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.
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. 😊
>> “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.”
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.
Published last month by Brazos Press, the book consists of ten chapters, each one built around a theologically charged word or concept (such as “sin,” “image of God,” or “lament”) and a twentieth-century novel or poem(s) by a Black author that is then engaged through that lens. A potential danger with this approach is that the interpretations in either direction could be forced to fit into a box, but this turned out not to be the case at all. Reading Black Books is a two-way, mutually enriching exchange between theology and literature, one that is expansive rather than limiting and that takes each discipline seriously on its own terms.
Combining literary analysis and theological reflection, Atcho shows how “God’s truth addresses Black experience and how Black experience, as shown in the literature of our great writers, can prod readers from all backgrounds toward sharper theological thinking and more faithful living” (1). We are invited to inhabit the experiences of various characters and poetic voices and to be transformed as a result. As a middle-class white woman living in a Maryland suburb, I acknowledge that I move about the world with a very different set of experiences than those of people of color. With pastoral sensitivity but also directness, Atcho helps me enter into America’s racial narrative—and the narrative of the gospel!—from a different vantage point. This book is for Christians of any race who desire to be enlarged by story and to live more fully into the liberative arc of scripture.
Atcho provides enough context for each book—introducing us to characters, rehearsing relevant plot points, and highlighting specific scenes, often including quoted excerpts—that you don’t have to have read the work previously to benefit from his commentary. The book does contain spoilers, as all serious literary criticism almost inevitably will. But literature is way more than plot, and readers are encouraged to then engage with the primary texts in full on their own, equipped with frames for thinking about them and open to surprises.
I have attempted to come to this book about books as a guide who integrates my affections: my love for these stories, my love for what they say about Black experience in both trials and triumphs, and my love for Jesus and his kingdom.
Claude Atcho, p. 7
Chapter 1 examines the question “What does it mean to live as an image bearer when other image bearers try to limit your existence?” The protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (not to be confused with H. G. Wells’s sci-fi novel The Invisible Man) is not physically invisible; rather, he is rendered invisible by others’ refusal to see him. Atcho discusses the need for white sight—our warped “inner eyes”—to be redeemed.
Chapter 2 explores how systemic sin exacerbates personal sin through the controversial character of Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s Native Son, a Black man from 1930s Chicago who commits two murders (the first one accidental). Is Bigger a victim or a perpetrator? The question is too simplistic. Bigger is both trapped by Sin and an agent of Sin, Atcho says. Atcho’s explication of Sin with a capital S and sin, little s, is sophisticated and illuminates for me broader discussions going on in contemporary culture. Sin is not just personally experienced and personally enacted; it is also a dominating force that’s been set loose in our world and that has become embedded in systems.
The focus of chapter 3 is James Baldwin’s semiautobiographical debut novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, “a critical generational portrait of the toxic Christian practice that emerges from belief in a loveless God” (40). Baldwin gestures toward true religion through negation—by presenting the character of Gabriel, the protagonist’s minister stepfather, as a promiscuous and abusive binge drinker with a lust for power.
Chapter 4 visits “Christ Recrucified” and the nine-hundred-line “The Black Christ” (read the first stanza here) by Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, unpacking the picture they paint of a Jesus who suffers for, like, and with us. Published in the 1920s, both poems compare the crucified Christ to a lynched Black man.
In chapter 5 Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain, a folkloric retelling of the book of Exodus, opens up a quest into the doctrine of salvation. Atcho discusses salvation from and to, which story and script forms us most (the old empire or the coming kingdom?), the significance of the promised land, and Christian social concern as a biblical imperative.
The deliverance of the exodus elides the false dichotomy of a truncated salvation. Hurston’s Moses points in the same direction—toward imagining a fully orbed salvation, as did our enslaved ancestors: revelation and liberation.
Is it our attention, then, to be fixed on the sin of slavery or our slavery to sin? Personal piety in the power of the Spirit or social change in Jesus’s name? Liberation or revelation? In the exodus, the Lord frees his people so that they might exist in freedom for him. It is liberation through revelation and atonement. God’s revelation (Exod. 9:4, 16, 29; 10:1–2; 11:7; 14:4), the necessity of atonement (13:13, 15), the urgency of liberation (2:23–25), and the subsequent call to holiness (31:13; Lev. 20:8) cannot be isolated. In the exodus, each motif exists in relation, forming the full melody of salvation. The song of salvation is not played in only one key. The contextual pressures of human experience can force us, understandably at times, to prize piety or liberation when truly salvation expands and contains both—and more. (84–85)
Nella Larsen’s Passing—which was adapted into an acclaimed film last year—is the subject of chapter 6, on racism. The novella delves into the psyches of two light-skinned Black women in 1920s Harlem, one of whom passes for white in all settings as a means of survival, and the other of whom does so only when convenient. Atcho talks about the need to combat colorism with affirmation (e.g., “Black is beautiful”), with denial, and through the flesh of Christ.
Chapter 7 spotlights Beloved, a gothic novel by Toni Morrison that combines the historical and the supernatural to tell the story of a devoted mother named Sethe who is seeking freedom from enslavement. At one point she escapes with her children, but when the authorities find them she kills her two-year-old daughter (who is unnamed in the novel and referred to as “Beloved,” the sole word on her tombstone) rather than relinquish her to a life of slavery. Sethe is ultimately able to get away to an Ohio farmhouse, which becomes haunted by Beloved’s ghost.
Atcho discusses the traumas of enslavement that continue to compound and haunt the body, mind, and soul even after one becomes “free”; the need for righteous rage; enfleshment and bodily liturgy; chattel slavery’s theft of the mother-child relationship; memory as a muscle that needs to be exercised transparently, communally, and redemptively; new creation and anticreation; and exorcism, rescue.
One of the most compelling characters in the novel is Sethe’s mother-in-law, Baby Suggs. A shepherdess of bodies and souls, she creates a new space in the woods near the farmhouse where she enacts weekly liturgies of healing. She directs her people, in Atcho’s words, “to move and be in the sacred humanity that they are and that has so viciously been attacked by those who enslaved and debased them” (117). A key passage in Beloved describes this communal gathering:
After situating herself on a huge flat-sided rock, Baby Suggs bowed her head and prayed silently. The company watched her from the trees. They knew she was ready when she put her stick down. Then she shouted, “Let the children come!” and they ran from the trees toward her.
“Let your mothers hear you laugh,” she told them, and the woods rang. The adults looked on and could not help smiling.
Then “Let the grown men come,” she shouted. They stepped out one by one from among the ringing trees.
“Let your wives and your children see you dance,” she told them, and groundlife shuddered under their feet.
Finally she called the women to her. “Cry,” she told them. “For the living and the dead. Just cry.” And without covering their eyes the women let loose.
It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until, exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath. In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart. . . .
“Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh . . .”
Baby Suggs then goes on to list various parts of the body—eyes, skin, hands, mouth, neck, liver, heart—contrasting what “yonder” men do to those parts (gouge, flay, chop, beat, hang, expose and feed to hogs) with each part’s innate belovedness. Atcho’s comments on this passage—a passage that has stuck with me ever since I first read the novel some fifteen years ago—are among the best in the book.
Chapter 8 is on the theme of lament, and it considers that biblical practice in relation to the poem “A Litany of Atlanta” by W. E. B. Du Bois while also looking at the Psalms and the cross. “There is . . . power in lament that names injustice for what it is,” Atcho writes. “By naming it as such and placing it before God as counter to his moral will, lament teaches us to make no peace with injustice or oppression” (137). Bearing true witness against evil, the poem was written in response to the three-day reign of racial terror that white men unleashed on a Black community in Atlanta in September 1906, killing, maiming, and destroying homes and businesses. It opens, “O Silent God, Thou whose voice afar in mist and mystery hath left our ears an-hungered in these fearful days— / Hear us, good Lord!”
Chapter 9 takes a look at another novel by Richard Wright, The Man Who Lived Underground, published for the first time last year, sixty-one years after the author’s death. (Publishers rejected it during Wright’s lifetime.) It follows Fred Daniels, a Black man who, after being picked up by police and relentlessly tortured, confesses to a double murder that he did not commit, then flees into the city’s sewer system. “The underground” confers on him a new knowledge of the world’s foundations of falsehood and injustice. At the end, he meets his demise.
To imagine a more just world, one must reckon with the world that is.
Claude Atcho, p. 145
Even though the novel promotes a worldview that is bleak and fatalistic, reading it can still be constructive, Atcho says; as Christians, we carry our hope to bleak texts. What would it look like to see this senseless world reconfigured into wholeness and justice? Atcho calls us to action, away from discrimination, violence, and power abuse and toward the pursuit of justice for all people on earth as it is in heaven.
It’s fitting that the last chapter centers on hope, particularly as expressed through Margaret Walker’s poem “For My People.” Atcho describes the poem as “a living history, an ode, an exhortation, a lament, a prayer” that “embodies the fiery passion of a communal hope, a bond of persons and destiny” (160, 166). While the majority of the poem addresses Walker’s Black kin, at the end she expands “my people” to embrace all of humanity, “all the adams and eves.”
Throughout Atcho’s book we see the legacies of racial oppression in America—how it manifests today. Though the most recent of the featured literary works is from 1989, they all speak into our current moment. I appreciate how Atcho defines terms that show up a lot in public discourse, such as liberation and justice, comparing cultural definitions with biblical ones. But he leads with story. While in the public square our tendency is often to arm ourselves with arguments to bolster our views and defend against attacks, story has a way of disarming us. Abstract concepts become incarnate in the lives of characters. Literature can teach us the discipline of listening and can develop our empathy and understanding. It may prompt us to assess our own prejudices or complicities and impel us to repentance and real change.
Reading Black Books demonstrates the power of great literature to form us spiritually, regardless of the faith commitments of its author. Atcho presumes no theological agenda on the part of the writers, but rather chooses to read these works theologically—which can unlock more nuanced interpretations or deepened meaning. Applying a theological framework, Atcho draws out themes from the works that cannot be addressed quite as well, I’d say, without theological language. He connects our collective human story to God’s story.
The back matter includes discussion questions for each chapter.
Though I had previously read and studied all four poems Atcho discusses, I’ve read only one of the seven novels—and this despite my being an English major in college! This book makes me want to read more for sure. I’ve already stocked up my library accordingly. I’m grateful to Atcho for reactivating my interest in fiction and for extending it in the direction of these seminal African American novels.
ONLINE EXHIBITION: A Global Icon: Mary in Context, created by the National Museum of Women in the Arts: Curated by Virginia Treanor, this digital resource was created as an expansion of the in-person exhibition Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea (see catalog), which ran from December 5, 2014, to April 12, 2015. Click through the pages to experience art images with descriptions, videos, and other content having to do with representations of Mary from across the world. The first video in the series is posted below, and here’s a playlist of all seven.
Here’s just a snippet from her conversation with Kloss, where she describes what she would say to those who want nothing to do with Christianity because of all the evil that has been done in its name:
Dare to rescue God as Emmanuel from the dense debris of hubris, and from the weight and stench of whited sepulchers. For it is true, an excess of ghouls have appropriated for themselves the meaning and potency of the revolutionary One who dares to pronounce to humanity, “Love your enemies . . . Do good to those who hate you.”
Why should young people let themselves be revulsed by a legion who never fully entered into the depths of the subversive, seductive, paradigm-dissolving, drinking-and-hanging-out-with-sinners, beautiful, and heroic man-God? Why wouldn’t young people set out to experience for themselves the grand and compelling epic of a creator God in love, who loses his children and the earth to a defiant and rebellious once-beloved prince of light, and who struggles long and hard to regain the humanity he had loved and lost? So passionate and desperate is the creator in this endeavor that he will enter into humanity to try to court and secure these cherished children, even at the risk of his own murder—and even that does not stop the love. A love stronger than death? Don’t we all write anthems, in one form or another, yearning for this?
Let the next generation of seekers . . . visit old worlds that contain the spirit of the faith, not just in the Middle East, but also northern Africa, northern Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia, all those rubbed-out places (that colonialists presumed to suggest they were ‘civilizing’) from which Christianity entered into and transformed Europe and the world. . . . An historical quest for meaning at sites of origins might inspire young people to look again at the call to adventure and transcendent idealism that is the Way.
VIDEO SERIES: How to Read the Bible by BibleProject: “Reading the Bible wisely requires that we learn about the ancient literary styles used by the biblical authors. . . . While the Bible is one unified story, it cannot all be read in the same way. The How to Read the Bible series walks through each literary style found in the Bible to show how each uniquely contributes to the overall story of Scripture.”
Led by Dr. Tim Mackie and Jon Collins, BibleProject is a crowdfunded animation studio that creates videos, podcasts, and small-group curricula. From 2017 to 2020 they executed a series called How to Read the Bible, which is nineteen episodes total. In it they examine the three major literary styles that comprise the Bible: narrative (chronicles, biographies, parables), poetry (celebratory, reflective, erotic, politically resistant, apocalyptic), and prose discourse (laws, sermons, letters). Each style lives by its own rules and structure, and we get into trouble, for example, when we don’t properly understand how metaphor works, or when we don’t recognize that Paul’s epistles were situated in a particular historical context. Here’s one of the videos in the series, on design patterns in biblical narrative:
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]
JULY PLAYLIST: The songs I’ve compiled this month on Spotify include Audrey Assad’s rewrite of a classic patriotic hymn [previously], a Bach partita with added words by Alanna Boudreau inspired by Dante’s Inferno, a Sotho interpretation of Psalm 23 by the Soweto Gospel Choir, a celebration of God as artist written and sung by a Franciscan friar from the Bronx, a song of testimony performed by blues musician Elizabeth Cotten and her great-granddaughter Brenda Evans, a multilingual song setting of Matthew 5:9 (“Blessed are the peacemakers . . .”) (again, with multigenerational participation!), Psalm 103 sung in Hebrew with ancient Middle Eastern instruments, and more.
KICKSTARTER CAMPAIGN: Great Cloud by Nick Chambers: This is one of the creative projects I donated to this week. Chambers writes, “For over a decade, I have written music for the Church without much concern for the songs reaching beyond the particular place and people to which I belong. Now I want to release and share this music more widely. And you can help.
“I write songs to help give voice for people to pray, question, confess, doubt, lament, give thanks, and praise. Because I owe so much in this to the many faithful voices of history of the Church, this first record will be a collection of prayers of the saints—faithful voices such as Ephrem the Syrian, Teresa of Avila, Howard Thurman, and more.
“I have been planning with producer Isaac Wardell (The Porter’s Gate, Bifrost Arts) to record in early September in Paris near where he is currently based. The Porter’s Gate will be recording the same week, which means your support toward my $15k goal will go toward my record and travel costs, as well as allowing me to contribute in person to the next Porter’s Gate project.”
Here’s an example of Chambers’s singing-songwriting—a setting of Psalm 22:
There’s a thing that worries me sometimes whenever you talk about creativity, ’cause it can have the feel that it’s just nice, you know; or it’s warm or it’s something pleasant. It’s not. It’s vital. It’s the way we heal each other. In singing our song, in telling our story, . . . we’re starting a dialogue. And when you do that, healing happens. And we come out of our corners. And we start to witness each other’s common humanity. We start to assert it. And when we do that, really good things happen.
>> “‘Stop Working Me’: Jesse Pinkman as Child-Prophet in Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad” by Mary McCampbell: Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad, played by Aaron Paul, is one of my favorite TV characters of all time; I think I can truly say I’ve never been more emotionally invested in, or rooted harder for, any other. Mary McCampbell, author of the forthcoming book Imagining Our Neighbors as Ourselves: Empathy, the Arts, and the Religious Imagination (Fortress, 2021), writes about Jesse’s role as “child-prophet,” who sees and exposes with increasing clarity and conviction the amoral decay of the empire he helped Walt build. (Note: the article contains some series spoilers.)
>> “Revealing the Father: L. M. Montgomery, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Doctrine in Art” by Alicia Pollard: This article examines how the doctrine of God the Father shows up in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novel Anne of Green Gables and Dorothy Sayers’s play The EmperorConstantine. The former chooses “the way of whimsical unorthodoxy”; the latter, “the way of passionate orthodoxy and reenchanted dogma as a living agent of truth.”
SONG: “My Country ’Tis of Thee” (abolitionist version by A. G. Duncan, 1843): I wanted to post this for Juneteenth, but alas, I’m two weeks late. Just twelve years after Samuel Francis Smith wrote “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” a scathing rewrite by abolitionist A. G. Duncan was published in Massachusetts in the book Anti-Slavery Melodies. Exposing the hypocrisy of a nation that proclaimed life and liberty for all and yet perpetuated the evil institution of race-based chattel slavery, it’s a call to lament—“let wailing swell the breeze”—as well as an anticipation of coming liberation, God be praised. (Again, this was 1843, almost two decades before the Civil War.) This vocal arrangement and performance using Duncan’s alt lyrics is by Chase Holfelder, who sings the song in a minor key. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
My country, ’tis of thee, Stronghold of slavery, of thee I sing; Land where my fathers died, Where men man’s rights deride, From every mountainside thy deeds shall ring.
My native country, thee, Where all men are born free, if white’s their skin; I love thy hills and dales, Thy mounts and pleasant vales, But hate thy negro sales, as foulest sin.
Let wailing swell the breeze, And ring from all the trees the black man’s wrong; Let every tongue awake; Let bond and free partake; Let rocks their silence break, the sound prolong.
Our father’s God! to thee, Author of Liberty, to thee we sing; Soon may our land be bright, With holy freedom’s right, Protect us by thy might, great God, our King.
It comes, the joyful day, When tyranny’s proud sway, stern as the grave, Shall to the ground be hurl’d, And freedom’s flag, unfurl’d, Shall wave throughout the world o’er every slave.
Trump of glad jubilee! Echo o’er land and sea freedom for all. Let the glad tidings fly, And every tribe reply, “Glory to God on high,” at Slavery’s fall!
VISIO DIVINA SERIES: “During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, C4SO [Diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others] celebrates artist He Qi, who reinterprets sacred art within an ancient Chinese art idiom. His work is a blend of Chinese folk art and traditional painting technique with the iconography of the Western Middle Ages and Modern Art. On each Sunday during May, we have licensed one of He’s paintings to illuminate one of the lectionary readings. We will provide prompts for you to do Visio Divina, or ‘sacred seeing,’ an ancient form of Christian prayer in which we allow our hearts and imaginations to enter into a sacred image to see what God might have to show us.” [HT: Global Christian Worship]
For this past Lent the C4SO brought us the Stations of the Cross by Laura James, a self-taught painter of Antiguan heritage, combined with a liturgy by their scholar in residence, the Rev. Dr. W. David O. Taylor. I appreciate their recognition of the value of visual art to the individual and corporate lives of their people.
NEW DPP EDITION: Pentecost 2021: Pentecost is May 23, kicking off a new season of the church year—which means a new periodical from The Daily Prayer Project is hot off the presses! This is one of the publications I work for. “We celebrate and join in prayer with a vastly diverse church in this edition of the DPP. The Indian artist Jyoti Sahi’s dynamic painting Receive the Holy Spirit adorns the cover and leads us to a powerful remembrance of and meditation on that great outpouring of Pentecost. The church of the Caribbean gifts us with their song of Pentecost: ‘Fire, fire, fire! Fire fall on me!’ The Christian Council of Nigeria leads us in prayer and asks God to ‘grant us a vision of our land that is as beautiful as it could be . . . [and the] grace to put this vision into practice.’ The Korean songwriter Geon-yong Lee offers up a lament for the fractures of the church and invites us to truly long and work for unity: ‘Come, hope of unity; make us one body. Come, O Lord Jesus; reconcile all nations.’ . . .”
The two other featured artworks in this edition, which will be added to our online gallery May 23, are an abstract ink drawing by Takahiko Hayashi, evocative of the Spirit’s vitality, and a piece by Yuanming Cao that celebrates the steadfastness of the church in China using as its medium the everyday devotional materials of rural Christians in the Suzhou region.
VIDEO: “What happens to humans when we can’t touch?”: “Touch is how we first communicate as babies. And it’s fundamental to human wellbeing. So what happens when we can’t touch?” This recent BBC Radio 4 video by Daniel Nils Roberts discusses the importance of touch to human development, connection, and health. Roberts talks to scientists—and a cuddle therapist!—about why touch makes us feel good, and the skyrocketing of “touch hunger” since the onset of COVID-19. While I have been deprived of physical contact with friends for the past year and I sorely miss it (I hadn’t realized how much hugs, shoulder pats, etc., mean to me), I live with my husband and have been able to receive touch from him; I can’t imagine what it would be like for those who have been completely without touch during this time of restrictiveness. [HT: Joy Clarkson]
NEW BOOK: Enjoying the Bible: Literary Approaches to Loving the Scriptures by Matthew Mullins: Released in January by Baker Academic. “Many Christians view the Bible as an instruction manual. While the Bible does provide instruction, it can also captivate, comfort, delight, shock, and inspire. In short, it elicits emotion—just like poetry. By learning to read and love poetry, says literature professor Matthew Mullins, readers can increase their understanding of the biblical text and learn to love God’s Word more.”
I found out about this book through the interview by Jessica Hooten Wilson in the current issue of Christianity Today, “Reading God’s Word like a Poem, Not an Instruction Manual” [HT: ImageUpdate]. In the interview Mullins says he hopes the book reaches those Christians who tend to privilege information and instruction in their scripture reading above enjoyment—people who go to the Bible only for facts about God or practical guidance, not an encounter. Mullins shows how the Bible wants to shape not only our intellectual understanding but also our desires and emotions, and that many scripture passages are not reducible to a simple message or takeaway. Those who read and enjoy poetry inherently grasp this about the Bible. Here’s a short lecture Mullins gave on the topic in 2018, “You Can’t Understand the Bible If You Don’t Love Poetry”:
ONLINE POETRY RETREAT: Send My Roots Rain, Saturday May 15, 10 a.m.–3 p.m. UK time: Brought to you by the Church Times and Sarum College, this event will feature readings and/or presentations by Pádraig Ó Tuama, Malcolm Guite, Helen Wilcox, Mark Oakley, and others. The cost is £15 (about USD$20). [HT: Arts and the Sacred at King’s (ASK) weekly e-bulletin; email Chloë Reddaway to subscribe]
SUMMER READING GROUP: Phantastes by George MacDonald, led by Kirstin Jeffery Johnson: The Rabbit Room is sponsoring an online book club this summer centered on Phantastes by George MacDonald, a fantasy novel whose young hero Anodos wakes up in Fairy Land one day and is forced to reassess his assumptions about himself and others. Fantasy is not a genre I naturally gravitate to, but I keep hearing about this novel from different sources—how perplexing yet alluring it is—so I’m going to give it a try! I’m especially thrilled that the discussions will be led by MacDonald scholar Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson. Oh, and fun fact: this is the book that C. S. Lewis said most shaped his vocational attitude and philosophy of life.
“The ‘live’ version of this book group, including the online forum, opens May 25 [with chapters 1–4] and will include Zoom chats every Tuesday night at 7:00 p.m. CST for five weeks. However, you are welcome to join at any time, even after the live chats have ended. The discussions will be archived, and the forum will be open indefinitely for new registrants to continue reading and discussing the book.” You can purchase a copy of the book through the Rabbit Room Store, or there’s this annotated edition I bought, edited by John Pennington and Roderick McGillis. (It has a beautiful cover, but the annotations seem geared more toward middle-grade readers.)
As a bonus, listen to “Giving as the Angels Give,” a two-part session from Hutchmoot 2019 that explores “some of the ways in which, as an author, teacher, and community-builder, MacDonald intentionally manifested hospitality.” Part 1 is a personal on-ramp to the topic by Jennifer Trafton (“I can’t think of any other writer who makes me feel the intimacy of God’s welcome more than MacDonald does,” she says), and part 2, which focuses more on MacDonald’s biography, is by Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson.
Note to reader: “HT” stands for “hat tip”; it’s an acknowledgment of where or from whom I first found mention of the content I link to—that is, if I did not discover it directly from the source itself. I include these tags, along with strategic hyperlinks on the names of people and institutions, because, other than simply being courteous, I want to aid you in building your own “Christianity and the arts” network. One of the primary questions I get from people is “Who should I follow?” or “Where did you find about . . . ?” Soon I will compile a list, on its own tab, of like-minded content curators/providers that inspire me, but regular readers of the blog will, I’m sure, have already picked up on who a lot of those are. And I’m learning of new ones all the time!
The Lent 2021 edition of the Daily Prayer Project prayerbook is now available, covering February 17–April 3. (I serve as curator.) The stunning cover image is Prayers of the People I by Meena Matocha, who works in charcoal, ashes, acrylic, and wax. You can purchase the booklet in either digital or physical format.
In the opening letter, Project Director Joel Littlepage writes, “Lent is a season that disturbs many people. Maybe that includes you. Among Protestant Christian communities that I have been a part of over the years, Lent can either be seen as a ‘graceless,’ ‘harsh,’ ‘legalistic’ part of the Christian year or, on the other hand, trivialized into a time to ‘pick something to give up,’ like a seasonal spiritual diet plan. Both these characterizations miss the mark.” He goes on to describe the bidirectionality of the Lenten journey: downward, as we are crucified with Christ, and upward, toward the victory of resurrection and new life. “It is a season to sense again the path of the Christian life.”
NEW CHILDREN’S BOOK: Pippy the Piano and the Very Big Wave by Roger W. Lowther, illustrated by Sarah Dusek: My friend Roger Lowther [previously], director of Community Arts Tokyo and host of the Art Life Faith podcast, has written his first children’s book, which released in December. It’s inspired by the story of a church in Kamaishi, who after the 2011 tsunami found their beloved piano upside down and covered in mud and debris but, rather than discard it, decided to spend enormous amounts of time and money to restore it—a picture of God’s love for his precious creation, and the lengths he went to to demonstrate that love. Hollywood and Broadway actor Sean Davis reads the book in the video below. [Available on Amazon]
EXHIBITION: The Cobblestone Gospel by Trygve Skogrand, Vår Frue Kirke (Our Lady Church), Trondheim, Norway, July 2020–April 2021: “An exhibition of collages of historic low-church art merged with photographs of our own contemporary surroundings. The essence of the works is the meeting. Between painting and photography, the mystical and the mundane, and how the meeting makes both worlds renewed and re-visibled.” The original advertising says the exhibition is open Mondays through Saturdays from 12 to 3 p.m., but I’m not sure whether COVID has changed that; you can contact the church here.
When I was a child, I went to a Christmas party at our local church. At the end of the party, every child got a small bag of gifts to take home. In the bag: a pack of raisins, a small orange, some sweets – and a prayer card showing Jesus in paradise. Oh, how beautiful I thought the small prayer card was! Jesus and butterflies and a sunset and flowers AND a golden glittery border. A wonder of loveliness and holiness!
Move on twenty years. I was 30, had started working as an artist, and found the bible card again. I had changed, and the card too. Instead of seeing loveliness, I found the card rather sad. It looked to me as if Jesus was imprisoned in a dusty and suffocating make-believe paradise.
Then it struck me: What if I remove the paradise?
I have now been working with the merging of high and low historical Christian art with our contemporary surroundings for twenty years. For me, this process not only binds together what nowadays normally is shown as sundered but also re-actualizes the classical art and infuses the everyday, modern surroundings with holiness.
MUSIC VIDEO: “Fear Thou Not” by Josh Garrels: This beautiful new setting of Isaiah 41:10 by Josh Garrels appears on Garrels’s 2020 album Peace to All Who Enter Here [previously]. “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; [and] I will uphold [you] with the right hand of my righteousness” (KJV).
SHORT FILM: A Colorized Snowball Fight from 1896 Shows Not Much Has Changed in the Art of Winter Warfare: This is pure joy! “A short clip, originally captured by Louis Lumière in 1896, documents a rowdy snowball fight [bataille de boules de neige] on the streets of Lyon, France. Thanks to Saint-Petersburg, Russia-based Dmitriy Badin, who used a combination of the open-source software DeOldify and his own specially designed algorithms to upscale and colorize the historic footage, the video of the winter pastime is incredibly clear, revealing facial features and details on garments.”
Several readers have asked if there’s a way to donate to the work of this blog. After much thought I’ve decided to go ahead and add a Donation page, where those who wish to send a small financial gift to support the blog’s upkeep and development can do so through PayPal if they feel so inclined. Thank you!
CIVA ART AUCTION, November 13–15, 2020: In a few weeks CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts) is hosting an online auction of art created and/or donated by CIVA members. The lots comprise a range of media, sizes, and styles—a little something for everyone. It’s a great way to support artists of faith (by supporting CIVA), and to acquire beautiful art for your home!
The first artwork I ever purchased was through a CIVA auction: a linocut by Steve Prince, who has three new works up for bid this year. Sandra Bowden has donated several works from her extensive and esteemed collection of religious art, including an Adoration of the Magi lithograph by the major modern artist Otto Dix and a mola (handmade textile) from Panama, which I’m eyeing. I also noticed 40 Days, Forty Sacraments, a set of gouaches painted by Kari Dunham over the course of Lent one year as a way to rediscover beauty in the ordinary. And a mixed-media piece by Joseph di Bella, whose theme of redemption is underscored by the making of the substrate, which consists of “failed and unfinished works on paper” that “are destroyed, then reformed into new, yet still imperfect sheets.”
If you plan on bidding, be sure to register; you will be able to see all the other bids and can set up notifications. And if you don’t win, don’t be discouraged: you can always go to the artist’s website, and there will likely be other works available for purchase there.
ALBUM: Daughter Zion’s Woe: Produced by Rachel Wilhelm and released last month by Cardiphonia, this new album features thirteen lament songs written, arranged, and performed by women. It will be available on Spotify after Christmas, but until then, all Bandcamp sales benefit Hagar’s Sisters, an organization that serves victims of domestic violence. My favorite song on the album is “The Glory Shall Be Thine” by Christy Danner, a retuning of the late nineteenth-century “Transformed” by F. G. Burroughs (pseudonym for Ophelia Burroughs, later Adams, née Browning); this hymn text is completely new to me, and what a gem! Danner’s music really draws out its poignancy. Other highlights include Eden Wilhelm’s “Lord, Draw Near” (Psalm 88), Sister Sinjin’s “Silence,” and Lo Sy Lo’s “Let It Be So” (Psalm 12).
EXHIBITION:The Evidence of Things Unseen by Titus Kaphar,October 16–November 28, 2020, former Église du Gesù, Brussels: Titus Kaphar’s [previously] art, which reinterprets traditional Anglo-centric imagery through a Black lens, has grown out of his “spending time in European museums and longing for pictures that looked like they actually made space for individuals that look like me.” In this new exhibition, staged by the Maruani Mercier gallery in a deconsecrated church in Belgium, Kaphar revises Christian paintings by silhouetting, covering in tar, or duct-taping over likenesses of white Jesus, drawing attention to unseen people and narratives. The exhibition’s title is taken from Hebrews 11:1.
The press release reads: “It is virtually impossible to tell the story of Renaissance art without an exploration of Christianity. While the personal faith of the individual artist varied from devotee to atheist opportunist, the largest patron of the arts was the Church, and Catholic iconography the artist’s lingua franca. . . .
“In The Evidence of Things Unseen, Kaphar utilizes Catholic iconography as a ground on which to explore ideas beyond simple proselytization. Kaphar utilizes his whole vocabulary of formal innovation in this exhibition: canvases aggressively fold, crumple, undulate, and project from the wall, forcing themselves into the space of the viewer. Through Kaphar’s physical interventions, works like Susan and the Elders and Eve exist as bodies transformed into landscape and typography rather than polite easel paintings. In Jesus Noir Kaphar duct-tapes a portrait of a young black man over the face of Christ. Christ’s outstretched right hand, originally pointing to the heavens, now appears as a plea for help. The application of duct tape – a utilitarian material known to be used in all kinds of industrial and household repairs – suggest urgency and impermanence.
“Even though many biblical stories take place in the Middle East and Africa, representations of Christ and his followers are almost always depicted as European. It is not surprising that the devoted attempt to see themselves in the stories of the Bible, and to envision a Christ they can recognize: Christian tradition teaches that mankind was created in God’s own ‘image and likeness.’ And yet, religious paintings from the Renaissance unwittingly oversimplify an understanding of God by excluding a part of his creation. There are no black angels of the Renaissance. The Evidence of Things Unseen is Kaphar’s latest attempt at revision.”
PANEL DISCUSSION: “Perspectives on Empathy and the Arts”: In 2017 Roots of Empathy brought together a panel of three—Cameron Bailey, artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF); Martha Durdin, chair of the board of trustees of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM); and Raymond Mar, professor of psychology at York University—to discuss the connection between art and empathy and why it’s so important. The conversation is moderated by Mary Ito. I especially appreciated from 42:32 onward.
4:10: Children who take acting lessons are more prosocial and empathetic 5:48: Films and empathy 9:34: Fiction and empathy 12:42: Moonlight(2016) 21:54: Learning from mistakes: Into the Heart of Africa (1989) and point of view 28:38: Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano (2015) 30:37: Forced assimilation of Native people in church-run residential schools 31:18: Can art museums institutionalize empathy? 34:48: How does me empathizing with a character in a book or a painted figure translate to me being empathetic to actual people? 39:05: Superhero comics and movies 41:22: Are we suffering from an empathy deficit? 44:37: Empathy for ideological opponents 46:10: Where does empathy run up against morality/ethics? Are we to empathize with abusers? 46:56: How do we do better through the arts?
Published in 1990 by Liturgy Training Publications, A Lent Sourcebook: The Forty Days is an anthology of hymns, poems, prayers, homilies, and reflections gathered from ancient and modern sources on a variety of Lenten themes, interspersed with scripture passages. The thousand-plus entries were compiled and edited by J. Robert Baker, Evelyn Kaehler, and Peter Mazar, with additional compilation help from James P. Barron, OP; Thomas Cademartrie; Elizabeth Hoffman; Gabe Huck; Mary McGann, RSCJ; G. Michael Thompson; and Elizabeth-Anne Vanek. The introduction is by Peter Mazar.
I really love the scope of the selections, which come from church fathers, mystics, novelists, poets, songwriters, activists, theologians, saints and martyrs, the Roman Missal and the Byzantine Rite. There’s Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, Elie Wiesel, John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot, Rainer Maria Rilke, Ambrose, Bonaventure, Dante, Negro spirituals and Shaker hymns and medieval carols, Jewish and Celtic blessings, Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Dag Hammarskjöld, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Sayers, Simone Weil, C. S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Daniel Berrigan, Oscar Romero, Desmond Tutu, Robert Farrar Capon, Walter Brueggemann, and many more.
These are some of the better-known names, but there are also names and texts that were new to me, some coming from obscure, out-of-print books or journal articles, and some of the selections that originated in Greek or Polish being translated afresh for this volume. There are a few African and Latin American voices represented, but most voices come from the West—a limitation that is understandable. Several compilation-style Lent devotionals I’ve used in the past feature only British and American writers, and this goes far beyond that, I’m glad to say. Just be aware that because A Lent Sourcebook is now three decades old, it doesn’t include any of the significant Christian voices that have emerged in more recent years.
Also be aware that this book was published by a Catholic institution, and the make-up of the compilation team was (from what I can tell) entirely Catholic, so that theology and tradition is heavily reflected. As a Protestant, that was not a barrier at all to me enjoying the book. There were a few selections that I take issue with on theological or practical grounds—but I never expect to agree with or to gravitate toward everything I read in an anthology! I appreciated learning more about the Catholic liturgies that surround Lent and some of the sources that inform or respond to them, as well as historical practices that developed in different locales. Eastern Orthodox liturgies are also featured, as are Protestant writings (including, in abundance, hymns!). There were several pleasant surprises for me.
I’ve read a handful of volumes from LTP’s Sourcebook series (which includes other liturgical seasons as well as topics like Baptism, Eucharist, Marriage, and so on), and they’re all great.
Because of the way I’m constituted, I tend to get more out of devotionals that integrate the arts rather than those that start off with a scripture passage followed by a lengthy prose reflection ending with a moral lesson or present-day application. I do appreciate discursive prose very much, but I like how this anthology also incorporates poetry, song, and fiction to stoke the imagination and showcase the beauty and multifacetedness of the gospel. Repentance, renewal, feasting and fasting, temptation, purity, divine love and mercy, prayer, silence, and eternity are among the themes addressed, and the biblical texts span from the Genesis narratives to the Pauline epistles.
A Lent Sourcebook is available in two different formats: a single, 462-page, perfect-bound volume (ISBN 9780929650364), which appears to be the only option available on the publisher’s website, or two spiral-bound volumes (9780929650203, 9780929650357), which is what came to me through my local library’s interlibrary loan system. The entries are organized by week (Week of Ash Wednesday, First Week of Lent, . . . Sixth Week of Lent), and those “chapters” are broken down further by day (First Sunday of Lent, etc.), extending from Carnival to Holy Thursday. Basic attributions are given in the margins of each page, with fuller citations available in the back of the book. Also, each page spread contains a simple square (woodcut? linocut?) illustration, printed in magenta, by Suzanne M. Novak.
Below is a sampling of passages I encountered here for the first time.
An effigy of the Carnival is, in a great many places, “condemned to death” and executed (the method of execution varies—sometimes it is burnt, sometimes drowned, sometimes beheaded). The “putting to death of Carnival” is often accompanied by general tussles; nuts are thrown at the grotesque creature itself, or everyone pelts everyone else with flowers or vegetables. In other places (around Tübingen, for instance) the figure of the Carnival is condemned, decapitated and buried in a coffin in the cemetery after a mock ceremony. This is called “Carnival’s funeral.”
The other episode which is of the same sort is the driving out or killing of “Death” in various forms. The most widespread custom in Europe is this: Children make a guy from straw and branches and carry it out of the village saying: “We are carrying Death to the water,” or something of the sort; they then throw it into a lake or well, or else burn it. In Austria, all the audience fight round Death’s funeral pyre to get hold of a bit of the effigy. There we see the fertilizing power of Death—a power attaching to all the symbols of vegetation, and to the ashes of the wood burnt during all the various festivals of the regeneration of nature and the beginning of the New Year. As soon as Death has been driven out or killed, Spring is brought in.
Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is Life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely the enemy to be destroyed and not a “mystery” to be explained. Religion and secularism, by explaining death, give it a “status,” a rationale, make it “normal.” Only Christianity proclaims it to be abnormal and, therefore, truly horrible.
I was entrusted with a sinless and living land,
but I sowed the ground with sin
and reaped with a sickle the ears of laziness;
in thick sheaves I garnered my actions,
but winnowed them not on the threshing-floor of repentance.
I beg of you, my God, the eternal farmer,
with the wind of your loving-kindness
winnow the chaff of my works,
and grant to my soul the harvest of forgiveness;
shut me in your heavenly storehouse, and save me!
Alas, dear Christ, the snake is here again.
Alas, it is here: terror has seized me, and fear.
Alas that I ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge.
Alas that its envy led me to envy too.
I did not become like God; I was cast out of paradise.
Temper, sword, awhile, the heat of your flames
and let me go again about the garden,
entering with Christ, a thief from another tree.
—Gregory of Nazianzus, from Poemata Dogmatica (382 AD), translated from the Latin by Walter Mitchell and published in Early Christian Prayers, ed. Adalbert Hammon, OFM (1961)
(In this prayer the speaker likens himself to the thief who was executed on a “tree” beside Jesus on Calvary. I am “a thief from another tree,” Gregory confesses, having given in to temptation and stolen the fruit that was not mine. He apostrophizes the cherubim’s flaming sword that bars entry to Eden, begging it to cool down so that he might, by the merits of Christ, pass [back] into paradise, as did that penitent thief on Good Friday.)
Even after several years with the reformed liturgy, it still comes as something of a shock to hear Lent described in the first Lenten preface as “this joyful season.” For those of us conditioned to imagine Lent as a grim, unpleasant time, the temptation will be either to shrug it off as poetic license or to associate it with a mother’s attempt to persuade a child to take its medicine.
But there is always C. S. Lewis. In his account of his youth and his journey of faith, Surprised by Joy (1955), Lewis gives us an inveigling definition of joy as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any satisfaction.” Here, perhaps, is something we can latch onto as we confront the notion of Lent as a “joyful season.”
Lent, in this perspective, is a time for eschewing pleasure in order to be surprised by joy, that unsatisfied desire more desirable than any satisfaction. Conversely, it is a time for recognizing the habit we have of seeking satisfactions that dull the deepest longing of the heart; the habit of having to have and not wanting to want. “The very notion of joy,” writes C. S. Lewis, “makes nonsense of our common distinction between having and wanting. There to have is to want and to want is to have.” Lent would then be a time for discovering what it is we really want, the heart’s desire, the restlessness which for Augustine is a symptom of our being made for something we can never possess. Paradoxically, knowing that longing brings joy.
—Mark Searle, “The Spirit of Lent,” in Assembly 8, no. 3 (1981), published by the University of Notre Dame Press
Each day may I remember the sources of the mercies thou hast bestowed on me gently and generously;
Each day may I be fuller in love to thyself.
Each thing I have received, from thee it came,
Each thing for which I hope, from thy love it will come,
Each thing I enjoy, it is of thy bounty,
Each thing I ask comes of thy disposing.
Holy God, loving Father, of the word everlasting,
Grant me to have of thee this living prayer:
Lighten my understanding, kindle my will, begin my doing,
Incite my love, strengthen my weakness, enfold my desire.
[. . .]
And grant thou to me, Father beloved,
From whom each thing that is freely flows,
That no tie over-strict, no tie over-dear
May be between myself and this world below.
“O Healing River” | Words by Fran Minkoff and music by Fred Hellerman, 1964
O healing river, send down your waters,
Send down your waters upon this land.
O healing river, send down your waters,
And wash the blood from off the sand.
This land is parching; this land is burning;
No seed is growing in the barren ground.
O healing river, send down your waters;
O healing river, send your waters down.
Let the seed of freedom awake and flourish;
Let the deep roots nourish; let the tall stalks rise.
O healing river, send down your waters,
O healing river, from out of the skies.
“The Cast” by Sharon Olds (1985)
When the doctor cut off my son’s cast the
high scream of the saw filled the room
and the boy’s lap was covered with fluff like the
chaff of a new thing emerging, the
down in the hen-yard. . . . [Read the rest at poetryfoundation.org]
Enter into the mystery of silence.
Your goal in life is not to hold your tongue but to love, to know yourself and to receive your God. You need to learn how to listen, how to retreat into the depths, how to rise above yourself.
Silence leads you to all this, so seek it lovingly and vigilantly. But beware of false silence: Yours should be neither taciturnity nor glumness, nor should it be systematic or inflexible, or torpid. Authentic silence is the gateway to peace, adoration and love.
This article contains a synopsis of sorts, which means there are some mild “spoilers.” Page numbers are from the Picador Modern Classics edition, published in 2015.
A masterpiece of twentieth-century literature, Jesus’ Son (1992) by Denis Johnson is a semiautobiographical collection of loosely linked short stories narrated by a twenty-something male drug addict named F***head (“FH” for short). The book, set in the early 1970s, has nothing to do with a holy bloodline; its title refers to two lines from the Lou Reed song “Heroin,” which are given as the epigraph:
When I’m rushing on my run
And I feel just like Jesus’ Son . . .
FH’s drug-induced escapades constitute the main narrative, which meanders through vignettes that are by turns mundane, repulsive, darkly comic, or just pathetic. Some of the events, like Georgie’s acts of life-saving heroism, are likely hallucinated (FH’s narration is unreliable). But over all the depravity, boredom, and pain that feature prominently in the book, a subtle through line of redemption winds haphazardly, as FH searches for spiritual purpose and connection, for someone “who knew my real name” (111).
Part of this search involves his struggle to overcome the emotional numbness that prevents him from feeling both happiness and pain. In the opening story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” a married couple traveling with their infant picks up FH on the side of the road and soon after collides with an oncoming car. At the hospital, FH twistedly muses on how “wonderful” and radiant the newly widowed woman’s wail is:
Down the hall came the wife. She was glorious, burning. She didn’t know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That’s what gave her such power over us. The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere. (12)
FH feels completely detached from the woman’s grief and yet envious of it—a grief so raw, so real. He wishes he could feel as deeply as her.
This desire to feel something, anything, is what attracts him to the passionate Michelle, who so often sweeps him up into her passion, whether it be angry or romantic. Their relationship is volatile:
When we were arguing on my twenty-fourth birthday, she left the kitchen, came back with a pistol, and fired it at me five times from right across the table. But she missed. It wasn’t my life she was after. It was more. She wanted to eat my heart and be lost in the desert with what she’d done, she wanted to fall on her knees and give birth from it, she wanted to hurt me as only a child can be hurt by its mother. (116)
FH’s desperate pursuit of aliveness leads him to drugs, under whose influence he receives visions—a naked woman parasailing (embodying pure freedom), a mysterious man on the subway whose “chest was like Christ’s” (“I decided to follow him,” 108), and a Jacob’s ladder:
We bumped softly down a hill toward an open field that seemed to be a military graveyard, filled with rows and rows of austere identical markers over soldiers’ graves. I’d never before come across this cemetery. On the farther side of the field, just beyond the curtains of snow, the sky was torn away and the angels were descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity. The sight of them cut through my heart and down the knuckles of my spine, and if there’d been anything in my bowels I would have messed my pants from fear.
Georgie opened his arms and cried out, “It’s the drive-in, man!”
“The drive-in . . .” I wasn’t sure what these words meant.
“They’re showing movies in a f***ing blizzard!” Georgie screamed.
“I see. I thought it was something else,” I said. (91–92)