VIDEO TALK: “The Breath of Life: Why Art Matters in a Pandemic” by James K.A. Smith: In this half-hour Zoom talk released June 2, Image journal editor in chief Jamie Smith [previously] discusses the ability of the arts to stimulate our cultural imagination in much-needed ways. “The arts matter in a pandemic,” he says, “because they shape us for the work of reshaping and rebuilding society. In other words, we all need artists to continue creating for us so the rest of us can cultivate the imagination we need to re-create our common life, our social bonds.” And again: “The arts train our imagination so that we relearn to see what we need to see. . . . It’s art as imagination therapy, it’s art as an ophthalmology of the soul that we need in order to build and sustain and restore the institutions of a healthy, flourishing society. . . . If we’re going to imagine the world otherwise, we need imaginations that are trained in subtlety, that have been humbled by mystery, and that are infused with infinity.”
At 14:44 Smith introduces three ways in which art matters during and after a pandemic: art helps us (1) attend, (2) transcend, and (3) mend. That is, art helps us attend more carefully to the world and our neighbors, calling sometimes for gratitude, sometimes for grief, often both; art helps us transcend despair, attesting to the “something more” we long for (“the arts enable us to transcend the tragic when they invite us into a joy that forgets nothing”); and art helps us mend our tattered social fabric by helping us to better understand one another and to imagine possibilities. For each of these functions he provides a few concrete examples, including the current Home Alone Together exhibition.
Along these same lines . . . at the end of the Makers & Mystics podcast episode “Art as Healing,” recorded live last year at The Farm House in Charlottesville, Virginia, and released June 5, 2020, host Stephen Roach reads an excerpt from a book he’s writing:
In our present day, it can be easy to conclude from the various crises taking place around the world, all the injustice and political unrest, the rampant poverty and environmental threats, persecution and killings, diseases and displacements, that art and beauty are mere luxury. It could even make some feel that to focus on art and beauty is insensitive or shortsighted. However, I want to suggest that it’s precisely because of these desperate situations that the artist is called upon to beautify the world with art and engage these issues from a vantage point of hope.
The desperate situation in our world calls for the artist to emerge as a prophetic voice for change and to offer heaven’s alternatives. I’m reminded of the example of Iraqi cellist Karim Wasfi, who countered the tragedy of war by playing music at the sites of car-bomb explosions, with smoldering buildings in the background of his concertos. Wasfi said, “The other side chose to turn every element, every aspect of life in Iraq into a battle and into a war zone. I chose to turn every corner of Iraq into a spot for civility, beauty, and compassion.”
This is the call of the artist in collaboration with God: we are called to be the architects of hope and to counter the destruction of life with the opposite spirit in beauty and creativity.
Here’s a video of Wasfi playing an original cello composition in the destroyed buildings of Al Shifa Hospital in Mosul, Iraq, in September 2018, where some two thousand explosive hazards were removed by UNMAS (United Nations Mine Action Service):
It reminds me of a photograph by Julie Adnan that I saw in National Geographic a decade ago and that, of all the extraordinary photos published in that magazine, has stuck with me the most. Its caption reads, “Some 160 miles northeast of Baghdad, in a Sulaymaniyah music hall ravaged by war, looting, and neglect, a violin-playing boy sounds a note of hope. His teacher, Azad Maaruf, lives there, instructing scores of students.”
The expression “fiddling while Rome burns,” which legend says the emperor Nero did in 64 AD, is used deprecatingly to refer to the doing of something trivial and irresponsible during a crisis. But beauty is not trivial, and its pursuit during times of crisis does not indicate apathy. I love that this little boy wants to play music while bombs sound out around him. Making art can be a daring act of resistance, an assertion of and call to common humanity, a better way. It’s life-affirming. As artist Laura Bon says: “Artists need to create on the same scale that society has the capacity to destroy.”
Every Sunday since March 15, Good Shepherd New York (“an interdenominational church helping New Yorkers embody the love of Christ for the good of our neighbors”) has been releasing a worship service video with liturgy, prayer, sermon, open communion—and phenomenal music led by associate pastor David Gungor, which engages current events. The whole services are worth watching/participating in, but here are a few musical highlights I’ve queued up. I especially like the medleys, which blend together excerpts from a range of songs:
“Way Maker”– Written by Sinach (Osinachi Kalu) – Performed by Zanbeni and Benny Prasad – This husband-wife duo [previously] brings a fusion of R&B, jazz, and Indian classical music to this 2015 gospel song.
EXHIBITION / VIRTUAL ART TOUR: Celebrating 800 Years of Spirit and Endeavour: To celebrate the eight hundredth anniversary of the laying of its first foundation stone, Salisbury Cathedral organized a major exhibition this year, which was three years in the making. After the art was sited and installed both inside the building and outside on the lawns, COVID-19 hit, and the cathedral was forced to close. But the planning team adapted to the setback, developing a virtual tour that uses panorama technology to enable the viewer to enter the cathedral virtually, watch a video introduction, and navigate around the exhibition space by clicking on thumbnail images of the works and links to the corresponding catalog pages.
Curated by Jacquiline Creswell, who has led the cathedral’s visual arts program for the past eleven years, the exhibition features twenty-nine works of art by significant artists of the modern and contemporary eras, including Henry Moore, Elisabeth Frink, Antony Gormley, Mark Wallinger, Shirazeh Houshiary, and Subodh Gupta. Nine of the works are from the cathedral’s permanent collection, while the other twenty were specially brought in, of which two were newly commissioned: the abstract, solar-powered mobile in the nave by Daniel Chadwick, and the light installation in the north porch by Bruce Munro.
The beautifully photographed, ninety-page exhibition catalog is available for free download from the Spirit and Endeavour page of the cathedral website. Besides providing commentary on all the artworks, it also includes an essay by Sandy Nairne that discusses significant art commissions by British churches in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and the difference between viewing art in a cathedral versus a museum gallery. Another available resource is a guide for kids with questions and activities. While I do hope the interior portion of the exhibition is able to open to visitors soon, I’m grateful that the online resources enable me to “visit” from my living room in the US.
PSALM 13 SETTINGS FROM INDIA: In November 2015 a group of musicians from Poona Faith Community Church in Pune, India, composed and recorded worship songs in several of the country’s languages. Because Psalm 13 is assigned to today’s lectionary, here are three settings of that lament, in Marathi, Hindi, and Nepali. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O LORD my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the LORD,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.
(This psalm has also been impactfully adapted by Isaac Wardell, as “How Long,” on Bifrost Arts’ 2016 Lamentations album.)
After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.
When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place, “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”
Sunday’s lectionary reading from Genesis is a difficult one—about Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. Christians have traditionally understood it as a prefiguration of the sacrifice of Jesus, the beloved and faithful Son who, like Isaac, carried the wood for his own sacrifice to the top of a mountain and laid down on it to die. He is also the lamb who takes our place, saving us from the flames of death.
Jamaican artist Greg Bailey casts two young black men as Abraham and Isaac. Isaac lies down on a floral-printed sheet, his open palms facing upward in surrender, as Abraham, whose face is hidden from our view, raises his machete. Scattered around them are Polaroids that allude to other elements of the story: the “angel of the Lord” who stops the killing, the ram that’s sacrificed instead, and, anticipating the New Testament fulfillment, crosses. Two of the Polaroids are of Baroque paintings of the sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio and Titian.
This painting was exhibited at St. Stephen Walbrook in London in July 2017 as part of the Jamaican Spiritual exhibition.
This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.
To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 8, cycle A, click here.
Save me, O God!
For the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying out;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God.
. . .
My prayer is to you, O LORD.
At an acceptable time, O God,
in the abundance of your steadfast love answer me in your saving faithfulness.
from sinking in the mire;
let me be delivered from my enemies
and from the deep waters.
Let not the flood sweep over me,
or the deep swallow me up,
or the pit close its mouth over me.
Answer me, O LORD, for your steadfast love is good;
according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.
Hide not your face from your servant,
for I am in distress; make haste to answer me.
God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
SONG: “When God Dips His Pen of Love in My Heart” by Cleavant Derricks, 1945
The Rev. Cleavant Derricks (1909–1977) was a gospel songwriter who pastored and directed the choir of a number of black Baptist churches throughout the South. He was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1984. His song “When God Dips His Pen of Love in My Heart” (sometimes shortened to “When God Dips His Love in My Heart”) was first recorded by the Blackwood Brothers Quartet in 1946. Hank Williams followed that up with his own recording in December 1950—though it wasn’t released until 1985.
The Million Dollar Quartet (Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash) also covered the song during their famous impromptu jam session of 1956, though only in excerpt: they sing it as a lead-in to another Derricks song, “Just a Little Talk with Jesus.” (Listen to the full track here.)
For a great gospel-style rendition, here’s a 1984 recording by Albertina Walker and the Christ Universal Temple Ensemble:
INTERVIEW:“Singing the Songs of Injustice” with David Bailey: David Bailey is the director of the reconciliation ministry Arrabon and founder of its music-making and liturgical resource arm, Urban Doxology. In this interview conducted by W. David O. Taylor, Bailey shares 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,” Bailey 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 discusses 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.
Interviewer David 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.”
“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 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
—2 Corinthians 13:14
SONG: “Om Bhagwan” | Song from the Saccidananda Ashram songbook, composer unknown | Arranged by Chris Hale and Miranda Stone | Performed by Yeshu Satsang Toronto, on Bhakti Geet, vol. 4 (2019)
This Trinitarian song in Hindi comes from a Benedictine monastery in Tamil Nadu. It is performed here by married couple Chris Hale (who grew up in Nepal and India) and Miranda Stone and others from Yeshu Satsang Toronto, a community whose expression of Yeshu Bhakti (Jesus devotion) is “distinctly urban and Canadian, yet informed by the simplicity of the village, honouring what is handmade, humble, and real . . . , navigating . . . between what is traditional and what is progressive.” A transliteration, with English translation, follows. The sacred syllable Om, or Aum, isn’t really translatable.
Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Prabhu Pita Bhagawan
Om God, Om God, Om God, Lord Father God
Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Prabhu Putra Bhagawan
Om God, Om God, Om God, Lord Son God
Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Prabhu Aatma Bhagawan
Om God, Om God, Om God, Lord Spirit God
Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Prabhu Yeshu Bhagawan
Om God, Om God, Om God, Lord Jesus God
Painted by the Jesuit artist-priest Father A. J. Thamburaj, The Holy Trinity expresses a complex theological doctrine through mudras (Indian hand gestures) and color. I scanned the image from the excellent book Christian Art in India by Herbert E. Hoefer (Chennai: Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Research Institute, 1982), which features art by thirty-five artists and essay contributions by Jyoti Sahi. Hoefer describes the painting:
Green is the colour of creativity and fertility. Red is the colour of activity. Blue is the colour of the sea and sky, symbols of mystery and eternity. Yellow [saffron] is an auspicious and joyful colour in Indian custom.
The upraised hand [abaya mudra] is a symbol of protection in Indian art and dance. It represents the Father. Its message is ‘Fear not’. The fish denotes the ever-watching eye of God, for the eyelids of the fish never close.
The downward hand [varada mudra] represents Christ. This gesture is common in Indian sculpture and dance. God is said to point his devotees to hide under the arch of his foot for refuge. The red wound reminds us that the risen Lord bears the redemptive marks of the crucifixion.
The red hand symbolizes the purifying fire, the Holy Spirit. The spiral line indicates the wind, connecting all three Persons in unity. Fire and wind are power.
Our life is in the ever-present protecting, redeeming, purifying and empowering hands of the Triune God.
In the church’s year, Trinity Sunday is the day when we stand back from the extraordinary sequence of events that we’ve been celebrating for the previous five months—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost—and when we rub the sleep from our eyes and discover what the word “god” might actually mean. These events function as a sequence of well-aimed hammer-blows which knock at the clay jars of the gods we want, the gods who reinforce our own pride or prejudice, until they fall away and reveal instead a very different god, a dangerous god, a subversive god, a god who comes to us like a blind beggar with wounds in his hands, a god who comes to us in wind and fire, in bread and wine, in flesh and blood: a god who says to us, “You did not choose me; I chose you.”
You see, the doctrine of the Trinity, properly understood, is as much a way of saying “we don’t know” as of saying “we do know.” To say that the true God is Three and One is to recognize that if there is a God then of course we shouldn’t expect him to fit neatly into our little categories. If he did, he wouldn’t be God at all, merely a god, a god we might perhaps have wanted. The Trinity is not something that the clever theologian comes up with as a result of hours spent in the theological laboratory, after which he or she can return to announce that they’ve got God worked out now, the analysis is complete, and here is God neatly laid out on a slab. The only time they laid God out on a slab he rose again three days afterwards.
On the contrary: the doctrine of the Trinity is, if you like, a signpost pointing ahead into the dark, saying: “Trust me; follow me; my love will keep you safe.” Or, perhaps better, the doctrine of the Trinity is a signpost pointing into a light which gets brighter and brighter until we are dazzled and blinded, but which says: “Come, and I will make you children of light.” The doctrine of the Trinity affirms the rightness, the propriety, of speaking intelligently that the true God must always transcend our grasp of him, even our most intelligent grasp of him.
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:
“‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
And I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;
the sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.
And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”
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.
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.
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.”)
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:
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Mary didn’t waste a minute. She got up and traveled to a town in Judah in the hill country, straight to Zachariah’s house, and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby in her womb leaped. She was filled with the Holy Spirit, and sang out exuberantly,
You’re so blessed among women,
and the babe in your womb, also blessed!
And why am I so blessed that
the mother of my Lord visits me?
The moment the sound of your
greeting entered my ears,
The babe in my womb
skipped like a lamb for sheer joy.
Blessed woman, who believed what God said,
believed every word would come true!
And Mary said,
I’m bursting with God-news;
I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
beginning with Abraham and right up to now.