphus Hailstork; and “Startin’ Sumthin’” by Jeff Scott, a French hornist who performs “urban classical chamber music.”

There are also several well-known names—Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Stevie Wonder—and more recent popular artists like Jon Batiste and Rhiannon Giddens. Batiste’s arrangement of “What a Wonderful World” is gorgeous, and the music video—wow (see below). It features a group of Black nuns having fun around London—picnicking on a park bench, traversing monkey bars, sharing Jesus with passersby, eating cotton candy, riding bumper cars. It captures the tone of the song perfectly.

From Downes’s list I also really like the blues song “I Knew I Could Fly” by Allison Russell and Leyla McCalla, excerpted in the following featurette. It’s from the album Songs of Our Native Daughters, which sheds light on African American women’s stories of struggle, resistance, and hope.

Be sure to read the NPR article that introduces the playlist. Downes calls out nine of the musical selections with blurbs that provide some background, and throughout there is a smattering of historical photographs of Black flourishing in and around Washington, DC, from 1904 onward, taken by the Black-owned Scurlock Studio.

YWCA camp for girls
YWCA camp for girls. Highland Beach, Maryland, 1930. This photo is from the Scurlock Studio Collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

>> Songs to Believe In: A Juneteenth Playlist (2022): As I was formatting this post I realized that Downes just published a brand-new playlist for Juneteenth 2022. I haven’t had time to listen yet, but it looks awesome. “I offer you a collection of music that insists on the promise of freedom, however long in coming,” she writes. “Music that counters the shrieking dissonance of conflict with the radiant warmth of its harmonies, that offers us comfort in our sorrow and sustenance in our struggle. Songs that ground us with the steadiness of their rhythms and embrace us in the lines of their melodies. Music that brings us hope and faith and even joy, urging us to stand and fight another day, reminding us that what we are celebrating on this holiday is our freedom to believe, even in the hardest of times.”

+++

YOUTUBE PLAYLIST: Juneteenth Playlist by Victoria Emily Jones. Nineteen songs of freedom and faith—gospel, pop, funk, R&B, and spirituals. I wanted to choose all live performances or music videos so that there’s a visual element to engage.

One of the songs is “Clap Praise” by Diane White-Clayton, performed by Selah Gospel Choir. It’s a setting of Psalm 47, which opens, “Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy!”

Dr. Diane White-Clayton is a composer, conductor, pianist, and lecturer in ethnomusicology specializing in Black sacred music. I love the exuberance and all the body percussion in this widely performed piece of hers. I learned about Selah Gospel Choir through Bridge Projects, an art gallery in Los Angeles where they recently performed. The choir was founded in 2007 “as a space for people who want to sing gospel music birthed by the spirit of the Black church and the ancestry of Black community but are either unable to find it in their home place of worship or do not identify with being in a church at all.”

+++

DANCE WORK: Revelations, choreographed by Alvin Ailey: This classic thirty-six-minute work choreographed by the pioneering Alvin Ailey premiered in New York in 1960 and since then has been performed continually around the globe. This particular performance at Lincoln Center premiered online on December 6, 2020, as part of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s virtual season during the pandemic. “Using African American spirituals, song-sermons, gospel songs, and holy blues, Revelations fervently explores the places of deepest grief and holiest joy in the soul.” Ailey said it was born of the “blood memories” of his childhood in rural Texas and his affection for the Baptist church that nurtured him.

All the numbers are great, but my favorite is “Wade in the Water” (part of the “Take Me to the Water” sequence that begins at 9:41). Second favorite: “Fix Me” (5:22).

Roundup: Georges Rouault, “The Exultant Leper,” and more

LECTURE: “Georges Rouault and the Art of Sacred Engagement” by Fr. Terrence Dempsey, SJ: “From his earliest works, Georges Rouault [1871–1958] selected subjects that combined a strong religious conviction together with a concern for suffering humanity. This lecture by MOCRA Director Terrence Dempsey, S.J., offers an overview of Rouault’s work, including his paintings, prints, and stained glass. Dempsey presents Rouault as an artist who, from his early work through his mature work, remained concerned about the disadvantaged, the outsiders, and the victims of war, and who linked all of these people to the suffering of Christ. In this way, Rouault’s engagement with the world was not so much political (although one can find political tones in his work) as it was sacred. It involved the totality of who we are—corporeal and spiritual.”

Rouault is a favorite artist of mine. I got to see his entire Miserere et Guerre (“Have mercy,” a quotation from Psalm 51, and “War”) series of etchings in person a few years ago, and it’s phenomenal. Every Christian needs to know this series. I recommend a copy of This Anguished World of Shadows: George Rouault’s Miserere et Guerre for all bookshelves.

+++

ART VIDEO: “The Story About the Painting Called The Exultant Leper: Wilder Adkins shared this video with me of his uncle Les Smith interpreting a painting he owns before his congregation last summer at Trinity Episcopal Church in Martinsburg, West Virginia. He commissioned it from artist Brian Whelan, to depict the story of Jesus healing the ten lepers from Luke 17:11–19. Sadly, Smith passed away last month.

Whelan, Brian_The Exultant Leper
Brian Whelan (Irish, 1957–), The Exultant Leper, 2021. Mixed media on canvas. Private collection.

Smith said he requested the title “The Exultant Leper” and asked that it appear on the painting itself. “I am the exultant leper,” he says, pointing to the figure at the bottom right. “I am the guy who better always be at the feet of Jesus giving thanks.”

While I have certainly seen and shared plenty of academic presentations on art (such as the one on Rouault above), there is something so special about hearing ordinary folks (that is, nonspecialists) share with others art that is personally meaningful to them—and more than that, in this case, that they helped bring to fruition. Smith’s enthusiasm was such that even his neighborhood trash collectors have been invited into his home to enjoy the piece! I love that he took the step of supporting a living artist by commissioning an original artwork, and that he integrated that art into his home life, displaying it above his mantle, where he would see it daily and be reminded of his own story of transformation through Christ.

(P.S. Last fall on Instagram and Facebook I shared a standout painting of Whelan’s from the 8th Catholic Arts Biennial at the Verostko Center for the Arts at Saint Vincent’s College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania: https://www.instagram.com/p/CVS6tlagy8s/; https://www.facebook.com/artandtheology/posts/1582166995476777.)

+++

CROSS-DISCIPLINARY VIDEO PRESENTATION: “Psalms in Dialogue: (Be)Holding the Broken Pieces”: I shared Duke’s first “Psalms in Dialogue” in October 2020. Here’s their second offering in the same vein. “In this online presentation [which premiered October 2, 2021], Duke University Chapel and the Duke Chapel Choir will welcome visual artist Makoto Fujimura, theologian Dr. Ellen Davis, Tap Legacy Foundation co-founder Andrew Nemr, Ekklesia Contemporary Ballet, and dancer Paiter van Yperen for an evening of creativity and conversation inspired by the biblical Psalms. In the program, artists, musicians, theologians, singers, and dancers will present performances and works inspired by five Psalms: 46, 88, 90, 91, and 92.” I particularly enjoyed the teen ballet number choreographed by Elisa Schroth to Karl Jenkins’s “Healing Light: A Celtic Prayer” at 52:18 (lyrics below).

Deep peace of the running wave to you
Deep peace of the flowing air to you
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you

Amen

Deep peace of the shining stars to you
Deep peace of the gentle night to you
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you

Amen

Deep peace of Christ, the light of the world, to you
Deep peace of Christ to you
Deep peace of Christ, the light of the world, to you

Amen

+++

SONGS:

>> “Fill My Cup” by Thad Cockrell, feat. The New Respects: This song appears on Cockrell’s album If in Case You Feel the Same (2020); an older version is on Alone Together (2016) under the title “Walking to a City.”

>> “Victory of Christ” by Cory Dauber: Cory Dauber is a member of the Deeper Well Gospel Collective, a group of musicians and songwriters in the Portland, Oregon, area who are connected to Door of Hope church. Last year Dauber released his second full-length album, May All Times Go to You. This song appears on his debut album, Turn into a Mountain (2016).

Roundup: Facing up to our faults, “How Prayer Works,” and more

Sundays are not counted toward the forty days of Lent (as they are feast days, not fast days), so I’m taking a break from my usual Lenten format today and for the next four Sundays to offer some supplemental content, such as a roundup of video, article, podcast, and event links, or a poem. Tomorrow I’ll resume with “Day 5” of the music-art pairings.

+++

DANCE VIDEO: “Lord, Forgive Me,” choreographed by Keone Madrid: A short dance number to a penitential song by hip-hop/R&B artist Mali Music, choreographed by Keone Madrid. The dancers embody stumbling, floundering, aching, weakness, shame, and pleading, as well as openness, humility, surrender, and peace—various postures/feelings associated with the act of confession. Starting at 42 seconds in, a succession of individuals stand or kneel in relative stillness at the right side of the frame, as if receiving the forgiveness they seek, while their dancing form is visible in the mirror.  

Keone, the man in the maroon shirt in the opening shot of the video, is one-half of the choreo, dancing, and directing duo Keone and Mari [previously], whose other recent work includes choreographing the adorable (!) 2021 Disney animated short Us Again (see trailer). Storytelling is at the root of their work, with themes including marriage, family, faith, and struggle.

+++

NEW SONG: “No More Hiding” by Ben Thomas: For the past few years singer-songwriter and spiritual teacher Ben Thomas has been writing what he calls “Mantrasongs,” songs “infused with intention” that are meant to get stuck in our head and connect us more fully to ourselves, others, and the Divine. Inspired by Fr. Richard Rohr’s book Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, this January Thomas started releasing a series of Mantrasongs on YouTube based on the Twelve Steps of Recovery, a tool developed in 1938 for Alcoholics Anonymous. “The 12 Steps of Recovery aren’t just for those addicted to substances,” Thomas writes. “They’re for all of us learning how to create lives of health and wholeness, free of the addictive patterns of thinking, seeing, and being that keep us living at a fraction of our capacity.”

“No More Hiding” is the fifth song in Thomas’s Twelve Steps series. It corresponds to step 5 of the twelve-step program: “Admit to God, to yourself, and to another human being the exact nature of your wrongs.” Christians would call this process “confessing our sins.” It can be a scary thing to do. It requires tremendous vulnerability and honesty. But oh, what freedom comes from confession! He sings here with Jenny Miller. The preceding songs in the series are:

  1. “A New Level of Let Go” (Admit that you are powerless over your addiction—that your life has become unmanageable.)
  2. “Make Me Whole Again” (Believe that a Power greater than yourself can restore you to sanity.)
  3. “To Know What Is” (Make a decision to turn your will and your life over to the care of God.)
  4. “Freedom in the Light” (Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourself.)

Look out for a new Mantrasong each week. You can receive free song downloads from Ben Thomas by becoming a Patreon supporter.

+++

VIRTUAL EVENT: “Writing on Music, Meaning, and the Ineffable,” March 24, 2022, 6 p.m. ET: It’s been said that writing about music (or visual art, for that matter) is as pointless and impossible as dancing about architecture. Music and art need only be experienced; studied analysis or explanation lessens their impact and is reductive. While I can see the reasoning behind this assertion, and I often debate whether to comment on specific pieces that I post here versus let the art do its work without my intervention, I do (obviously!) feel that there is value in writing about the arts, and music writer Joel Heng Hartse does too. In this virtual launch event for his new book Dancing about Architecture Is a Reasonable Thing to Do, Hartse will be joined in conversation with poet Mischa Willett and musician John Van Deusen about art, faith, and criticism. Organized by Image journal.

+++

POETRY UNBOUND PODCAST EPISODES:

Poet and theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama hosts these wonderful fifteen-minute immersive readings of contemporary poems selected from diverse sources. Here are two from last season that I particularly appreciated.

>> “How Prayer Works” by Kaveh Akbar: Kaveh Akbar is an Iranian American Muslim poet and scholar. In this narrative prose poem of his, two brothers, seven years apart, turn to face east in their small shared room when their prayer is interrupted by a surprising noise, setting off an eruption of laughter. “This poem holds the idea of prayer, which can often be an abstract one, with the physical sensation of what’s right in front of you, what’s happening, who’s right in front of you, how are you being with each other, what’s going on, how can you be drawn towards each other—and that that itself is the answer to prayer.”

>> “The Only Cab Service of Farmington, Maine” by Aria Abner: “This is a poem, really, that’s an exploration of place and all of the emotion and pain and beauty that can be gathered into memory of place,” Ó Tuama says. “A poem about conversation and about how you reach the edge of conversation.” Poet Aria Abner was born in Germany to Afghan parents but has lived in the United States since age eighteen. She writes about being picked up in a cab by a man who served in Afghanistan in the US Marines, and how he tries to connect with her through that geographic commonality but to little avail. “She is feeling estranged by the ways foreigners are speaking about a place that she’s from but hasn’t been able to grow up in.”

Greg Pennoyer on why the arts matter

The arts don’t just fill our time with uplifting stories and pretty pictures. They don’t just distract us with things to look at; they teach us how to look. They train our vision, down to the level of our souls.

Art can teach us to see the tiny gradations in a field of green—or how to see a suffering world in the context of grace. How to recognize the humanity of a character who seems like an irredeemable villain. How to slow down. How to pay attention not just to the notes but the silences between the notes. How to hear the echo of divine music in human speech. How to look at our own failures and successes with perspective, even laughter. The arts ask us to use the full range of our senses. And they can restore us to our full, God-given humanity.

—Greg Pennoyer, executive director of Image journal [source]

Roundup: “Ave Maria” ballet, pregnancy, Magnificat

DANCE: “Ave Maria”: Queensland Ballet dancers Victor Estévez and Mia Heathcote perform a pas de deux (ballet duet) to the Schubert melody that today is most associated with the prayer “Ave Maria,” which begins, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” These are the words the angel Gabriel spoke to Mary when he came to announce that she would bear in her body the Son of God. Though I can’t say what this duo had in mind when they choreographed the piece, I can’t help but think, given the music choice, of the Annunciation—the Divine coming to dance with humanity, to partner with her for the redemption of the world. The dancing starts thirty-five seconds in.

+++

VISUAL MEDITATION: “Embodied Joy, Serious Joy: Making Room in the Body and Life for New Creation” by Alexandra Davison: I shared a visual meditation by this culture care leader just last week. In this devotional piece based on Luke 1:41–55, Davison discusses two abstract paintings from Louise Henderson’s The Twelve Months series. In October, “Henderson has a cropped representation of a pregnant woman, her belly bright and fruitful as a melon, shines with what Henderson describes from her own pregnancy as ‘bubbles of life circulating in the womb.’ She magnifies joy from its tiniest beginnings both seen and unseen in the mother and the child.” Reflecting on this ebullient image in conjunction with her own pregnancy experience and Mary’s, Davison ends by quoting an adaptation of the Magnificat by songwriter Marcus Walton.

Henderson, Louise_October
Louise Henderson (New Zealand, 1902–1994), October, from the series The Twelve Months, 1987. Oil on canvas, 250 × 150 cm. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, New Zealand.

+++

VIDEO INSTALLATION: Mary! by Arent Weevers: One of the primary images or metaphors for the season of Advent is pregnancy—the pregnant Mary awaiting the birth of Jesus, her belly swelling a little more each day, and a world heavy with expectancy, at the threshold of (re)birth. In 2009, media artist and theologian Arent Weevers [previously] created a gorgeous video installation titled Mary!. “Standing in the middle, a heavily pregnant young woman. Her hair partly covers her naked body to her ankles. She peers past you, with no expression on her face. From underneath, a gusty wind begins to blow, wafting her hair slowly upwards into the air. Suddenly, the woman bends slightly forward, her left arm in front of her abdomen, and grimaces painfully. Losing her balance, she falls sideways out of the frame until only black remains.” You can preview the video here. (Because of the nudity, there will be a content warning you have to accept before proceeding.)

Weevers’s art aims to express the paradoxical nature of the human body—its vulnerability and its strength—and in her role as Mary, the actor in this video exemplifies both so well. Gloriously gravid and standing tall at first, the woman looks into the distance and sees the future suffering of her son. She clasps her belly protectively in response, hunching forward as the painful knowledge of his destiny shoots through her.

+++

MAGNIFICAT SERMON (and sketch): “The Love That We Are Made For” by Bob Henry: Bob Henry is an American Quaker pastor who often sketches in preparation for and in response to sermons. In this sermon he delivered December 11, 2016, at Silverton Friends Church in Oregon, he reflects on the oldest and most radical Advent hymn: Mary’s Magnificat. We are so used to thinking of Mary as quiet and demure, but Henry imagines her as “a strong woman with arms flaring, fists raised, wild bodily movements, beads of sweat forming on her brow, and a strong voice throwing down these words from Luke 1:46–55.”

Henry, Bob_Mary's Freedom Song
“Mary’s Freedom Song.” Illustration and lettering by Bob Henry, 2016. Text by Joy Cowley, 2007, adapted from Luke 1:46–55.

This characterization is expressed in his drawing, which shows a Black Mary, full of faith and fire, surrounded by the words of Joy Cowley’s “Modern Magnificat.” He says the women of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Chicago, where he used to teach Bible, embody for him Mary’s bold declaration of justice, freedom, and hope in today’s world. He challenges us to sing Mary’s song in our own political climates.

+++

SONG: “Magnify”: For its November 29 worship service, Good Shepherd New York [previously] premiered a new arrangement of Tom Wuest’s “Magnify,” sung by Paul Zach and Lauren Goans, part of the Good Shepherd Collective (see 7:33 in the video below). The piano part includes the Gloria theme from “Angels We Have Heard on High,” played liltingly. Love it! (Update 12/14/20: Paul Zach posted a standalone video of this song on Instagram this morning.)

+++

I’ve added a new batch of songs to “Advent: An Art & Theology Playlist.” I like to “DJ” them (to balance the styles and moods and create thematic links), so they’re not all grouped at the bottom, but you can look at the “Date added” column to see the latest additions. I want to acknowledge the source of those I found from other Advent playlists and resources: Credit goes to Teer Hardy of the Crackers and Grape Juice podcast, compiler of the “Advent Begins in the Dark” playlist, for “The Man Comes Around” by Johnny Cash, “Jesus Gonna Be Here” by Tom Waits, “Shepherd’s Lament” by Kirby Brown, and “Are You Ready?” by Jason Champion. Pastor, pianist, arranger, and Daily Prayer Project founding director Joel Littlepage cued me in to the songs “Tenemos Esperanza,” “Toda la Tierra,” “Hold on Just a Little While Longer,” and “He’s Right on Time” through his “DPP Advent Songbook.” “I Believe in Being Ready” by Rising Appalachia comes from Lauren Plummer’s “Advent 2020: All Earth Is Waiting,” and “My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord” by O’Landa Draper and the Associates is from Tamara Hill Murphy’s “Advent 2020: Gracious Invitation.” “Intro Comfort My People” by Jamaican artist Chrisinti is featured in Biola’s Advent Project 2020.

Roundup: Virtual Advent concerts, dreams deferred, pop-up floral memorials, and more

The Christmas–Epiphany 2020/21 edition of the Daily Prayer Project [previously], a publication I work for part-time, released this week! The cover image is from the sanctuary mural at Holy Angels Catholic Church in Chicago, by Cameroonian artist-priest Engelbert Mveng. (See the full mural here.) Also in this edition are images of Grace Carol Bomer’s From Strength to Strength, showing Light stepping into darkness, and the Piper-Reyntiens stained glass window in Coventry Cathedral, with its yellow sunburst amid an abstract pattern of reds, blues, and greens. We include visual art as a supplement to the prayers, scripture readings, and songs with the understanding that it, too, can promote spiritual development and a deeper communion with God.

You can purchase a digital copy (PDF) of the Christmas–Epiphany edition (December 24–February 16) through the website, and if in the future you’d like to receive hard copies, starting with Lent 2021, you can become a monthly subscriber. Part of the money goes to supporting artists.

On a related note: My colleagues at the DPP have curated an excellent Spotify playlist, “DPP Advent Songbook,” that is reflective of the types of music featured in the prayerbooks (in the form of simplified lead sheets, typically four songs per edition). Check it out!

+++

Whenever I see a Helena Sorensen [previously] byline, I perk up, because I always find myself connecting so much with her writing. She’s a regular contributor to the Rabbit Room blog. Her two most recent posts are “Things Fall Apart” and “Advent, Week One: Hope.” They’re both great.

+++

Unburden: A Virtual Interactive Exhibit, December 4, 2020–January 8, 2021: The Gallery at W83 is part of a 45,000-square-foot cultural center built by Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan’s Upper West Side as a service to the city’s artists and larger community. W83 Events and Programming Director Eva Ting has curated a virtual exhibition of photographs and stories from Kristina Libby’s Floral Heart Project, a series of living memorials to those lost to or suffering from COVID-19. Libby initiated the project in New York City in May, partnering with 1800Flowers.com to place floral heart garlands all around the city to create space for ceremony and to invite the community to process and mourn. The project has since grown nationwide.

“Many of us are carrying burdens of loss, anxiety, and uncertainty as we move towards the end of 2020,” Ting writes. “We have all been impacted in some way by the events of this year, and we bear fatigue weighed heavier by the inability to gather as a community to collectively grieve. In this interactive virtual exhibit Unburden, the Gallery at W83 invites you to participate in an unburdening of the load we carry.”

The exhibition webpage invites you to release personal burdens by writing down any grief, fears, loss, or anxiety you wish to let go of (can be submitted anonymously if desired). These words will be incorporated into a new floral heart laying on December 20 at Fort Tryon Park, an event that will be livestreamed. You can also ask for prayer, and members of the W83 team will pray for your requests. “Through these individual and collective acts of unburdening, may we imagine what it would look like to truly let go of these burdens.”

Floral Heart Project (Brooklyn Bridge)
Photo by Erica Reade

+++

I enjoyed attending the virtual “Songs of Hope: A TGC Advent Concert,” featuring music and spoken-word performances from a variety of artists (see YouTube description), interspersed with Advent readings. It was a truly meaningful worship experience.

I’m sure there are many more virtual Advent/Christmas concerts and other online events coming up. What ones are you most looking forward to?

One that I’ll probably be tuning in to is “We Three Queens Holiday Show” by Pegasis, a sister trio, on December 17, 8:30 p.m. EST (7:30 p.m. CST). It will be live on Facebook and and Instagram. (Update, 12/17/20: View the performance here. My favorite two songs are probably “Poncho Andino” at 19:04 and “Mary Had a Baby” at 45:24—such a unique arrangement!)

There’s also “A Candlelit (Virtual) Room: The Advent Christmas Music of Ben Thomas” on December 11 and 12 (10 p.m. EST and 8 p.m. EST, respectively), two private Zoom concerts open to the first twenty-five registrants each. He’ll be performing original songs from his albums The Bewildering Light, The Wilderness Voice, and Peace Here, all of which I recommend. My favorite tracks: “Justice Will Sprout from the Ground,” “Zechariah and the Least Expected Places,” and “Shepherds and Angels.” (The latter two were recorded under the name So Elated.)

+++

POEM: “Harlem” by Langston Hughes: This is a brilliant poem—its sensory images, its rhythm, its rhyme, its multivalence (especially the last line). I loved it so much when I first read it in ninth grade that I memorized it unbidden. When writer and podcaster Joy Clarkson posted a reflection on the poem for her Patreon community in October, resulting in a lively conversation thread in the comments section, it reignited my enthusiasm for and got me thinking more deeply about “Harlem.” She opened by quoting Proverbs 13:12: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, / But desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”

“What happens to a dream deferred? // Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?” Written in 1951 as part of a sequence of poems exploring black life in Harlem, “Harlem” is inextricably tied to the civic discourse of the contemporary American moment, writes Scott Challener in Poetry Foundation’s guide to the poem. The “dream” he refers to is the so-called American Dream, unattainable for so many due to racial inequalities and oppression. (Also assigned in the ninth-grade English curriculum is Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, which takes its title from and addresses the questions of “Harlem.”)

While not wishing to strip the poem of its specific context, I have been thinking about all the dreams that have been deferred this year—put on hold, or even irretrievably lost, because of COVID-19. Hughes posits a string of descriptive similes for a deferred dream: a dried-up raisin, a festering sore, rotting meat, a crusted-over sweet, a sagging load. One commenter on Joy’s Patreon observed how a raisin can’t turn back into a grape, rotten meat can’t be made fresh again, and an overcooked dessert can’t be cooked back down (though perhaps the burnt bits could be scraped off), but a sore can heal and a load can be lifted.

The final suggestion—“or does it explode?”—can be read in myriad ways. In one respect it could refer to the explosion of cultural output, of creativity, that results from deferred dreams—i.e., the Harlem Renaissance. I’ve definitely seen this happen this year, as people, in the face of crushing personal and professional disappointments, have found unique ways to come together and produce and share works of beauty within the restrictiveness of health and safety protocols. One example—speaking of Harlem—is the Dance Theatre of Harlem, a groundbreaking neoclassical ballet company founded at the height of the civil rights movement in 1969 and still active today. Bans on gatherings of certain numbers have meant that dancers and other performers have had to find alternative ways of reaching their audiences, so DTH artists Derek Brockington and Alexandra Hutchinson created “Dancing Through Harlem,” taking choreography from Robert Garland’s “New Bach” out into the streets and capturing it on video for people to enjoy from home. To help support the DTH during this time, you can donate easily through the fundraising sidebar on the video’s YouTube page or through the company’s website.

+++

SONG: “400 Years” by Sarah Sparks: This original song, sung with Kate Lab, appears on Sarah Sparks’s new album, Advent, Pt. One. It’s about how the centuries-long silence of God between the ministry of Malachi (ca. 420 BCE) and the appearance of John the Baptist in the early first century CE was broken with the birth of Jesus—the Word made flesh. Its refrain, “For the first time, not a silent night,” cleverly turns on its head the sweet, familiar carol “Silent Night.” Through the incarnation, God spoke to all who would listen.

Roundup: Advent calendar of songs, free Alvin Ailey season, Bill Murray plays Job, and more

For those readers who are new, welcome! I want to alert you to (and remind others of) the Art & Theology Advent Music Playlist. I released it last year on Spotify and have made some additions since then, including all six songs from Lo Sy Lo’s excellent album St Fleming of Advent, selections from recent releases by the Porter’s Gate’s, Andrew Bird, and Caroline Cobb, some Nina Simone and Jackson 5, a musical setting of an Emily Dickinson poem by Julie Lee and a Count of Monte Cristo quote by the Duke of Norfolk, the shape-note hymn “Bozrah,” and more. I’ve structured the list as a journey from the early promise of a Savior in God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen. 22:18), through Isaiah’s prophecies about a great light dawning and a shoot springing up out of a stump and valleys being lifted and swords being beaten into plowshares, to the angel’s announcement to Mary and her subsequent Magnificat and pregnant waiting, which I transition into the church’s waiting for Christ’s second coming, with warnings to keep our lamps trimmed and burning, to stay awake, to watch and pray. Sprinkled throughout are groanings from God’s people as well as expressions of joyful expectancy.

A Christmas playlist will be forthcoming in just two weeks.

+++

Bard and Ceilidh Advent Calendar: This Advent, multi-instrumentalist and melodist Mary Vanhoozer (aka Bard and Ceilidh) is offering a digital “Advent calendar” with twenty-four traditional, Celtic-infused Christmas carols played on various folk instruments. For $20, you will receive a code that unlocks a new song daily for download. Here are two of Vanhoozer’s previous releases, to give you a sense of the style she plays in. The first is her own arrangement of “I Saw Three Ships” with “Branle des Chevaux” (The Horse’s Brawl). The second, “When Icicles Hang by the Wall,” is an original setting of the winter hymn from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost, which celebrates the season of biting cold and red, runny noses and sloshy roads and singing owls and simmering crabapples and interior warmth.

+++

“Veni Emmanuel: A brief meditation on the meaning of Advent” by John B. Graeber: This short piece published last year in Curator is a great introduction to the liturgical season we’re entering into on November 29. It begins, “Advent is the hope of redemption, sung in minor key. It is the promise of resurrection, and the sorrow of that hope not yet fulfilled. In this the midnight of the liturgical year, these few weeks before we celebrate the birth of Christ, we confront a world not yet reborn and embody what Saint Paul calls the ‘hope against hope,’ a hope that endures when the world says it should not. A hope that looks back to the birth of our savior, and forward to His coming again, when all will be made new.”

+++

VIRTUAL DANCE PERFORMANCES: On December 2, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is launching its first-ever virtual winter season—and, in the spirit of making dance accessible to all, it’s free! The season will feature the world premiere of the dance films A Jam Session for Troubling Times (choreographed by Jamar Roberts) and Testament (Matthew Rushing, Clifton Brown, and Yusha-Marie Sorzano), plus sixtieth anniversary tributes to Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, a classic that “explores the places of deepest grief and holiest joy in the soul . . . using African American spirituals, song-sermons, gospel songs, and holy blues.” The season will run through December 31. Learn more here.

+++

DRAMATIC READING AND DISCUSSION: The Book of Job: On Sunday, December 6, 4–6 p.m. ET, Theater of War Productions will be hosting a free online event where actors, including Bill Murray, will be performing Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the book of Job, adapted and directed by Bryan Doerries. “The Book of Job is an ancient Hebrew poem that timelessly explores how humans behave when faced with disaster, pestilence and injustice,” Doerries writes, and this dramatic reading aims to serve “as a catalyst for powerful, guided conversations about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic upon individuals, families, and communities.” After the reading, four community panelists will kick off the discussion with their gut responses to what resonated with them, and then discussion will open up to the audience. RSVP here.

“Theater of War Productions works with leading film, theater, and television actors to present dramatic readings of seminal plays—from classical Greek tragedies to modern and contemporary works—followed by town hall-style discussions designed to confront social issues by drawing out raw and personal reactions to themes highlighted in the plays. The guided discussions underscore how the plays resonate with contemporary audiences and invite audience members to share their perspectives and experiences, and, helping to break down stigmas, foster empathy, compassion, and a deeper understanding of complex issues.” Their many past projects include A Streetcar Named Desire (followed by a discussion on domestic violence), scenes from King Lear (the challenges of aging and dementia), and Sophocles’s Ajax (the invisible wounds of war).

Beginning in May, the company started presenting their projects online. Because they want to cultivate “a dynamic space to participate in an ephemeral experience, in which risks can be taken, interpretations shared, and truths told,” the projects are not available afterward for on-demand views. To get an idea of the format they follow and some of the work they’ve done, see the Theater of War trailer below.

+++

INTERVIEW: “Grief Is Hard to Look At: An Interview with Wayne Brezinka” by Brooke West, The Rabbit Room: Wayne Brezinka, a Nashville-based mixed media artist specializing in multidimensional portraits, recently launched a Kickstarter to crowdfund 2020 Disrupted: A Re-Assembled Life. (I just missed the deadline, but it turns out the project was successfully funded!)

As we sit in the year 2020 and struggle to remember what normal even feels like, I’ve been wondering about people’s emotions and how I might capture the painful realities of human existence we all seem to be feeling this year. In this new work, I will explore the pain and anxiety of massive disruption and how we are changed by it. I’ve been thinking about the biblical character Job from the land of Uz. What might he look like, plucked out of the ancient text, and plopped into modern-day? This is my attempt to bring a re-imagined 21st century Job to life in a way that encapsulates not only his experience, but also our own. I’ll be using a combination of found and repurposed objects, multi-media visuals, and incorporating input from the public on multiple panels that measure 8 feet by 5 feet—my biggest project to date.

Brezinka, Wayne_Job
Early working prototype for 2020 Disrupted: A Re-Assembled Life by Wayne Brezinka

Next year Brezinka will be taking the completed art on tour across the country in a glass box truck. “The plan is to park at notable cathedrals or churches and community centers in each city. I want to give those who funded this project and the general public an opportunity to pause, interact with the art, and reflect on the last year—the disruptions, the beauty, and the changes it all brings.” He says the art is an invitation for people to feel their sorrow and their grief. Read the interview to find out more about his process and his hopes for the project.

+++

NEW SONG RELEASE: “O Love That Casts Out Fear”: This is my favorite track from the new sacred chamber pop EP by Bobby Krier, Jon Green, and friends, Cast Out All Our Fears. The hymn text was written by Horatius Bonar in 1861, and the music is by Bobby Krier and Justin Ruddy [previously], who collaborated often as musicians at Citylife Presbyterian Church in Boston. (Their retuned version premiered on the 2013 album Castle Island Hymns; they have since moved on from Citylife.) This rendition is sung by Molly Parden.

Roundup: Art and the Psalms, “We Americans,” the Walking Roots Band, and more

“Psalms in Dialogue: Psalms 22, 23, and 24,” presented by Duke University Chapel: This multidisciplinary video presentation brings together dancers, musicians, a theologian, a painter, and (other) members of the Duke community to draw out the meaning of, or respond to, these three sequential psalms through art, prayer, and conversation. The livestreamed event aired October 17 and will be available for viewing for a limited time. Several of the segments, which I’ve time-stamped below, are intercut with photos from the streets in 2020 (showing the impact of the pandemic and racial unrest), of artist Makoto Fujimura in his studio and of his three finished paintings, and of Ekklesia Contemporary Ballet dancers in training. I wish more university chapels and well-resourced churches would offer experiences like this! Thank you to my friend Peggy for telling me about it. Read more about Duke Chapel’s multiyear Psalms project here.

1:51: “How do we name the impossible mystery?,” a theological reflection by Morley Van Yperen

6:02: Organ: “Jésus accepte la souffrance,” from La Nativité du Seigneur [previously] by Olivier Messiaen, performed by Christopher Jacobson

10:58: Psalm 22 by Makoto Fujimura, 2020, oyster shell on Belgium canvas, 48 × 48 in.

11:09: Reading of Psalm 22:1–22 by Luke A. Powery, with balletic responses by Paiter van Yperen, Elijah Ryan, Heather Bachman, and Sasha Biagiarelli

15:40: Lament, ballet solo danced by Paiter van Yperen (music by Max Richter, choreo by Elisa Schroth)

18:10: Psalm 22:22–32 chant by Zebulon Highben

21:09: Conversation on the Psalms with Makoto Fujimura and Ellen F. Davis, moderated by Amanda Millay Hughes

29:32: Organ: “Christus, der uns selig macht,” BWV 620, by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed by Christopher Jacobson

32:00: Prayer by Nathan Liang

34:11: Recitation of Psalm 23 by Julia Hendrickson

35:22: 6IX, a tap dance by Andrew Nemr

37:10: “The 23rd Psalm,” text adaptation and music by Bobby McFerrin, performed by the Duke Chapel Staff Singers (*this was my favorite!)

40:42: Prayer by Jonathan Avendano

42:39: “The Lord Is My Shepherd,” music by Howard Goodall, performed by the Royal School of Church Music in America Choristers

46:13: Psalm 24 remix produced by Andrew Nemr

48:21: Prayer by Jordyn Blake

49:45: Recitation of Psalm 24 by Julia Hendrickson

51:32: Conversation continued

1:11:49: “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” African American spiritual arranged by Mark A. Miller, performed by the Duke Chapel Choir

+++

POEMS: This week’s edition of ImageUpdate includes two poems that I really appreciated. The first, which was new to me, is “America” by Claude McKay, a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Originally published in The Liberator in 1921, it expresses the pain of living in a country where you’re hated for your race and yet remains optimistic, beginning, “Although she feeds me bread of bitterness, / And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth, / Stealing my breath of life, I will confess / I love this cultured hell . . .” The second poem is “Making Peace” by Denise Levertov, one of the best-known Christian poets of the twentieth century. “The poets must give us / imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar / imagination of disaster,” she writes. Poets can help us feel our way toward shalom—give us a vision of its permeating the world that inspires us to live out its rhythms, its metaphors, its structure, its grammar, our lives like poems.

+++

MUSIC VIDEO: “We Americans” by the Avett Brothers: I’m so moved by this song from the Avett Brothers’ 2019 album Closer Than Together—its grappling with the historical legacy of the US, its greatness and its guilt, with a mixture of heartache, empathy, and hope. It’s one of the healthiest expressions of patriotism I’ve ever come across in a song. We need to see America as the complex entity that she is, which means in part not ignoring her flaws but with love exposing them so that they can be remediated and we can move forward together more faithful to her celebrated ideals. “We Americans” is both confession and supplication, an “I’m sorry, God” and “God, help us to do better.” The final chorus:

I am a son of God and man
And I may never understand
The good and evil
But I dearly love this land
Because of and in spite of We the People
We are more than the sum of our parts
All these broken bones and broken hearts
God, will you keep us wherever we go?
Can you forgive us for where we’ve been?
We Americans

I was reminded of this song in the September 17 episode of the RTN Theology podcast, “You Shall Know the Truth and the Truth Shall Unsettle You.” Chris Breslin interviews Mark Charles, a Native American activist, public speaker, Christian leader, and independent candidate in this year’s US presidential election. He is the coauthor, with Soong-Chan Rah, of Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery. Charles enters at 12:40 with a discussion of the lack of common memory.

+++

SONGS:

“Whatever Comes Next” by Drew Miller: This song came out of “Hutchmoot: Homebound,” a virtual arts gathering organized by the Rabbit Room that took place earlier this month. In writing the song, Drew Miller [previously] was inspired in part by Shigé Clark’s new poem “Grateful” (see her perform the poem here).

View this post on Instagram

One Friday back in March, when we thought quarantine would last about six weeks tops, Kelsey and I raised our Old Fashioneds up for our weekly Pizza Night toast, each of us wearing that 😬 sort of face reserved for when we have no idea what’s about to happen (we’ve been making that face a lot this year).⁣ ⁣ And then, as our glasses clinked, she said, “To whatever comes next.”⁣ ⁣ This is my post-Hutchmoot (and as 2020 would have it, pre-election) song. And as such, it steals shamelessly from—well, really, from all over the place, but mostly from Shigé Clark’s staggering poem “Grateful:” “Father, the world is on fire.”⁣ ⁣ Go read that poem. And then, if you have any emotional capacity left, come back and listen to this song.⁣ ⁣ Lyrics:⁣ ⁣ Father, your world’s on fire and⁣ Every day I wake up tired and⁣ Afraid of what’s required of me⁣ ⁣ But your daughter filled my cup, said⁣ “Look at me and listen up,” said⁣ “A toast to all we’ve yet to see”⁣ ⁣ 𝘛𝘰 𝘸𝘩𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘴 𝘯𝘦𝘹𝘵⁣ 𝘞𝘩𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘴 𝘯𝘦𝘹𝘵⁣ 𝘓𝘦𝘵’𝘴 𝘳𝘢𝘪𝘴𝘦 𝘢𝘯𝘰𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘳 𝘨𝘭𝘢𝘴𝘴⁣ 𝘛𝘰 𝘸𝘩𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘴 𝘯𝘦𝘹𝘵⁣ ⁣ So this world’s the one I inherit⁣ It takes the best of me just to bear it⁣ While the rest of me wants to tear it down⁣ ⁣ I’ve got no choice in the matter⁣ But to let illusions shatter⁣ And scatter like seeds on the ground⁣ ⁣ 𝘍𝘰𝘳 𝘸𝘩𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘴 𝘯𝘦𝘹𝘵⁣ 𝘞𝘩𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘴 𝘯𝘦𝘹𝘵⁣ 𝘓𝘦𝘵’𝘴 𝘳𝘢𝘪𝘴𝘦 𝘢𝘯𝘰𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘳 𝘨𝘭𝘢𝘴𝘴⁣ 𝘛𝘰 𝘸𝘩𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘴 𝘯𝘦𝘹𝘵⁣ ⁣ 𝘈𝘯𝘥 𝘐 𝘸𝘰𝘯’𝘵 𝘳𝘦𝘨𝘳𝘦𝘵⁣ 𝘞𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘐 𝘤𝘢𝘯𝘯𝘰𝘵 𝘬𝘯𝘰𝘸 𝘺𝘦𝘵⁣ 𝘐’𝘮 𝘨𝘰𝘯𝘯𝘢 𝘴𝘵𝘪𝘤𝘬 𝘢𝘳𝘰𝘶𝘯𝘥⁣ 𝘍𝘰𝘳 𝘸𝘩𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘴 𝘯𝘦𝘹𝘵⁣ ⁣ Father, your world’s on fire⁣ And look at how it shines⁣ Father, your world’s on fire⁣ ⁣ I have often wondered⁣ A sister grieves for her brother⁣ She can’t conceive of another ending⁣ ⁣ For all that hope she carried⁣ Only to see it buried⁣ Then, through her tears, she hears⁣ “Mary”⁣ ⁣ So what comes next?

A post shared by Drew Miller (@drewmillersongs) on

*

“Bring Your Peace” by the Walking Roots Band: This song was written this year by Seth Thomas Crissman and Greg J. Yoder of the Walking Roots Band as part of a collection of fifteen songs for Shine, a children’s Sunday school curriculum published by MennoMedia and Brethren Press. It appears on Everybody Sing: Worship Songs for Children, released in June as a double album with Everybody Sing: Songs for the Seasons (which comprises ten original songs by The Many). The song asks God to bring his peace into our fears and into the storms we face, and to make us instruments of that peace to others.

*

“Rest Assured,” sung by the Walking Roots Band: TWRB learned this song from a bandmate’s parent (original authorship unknown) and recorded it a cappella in their separate locations at the start of quarantine in March. The chorus goes,

Rest assured, He’s not forgotten
Rest assured, He’ll take care of you
Look at the times He’s been there before
He’ll be there again, rest assured

*

“Let Justice Roll Like a River,” sung by Eric Lige: Bobby Gilles and Rebecca Elliott of Sojourn Music wrote this song in 2017, inspired by Amos 5. In this lyric video from July 5, it’s performed by Eric Lige and Paul Lee of Ethnos Community Church. The singing starts at 1:33. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

Roundup: The Crucifixion in modern art, “Lift Every Voice” ballet solo, and more

VISUAL MEDITATION: “Waking Up from Apathy,” on Philip Evergood’s The New Lazarus: My latest visual meditation for ArtWay has just been published. It’s on a crowded, noisy, garish painting that, honestly, is distressing to look at. And it’s supposed to be. Because it exposes what Martin Luther King Jr. called the triple evils of society: racism, militarism (war), and economic exploitation (aka extreme materialism, a systematic cause of poverty). Though Philip Evergood was not a Christian, he draws on Christian narrative and iconography, with the figures of Lazarus and Christ, to protest the cycles of violence that we need to rise out of before we self-destruct.

Evergood, Philip_The New Lazarus
Philip Evergood (American, 1901–1973), The New Lazarus, 1927–54. Oil and enamel on canvas mounted on wood, 148 × 237.2 cm. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

The see-nothing, hear-nothing, say-nothing figures in the background remind me of people today who insist that racism does not exist and therefore tune out the cries of Black Lives Matter, for instance. I’m implicated too by these symbols of willful ignorance, because I admit that I do not often care to question where my food, clothes, coffee, chocolate, and other conveniences come from, or how the businesses I regularly support with my dollars treat their employees.

Evergood was politically engaged in both his art and his life, espousing egalitarian ideals. He participated in strikes and demonstrations for workers’ rights and was jailed more than once and beaten by police. He was greatly influenced by Mexican muralism, and he embraced the label of “propaganda” for his art, acknowledging that he was trying persuade the public to join the cause of social justice. “He was a figurative painter when much of the art world placed greater value on abstraction,” writes the University of Kentucky Art Museum, “and he was a moralist when moralizing was not considered an option for serious painters.” Nevertheless, he had a successful career, and his work is in many major museum collections, including the Tate Gallery, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Hirshhorn Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

+++

PODCAST EPISODE: “How a ‘biblically illiterate’ generation can discover Christian art,” Holy Smoke, July 28, 2020: I love hearing Ben Quash [previously] discuss specific artworks in detail! He brings such reverence, inquiry, wonder, curiosity, and openness to his looking and interpreting. For this interview with Carmel Thompson he has selected six Christ images spanning the early Renaissance through contemporary eras: the side-by-side Byzantine-inspired Healing of the Man Born Blind and Transfiguration panels of the Maestà Altarpiece by Duccio, the classically beautiful Descent from the Cross by Rogier van der Weyden at the Prado (“probably the painting that put realistic tears on the map of Western art”), Albrecht Dürer’s daring self-portrait as Christ, a homely Christ in the Wilderness: Consider the Lilies by Stanley Spencer, a grotesque Crucifixion by F. N. Souza (with reference to crucifixions by Grünewald, Picasso, Sutherland, and Bacon), and Michael Landy’s kinetic sculpture Doubting Thomas.

In addition to providing individual commentaries, Quash also talks about reading art theologically instead of just aesthetically, art as developing physical sight toward spiritual insight (external and internal seeing), the persistence of Christian iconography in the art of today, and the ways in which art can implicate the viewer.

Weyden, Rogier van der_Descent from the Cross
Rogier van der Weyden (Netherlandish, 1399–1464), Descent from the Cross, before 1443. Oil on panel, 204.5 × 261.5 cm. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.

Crucifixion by F. N. Souza
F. N. Souza (Indian, 1924–2002), Crucifixion, 1959. Oil on board, 183.1 × 122 cm. Tate Modern, London.

There’s so much that’s quotable in the conversation, but because it applies to the ArtWay meditation I linked to above, I’ll just highlight part of his discussion of nonreligious artists’ attraction to Crucifixion imagery in the twentieth century. The Isenheim Altarpiece (1515), he says, a visual reference point for many modern artists,

shows an agonized Christ whose tongue is swollen and protruding from his mouth, whose body is covered in sores, whose skin is tinged green, whose fingers are curled up in agony. There’s no idealization here of what a death like that might have been. Instead there’s a strong assertion that the extremes of human pain and suffering are not alien to the Christian message. And yet it’s a religious image—this is a Christian image painted for a Christian context.

When that work comes into contact with the new traumas of the twentieth century—we talked about [Stanley] Spencer and the Second World War, here [Francis Newton] Souza experiencing colonialism in India—when that painting comes into contact with those sorts of extremes of human experience, it activates, it speaks to them, and calls forth new artistic responses, because it feels as though Christianity can still speak, even in those extremes. And I think Souza, like [Graham] Sutherland and [Francis] Bacon, while they may not have felt comfortable with traditional Christianity, saw the power of that Christian tradition to in some way help them articulate the traumas and the horrors of their own time.

So that’s a very interesting work, and typical of several examples of the extraordinary way in which we might think we’re in a secular age, but Christian iconography is probably as lively as ever—although it’s doing new things—in the work of modern and contemporary artists.

+++

SONGS . . .

from the GOOD SHEPHERD COLLECTIVE: Spearheaded by David Gungor and Tyler Chester, the Good Shepherd Collective [previously] “creates liturgical art to inspire the Christian imagination, that we may embody the love of Christ for the good of our neighbors.” They’ve just released an album of ten hymns. One of them is “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” queued up in the liturgical service video below, and though it didn’t make the final album cut, I also really like their version of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”

from Family Company: Charles Jones, the lead singer on both of the above videos, is also a part of Family Company, an LA-based music collective celebrating the traditions of soul, blues, and R&B. You might enjoy these seventies covers of theirs: “Heaven Help Us All” (popularized by Stevie Wonder), featuring Charles Jones, and “Let Us Love” by Bill Withers, featuring Teddy Grossman. See more on their YouTube channel.

+++

BALLET SOLO: “Lift Every Voice and Sing”: Premiering at the Lincoln Center in 2019, Ounce of Faith is a contemporary ballet choreographed by Darrell Grand Moultrie, the score a mix of jazz standards, original music, and spoken word. This excerpt is performed by Khalia Campbell of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, with movements suggestive of both struggle and pride.

Known as the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was written in 1899 by writer and activist James Weldon Johnson and set to music by his brother, John Rosamond Johnson. The hymn is sung here, just the first of its three verses, by Aisha Jackson, with Dante Hawkins on piano. It’s a song of historical remembrance and lament but also of hope, a rallying cry to move forward together, in unity, out of our “dark past,” into the truth of God, continuing to fight injustice wherever we find it so that everyone can live free. It acknowledges that God is the one who leads his people in love and who wills liberty, and it supplicates: “Keep us forever in the path [of Your light], we pray.” Learn more about the hymn in this NPR feature. See also this UMC Discipleship article, especially the part where Dr. James Abbington, a choir director and a scholar of African American sacred music, answers the question, “Is this a hymn just for African Americans or is it for all people?”

+++

LITERARY ESSAY: “To Sit with an Onion” by Elizabeth Harwell: God “is tethered to this world in delight” and does not weary of it as we do, writes Elizabeth Harwell after having sat with a mussel shell for one hour, upon the advice of Robert Farrar Capon. (An exercise in wonder! Any inanimate object will do.) Harwell marvels at how the shell—blueberry-blue and milk-white, cold, curvaceous, smooth—was “an entire world to the mussel who called [it] home,” and now, since she picked it up off a Maine beach, it sits in a silver dish in her dining room, a reminder of the Creator’s quiet mirth. And there’s much more where that came from. “That shell represented one of thousands (millions?) of pearly homes that will never lay bare in front of human eyes—miles of ocean floor, covered in secret delights, that began as thoughts in my Father’s mind. We humans can be so self-important that we’ve never considered that God is enjoying parts of creation that none of us will ever see.” Read the whole essay at The Rabbit Room.

(Quash’s discussion of Stanley Spencer’s Wilderness series in the abovementioned podcast, in which Christ gets down on the ground like a curious child to observe wildflowers, scorpion, hen, dovetails nicely with this essay!)

Roundup: Lent devotionals, Joseph Shabalala, dancing with dust, kids’ songs and doodles

Lent begins next week, and as usual, I’ll be sharing visual art, music, poetry, and other media throughout the season that I hope will be a quiet support to your spiritual walk. If you are giving up social media for Lent but want to be kept aware of new Art & Theology posts, sign up to receive the posts by email by clicking the “Subscribe” button—on the right sidebar if you’re on a desktop, or at the bottom of this post if you’re on your phone. (Note that the sidebar/footer is not visible from the homepage; you have to click through into a post to see it.)

+++

Lent devotionals 2020

NEW LENT DEVOTIONALS: I’ve become aware of two new poetry devotionals for Lent published this year.

My Sour-Sweet Days: George Herbert and the Journey of the Soul by Mark Oakley: “George Herbert is one of the great 17th century poet-priests. His poems embrace every shade of the spiritual life, from love and closeness, to anger and despair, to reconciliation and hope. And his work is always rich with audacious playfulness: he seems to take God on, knowing God will win, as if he’s having an argument with a faithful friend he knows is not going to leave. In much of theology and spirituality, God is a critical spectator to human lives, but for Herbert, his sense of relationship with God is primarily of a friendship that can never be broken. These are some of the themes Mark Oakley explores in this book. He offers a poem for every day in Lent, with a two-page commentary on each of the forty included.”

Wendell Berry and the Sabbath Poetry of Lent by SALT Project: “In this Lenten devotional, biblical texts and simple, accessible practices walk hand-in-hand with Wendell Berry’s poetic vision of sabbath and the natural world. All you’ll need is your favorite Bible and Wendell Berry’s This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems. Week by week, we’ll walk through the woods together toward Easter morning, keeping sabbath as we go—with Wendell Berry as our guide.” Sold as a professionally designed, downloadable PDF with printing and folding instructions.

I really enjoyed SALT Project’s Lent devotional from last year, built around the poetry of Mary Oliver, so I bought this new one and gave it a breeze-through so I could recommend it here prior to Lent; I look forward to spending more time with it throughout the season. Devotions are provided for Ash Wednesday; the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent; Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Each one includes an instruction to read a Bible passage and a Wendell Berry poem, a short meditation that draws the two together, an additional reading of two more related Berry poems, a candle lighting and one-sentence prayer (on the themes of silence, trust, delight, care, insight, resurrection, joy, love, sorrow), a few recommended practices for the week, and personal questions to ponder and discuss with a friend, if desired.

I especially appreciate the “Practices” section, which includes ideas like: make a list of your favorite little delights (“the sunlight’s slant in the late afternoon, your dog’s ears, the steam rising from your coffee—no delight is too slight!”) and read it aloud with family or friends over a meal; take a neighborhood walk and count how many shades of green you see; ignore a household chore for an entire day each week.

+++

DANCE VIDEO: “Seas of Crimson”: In this music video for one of the pieces on Bethel Music’s album Without Words: Synesthesia, Jessica Lind of the Oregon Ballet Theatre dances with dust that by the composition’s end turns to vibrant color. A metaphor for the Lenten journey, perhaps? [HT: A Sacramental Life]

+++

OBITUARY: Joseph Shabalala, Ladysmith Black Mambazo Founder, Dies at 78: From the New York Times obituary by Jon Pareles:

Joseph Shabalala, the gentle-voiced South African songwriter whose choir, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, brought Zulu music to listeners worldwide, died on [February 11] in a hospital in Pretoria. He was 78. . . . Mr. Shabalala began leading choral groups at the end of the 1950s. By the early ’70s his Ladysmith Black Mambazo — in Zulu, “the black ax of Ladysmith,” a town in KwaZulu-Natal Province — had become one of South Africa’s most popular groups, singing about love, Zulu folklore, rural childhood memories, moral admonitions and Christian faith. Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s collaborations with Paul Simon on his 1986 album “Graceland,” on the tracks “Homeless” and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” introduced South African choral music to an international pop audience.

Joseph Shabalala

Shabalala was an ordained minister in the Pentecostal Church of God of Prophecy, having become a Christian in 1976. He said he hopes his music shows people “how to be good to God, how to praise God, how to respect, how to forgive each other . . .”

Below is a video of Shabalala with Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing one of his songs, “King of Kings,” live in Montreux, Switzerland, in 2000. Written during apartheid, it is a prayer for peace in South Africa and the rest of the world. It was first released on the 1987 album Shaka Zulu. [Listen on Spotify]

+++

KIDS’ SONGS: I’m not a mom, but I often enjoy listening to “children’s music,” as there’s so much of quality out there these days. Here are two songs released this year in that too-restrictively-titled genre (because hey, there’s much for grown-ups to love here too!), along with animated music videos.

“Glad You’re Here” by Justin Roberts: This new single by “the Judy Blume of kiddie rock” (New York Times) is for a new or soon-to-be-born baby. So fun, warm, and adorable! (Note: The video was produced by the same company that brought you the Wendell Berry devotional mentioned above.)

“Dinosaurs in Love” by Fenn Rosenthal, feat. Tom Rosenthal: This sad-sweet song about two dinosaurs eating cucumbers and having parties and then, well, you’ll have to listen . . . was written by three-year-old Fenn Rosenthal from London (with some help on the tune from her dad, Tom). At the end of January Tom Rosenthal, who is himself a singer-songwriter, posted a recording of Fenn singing this one-minute creation of hers on Twitter, and it went viral. Now the song is streaming on Spotify and is up on iTunes, Amazon, and other e-tailer websites, with all proceeds benefitting wildlife charities. It was also picked up by directorial team Hannah Jacobs, Katy Wang, and Anna Ginsburg, who created a music video using 2D frame-by-frame animation. [HT: Colossal]

+++

DRAWING CONTEST: “Doodle for Google,” for K–12 artists: Google Doodles are those special drawings, sometimes animated, that embellish Google’s logo on the website’s homepage from time to time. For the twelfth consecutive year, that highly visible space is up for grabs to one young artist in the US through the tech company’s “Doodle for Google” competition, open to ages K–12. This year the theme is “How do you show kindness?” In addition to having their work featured on Google’s landing page for an entire day, the winner will receive a $30,000 college scholarship, and the winner’s school will be awarded a $50,000 technology package. The deadline for submissions is March 13, 2020, at 11 p.m. ET. [HT: Hyperallergic]