Roundup: “Religious Art” panel, Advent songs, the Christmas tree’s praise, BBC Nativity film

PANEL DISCUSSION: “Religious Art,” organized by the Forum for Philosophy: I posted about this live online event a month ago, and now that it’s passed, I want to share the video recording. Theologian Ben Quash (King’s College, London), curator Lieke Wijnia (Catharijneconvent Museum, Utrecht), and art historian Mehreen Chida-Razvi (Khalili Collections, London) discuss the relationship between art and religion, how art can function within religious practice, how to exhibit religious art in a museum, and artworks as sites of conversation across religious traditions.

Quash opens by proposing different categories of “religious art”: art for religion, art about religion, art with religion, and art instead of religion. The three unpack those a bit, discussing the intentions of the artist or patron versus how the artwork is perceived by the viewer. Quash mentions Haruspex by Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva (a fascinating installation commissioned by the Vatican for the 2015 Venice Biennale, a contemporary artist’s response to “In the beginning . . . the word became flesh”; read Quash’s essay and an artist interview), the East Window at St Martin-in-the-Fields by Shirazeh Houshiary, the Raphael Cartoons, and Aaron Rosen’s 2016 Stations of the Cross exhibition throughout the city of London, which shows the permeability of the boundaries between sacred and secular. (I participated, as viewer/pilgrim, in a 2019 iteration of the Stations project in Amsterdam.)

Hadzi-Vasileva, Elpida_Haruspex
Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva (Macedonian, 1971–), Haruspex, 2015. Organic materials. Installation at the Pavilion of the Holy See at the 56th Venice Biennale.

In reference to Hadzi-Vasileva’s canopy of pig’s caul fat, Quash says that challenge or provocation can be a meaningful thing to happen in a religious context:

Works that ambush you are also religiously important, because a sort of religious art that only gives you what you already expect and want quickly becomes kitsch. It’s just a reward of your expectations. And that shouldn’t be what religious art does, it seems to me. It should actually want to take you somewhere else, just as good religion should—it should be transformative, not merely confirming where you already are. So there’s a role for these sorts of artworks within religion as well as outside it.

Chida-Razvi shares slides of Islamic architectural spaces, devotional objects, and manuscript illuminations, including a Mughal painting that exemplifies the interfaith dialogue going on at the court of Akbar in Lahore, and Wijnia shares her experience curating objects people pray with for museum display and (forthcoming) an exhibition on Mary Magdalene. Such great content!

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ADVENT SONGS:

“He Comes,” words by Kate Bluett, music by Paul Zach: A lovely new Advent hymn, performed here by Paul Zach.

“The Heavens Shake” by Reindeer Tribe: Reindeer Tribe is a group of friends based in Los Angeles who get together each year to make a live Christmas album, a mix of originals and traditional, sometimes retuned, carols. They bring their voices, instruments, and arrangements and jam together for a long weekend in a big living room. (COVID-19 put the kibosh on this year’s gathering.) This original song, perfect for Advent, is on their 2014 album, A Great Light. “For thus says the LORD of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth . . .” (Haggai 2:6).

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ARTICLE: “We don’t need to be afraid of the Christmas tree’s pagan roots” by Damian Costello, America: Dr. Damian Costello specializes in the intersection of Catholic theology, Indigenous spiritual traditions, and colonial history. In this article he considers how the Christmas tree pictures Christ as the new Yggdrasil (the giant ash tree at the center of the Norse cosmos), and the spiritual character of nature. The second half—about “the hidden agency of trees”—stretches my categories for sure, and I wonder if it’s a bit overwrought, but I’m intrigued by the links Costello draws between the Psalms, Anishinaabe spirituality, and the theology of Catholic saint John Henry Newman. The article reminds me of Luci Shaw’s poem “Perfect Christmas Tree.”

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FILM: The Nativity (2010), written and directed by Tony Jordan: I’m always skeptical of film adaptations of the Bible because so many are poorly done. But I gave this four-part BBC miniseries (streaming on Amazon Prime) a shot, and, other than a really cheesy moment during the birthing scene, I thought it was quite good! Writer-director Tony Jordan is not a Christian but approaches the story with the reverent curiosity of a dramatist. He said he never connected with the nativity story until he worked on this project and started to see the very real humans beneath the auras tradition has given the “holy couple”—he saw their earthiness and complexity and began to imagine their emotional lives, especially their reactions to the disruptions they encountered. He said the relationship between Mary and Joseph was key to him. Many storytellers assume that because the marriage was arranged (or because, according to apocryphal sources, Joseph was an old man), there was no passion in their relationship, that they were bound together more by duty than by love, but Jordan, without overly romanticizing, imagines otherwise. The warmth between Mary and Joseph in the first half, which they have to work to regain after news of Mary’s pregnancy hits Joseph like a ton of bricks, is a hallmark of the movie.

Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) is probably my favorite Mary I’ve seen onscreen. (I also like Andrew Buchan [Broadchurch] as Joseph.) Jordan says most people see Mary as “a one-dimensional character with a halo round her head,” but actually, “she’s not saccharine. Just a nice kid—real but fallible.” He shows her as virtuous but not a goody-goody, fun-loving and confused and scared and courageous all at once, stepping into her new role by faith without seeing the full picture and even discipling Joseph into that faith. Maslany plays the part brilliantly, endearingly. The film addresses the isolation Mary felt, being rejected not only by her fiancé at first but also by the synagogue leadership and disbelieved, too, by the community she had grown up in. I’ve seen many actors portray Mary as detached, transcending all her difficult circumstances with calm, unshaken resolve. This Mary, by contrast, experiences hurt and fear and yet endures, which, I suspect, is closer to the historical reality. This in no way undermines her faith.

I was delighted by the Annunciation scene, where Gabriel comes to Mary as an ordinary man, much like the angels who visited Abraham generations earlier. He is not wearing ermine or carrying a scepter or standing on a rock above Mary with a booming voice and a heavenly glow. He’s simply a stranger who startles her, even more so when he relays his news. He speaks gently, colloquially. The moment of conception is portrayed as sudden and visceral; Mary feels Light enter her and reacts with a sort of joyful shock.

The trailer and posters, I will say, make the film seem pretty conventional. It does follow some conventions, but it’s also fresh, and while it has some flaws, I think it’s a very worthy use of two hours—it brings this ancient story to life in compelling ways.

Roundup: Jesus as Dancer, The Daily Prayer Project, ethnoarts in Indonesia, and more

BLOG POST: “Jesus as Dancer: Jyoti Sahi’s ‘Lord of Creation’” by Victoria Emily Jones: I wrote a guest post for the Sojourn Arts blog about a gouache I own by Indian artist Jyoti Sahi, which shows Jesus leading the dance of new creation. On one side he pounds a drum, and on the other he emerges from a lotus. The painting brings together Jyoti’s interests in Christian and Hindu theologies and folk symbolism.

Sahi, Jyoti_Lord of Creation
Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Lord of Creation, 1982. Gouache on paper, 14 3/4 × 20 in. Collection of Victoria Emily Jones.

Sojourn Arts is a ministry of Sojourn Church Midtown in Louisville, Kentucky, that seeks to support artists and build up the church through the arts. They have organized and/or hosted numerous exhibitions over the years and have commissioned temporary installations for their sanctuary, as well as coordinated community art projects. Visit www.sojourn-arts.com.

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THE DAILY PRAYER PROJECT: This fall I joined the team at the Daily Prayer Project as curator of visual art. The Daily Prayer Project is a periodical that covers every season of the Christian year with robust, rooted, and cross-cultural liturgies for use in congregations, households, workplaces, small groups, or other gatherings. Released in seven editions per year, it features daily morning and evening prayer guides for the week, which include Psalm, Old Testament, and New Testament readings; short prayers sourced from around the globe and from different eras; specific prayer prompts; and songs (including lead sheets). In addition to the cover image, there is a mini-gallery of two art images inside, reproduced in full color, to serve as visual prompts for further contemplation and prayer. There is also a section called “The Practices,” with two page-long seasonal reflections by staff members or guest contributors.

The Advent 2020 issue of the DPP, covering November 29 through December 24, was released last week. It features prayers by African American civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, the tenth-century English saint Ethelwold, and others; a Hebrew folk song, a Taizé chant, and an Argentine hymn by Federico J. Pagura; a striking cover image by Hilary Siber, which shows heaven coming down to earth; Charles White’s Prophet I, which resonates with passages from Isaiah; and an apocalyptic paper collage by Nicora Gangi.

The periodical is available as a physical booklet or as a PDF download. Visit the website for more information. If you are an artist and are interested in having your work considered for publication in a future prayerbook, email team@dailyprayerproject.com.

DPP Advent 2020 interior

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VIDEO: “Local Riches: Ethnoarts and Sumba”: A workshop for churches on the island of Sumba in Indonesia, led by Yayasan Suluh Insan Lestari in July 2019, reinforced that God is best honored, and the global body of Christ built up, when people worship God using their unique cultural and linguistic gifts, bringing their whole, authentic selves before him in praise. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

For centuries many Christian missionaries to other countries brought with them Western hymns and images, presenting them as definitive—as forms that alone are good and pleasing to God. (For example, a woman in the video mentions how she had previously thought that worship songs had to be based on Western scales and performed using certain instruments to be acceptable.) But in the last fifty or so years especially, at least from what I’ve noticed, many missionaries have recognized the falsity of this line of thinking and seek to undo negative conditioning by promoting the use of indigenous artistic expressions (sometimes called “ethnoarts”) in Christian worship, be it dance, drama, music, storytelling, carving, or what have you. I found it interesting that the interviewees seem to suggest that now it’s the forces of modernism that most threaten the survival of traditional cultures, whereas it used to be that the church was largely blamed (missionaries did undeniably play a large part, banning this and that, though in every era there were exceptions to the rule). Now the church is at the forefront of trying to preserve not only traditional languages but also traditional art forms.

“Everything we have was created by God, and we need to return to it with gratefulness because this is how God made us!” says Rev. Herlina of the Christian Church of Sumba. “With whatever we already have, we can be a blessing to our people.”

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NEW ART SERIES: “Organic, Sunrise Gradients Mask Front Pages of the New York Times by Artist Sho Shibuya”: Since the lockdown started in March, Brooklyn-based artist and graphic designer Sho Shibuya has been painting color gradients in acrylic over the front pages of the New York Times, inspired by each morning’s sunrise. He calls the series “Sunrises from a Small Window.” I love how he’s able to express gratitude for a beautiful new day and to access calm amid dire news cycles. Shibuya is still reading those headlines and articles; he’s just putting them in a larger perspective. (As for myself, call me escapist, but I’ve found that actually blocking out the news—turning down the noise—for certain periods can be a helpful spiritual practice.)

Sho Shibuya, Sunrises from a Small Window, June 22–28, 2020. Acrylic on newsprint.

“I started . . . contrasting the anxiety of the news with the serenity of the sky, creating a record of my new normal,” Shibuya says. “Their front page has always been a time capsule of a day in history, so it made sense to use history as the canvas because the paintings are meant to capture a moment in time. . . . The spirit of the project is that maybe, even after the pandemic subsides, people can continue some of the generosity and peace we discovered in ourselves and that the sky reminds us of every day with a sunrise through a small window. If one thing the news has made clear, we need generosity and peace for all people now more than ever.”

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TWO FILMS: “Death on Netflix: I’m Thinking of Ending Things and Dick Johnson Is Dead by Mitch Wiley: I really liked both these cinematic reflections on mortality, but they’re completely different, as this short Gospel Coalition article bears out. Dick Johnson Is Dead is the more “Christian” of the two because of its hopeful perspective—the human subject of the film is a Seventh-Day Adventist, so death for him is not a final end. After her father was diagnosed with dementia, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson asked her dad if he’d be interested in a collaborative film project where, to help them both face the inevitable, she would stage his death in inventive and comical ways. Relishing the opportunity to spend more time with his busy daughter, he enthusiastically agreed.

The documentary shows them preparing and carrying out these stunts but also interacting in other contexts—birthday parties, trick-or-treating, looking through old photo albums, cleaning out Dick’s office, Dick’s being asked to give up driving, and so on. It made me laugh and cry—films that can do both tend to rate highly on my favorites list. There’s so much love and warmth and heartache and whimsy in it as father and daughter confront death together, talking very openly about it, which I found, strange as it may seem, refreshing. Oh, and the heaven sequences just may be the best I’ve ever seen.

For a more cynical take on death, here’s the trailer to I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman isn’t for everyone, but I’m still thinking about this movie after watching it a month ago, which means it made an impression!):

Seeing and Believing, a Christ and Pop Culture podcast, covered Ending Things and Dick Johnson in episodes 264 and 266, respectively, as have most other film podcasts and reviewers, with Dick Johnson being uniformly lauded as one of the best movies of the year.

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SONG: “Hodu” (Give Thanks), performed by the Platt Brothers: The Platt Brothers [previously] singing scripture to me? Yes, please. The text of this song is Psalm 118:1–4, and the music is by Debbie Friedman (1951–2011), a Jewish singer-songwriter whose songs are used widely in Reform and Conservative Jewish liturgies in North America. Friedman’s “Hodu” was originally released on her 1981 album And the Youth Shall See Visions. (Find sheet music here.)

In this video from earlier this month, Henry, Jonah, and Ben Platt sing “Hodu” to a guitar accompaniment by Al Seller.

Hodu l’Adonai kitov
Ki l’olam chasdo, ki l’oam chasdo
Yomar na, yomar na, Yisraeil
Ki l’olam chasdo, ki l’olam chasdo
Yomru na, yomru na veit Aharon
Ki l’olam chasdo, ki l’olam chasdo

Let all who revere G-d’s name now say
Ki l’olam chasdo
Give thanks to the Lord for G-d is good
Ki l’olam chasdo

The first time the Platt Brothers performed in public as a trio was this April, when they appeared in a virtual Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration at the request of the Jewish Federations of North America, singing “Ahavat Olam.” Ben and Jonah are musical theater performers: Ben originated the title role in Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen and won a Tony for it, and Jonah is best known for playing Fiyero in Wicked on Broadway from 2015 to 2016. Henry is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, where’s he’s a member of the a cappella group Counterparts.

Roundup: CIVA art auction, lament album, Kaphar and “things unseen,” empathy

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!

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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.”

Steve Prince, Faith Walk. Linocut, 12 × 9 in. “Shows a woman walking in faith while the ancestors encourage, uplift, and guide her along the way.”

Jehovah Is My Light (Panama)
Jehova es mi luz (Jehovah Is My Light), San Blas Islands, Panama, 1980s. Reverse embroidery, 14 × 17 1/2 in.

di Bella, Joseph_Tree Parables (Generations)
Joseph di Bella, Tree Parables (Generations), 2017. Gouache, dry pigment, and ashes on handmade paper, 38 1/2 × 30 1/2 × 1 1/2 in. (framed).

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.

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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).

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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.

Kaphar, Titus_Untitled (Entombment)
Titus Kaphar, Untitled, 2020. Oil and tar on canvas. Photo courtesy Maruani Mercier.

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.”

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ANIMATED SHORT: “Brené Brown on Empathy”: In this 2013 video from the RSA (Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), Katy Davis animates an excerpt from a talk by Professor Brené Brown, “The Power of Vulnerability.” “The Webby Award-winning RSA Shorts animation series provides a snapshot of a big idea, blending voices from the RSA Public Events Programme and the creative talents of illustrators and animators from around the world. It responds to the ever-increasing need for new ideas and inspiration in our busy lives and acts as a jolt of ‘mental espresso’ that will awaken the curiosity in all of us. If you’re interested in the opportunity of animating one of our Shorts, please email your bio and links to your portfolio to shorts@rsa.org.uk.” Other RSA shorts include Jonathan Haidt on Why We’re Convinced We’re Right, David Brooks on Character in a Selfie Age, and David Graeber on the Value of Work.

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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?

Roundup: Jewish prayer song, stolen paintings, graphic novels by John Lewis, and new VCS videos

SONG: “Ahavat Olam”: Back in April the Platt Brothers—Jonah, Henry, and Ben—posted a home-recorded video of themselves singing this traditional Jewish prayer arranged by Gabriel Mann and Piper Rutman. (I know actor-singer Ben Platt from The Politician, which is probably how the video came to be recommended to me by YouTube!)

It stoked a lot of public enthusiasm, so on September 21 they released a studio recording, available for streaming and download from all major music platforms.

A translation of the Hebrew is as follows:

With an eternal love have You loved your people Israel, by teaching us the Torah and its commandments, laws, and precepts. Therefore, Adonai our God, we shall meditate on Your laws when we lie down and when we rise up, and we shall rejoice in the words of Your Torah and Your commandments forever. For they are our life and the length of our days, and we shall reflect upon them day and night.

O may You never remove Your love from us. Blessed are You, Adonai, Who loves your people Israel. [source]

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PIANO CONCERTO: Tomás de Merlo by Xavier Beteta: In February 2014 six religious paintings by the early eighteenth-century Guatemalan painter Tomás de Merlo were stolen from a church in Antigua. Although the thieves have been caught, the paintings have disappeared into the black market and have likely been smuggled out of the country. Wanting to preserve the essence of the paintings in music, Guatemalan composer Xavier Beteta wrote a piano concerto whose three movements, titled after the stolen paintings, are “La Oración en el Huerto” (The Prayer in the Garden), “La Piedad” (The Pietà), and “El Rey de Burlas” (The Mocking of Christ). Beteta said he may eventually compose three additional movements, one for each of the other three lost paintings.

Tomás de Merlo (Guatemalan, 1694–1739), El Rey de Burlas (aka La Coronación de Espinas), 1737

Last year the Camellia Symphony Orchestra in Sacramento, California, premiered the concerto. Listen to excerpts, interspersed with interview clips of the composer by Josh Rodriguez, in the video below—which is itself excerpted from the Deus Ex Musica podcast episode “How Stolen Sacred Paintings Inspired a New Piano Concerto.”

See photos of the other paintings at https://www.soy502.com/articulo/capturan-dos-robo-valiosas-obras-iglesia-calvario.

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DOCUMENTARY: The Painter and the Thief (2020), dir. Benjamin Ree: A story of crime and trauma, love and redemption, this documentary follows Oslo-based Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova as she confronts one of the men, Karl-Bertil Nordland, who stole two of her most prized paintings. A mutual friendship develops, and it’s so beautiful to watch.

What I love about the film is how it captures the rehabilitation of both subjects—in a way that honors the complexity, the nonlinearity of that process—and the role art can play in healing. “Barbar” forgives “the Bertilizer” and helps him on his road to sobriety, and he helps her access deep parts of herself and come to grips with the history of abuse she’s suffered. They become, in a sense, each other’s muses. His stunned, tearful reaction when he sees the first portrait she paints of him melted me—someone sees him for the first time.

With documentaries I always wonder who’s the person making it and why. I had cynically assumed the project was instigated by the artist to try to vitalize her career, but no, the filmmaker, who has had an ongoing interest in art theft, contacted Kysilkova after reading about the gallery break-in in the news. As is true with most documentarians, he had no idea when he started filming that the story would evolve the way it did and shift genres, and even become feature-length. Streaming on Hulu.

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INTERVIEW: In 2016 Adelle M. Banks of the Religion News Service interviewed Rep. John Lewis about the National Book Award–winning graphic novel trilogy March, the role of music and religious faith in the civil rights movement, protest (and getting into “good trouble”) as a form of Christian ministry, the urgent need for the church to be a headlight, not a taillight, and more.

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VCS VIDEO EXHIBITION SERIES: The Visual Commentary on Scripture [previously] is an online, open-access resource for those looking to explore the biblical text through art. For every passage of scripture, an art historian, artist, theologian, media theorist, or other is solicited to select and comment on three art images that illuminate the text in some way. The site’s typical format is written commentaries, but by way of experimentation, the VCS has just released video commentaries instead for four new texts. Ben Quash comments on the story of Lot’s Wife through the lens of an early English stained glass panel, a Flemish Renaissance landscape, and a stunning photograph taken after the Allied bombing of Dresden. For Belshazzar’s Feast from the book of Daniel, Michelle Fletcher is guided by paintings from the Dutch Golden Age and the English Romantic period, which she juxtaposes with a contemporary room installation. But here I’ll highlight the videos for two New Testament passages.

The Burial of Christ, with commentary by Italian Renaissance art expert Jennifer Sliwka [previously], covers Andrea Mantegna’s innovatively foreshortened Christ on a marble slab; an altarpiece painting by Michelangelo, in which Christ’s dead body is held up for display, evoking the presentation of the eucharistic host; and a contemporary Pietà, of sorts, by Swiss artist Urs Fischer, which involves a skeleton and a fountain.

Michelle Fletcher, a feminist scholar and specialist on the book of Revelation, comments on the controversial apocalyptic figure known as The Whore of Babylon, which she discusses as a symbol of a city, as a satirization of the goddess Roma, and as bequeathing a legacy of vilification of prostitutes. Fletcher selected a didactic painting by street evangelist Robert Roberg, an ancient Roman coin, and William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress.

“Turn Back, O Man” as motet and showtune

Early this week I was searching the Hymnary database for hymns based on or referent to Sunday’s lectionary reading from Ezekiel 18, where God calls on his people to “repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin” (v. 30b), and the very similar passage later in the book: “As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek. 33:11).

One of the search results was “Turn Back, O Man” by the English poet and playwright Clifford Bax. Written in 1916, it doesn’t explicitly reference World War I, but it’s likely that that was the intended subtext.

Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways.
Old now is earth, and none may count her days,
Yet thou, its child, whose head is crowned with flame,
Still wilt not hear thine inner God proclaim,
“Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways.”
 
Earth might be fair, and people glad and wise.
Age after age their tragic empires rise,
Built while they dream, and in that dreaming weep.
Would they but wake from out their haunted sleep,
Earth shall be fair, and people glad and wise.
 
Earth shall be fair, and all its people one,
Nor till that hour shall God’s whole will be done!
Now, even now, once more from earth to sky
Peals forth in joy the old, undaunted cry,
“Earth shall be fair, and all its people one.”

The tune it’s set to in hymnals, OLD 124TH, is by Louis Bourgeois and is from the 1551 edition of the Genevan Psalter. Gustav Holst arranged the tune as a motet (a polyphonic, unaccompanied choral composition) in 1916 and in fact is the one who approached Bax with the request for a new text.

Here is a performance by the University of Texas Chamber Singers, from their 2008 album Great Hymns of Faith:

When I read the first line, it sounded familiar, and I was reminded that the song (with a much different tune and style!) opens the second act of Godspell. This 1971 musical created by John-Michael Tebelak and composed by Stephen Schwartz is based on Jesus’s teaching ministry as told in the Gospels, especially Matthew’s. (The show’s title is the archaic English spelling for “gospel.”) In addition to Jesus and John the Baptist/Judas, the cast consists of eight nonbiblical, “holy fool” characters who use their own names and sing and act out the parables and other sayings.

Tebelak, who wrote the play as his master’s thesis at Carnegie Mellon, was studying Greek and Roman mythology when, in his last year at school, he started reading the Christian Gospels in earnest and was enraptured by the joy they exuded and compelled by their emphasis on community. He tells the story of how on March 29, 1970, in pursuit of knowing more, he attended an Easter Vigil service at a church in Pittsburgh, wearing his usual overalls and a T-shirt—and he was frisked for drugs. “I left with the feeling that, rather than rolling the rock away from the Tomb, they were piling more on,” he said. That experience motivated him to write Godspell.

Tebelak’s Godspell was produced at Carnegie Mellon in late fall 1970, featuring an original song by cast member Jay Hamburger (“By My Side”) and a handful of old Episcopal hymns played by a rock band.

After leaving university, Tebelak took the show to New York City, where prospective producers suggested a new score and brought in Stephen Schwartz for the job. The rescored show, which retained Hamburger’s single song contribution, opened May 17, 1971, at the off-Broadway Cherry Lane Theatre and became a hit.

Six of Godspell‘s eighteen song texts, including the chart-topping “Day by Day,” are actually taken straight from the Episcopal Hymnal. Schwartz liked the idea of dusting the cobwebs off some of these stodgy hymns and giving them new melodies with a catchy seventies pop vibe that would leave audiences singing them as they exited the theater.

“Turn Back, O Man” is one of those. It’s sung by Sonia, the sassy character with a put-on sensuality, a role originated by Sonia Manzano (of Sesame Street fame). Here’s the scene from the 1973 film adaptation directed by David Greene, with “Sonia” played by Joanne Jonas:

Isolated from the rest of the musical, this song seems completely irreverent and unbefitting the serious nature of God’s call to repentance. Its zaniness and sense of play, punctuated by Jesus’s pensive delivery of the third verse, is on a par with the tone of the whole—and that unique approach to telling the gospel works, I think, really well overall in Godspell, bringing to mind how “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:25). The characters embody the countercultural aspect of Jesus’s teachings, which appear ridiculous, clownish, to the rest of the world.

“The characters in Godspell were never supposed to be hippies,” Stephen Schwartz clarifies.

They were supposed to be putting on “clown” garb to follow the example of the Jesus character as was conceived by Godspell’s originator, John-Michael Tebelak, according to the “Christ as clown” theory propounded by Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School (among others). . . . Because the show was originally produced in the hippie era, and because the director of the Godspell movie somewhat misinterpreted the characters as hippie-esque, that misunderstanding has come to haunt the show a bit.

In this particular song, performed by a hammy character in a feather boa, the lyrics entreat hearers to give up their “foolish ways,” going on to suggest that what is truly foolish is living as if asleep—building “tragic empires,” chasing empty dreams. Though endowed with the flame of reason and conscience, humanity at large, generation after generation, keeps rejecting God’s will, hence the lack of global unity and gladness.

Roundup: Anger, lament, and racial oppression

INTERVIEW: “Singing the Songs of Injustice” with David M. Bailey and W. David O. Taylor: David Bailey is the director of the reconciliation ministry Arrabon and founder of its music-making and liturgical resource arm, Urban Doxology, and David Taylor is an assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. In this conversation the two men discuss how “biblical, angry, congregational worship can help transform our hearts and churches.” “God has given us the psalms to be an ‘anger school’ for us and I’ve discovered that when we skip class, we aren’t emotionally equipped to deal with difficult stuff we’re experiencing now,” Taylor says. “The extraordinary gift of the psalms is that they show us how to pray angry prayers without being overcome by our anger, how to hate without sinning (to borrow from Saint Paul’s language), or, as Eugene Peterson once put it, how to ‘cuss without cussing.’”

Bailey and Taylor talk about the constant simmer of race relations in America, faithful versus unfaithful expressions of anger, the language of “enemy” in the Psalms, the importance of lament in Sunday gatherings and the need for language that expresses the horizontal aspects of what it means to be a Christian, and leading without moderation during turbulent times.

Anger prayer card
The Psalms of Anger: Prayer Card (illustration by Phaedra Taylor)

Taylor’s latest book, Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life, contains a chapter on “The Psalms of Anger.” Read an excerpt here, or view this video talk. To coincide with the release in March, he and his wife Phaedra created a set of fifteen prayer cards. His prayer on the “Anger” card reads, “To the God whose holy anger heals, to the Messiah whose righteous anger overcomes evil, and to the Spirit who keeps our angers from turning violent and destructive: receive our wounded hearts, take our burning words, protect us from the desire for revenge. May our faithful angers become fuel for justice in our fractured world and for the mending of broken relations in our communities. For God’s sake—and ours. Amen.”

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LITURGIES

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LAMENT SONGS

The first two are new.

“I Just Wanna Live” by Johnnetta Bryant, performed by Keedron Bryant: Twelve-year-old gospel singer Keedron Bryant posted a video on Instagram last week of himself singing a song his mom wrote in response to the killing of George Floyd. “God gave me those lyrics” for Keedron, she said in a joint interview on Today. Keedron said he prayed the song, meditated with it, then hit record. It’s a heart-baring, heartbreaking lament, a plea for divine protection in a world that is especially dangerous for young black males.

“It Is Enough!” by R. DeAndre Johnson: R. DeAndre Johnson is the pastor of music and worship life at Christ Church Sugar Land outside Houston. He wrote the lyrics for “It Is Enough!” in July 2016 following the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile but hadn’t set them to music until now. The nine verses bear the refrain “Kyrie eleison” (Lord, have mercy!), or “Christe eleison” (Christ, have mercy!), a common cry of lament. “There are no words that can contain / The depth of sorrow, grief, and pain / That mothers, sons, and all exclaim: / Kyrie eleison!” Johnson sang the song for his church’s livestreamed service on May 31. A lead sheet is available on his Facebook page. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

“I Want Jesus to Walk with Me”: Sharon Irving is a singer-songwriter, spoken-word artist, and worship leader from Chicago who was also a semifinalist on season 10 of America’s Got Talent. In this video from 2015 she sings a spiritual that expresses deep sorrow—“When my strength is failing,” “When my heart is aching,” “When my life feels like a burden”—but also trust in the companionship of Christ, who walks with us through valleys of death. Having likely originated as an improvisation, the song has several lyrical variations and can be easily adapted to voice a range of feelings: “In my rage,” “In my frustration,” “In my exhaustion,” “In my confusion,” etc.

“O This Night Is Dark” by Tom Wuest: Last Sunday my congregation sang Isaac’s Wardell’s setting of Psalm 126 [previously], whose refrain is “Although we are weeping, Lord, help us keep sowing the seeds of your kingdom . . .” Seeds of love, truth, justice, hope. I just learned that Wardell’s song was inspired by Tom Wuest’s “O This Night Is Dark,” released in 2008 on Rain Down Heaven. In addition to Psalm 126, Wuest’s song also references 1 Corinthians 15, Isaiah 2, Amos 9, and Isaiah 65.

 

And this week as I was listening to the song, the following image by Scott Erickson showed up on my Instagram feed, with the caption “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it” (1 Cor. 12:26).

Erickson, Scott_Sorrowful Saint
Scott Erickson (American, 1977–), The Sorrowful Saint, 2016

Erickson painted the image in July 2016 in response to the fatal shootings of Sterling and Castile. It suggests that tears of grief can be generative, that new life can rise out of death. That’s not at all to say that death is good because it catalyzes a movement of change, but that our mourning the evils of racism and murder, our publicly crying out “Enough!,” is not fruitless, though it often seems so. Growth will come.

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VIDEO ART: Weight by André Daughtry:Weight is an attempt to visualize societal projections on the black male body,” writes André Daughtry, a Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary photography and media artist, writer, and performer. The piece is from 2014, and last year PBS’s AllArts station commissioned Daughtry to restage it in New York City as part of a larger video work. [HT: ImageUpdate]

Daughtry has a master’s degree in theology and the arts from Union Theological Seminary and serves as community minister of the arts at Judson Memorial Church, which has a long history of nurturing artists. “We believe that artists have the potential to serve as our modern-day prophets,” the church website reads. “They show us where we’ve been, who we are, and what we can become.”

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PODCAST EPISODE: “The SPU Conversation About Spike Lee Films,” North by Pacific Northwest: In this Seattle Pacific University conversation released April 11, 2019, two cinephiles, Jeffrey Overstreet and Josh Hornbeck, discuss some of the films of writer-director Spike Lee, “the boldest and brashest auteur in American film” (Guardian). The first several minutes, though, are spent decrying the then recent Oscar win of Green Book, which popular audiences loved but critics were generally sour on because it perpetuates the simplistic and ultimately false notion that to solve racism, white people just need to realize that “we’re all the same” and find a black friend.

Best known for Do the Right Thing (1989), Lee is one of several filmmakers they cite who deals with race in more complex ways, and while some people dismiss him as an “angry black man,” many celebrate him for forcing audiences to reckon with the problem of racism. “I think there should be rage inside of every conscious human being in the world, because there’s stuff that’s just not right,” he said in a 2000 interview. “Anger can be constructive.” Lee’s films are heavy-handed, in-your-face; they shout and unsettle. Heavy-handedness usually makes for bad art, but Overstreet and Hornbeck show how the approach works for Lee.

Spike Lee Films-01

Starting at 16:44, they focus on the satirical comedy-drama Bamboozled (2000), which joined the prestigious Criterion Collection just this March. (It’s also been the subject of much scholarly study across fields, one instance I’ve come across being an essay by art theorist W. J. T. Mitchell, titled “Living Color: Race, Stereotype, and Animation in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled,” in What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images.) “Under pressure to help revive his network’s low rating, television writer Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) hits on an explosively offensive idea: bringing back blackface with The New Millennium Minstrel Show. The white network executives love it, and so do audiences, forcing Pierre and his collaborators to confront their public’s insatiable appetite for dehumanizing stereotypes.”

From 25:54 onward, Overstreet and Hornbeck discuss more generally their passion for cinema and the importance of revisiting films.

Here are some things they reference:

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People have been expressing frustration that The Help, a civil rights era drama that sidelines the perspectives of its black characters, is the number one most-streamed movie on Netflix right now. Film critic Alissa Wilkinson gives a list of fifteen movies to watch instead on racial injustice and being black in America. A mix of dramas and documentaries by such filmmakers as Barry Jenkins, Ava DuVernay, Spike Lee, and others, these are black-centered stories that help illuminate where we’re at right now. All are available for online streaming, and Wilkinson provides links to her reviews.

Roundup: Santo Spirito, Joan of Arc, “Halo My Path,” and more

VIDEO: “Ned Bustard: Making Good”: Cursive Films profiles Ned Bustard [previously], a graphic designer, linocut artist, and founder of Square Halo Books. Asked how he as a Christian defines success in his field, he responds with a quote by his friend Kurt Thompson: “We were made in joy to make things in and for joy.” So instead of asking, “Am I successful?,” we should be asking ourselves, “Am I doing what I was designed to do?,” Bustard says.

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ESSAY: “I’d Like to Learn to Love It Anyway” by Helena Sorensen: In this personal essay from the Rabbit Room, Sorensen reflects on the world’s brokenness and beauty, a world where there is grief and disappointment and uncertainty and scarring but also love and springtime and strength and song. She opens by recounting her eleven-year-old son’s very visceral feeling of pain in reaction to the death of a baby bird, and his exasperated “What’s the point of it all?” She then introduces a song that crystallizes her son’s struggle—“Letter to the Editor” by J Lind—while sharing her own struggles, since adolescence, to accept her body. There’s no theodicy here, no theological explanations for suffering; just an aspiration to live with openness and gratitude and perspective, and to take the bad along with the good, the cost of being human.

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NEW POEM: “Santo Spirito” by Jacqueline Osherow: (Read the poem before reading my commentary; I don’t want the latter to influence your first impressions!) Osherow is Jewish and also a lover of Renaissance art, having previously lived in Florence for a year and a half. And she has been enamored of birds since childhood. These influences coincide in her long free-verse poem “Santo Spirito” (Italian for “Holy Spirit”), subtitled “Autobiography with Doves.” Here she traces the presence, and sometimes absence, of the dove as symbol of the Holy Spirit in Italian master paintings of the Annunciation and the Baptism of Christ. Osherow said she does not read the New Testament but experiences Christian narrative and theology through art, which has “been working / on me all along, its proselytizing / deftly subliminal // like the edgy / come-ons urban / legend claims / were strategically / concealed in / advertisements.” (Still, she says, “I remain a Jew, . . . no matter / what I look at, what / I see.”)

Santo Spirito
Basilica di Santo Spirito, Florence

The poem is a reflection on divine revelation and hiddenness, precision and mystery, the visible and invisible. Where and how does God’s spirit reside? What is holy, or can we say only when we encounter it? The poem hinges on the fifteenth-century Florentine church the poem takes its title from. Santo Spirito has a strikingly plain façade, a “supple blankness / wide-open, burning, / immaculate, . . . infinite,” like an unrolled scroll without writing. After a catalog of religious art that pictures and describes, Osherow pauses in front of this emptiness that is likewise inviting. Yes to artists’ visions, she says, to doves and other literalisms, to the transcription and translation of God’s word, to apologetic discourse and theologizing, to bumbling our way toward truth—but yes also to the way of unknowing.

My junior year of college I, too, lived in Florence—just a few minutes’ walk from Santo Spirito, in fact—so this poem is full of memories for me, and I love Osherow’s candid reflections on specific artworks in the city:

Plus these two:

  • The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca, made for the Priory of San Giovanni Battista at Sansepolcro in Tuscany, now in the National Gallery, London
  • The Annunciation panel of an altarpiece Piero della Francesca made for the Franciscan convent of Sant’Antonio da Padova in Perugia, now in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria

Jacqueline Osherow read her poem recently for an Image-sponsored Zoom event followed by a Q&A (video link available on poem page). There were supposed to be photo slides of the paintings keyed to relevant stanzas, but the display doesn’t correct until 8:03.

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NEW SONG: “Halo My Path” by Josh Rodriguez: The words to this “quarantine chorale” are excerpted and adapted from a Puritan prayer titled “Voyage,” from the compilation The Valley of Vision. Composer Josh Rodriguez said he wrote the song “as I watched the bravery of medical professionals, the difficult decisions that government leaders faced, the disproportionate suffering of the poor, the unrest in my own heart. . . . I hope this prayer will challenge us to fight against the selfishness that resides in our hearts, to persevere in the long road to recovery, to appreciate once again that simple privilege of life together.” I’m grateful to Rodriguez for throwing this beautiful phrase into high relief: “Halo my path,” an address to God. Make bright my way, sanctify it, illuminate it with gentleness and love so that my every step is into the light of these virtues, not into the darkness of causticity and hate. The song is an aspiration to bless, to sow gladness rather than grief.

Halo my path with gentleness and love,
smooth every temper;
let me not forget how easy it is to occasion grief;
may I strive to bind up every wound,
and pour oil on all troubled waters.
May the world be happier because I live.
Halo my path.

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NEW ALBUM: Peace to All Who Enter Here by Josh Garrels: A mix of calming hymns and worship songs, including two previously unreleased originals: “Fear Thou Not” and “Creation Song.” I’ve long had a strong emotional connection to the opening song, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus,” so I was hooked from the beginning!

“in the month of march the world entered a time of quarantine,” Josh’s wife Michelle writes on the album’s Bandcamp page. “our life of work- and school-from-home continued basically as usual. but beyond the boundaries of our yard, the world was rapidly shifting. instinctively for us, it was a time to pray & praise. when we enter into praise in times of uncertainty, we feel God’s goodness, the everything in His hands. His peace is a real, sustaining thing. josh began these days by firelight in the garage, mornings of prayer while winter melted away into hopeful spring. in the afternoons he’d turn on the recording gear & sing out praises. You’ll hear the click of the wood stove, the chirping of birds, our five children playing in the front yard. there was a spontaneity to this recording, & the result is sweet. . . . we hope you encounter the peace of Christ as you enter here, finding hope & faith restored in these turbulent times.”

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FILMS

May 30 is the feast day of Joan of Arc, a French peasant girl who, during the Hundred Years’ War, claimed to have received visions from God instructing her to fight against English domination. She participated in military campaigns with the French army but was eventually captured and, after a trial financed by the English crown, burned at the stake. She was later sainted.

Joan of Arc has been the subject of many films. Here are two I’ve seen, both of which abandon glamorous military heroics to focus instead on some of the less flashy parts of her life, with Jeannette being set during her preadolescence, and The Passion during her trial.

Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (2017): A thrash metal period musical is certainly a unique approach to take for Joan’s story, and this movie is . . . eccentric. It shows Joan, played by nonprofessional actors at ages eight and thirteen, as a shepherd girl in rural France, deeply pained by the English oppression of her people. “Our Father who art in heaven, your name is so far from being hallowed, and your reign from coming,” she laments. Pious beyond her years, she struggles to discern God’s will, and once she does, to follow it. She’s helped along by visions of the nun Madame Gervaise—whom writer-director Bruno Dumont splits into two singing, dancing figures played by twins—and others.

While this could just be an art-house filmmaker trying to push the envelope, I feel that the ridiculousness serves a function: we furrow our brows and roll our eyes and wonder if it’s for real, much like those contemporaries of Joan’s who, to put it mildly, had trouble getting on board with her odd story.

The dialogue is adapted from Charles Péguy’s 1910 mystery play The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928): Starring Renée Falconetti in a legendary performance, this silent film classic paints Joan as a Christ figure who’s mocked and martyred for her refusal to betray God’s will. There are allusions throughout to Christ’s passion: shadows form a cross on the wall; Joan weaves a crown of straw; there’s a bloodletting scene; et cetera. Expressionistic lighting and painfully intimate close-ups immerse viewers in Joan’s subjective experience. (As a sidebar, I must note that Falconetti was thirty-five when she played the role, whereas Joan was only nineteen; I think because Falconetti’s portrayal is so iconic, people often forget how young Joan was.)

Director Carl Theodor Dreyer was very concerned with documentary authenticity, so he enlisted the leading expert on Joan of Arc, Pierre Champion, as a historical adviser on the film. The script is based heavily on transcripts of Joan’s trial and execution, which are held at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. The French ecclesiastical court, allied with the English, press Joan on the authenticity of her visions, her certainty of salvation, her support of Charles VII, her wearing of men’s clothing; she continues to insist that she is fulfilling the mission God called her to. Though the historical Joan was subjected to twenty-two interrogation sessions spread out over a few months, by necessity the movie telescopes them into a brief timespan.

Many composers have written scores for the film. The Criterion release gives three options: Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light oratorio, which takes a traditional, maximalist approach; a score by Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory and Portishead’s Adrian Utley, utilizing electric guitars, voices, synthesizers, brass, harp, and percussion; and a minimalist piano score by Mie Yanashita. However, purists say the film should be watched in silence, as Dreyer preferred.

Roundup: Jonah disgorged, Watching TV Religiously, “My Mother’s Body,” and more

VISUAL MEDITATIONS (ARTWAY.EU)

Jonah Swallowed and Jonah Cast Up, commentary by Victoria Emily Jones: My latest visual meditation for ArtWay was published Sunday—it’s on two third-century Jonah sculptures from Asia Minor that likely decorated a family fountain. Early Christians read the story allegorically (at least on one level), as pointing forward to the death and resurrection of Christ. The “great fish” is portrayed as a ketos, a sea-monster of Greek myth.

Jonah Marbles
“Jonah Swallowed” and “Jonah Cast Up,” made in Asia Minor, probably Phrygia, 280–90 CE. Marble, 50.4 × 15.5 × 26.9 cm (left) and 41.5 × 36 × 18.5 cm (right). Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio.

Run by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker, the faith-based website ArtWay has been publishing a new visual meditation every Sunday for years, as well as a lot of other content from a variety of contributors. To subscribe to the weekly email, click here. Here are just a few VMs published in the past year that I particularly enjoyed:

Manu-Kahu by Brett a’Court, commentary by Rod Pattenden: Pattenden begins, “This striking image of an airborne Christ is from New Zealand painter Brett a’Court. It is part of his investigations into a way of bringing together the spiritual insights of the indigenous culture of the Maori people and that of Christianity brought to New Zealand by British settlers. In cultural terms it is a hybrid image. This is something that occurs when two cultures are in a process of mutual re-assessment. That sort of conversation is full of conflict and critique but also allows for the potential for new forms to arise that express the best of both traditions. A Christ figure flying in the sky like a kite, is such a form. It is a new thing, a potential heresy or aberration, but one full of potential for new insight and spiritual refreshment.”

Manu-Kahu by Brett a'Court
Brett a’Court (New Zealand, 1968–), Manu-Kahu, 2007. Oil on canvas.

Knife Angel by Alfie Bradley, commentary by Rachel Wilkerson: This twenty-seven-foot-tall sculpture, welded from 100,000 knives collected in confiscations and amnesties around the UK, confronts the issue of knife violence. The artist cleaned and dulled the blade of each knife he received and engraved personal messages on all the wings’ “feathers,” messages sent by families affected by knife violence.

Bradley, Alfie_Knife Angel
Alfie Bradley (British, 1990–), Knife Angel, 2018. Mixed media sculpture, incl. 100,000 knives.

Cathedra by Barnett Newman, commentary by Grady van den Bosch: I saw this painting in Amsterdam last spring and was surprised by how it compelled me. (I don’t typically gravitate to abstract art.) After spending some time up close—I supposed this was a Newman, and Newman says his paintings need to be experienced up close—I looked at the label and saw that it has a religiously inflected title: Cathedra. The word is Latin for “seat,” and in Christianity it refers specifically to the bishop’s chair inside a church (churches that had a cathedra were called cathedrals). But Newman was of Jewish descent, and van den Bosch writes that Cathedra is meant to represent the throne of God. “And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone . . .” (Ezek. 1:26).

Newman, Barnett_Cathedra
Barnett Newman (American, 1905–1970), Cathedra, 1951. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 243 × 543 cm. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

As someone who loves historical Christian art, including its many Christ Pantocrators, I must nevertheless admit that there is something so right about modern artists’ often apophatic approach to evoking the Divine. While I do believe God imaged Godself in the person of Jesus Christ and is therefore representable, I understand the argument some make that abstraction is a better visual language for spiritual subject matter or encounter. I accept both/and. Whether God is shown as a rich, blue expanse that invites and envelops, or a heroic nude emerging from the jaws of death, or a Man of Sorrows head with a harrier hawk’s body, I think we can learn a little something from the diversity of representations, which are not mutually exclusive. Not all representations need be embraced, but nor do unfamiliar, difficult, or even shocking ones need be automatically dismissed.

Click on the link for more on how to read Newman’s color field paintings, including his signature “zips.”

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FREE ONLINE COURSE: Watching TV Religiously: Through at least July 1, Fuller Theological Seminary is offering all its online Fuller Formation courses for free! I just finished taking Watching TV Religiously, taught by Kutter Callaway [previously], author of the book of the same title, and really enjoyed it. It’s a series of six self-paced lessons, which includes short video lectures by the professor, audio conversations with TV writer Dean Batali (Buffy the Vampire Slayer; That ’70s Show), TV watching assignments, reflection questions, and more.

The course aims to help Christians develop critical tools for watching television and a vocabulary that is as rich and thoughtful as the medium itself, so that we can engage it constructively. (It need not be mindless entertainment!) Callaway explores television as a technology, a narrative art form, a commodity, and a portal for our ritual lives. He’s interested in how stories are told in this episodic, audiovisual format, and what that means for the Story we tell. The course is not about what Christians should watch, but how Christians should watch, leaving ample room for individual viewers to set their own boundaries, ethical and otherwise. (Callaway acknowledges that TV can form as well as de-form us.) He discusses empathy building and access to other perspectives, knowing your sensibilities, how being offended can be useful, watching in community, seeing God in all places, being aware of how your desires and imagination are being shaped, Christians in Hollywood (and Christian characters on TV), and the culture shaping TV and TV shaping culture, among other things.

The course is fairly broad in its approach; it does not analyze particular shows or episodes, though some specific examples are mentioned in conversations, and students are encouraged to form discussion groups with friends or family members and apply what they’re learning to shows of their choice. I really appreciated the assigned PBS docuseries America in Primetime (somewhat outdated because made in 2011 but very good nonetheless), whose four episodes explore character types throughout the history of TV, from the fifties to today: “The Independent Woman,” “Man of the House,” “The Misfit,” and “The Crusader.” From taking this course I realized how many acclaimed TV shows I’ve never seen. I’ve got a lot of homework to do!

Other arts courses offered by Fuller Formation are

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POEM: “My Mother’s Body” by Marie Howe, read with commentary by Pádraig Ó Tuama: As Mother’s Day is Sunday, I thought I’d share this wonderful, sad-sweet, mother-themed episode of the new Poetry Unbound podcast from On Being Studios. Pádraig Ó Tuama introduces Marie Howe’s “My Mother’s Body,” in which a middle-age woman, caring for her dying mother, thinks back to the time when her mother was just a twenty-four-year-old girl giving birth to her. The speaker in the poem is Howe.

She imagines being in her mother’s womb, experiencing the rhythm of her mother’s heartbeat. (What an exercise, to imagine yourself as your mother’s baby!) Now decades later, her mother is dying—that heart is failing, and the kidneys too. The uterus has been removed. Toggling between the two time frames, the poem is both a celebration of the strength of women’s bodies and a lament for its vulnerabilities, especially in old age. Howe marvels at how her mother’s body was capable of such a wonder as giving and sustaining life, and now to see that once-vibrant form breaking down grieves her. In some sense their roles have switched as daughter mothers mother, combing her hair, changing her soiled bedsheets.

The poem opens with “Bless my mother’s body” and ends with “Bless this body she made . . .” In the progression of pronouns in the last two lines—my, her, our—is a recognition of how our mothers always remain a physical part of us. They are in our cells. “My Mother’s Body” is a thank-you and a letting go.

The poem is from Howe’s collection The Kingdom of the Ordinary—which I highly recommend.

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ARTICLE: “5 Contemporary Poets Christians Should Read” by Mischa Willett: There is so much good crop still being pulled from the fertile fields of theologically inflected verse,” writes poet Mischa Willett—so don’t stop short, content merely with Donne and Hopkins! This is an excellent short list of contemporary poets of faith, with summaries of key themes and recommendations for which volume(s) to start with. Willet was recently on The Ride Home with John and Kathy to discuss this topic, and he wrote a follow-up post on his blog.

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MUSIC VIDEO: “I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger”: One of the most poignant scenes in last year’s 1917 is when, after a harrowing journey across No Man’s Land, Lance Corporal William Schofield—exhausted, disoriented—reaches a wood and encounters a fellow British soldier singing the spiritual “Wayfaring Stranger” [previously] to a battalion that sits in somber attention, for they’re about to go into battle. This official music video from Sony splices together clips from the movie with studio footage of the actor and singer Jos Slovick.

Roundup: Pool of Bethesda, Argentine tango hymn, Ernesto Cardenal, beauty and suffering, “Spiritual Cosmonaut” playlist, and “The Two Popes”

VISUAL COMMENTARIES: “The Pool of Bethesda” by Naomi Billingsley: In a recent contribution to the online Visual Commentary on Scripture [previously], Naomi Billingsley has compiled and written about three artworks based on John 5:1–18, a story in which Jesus heals a paralyzed man at a reservoir in Jerusalem. A source of hydration, cleansing, and tranquility, the pool of Bethesda, Billingsley says, is a symbol that transcends individual religious traditions.

Pool of Bethesda

She discusses William Hogarth’s painting of the subject for a hospital, showing sick patients receiving care; a “Dreamtime” drawing from Aboriginal Australian artist Trevor Nickolls’s Bethesda series, created during his recovery from a major car accident; and The Angel of the Waters fountain in Bethesda Terrace in Manhattan’s Central Park, designed by Emma Stebbins in 1842 to celebrate an aqueduct that brought clean water to New York City and improved public health (and which you may recognize as the site where John the Baptist baptizes disciples in the opening sequence of the movie Godspell).

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ARGENTINE TANGO HYMN: “Tenemos Esperanza” (We Have Hope): This hymn text was written in 1979 by Federico Pagura (1923–2016), a Methodist bishop and human rights champion from Argentina, and set to tango music by Homero Perera (1939–2019) of Uruguay. Argentinian pastor Federico “Fede” Apecena, who lives in Georgia in the US, recently introduced the song to his friend Josh Davis, who heads the multicultural worship ministry Proskuneo, and the two banged out this awesome video performance. “The song is a record of all that Jesus came to do and to be,” Apecena explains at the end of the video. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

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OBITUARY: Ernesto Cardenal (1925–2020), poet and priest who mixed religion and politics in his commitment to social justice in Nicaragua, dies at 95: A Catholic priest, poet, and political revolutionary from Nicaragua, Ernesto Cardenal was a controversial figure. He supported the Sandinista insurrection against the dictatorial Somoza regime in the seventies and, when the Sandinista government (which claimed to integrate Marxist and Christian ideals) came to power, served as its minister of culture from 1979 to 1987. He viewed this post as an extension of his priestly office and, refusing to quit it at Pope John Paul II’s behest, was forthwith suspended from the priesthood in 1984. (Pope Francis absolved him of canonical censure in February 2019, permitting him to administer the sacraments once again.)

Cardenal’s most enduring achievement was his 1966 founding of a religious community among the peasant farmers and fishermen of the Solentiname archipelago in Lake Nicaragua. He saw to the construction of a small wooden church, where he led collaborative Masses: instead of giving a homily on the week’s assigned Gospel reading, he opened up dialogues about it with his parishioners, relishing their insights. Transcripts of these conversations were published in four volumes as El Evangelio en Solentiname (The Gospel in Solentiname) between 1975 and 1977, with English translations appearing in 1976–82—a classic work of liberation theology.

Besides cultivating the islanders’ interest in the Bible, Cardenal also took notice of their creative talents. He brought in artists to lead workshops, which led to the development of a primitivist art school that achieved international recognition for its paintings, many of them depicting Jesus’s birth, ministry, and passion taking place in Solentiname, in and around the familiar thatched-roof buildings, blue waters, and lush vegetation. In 1984 Orbis Books editors Philip and Sally Scharper combined several such images with a heavily abridged version of The Gospel in Solentiname and published it as The Gospel in Art by the Peasants of Solentiname, a slim, full-color hardcover that I highly recommend.

Guevara, Gloria_Visitation
Gloria Guevara (Nicaraguan), The Visitation, 1981 [source: The Gospel in Art by the Peasants of Solentiname]
“It was the Gospel which radicalized us politically,” Cardenal said. “The peasants began to understand the core of the Gospel message: the announcement of the kingdom of God, that is, the establishment on this earth of a just society, without exploiters or exploited.” Afraid of the dangerous ideas taking root in Solentiname, Somoza’s National Guard razed the settlement to the ground in 1977, and Cardenal was forced to flee to Costa Rica. He gave his blessing to his community’s decision to join the Sandinistas, the people’s army, to attempt an overthrow of Somoza, a victory they achieved in 1979. The surviving peasants returned to Solentiname to rebuild, and their practice of art and faith continues to thrive to the present day.

Cardenal is also known as a poet. I’ve read only one volume of his poetry, in English translation: Apocalypse: And Other Poems (New Directions, 1977). I didn’t connect well with a lot of it, but it does have a few gems, like “Prayer for Marilyn Monroe,” “The Cosmos Is His Sanctuary (Psalm 150),” and “Behind the Monastery,” reprinted here in full:

Behind the monastery, down the road,
there is a cemetery of worn-out things
where lie smashed china, rusty metal,
cracked pipes and twisted bits of wire,
empty cigarette packs, sawdust,
corrugated iron, old plastic, tires beyond repair:
all waiting for the Resurrection, like ourselves.

(translated from the Spanish by Robert Pring-Mill)

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LECTURE: “On Beauty” by Natalie Carnes: “Beauty has been leveraged in ways that wound us, with legacies of misogyny, class hatred, and racial injustice,” says Dr. Natalie Carnes, associate professor of theology at Baylor University. “And yet I want to suggest that beauty tends those same wounds, and can be found in those same wounds, for beauty is a name for God.”

In this half-hour talk given November 1, 2017, at Dallas Theological Seminary as part of school’s Arts Week, Carnes examines the paradox, expressed in the church’s art and theology across history, that God is both beautiful and not beautiful. In his suffering, Carnes says—his entering the ravaged and scarred places of our humanity—God does not renounce his beauty but reveals it.

The divine presence in grotesque suffering is not a departure from the divine life but characteristic of it. And that movement into the grotesque is not antagonistic to beauty but the revelation of it. God’s faithfulness goes by way of intimacy with not-God, and beauty by way of the grotesque. The beauty that rejects suffering is false, and the one who follows the call of beauty faithfully will find herself in the scarred places of the world. Beauty, after all, is a name for God, and God does not abandon divinity in identifying with the suffering and afflicted but expresses through such identification the very marker of divine life.

This is not to say that suffering, affliction, or poverty is beautiful. Beauty is distinct from the mode of its arriving. Poverty and suffering can be important sites of beauty, even as they are not themselves beautiful, because they mediate the beauty of the God who is charity. . . .

Beauty and Suffering
Left: Michelangelo, Last Judgment (detail), 1536–41 | Right: Matthais Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece (detail), 1515

Natalie Carnes is the author of Beauty: A Theological Engagement with Gregory of Nyssa, Image and Presence: A Christological Reflection on Iconoclasm and Iconophilia, and (forthcoming) Motherhood: A Confession.

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PLAYLIST: “Spiritual Cosmonaut,” compiled by Latifah Alattas: Last month singer-songwriter and music producer Latifah Alattas [previously] curated a short Spotify playlist of “Spiritual songs that stir my soul. Melodies that tap into mystery. Sounds that open me up to the wonder and peace of God.” It’s great!

Alattas is the frontwoman of the band Page CXVI [previously], which has just returned from a six-year hiatus. I’m so moved by their recently released rendition of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” with piano, synthesizer, and pedal steel guitar. Alattas has made the song more communal, subbing out all first-person singular pronouns for first-person plural, even rewording whole lines, like the last two of the chorus, which become “Amidst the pain of this world you grieve with us—unfailing faithfulness, dwelling so near.” Or the final line of the final verse, which she changed from “Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!” to “Blessings for all, Christ within us resides.”

People who are attached to singing the song a certain way might object to such lyrical revisions, but I see them, along with the creative musical liberties she takes, as helping to bring out the themes that are already there. Alattas helped me to hear this classic hymn with new ears.

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FILM: The Two Popes (2019), dir. Fernando Meirelles: I recently watched this Oscar-nominated biographical drama and enjoyed it more than I thought I would! I wasn’t expecting the respect it gives to its subjects and to Christianity. Its title refers to the fact that, for the first time in six hundred years, the Roman Catholic Church has one reigning pope and one retired pope, the “pope emeritus.” (When Benedict announced his resignation in 2013, it shocked the world, as it’s expected that, if chosen, you serve in that role until death.)

The movie is primarily about the relationship between the traditionalist Pope Benedict XVI (born Joseph Ratzinger) and the progressive Pope Francis (born Jorge Bergoglio), which starts out antagonistically but buds into a friendship of sorts. It’s dialogue-heavy (it was adapted from a stage play), but in the most interesting way, as the two engage in “a series of philosophical and dogmatic discussions and disagreements about the nature of faith and forgiveness, and the direction of a church struggling to maintain relevance in the modern world” [source].

But it’s not just about the church’s struggle or the burdens of high office; it’s also about personal faith as a struggle—how to discern one’s calling in life, how to hear God’s voice and deal with his silence, and how to forgive oneself for one’s own tragic silences (in Benedict’s case, regarding the sex abuse perpetrated by clergy; in Francis’s, regarding the Dirty War in his home country of Argentina in the late seventies and early eighties, while he was serving as priest).

Francis’s backstory, of which I knew nothing beforehand, is told in flashbacks. (The fiancée is fictional, though the real Francis has admitted to having romantic crushes as a teenager and even as a seminarian.) The portrayal of both men, by Anthony Hopkins as Benedict and Jonathan Pryce as Francis, is very humanizing (not initially for Benedict, but his character gets there)—and not just because of the glimpse it provides into Francis’s life prior to the cloth, but also, in part, because of little nods it gives to their interests beyond the church, like Francis’s love of soccer and tango dancing, and Benedict’s piano playing and Fanta drinking. And because it shows their personal fallibility, their regret over past misdeeds.

It should be noted that the meeting of the two men at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo prior to Benedict’s resignation is invented, as are many of their lengthy dialogues, which are nonetheless inspired by speeches, letters, and other writings of theirs, brought into conversation with one another by playwright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten.

“Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine”: Searching for light in Jesus’ Son

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.

Jesus' Son book cover

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)

Jesus' Son (graveyard scene)
Billy Crudup as FH in Jesus’ Son (1999)

Visions like this transport FH to a higher plane, making him feel momentarily connected to something larger than himself. And he continues to crave that connection, as does his friend Georgie, who states at one point, “I want to go to church. . . . I’d like to worship. I would. . . . I need a quiet chapel about now” (85–86). (They go to the county fair instead.)  Continue reading ““Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine”: Searching for light in Jesus’ Son