Roundup: Chinese Christian art, minor-key “O Holy Night,” and more

ONLINE LECTURES, organized by Bridge Projects: This Los Angeles gallery is offering a series of free online events to complement A Composite Leviathan, an exhibition of emerging Chinese artists that runs through February 27, 2021. Here are two I RSVPed for. (Both will be presented in English and Chinese.)

“The Virgin Mother, Her Majesty, Our Lady: Globalism, All-Under-Heaven, and Madonna In-Between” by Dong Lihui, January 12, 8–9:30 p.m. EST: Dong Lihui (PhD, art history), whose research centers on art exchange between East and West, is the author of Chinese Translation of Western Images: Christian Art in China in the 16th and 17th century. In this talk she will discuss the hybridization of European globalism and the Chinese “all-under-heaven” worldview as observed in Chinese Madonna icons made between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries.

Madonna and Child (Chinese)
Madonna and Child, China, 15th–17th century. Painting on silk, 8 feet high. Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago. Photo: John Weinstein.

“Counterculture: Chinese Contemporary Christian Art and the Bible” by Clover Xuesong Zhou, January 26, 8–9:30 p.m. EST: “The advent of modernity brought with it enmity between Christian traditions and a newly liberated art world. Similarly, contemporary artists in China found themselves at odds with the government beginning in the 1980s. All the while, Christianity has had a torrid relationship with Chinese government and culture. Thus, Chinese artists who are also practicing Christians work within these complex intersections.” Art writer and art theologian Clover Xuesong Zhou will be discussing some such artists, including photographer Feng Junlan, video artist Li Ran, and installation artist Gao Lei.

Junlan, Feng_The Lord’s Handmaiden
Feng Junlan (Chinese, 1961–), The Lord’s Handmaiden, 2012

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SONG: “O Holy Night” by Ben Caplan and friends: An absolutely stunning minor-key rendition by Canadian singer-songwriter Ben Caplan (who is often compared to Leonard Cohen) and a team of others, combining gypsy jazz, classical, and Jewish folksong influences. Caplan, who is Jewish, didn’t grow up listening to much Christmas music. “I have to admit that I find a lot of that music a bit corny. Where is that minor fall? Where is the major lift? Where is the bafflement?” He continues, “I have a deep felt belief that if you don’t like something, you should do something about it. It’s not enough to complain from the sidelines! There are some truly beautiful songs and carols out there, and I wanted to make something that tip-toes towards the sublime rather than shopping-mall-easy-listening.” Arcade Fire’s “My Body Is a Cage” was one of his reference points. (“I wanted to try to recreate that gradual build, and the sublime surrender to an enormous scale of sound.”) There are a few intentional semitone clashes to generate dissonance.

Filmed last year inside Halifax’s Fort Massey United Church and released in November, this recording was in the making for four years and is the result of much collaboration. The left-handed violinist in the video, Donald MacLennan (see, e.g., 1:34), reharmonized the carol, and he, Caplan, upright bass player Anna Ruddick, drummer Jamie Kronick, and vocalist Taryn Kawaja worked out an arrangement for their band, which they performed at a Christmas concert in 2016. Peter-Anthony Togni, who plays organ for the song, was brought in later to arrange the song for string quartet, pipe organ, and bass clarinet. Caplan chose the instrumentation and aesthetic shape. He recounts the process in detail and names all the people involved on his Bandcamp page. “I want to dispel the myth of the lone genius,” he says. “It took a lot of people with a lot of talent to pull this off. I am just the lead singer, and the guy who was stubborn enough to bring all the people together and spend an outlandish amount of money trying to achieve this vision.” Purchase on Bandcamp, and/or stream on Spotify.

I am truly moved by this atmospheric take on an old classic, which perfectly brings together the darkness and light of the Christmas season. “Original, and righteous—hymn for the COVID time,” says one YouTube user. “You’ve found things in this old carol that I never knew existed,” says another. And another: “A sensory feast. So deeply piercing.”

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NEW ALBUM: Christmas at Southern, vol. 2: Student musicians from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, released an album of ten Christmas songs this month. They include older favorites, like “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and newer ones. I particularly like the Boyce Worship Collective’s funkified arrangement of “Joy Has Dawned”—the 2004 song by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty (Boyce College is the undergraduate school of the SBTS)—and Doxology Vocal Ensemble’s performance of “All Is Well,” a 1989 song by Michael W. Smith and Wayne Kirkpatrick, arranged by Jamey Ray, founder of Voctave.

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POEMS: Here are a few good Christmas/winter poems I’ve come across from some of the blogs and resources I follow.

“Gloria in Profundis” by G. K. Chesterton

Movchan, Danylo_Nativity2
Danylo Movchan (Ukrainian, 1979–), Nativity, 2015. Egg tempera and gilding on board, 32 × 24 cm.

There has fallen on earth for a token
A god too great for the sky.
He has burst out of all things and broken
The bounds of eternity:
Into time and the terminal land
He has strayed like a thief or a lover,
For the wine of the world brims over,
Its splendor is spilt on the sand.

Who is proud when the heavens are humble,
Who mounts if the mountains fall,
If the fixed stars topple and tumble
And a deluge of love drowns all—
Who rears up his head for a crown,
Who holds up his will for a warrant,
Who strives with the starry torrent,
When all that is good goes down?

For in dread of such falling and failing
The fallen angels fell
Inverted in insolence, scaling
The hanging mountain of hell:
But unmeasured of plummet and rod
Too deep for their sight to scan,
Outrushing the fall of man
Is the height of the fall of God.

Glory to God in the Lowest
The spout of the stars in spate—
Where the thunderbolt thinks to be slowest
And the lightning fears to be late:
As men dive for a sunken gem
Pursuing, we hunt and hound it,
The fallen star that has found it
In the cavern of Bethlehem.

“Gloria in Profundis” (Latin for “Glory in the Depths”) by G. K. Chesterton is the fifth poem in the Ariel Poems series of pamphlets, published by Faber and Gwyer for the Christmas gift market from 1927 to 1931. It was reprinted in the posthumous Chesterton compilation The Spirit of Christmas: Stories, Poems, Essays (Dodd, Mead, 1985).

Wise maidens poem by Thomas J. O’Gorman

Kordis, George_Wise Virgins

Face to face with our limits,
Blinking before the frightful
Stare of our frailty,
Promise rises
Like a posse of clever maids
Who do not fear the dark
Because their readiness
Lights the search.
Their oil
Becomes the measure of their love,
Their ability to wait—
An indication of their
Capacity to trust and take a chance.
Without the caution or predictability
Of knowing day or hour,
They fall back on that only
Of which they can be sure:
Love precedes them,
Before it
No door will ever close.

This untitled poem by Thomas J. O’Gorman appears in The Advent Sourcebook (Liturgy Training Publications, 1988) and is published here with O’Gorman’s permission.

The Wise Virgins icon by George Kordis (Greek, 1956–), pictured above, is sold, but the artist has seven signed, limited-edition giclée prints available; contact him through his website if interested.

Roundup: Virtual Advent concerts, dreams deferred, pop-up floral memorials, and more

The Christmas–Epiphany 2020/21 edition of the Daily Prayer Project [previously], a publication I work for part-time, released this week! The cover image is from the sanctuary mural at Holy Angels Catholic Church in Chicago, by Cameroonian artist-priest Engelbert Mveng. (See the full mural here.) Also in this edition are images of Grace Carol Bomer’s From Strength to Strength, showing Light stepping into darkness, and the Piper-Reyntiens stained glass window in Coventry Cathedral, with its yellow sunburst amid an abstract pattern of reds, blues, and greens. We include visual art as a supplement to the prayers, scripture readings, and songs with the understanding that it, too, can promote spiritual development and a deeper communion with God.

You can purchase a digital copy (PDF) of the Christmas–Epiphany edition (December 24–February 16) through the website, and if in the future you’d like to receive hard copies, starting with Lent 2021, you can become a monthly subscriber. Part of the money goes to supporting artists.

On a related note: My colleagues at the DPP have curated an excellent Spotify playlist, “DPP Advent Songbook,” that is reflective of the types of music featured in the prayerbooks (in the form of simplified lead sheets, typically four songs per edition). Check it out!

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Whenever I see a Helena Sorensen [previously] byline, I perk up, because I always find myself connecting so much with her writing. She’s a regular contributor to the Rabbit Room blog. Her two most recent posts are “Things Fall Apart” and “Advent, Week One: Hope.” They’re both great.

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Unburden: A Virtual Interactive Exhibit, December 4, 2020–January 8, 2021: The Gallery at W83 is part of a 45,000-square-foot cultural center built by Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan’s Upper West Side as a service to the city’s artists and larger community. W83 Events and Programming Director Eva Ting has curated a virtual exhibition of photographs and stories from Kristina Libby’s Floral Heart Project, a series of living memorials to those lost to or suffering from COVID-19. Libby initiated the project in New York City in May, partnering with 1800Flowers.com to place floral heart garlands all around the city to create space for ceremony and to invite the community to process and mourn. The project has since grown nationwide.

“Many of us are carrying burdens of loss, anxiety, and uncertainty as we move towards the end of 2020,” Ting writes. “We have all been impacted in some way by the events of this year, and we bear fatigue weighed heavier by the inability to gather as a community to collectively grieve. In this interactive virtual exhibit Unburden, the Gallery at W83 invites you to participate in an unburdening of the load we carry.”

The exhibition webpage invites you to release personal burdens by writing down any grief, fears, loss, or anxiety you wish to let go of (can be submitted anonymously if desired). These words will be incorporated into a new floral heart laying on December 20 at Fort Tryon Park, an event that will be livestreamed. You can also ask for prayer, and members of the W83 team will pray for your requests. “Through these individual and collective acts of unburdening, may we imagine what it would look like to truly let go of these burdens.”

Floral Heart Project (Brooklyn Bridge)
Photo by Erica Reade

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I enjoyed attending the virtual “Songs of Hope: A TGC Advent Concert,” featuring music and spoken-word performances from a variety of artists (see YouTube description), interspersed with Advent readings. It was a truly meaningful worship experience.

I’m sure there are many more virtual Advent/Christmas concerts and other online events coming up. What ones are you most looking forward to?

One that I’ll probably be tuning in to is “We Three Queens Holiday Show” by Pegasis, a sister trio, on December 17, 8:30 p.m. EST (7:30 p.m. CST). It will be live on Facebook and and Instagram. (Update, 12/17/20: View the performance here. My favorite two songs are probably “Poncho Andino” at 19:04 and “Mary Had a Baby” at 45:24—such a unique arrangement!)

There’s also “A Candlelit (Virtual) Room: The Advent Christmas Music of Ben Thomas” on December 11 and 12 (10 p.m. EST and 8 p.m. EST, respectively), two private Zoom concerts open to the first twenty-five registrants each. He’ll be performing original songs from his albums The Bewildering Light, The Wilderness Voice, and Peace Here, all of which I recommend. My favorite tracks: “Justice Will Sprout from the Ground,” “Zechariah and the Least Expected Places,” and “Shepherds and Angels.” (The latter two were recorded under the name So Elated.)

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POEM: “Harlem” by Langston Hughes: This is a brilliant poem—its sensory images, its rhythm, its rhyme, its multivalence (especially the last line). I loved it so much when I first read it in ninth grade that I memorized it unbidden. When writer and podcaster Joy Clarkson posted a reflection on the poem for her Patreon community in October, resulting in a lively conversation thread in the comments section, it reignited my enthusiasm for and got me thinking more deeply about “Harlem.” She opened by quoting Proverbs 13:12: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, / But desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”

“What happens to a dream deferred? // Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?” Written in 1951 as part of a sequence of poems exploring black life in Harlem, “Harlem” is inextricably tied to the civic discourse of the contemporary American moment, writes Scott Challener in Poetry Foundation’s guide to the poem. The “dream” he refers to is the so-called American Dream, unattainable for so many due to racial inequalities and oppression. (Also assigned in the ninth-grade English curriculum is Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, which takes its title from and addresses the questions of “Harlem.”)

While not wishing to strip the poem of its specific context, I have been thinking about all the dreams that have been deferred this year—put on hold, or even irretrievably lost, because of COVID-19. Hughes posits a string of descriptive similes for a deferred dream: a dried-up raisin, a festering sore, rotting meat, a crusted-over sweet, a sagging load. One commenter on Joy’s Patreon observed how a raisin can’t turn back into a grape, rotten meat can’t be made fresh again, and an overcooked dessert can’t be cooked back down (though perhaps the burnt bits could be scraped off), but a sore can heal and a load can be lifted.

The final suggestion—“or does it explode?”—can be read in myriad ways. In one respect it could refer to the explosion of cultural output, of creativity, that results from deferred dreams—i.e., the Harlem Renaissance. I’ve definitely seen this happen this year, as people, in the face of crushing personal and professional disappointments, have found unique ways to come together and produce and share works of beauty within the restrictiveness of health and safety protocols. One example—speaking of Harlem—is the Dance Theatre of Harlem, a groundbreaking neoclassical ballet company founded at the height of the civil rights movement in 1969 and still active today. Bans on gatherings of certain numbers have meant that dancers and other performers have had to find alternative ways of reaching their audiences, so DTH artists Derek Brockington and Alexandra Hutchinson created “Dancing Through Harlem,” taking choreography from Robert Garland’s “New Bach” out into the streets and capturing it on video for people to enjoy from home. To help support the DTH during this time, you can donate easily through the fundraising sidebar on the video’s YouTube page or through the company’s website.

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SONG: “400 Years” by Sarah Sparks: This original song, sung with Kate Lab, appears on Sarah Sparks’s new album, Advent, Pt. One. It’s about how the centuries-long silence of God between the ministry of Malachi (ca. 420 BCE) and the appearance of John the Baptist in the early first century CE was broken with the birth of Jesus—the Word made flesh. Its refrain, “For the first time, not a silent night,” cleverly turns on its head the sweet, familiar carol “Silent Night.” Through the incarnation, God spoke to all who would listen.

“Waiting” by Edith Lovejoy Pierce

Spilliaert, Léon_The Bather

Life is a waiting beside the pool of Bethesda,
Where the reeling crowds go by
Under the five porches of sense.
Life is a lying crippled
Beside the pool of deep longing,
Waiting for the water to unfold
Its white petals of healing,
Waiting for Someone to draw near and say: “Arise.”

This poem, inspired by John 5:1–9, appears in Therefore Choose Life by Edith Lovejoy Pierce (Harper and Brothers, 1947).

Image credit: Léon Spilliaert (Belgian, 1881–1946), The Bather, 1910, India ink and pastel on paper, Musée Modern Museum (Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium), Brussels.

Ten Poems of Gratitude

One of the reasons I love poetry is because it brings me into more intimate contact with the world. It slows me down and asks me to give my attention to things that, in my constant, often self-inflicted busyness, I fail to notice. And it shepherds me into a deeper sense of gratitude and awe. It’s really easy for me to see the world’s ugliness—sin, suffering—and to be scared, angry, disgusted, horrified, or overwhelmed. My inclination is to see what’s wrong instead of what’s right. While poetry can perform many different functions, one of them is to attune us to the daily gifts and graces that come to us from, I believe, the hand of God.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, here are ten contemporary poems of gratitude that can be read online. A popular tradition for this holiday is, when gathered round the feasting table, to take turns sharing what you’re thankful for. The three most typical answers for adults are: my family, my health, my job. These are perfectly fine answers. But poets can show us what it feels like to be blessed with family, for example, and can teach us how to offer praise even when our health is declining or we’re unemployed. Moreover, poets help us expand our repertoire of thanksgivings, naming things with specificity: “the incense of butter on toast” (Siegel), “the honey-colored toes of mice” (Singleton), “two daughters and one cloud, an old oak / and a great love” (Wiman), the moon that “shakes a dress of light onto my body” (Silver) and “shuffl[es] its soft, blind slippers over the floor” (Hirshfield).

Lichtman, Susan_Orchard Bag and Bouquet
Susan Lichtman (American, 1952–), Orchard Bag and Bouquet, 2015. Oil on linen, 24 × 22 in.

(Related post: “A prayer of thanksgiving”)

I’ve listed the volume that each poem is published in—I’ve read all but the Browning one, and they’re all excellent. I hope this tiny sampling from the trove of contemporary poetry enlarges your thankfulness and inspires you to read more! Happy Thanksgiving, friends.

  1. “When the sun returns” by Sarah Browning, in Killing Summer (2017): Jesus said to consider the birds. Browning does. “it is hallelujah time, / the swallows tracing an arc / of praise just off our balcony, / the mountains snow-sparkling / in gratitude . . .”

  2. “A Song of Praises” by Robert Siegel (scroll to bottom of page), in Within This Tree of Bones (2013): In this very textural, sensory poem, a humdrum morning routine becomes a litany of more than two dozen in-the-moment gratitudes, for everything from warm washcloths to the snap of elastic to grapefruit flesh to a beautiful face at the breakfast table.

  3. “I Praise Unsalted Butter” by Sharron Singleton, in Our Hands a Hollow Bowl (2018): Another litany of thanksgivings for the mundane, like pearl buttons, babies’ fingernail parings, freckles, delphinium’s cobalt, unseen dendrites, the word “rhubarb,” and so on. In spite of great evil (the poet references the famous “Napalm Girl” photograph), there is still much to wonder at.

  4. “Fifty” by Christian Wiman, in Survival Is a Style (2020): “I never thought I’d live to the age of fifty, so my inclination these days is to praise,” says Wiman, who was diagnosed with a rare blood cancer in 2006 during his first year of marriage. “I wasn’t able to write about joy until I got sick. It wasn’t that sickness brought joy. It’s made me much more conscious of how much joy was in my life and gave me some impetus to articulate it.”

  5. “Morning” by Yahia Lababidi, in Barely There: Short Poems (2013): This six-liner celebrates the newness and invitation of each day. (For a bonus poem by the same author, see “Breath.”)

  6. “Psalm” by Marilyn Nelson, in The Fields of Praise (1997): Reflecting on the inherently dangerous act of driving, Nelson is thankful for (God’s) ongoing protection in the car. The poem ends with a classic line from the biblical book of Psalms.

  7. “How Rarely I Have Stopped to Thank the Steady Effort” by Jane Hirshfield (scroll down to fourth poem), in The Beauty: Poems (2015): I would have never thought to be thankful for walls that stand up! But yes, the basic architecture of my little suburban home is a marvel—how it all holds together. In a pause in conversation, the speaker of this poem ponders all that’s going on in the silence: tree bark absorbing the scent of crow feathers, honey dissolving into tea, DNA replicating. The poem then turns into an expansive reflection on all the invisible phenomena of bodies and lives, of emotions and desires that ebb and flow as their building blocks get rearranged.

  8. “A Handful of Berakhot” by Anya Krugovoy Silver, in The Ninety-Third Name of God (2010): Silver [previously] is one of the consummate poets of gratitude, particularly gratitude amid illness. She was pregnant with her first and only son, Noah, when she was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer in 2004. She died in 2018. Her body of work is characterized by a stubborn holding on to joy even as she wrestles honestly with God through many painful years of chemo and a mastectomy.
       Silver, a Christian, married a Jewish man, whose faith tradition inspired this poem. “In Judaism, a berakhah (pl. berakhot) is a formula of blessing or thanksgiving, recited in public or private, usually before the performance of a commandment, or the enjoyment of food or fragrance, and in praise on various occasions. The function of a berakhah is to acknowledge God as the source of all blessing” [source]. Silver’s nineteen custom berakhot are for such occasions as “buckling my son’s shoes,” “slipping my prosthetic breast into my bra,” “riding the ferris wheel,” and “going to the post office.”

  9. “Gratitude” by Anna Kamieńska, in Astonishments: Selected Poems (2007): “I was full of thanks / like a Sunday alms-box,” Kamieńska writes in this rapturous poem, which bursts with love for everyone and everything.

  10. [O Thou who by Thy touch give form] by Wendell Berry, in This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems (2013): A short prayer by one of today’s most popular writers, whose other vocation is farming.

“Silent Wonders” by Sándor Reményik

Gilmour, Gina_A Door in the Woods

Do not wait for the earth to shatter,
Sodom’s consumption by fire.
Tiny wonders from day to day are
Greater, deeper to admire.

Come, place your hand upon your heart and
Hear well, observe what it conveys.
Is this fine beating not by far the
Greatest, most wonderous music phrase?

Come, look into that deep blue Endless,
Look at those tiny silver things:
Not wonderous that your orphaned soul is
Rising towards them, spreading wings?

Look how your shadow runs before you,
How it expands and shrinks with you.
Not a wonder? Or that the waters
Reflect the heavens for your view?

Do not expect big things in life, for
Joys are snowflakes, they drift and stray.
Silent, sifting petals of wonder.
In them’s God’s voice: I’m coming.

Translated from the Hungarian by Leslie A. Kery. Reproduced by permission of Mr. Kery.

Image credit: Gina Gilmour (American, 1948–), A Door in the Woods, 1994. Oil on canvas, 79 × 88 3/4 in. (200.7 × 225.4 cm). Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, Charlotte, North Carolina. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Roundup: Art and the Psalms, “We Americans,” the Walking Roots Band, and more

“Psalms in Dialogue: Psalms 22, 23, and 24,” presented by Duke University Chapel: This multidisciplinary video presentation brings together dancers, musicians, a theologian, a painter, and (other) members of the Duke community to draw out the meaning of, or respond to, these three sequential psalms through art, prayer, and conversation. The livestreamed event aired October 17 and will be available for viewing for a limited time. Several of the segments, which I’ve time-stamped below, are intercut with photos from the streets in 2020 (showing the impact of the pandemic and racial unrest), of artist Makoto Fujimura in his studio and of his three finished paintings, and of Ekklesia Contemporary Ballet dancers in training. I wish more university chapels and well-resourced churches would offer experiences like this! Thank you to my friend Peggy for telling me about it. Read more about Duke Chapel’s multiyear Psalms project here.

1:51: “How do we name the impossible mystery?,” a theological reflection by Morley Van Yperen

6:02: Organ: “Jésus accepte la souffrance,” from La Nativité du Seigneur [previously] by Olivier Messiaen, performed by Christopher Jacobson

10:58: Psalm 22 by Makoto Fujimura, 2020, oyster shell on Belgium canvas, 48 × 48 in.

11:09: Reading of Psalm 22:1–22 by Luke A. Powery, with balletic responses by Paiter van Yperen, Elijah Ryan, Heather Bachman, and Sasha Biagiarelli

15:40: Lament, ballet solo danced by Paiter van Yperen (music by Max Richter, choreo by Elisa Schroth)

18:10: Psalm 22:22–32 chant by Zebulon Highben

21:09: Conversation on the Psalms with Makoto Fujimura and Ellen F. Davis, moderated by Amanda Millay Hughes

29:32: Organ: “Christus, der uns selig macht,” BWV 620, by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed by Christopher Jacobson

32:00: Prayer by Nathan Liang

34:11: Recitation of Psalm 23 by Julia Hendrickson

35:22: 6IX, a tap dance by Andrew Nemr

37:10: “The 23rd Psalm,” text adaptation and music by Bobby McFerrin, performed by the Duke Chapel Staff Singers (*this was my favorite!)

40:42: Prayer by Jonathan Avendano

42:39: “The Lord Is My Shepherd,” music by Howard Goodall, performed by the Royal School of Church Music in America Choristers

46:13: Psalm 24 remix produced by Andrew Nemr

48:21: Prayer by Jordyn Blake

49:45: Recitation of Psalm 24 by Julia Hendrickson

51:32: Conversation continued

1:11:49: “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” African American spiritual arranged by Mark A. Miller, performed by the Duke Chapel Choir

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POEMS: This week’s edition of ImageUpdate includes two poems that I really appreciated. The first, which was new to me, is “America” by Claude McKay, a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Originally published in The Liberator in 1921, it expresses the pain of living in a country where you’re hated for your race and yet remains optimistic, beginning, “Although she feeds me bread of bitterness, / And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth, / Stealing my breath of life, I will confess / I love this cultured hell . . .” The second poem is “Making Peace” by Denise Levertov, one of the best-known Christian poets of the twentieth century. “The poets must give us / imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar / imagination of disaster,” she writes. Poets can help us feel our way toward shalom—give us a vision of its permeating the world that inspires us to live out its rhythms, its metaphors, its structure, its grammar, our lives like poems.

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MUSIC VIDEO: “We Americans” by the Avett Brothers: I’m so moved by this song from the Avett Brothers’ 2019 album Closer Than Together—its grappling with the historical legacy of the US, its greatness and its guilt, with a mixture of heartache, empathy, and hope. It’s one of the healthiest expressions of patriotism I’ve ever come across in a song. We need to see America as the complex entity that she is, which means in part not ignoring her flaws but with love exposing them so that they can be remediated and we can move forward together more faithful to her celebrated ideals. “We Americans” is both confession and supplication, an “I’m sorry, God” and “God, help us to do better.” The final chorus:

I am a son of God and man
And I may never understand
The good and evil
But I dearly love this land
Because of and in spite of We the People
We are more than the sum of our parts
All these broken bones and broken hearts
God, will you keep us wherever we go?
Can you forgive us for where we’ve been?
We Americans

I was reminded of this song in the September 17 episode of the RTN Theology podcast, “You Shall Know the Truth and the Truth Shall Unsettle You.” Chris Breslin interviews Mark Charles, a Native American activist, public speaker, Christian leader, and independent candidate in this year’s US presidential election. He is the coauthor, with Soong-Chan Rah, of Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery. Charles enters at 12:40 with a discussion of the lack of common memory.

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SONGS:

“Whatever Comes Next” by Drew Miller: This song came out of “Hutchmoot: Homebound,” a virtual arts gathering organized by the Rabbit Room that took place earlier this month. In writing the song, Drew Miller [previously] was inspired in part by Shigé Clark’s new poem “Grateful” (see her perform the poem here).

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One Friday back in March, when we thought quarantine would last about six weeks tops, Kelsey and I raised our Old Fashioneds up for our weekly Pizza Night toast, each of us wearing that 😬 sort of face reserved for when we have no idea what’s about to happen (we’ve been making that face a lot this year).⁣ ⁣ And then, as our glasses clinked, she said, “To whatever comes next.”⁣ ⁣ This is my post-Hutchmoot (and as 2020 would have it, pre-election) song. And as such, it steals shamelessly from—well, really, from all over the place, but mostly from Shigé Clark’s staggering poem “Grateful:” “Father, the world is on fire.”⁣ ⁣ Go read that poem. And then, if you have any emotional capacity left, come back and listen to this song.⁣ ⁣ Lyrics:⁣ ⁣ Father, your world’s on fire and⁣ Every day I wake up tired and⁣ Afraid of what’s required of me⁣ ⁣ But your daughter filled my cup, said⁣ “Look at me and listen up,” said⁣ “A toast to all we’ve yet to see”⁣ ⁣ 𝘛𝘰 𝘸𝘩𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘴 𝘯𝘦𝘹𝘵⁣ 𝘞𝘩𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘴 𝘯𝘦𝘹𝘵⁣ 𝘓𝘦𝘵’𝘴 𝘳𝘢𝘪𝘴𝘦 𝘢𝘯𝘰𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘳 𝘨𝘭𝘢𝘴𝘴⁣ 𝘛𝘰 𝘸𝘩𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘴 𝘯𝘦𝘹𝘵⁣ ⁣ So this world’s the one I inherit⁣ It takes the best of me just to bear it⁣ While the rest of me wants to tear it down⁣ ⁣ I’ve got no choice in the matter⁣ But to let illusions shatter⁣ And scatter like seeds on the ground⁣ ⁣ 𝘍𝘰𝘳 𝘸𝘩𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘴 𝘯𝘦𝘹𝘵⁣ 𝘞𝘩𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘴 𝘯𝘦𝘹𝘵⁣ 𝘓𝘦𝘵’𝘴 𝘳𝘢𝘪𝘴𝘦 𝘢𝘯𝘰𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘳 𝘨𝘭𝘢𝘴𝘴⁣ 𝘛𝘰 𝘸𝘩𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘴 𝘯𝘦𝘹𝘵⁣ ⁣ 𝘈𝘯𝘥 𝘐 𝘸𝘰𝘯’𝘵 𝘳𝘦𝘨𝘳𝘦𝘵⁣ 𝘞𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘐 𝘤𝘢𝘯𝘯𝘰𝘵 𝘬𝘯𝘰𝘸 𝘺𝘦𝘵⁣ 𝘐’𝘮 𝘨𝘰𝘯𝘯𝘢 𝘴𝘵𝘪𝘤𝘬 𝘢𝘳𝘰𝘶𝘯𝘥⁣ 𝘍𝘰𝘳 𝘸𝘩𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘴 𝘯𝘦𝘹𝘵⁣ ⁣ Father, your world’s on fire⁣ And look at how it shines⁣ Father, your world’s on fire⁣ ⁣ I have often wondered⁣ A sister grieves for her brother⁣ She can’t conceive of another ending⁣ ⁣ For all that hope she carried⁣ Only to see it buried⁣ Then, through her tears, she hears⁣ “Mary”⁣ ⁣ So what comes next?

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“Bring Your Peace” by the Walking Roots Band: This song was written this year by Seth Thomas Crissman and Greg J. Yoder of the Walking Roots Band as part of a collection of fifteen songs for Shine, a children’s Sunday school curriculum published by MennoMedia and Brethren Press. It appears on Everybody Sing: Worship Songs for Children, released in June as a double album with Everybody Sing: Songs for the Seasons (which comprises ten original songs by The Many). The song asks God to bring his peace into our fears and into the storms we face, and to make us instruments of that peace to others.

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“Rest Assured,” sung by the Walking Roots Band: TWRB learned this song from a bandmate’s parent (original authorship unknown) and recorded it a cappella in their separate locations at the start of quarantine in March. The chorus goes,

Rest assured, He’s not forgotten
Rest assured, He’ll take care of you
Look at the times He’s been there before
He’ll be there again, rest assured

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“Let Justice Roll Like a River,” sung by Eric Lige: Bobby Gilles and Rebecca Elliott of Sojourn Music wrote this song in 2017, inspired by Amos 5. In this lyric video from July 5, it’s performed by Eric Lige and Paul Lee of Ethnos Community Church. The singing starts at 1:33. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

“Annunciation” by Vinícius de Moraes

Montevideo
Virgin! Daughter of mine
Where have you been
You’re all dirty
You smell of jasmine
Your skirt’s stained carmine
And your earrings are clinking
Tlintlintlin?
Mother dear
I’ve been in the garden
I went to look at the sky
And I fell asleep.
When I awoke
I smelled of jasmine
An angel was scattering petals
Over me . . .

Translated from the Portuguese by Natalie d’Arbeloff, from Annunciation: Sixteen Contemporary Poets Consider Mary, ed. Elizabeth Adams (Montreal: Phoenicia, 2015). Used by permission of the translator. (Read the poem in its original language.)

Jasmine tree (Photo: Raita Futo)

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Vinícius de Moraes (1913–1980) was a Brazilian poet, lyricist, essayist, playwright, and diplomat who contributed to the birth of bossa nova music. Natalie d’Arbeloff (b. 1929) is a London-based painter, printmaker, cartoonist, and maker of artist’s books, born in Paris of French and Russian parents; she has also lived in Mexico, Paraguay, Brazil, Italy, and the United States.

“Annunciation” takes as its subject the teenage Mary’s mystical encounter with an angel (Luke 1:26–38), after which she becomes pregnant with the Son of God. Moraes sets the event in Montevideo, Uruguay, imagining a dialogue, after the fact, between Mary and her mother.

The central image of scattered jasmine petals is a lovely inversion of the “deflowering” euphemism for first-time sex. In the Holy Spirit’s coming upon her to conceive Jesus, Mary was flowered—her prime beauty bestowed, not (if we were to use the outdated, sexist metaphor) taken away.

While Christianity maintains that Mary remained a virgin at least until Jesus’s birth, her becoming pregnant marked her physically, indelibly. Moraes goes so far as to suggest there was a tearing of the hymen—hence her red-stained skirt, which I read as blood. However, his retelling is nonliteral, more in the mode of magic realism, so there’s no need to get all clinical or to try to “explain” the imagery. It’s dreamlike.

The Gospel-writer suggests that Mary interacted with the angel Gabriel in a vision (i.e., a waking dream), but in Moraes’s poem the primary interaction takes place during sleep. In her dream, Mary hears the divine call and consents to its demands, and when she awakes, like in the movies, a material manifestation of the spiritual experience is there to tell her it was real: she is covered in sweet-smelling jasmine.

What is your reaction to or interpretation of the poem?

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Annunciation-themed posts from the Art & Theology archives include:

“A Wild Turn” by Donelle Dreese (excerpts)

Gestel, Leo_Autumn
Leo Gestel (Dutch, 1881–1941), Autumn, 1909. Oil on canvas, 53.5 × 61 cm. Museum Kranenburgh, Bergen, Netherlands. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

You, Sunshine,
strand of pearls,
lay yourself down
on a country pond
one at a time
. . . . . . . . . . .
You, Sunshine,
bountiful benefactor,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
dangle your golden earrings
never grow old
teach me to roam.

This poem is published in A Wild Turn (Finishing Line Press, 2008), http://donelledreese.com/.