Roundup: Memento mori; works of mercy; ring shout; The Seventh Seal

Affiliate links: Art & Theology is now a participant in the Amazon Associates program, an affiliate marketing tool that enables me to potentially collect a little change by hosting Amazon links on my website. I already do that anyway—link to Amazon product pages when I mention books, movies, or less often, music (I try to drive sales directly to the artist’s website, if one exists)—so you will not notice any change in blog post appearance or the frequency of links. But now that I’m registered, if you were to click through one of those Amazon links (for example, Shout Because You’re Free or The Seventh Seal below) and make a purchase, any purchase, I would earn a referral fee of 2.5% to 5% of the purchase price. I have to generate at least three purchases every 180 days to stay in the program. As of now, this is the website’s sole income stream.

EXHIBITION: “The Ivory Mirror: The Art of Mortality in Renaissance Europe,” June 24–November 26, 2016, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine: Skeletons, skulls, and other dark images of death from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were meant to remind their owners of life’s brevity and thereby prompt repentance. Some target specific sins, like clinging too tightly to one’s wealth or good looks. “This exhibition represents a significant contribution to our understanding of the rich visual culture of mortality in Renaissance Europe. The appeal of the memento mori, featuring macabre imagery urging us to ‘remember death,’ reached the apex of its popularity around 1500, when artists treated the theme in innovative and compelling ways. Exquisite artworks—from ivory prayer beads to gem-encrusted jewelry—evoke life’s preciousness and the tension between pleasure and responsibility, then and now.” A symposium, “Last Things: Luxury Goods and Memento Mori Culture in Europe, ca. 1400-1550,” will be held November 3–4. You can read a review of the exhibition at Hyperallergic.

Memento mori (prayer bead)
Ivory prayer bead, France or southern Netherlands, 1530. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. On one side of the carving is a man, on another a woman, and grinning sardonically between them is a skull, worms crawling through its bared teeth.
Vanitas (16th century)
Vanitas, Germany, ca. 1525. Boxwood. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

ART COMMENTARY: The Seven Works of Mercy (+ Part 2) by the Master of Alkmaar: The corporal works of mercy, seven in number, are a traditional Catholic practice of serving the physical needs of others. Derived from Matthew 25:31–46 (cf. Isaiah 58:6–10) and Tobit 1:16–22, they are to: (1) feed the hungry, (2) give water to the thirsty, (3) clothe the naked, (4) shelter the homeless, (5) care for the sick, (6) visit the imprisoned, and (7) bury the dead. Earlier this month Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker wrote a two-part visual meditation on a Netherlandish polyptych (altarpiece with four or more panels) from the sixteenth century that treats this topic. In the background of each contemporary enactment of mercy stands a silently affirming Jesus. To view the panels in high resolution, visit the Rijksmuseum website.

Seven Works of Mercy
The Master of Alkmaar, The Seven Works of Mercy, 1504. Oil on seven panels, 120 × 472 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

ALBUM: Spirituals and Shout Songs from the Georgia Coast by the McIntosh County Shouters: The McIntosh County Shouters from coastal Georgia are the last community in America to perform the traditional ring shout, a shuffle-step devotional movement, accompanied by singing, that is rooted in the ritual dances of West Africa and was forged by the Atlantic slave trade. Shouting differs from traditional black religious music in repertory, style, and execution, Art Rosenbaum writes in Shout Because You’re Free: The African American Ring Shout Tradition in Coastal Georgia. In 1980 two folklorists, astonished to find the form still in use, encouraged practitioners to take it public. The community thus assembled a small touring group, and in 1984, under the Smithsonian Folkways label, they released their first album. This year they released their second, with a mostly new selection of songs (all but three) and all-new performances. You can watch “Jubilee” below. (Thanks, Global Christian Worship, for the tip!)

FILM: The Seventh Seal (1958): After receiving several recommendations, I finally watched this classic of world cinema, directed by Ingmar Bergman, and actually enjoyed it more than I expected. It follows the medieval knight Antonius Block as he returns, disillusioned and exhausted, from a decade-long Crusade, only to encounter Death, whom he challenges to a fateful game of chess. (This central image, Bergman said, was inspired by a church fresco, reproduced below.)

Death Playing Chess by Albertus Pictor
Albertus Pictor (Swedish, ca. 1440–ca. 1507), Death Playing Chess, 1480s. Fresco, Täby Church, Uppland, Sweden.

The movie’s title is taken from Revelation 8:1—“And when the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour”—establishing the silence of God as a major theme. Antonius’s monologue in the chapel confessional evinces his struggle between doubt and belief:

I want to confess as best I can, but my heart is void. The void is a mirror. I see my face and feel loathing and horror. My indifference to men has shut me out. I live now in a world of ghosts, a prisoner in my dreams. . . .

Is it so hard to conceive God with one’s senses? Why must He hide in a mist of vague promises and invisible miracles? How are we to believe the believers when we don’t believe ourselves? What will become of us who want to believe but cannot? And what of those who neither will nor can believe? Why can I not kill God within me? Why does He go on living in a painful, humiliating way? I want to tear Him out of my heart, but He remains a mocking reality which I cannot get rid of. . . .

I want knowledge. Not belief. Not surmise. But knowledge. I want God to put out His hand, show His face, speak to me. . . . I cry to Him in the dark, but there seems to be no one there.

But along his way he ends up meeting a “holy family”—simple and with pure faith and hope—whose names, Mia and Jof, are diminutives of Mary and Joseph. Bergman presents their worldview as a contrast to the bitter skepticism of Antonius.

For reviews that trace themes of faith and doubt in The Seventh Seal, see David Nilsen and Steven D. Greydanus.

Roundup: Ecclesia, black gospel cover, Nat Turner, and more

VISUAL MEDITATION: “The Birth of Ecclesia”: On Sunday I wrote a piece for ArtWay on a thirteenth-century Bible moralisée illumination that pairs the creation of Eve out of the side of sleeping Adam with the birth of the church out of the side wound of the New Adam, Christ, our spouse, who “fell asleep” on the cross. The painting offers a great example of how art can do theology.

Birth of Ecclesia
Bible moralisèe: “The Creation of Eve” and “The Birth of Ecclesia,” fol. 2v (detail), ONB Han. Cod. 2554, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna. Made in Paris, 1225–49.

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POETRY LECTURE: “Believing in Poetry for a Secular Age: Michael Symmons Roberts and Mark Oakley,” October 5, 2017, 6:30 p.m., 77 Great Peter Street, London SW1P 2EZ: “If we live in a secular age, you wouldn’t know it from our poetry. Not only are some of the greatest poets of recent years overtly Christian, such as Geoffrey Hill and Les Murray, but many who are not remain drawn to and fascinated by ‘the soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage.’” To facilitate discussion on poetry’s spiritual power, the religion and society think tank Theos has organized an evening with the award-winning poet Michael Symmons Roberts and arts writer and advocate Mark Oakley, who will draw on their most recent publications. General admission is £7.

Inspired by his hometown of Manchester, Roberts’s seventh poetry collection, Mancunia, released last month, has received critical acclaim. “Mancunian Miserere” is reprinted in full in the Guardian’s review, but here’s a taste: “As I walk west on Cross Street have mercy on me, O God, / . . . / for the wide berth I gave that man-cocoon asleep on the steps / of a new-closed bank where once I queued to find my balance.”

As canon chancellor of St. Paul’s Cathedral, one of Mark Oakley’s responsibilities is to advance the church’s engagement with the arts. Last year he wrote The Splash of Words: Believing in Poetry, a series of reflections on forty poems that speak into the life of faith. Earlier books of his include The Collage of God, A Good Year, and compilations of readings for weddings and funerals.

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ALBUM: Grace by Lizz Wright: Lizz Wright’s sixth album, Grace, dropped on September 15 to rave reviews. “A sophisticated straddler of down-home blues, jazz, gospel, folk, southern pop and confessional singer-songwriter traditions,” Wright, with the help of album producer Joe Henry, chose nine covers from an array of sources and eras and cowrote the tenth track with Maia Sharp. My favorite is “Singing in My Soul,” written by Thomas Dorsey and popularized by Sister Rosetta Tharpe—about the steadfast joy that is ours in Christ.

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FILM: The Birth of a Nation (2016): My husband never learned about Nat Turner in school, he recently told me when the name came up at an exhibition opening. So when we got home we decided to watch Nate Parker’s biopic of Turner, an enslaved black preacher who in 1831 led a revolt against the slaveholding families of Southampton County, Virginia, killing about sixty white men, women, and children. It was a watershed moment in American history that spread fear throughout the South and resulted in the execution of fifty-six slaves and the lynching of over a hundred nonparticipants.

As do most cinematic retellings of history, The Birth of a Nation contains inaccuracies, and in its attempts to be a hero’s story, it lacks nuance. But it effectively shows how entrenched Turner was in scripture—he was literate—and how his growing understanding of God’s will for his people, combined with supernatural visions and other pressings of the Spirit, impelled him to act decisively on the side of justice. Because of my pacifist convictions, I cannot commend Turner’s violent methods . . . but I say this as a free white woman in the twenty-first century, whose privilege has protected me from the kind of desperation that was present on the antebellum plantations of the American South; were I in a state of constant oppression with no other way out, and forced to witness daily the abuse of my spouse, my children, my mother, and others I love, maybe my feelings would be different. I can still appreciate Turner’s ministry to his fellow slaves and his hunger and thirst for righteousness, as well as his internal wrestling with what was an extremely difficult situation.

On a related note, Nat Turner’s Bible is one of the collection highlights at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. Worth a visit!

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FROM THE ARCHIVES: “This is what hope usually feels like”: In October 2015 I wrote an essay on George Frederic Watts’s allegorical painting Hope and how it pictures the posture that my family and I assumed after my Aunt Marjie’s cancer diagnosis. I am sad to report that Aunt Marjie passed away in July. We spent so many fun times together, traveling, eating, singing and dancing, our weeklong excursion through Italy, along with my mom, being a main highlight. Aunt Marjie’s boundless enthusiasm, positivity, selflessness, and sense of adventure will continue to inspire me. Tomorrow I’ll be flying out to Montana for a party in her honor, where I’ll be telling 150-plus friends and family members what she meant to me—and then dancing it up, just like she wanted! Here are a few favorite photos from my albums.

Making cookies with Aunt Marjie
Me and Aunt Marjie making cookies at Grandmom and Poppies’ house in Pleasantville, New York, in March 1991. When I was older Aunt Marjie told me that she had actually been in mourning that month over the loss of a child through miscarriage, and that this was the first time she had smiled in weeks. “It was a healing moment I have never forgotten,” she said.
Marjie, Vic, and Orion
Aunt Marjie was endearingly goofy, and completely unselfconscious about it. She livened up every outing and taught me not to care what other people think. Here we are with her son Orion, singing “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” on a boardwalk in 2002—deserted because it’s December!
Trevi Fountain
Mom, me, and Aunt Marjie throwing coins into the Trevi Fountain in Rome. This photo has been framed on my bedroom dresser since I got back to the States from that semester abroad in 2009.
Aunt Marjie at Villa Jovis
This is a genuine reaction to I-don’t-remember-what inside Villa Jovis on Capri. Aunt Marjie’s ultra-expressiveness was one of her much-beloved traits, and archaeological sites always brought it out. (She had a PhD in the field . . . in addition to master’s degrees in geology and geophysics, anthropology, and social science!)
Aunt Marjie dancing
Aunt Marjie was always the first one out on the dance floor at weddings. Here she is at my wedding in 2010 with my cousins Alex and Danny. To this day, whenever I reference her to friends, they say, “I remember her! The dancing lady in the red dress!”

Roundup: Ukrainian sacred art, seven deadly sins, Yoko, Rectify, and more

Whenever I gather with friends, I like to ask them what they’ve been reading, watching, and/or listening to lately (a lot of the media I consume comes from word-of-mouth recommendations), and if they’ve visited any interesting new places. In the spirit of sharing, here are some things on my list this month.

WHERE I’M GOING

“East Meets West: Women Icon Makers of Western Ukraine,” St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, Chatham, Massachusetts: This week I’m road-tripping up to Cape Cod with my husband and two friends to see an art exhibition organized by John A. Kohan. On display through the end of the month are twenty-three Ukrainian Greek Catholic icons by four female artists from Lviv who are representative of the eastern European sacred art renaissance sparked by the dissolution of the Soviet Union: Ivanka Demchuk, Natalya Rusetska, Ulyana Tomkevych, and Lyuba Yatskiv. This Thursday, August 17, at 4:30 p.m., Kohan will be giving a gallery talk discussing the artists and their context. I’ve been following these women online for the past few years through Iconart and am thrilled to be able to see their work in person. I’m not sure which specific works will be there, but here are examples of two of the artists’ work:

Adam Gives Names to the Animals by Lyuba Yatskiv
Lyuba Yatskiv (Ukrainian, 1977–), Adam Gives Names to the Animals, 2015. Acrylic and gold leaf on gessoed board, 80 × 50 cm.
The Baptism of Christ by Ivanka Demchuk
Ivanka Demchuk (Ukrainian, 1990–), The Baptism of Christ, 2015. Mixed media on board on canvas, 30 × 40 cm.

Two-day arts lecture and performance series, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina: Thanks, Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts! Celebrating the opening of a new art exhibition at the Nasher Museum of Art, “The Patience to See: The Sights & Sounds of Carlo Dolci” on Thursday, August 31, will feature talks by Dr. Ben Quash and Dr. Chloe Reddaway, live period music by top-tier orchestral musicians, and the premiere of Blue Madonna, an original composition by Dr. Jeremy Begbie, inspired by a painting after Dolci. The other program events, taking place on Friday, September 1, are “Secretaries of Praise: Poetry, Song, and Theology” and “Home, Away, and Home Again: The Rhythm of the Gospel in Music.” My family lives in the Raleigh-Durham area, so it will be fun to spend time with them while also taking in some world-class art, music, and scholarship!

The Blue Madonna by Carlo Dolci
 Onorio Marinari (Italian, 1627–1715), The Blue Madonna (after Carlo Dolci), 17th century. Oil on canvas. John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida.

WHAT I’M READING

Seven Deadly Sins box set

The Seven Deadly Sins: These seven small books (each about 128 pages) grew out of a 2002–2003 lecture series cosponsored by the New York Public Library and Oxford University Press. Each is authored by a different prominent writer and approaches the assigned sin through the lenses of history, theology, philosophy, psychology, ethics, social criticism, popular culture, art, and/or literature. (Several include a full-color image insert.) My favorite is Gluttony by Francine Prose, in part because it contained the most surprises. Prose points out that one can make the belly a god not only by habitually overeating but by being obsessive about nutrition, calories, body fat, and pants size—being a slave to the scale or to a point system. That’s not to say that dieting and exercise can’t be done without idolatry, but . . . you have to read the book. It diagnoses our culture’s “schizophrenic attitude toward gluttony”—inundate us with snack ads, restaurants, and recipes and encourage us to take pleasure in eating, then tell us we’re eating too much and brand us with a scarlet O for Obese, promising that a gym membership and such-and-such health-food regimen will remove that shame. On both sides of our ambivalence, someone is making money.

I also really enjoyed Greed by Phyllis Tickle (she takes a similar approach as Prose, majoring on Christian theology, literature, and art, and is a brilliant writer) and Pride by Michael Eric Dyson, a sociology professor and ordained Baptist minister who focuses on racial pride (addresses why white pride is a vice but black pride is a virtue) and national pride (addresses the difference between patriotism, a virtue, and nationalism, a vice), describing very chillingly what it’s like to be black in America. Sloth is styled as a parody of the self-help genre and contains crude language, and I wasn’t too keen on it. I also wasn’t drawn in by Anger, which is written from a Buddhist perspective.

Acorn by Yoko Ono

Acorn by Yoko Ono: Before her marriage to John Lennon, Yoko was a major figure in the underground art scene in New York City, and she continues to create today, mainly conceptual and performance art. On a whim, I bought her 2013 book Acorn on sale at the Hirshhorn—a sequel, of sorts, to her more famous Grapefruit—and have been enjoying reading and “performing” the “instructional poems,” or what I would call mindfulness exercises. Promoting better ways of relating to ourselves, each other, and the planet, these exercises are given names like “Sky Piece” and “Sound Piece,” and each is accompanied by an amoeba-like dot drawing that gives readers “further brainwork,” Yoko says. (Click here to view sample page spreads, which include images.) My husband, Eric, thinks all the pieces are woo-woo—and some of them are. But others have deepened my wonder and praise, given my imagination some much-needed exercise, or convicted me of being a poor friend. Here are two:

“Earth Piece V”

Watch the sunset.
Feel the Earth moving.

“Connection Piece V”

How do you connect with people the most?

With the feeling of:
Curiosity
Interest
Forgiveness
Adoration
Competition
Envy
Fear
Control
Detachment
Rejection

Make a list of people around you and see how it comes out.
Ask yourself if you are comfortable with the way you connect.
Don’t simplify the situation by just saying “I love/hate them all.”

WHAT I’M WATCHING

I just finished the first season of Rectify on Netflix, a drama about a man, Daniel Holden, who’s released from prison after spending nineteen years on Georgia’s death row for the rape and murder of his girlfriend. I’m hooked. A lot of it so far is Daniel learning how to use his freedom, especially how to give and receive human touch, and rediscovering the world—the weightlessness of goose down, for example, or the feeling of bare feet on carpet. I first heard about the show from the Televisionaries podcast, where Kutter Callaway, author of Watching TV Religiously: Television and Theology in Dialogue, praised it for, among other things, giving high visibility to a Christian character who’s portrayed in a nuanced and noncondescending manner. We see evangelism, baptisms, people praying together, people owning their faith and struggling through it, asking hard questions. A second recommendation from film critic Nick Olson via Good Letters last month cinched my resolve to jump in. (Note to prospective viewers: The show is rated TV-14 for intense thematic elements, sexuality, and violence.)

WHAT I’M LISTENING TO

I’ve found that any album on the Deeper Well label is fantastic. Lately I’ve been listening to Wounded Healer (2012) by the Followers, who is Josh White, Eric Earley, and friends. The style is a mixture of soul, gospel, and vintage folk rock—what the group calls “neo-gospel.” The track below, “Enfold Me,” features the vocals of Liz Vice.

Roundup: Contemporary santos; singing grace with knives; Auden interprets Bruegel; “The Old Churchyard”; pyrotechnic ladder

“The Cosmopolitan and the Campesino: The Sacred Art of Luis Tapia” by Dana Gioia: I first learned about the pioneering Chicano artist Luis Tapia from the book Crafting Devotions: Tradition in Contemporary New Mexico Santos. His work was memorable, so when I saw it on the cover of the latest Dappled Things issue, I was eager to read inside. Dana Gioia’s essay introduces us to work that is “both strikingly original and deeply respectful of its origins” in the Hispano religious folk art tradition established in New Mexico in the seventeenth century. Pushing the art of polychrome wood sculpture to new levels of craftsmanship and social and political commentary, Tapia “has enlarged his tradition to make it capacious enough to contain his imagination and the complexities of contemporary Latino experience.”

The art world is more accustomed to disruption and transgression than to transformative renewal. (What is more normative in art nowadays than transgression?) It is easier to renounce or mock the past than to master and reshape it to new ends. Assimilating the past, however, allows new work to carry powerful formal and cultural resonance, such as Tapia’s adaptations of New Mexican Catholic folk subjects and symbolism into new secular and social contexts. Tapia does not approach the past with the distanced irony and intellectual condescension of artists such as John Currin or Jeff Koons. Tapia remains invested in the forms, themes, and techniques of the New Mexican Latino Catholic tradition.

(Related post: “Religious art highlights from New Mexico”)

Pieta by Luis Tapia
Luis Tapia (American, 1950–), Pietà, 1999. Carved and painted wood, 20¼ × 14½ × 9½ in. Collection of John Robertshaw. Photo: Dan Morse, courtesy The Owings Gallery, Santa Fe.

Renaissance-era cutlery engraved with musical notations: The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has in its collection a rare “notation knife” from sixteenth-century Italy, whose blade contains on each side a line of music expressing gratitude for a meal. The inscription on one side reads, “The blessing of the table. May the three-in-one bless that which we are about to eat,” while the other reads, “The saying of grace. We give thanks to you God for your generosity.” The knife, which contains only a tenor voice part, belongs to a set. Art historian Flora Dennis, whose background is in musicology, tracked down the other three in the set and, with the help of the Royal College of Music, transcribed the voice parts into modern notation, then had the benediction and grace from the knives sung and recorded (listen below). Click on the link to hear curator Kirstin Kennedy discuss the knife’s possible uses, to view footage from the recording session, and to listen to two alternate recordings.

Notation Knife
Left and right views of an etched, engraved, and gilded steel knife with ivory, brass, and silver handle, by an unknown maker, Italy, 1500–50. Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Benediction, Version 1

Grace, Version 1

“‘About Suffering They Were Never Wrong’” by Kevin Antlitz: This essay about human indifference to others’ suffering centers on W. H. Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” which is itself a response to two paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Census at Bethlehem and The Fall of Icarus. Insights from Mark Twain, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Elie Wiesel, Nuremberg prosecutor Benjamin Ferencz, novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and St. Theophan the Recluse add to the commentary, which is personalized by the author’s reflections on his visit to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. The indictment is sobering: we are all of us guilty of evil—the enabler just as much as the perpetrator.

The Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegel
Nobody notices the need of the pregnant couple—the Holy Family—making their way into town. Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Dutch, 1525/30–1569), The Census at Bethlehem, 1566. Oil on panel, 116 × 164.5 cm (46 × 64.8 in.). Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel
The plowman, shepherd, and angler continue with their work, indifferent to the upside-down, flailing legs in the sea beside them, and “the expensive delicate ship” at the crash site “had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.” 1560s copy of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Dutch, 1525/30–1569), Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, ca. 1558. Oil on canvas, 73.5 × 112 cm (28.9 × 44.1 in.). Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.

Offa Rex records spiritual folk standard “The Old Churchyard”: Olivia Chaney has teamed up with the Decemberists under the name Offa Rex to record an album that pays homage to British folk music. Released this month, The Queen of Hearts features a beautiful rendition of “The Old Churchyard,” a song about the pain of death and the hope of resurrection. It invites you, first, to come pay respect to loved ones who have passed out of this world over the years, then entreats you not to feel sorrow for them, “for sweet is their sleep, though cold and hard their pillows may be.” The song acknowledges that words are insufficient to comfort those left behind but nonetheless offers the reassurance of peace and rest for the deceased, and a glorious rising on the last day. (Thanks to Paul Neeley for this find!)

Come, come with me out to the old churchyard,
I so well know those paths ’neath the soft green sward.
Friends slumber in there that we want to regard;
We will trace out their names in the old churchyard.

Mourn not for them, their trials are o’er,
And why weep for those who will weep no more?
For sweet is their sleep, though cold and hard
Their pillows may be in the old churchyard.

I know that it’s vain when our friends depart
To breathe kind words to a broken heart;
And I know that the joy of life is marred
When we follow lost friends to the old churchyard.

But were I at rest ’neath yonder tree,
Oh, why would you weep, my friends, for me?
I’m so weary, so wayworn, why would you retard
The peace I seek in the old churchyard?

Why weep for me, for I’m anxious to go
To that haven of rest where no tears ever flow;
And I fear not to enter that dark lonely tomb
Where our saviour has lain and conquered the gloom.

I rest in the hope that one bright day
Sunshine will burst to these prisons of clay,
And old Gabriel’s trumpet and voice of the Lord
Will wake up the dead in the old churchyard.

Sky Ladder documentary (2016): This Netflix original directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) profiles the world-renowned contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang (pronounced Tsai gwo chi-ONG), who is best known for reinventing the possibilities of the firework, opening its purpose up beyond mere entertainment. Through interviews with the artist and his family, friends, and critics, the film tracks Cai’s rise from childhood in Mao’s China to global fame, addressing the cultural influences on his work, his desire to effect social change, and his struggles to maintain integrity and artistic freedom (his acceptance to design the fireworks display for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics was controversial).

The documentary shares its title with Cai’s decades-long obsession and most ambitious work to date: a pyrotechnic ladder that rises up over a quarter mile into the sky, as successive explosions etch each new rung and rail segment into place. “I want to connect the earth to the universe,” Cai said. It was fascinating to be let in on his process for this, his working through all the technical details and other hurdles. Three previous attempts to realize Sky Ladder were canceled—in 1994, due to bad weather; in 2001, due to the 9/11 attacks; and in 2012, due to a revoked permit. It wasn’t until 2015 that the project finally succeeded, in a small Chinese fishing village before an audience of a few hundred. It lasted approximately two and a half minutes. Cai’s Sky Ladder reminds me of “Jacob’s ladder” from Genesis 28:10–19, burning bright, connecting two worlds.

Sky Ladder by Cai Guo-Qiang
Sky Ladder rising. Photo: Lin Yi & Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio.
Sky Ladder by Cai Guo-Qiang
Cai Guo-Qiang (Chinese, 1957–), Sky Ladder. Realized at Huiyu Island Harbour, Quanzhou, Fujian, June 15, 2015, at 4:49 a.m., approximately 2 minutes and 30 seconds. Photo: Lin Yi & Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio.

Book Review: Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen

I love movies. My husband shares this love, and it’s one of our primary forms of bonding. I’m thankful that he bucks the stereotype of men who like only shoot-’em-up action flicks. We do have a few of those in our collection . . . but Eric is game for any genre. He can enjoy an Italian drama, a Wes Anderson comedy, a children’s adventure, a twisted crime thriller, and a Golden Age Hollywood musical just as much as the latest blockbuster, and “I don’t want to have to think” or “It has to have a happy ending” are never among his criteria.

Many Christians I know forgo TV and movie watching, and demand the same abstinence from their kids, so as to not “waste time” with “mindless entertainment” or foster a screen addiction. A more extreme, but no less common, motive I’ve encountered is to avoid subjecting oneself to immoral filth and supporting Hollywood’s “liberal agenda.” While I agree that indoor-outdoor balance and a variety of play is important, especially for developing young brains, and that you should never violate your conscience (e.g., if it forbids you from seeing or hearing certain things), I want to push against the notion that movies are of limited to no value unless they educate or support a Christian worldview.

Fortunately, film critic Josh Larsen, editor of Think Christian and cohost of Filmspotting, offers a redeeming perspective on film in his new book Movies Are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings (InterVarsity Press, 2017). Many movies are expressions of the burdens and desires of the soul, he says, that can take the shape of praise/wonder, petition, confession, lament—in a word, prayer. Prayers are “instinctive recognitions of good (of things worthy of praise) and evil (of things inexplicably bent and broken)” (6), and they need not be restricted to liturgical formats.

This human instinct to reach out in praise or lament or supplication or confession to the divine does not take place only in church, guided by liturgy and pastors. It isn’t limited to early morning devotions, in that serene space before silence gives way to the day. It isn’t strictly the domain of dinner tables, where families gather to recite familiar words (“God is great, God is good . . .”). and it isn’t an instinct shared only by Christians. Prayer can be expressed by anyone and can take place everywhere. Even in movie theaters. (7)

Movies Are Prayers

Through picture and sound, blocking and set, filmmakers offer up prayers and invite us not only to listen in, but to pray along—to respond in kind, with whatever words or medium or action we feel prompted to use. Therefore, rather than regarding movies as time spent apart from God or a distraction from more important things, we would do well, Larsen suggests, to let them enrich our awareness of the world’s beauty and suffering and, consequently, guide us into prayer.

Larsen covers diverse genres and styles spanning from the silent era through today, including a mix of popular classics and lesser known gems. Below are just three I’ve added to my watch list since reading Movies Are Prayers.

Freaks (1932) is a revenge drama set against a circus backdrop, starring professional sideshow performers. At a time when people paid money to see and gawk at those with biological anomalies, director Tod Browning intended to show their humanity, that they have the same emotional needs as everyone else. He never filmed his actors’ “acts” (so as not to exploit them) but instead depicts them backstage, living their everyday lives. Although the film features an able-bodied romantic pairing of trapeze artist and strongman, Browning isn’t that interested in it; it is the interior life of Hans, a little person who’s used by Cleopatra for his money, that constitutes the main focus.   Continue reading “Book Review: Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen”

Roundup: Liturgical video installation; Mynheer profile; SYTYCD; natural-world mystic poetry; lament song

“Mark Dean Projects Stations of the Cross Videos on Henry Moore Altar,” exhibition review and artist interview by Jonathan Evens: On April 15–16 St. Stephen Walbrook in London hosted an all-night Easter Eve vigil that featured a fourteen-video installation by artist-priest Mark Dean. Inspired by the Stations of the Cross, these videos were projected, in sequence and interspersed with readings and periods of silence, onto the church’s round stone altar by the famous modern artist Henry Moore (Dean wanted his work to be presented as an offering). The vigil culminated with a dance performance by Lizzi Kew Ross & Co and a dawn Eucharist. Evens writes,

Mark Dean’s videos are not literal depictions of the Stations of the Cross, the journey Jesus walked on the day of his crucifixion. Instead, Dean appropriated a few frames of iconic film footage together with extracts of popular music and then slowed down, reversed, looped or otherwise altered these so that the images he selected were amplified through their repetition. As an example, in the first Stations of the Cross video, a clip of Julie Andrews as the novice Maria from the opening scenes of The Sound of Music was layered over an extract, from the Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho, of a car arriving at Bates Motel where Marion Crane would be murdered by Norman Bates. The blue of the sky and the innocence suggested by Maria’s religious vocation was in contrast with the footage from Psycho, which was indicative of the violent death to which Jesus was condemned. [Read more of the review, plus an interview with the artist, here.]

Stations of the Cross by Mark Dean
Mark Dean, “I. The Royal Road,” from Stations of the Cross cycle. Video projected on Henry Moore altar at St. Stephen Walbrook, London, April 15–16, 2017. Photo: Jonathan Evens
Stations of the Cross by Mark Dean
Mark Dean, “VIII. Daughters of Jerusalem,” from Stations of the Cross cycle. Video projected on Henry Moore altar at St. Stephen Walbrook, London, April 15–16, 2017. Photo: Jonathan Evens
Stations of the Cross by Mark Dean
Mark Dean, “IX. In Freundschaft,” from Stations of the Cross cycle. Video projected on Henry Moore altar at St. Stephen Walbrook, London, April 15–16, 2017. Photo: Jonathan Evens

Sounds like an exemplary integration of art and liturgy! You can read the catalog essay and watch the videos on Dean’s website, tailbiter.com. See also the interview with curator Lucy Newman Cleeve published in Elephant magazine.

“Featured Artist: Nicholas Mynheer” by Victoria Emily Jones: This month I wrote a profile on British artist Nicholas Mynheer for Transpositions, the official blog of the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. (There’s a glitch with their publishing tool that is preventing all the artworks from displaying, but all the ones I discuss in the article can be found at www.mynheer-art.co.uk.) A painter, sculptor, and glass designer, Nick works almost exclusively on religious subjects, in a style that blends influences from medieval, primitive, and expressionist art. I met him in 2013 and got to see his studio and his work in situ in various Oxford churches. His love of God and place was obvious from my spending just one afternoon with him. Other articles I’ve written are on Nick’s Wilcote Altarpiece, Islip Screen, and 1991 Crucifixion painting (which I own).

Harvest by Nicholas Mynheer
Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), Harvest, 2010. Oil on canvas, 70 × 70 cm.
Michaelmas Term Window by Nicholas Mynheer
Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), Michaelmas Term Window, 2012. Fused glass. Abingdon School Chapel, Oxfordshire, England.
Corpus of Christ by Nicholas Mynheer
Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), Corpus of Christ, 2010. English limestone, 85 cm tall.

Season 14 of So You Think You Can Dance premiered last Monday (the only TV show I never miss!). Watching dancers draws me into a deeper awe of God, as I see all the creative potentialities of the human body he designed. Here are my two favorite auditions from episode 1. The first is husband-wife duo Kristina and Vasily performing ballroom. The second is a modern dance number performed by Russian twins Anastasiia and Viktoriia; they gave no comment on the dance’s motivation or meaning, but it’s clear that it represents trauma of some kind.

“Why we need Mary Oliver’s poems” by Debra Dean Murphy: “Oliver is a mystic of the natural world, not a theologian of the church. . . . Her theological orientation is not that of orthodox Christianity. Nevertheless, Christians have much to gain from reading Oliver . . .” Her poems are “occasions for transfiguring the imagination and a summons to wonder and delight”; they remind us “of what it means to attend to what is before us in any given moment,” teach us to adopt “a posture of receptivity that Christians sometimes speak of as part of our vocation—the calling to live more fully into our humanity as persons bearing the imago dei, to mirror the divine dance of mutual presence, mutual receptivity, mutual love.” Some of my favorite Oliver poems are “Praying,” “I Wake Close to Morning,” “Messenger,” “The Summer Day,” and “How the Grass and the Flowers Came to Exist, a God-Tale.”

NEW SONG: “Weep with Me” by Rend Collective: Written last month in response to the Manchester Arena bombing, “Weep with Me” is a contemporary lament psalm in which the speaker asks God to do what the title says: weep with him. To feel his pain and respond. It’s introduced and performed acoustically by band member Chris Llewellyn in the video below.

On the video’s YouTube page, Rend Collective writes,

Can worship and suffering co-exist? Can pain and praise inhabit the same space? Can we sing that God is good when life is not? When there are more questions than answers? The Bible says a resounding yes: these songs are called laments and they make up a massive portion of the Psalms.

We felt it was fitting to let you hear this lament we’ve written today as we prepare to play tonight in Manchester. We can’t make the pain go away. We refuse to provide cheap, shallow answers. But hopefully this song can give us some vocabulary to bring our raw, open wounds before the wounded healer, who weeps with us in our distress. We pray that we can begin to raise a costly, honest and broken hallelujah. That is what it means to worship in Spirit and in Truth.

Roundup: Nuns onscreen; Jesus in pop music; El Greco knits

Nuns in pop culture: Anna Silman writes on the current “Nunnassaince” in movies and television, the biggest since the late 1950s and ’60s. She quotes Rebecca Sullivan, author of Visual Habits: Nuns, Feminism, and American Postwar Popular Culture, on the first wave as a reaction against the sexual revolution. For a list of flicks both new and old, see “Ten Essential Movies About Nuns.”

I’ve seen two movies from 2016 that center on a nun, or nuns. The first is Little Sister, a dramedy directed by Zach Clark. It’s about twenty-something Colleen Lunsford, a novice (prospective nun) who’s temporarily called away from the convent when her brother returns from the Iraq War, suffering from depression after a bomb left his face disfigured. In the town she grew up in Colleen is known as the Goth girl, so former high school friends are shocked to learn about her new religious vocation.

I wish the faith dimension was explored a bit more—the only insight we get into Colleen’s decision to become a Christian and pursue the monastic life is a line she mutters about structure and stability. (Was that her only motivation?) The film is more about reconnecting with family and recognizing that even though you grow up and your interests and bearing and goals may change, your past self, or selves, always remain a little bit a part of you. It’s empathetic and dark but also funny, and it shows how there’s no one mold that makes a nun; nuns come from different places in life, and oftentimes sustain (complicated) relationships outside the cloister. (Watch on Netflix)

The second one I’ve seen and commend is The Innocents, directed by Anne Fontaine. Set in a convent in late-1945 Poland and based on a true story, it documents the crisis of faith the nuns of that community are forced to undergo when many of them are raped by invading Russian troops and some pregnancies result. The nuns respond in diverse ways to the horror, struggling to regain their spiritual equilibrium. In desperation, they employ an atheistic French female doctor from the Red Cross, stationed nearby, to help them deliver their babies and to bear their secret. (Watch on Amazon Video)

“If I Believe You: Agnostic Songs to Jesus” by Joy Clarkson: This article analyzes the song “If I Believe You” by the 1975—which opens with “I’ve got a God-shaped hole that’s infected . . .”—in light of the wider trend of self-proclaimed unreligious artists writing songs addressed to Jesus. Clarkson observes that (1) even within the profoundly secular industry of popular music, there is an openness to spirituality, religion, and Jesus; (2) songs written not only about Jesus, but to Him, create a unique discursive space; and (3) an invocation of negative transcendence may create an openness to a true spiritual experience. I’m intrigued by the titles of the books she references, including The Bible in/and Popular Culture: A Creative Encounter (2010); Mashup Religion: Pop Music and Theological Invention (2011); and Personal Jesus: How Popular Music Shapes Our Souls (2013).

Knits by Petros Vrellis: Designed using an algorithm, Vrellis’s re-creations of figures from famous El Greco paintings are formed by knitting a single thread across anchor pegs on a circumference loom. Watch a time-lapse video of Vrellis putting together a knit based on El Greco’s Christ Blessing, below, and read more about his process here. (Another Jesus portrait Vrellis has done is based on El Greco’s Christ in Prayer, visible at 2:27 at the bottom right.) Vrellis has a master’s degree in art sciences; he enjoys exploring the potential of new media through digital art and interactive installations and considers himself more of a “toy inventor” than an artist. Thank you to Tobias M. from Vienna for informing me of this impressive work.

Christ by Petros Vrellis
Knit by Petros Vrellis (Greek, 1974–), based on the painting Christ Blessing by El Greco.

Some of Vrellis’s knits are for sale via Saatchi Art.

Roundup: “. . . circle through New York,” New Zealand chapel, animating the Beast, phantasmagoric Head of Christ, biblical cities song cycle

Gonzalez-Torres at St. Philip's Church, Harlem
In March 2017, the “. . . circle through New York” project brought Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s 1991 work Untitled (Public Opinion)—a large pile of individually wrapped licorice candies, available for viewers to take and eat—from the Guggenheim to St. Philip’s Church in Harlem. St. Philip’s, in turn, lent out its call to social justice, which will rotate among the project’s five other participating venues.

“. . . circle through New York” project: What a clever way to foster relationships and spread cultural wealth! “In their new project A talking parrot, a high school drama class, a Punjabi TV show, the oldest song in the world, a museum artwork, and a congregation’s call to action circle through New York, artists Lenka Clayton and Jon Rubin create a complex system of social and material exchange that brings together city communities often separated by cultural, economic, geographic, or circumstantial boundaries. The artists have drawn an imaginary circle through Harlem, the South Bronx, Queens, and Manhattan’s Upper East Side and invited six public venues along the circle’s path to participate in a system of social and material exchange. These spaces, which include a pet store, a high school, a TV network, an academic research institute, the Guggenheim, and a church, serve as the project’s cocreators and hosts. The artists worked with the venues to select aspects of their identities—referenced in the project’s full title—that will rotate among the six locations over a period of six months.” Commissioned as part of the Guggenheim Social Practice initiative, the project is now in its second month and will wrap up in August.

“The Shimmering Glory of a Modern Indigenous New Zealand Chapel”: Completed in 1961, the Futuna Chapel in Wellington is, according to architect Nick Bevin, “New Zealand’s most significant building of the twentieth century.” Influenced by elements of wharenui (Maori meetinghouses), it was designed by John Scott, the country’s first university-trained Maori architect, as part of a retreat center for the Catholic Marist Brothers, and was built by volunteers from the order. Auckland artist Jim Allen was hired to design the acrylic glass windows, a Stations of the Cross frieze, and several mosaics, and to sculpt a crucifix for the main altar. The Society of Mary had to sell the retreat center in 2000 for financial reasons; the Futuna Trust has been formed to protect the chapel from demolition, but not before the surrounding land was turned into a townhouse development. The chapel is now deconsecrated, serving as host to lectures, concerts, and other events. Many great photos of its interior and exterior can be viewed at the link above, or, for further study, check out the recent book Futuna: Life of a Building.

Futuna Chapel
Futuna Chapel, Wellington, New Zealand, designed by John Scott. Photo: Claire Voon/Hyperallergic
Futuna Chapel, Wellington, New Zealand
Main altar of Futuna Chapel, Wellington, New Zealand, showing a mahogany crucifix and rough-hewn granite slab altar by Jim Allen. Photo: Claire Voon/Hyperallergic

Disney animator Glen Keane on spiritual transformation: Last month’s theatrical release of Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast has sparked renewed interest in the 1991 animated classic. On one of the special features of the DVD/Blu-ray release of the animated version, I was fascinated to hear that Glen Keane—who animated the original Beast along with Ariel, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Tarzan, Rapunzel, and many other beloved Disney characters—is a Christian whose own story of spiritual transformation was the driving inspiration, for him, behind the Beast’s transformation sequence at the end of the movie. (Visual influences included Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais and Michelangelo’s slave sculptures.) In an interview, Keane described his approach to animating this climactic moment:

For me, it’s really an expression of my spiritual life. There’s a verse in the Bible that says, “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creation. Old things have passed away, and all things have become new.” I wrote that on my exposure sheet there as I’m drawing this, because it’s really about an inner spiritual transformation that’s taking place with the Beast. And I saw it as a parable of my own life—that I got to express that. It was sincere, it was real for me. It was very real for the prince. I don’t know that there’s ever an illustration more clear as to what really can take place in a person’s life spiritually than this animated character transforming from an animal to the prince.

(Update, 6/6: Thank you to Chris S. at Green Egg Media for alerting me to a series of biblically inspired children’s books by Glen Keane, Adam Raccoon. Also check out the Bancroft Brothers Animation Podcast interview with Keane on faith and art or, for a shorter segment on the same topic, his First Person interview. Both were recorded this spring.)

“The Dark of Doubt Dispelled: Odilon Redon’s Day appears at last . . .: On March 26 I wrote a reflection for ArtWay on one of Odilon Redon’s lithographs. Showing the head of Christ haloed by the sun, his crown of thorns disentangling, it’s the last in a suite of twenty-four prints inspired by Gustave Flaubert’s novel/drama The Temptation of Saint Anthony.

Head of Christ by Odilon Redon
Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916), Day appears at last . . . and in the very disk of the sun shines face of Jesus Christ (detail), 1896. Lithograph on chine appliqué, from Redon’s third Temptation of Saint Anthony portfolio, published by Ambroise Vollard, Paris.

Cities, a five-song cycle by Jonathon Roberts: “I have a personal goal of setting the whole Bible to music,” writes Jonathon Roberts. “The Bible is the starting point for most of my projects, regardless of the style. I connect best with a passage of Scripture when I explore it artistically. The challenge has led me down some interesting roads musically and lyrically, since the subject matter doesn’t always fit in a nice box.” Cities is Roberts’s most recent work; it’s a chamber-pop song cycle personifying the biblical cities of Bethlehem, Ephesus, Jerusalem, Jericho, and the “New City” described in Revelation. Listen to “Bethlehem,” inspired by Micah 5:2, below, and the rest here. The whole piece is a lot of fun!

 

Roberts’s interest in deepening his and others’ engagement with the Bible led him to found, with Emily Clare Zempel, the organization Spark and Echo Arts, which commissions works of visual art, music, theater, poetry, fiction, dance, and film that respond directly to scripture. Its aim is to “illuminate” the entire Bible, using various art forms, by 2020, creating a platform and framework for artists to explore this ancient sacred text, as well as a rich resource for the church. Look out for a major web redesign, to launch in the next few months.

Upcoming courses, workshops, conferences

There are many people and organizations committed to integrating faith and the arts, and they often organize opportunities for public participation. Here are some such opportunities being offered this spring and summer, organized by date. The last one, a weeklong course taught by David Taylor, looks especially appealing to me and my context, and I’m considering registering.

A few early-bird registration/application deadlines are coming up very soon, on March 31, so give these a gander sooner than later. Click on the links for information on schedules/syllabi, speakers, accommodations, and fee breakdowns. Room and board are not included in the cost quotes I’ve listed unless specifically noted.

If you’re reading this post sometime after spring 2017, or the application deadlines are too tight for you, you’ll be pleased to know that some of these events occur yearly, and if not, you’re sure to find similar ones. Check out the websites of the organizing bodies to see what they have going on.

Title: “Art and Theology” (course)
Dates: March 26–29, 2017
Location: Ripon College Cuddesdon, Oxford, England
Organizer: Art and Christianity Enquiry (ACE)
Cost: £225 (~ $280 US) (includes room and board)
Instructors: Christopher Irvine; Alison Milbank; Sophie Hacker; Stephen Stavrou; Laura Moffatt
Description: “This short course is designed to give participants the opportunity to both engage with Christian art and to reflect through class presentations and discussion how art is perceived. Each day will balance theoretical input with visits to see art in churches, galleries, and chapels in Oxford. We will examine the contexts in which Christian art is viewed, suggest ways of how we may reflect theologically on contemporary art, and look at the place of art in churches within its architectural and liturgical context.” (I’m intrigued by the lecture title “Museums and Galleries as a Theological Resource”!)

Title: “Lux Ecclesiae: The Light of the Church” (lecture series)
Dates: April 25–29, 2017
Location: Paraclete Retreat House, Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts, USA
Organizer: Community of Jesus
Speakers: Msgr. Timothy Verdon; Filippo Rossi
Cost: $1,000 (includes room and board; single-lecture options available)
Description: “Practically from the beginning of its history, the Church has used architecture and the visual arts to express its life, investing thought, creative energies and resources. The reasons for this choice are theological and pastoral, but also anthropological: human beings want to ‘see’, are frustrated if they cannot see, define ‘seeing’ as understanding (as when, grasping a point, we say, ‘I see’), and desire above all things to see the God who, invisible in himself, became visible in Jesus Christ.” Monsignor Timothy Verdon, academic director of the Mount Tabor Ecumenical Centre for Art and Spirituality in Barga, Italy, will develop these themes in a series of seven lectures, and sacred artist Filippo Rossi will give a talk as well.

Title: Movies and Meaning Festival
Dates: April 27–30, 2017
Location: KiMo Theatre, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA
Organizer: The Porch
Cost: $189
Speakers: Alice Walker; Mona Haydar; Gareth Higgins; Brian McLaren; Malidoma Somé
Description: The third annual Movies and Meaning Festival, an interfaith initiative, is centered on the theme “Hope in the Dark.” Over one weekend, participants will be inspired and challenged on this theme by artists and activists who work at the intersection of creativity, peace, spirituality, and social change. Films will serve as touchstones throughout the event; screenings include Pete’s Dragon; The Red Balloon; Mary and Max; Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth; Embrace of the Serpent; Reds; I Am Belfast; The Color Purple; and more. Participants will walk away with a renewed spirit for social justice and tools for community healing.   Continue reading “Upcoming courses, workshops, conferences”

Scorsese’s “Silence”: Critical praise, interviews, resources

I first learned about fumi-e (“stepping-on pictures”) while reading about the history of Christian art in Japan. These objects are bronze likenesses of Jesus, sometimes shown together with his mother, Mary, that the religious authorities of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan required suspected Christians to step on in order to prove that they were not members of that outlawed religion. If the apprehended persons refused, they were tortured and, if that didn’t break them, killed—most notoriously, by being boiled to death in the volcanic springs of Mount Unzen.

fumi-e-3

e-fumi ceremony
This painting by Keiga Kawahara, ca. 1826, shows an e-fumi (“picture stepping”) ceremony in Edo Japan, in which a man proves his aversion to Christianity by trampling an image of Christ. Location: National Library of the Netherlands.

This period of persecution lasted from 1629 to 1858.

Fumi-e factor heavily into Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 historical novel Chinmoku (Silence), which tells the story of two Jesuit missionaries who travel to Japan in 1639 to find their missing mentor—rumored to have apostatized—and to continue the work he started there with the underground church. Written by Endō partly in response to the discrimination he experienced as a Japanese Catholic, the novel is about the struggle for faith in a world marked by God’s seeming absence. It received the highly esteemed Tanizaki Prize the year of its release and instantly became a best seller; it was translated into English in 1969.

Silence book covers
Two cover designs. Left: Christ is crucified on the Japanese kanji for “silence.” Right (illustration by Yuko Shimizu): Father Rodrigues prays desperately on a cliff’s edge, foregrounded by a blood-drenched moon.

Since then it has been the basis of several artistic adaptations: a stage play, also by Endō; a Japanese film by Masahiro Shinoda; a Portuguese film by João Mário Grilo; an opera by Teizo Matsumura; a symphony by James MacMillan—and now an American film by Martin Scorsese, the same director who brought us Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Departed, and The Wolf of Wall Street. He dedicates it “to Japanese Christians and their pastors.”

Twenty-eight years in the making, Scorsese’s “passion project,” Silence, has been lauded as “one of the best films ever made about Christian faith.” The Telegraph calls it a “plangent, scalding work of religious art . . . soul-pricklingly attuned to matters transcendent and eternal.” Time Out says it “ranks among the greatest achievements of spiritually minded cinema.” “An anguished masterwork of spiritual inquiry,” the Los Angeles Times declares, that “ponders the dogmas, riddles and anxieties of Christian faith with a rigor and seriousness that . . . has few recent equivalents in world cinema. . . . A work of insistent, altogether confounding grace.” Eric Metaxas says, “This may be the most Christian film I have ever seen—and that includes The Passion.”

Released in theaters December 23, 2016, Silence stars Andrew Garfield as lead character Father Sebastião Rodrigues, and Adam Driver as his compatriot, Father Francisco Garrpe. Liam Neeson plays the apostate Cristóvão Ferreira. See the trailer below.

Before I found out Scorsese was adapting Endō’s Silence, I learned of the novel from visual artist Makoto Fujimura, whose own work and theology have been very much influenced by it. Last May he published the book Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering, about his journey with Endō through art, trauma, and cultural heritage.   Continue reading “Scorsese’s “Silence”: Critical praise, interviews, resources”