Music Roundup

SPOTIFY PLAYLIST: October 2022 by Victoria Emily Jones: This month’s thirty-track assortment includes the jaunty “Now I’m on My Way” by Howard Smith and Frederick D. Fuller, performed by the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir under the direction of Carol Cymbala, and the recently released “Good Tree” by the Hillbilly Thomists, a bluegrass band of Dominican friars.

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GOSPEL PERFORMANCE: “I’ve Got the Joy / It Is Summertime in My Heart / Give Me Oil in My Lamp” and “Do Lord” by The Four Girls: Did you know that Hollywood Golden Age actress Jane Russell was part of a traveling gospel music quartet, The Four Girls? In 1954, a year after starring with Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she sang this medley on an Easter Sunday broadcast alongside fellow group members Connie Haines, Beryl Davis, and Rhonda Fleming (replacing Della Russell), who were Baptist, Episcopalian, and Mormon, respectively. Quite the interdenominational group! All four were active in the Hollywood Christian Group, founded in 1947 by Henrietta Mears.

That choreo, haha! And boy are they aggressive in their evangelism/catechesis of that little girl in the last number!

The Four Girls grew out of an impromptu performance at a fundraising event for St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Los Angeles in fall 1953. A representative of Coral Records was in the audience, and he signed the women immediately. Their recording of the spiritual “Do Lord” sold over 2 million copies.

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I get a kick out of Jack Black’s hammy character performances, especially the ones that involve singing. In each of the last two movies I saw him in, he plays a strangely likeable Christian criminal based on a real-life person.

In the dark comedy Bernie (2011) by Richard Linklater, Black plays Bernie Tiede, a small-town Texas mortician who befriends a wealthy widow but, when the emotional toll of her possessiveness and persistent nagging becomes too much, ends up killing her. The opening credit sequence (which comes after a scene of Bernie teaching a class, with great tenderness, on how to prepare a deceased body for viewing) shows him driving in his Lincoln Town Car, jamming to the Florida Boys’ “Love Lifted Me” on the radio. Millennium Entertainment has released a singalong version on YouTube, featuring a take from the movie with added lyrics and a bouncing Jack Black head!

Six years after this Golden Globe–nominated performance, Black starred in The Polka King (2017) as local Pennsylvania polka legend Jan Lewan, who was imprisoned in 2004 for running a Ponzi scheme. Although he’s a con artist, the movie portrays him as sympathetic—bright-eyed, kind, gentle—and devoutly Catholic. (Yes, he really did meet the pope!) The end credits feature Black as Lewan singing “Thank You So Much, Jesus,” written by Stephen Kaminski, Maya Forbes, and Wallace Wolodarsky for the movie. Enjoy the Polish accent.

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SONG: “Morning Star Rise” by Josh White: Josh White is a singer-songwriter, the founding pastor of Door of Hope church in Portland, Oregon, and cofounder, with Evan Way, of Deeper Well Records. In the early 2010s he formed the neo-gospel collective The Followers, and encouraged one of his parishioners, Liz Vice, to get involved as a vocalist. She is featured on Deeper Well’s first record, Wounded Healer (2012), including on the song “Morning Star Rise”—performed live in 2012 in the video below, with White on lead. (Vice is on the left; Holly Ann is on the right.)

White recognized Vice’s musical talent and wrote a batch of songs for her to record on her own, which became her debut solo album, There’s a Light (2015)—an immense hit. Yay for pastors who notice and nurture the gifts of their people!  

Psalm 91: Fifteen musical versions

Psalm 91 (Psalm 90 in the Vulgate) is a psalm of protection, commonly invoked in times of hardship or before embarking on a journey. It conveys the sheltering presence of God, using the metaphor, tender and intimate, of a mother bird who cares for her fledglings, shading them under her wings and lifting them up out of danger. This image recurs throughout the Psalter and the Bible at large (see Pss. 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 63:7; Exod. 19:4; Deut. 32:11).

Pelton, Agnes_The Primal Wing
Agnes Pelton (American, 1881–1961), The Primal Wing, 1933. Oil on canvas, 25 × 24 in. San Diego Museum of Art, California. Source: Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist, p. 113.

Let me quote the psalm in full, using the King James Version, whose poetic quality cannot be beat:

1 He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.

2 I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.

3 Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.

4 He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.

5 Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day;

6 Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.

7 A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.

8 Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked.

9 Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation;

10 There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.

11 For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.

12 They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.

13 Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.

14 Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he hath known my name.

15 He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honour him.

16 With long life will I satisfy him, and shew him my salvation.

The righteous will be protected, sings the psalmist, from sickness and attack, whether by arrow or by wild animal. Because of the psalm’s specific mention of plagues, or “deadly disease,” it became especially popular during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, we know from experience that some of these statements cannot be taken at face value. Physical harm does befall those who love God. Believers were among the “ten thousand” (and more) felled by the most recent raging pestilence. It’s wrong to conclude that this was a result of their lack of faith.

Biblical scholar J. Alec Motyer clarifies that “the promise [in Psalm 91] is not security from but security in.” That God looks after us is an absolute principle, but the Bible makes clear that no one is immune from suffering. Still, we can trust in God’s grace and strength and ultimate deliverance, and entreat him for specific protections. Bodily salvation won’t come in full until the new heavens and the new earth are ushered in, but we are kept spiritually in the shelter of our loving God.

That doesn’t mean Psalm 91 is a lie; it is poetry, and poetic language is often not meant to be literal. The assurances are still worth praying. God does often intervene on our behalf.

The ancient Jewish community at Qumran near the Dead Sea, through whom the oldest manuscript fragments of the Hebrew Bible come to us, referred to Psalm 91 as a “psalm against demons,” and it is thought to have been used by that community in exorcisms. Jewish midrash interprets many of the listed threats as veiled language for demons, and there is Christian precedent for that interpretation as well. In Luke 10:17, Jesus’s followers marvel that “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!,” to which Jesus affirms that yes, “I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing will hurt you”—language very similar to that in Psalm 91.

In the Late Antique era, both Jews and Christians wore the words of Psalm 91 on amulets, to attain or simply feel God’s guarding power. In the church it is traditionally sung or recited during Compline services and on the first Sunday of Lent (in Matthew 4:6 the devil manipulatively quotes verse 11 in his temptation of Christ in the desert).

This psalm has also influenced popular culture, as from it comes the concept of guardian angels (vv. 11–12).

Below I have selected fifteen musical settings or adaptations of Psalm 91 from diverse sources, including homophonic and polyphonic choral works, songs in indie folk and soul styles, a Puerto Rican hymn, a Nepali bhajan, and more.

For each I have embedded either a YouTube video or Bandcamp track, and if a Spotify link exists, I’ve included it at the end of the description. If you cannot see these music players in your email client or RSS feed reader, open the post in your browser.

This is a curation, not a collation, meaning that I’ve intentionally picked these songs from among hundreds of options, for both excellence and variety. I tried to limit the list to ten and just couldn’t, but I thought twenty would be too overwhelming, so I compromised by choosing fifteen with five honorable mentions. I’ve added almost all twenty to a YouTube playlist (the Sister Sinjin song isn’t available on that platform), if you prefer to listen that way.

1. Gregorian chant performed by Harpa Dei: Born in Germany and raised in Ecuador, siblings Nikolai, Lucía, Marie-Elisée, and Mirjana Gerstner form the sacred vocal quartet Harpa Dei. Here they sing Psalm 91 in Latin in the medieval plainchant tradition. Subtitles are provided in Spanish and English.

For a plainchant in English, albeit of verses 4–5 only, see here.

2. “Psalm 91” by Victory Boyd: This is probably my favorite of all the selections. Victory Boyd is one of seven musical siblings, and before she started her solo career, she was a member of the vocal-harmony sibling act Infinity Song. Her voice is gorgeous, as is this simple musical setting she wrote, conveying both the vulnerability and confidence present in the psalm.

3. “Psalm 91” by Poor Bishop Hooper: Every Wednesday since January 1, 2020, married couple Jesse and Leah Roberts, who record music under the alias Poor Bishop Hooper, have been releasing a new psalm-based song for free download as part of their EveryPsalm project. Handling them consecutively, they have just eight left to go! They made a live video for “Psalm 91,” which shows them playing their own piano four hands accompaniment. [Spotify]

4. “Qui habitat in adjutorio altissimi” (He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High) by Josquin des Prez, adapted by Laurel MacDonald: Josquin des Prez (pronounced “joss-can day pray”) was a highly influential Franco-Flemish composer of the High Renaissance. In 1542 he wrote a setting of Psalm 91[90]:1–8 in Latin for twenty-four voices (SATB ×6)—that is, six distinct soprano parts, six distinct alto parts, etc.

Inspired by this choral motet, in 2007 composer and video artist Laurel MacDonald worked with longtime associate John Oswald to create qui, a sound installation of twenty-nine voices singing an adaptation of des Prez’s “Qui habitat” in twenty-nine languages over twenty-nine speakers, for the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. MacDonald revisited the project in 2010, creating the short video “XXIX” (below) with twenty-one of the original qui singers, each singing in the language of his or her personal heritage. They weave a complex tapestry with interlocking threads of Krio, Spanish, Korean, Hungarian, Hindi, Greek, Finnish, English, French, Italian, Latin, Zulu, Xhosa, Sesotho, Georgian, Russian, English, Tamil, Hebrew, Swahili, Japanese, and Arabic—a multilingual declaration of God’s protective power.

To hear Josquin des Prez’s motet as originally conceived, click here.

5. “Your Wings” by Lauren Daigle: Lauren Daigle is one of the most popular CCM (contemporary Christian music) artists of the past decade. Two-time-Grammy-winning and with two platinum records, she is often compared to Adele in terms of her vocal style—soulful, rich, in a husky register. In April 2020 she released on YouTube a stripped-down, “social distancing” version of her Psalm 91–based song (written with Jason Ingram and Paul Mabury) from Look Up Child, with just her and a piano. You can get a sense of her strong stage presence from the video; here she hits the melody with both her voice and her body—bouncy on the verses, smooth on the refrain! [Spotify (studio version)]

6. “Whomsoever Dwells” by Sinéad O’Connor: “Whomsoever Dwells,” written with Ron Tomlinson, is one of five adaptations of Hebrew Bible passages that appears on Sinéad O’Connor’s stellar 2007 double album, Theology. (Thanks to Art & Theology reader Koen Desmecht for introducing me to this!) The acoustic performance below—from November 8, 2006, at The Sugar Club in Dublin—was released on disc one, subtitled “The Dublin Sessions,” and features guitars, fiddle, harp, and tin whistle; the same song, arranged for a pop-rock band and recorded in a London studio, is on disc two. (I much prefer the acoustic version.)

Theology is an attempt to create a place of peace in a time of war and to provoke thought,” O’Connor said. It is very “personal” and “emotional.”

7. “El que habita al abrigo de Dios” (Those Who Dwell in the Shelter of God) by Luz Ester Ríos de Cuna and Rafael Cuna: This 1943 hymn from Puerto Rico is a versification of Psalm 91 in Spanish by Luz Ester Ríos de Cuna, with music by her husband, Rafael Cuna (1907–1995). I learned of it from the bilingual hymnal Santo Santo Santo: Cantos para el pueblo de Dios (Holy, Holy, Holy: Songs for the People of God). Here it’s performed by musicians from Iglesia Central del Movimiento Misionero Mundial en el Perú (Central Church of the World Missionary Movement in Peru) in Lima. Their names are not given.

8. “Denn er hat seinen Engeln befohlen” (For he shall give his angels charge), MWV B 53 by Felix Mendelssohn: Early Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn, a Reformed Christian with Jewish ancestry, wrote this setting of Psalm 91:11–12 in German in 1844 for Berlin Cathedral, where he was serving as Generalmusikdirektor (royal composer of church music). It is for an unaccompanied eight-part choir, but he later reused it with orchestral accompaniment as movement 7 of his oratorio Elijah.

9. “No Harm Befall You (Psalm 91)” by Sister Sinjin: Released on the 2022 compilation album Joy to the World (Psalms 90–​106) from Cardiphonia Music, “No Harm Befall You” was written by Elizabeth Duffy and is sung by her and Kaitlyn Ferry, who make up the Indianapolis folk duo Sister Sinjin. Their harmonies are a hallmark of their music.

10. “Psalm 91” by Sharyn: Sharyn (pronounced “sha-REEN”) is a Ugandan-born, London-based gospel/R&B singer-songwriter “whose mission is to spread the gospel through adventurous, original, and engaging music,” she says. She wrote “Psalm 91” during the height of the coronavirus, as that scripture passage is one she would read again and again as a source of comfort amid the uncertainty. “This song is an affirmation and a reminder of who God is, what He can do, will do and has done,” she says. “Never forget that God is faithful and his promises are the greatest form of protection we can ever have. His promises are your armor and shield.” The recording features Calibleubird on backing vocals. [Spotify]

11. “Shelter Me” by Buddy Miller: In a 2010 episode of PBS’s Soundstage, country-rock artist Buddy Miller performed a set with other Americana greats Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin, and Patty Griffin, including this original song (written with Julie Miller) from his 2004 album Universal United House of Prayer. “Shelter Me” is about not being scared in the face of disaster or war, for God is our hiding place. The song could apply to Psalm 57 just as well, which addresses the same themes as Psalm 91 and even uses the same language of sheltering under the wings of the Almighty. [Spotify (studio version)]

12. “Underneath the Shadow” by Tom Wuest: This is one of twelve quiet, sparsely instrumented songs that Tom Wuest recorded with his wife, Karen, which were written as their two young sons fell asleep. They all “draw their lyrics from the psalms and from our family’s joy in and meditation upon the good creation of God,” he says. Fitting indeed for meditation, “Underneath the Shadow” comprises just three simple lines: “Underneath the shadow of Your wings / We dwell underneath the shadow of Your wings / Hidden close to Thee, we find rest.” [Spotify]

13. “Mero Saransthaan (My Shelter)” by Suraj Khadka: A Nepali adaptation of Psalm 91, this bhajan (devotional song) from 2021 features traditional instruments from the Indian subcontinent: sarangi (vertical fiddle), bansuri (bamboo flute), and dholak, madal, and tabla (drums). Thanks to Dr. Paul Neeley at Global Christian Worship for alerting me to this one.

14. “Lang en gelukkig (Psalm 91)” (Long and Happy) by Psalmen voor Nu: Founded in 2002, Psalmen voor Nu (Psalms for Now) was a project in the Netherlands to set all 149 psalms (they combined Psalms 42 and 43) in Dutch to music, a task they completed in 2014 with the release of their eleventh album. Seeking “to introduce as many people as possible to the beauty and power of the psalms,” the team comprised some twenty theologians, poets, and composers, plus a band. They wanted the texts to be understandable and the melodies modern and singable. This particular song from the project was written by Liesbeth Goedbloed (words) and Roeland Smith (music) and released in 2013. It has a smoky nightclub vibe. I’ve copied the lyrics below. [Spotify]

[1] Als je bij de Allerhoogste woont, mag je in zijn schaduw slapen.
Als je zegt: ‘De Hoogste is mijn huis. mijn God, ik kan op u vertrouwen’,
dan mag je in zijn schaduw slapen.

[2] Het is God die jou bevrijdt van de dood, de zwarte dood.
Hij dekt je met zijn vleugels toe. Ga maar slapen. Je bent moe.
Zijn trouw zal jou beschermen. Dan kun je slapen, dan kun je slapen.
God waakt over jou. Dan kun je slapen.

[3] Voor de angst die elke avond komt, hoef je niet meer bang te wezen,
ook al spookt de zwarte dood weer rond, al sloopt een ziekte alle mensen,
jij hoeft niet meer bang te wezen.

[4] Ook al komt de dood dichtbij, vallen duizend mensen om,
toch zul jij altijd veilig zijn wat de rest ook overkomt
en slechte mensen krijgen, durf je te kijken, durf je te kijken?
hun verdiende loon. Durf je te kijken?

[5] Jij zei ooit: ‘Mijn God, u bent mijn huis. Geen ziekte komt de drempel over.’
Die ellende gaat je deur voorbij, sinds je dicht bij God ging wonen.
Geen ziekte komt je drempel over.

[6] Zijn engelen staan klaar. Ze dragen je op handen.
God stuurt ze met je mee.
Je stoot je nergens aan. De leeuw, de draak, de adder
jij loopt over ze heen.

[7] Want je houdt van mij, zegt God, en die liefde maakt je vrij.
Ik dek je met mijn vleugels toe, omdat jij weet wie ik ben.
Je kent mijn naam en roept me. Ik kom je redden, ik kom je redden.
En ik antwoord jou: ik kom je redden.

[8] In de zwartste nacht blijft ik bij jou. Ik red je en ik geef je leven.
Deze keer is alle eer voor jou. Ik zeg: Ik ben voor jou een zegen!
Voor jou een lang gelukkig leven!

[Outro] Lang en gelukkig, lang zul je leven, lang zul je leven,
lang en gelukkig, lang zul je le ven! [source]

15. “In Him I Will Trust” by Sherri Youngward: Covering Psalm 91:1–5, this is one of sixteen psalm-passage settings by Bay Area singer-songwriter Sherri Youngward. For more, see her two Scripture Songs albums.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: “Your Wings” by Kate Bluett and Keiko Ying; “Scapulis suis” by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina; “Psalm 91” by John Michael Talbot; “Under Your Wings” by Freddie Fardon (feat. Darla Baltazar); “Psalm 91” by Jonathan Ogden

If you appreciated this post and would like to see more like it in the future, please consider donating to my work. If you do, leave a note telling me which psalm you’d like me to do next!

Roundup: Upcoming Texas events (music of the Psalms, art seeking understanding) and more

UPCOMING EVENTS:

>> “The Music of the Psalms in Church History” by W. David O. Taylor, Christ Church, Austin, Texas, October 1, 2022: “For two thousand years, Christians have found the Psalter to be an invaluable resource for worship and prayer. And, like the original psalmists, Christians have felt compelled and inspired to set the text of the psalms to music, of all sorts: from a cappella to choral, from folk to rock, from reggae to gospel, and more. In collaboration with local musicians, David Taylor, Associate Professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary and author of Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life, will explore how Christians in different periods of church history have sung the psalms within corporate worship,” spanning the apostolic, medieval, Renaissance, Reformation, modern, and contemporary eras.

Psalms (David Taylor)
Left: Icon of the Holy Prophet-King David. Right: Celtic Cross with Bible Page, encaustic by Phaedra Jean Taylor.

A choir will perform several chants (Hebrew, Byzantine, Gregorian) and a motet, and then attendees will be led in a handful of Psalm-based songs, from a hymn of German origin to an African American spiritual to CCM classics. Along the way Taylor will provide historical context and trace a narrative.

Sponsored by the Brehm Center at Fuller Theological Seminary, the event is free, but registration is required and filling up; reserve your spot here. It will be recorded and eventually posted on the Fuller Studio YouTube channel (whether there will be a livestream is still TBD).

>> Baylor Symposium on Faith and Culture: Art Seeking Understanding, Baylor University, Waco, Texas, October 26–28, 2022: Every fall the Institute for Faith and Learning at Baylor University organizes a symposium around a given topic, and this year’s topic is the arts. Registration is still open! The standard cost is $250, or $125 for students. “The notion of art seeking understanding (ars quaerens intellectum) invites association with the notion of faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum). Just as faith is a gift of grace that grows toward deeper knowledge, so it seems that art is a gift whose practice leads to a deeper order of understanding. This seems true not only for the person who experiences art, but also the artist—whether musician, painter, sculptor, or poet. The 2022 Baylor Symposium on Faith and Culture invites contributions from across the disciplines (including scholars, artists, and other practitioners) as we explore together how art seeks understanding and thus contributes to human flourishing.”

Their line-up of presenters includes several from within Baylor’s own distinguished ranks, such as composer and liturgist Carlos Colón, theologian Natalie Carnes, art historian Heidi J. Hornik, and literature scholar David Lyle Jeffrey, in addition to famous outside guests like theologian-pianist Jeremy Begbie, contemporary nihonga painter Makoto Fujimura, and Early Christian art historian Robin M. Jensen. See a full list by clicking on the boldface link above.

Books
Just a fraction of the books authored by the eminent speakers at the upcoming Baylor symposium

The website does not provide a list of presentation titles, but among the topic suggestions on its call for proposals page are how art contributes to moral and spiritual perception, sensitivity, and/or character formation; the power of imagination; the relation of poetic art to the communication of moral truth; art therapy in pastoral counseling; how musical settings of biblical texts add value to those texts; and how to reconcile the making of religious art with the commandment in Exodus 20:4.

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SONG: “The Lord Is My Light” by Lillian Bouknight | Performed by the Notre Dame Folk Choir, dir. Emorja Roberson: “Very little is known about Lillian Bouknight (d. 1990), except that she was an African American from North Carolina, and a soloist and composer in the Pentecostal Holiness movement in the Aliquippam, PA, Community, also serving as a prayer warrior and on the Mother’s Board.” This setting of Psalm 63 that she composed appears in the African American Heritage Hymnal #160.

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VIDEO: “Theology through the Arts” by Jeremy Begbie: A pioneer of the field of theology and the arts, UK-born and US-based scholar Jeremy Begbie is the headliner for the Baylor symposium mentioned above. I met him briefly at a Duke conference a few years ago, and he’s such a delightful person, not to mention a phenomenal teacher who often dispenses wisdom from a piano bench. If you’re not familiar with his work, this fourteen-minute video is a great introduction to it. He’s all about demonstrating how instrumental music (his specialization is Western classical) can help unlock the truths of the Christian gospel. Here he talks about the given, the improvised, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

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BLOG: Pray with Jill Geoffrion: The Rev. Dr. Jill Kimberly Hartwell Geoffrion is a spiritual director, pilgrim guide, workshop leader, and retreat facilitator who spends at least three months a year at Chartres Cathedral in France, known for its architecture, sculpture, prayer labyrinth, and the world’s most extensive collection of twelfth- and thirteenth-century stained glass. An ordained American Baptist minister with an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary and a PhD in women’s studies and Christian spiritualities, she is the author of Visions of Mary: Art, Devotion, and Beauty at Chartres Cathedral (2017) (beautifully produced, from Paraclete Press), Pondering the Labyrinth: Questions to Pray on the Path (2003), and more. Contact her if you are interested in a spiritually based visit to Chartres or in having her present to a group.

Geoffrion is also a professional photographer, and she shares many of her beautiful art photographs from Chartres on her blog, providing specific prompts for prayer and meditation based on the images. For example, in a post on the stained glass panel of Saint Martin bringing a man back to life, she writes, “Think of what is dead and needs resurrection in you, in those you love, in those who live within twenty-five miles of you, and in whatever country you call home. Then, take a very deep exhale and plead with God, ‘Bring resurrection!’” Or, reflecting on the sixteenth-century Nativity sculpture group attributed to Jehan Soulas, she invites us to “imitate one or more of the sets of eyes in the image . . . as you pray, ‘May I see with Your eyes, God. Teach me to see anew.’”

Saint Martin bringing a man back to life (with two onlookers), 1217–20, stained glass window panel in the south ambulatory at Chartres Cathedral, France. Photo: Jill Geoffrion.

Soulas, Jehan_Nativity
Jehan Soulas, Nativity, 1529, from the choir screen in Chartres Cathedral, France. Photo: Jill Geoffrion.

Geoffrion’s blog is a wonderful free resource for those looking to engage prayerfully with the art treasures of Chartres Cathedral. New content is typically posted in batches a few times a year, and the archive goes back to 2015. Sometimes Geoffrion digitally isolates certain details of the stained glass to aid in a more concentrated focus.

As I said when I featured the Tree of Jesse window several years ago, Chartres is high on my list of places to visit, for aesthetic, historical, and spiritual reasons. I hope to make it there sometime in the next five years.

“Compassionate and Wise” (interfaith song in response to 9/11)

The song “Compassionate and Wise,” which appears on an album of the same name recorded by Father Cyprian Consiglio in 2006, represents a cross-pollination of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity.

An earlier version, simply called “Dedication of Merit,” was first sung at a Buddhist-Christian conference at a Benedictine convent in Indiana the week after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. The Rev. Dr. Heng Sure, an American Chan Buddhist monk, was asked to offer a dedication of merit (similar to what Christians would call an intercessory prayer, though it’s phrased more like a benediction). For this he and a colleague translated a passage from the Mettā Sutta, the Buddha’s discourse on developing and sustaining loving-kindness. Their translation reads:

May every living being,
Our minds as one and radiant with light,
Share the fruits of peace
With hearts of goodness, luminous and bright.

If people hear and see
How hands and hearts can find in giving, unity,
May their minds awake,
To Great Compassion, wisdom, and to joy.

May kindness find reward;
May all who sorrow leave their grief and pain;
May this boundless light
Break the darkness of their endless night.

Because our hearts are one,
This world of pain turns into paradise.
May all become compassionate and wise,
May all become compassionate and wise.

In reciting the dedication, Sure spontaneously matched it with a melody by Canadian singer-songwriter Loreena McKennitt, which she had written in 1994 for the song “Dark Night of the Soul,” a setting of verse by the sixteenth-century Spanish Catholic mystic Saint John of the Cross. Conference attendees, their hearts full of grief over the falling of the Twin Towers, joined in singing, lifting up their collective longing for light to break through the darkness.

A few years later at a different Buddhist-Christian gathering, Sure met Father Cyprian Consiglio, a Camaldolese Benedictine monk, author, and musician from California. He shared the song with him, struck by its similarity to some of the prayers Consiglio had offered that week.

With the blessing of Sure and McKennitt, Consiglio and his regular collaborator John Pennington, a percussionist, recorded a new arrangement of the song in 2006 under the title “Compassionate and Wise.” Here they are performing it with friends on June 28, 2018, at the “Arise, My Love” concert in Santa Cruz to raise money for New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California, where Consiglio has been the prior since 2013:

(The song starts at 2:43, following Consiglio’s spoken introduction.)

Their version has slight lyrical alterations and opens with two Sanskrit chants that Consiglio learned from the monks and nuns at Saccidananda Ashram (nicknamed Shantivanam, “Forest of Peace”), a Camaldolese Benedictine monastery in Tannirpalli, South India. The first chant, which is from the Rig Veda but also appears in the Yajur Veda, is known as the Mahamrityunjaya Mantra (Great Mantra for Conquering Death). The second is a svasti pāṭhaḥ, an invocation for the welfare of all.

The following Sanskrit and its English translation were provided to me by Consiglio:

OM tryambakam yajâmahe
Sugandhim pushtivardhanam
Urvâr ukamiva bandhanât
Mrityor mukshiyam amritat

OM sarvesâm svastir bhavatu
Sarvesâm shantir bhavatu
Sarvesâm pûrnam bhavatu
Sarvesâm mangalam bhavatu
Sarve bhavtu sukhinâh
Sarve shântu nirâmayâh
Sarve bhadrâni pashyantu
Mâ kashchid dukha bhagbhavet
OM shânti shânti shânti

We worship the true God who is the Supreme Being
Who is fragrant and nourishes all beings
May he liberate us from death for the sake of immortality
Like a cucumber is severed from its bondage to the creeper

May all be happy
May all be free from disease
May all realize what is good
May none be in misery
May the nonvirtuous be virtuous
May the virtuous attain tranquility
May the tranquil be freed from the bonds of death
May the freed make others free
Peace, peace, peace

And here is the sung English that follows:

May every living being,
Our minds as one and radiant with light,
Share the fruits of peace,
Our hearts of goodness luminous and bright.

If people hear and see,
Our hands and hearts can find, in giving, unity.
May their minds awake
To Great Compassion, wisdom, and to joy.

May goodness find reward;
May all who sorrow leave their grief and pain;
May this boundless light
Dispel the darkness of their endless night.

Because our hearts are one,
This world of pain turns into paradise.
May all become compassionate and wise,
May all become compassionate and wise.

This song is full of interfaith exchanges. A melody written to set the text of a Carmelite Christian friar was adapted to fit a Buddhist dedication of merit and is introduced by a Benedictine Christian monk with a passage from the Hindu scriptures! For more information on the song’s history, see urbandharma.org.

Explaining the significance of a dedication of merit (and metta practice) to his Christian readers, Consiglio writes on the hermitage blog, “We can dedicate whatever closeness to God we have to the good of someone else.” I myself wouldn’t use the phrase “dedication of merit” or its derivatives to describe what I’m doing when I intercede to God for others, but I see what Consiglio means, and I think it’s this: “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (James 5:16). Through Christ, God hears our prayers, and it is our duty in prayer to think more widely than just our own needs or the needs of those in our immediate circles—though that can be a good starting point. As the apostle Paul says, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone” (1 Tim. 2:1, emphasis mine).

What if our prayers extended to enfold all living beings? I was always taught to avoid genericisms in prayer, and while there is value in direct naming, there is also a beauty to those kinds of broad prayers often heard on the lips of children—for “the whole world,” for “peace everywhere.”

Perhaps you are uncomfortable by the lack of doctrinal specificity in “Compassionate and Wise,” or by what you might call “syncretism” (the mixing of belief systems). But as Consiglio says, there is nothing in the song that contradicts Christianity. The song arose out of an interreligious context, so it’s meant to invite the participation of people of various faith backgrounds.

“Because our hearts are one” refers to a unity of intention or desire. The singers may not be united in theological particulars, nor even around the deity they’re addressing, but they are one in their wish for universal well-being, for liberation from the bonds of death and a walking together in friendship across boundaries of difference.

Roundup: Frederick Buechner on the arts, contemporary art as spiritual discipline, and more

SPOTIFY PLAYLIST: September 2022 by Victoria Emily Jones: This month’s thirty-song lineup includes a tango, a Pentecostal praise song, a playful setting of the Heidelberg Catechism Q&A number one, an Americana lament for hard times, a Negro spiritual on sax, Christina Rossetti, guitar evangelist Mother McCollum with a unique Jesus metaphor (!), a 9/11-inspired interfaith prayer that I will write about in a separate post, and songs in Turkish (“Kutsal, Kutsal, Kutsal Allah” = Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God) and Sepedi (“Modimo re boka wena” = God, we praise you).

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LECTURE (AUDIO): “God’s Thumbprint” by Frederick Buechner: Ordained minister and Pulitzer Prize– and National Book Award–nominated author Frederick Buechner died August 15 at age ninety-six. He was a wonderful writer (of both fiction and spiritual nonfiction) and preacher, and I hear him quoted all the time. He once summed up the theme of all his work as “Listen to your life.”

In 1992 Buechner spoke for the biennial Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, about how “art and religion are twin expressions of the human spirit.” Discussing poetry, painting, and music, he shows how the arts help us to pay attention. Listen to the talk, “God’s Thumbprint,” on FFW’s Rewrite Radio podcast. It is an expansion of the “Art” entry Buechner wrote in his book Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized (1988); read the full excerpt here.

Rembrandt_Old Woman Praying
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669), Old Woman Praying, 1629–30. Oil on gilded copper, 15.5 × 12.2 cm. Residenzgalerie Salzburg, Austria. This is one of the many careworn, lived-in elderly faces Rembrandt painted.

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LECTURE (VIDEO): “Difficult Beauty: Contemporary Art as Spiritual Discipline” by James K. A. Smith: In its content selection and development, the arts quarterly Image, says editor in chief James K. A. Smith, resists both nostalgia (old is better) and progressivism (new is better), charting a third way that he calls “archaic avant-garde.” The journal’s focus is on contemporary art, but contemporary art funded by tradition. Most of the writers and artists they feature see the tradition of religious art as a gift and a launchpad.

In this lunchtime Zoom talk from May 19, 2021, Smith considers why contemporary art so often feels alienating. He focuses on painting, giving a brief history of the onset of modernism in that medium, starting with the impact of photography, which pushed painters beyond the representation of objective reality. He shares compelling quotes by art critic Peter Schjeldahl and philosopher John Carvalho, about how we look and when thinking happens. Smith discusses the need for humility—to be comfortable with the not-knowing, to surrender our desire for mastery and control (i.e., demanding that paintings explain themselves).

What if the art that first alienates us is the art that might also stretch us? Or what if the literature that’s intimidating might also be the literature that has the possibility to kind of break us open in new ways, open us up to others, and even open us up to God? What if the difficulty of contemporary art is a virtue? And what if experiencing that difficulty is actually what we need? (12:42)

Daniel Domig (Canadian/Austrian, 1983–), Prayer Invites Chaos, 2019. Oil on mixed fibers, 75 × 59 in. [artist’s website]

The last twenty minutes consists of Q&A and addresses icons, art as propaganda, whether and how to engage art that comes out of a place of despair, and more.

I admit that I find much of contemporary art difficult, often unpleasantly so. A few readers have requested that I feature more abstract art, but I struggle to know how to talk about it. But I do want to learn. Image helps me do that.

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ESSAY: “Venice Undone” by Matthew J. Milliner: A core publication of Cardus, Comment magazine is committed to “the difficult work of being faithfully present in culture.” This summer they published an essay by art historian Matthew Milliner reflecting on the Anish Kapoor and Anselm Kiefer exhibitions at the 59th Venice Biennale, one of the art world’s largest and most significant recurring events.

Milliner discusses one of Kapoor’s convex sculptures in Vantablack—a nanotech coating so dark that it absorbs 99.8 percent of visible light—which, in its staging at the Gallerie dell’Accademia, dialogues with three Marian icons and a ceiling painting of God the Father; Sky Mirror in the Accademia courtyard (see also Jonathan A. Anderson’s Instagram post on this piece); Shooting into the Corner; and The Healing of St. Thomas.

Photo by Matthew Milliner
At the 59th Venice Biennale, the Infant Christ from Paolo Veneziano’s Madonna and Child Enthroned (1320s) seems to bless one of Anish Kapoor’s “voids,” a black-painted work that appears flat when viewed head-on but whose convexity becomes apparent when viewed from the side. Photo: Matthew J. Milliner.

In part 2 of the essay, Milliner considers how the Kiefer show at the Doge’s Palace critiques Venice’s history of military conquest, replacing Titian’s The Conquest of Zara (1584) with an image of an empty tomb that evokes Jesus’s conquest over death. Apocalyptic themes have long been noted in Kiefer’s work; Milliner sees in particular traces of St. Paul and an interrogation of historic Venice’s bombastic displays of wealth and splendor, which are not lasting. And of course there’s the Jacob’s ladder motif. For a silent video tour of the exhibition, see here.

Kiefer, Anselm_Venice Biennale 2022
Anselm Kiefer (German, 1945–), These writings, when burned, will finally give some light, site-specific exhibition at the 59th Venice Biennale, 2022. Sala dello Scrutinio, Palazzo Ducale, Venice. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Prompted in part by their use of darkness, Kapoor and Kiefer have been read by some scholars through a lens of despair, but Milliner looks with eyes of hope and sees plenitude and light.

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SONG: “Jordan” by Jana Horn: One of Art & Theology’s subscribers sent this to me, and I’m not sure what to make of it, but I definitely find it intriguing, if a bit unsettling. A song from Jana Horn’s debut solo album, Optimism (2022), which Pitchfork calls “cryptic, bewildering, and daringly simple.” “Jordan” is full of veiled biblical allusions and touches on themes of pilgrimage, belief, destruction, incarnation, and burden bearing. I share it here in the spirit of Jamie Smith’s talk above, about not needing to nail down meaning in an artwork—even though I can’t help but ask, “Just who are the two dialogue partners?!” (God the Son and God the Father?)

Horn is a singer-songwriter from Austin, Texas, and a fiction-writing graduate student at the University of Virginia–Charlottesville.

“Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet”: From the streets to symphony hall

In 1971 Gavin Bryars was working as a mixer and editor for a film documenting street life in and around the Elephant and Castle area of South London. Sifting through all the material that filmmaker Alan Power had recorded for the project, Bryars was struck by a twenty-six-second audio fragment of an elderly homeless man singing a simple song of Christian faith:

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet
Never failed me yet
Jesus’ blood never failed me yet
That’s one thing I know
For he loves me so

The clip didn’t make it into the film, but Power gave Bryars permission to keep it. Unfortunately the singer’s name and likeness were never recorded, and Bryars’s attempts to find him were unsuccessful. And despite scouring various hymnals and archives, neither Bryars nor anyone else has been able to find any other record of the song, which means it very likely could have been written by the man himself.

Inspired by the beauty and sincerity of the man’s song, Bryars ended up using the unwanted audio as the basis of a major orchestral composition. He made a loop of its thirteen bars (which the man sings perfectly in tune) and wrote a simple chordal arrangement, which he then developed into a rich ensemble piece with strings and brass, lasting about thirty minutes. The first three and half minutes feature a playback of the man’s bare vocals, the clip gradually increasing in volume until the strings enter in layers, then the brass, building to a swell that supports (but crucially, does not overwhelm) the voice for the entire duration.

“In a loose narrative sense, the frail, forsaken man is given a dignity and a sense of comradeship from the supporting musicians,” writes British journalist Oliver Keens, who also says that this “work of experimental classical music .  .  . as accessible as any pop song .  .  . is the closest we have in [England] to an underground national hymn.”

Music writer and sound artist Marc Weidenbaum says the piece “takes the melody inherent in a creaky recording of a homeless man singing a hymn in a painfully sweet and wavering rendition and renders it in a gentle, sensitive setting that suggests a heavenly chorus if not outright beatification.”

It is meditative; trancelike, even. And it has such emotional power. I cried when I first heard it.

The orchestration honors the anonymous man’s faith and the object of his faith, Jesus Christ—particularly the efficacy of Jesus’s blood, shed for the life of the world. An expression of divine love, that blood flows into every dark corner, bringing hope, forgiveness, and healing. The man on the tape clung to its promise. Even though his circumstances might suggest that the blood did fail him, he testifies otherwise: Jesus’s blood has never failed me.

“Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” was originally released on LP on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records label in 1975 (a few minutes had to be shaved off for it to fit on vinyl) and was re-released in 2015. A shortened version was recorded in 2002 on Gavin Bryars: A Portrait, featuring Tom Waits, with the Gavin Bryars Ensemble.

Widely performed, the piece exists in many iterations, with different lengths (from four minutes to twelve hours) and instrumentation. Bryars said he reinvents it every time he conducts it, usually writing parts for the musicians he has available.

Last year, in celebration of the work’s fiftieth anniversary, The Song Company and friends recorded a new choral a cappella version by Bryars.

The song has also been covered by popular Christian artists such as Jars of Clay (2003) and Audrey Assad (2016). Sandra Stephens sings it with a new melody and Latin rhythm on the collaborative album Shades of Blue (1994), interspersed with a monologue by Lanny Cordola that references the song’s source in that unnamed Londoner who graced the world with it.

The video above captures a performance by Psappha, conducted by Clark Rundell, which took place October 12, 2016, at the RNCM Theatre in Manchester.

In a Luminous podcast interview with Bryars last year, host Peter Bouteneff, reflecting on how Bryars recovered the old singer’s brief improvised performance from the cutting-room floor, said something that has stayed with me: “It makes you wonder how at any given moment, there’s something passing being said or sung, that if we cared enough to isolate it and love it, it could become exactly as beautiful.”

Recognizing the sublimity of the man’s song, Bryars shone a light on it, developing it into a full-fledged concert piece that doesn’t compete with the original homespun quality, but rather elevates it, broadens it. “Jesus’ Blood” is a merging of “fine” and “folk” cultures that exhibits the unique strengths of both.

It’s a pity that the man has never received named authorship credit—although, as mentioned, due diligence was taken to identify him prior to the song’s going public, and no new leads have emerged since, now surely decades after the man has passed. We don’t know whether the song is one he heard long ago in some church or mission hall, or from a friend, or something he composed himself. Either way, his heartfelt presentation of the song is a gift, and Bryars’s stewardship of that gift and creative engagement with it has extended its reach all over the globe.

Roundup: “Incarnation and Imagination” lecture, Planet Drum, and more

PODCAST EPISODE: “Incarnation and Imagination (with Malcolm Guite),” Imagination Redeemed: On March 28, 2015, the Anglican poet-priest Malcolm Guite from Cambridge, England, gave a talk in Colorado Springs for the Anselm Society, an ecumenical Christian organization whose mission is a renaissance of the Christian imagination. They have just released it on their podcast.

Guite discusses how the job of the arts is to link earth and heaven, heaven and earth; where a poem or other work of art stays on only one of those planes, it typically fails. He unpacks Theseus’s monologue from Act 5, scene 1 of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, focusing on these six lines: “The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling, / Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven. / And as imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen / Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.”

Shakespeare, Guite says, is riffing on the prologue to John’s Gospel.

The Logos . . . is bodied forth perfectly and beautifully in the living, walking poem of Jesus Christ, in whom everything eternal is made particular, and who invites everybody to come towards him . . . because he is a habitation with open doors. So of course in John’s Gospel he says, ‘I am the door’! . . . Open up, walk in! (48:51)

And one more quote from Guite!

The church . . . is founded by one who is himself artistically embodied meaning—meaning made visible, meaning made beautiful, meaning made habitable and hospitable and welcoming in the touch of the body and in the physical event, which is then transfigured, because it is also a meaningful event, because earth and heaven meet. (55:34)

It’s a brilliant and inspiring talk, and it integrates other poetic verse besides Shakespeare’s.

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MUSIC:

>> “More Love, More Power” by Paul Livingstone and Benny Prasad: This sitar-guitar duet is performed by Paul Livingstone (a multi-instrumentalist and composer of “ragajazz chamber music” who was one of the few American disciples of the late Ravi Shankar) and gospel musician Benny Prasad [previously]. The performance took place June 11 at Chai 3:16, a four-hundred-seat café and community space that Prasad founded in Bengaluru to reach out to college students. (Chai is Hebrew for “life,” and “3:16” refers to the famous verse in the Gospel of John about God’s love.) [HT: Global Christian Worship]

>> “King Clave” by Planet Drum: In 1991 Mickey Hart (best known as a drummer of the Grateful Dead) and Zakir Hussain (a classical tabla virtuoso from Mumbai) formed the Grammy-winning global percussion ensemble Planet Drum, bringing together the world’s greatest rhythm masters into a one-of-a-kind improvisational supergroup. Prompted by ongoing international strife, Planet Drum reconvened over the past two years to record their third album, In the Groove, which released August 5. It features six unique compositions led by Hart, Hussain, Sikiru Adepoju of Nigeria, and Giovanni Hidalgo of Puerto Rico.  

The centerpiece of the album is “King Clave” (the clave is a rhythmic pattern), created in partnership with Playing for Change and with funding from the United Nations Population Fund. The four core musicians mentioned above are joined by other percussionists and dancers from around the world. The music video uses the “Alternate Version” of the performance, released separately as a single.

Learn more about the Planet Drum project in this six-minute video:

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STILL LIFE EDITION: “The History of the Peace Symbol” by Michael Wright: Did you know that the peace symbol that spread worldwide during the 1960s was designed by a Christian from the UK? (Christian pacifism was one of the underappreciated drivers of the nuclear disarmament and antiwar movements.) Learn more about the symbol’s history and art historical and nautical influences in the August 15, 2022, edition of Michael Wright’s weekly letter on art and spirit, Still Life. Also included is the poem “Wildpeace” by Yehuda Amichai, and four weblinks of interest, such as an article on how the patristic tradition agrees with cognitive neuroscience, and a video of FKA Twigs performing in a church!

Holtam, Gerald_Peace
Sketch of nuclear disarmament symbol by Gerald Holtom, created for the first Aldermaston March in 1958. © Commonweal Collection, University of Bradford, England.

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VIDEO LECTURE: “Symbolism and Sacramentality in Art: Medieval and Postmodern Representations of the Little Garden of Paradise” (Religion and Art Talks) by Tina Beattie: Dr. Tina Beattie is a professor emerita of Catholic Studies at the University of Roehampton whose research is at the intersections of art, gender, and theology. In this talk she explores the sacramental imagination of the medieval world through a Late Gothic painting from the Rhineland known as The Little Garden of Paradise. (You can zoom in in tremendous detail on the Städel Museum’s website.) It shows Mary reading in an enclosed garden in the company of saints, her little boy Jesus playing a psaltery at her feet. “Christ retunes the cosmos,” Beattie says. “The harmonies of creation were disrupted by sin. But all of creation is brought back into harmony through the Incarnation.”

Symbolism and allegory abound in medieval religious paintings, encoding profound meanings that can be discerned if we would but take the time to look and to meditate and to understand the world from which these images arose. “The visual image can say things that the theological text can’t,” Beattie asserts. “It can play with the doctrinal truth in ways that allow other meanings to emerge discreetly.”

Though many interpretations of hortus conclusus imagery focus on Mary’s virginity, and indeed that was a primary aspect motivating the creatives who developed such imagery, Beattie draws out themes of new creation and discusses the garden as the human soul.

The Little Garden of Paradise
The Little Garden of Paradise, Upper Rhine, ca. 1410–20. Mixed media on oak, 26.3 × 33.4 cm. Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

The Little Garden of Paradise (detail, dragon)
A small, slain dragon lies belly-up beside a man in greaves and chain mail, probably Saint George.

The other artworks she glosses are:

The last half hour of the video features audience engagement.

Roundup: West African praise medley, reading poetry and fiction, and more

SPOTIFY PLAYLIST: August 2022 by Victoria Emily Jones: Most months I compile thirty songs and other musical selections into a nonthematic playlist as a way to share good music, mostly from the Christian tradition but otherwise Christian-adjacent. This month’s list includes a traditional Black gospel song performed by Chris Rodrigues and professional spoon player Abby Roach (featured here); a Zulu song from South Africa about holding on to Jesus (bambelela = “hold on”); a song in the voice of Christ Our Mother by Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor, from her album Gospel Oak; a portion of Barbados-born Judy Bailey’s Caribbean-style setting of the Anglican liturgy; a brass arrangement of a Golden Gate Quartet classic; Palestrina’s beautiful multivoiced setting of a Latin hymn by Bernard of Clairvaux; a future-looking song of celebration by country artist Naomi Judd, who passed away in April; a condensation of “In Christ Alone” by Texas soul artist Micah Edwards; and more.

The two videos below are from the list: a medley of the Twi praise chorus “Ayeyi Wura” (King of Our Praise) from Ghana and “Most High God” from Nigeria, led by Eric Lige at the 2018 Urbana missions conference, and a new arrangement by Marcus & Marketo of “I’ve Got a River of Life,” a song that I have fond memories of singing in children’s church as a kid (with hand motions!) (you can hear a more standard rendition here). The first line is derived from Jesus’s saying in John 7:38 (“Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water”), and the refrain “Spring up, O well!” comes from Numbers 21:17, where the Israelites praise God for providing them water in the desert.

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Reading books is a key way that I grow intellectually and spiritually, and books are often where I find content to highlight on the blog, be it poems, visual art, people, or ideas. Because I’m not affiliated with an academic institution, I don’t have easy access to a lot of the books I need for my research, and I rely heavily on my personal library (as well as the Marina interlibrary loan system). If you’d like to support the work of Art & Theology, buying me a book from my wish list is a great way to do that! I’ll consider it a birthday gift, as my birthday is Saturday. 😊

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ESSAYS:

>> “Poetry’s Mad Instead” by Abram Van Engen, Reformed Journal: “I believe that poetry has a particular place in the church. I think it responds directly to the call and the invitation of God to ‘sing a new song,’” says Abram Van Engen, chair and professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis and cohost of the podcast Poetry for All. “And in the singing of poetry, the faithful can begin to understand and experience and engage God’s world afresh.” He adds, “Poets often invite us to practice thinking and noticing at a different pace. It is only at a slower speed of processing that we can begin to observe what we have too often missed or ignored.”

In this essay, Van Engen walks readers through the sonnet “Praise in Summer” by Richard Wilbur, which is what he begins with whenever he teaches poetry at church. He teaches you some of the poet’s tools so that you can feel more confident in approaching poems on your own.

>> “In Defense of Fiction: Christian Love for Great Literature” by Leland Ryken: An excellent article, by a professor emeritus of English at Wheaton College and author of The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing, A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible, and more. “With so many valuable nonfiction books available to Christians, many wonder if reading fiction is worth the time. Others view fiction as a form of escapism, a flight from reality and the world of responsibility. But rightly understood, reading fiction clarifies rather than obscures reality. The subject of literature is life, and the best writers offer a portrait of human experience that awakens us to the real world. Fiction tells the truth in ways nonfiction never could, even as it delights our aesthetic sensibilities in the process. Reading fiction may be a form of recreation, but it is the kind that expands the soul and prepares us to reenter reality.”

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VISUAL MEDITATION: On Christ and the Samaritan Woman by Jacek Malczewski, by William Collen: William Collen introduced me to this unusual painting on the subject of Christ’s meeting with the woman at the well from John 4—a subject the artist painted several times (e.g., here, here, and here). Whereas Christ is traditionally shown pontificating to the woman with an air of formality, here there is an appealing casualness to their interaction, and the woman dominates the composition.

Malczewski, Jacek_Christ and the Samaritan Woman
Jacek Malczewski (Polish, 1854–1929), Christ and the Samaritan Woman, 1912. Oil on plywood, 92 × 72.5 cm. Borys Voznytskyi Lviv National Art Gallery, Ukraine.

Collen is an art writer and researcher from Omaha, Nebraska, who is a Christian and who blogs at Ruins. I’ve enjoyed following his posts, which include “The proper response to an art of sorrow”; “Dikla Laor’s photographs of the women of the Bible”; how household chores are approached differently by Koons, Picasso, Degas, and Vermeer; “Good art / bad art / non-art”; and “Artists and agency: assumptions and limits.” He writes in a conversational manner that’s really refreshing.

“Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me”: Three tunes and multiple stylings

Jesus, Savior, pilot me,
Over life’s tempestuous sea;
Unknown waves before me roll,
Hiding rock and treach’rous shoal;
Chart and compass come from Thee:
Jesus, Savior, pilot me!

As a mother stills her child,
Thou canst hush the ocean wild;
Boist’rous waves obey Thy will
When Thou say’st to them, “Be still!”
Wondrous Sov’reign of the sea,
Jesus, Savior, pilot me!

When at last I near the shore,
And the fearful breakers roar
’Twixt me and the peaceful rest,
Then, while leaning on Thy breast,
May I hear Thee say to me,
“Fear not, I will pilot thee!”

The hymn text “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me” was written in 1871 by Edward Hopper (1818–1888), pastor of the Church of Sea and Land in New York Harbor. Hopper ministered to sailors coming and going, many of whom became lost at sea; his was thus a transient congregation, and one well acquainted with grief and uncertainty.

This is the only hymn of Hopper’s to have survived. It uses nautical imagery to speak of how Christ guides us through life’s stormy waters, all the way safe to the other shore, heaven. It is a petitionary hymn that beseeches Jesus to be present and active, but it is also a hymn of consolation.

Though it has been published in a number of hymnals, I first encountered “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me” through the Bifrost Arts retune released on the collective’s first album in 2008. In fact, several artists have composed new melodies for the hymn or revamped it since it was first set to music by John E. Gould a few months after the publication of Hopper’s text, and it continues to live on even in nonmaritime contexts.

I’m really interested in how hymns evolve. How one text can inspire a variety of musical settings and arrangements—and how they move around the globe into different languages and cultural contexts! The original tune of “Jesus, Savior” doesn’t particularly resonate with me, but the creative arrangements of it, and some of the modern retunes, do.  

1. Music by John E. Gould, 1871

I found a straightforward choral rendition of Gould that was performed in 2012 by a choir from Salt Lake University, but it’s very bland.

So for an introduction to the hymn’s original tune, as reproduced in hymnals, I actually recommend this video by Siviwe Mhlomi and friends, who sing the hymn a cappella in four-part harmony in the Bantu language of Xhosa:

The Xhosa title is “Yesu Nkosi Ndiqhube,” and it’s widely popular in South Africa.

Xhosa uses the Roman alphabet, but the letters c, x, and q are pronounced with clicks that linguists call dental, lateral, and alveolar, respectively—so that’s why you hear some clicking speech sounds in the song.

>> Gospel

Mahalia Jackson recorded a slower, gospelized rendition with lush orchestral accompaniment in 1960:

The original tune is more difficult to recognize in the heavily stylized arrangement by the Roberta Martin Singers from 1968, which features Delois Barrett-Campbell on lead—but Gould was still used as the basis:

>> Country/Bluegrass

The hymn has been performed in a bluegrass idiom since at least the fifties. I don’t know who first arranged it in this style, but Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs recorded it with their band the Foggy Mountain Boys in 1951 (see them perform the song at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in 1961 in the video below). In addition to using bluegrass instrumentation, their arrangement changes the traditional 3/4 meter (with dotted eighth notes) to 4/4 and adds more space between phrases. The Stanley Brothers recording from Hymns of the Cross (1964) follows this arrangement pretty closely—and Ralph Stanley later revisited the song with the Clinch Mountain Boys in 1977.

I first encountered the bluegrass version through the album A Hymn Revival, volume 1 by the sacred music collective The Lower Lights. They perform the song live in the following video, with Sarah Sample and Ryan Tanner on vocals (their singing style is more “indie folk” than bluegrass):

Other artists have sung “Jesus, Savior” with the 4/4 time signature popularized by Flatt & Scruggs, including Rumbi Lee, self-accompanied on ukulele:

(Lee puts out lots of hymn-sing videos on her YouTube channel.)

2. Music by Robbie Seay, 2004

Here’s CCM artist Robbie Seay in 2020 performing his retuned version of the hymn, which churches can license through CCLI:

It does a good job drawing out the emotion of the lyrics, especially the aspect of mournful yearning.

For an album recording, see Aaron Hale’s Lenten Hymns, volume 1 (2011)—or watch Hale lead the song from his living room for a virtual worship service in 2020.

3. Music by Isaac Wardell and Joseph Pensak, 2008

Like I said, although I grew up in church, I never heard of “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me” until Bifrost Arts released it with a fresh tune in 2008. It was written by the cofounders of the collective, Isaac Wardell (a worship leader who now heads up The Porter’s Gate) and Joseph Pensak (a pastor from Vermont who ran a community art gallery for eight years and whose latest musical album, from 2019, is Hallowell). Laura Gibson is the vocalist on the recording, and Matthew Kay created this charming little stop-motion animation video for it:

Since its premiere, this tune has also been recorded by Pacific Gold (formerly Wayfarer) (2012) and Door of Hope (2012), among others.

Roundup: Feast of Mary Magdalene; holiness of people and place; black squares

Richardson, Jan_The Hours of Mary Magdalene
The Hours of Mary Magdalene by Jan L. Richardson

ART CYCLE: The Hours of Mary Magdalene by Jan L. Richardson: July 22 is the feast day of Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’s closest disciples and the first witness and preacher of the Resurrection. American artist, writer, and minister Jan L. Richardson created a sequence of collages picturing events from her life, drawing on both the biblical narratives and medieval legends. The structure and presentation (decorative borders, Latin script) were inspired by medieval books of hours, used for the praying of the Divine Office. The text below each image reads, Deus, in adiutorium meum intende; Domine, ad adiuvandum me festina (“O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me”), the first verse of Psalm 70, which is prayed at the start of each of the canonical hours.

According to legend, after Jesus’s ascension Mary Magdalene moved to southern France, where she preached the gospel and performed miracles. The last thirty years of her life she lived as a hermit in a cave. Each time she prayed the hours, she was lifted up to heaven by angels, then brought back down at the end of her devotions.

Richardson put together a delightful little video showcasing the art cycle as well as the song “Mary Magdalena” by her late husband, Garrison Doles.

You can purchase these images as digital downloads from Richardson’s website:

  1. Matins: The Blessing Cups: Mary Magdalene and Jesus at Tea
  2. Lauds: After the Cross: The Magdalene’s Farewell
  3. Prime: Shopping for Spices: The Three Marys on Holy Saturday
  4. Terce: Touch Me Not: Resurrection Morning
  5. Sext: Release: Mary Magdalene Freeing Prisoners
  6. None: L’Evangeliste: Mary Magdalene Preaching in France
  7. Vespers: At Her Prayers: Mary Magdalene with a Book of Hours
  8. Compline: Magdalene Ascending: The Divine Hours

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DANCE: “Holy, Holy, Holy”: Choreographed by Betsey Beckman to a song by Karen Drucker, this dance number affirms the sacredness of every human being. It was filmed inside St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, a church that “invites people to see God’s image in all humankind, to sing and dance to Jesus’ lead, and to become God’s friends.” Beckman dances with Dawon Davis and Corey Action throughout the worship space, which comprises a rectangular room where the Liturgy of the Word is celebrated and an octagonal rotunda for the Liturgy of the Table. The Dancing Saints icon that covers the walls is by Mark Doox. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

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MUSIC:

>> “Locus iste” by Anton Bruckner, performed by VOCES8: The British vocal ensemble VOCES8 performs Anton Bruckner’s sacred motet “Locus iste” (This Place) at Les Dominicains de Haute-Alsace in Guebwiller, France. Bruckner composed it in 1869 for the dedication of the Votivkapelle (votive chapel) at the New Cathedral in Linz, Austria, where he had been a cathedral organist. The text—a Latin gradual for church dedications and their anniversaries—is informed by Jacob’s saying, after his dream of the ladder uniting heaven and earth, that “surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not” (Gen. 28:16), and by the story of the burning bush where Moses is told to “put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” (Exod. 3:5).

Locus iste a Deo factus est,
inaestimabile sacramentum;
irreprehensibilis est.

This place is made by God,
a priceless sacrament;
it is without reproach.

(Or, alternatively:)
This dwelling is God’s handiwork;
a mystery beyond all price,
that cannot be spoken against.

>> “Tabernacle” by Josh Rodriguez, performed by Mary Vanhoozer: A modernist piano composition inspired by Psalm 19, dedicated to the composer’s father-in-law, the theologian Kevin Vanhoozer.

Tabernacle is a musical triptych shaped by the drama of Psalm 19. While this word, tabernacle, is loaded with religious affection within both Jewish and Christian traditions, some modern readers may not be familiar with its implications. Merriam-Webster offers three related definitions: “a house of worship, a receptacle for the consecrated elements of the Eucharist, or a tent sanctuary used by the Israelites during the Exodus.” By extension, it has come to represent a “dwelling place” or a “temporary shelter.” In short, this is no ordinary space, rather it is a place that is set apart, made holy for a terrifying transformative encounter with the Divine.

Fragments of a prayerful hymn-like melody appear underneath this canopy of sounds. Shifting metric changes, polyrhythms, and percussive primal-sounding harmonies climax in a loud, noisy quote from the 16th-century Genevan Psalter.

More extensive program notes can be found in the YouTube video description.

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ESSAY: “Precedents of the Unprecedented: Black Squares Before Malevich” by Andrew Spira, Public Domain Review: Considered one of the seminal works of modern art, Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915) has been cast as a total break from all that came before it. Yet searching across more than five hundred years of images related to cosmology, religious devotion, mourning, humor, politics, and philosophy, art historian Andrew Spira uncovers a slew of unlikely foreshadows to Malevich’s radical abstraction.

Et sic in infinitum
Robert Fludd’s black square representing the nothingness that was prior to the universe, from his Utriusque Cosmi (1617). On each side of the square is written “Et sic in infinitum…” (“And so on to infinity…”).

Blood of Christ
Black pages with red drops of blood, signifying the wounds of Christ, from a psalter and rosary of the Virgin, ca. 1500. The recto is worn from devotional engagement, damaged through kissing and rubbing, perhaps.

For a much more extensive treatment of the topic, see Spira’s Foreshadowed: Malevich’s “Black Square” and Its Precursors, published this month. And for a faith-positive (non-nihilistic) reading of Malevich’s Black Square that honors the artist’s own views, see pages 209–25 of Jonathan A. Anderson and William A. Dyrness’s Modern Art and the Life of a Culture, where they discuss the work in relation to the Russian icons tradition and “apophatic or ‘negative’ theology—a mode of theology that meditates on the absolute Fullness and Otherness of God by way of negating the verbal, visual and conceptual forms used to signify (and to ‘grasp’) God” (220).