“To a Snowflake” by Francis Thompson

Snowflake
Photo © 2013 Eric James Jones/ArtandTheology.org

“To a Snowflake” by Francis Thompson

What heart could have thought you?—
Past our devisal
(O filigree petal!)
Fashioned so purely,
Fragilely, surely,
From what Paradisal
Imagineless metal,
Too costly for cost?
Who hammered you, wrought you,
From argentine vapor?—
“God was my shaper.
Passing surmisal,
He hammered, He wrought me,
From curled silver vapor,
To lust of His mind—
Thou could’st not have thought me!
So purely, so palely,
Tinily, surely,
Mightily, frailly,
Insculped and embossed,
With His hammer of wind,
And His graver of frost.”

This poem was originally published in New Poems by Francis Thompson (London, 1897) and is now in the public domain.

Roundup: Sister Wendy, Quaker Skyspace, Bach on the street, and more

OBITUARY: “Sister Wendy Beckett, Nun Who Became a BBC Star, Dies at 88”: A nun since the age of sixteen, Sister Wendy spent most of her life living in silence in a windowless trailer on the grounds of the Carmelite monastery in East Anglia, England. She read voraciously about art but had never set foot in a museum or seen any great paintings in person—until in 1991, a BBC producer persuaded her to do a documentary about the paintings in London’s National Gallery. She agreed, thinking it would be a flash in the pan, but it was very successful, and so throughout the nineties she presented several other documentaries on the history of art, including Sister Wendy’s Odyssey, Sister Wendy’s Grand Tour, and Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting. She quickly became the world’s best-loved art critic, as her unscripted commentaries, so full of wonder and enthusiasm, connected well with the general public, making high art accessible. She also authored some thirty-five books.

Sister Wendy

“One of the ways, for me, of looking at God is by looking at art,” she says in the intro to Odyssey. Not that art is God but that art can lead us to a deeper understanding of who, and Whose, we are.

Sister Wendy was a major influence on my path to becoming a writer on Christianity and the arts. I first encountered her in high school through her Story of Painting series, which a studio art teacher made our class watch excerpts from. This was my entrée into art history, a subject that captivated me then and that inspired me to pursue some such coursework in college, including a semester abroad in Florence, Italy. Without this initial incitement of interest from Sister Wendy, I doubt I would be writing about art today.

What attracts me to her is what attracts most people: her utter joy and rapture as she discusses art. She is the first person who taught me how to look at a painting and read it. I appreciate her charitable stance toward modern and contemporary art (movements that large swaths of Christians reject), and her unabashed delight in the nude body. Over the years, people have tended to be either amused or shocked, or both, by her frankness in talking about sexuality in art, but she was always insistent on the goodness of the human body and of sex. When Bill Moyers asked her back in 2000 whether she’s scandalized by the carnality, the sensuality, of so much art, she really stumps him with her matter-of-fact response! (See 4:15 of the video below.)

+++

INTERVIEW: “Why You Should Read Devotional Poetry in 2019” by Leland Ryken: In this interview with Collin Huber, Ryken cites three reasons why Christians should read devotional poetry, elaborating on each one: (1) devotional poets express our spiritual experiences, (2) it sets our affections “in right tune,” and (3) it will take us to corners of the spiritual life that might otherwise remain unvisited. He also discusses how poetry has shaped him; the obstacles that keep people from enjoying poetry, and how to overcome them; what makes poetry distinctive as a genre; and the prevalence of poetry in the Bible. “Mastering a devotional poem by a famous English or American poet requires nothing beyond what mastering a psalm requires,” he says. “If you can possess Psalm 23, you can possess Milton’s sonnet on his blindness.”

Leland Ryken is an emeritus professor of English at Wheaton College and the author or editor of some fifty books, most recently the anthology The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems. Other titles of his include How to Read the Bible as Literature, The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing, The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly about the Arts, and several volumes in the Christian Guides to the Classics series.

+++

STREET PERFORMANCE: Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565) by J. S. Bach: Bach’s Toccata and Fugue is probably the most famous organ work in existence. But last fall in Cologne, a group of four musicians, whose names I cannot find, performed it on two accordions, a violin, and a tuba! It’s uncanny how closely the collective timbre approximates that of an organ. The tuba grants sonority, and the other instruments contribute to the full-bodied sound.

This performance took place between Hohe Straße and Theo-Burauen-Platz in Cologne, Germany, but a few commenters on the video have reported witnessing near-identical performances in other parts of the country, so either this group travels, or the arrangement is circulating.

+++

SACRED ARCHITECTURE

I frequently encounter articles on or photos of contemporary religious architecture. Here are just two notable buildings I’ve come across recently—the first one, thanks to Michael Wright’s Still Life newsletter (to which you should subscribe!).

Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting (2013): When the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting in northwest Philadelphia was building a new meetinghouse, they invited contemporary light artist James Turrell, himself a Quaker, to design one of his famous “Skyspaces” for the meeting room—that is, an aperture in the ceiling that’s open to the sky. From the beginning, Turrell collaborated with architect James Bradberry to achieve this permanent art installation; for example, Turrell wanted the aperture to have no perceptible thickness, so Bradberry and his team developed a sophisticated steel roof structure and “knife’s edge” opening. The achieved effect of paper thinness is impressive: when I first saw photos, I assumed the “sky” on the ceiling was just a painted patch! (Visitors have reported similar surprise.) Turrell calls this Skyspace Greet the Light, a reference not only to the light of the sun but to the Quaker doctrine of the “Inner Light,” God within.

Greet the Light by James Turrell
Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting Room, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, featuring a permanent Skyspace installation, titled Greet the Light (2013), by James Turrell.

Greet the Light by James Turrell

The meeting room is open to the public, for free, on select days (more info here). Visitors are invited to bring a yoga mat, pillow, and blankets (when the retractable roof is open, the room is unheated) and to lie on their backs on the floor or benches. Silence is requested. Turrell’s installation also makes use of artificial light: over the course of fifty minutes or so, the vaulted ceiling is bathed in turn in four color variations—green, red, blue, and white—which augments the natural light projected by the opening.

View other Skyspaces by James Turrell at http://jamesturrell.com/work/type/skyspace/, and read Bradberry’s perspective on the project at Faith & Form.

San Bernardo Chapel (2015): Located in a wooded grove in Argentina’s Pampas lowlands, just east of Córdoba, Capilla San Bernardo (St. Bernard Chapel) was designed by Nicolás Campodonico. It was constructed using hundred-year-old bricks that had been dismantled from the rural home and courtyard that previously stood on the site. There is no electricity in the area, so natural light plays a huge role, especially in the chapel’s most unique feature: two perpendicular beams, independently suspended from a large exterior opening, cast shadows onto an interior wall, which glide progressively toward each other throughout the day, ultimately overlapping to form a cross (see time lapse). Campodonico said he had in mind Jesus’s journey to Golgotha with the transverse beam, which, upon arrival at the execution site, was attached to the vertical mount; it’s as if the passion is being reenacted daily through the shadows, he said. See more photos at designboom.

San Bernardo Chapel
Capilla San Bernardo (St. Bernard Chapel), La Playosa, Córdoba Province, Argentina. Photo: Nicolás Campodonico.

San Bernardo Chapel

+++

FREE ALBUM: Into the Light by Joel LeMaire: Fans of Josh Garrels, Iron and Wine, and John Mark Pantana will probably enjoy Joel LeMaire’s 2015 EP, which is about finding hope in the letting go and stepping into the unknown. Download your own copy from NoiseTrade, and read more about the meaning behind the songs on LeMaire’s blog.

 

“A Ballad of Wise Men” by George M. P. Baird

Three Wise Men by Tamas Galambos
Painting by Tamas Galambos (Hungarian, 1939–)

“A Ballad of Wise Men” by George M. P. Baird

When that our gentle Lord was born
And cradled in the hay,
There rode three wise men from the east—
Three rich wise men were they—
And in the starry night they came
Their homage gifts to pay.

They got them down from camel-back,
The cattle shed before,
And in the darkness vainly sought
A great latch on the door.
“Ho! this is strange,” quoth Balthazar,
“Aye, strange,” quoth Melchior.

Quoth Gaspar, “I can find no hasp;
Well hidden is the lock”;
“The door,” quoth Melchior, “is stout
And fast, our skill to mock”;
Quoth Balthazar, “The little King
Might wake, we dare not knock.”

The three wise men, they sat them down
To wait for morning dawn;
The cunning wards of that old door
They thought and marveled on;
Quoth they, “No gate in all the East
Hath bar-bolts tighter drawn.”

Anon there came a little lad
With lambskins for the King;
He had no key, he raised no latch,
He touched no hidden spring,
But gently pushed the silent door
And open it gan swing.

“A miracle! a miracle!”
Cried out the wise men three;
“A little child hath solved the locks
That could not opened be.”
In wonder spake the shepherd lad:
“It hath no locks,” quoth he.

This poem was originally published in Rune and Rann by George M. P. Baird (Pittsburgh, PA: Al­dine Press, 1916) and is now in the public domain.

The Christmas Truce of 1914

This article was originally published on the centenary of the truce at theJesusQuestion.org. Because 2018 marks a hundred years since the end of World War I and two hundred years since the composition of the carol “Silent Night,” I thought it appropriate to bring it out of the vault. 

On Christmas Eve 1914, along the four-hundred-mile Western Front of World War I, a famous ceasefire took place, as enemy soldiers spontaneously emerged from their trenches, arms laid aside, to celebrate Christ’s birth together. They sang carols, exchanged gifts (jams and candies, cigarettes, newspapers), kicked around a soccer ball, and shared photos of loved ones. They also buried each other’s dead and prayed communally over the bodies, led by chaplains. Some even exchanged home addresses and promised to visit after the war.

One soldier described it in a letter home as “the Wonderful Day.” Another soldier, Pvt. Karl Muhlegg, wrote, “Never was I as keenly aware of the insanity of war.”

Though temporary truces are not unique in military history (they have been recorded since as far back as the Trojan War), never have they been carried out on such a large scale, and accompanied by such fraternization, as that of the Christmas Truce of 1914. Remarkably, this truce grew out of no single initiative but sprang up independently in many of the camps, against the orders of higher-ups. In most places it lasted from Christmas Eve through Boxing Day (December 26), though in some it lasted into January. It is estimated that some 100,000 men took part.

Inspired by this event, French filmmaker Christian Carion wrote and directed a dramatized film version of it, called Joyeux Nöel, which was nominated in 2006 for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. The film focuses on three different regiments—one Scottish, one French, and one German—and their interactions with one another during that first Christmas on the front.

The pivotal scene, in which the truce is initiated, shows a conscripted German opera singer singing “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night) in his trench. The Scottish, stationed downfield, hear the distant song and start playing an accompaniment on bagpipes, which piques the attention of the French. Throughout the song, the German becomes more and more engaged: aware now of a listening audience across the void, he turns around, performing toward them. After the song, all three sides applaud, giving the opera singer the courage to step out of his trench and into No Man’s Land, singing “Adeste Fideles” (O Come, All Ye Faithful)—in Latin, the universal language of the church—and holding up a mini lit Christmas tree as a sign of peace.  Continue reading “The Christmas Truce of 1914”

Malcolm Guite on the imagination and God-with-us

I love listening to Malcolm Guite talk about spirituality, poetry, and the imagination; he’s a phenomenal teacher. In a December 2 podcast episode titled “Keeping Advent: Hope for a Dark World,” host Sally Clarkson interviews Guite on these topics as they relate to Advent. Before he launches into the meat of the talk, he describes the importance of the imagination in getting at truth:

God has given us all kinds of capacities with which to come to the truth, just like he’s given us different sense organs. When a bird is singing, your ears are telling you one part of what’s happening, and your eyes are telling you another. You’ve got both to get that whole experience. If you just had a silent film of the bird, you would be seeing something real, but you’d be missing something as well.

So I sometimes think that reason, the reason that makes for great science—analytic, helps us to think things through logically—that’s a very, very important test for truth, that’s a very important faculty, but it doesn’t get to everything. . . .

Imagination is the thing that shapes and puts things together. Shakespeare put this very beautifully. He said that imagination “apprehend[s] / more than cool reason ever comprehends” [A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 5.1.5–6]. He said we need to apprehend some joy before we can comprehend the bringer of the joy.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge believed that the imagination was part of our capacity to pay attention, and that the imagination would help us to remove, for a minute, the dull film of familiarity that we put over everything, and see it with freshness again. He also used a very beautiful analogy. He uses the example of a little insect, the horned fly, and how, when it’s still in the squashy pupa phase and it’s going to metamorphose, it makes a cocoon—a kind of carapace. He says that when that little fly does that, it leaves room in its involucrum, he calls it—what a wonderful word—for antennae yet to come [Biographia Literaria, vol. 1, chap. 12]. He says that’s what the imagination does.

Sometimes the artistic imagination, the poetic imagination, comes to us with something marvelous. And what that marvelous thing is doing is it’s holding open a shape that the rest of our mind is going to grow into, so that the antennae, the real reasoning and figuring it all out, can come a bit later, but the story [or poem or image] gives us something.

Igor Paneyko
Painting by Igor Paneyko (Ukrainian, 1957–)

In this interview Guite also reads one of his Advent sonnets, the last in a series of seven he wrote that were inspired by the traditional liturgical chants known as the O Antiphons. Titled “O Emmanuel,” the poem is a prayer for God to come among us again, in all his myriad attributes, and to rebirth not only the hearts of humanity but the whole earth.

“O Emmanuel” by Malcolm Guite

O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth
O tiny hope within our hopelessness,
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.

This and other poems, by Guite and others, can be found in the book Waiting on the Word: A Poem a Day for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. You can read more about “O Emmanuel” on Guite’s blog, which contains a wealth of writings. For additional books by Guite, see his Amazon page.

The Rich Man who passed through the eye of a needle

Poem: “Advent” by Suzanne Underwood Rhodes

Through the needle’s eye
the rich man came
squeezing through stars of razor light
that pared his body down to thread.
Gravity crushed his heart’s chime
and his breath that breathed out worlds
now flattened as fire between walls,
the impossible slit stripped him
admitting him
to stitch the human breach.

This poem was first published in What a Light Thing, This Stone (Sow’s Ear Press, 1999) and is used here by permission of the author.

My research interests have to do mainly with art’s theological potential and its ability to, as Walter Brueggemann puts it, “disclose” truths that are “closed” by prose. I love how it often surprises, and how it can make connections I would have never thought to make myself.

Suzanne Underwood Rhodes’s poem “Advent” demonstrates these values magnificently. Its topic is the Incarnation. But her mooring point is not John 1 or Luke 1–2 or Philippians 2 or any other scripture text traditionally associated with the doctrine. Instead she draws on the famous aphorism of Jesus that’s recorded in Matthew 19:24: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

In this Gospel interaction, Jesus is explaining how terribly difficult it is for wealthy people to enter heaven because they tend to cling tightly to their earthly wealth rather than to God; they let it make claims on them, and they trust in its promises, to the neglect of the claims and promises of God. While the needle saying, in context, pertains to man passing from earth to heaven, Rhodes turns it on its head to suggest the movement of God from heaven to earth. A seeming impossibility—infinity becoming finite, God becoming man. But “with God, all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). To save us, he would give up all the riches of heaven, assuming the role of a servant and ultimately giving up his very life.

Rhodes uses harsh, uncomfortable words—“squeezing,” “razor,” “pared,” “crushed,” “flattened,” “stripped”—to convey a sense of compression into human flesh. God’s breath, once so powerful and expansive that it brought the universe into existence, is now, in the person of the Son, walled in by a rib cage and dependent on oxygen. His heart pumps actual blood. Thus pared down to thread, he slips through the needle “to stitch the human breach,” to repair what we have torn through our disobedience. Severed from God no longer, we are held together with him by Christ himself.

Musical composition: “As by Fire between Walls” by Joshua Stamper

The evocative imagery of this poem has inspired artists in other media to respond in kind. One of them is composer Joshua Stamper, who, commissioned in 2014 by City Church Philadelphia, wrote a four-and-a-half-minute experimental jazz piece for chamber orchestra titled “As by Fire between Walls.”

 

It starts with minor chords on the piano, floating around ethereally. Then a violin tremolo kicks in (suggestive of the “razor light”), and other sharp bowing techniques (“par[ing] his body down”). Then soulful, wordless vocals. Then a staccato rhythm played on the mellotron, and percussion. Brass too. It’s a wonderfully wrought piece of music, a soundscape of the Incarnation, inclining the ear back toward Rhodes’s words and the heart to the grand story of scripture.

Painting: Through the Needle’s Eye the Rich Man Came by Grace Carol Bomer

Suzanne Rhodes is a friend of visual artist Grace Carol Bomer’s, who has a studio practice in Asheville, North Carolina. In 1993, Bomer was invited by the Asheville Art Museum to exhibit eight of her paintings for a Christmas show. Through the Needle’s Eye the Rich Man Came, inspired by Rhodes’s “Advent,” is one of those eight.

Through the Needle's Eye by Grace Carol Bomer
Grace Carol Bomer (Canadian American, 1948–), Through the Needle’s Eye the Rich Man Came, 1993. Mixed media on torn canvas on wood, 48 × 48 in.

About it, Bomer says,

The Christ of Christmas is God incarnate, the focal point or fulcrum of history. To show this glorious Incarnation, I chose to paint a piercing V (fulcrum) of light rending cloth (canvas on wood). The torn canvas symbolizes the veil of the temple. . . .

It was my personal challenge to show in painting that Christ is God, Spirit and flesh, in a way that would not be trite and sentimental. The Renaissance nativities are infected with beautiful Platonic realism, suited for Christmas card sentimentality. I feel they do not adequately exalt the “mystery hidden for ages,” the Christ of power and glory. Jesus Christ is Spirit and flesh, Son of God and Son of Man. Reality is both “abstract” and “realistic.” So too, art must seek to find this mysterious balance in order to proclaim the gospel. Art totally divested of realism, like Abstract Expressionism, becomes meaningless. Art must proclaim creation, fall, and redemption. I would like the poetic nuances in my work to stimulate the imagination to “see” in the abstract painting the spiritual truths that cannot be painted realistically.

In this piece there are suggestions of blood on doorways, symbolizing a Passover fulfilled, as Christ pushes open the door separating God and man.

So this painting integrates the coming down with the at-one-ing that happens at the cross, the physical tear of the canvas alluding simultaneously to the “human breach” of Rhodes’s poem and the tearing of the temple veil, which symbolizes humanity’s reconciliation to God. Birth and death are wrapped up in a single image, as both are key to Christ’s salvation project.

Through the Needle’s Eye is one of Bomer’s early works, but she has a whole series she calls Incarnation, which can be viewed on her website at https://gracecarolbomer.com/section/300298-Abstract-Incarnation.html.

+++

See how a poet’s imagination and craft can unfold the beauty and wonder of a heady doctrine with such concision? In Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense, Laurence Perrine defines poetry as “a kind of language that says more and says it more intensely than does ordinary language” (509). That’s just what Suzanne Underwood Rhodes does in “Advent.” And that intense language of hers has inspired works of musical and visual art that explore even further what it means that the Son of God, the “Rich Man” from heaven, constricted himself for our sakes, becoming impossibly small, taking up residence in a virgin’s dark womb, in humanity’s dark world, so that he could stitch back together our ruptured relationships with the Father and with one another.

“Leavetaking” by Anne Porter

Starry, Starry Night by Kiki Smith
Kiki Smith (American, 1954–), Starry, Starry Night, 2013

“Leavetaking” by Anne Porter

Nearing the start of that mysterious last season
Which brings us to the close of the other four,
I’m somewhat afraid and don’t know how to prepare
So I will praise you.

I will praise you for the glaze on buttercups
And for the pearly scent of wild fresh water
And the great crossbow shapes of swans flying over
With that strong silken threshing sound of wings
Which you gave them when you made them without voices.

And I will praise you for crickets.
On starry autumn nights
When the earth is cooling
Their rusty diminutive music
Repeated over and over
Is the very marrow of peace.

And I praise you for crows calling from treetops
The speech of my first village,
And for the sparrow’s flash of song
Flinging me in an instant
The joy of a child who woke
Each morning to the freedom
Of her mother’s unclouded love
And lived in it like a country.

And I praise you that from vacant lots
From only broken glass and candy wrappers
You raise up the blue chicory flowers.

I thank you for that secret praise
Which burns in every creature,
And I ask you to bring us to life
Out of every sort of death

And teach us mercy.

This poem appears in Living Things: Collected Poems (Hanover, NH: Zoland Books/Steerforth Press, 2006) and is used here by permission of the publisher.

+++

Anne Porter (1911–2011) is one of the last century’s foremost poets of thanks and praise. She wrote all her life, occasionally sharing poems with friends and family, but she focused mainly on raising five kids with her husband, Fairfield Porter, who was a painter.

Motherhood paintings by Fairfield Porter
Fairfield Porter (American, 1907–1975): Anne Reading to Laurence, 1947, oil on Masonite, 30 × 24 in., Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York; Katie and Anne, 1949, oil on board, 30 × 24 in., Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York; Anne, Lizzie and Katie, 1958, oil on canvas, 78 × 60 in., Sheldon Museum of Art, Lincoln, Nebraska.

She wrote “Leavetaking” upon entering old age, and after her husband had died. As her body grew weaker and more burdensome and death drew nearer, she still found much to praise God for—for the regal shape of swans’ wings overhead, for the “rusty diminutive music” of crickets on starry nights, for the vast love between mother and child, for the hope of resurrection preached in abandoned lots where flowers rise out of debris.

Some years later, Porter’s friend David Shapiro, a literary critic and fellow poet, asked if for his birthday, she could compile some of her poems for him. She gathered up what she could find in the house, and without her foreknowledge, he submitted it to a publisher. The resulting collection, An Altogether Different Language (1994), was published when she was eighty-three and was named a finalist for the National Book Award.

In the foreword to that first book of hers, Shapiro wrote,

If we have problems, because so much of the language of belief has grown connotatively encrusted, then we wait for the poets who believe enough and can freshen this dialect.

Anne Porter is one of the rare poets who believes enough, who lives in days and holidays, and who has stunningly found a language to transmit her Franciscan joy in created things.

Also from the foreword:

  • “Her faith has enlarged her, not the reverse, and her poetry has the grandeur of seeing things ‘as if for the first time.’”
  • “Her greatest emotional perspective is that of praise.”
  • She is “an American religious poet of stature who reminds us that the idea of the holy is still possible for us.”
  • “For Anne Porter, the holy is found in a commitment to Christ the Mediator and his triumph in suffering for a suffering world. However, she gives a constant, almost pantheistic pressure to the theme that the Kingdom of God is within and without, so that her radiant if concise imagism is all in the service of God.”

Whereas many modern and contemporary poets write about the hiddenness of God, the deus absconditus, Porter wrote unabashedly about the myriad ways in which God reveals himself in the world. Her second and last book, Living Things: Collected Poems (2006), brings together thirty-nine new poems with those published in the previous volume.

In 2010, theologian and biblical scholar Ellen F. Davis wrote a beautiful article for the Christian Century titled “Our proper place: The poetry of care and loss,” in which she discusses Porter’s poetry alongside that of Mary Oliver. Like Oliver, she says, Porter is a “direct descendant of the psalmists”; she “clarif[ies] what is at stake in the Psalter: nothing less than the possibility of praising God truly.”

Eugene Peterson and the poetic imagination

American-born pastor, professor, author, and poet Eugene H. Peterson passed away on October 22 at age eighty-five. He’s best known for his idiomatic translation of the Bible, The Message, which has sold twenty million copies worldwide since its publication in 2002. He developed this translation over his nearly three decades as a Presbyterian pastor in Bel Air, Maryland, as a way to reinvigorate his congregation’s engagement with scripture. Its most quoted verse is John 1:14, describing the incarnation: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”

Eugene Peterson

The church culture I grew up in regarded The Message with disdain, as they thought it plays fast and loose with the words of scripture and lacks all reverence. Nurtured on a KJV-only diet, I felt rebellious purchasing an NIV Study Bible in middle school, and though I had overcome a lot of this kind of unhealthy narrowness by the time I had finished college, adding a used copy of The Message to my checkout basket at the Montague Bookmill a few years later still felt a little awkward. But I was finally ready to imbibe this translation (or as some would say, paraphrase) of which I had heard so much but read so little.

What I found was that Peterson’s scripture translation, while no doubt sounding very different than the translations arrived at by committee, is full of reverence—and joy, and play, and wonder. It takes the familiar words of the Bible and re-presents them in a new way so as to really bring out their tone and meaning. Take, for example, Psalm 96:4–7. The King James Version reads,

For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
he is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols,
but the Lord made the heavens.
Splendor and majesty are before him;
strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!

The Message has

For God is great, and worth a thousand Hallelujahs.
His terrible beauty makes the gods look cheap;
Pagan gods are mere tatters and rags.
God made the heavens—
Royal splendor radiates from him,
A powerful beauty sets him apart.
Bravo, God, Bravo!
Everyone join in the great shout: Encore!
In awe before the beauty, in awe before the might.

Now, I love the poetry of the King James Version. But I also love Peterson’s renderings. They enliven the texts. That’s not to say God’s word isn’t already living and active, but that sometimes it can grow stale in the ears of those who have been reading it for a lifetime. The jubilance of Psalm 96 in The Message is amplified by the use of contemporary expressions—Bravo! Encore!—to denote enjoyment and praise. As I read this, I am enticed to “join in the great shout.”

While I wouldn’t advise using The Message as your sole or even primary Bible (which Peterson himself agrees with in the preface), I do uplift it as a wise, fun, and spiritually nourishing supplement. You’ll see that I occasionally feature Peterson’s verse translations in Artful Devotions because they communicate God’s truth with such color and force (see, e.g., Ps. 19, Ps. 51, Rom. 8:6, 2 Cor. 4: 1–6Eph. 2:1–10). His motivation all along was to expose a new generation to the beauty of the gospel. “Getting the words of the Bible into [people’s] heads and hearts, getting the message lived,” is what he characterized as the primary work of his life (preface, The Message).

When I think of Eugene Peterson, I think imagination. He exemplified that Christian duty not only in his Bible translation but in his various professional ministries: as pastor, professor, and author. In each role, he sought to awaken Christians to the goodness of imagination. Listen to him speak on the topic with On Being’s Krista Tippett, in a podcast episode recorded in 2016.

My pursuit of the arts has been indirectly influenced by Peterson, because he was a critical influence on and mentor to W. David O. Taylor, one of the three people in the field whom I look up to most. An assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, Taylor wrote a beautiful personal tribute to Peterson the other week. “It’s one thing to be given permission to do a thing,” Taylor writes. “It’s quite another to be encouraged, and supported, and patronized, and inspired, and resourced to do a thing. Eugene’s one of those key people in my life who encouraged me to pursue the arts.”

Peterson was Taylor’s professor of spiritual theology at Regent College in Vancouver. “He used the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the literature of George Eliot, Karl Barth’s theology and Frederick Buechner’s novels, Greek mythology and stories from his Pentecostal childhood as a way to help his students understand who God was and what God was on about it in this expansive vision of Holy Scripture,” Taylor says. “All of it felt immensely exhilarating to me; it still does.” I’ve come to Peterson’s other writings mainly through Taylor, who cites them with deep respect.

Peterson was an especial lover of poetry. He discussed the topic on film with former Poetry editor Christian Wiman and with U2 star Bono (in an interview by Taylor on the Psalms, above), and he has written about it in numerous books of spiritual theology. He’s even written a volume of original poetry called Holy Luck, from which I featured the poem “Aaron’s Beard” last year, and has contributed to some of Luci Shaw’s poetry anthologies, like A Widening Light: Poems of the Incarnation (see “Tempted”). Here is some of what Peterson had to say about poetry:

  • Poets are caretakers of language, shepherds of words, protecting them from desecration, exploitation, misuse. Words not only mean something, they are something, each with a sound and rhythm all its own. Poets are not primarily trying to tell us or get us to do something. . . . I do not have more information after reading a poem; I have more experience.” (Holy Luck, xiv)
  • People who pray need to learn poetry, even if they’re not adept at it.” (source)
  • “Poets tell us what our eyes, blurred with too much gawking, and our ears, dulled with too much chatter, miss around and within us. Poets use words to drag us into the depth of reality itself. Poetry grabs us by the jugular. Far from being cosmetic language, it is intestinal.” (Answering God, 11)
  • “We cannot speed-read a poem. A poem requires rereading. Unlike prose which fills the page with print, poems leave a lot of white space. . . . There is a lot to see, to feel, to sense. We sit before the poem like we sit before a flower and attend to form, relationship, color. We let it begin to work on us. When we are reading prose we are often in control, but in a poem we feel like we are out of control. . . . In prose we are after something, getting information, acquiring knowledge. . . . But in poetry we take a different stance. We are prepared to be puzzled, to go back, to wait, to ponder, to listen. This attending, this waiting, this reverential posture, is at the core of the life of faith, the life of prayer, the life of worship, the life of witness. . . . Read it again, read it again, read it again.” (Subversive Spirituality, 180)
  • “It takes a while to get the poets. . . . It takes a while to get the gospel. . . . We have to quit getting in a hurry. . . . I think the besetting sin of Americans is impatience.” (source)

Though I never met Eugene Peterson, I am so grateful for his witness, and for the many ways he has blessed the church over the years. His words, be they on the screen or on the page, have tutored, and continue to tutor, my imagination and, yes, deepen my love for Jesus and his gospel.

C’mon! (Artful Devotion)

Resurrection of the Dead (stained glass)
The angel Gabriel awakes the dead on Resurrection Day in this medieval stained glass tondo from the Musée de Cluny in Paris. Photo: Spencer Means.

And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

—Hebrews 9:27–28

+++

SONG: “Get Happy” | Words by Ted Koehler, 1930 | Music by Harold Arlen, 1930 | Performed by the Puppini Sisters, on Hollywood (2011)

See also the Judy Garland version from Summer Stock (1950), below, which the American Film Institute ranked #61 in its survey of top tunes in American cinema.

+++

“The Day of Judgment” by Henry Vaughan

O day of life, of light, of love!
The only day dealt from above!
A day so fresh, so bright, so brave,
’Twill show us each forgotten grave,
And make the dead, like flowers, arise
Youthful and fair to see new skies.
All other days, compared to thee,
Are but Light’s weak minority;
They are but veils, and cypress drawn
Like clouds, before thy glorious dawn.
O come! arise! shine! do not stay,
Dearly loved day!
The fields are long since white, and I
With earnest groans for freedom cry;
My fellow-creatures too say “Come!”
And stones, though speechless, are not dumb.
When shall we hear that glorious voice
Of life and joys?
That voice, which to each secret bed
Of my Lord’s dead,
Shall bring true day, and make dust see
The way to immortality?
When shall those first white pilgrims rise,
Whose holy, happy histories
—Because they sleep so long—some men
Count but the blots of a vain pen?
Dear Lord! make haste!
Sin every day commits more waste;
And Thy old enemy, which knows
His time is short, more raging grows.
Nor moan I only—though profuse—
Thy creature’s bondage and abuse;
But what is highest sin and shame,
The vile despite done to Thy name;
The forgeries, which impious wit
And power force on Holy Writ,
With all detestable designs,
That may dishonor those pure lines.
O God! though mercy be in Thee
The greatest attribute we see,
And the most needful for our sins,
Yet, when Thy mercy nothing wins
But mere disdain, let not man say
“Thy arm doth sleep,” but write this day
Thy judging one: descend, descend!
Make all things new, and without end!

(Related post: “Get Ready (Artful Devotion)”)


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 27, cycle B, click here.

Son of David, I Want to See (Artful Devotion)

Christ and Bartimaeus by Julia Stankova
Julia Stankova (Bulgarian, 1954–), Christ and Bartimaeus, 2017. Painting on wooden panel, 36 × 45 cm.

And they came to Jericho. And as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside. And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart. Get up; he is calling you.” And throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. And Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the blind man said to him, “Rabbi, let me recover my sight.” And Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him on the way.

—Mark 10:46–52 (cf. Matthew 20:29–34; Luke 18:35–43)

+++

SONG: “Son of David” by Ghost Ship, on The Good King (2013)

Here’s an introduction and acoustic performance by band leader Cam Huxford, who cowrote “Son of David” with fellow Ghost Ship member Shay Carlucci:

+++

“The Blind Suppliant” by Richard Crashaw

Silence, silence, O vile crowd;
Yea, I will now cry aloud:
He comes near, Who is to me
Light and life and liberty.
Silence seek ye? yes, I’ll be
Silent when He speaks to me,
He my Hope; ah, meek and still,
I shall ’bide His holy will.
O crowd, ye it may surprise,
But His voice holdeth my eyes:
O have pity on my night,
By the day that gives glad light;
O have pity on my night,
By the day would lose its light,
If it gat not of Thee sight;
O have pity on my night,
By day of faith upspringing bright;
That day within my soul that burns,
And for eyes’ day unto Thee turns.
Lord, O Lord, give me this day,
Nor do Thou take that away.


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 25, cycle B, click here.