God’s patient “stet”: Richard Wilbur on divine mercy

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and second poet laureate of the United States Richard Wilbur died on October 14. In memoriam, I provide the following walk-through of his poem “The Proof,” followed by some of his reflections on the influence his Christian faith has had on his work.

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“The Proof” by Richard Wilbur

Shall I love God for causing me to be?
I was mere utterance; shall these words love me?

Yet when I caused his work to jar and stammer,
And one free subject loosened all his grammar,

I love him that he did not in a rage
Once and forever rule me off the page,

But thinking I might come to please him yet,
Crossed out delete and wrote his patient stet.

This poem was originally published in the Atlantic Monthly 213, no. 3 (March 1964): 62. It can be found in Wilbur’s Collected Poems 1943–2004.

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I am a proofreader by trade, so Richard Wilbur’s witty, eight-line poem “The Proof” delights me much. Filled with wordplay, it imagines God as the Cosmic Author, reviewing a set of book proofs (the typeset version of a manuscript; a still unfinal phase of production), considering a particular edit: there’s a word that’s discordant with the whole—delete it, or not?

Creative control is God’s to exercise over his manuscript of life, whose first chapter was conceived with the utterance “Let there be . . .”—light! Sky! Water! Land! Vegetation! Animals! And finally, “Let there be humankind.” Let there be Susie. Let there be Sal.

Our names belong to God’s story. He established us as characters at the very beginning. And yet he also made us “free subjects,” imbuing us with free will, with the power to follow his script or not. We decided NOT. Playing fast and loose with his “grammar” (his system of principles that make for right functions of and relationships among parts), we looked for life in all the wrong places. We introduced chaos, suffering. Now mired in this mess, we question whether or not “to be”—to exist—is a blessing or a curse.

The word “subject” in line 4 has a double meaning. First, it identifies us as being under God’s authority, as the word “rule” in the next stanza stresses. Maybe “free subject” sounds like an oxymoron, because how is it possible to be both free and subject to? Actually, our status as “free subjects” in relation to the divine has been amply teased out by moral philosophers like Kant. And before that, in the realm of politics, the term was used (without contradiction) to describe members of a state—people who submit themselves to the sovereign laws of the land, all the while possessing civil liberties. (“Citizen” has since replaced the term “free subject” in popular parlance.)

Second, a “subject” is a part of speech, an integral element of basic sentence structure. In grammar, the subject is the doer of the action. In his poem, Wilbur suggests that when we free humans do, we often do wrong. We jar God’s creation—wrench it out of harmony, destabilize it. We stammer—are repetitious in our sin. This displeases God, our author, who wonders whether, to preserve the integrity of the whole, he ought to remove us.

But God is a merciful author; he allows us to remain. In our imperfection he loves us. Even though we mar his work, he recognizes that we do add value to the story—in part, because we magnify his grace.

Stet illustration (Photo by Victoria Emily Jones)

Stet is an industry term used by proofreaders. From the Latin for “let it stand,” it indicates that the person inputting the changes into the master document is to disregard a change that was previously marked.   Continue reading “God’s patient “stet”: Richard Wilbur on divine mercy”

Roundup: Ecclesia, black gospel cover, Nat Turner, and more

VISUAL MEDITATION: “The Birth of Ecclesia”: On Sunday I wrote a piece for ArtWay on a thirteenth-century Bible moralisée illumination that pairs the creation of Eve out of the side of sleeping Adam with the birth of the church out of the side wound of the New Adam, Christ, our spouse, who “fell asleep” on the cross. The painting offers a great example of how art can do theology.

Birth of Ecclesia
Bible moralisèe: “The Creation of Eve” and “The Birth of Ecclesia,” fol. 2v (detail), ONB Han. Cod. 2554, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna. Made in Paris, 1225–49.

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POETRY LECTURE: “Believing in Poetry for a Secular Age: Michael Symmons Roberts and Mark Oakley,” October 5, 2017, 6:30 p.m., 77 Great Peter Street, London SW1P 2EZ: “If we live in a secular age, you wouldn’t know it from our poetry. Not only are some of the greatest poets of recent years overtly Christian, such as Geoffrey Hill and Les Murray, but many who are not remain drawn to and fascinated by ‘the soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage.’” To facilitate discussion on poetry’s spiritual power, the religion and society think tank Theos has organized an evening with the award-winning poet Michael Symmons Roberts and arts writer and advocate Mark Oakley, who will draw on their most recent publications. General admission is £7.

Inspired by his hometown of Manchester, Roberts’s seventh poetry collection, Mancunia, released last month, has received critical acclaim. “Mancunian Miserere” is reprinted in full in the Guardian’s review, but here’s a taste: “As I walk west on Cross Street have mercy on me, O God, / . . . / for the wide berth I gave that man-cocoon asleep on the steps / of a new-closed bank where once I queued to find my balance.”

As canon chancellor of St. Paul’s Cathedral, one of Mark Oakley’s responsibilities is to advance the church’s engagement with the arts. Last year he wrote The Splash of Words: Believing in Poetry, a series of reflections on forty poems that speak into the life of faith. Earlier books of his include The Collage of God, A Good Year, and compilations of readings for weddings and funerals.

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ALBUM: Grace by Lizz Wright: Lizz Wright’s sixth album, Grace, dropped on September 15 to rave reviews. “A sophisticated straddler of down-home blues, jazz, gospel, folk, southern pop and confessional singer-songwriter traditions,” Wright, with the help of album producer Joe Henry, chose nine covers from an array of sources and eras and cowrote the tenth track with Maia Sharp. My favorite is “Singing in My Soul,” written by Thomas Dorsey and popularized by Sister Rosetta Tharpe—about the steadfast joy that is ours in Christ.

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FILM: The Birth of a Nation (2016): My husband never learned about Nat Turner in school, he recently told me when the name came up at an exhibition opening. So when we got home we decided to watch Nate Parker’s biopic of Turner, an enslaved black preacher who in 1831 led a revolt against the slaveholding families of Southampton County, Virginia, killing about sixty white men, women, and children. It was a watershed moment in American history that spread fear throughout the South and resulted in the execution of fifty-six slaves and the lynching of over a hundred nonparticipants.

As do most cinematic retellings of history, The Birth of a Nation contains inaccuracies, and in its attempts to be a hero’s story, it lacks nuance. But it effectively shows how entrenched Turner was in scripture—he was literate—and how his growing understanding of God’s will for his people, combined with supernatural visions and other pressings of the Spirit, impelled him to act decisively on the side of justice. Because of my pacifist convictions, I cannot commend Turner’s violent methods . . . but I say this as a free white woman in the twenty-first century, whose privilege has protected me from the kind of desperation that was present on the antebellum plantations of the American South; were I in a state of constant oppression with no other way out, and forced to witness daily the abuse of my spouse, my children, my mother, and others I love, maybe my feelings would be different. I can still appreciate Turner’s ministry to his fellow slaves and his hunger and thirst for righteousness, as well as his internal wrestling with what was an extremely difficult situation.

On a related note, Nat Turner’s Bible is one of the collection highlights at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. Worth a visit!

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FROM THE ARCHIVES: “This is what hope usually feels like”: In October 2015 I wrote an essay on George Frederic Watts’s allegorical painting Hope and how it pictures the posture that my family and I assumed after my Aunt Marjie’s cancer diagnosis. I am sad to report that Aunt Marjie passed away in July. We spent so many fun times together, traveling, eating, singing and dancing, our weeklong excursion through Italy, along with my mom, being a main highlight. Aunt Marjie’s boundless enthusiasm, positivity, selflessness, and sense of adventure will continue to inspire me. Tomorrow I’ll be flying out to Montana for a party in her honor, where I’ll be telling 150-plus friends and family members what she meant to me—and then dancing it up, just like she wanted! Here are a few favorite photos from my albums.

Making cookies with Aunt Marjie
Me and Aunt Marjie making cookies at Grandmom and Poppies’ house in Pleasantville, New York, in March 1991. When I was older Aunt Marjie told me that she had actually been in mourning that month over the loss of a child through miscarriage, and that this was the first time she had smiled in weeks. “It was a healing moment I have never forgotten,” she said.
Marjie, Vic, and Orion
Aunt Marjie was endearingly goofy, and completely unselfconscious about it. She livened up every outing and taught me not to care what other people think. Here we are with her son Orion, singing “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” on a boardwalk in 2002—deserted because it’s December!
Trevi Fountain
Mom, me, and Aunt Marjie throwing coins into the Trevi Fountain in Rome. This photo has been framed on my bedroom dresser since I got back to the States from that semester abroad in 2009.
Aunt Marjie at Villa Jovis
This is a genuine reaction to I-don’t-remember-what inside Villa Jovis on Capri. Aunt Marjie’s ultra-expressiveness was one of her much-beloved traits, and archaeological sites always brought it out. (She had a PhD in the field . . . in addition to master’s degrees in geology and geophysics, anthropology, and social science!)
Aunt Marjie dancing
Aunt Marjie was always the first one out on the dance floor at weddings. Here she is at my wedding in 2010 with my cousins Alex and Danny. To this day, whenever I reference her to friends, they say, “I remember her! The dancing lady in the red dress!”

“Jis’ Blue” by Etta Baldwin Oldham

 

Glory by Elizabeth Catlett
Elizabeth Catlett (American, 1915–2012), Glory, 1981. Cast bronze, 35.5 × 24 × 25.5 cm (14 × 9 1/2 × 10 in.). Edition of 9. Muskegon Museum of Art, Muskegon, Michigan. Head of dancer, educator, and civic activist Glory Van Scott (1947–), whose cousin Emmett Till’s murder in 1955 ignited the civil rights movement.

Jis’ blue, God,
Jis’ blue.
Ain’t prayin’ exactly jis’ now—
Tear-blind, I guess,
Can’t see my way through.
You know those things
I ast for so many times—
Maybe I hadn’t orter repeated like the Pharisees do;
But I ain’t stood in no market place;
It’s jis’ ’tween me and You.
And You said, “Ast” . . .
Somehow I ain’t astin’ now and I hardly know what to do.
Hope jis’ sorter left, but Faith’s still here—
Faith ain’t gone, too.
I know how ’tis—a thousand years
Is as a single day with You;
And I ain’t meanin’ to tempt You with “If You be . . .”
And I ain’t doubtin’ You.
But I ain’t prayin’ tonight, God—
Jis’ blue.

As far as I can tell, this poem was originally published in the July 1927 issue of The Forum, a magazine published from 1890 to 1950, and is now in the public domain.

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African American teacher, poet, and children’s book author Henrietta (“Etta”) Oldham (née Baldwin) was born September 21, 1888, in Big Spring, Texas. With husband Charles Oswald Oldham, she bore a daughter, Babette, but Charles died in 1922 at age thirty-three, and Etta never remarried. After Charles’s death, Etta spent seven years in Panama doing research for her book Pedro’s Pirate. She then returned to Texas, where she lived until her death in 1975.

Writing in African American Vernacular English, Etta gets real with God in her poem “Jis’ Blue,” laying all her frustration out on the table before him. The poem exemplifies the biblical practice of lament, of prayed sorrow. “Moving in our grief, confusion, and protest toward trust and thanksgiving in God and his promises” is the direction of biblical lament, writes J. Todd Billings in his book Rejoicing in Lament (46). While humility before God is a virtue, demureness is not. God wants us to be forthright with him. He much prefers honest emotional expressions to pasted-on smiles or disengagement.

Although its language can be sharp (Etta’s poem is much milder than most of the Bible’s lament psalms), lament is actually a form of praise, because it arises from the conviction that the Lord is a God of hesed, of “loving faithfulness”:

A conviction that God acts as the Lord who has bound himself in covenant love is at the theological center of the book of Psalms. . . . Because of their faith in God’s sovereignty, the psalmists have high expectations of God; because they take God’s promises seriously, they lament and protest when it seems that God is not keeping his promises. . . . The psalmists blame God in the interrogative, with raw, unanswered questions that cling to the hope of God’s covenant promises: Why am I in this crisis if the Lord’s covenant promise is true? In the context of covenant fellowship, God’s people can cry out to their covenant Lord—in complaint, even in protest and open-ended blame—until God shows his faithfulness according to his covenant promise. (50, 58–59)

Lament throws God’s promises back at him, says Billings. The promise that Etta calls God to account for is “Ask, and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7; cf. 21:22). I’ve asked and I’ve asked, she says, but still nothing. What’s the deal, God? Has my repetition become vain, invalidating my request [Matthew 6:7]? Come on, God, I’m praying discreetly, just like you taught [Matthew 6:5–6]! Because she’s tired of asking and therefore refrains from doing so in this prayer, we don’t know what it is she’s seeking. We don’t know the object of her lament. But that enables the poem to speak more broadly into different contexts.

When we’re hurting in some way (physically, emotionally, or spiritually) and we grow weary of praying over and over again for relief, it’s perfectly acceptable to stop short of entreaty and simply tell God, “I’m just sad.” Jis’ blue. “So blind with tears, I can’t see straight.” That in itself is a prayer—an openness to God. Although Etta says she “ain’t prayin’ tonight,” she has done just that. Not in supplication mode but in lament mode. It’s how Christians pray their suffering.

Her Wilderness Like Eden (Artful Devotion)

Bloom Within by Daniel Nevins
Daniel Nevins (American, 1963–), Bloom Within. Oil on wood, 20 × 18 in.

Isaiah 51:3:

For the Lord will comfort Zion;
he will comfort all her waste places,
and will make her wilderness like Eden,
her desert like the garden of the LORD;
joy and gladness will be found in her,
thanksgiving and the voice of song.

“The Comforter” by Thomas Moore (1779–1852):

Oh! thou who dry’st the mourner’s tear,
How dark this world would be,
If, when deceived and wounded here,
We could not fly to thee!

The friends who in our sunshine live,
When winter comes are flown;
And he who has but tears to give,
Must weep those tears alone;

But thou wilt heal that broken heart,
Which, like the plants that throw
Their fragrance from the wounded part,
Breathes sweetness out of woe.

When joy no longer soothes or cheers,
And even the hope that threw
A moment’s sparkle o’er our tears,
Is dimm’d and vanish’d too;

Oh who would bear life’s stormy doom,
Did not thy wing of love
Come brightly wafting through the gloom,
Our peace-branch from above.

Then sorrow, touch’d by thee, grows bright
With more than rapture’s ray;
As darkness shows us worlds of light
We never saw by day.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your e-mail or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the RCL scripture readings for Proper 16, cycle A, click here.

“Aaron’s Beard” by Eugene H. Peterson

A song of ascents comprising just three verses, Psalm 133 is assigned as this upcoming Sunday’s lectionary reading from the book of Psalms. It contains two colorful similes that liken brotherly unity to (1) oil running down the beard and (2) a heavy dewfall. The first one offers an especially sensuous picture of consecration, of divine blessedness, referencing the anointing ritual for priests practiced in ancient Israel (see Exodus 30:22–33). Attracted to the poetic quality of this image, Eugene H. Peterson wrote his own nine lines around it, imagining God’s blessings, like oil, dissolving the rust that had accumulated over his belief.

Nude Old Man in the Sun by Mariano Fortuny y Marsal
Mariano Fortuny y Marsal (Spanish, 1838–1874), Nude Old Man in the Sun, ca. 1871. Oil on canvas, 76 × 60 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

“Aaron’s Beard” by Eugene H. Peterson

. . . running down the beard,
Upon the beard of Aaron . . .

—Psalm 133:2

Aaronic blessings
Run down my red beard
Refracting sun warmth
In oil ooze
 loosening
Ironic curses
Flecks of stubborn rust
Corrosive unbelief
Cynic stuff.


“Aaron’s Beard” is published in Holy Luck by Eugene H. Peterson (Eerdmans, 2013) and is used here by permission of the publisher. Reproduction of the poem without express permission from Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company is a violation of copyright.

One sonnet vs. shouted prose: Lady Liberty, Emma Lazarus, and Trump

Statue of Liberty

“The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

This poem makes me emotional. Embossed on a bronze plaque inside the Statue of Liberty’s base in New York Harbor, it articulates a beautiful ideal for the US: we are a welcoming refuge for the “wretched refuse” of the world, and therein lies our strength. The first lines of the sonnet contrast Lady Liberty with the Colossus of Rhodes, a 109-foot statue of Helios, the Greek god of the sun. One of the seven ancient wonders of the world, it was erected in 280 BC to celebrate a military victory. True to its purpose, it was given a fearsome, “Behold our power!” sort of stance.

Liberty has an imposing presence as well, but it’s tempered with “mild eyes” and the epithet “Mother of Exiles.” Maternal love is her stance. I care nothing for riches and glory, she tells the other nations. Send me, instead, the weak, the destitute, the hurting. My light is always on, inviting them to enter in and stay.

Lazarus’s poem is thoroughly in line with biblical values—which is no surprise, because she was herself Jewish. Here are just some of the verses in the Hebrew Bible that prescribe care for immigrants and affirm their rights. (The word “immigrant,” ger, is sometimes translated in scripture as “sojourner,” “stranger,” “foreigner,” or “alien.”)

Exodus 23:9: “You must not oppress foreigners. You know what it’s like to be a foreigner, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.”

Leviticus 19:33–34: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”

Deuteronomy 10:17–19: “The LORD your God . . . loves the immigrant, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are immigrants, for you yourselves were immigrants in Egypt.”

Deuteronomy 14:29: “The immigrant . . . within your towns shall come and eat and be filled, that the LORD your God may bless you.”

Deuteronomy 24:17: “You shall not pervert the justice due to the immigrant.”

Deuteronomy 27:19: “Cursed be anyone who withholds the justice due to the immigrant. . . . Then all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’”

Jeremiah 7:6: “Do not oppress the immigrant.”

Jeremiah 22:3: “This is what the LORD says: ‘Do what is just and right. . . . Do no wrong or violence to the immigrant.’”

Ezekiel 22:4, 7: “You have brought your judgment days near and have come to your years of punishment [because] . . . the foreign resident is exploited within you.”

Zechariah 7:10–11: “This is what the LORD Almighty says: Administer true justice, show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the . . . immigrant.”

Malachi 3:15: “‘I will come to you in judgment. I will be quick to testify against those . . . who refuse to help the immigrant and in this way show they do not fear me,’ says the LORD who rules over all.”

The immigrant belongs to the “quartet of the vulnerable”—along with widows, orphans, and the poor—whose cause God takes up over and over again throughout the Bible and commands his people to do likewise. “The mishpat, or justness, of a society, according to the Bible, is evaluated by how it treats these groups,” writes Tim Keller in his book Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. “Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this quartet is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity, but a violation of justice, of mishpat. God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. That is what it means to ‘do justice.’”   Continue reading “One sonnet vs. shouted prose: Lady Liberty, Emma Lazarus, and Trump”

A Steady Hand (Artful Devotion)

Peter sinking by Sharon McGinley
Painting by Sharon McGinley

Matthew 14:29b–33 (The Voice):

Peter stepped out of the boat onto the water and began walking toward Jesus. But when he remembered how strong the wind was, his courage caught in his throat and he began to sink.

Peter: Master, save me!

Immediately Jesus reached for Peter and caught him.

Jesus: O you of little faith. Why did you doubt and dance back and forth between following Me and heeding fear?

Then Jesus and Peter climbed in the boat together, and the wind became still. And the disciples worshiped Him.

Poem by Arthur Hugh Clough (1819–1861):

It fortifies my soul to know
That, though I perish, Truth is so:
That, howsoe’er I stray and range,
Whate’er I do, Thou dost not change.
I steadier step when I recall
That, if I slip, Thou dost not fall.

“Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand” — Text by Jennie Wilson (1857–1913) | Music by Franklin Lycurgus Eiland (1860–1909) | Performed by Angela Primm:


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your e-mail or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the RCL scripture readings for Proper 14, cycle A, click here.

Roundup: Contemporary santos; singing grace with knives; Auden interprets Bruegel; “The Old Churchyard”; pyrotechnic ladder

“The Cosmopolitan and the Campesino: The Sacred Art of Luis Tapia” by Dana Gioia: I first learned about the pioneering Chicano artist Luis Tapia from the book Crafting Devotions: Tradition in Contemporary New Mexico Santos. His work was memorable, so when I saw it on the cover of the latest Dappled Things issue, I was eager to read inside. Dana Gioia’s essay introduces us to work that is “both strikingly original and deeply respectful of its origins” in the Hispano religious folk art tradition established in New Mexico in the seventeenth century. Pushing the art of polychrome wood sculpture to new levels of craftsmanship and social and political commentary, Tapia “has enlarged his tradition to make it capacious enough to contain his imagination and the complexities of contemporary Latino experience.”

The art world is more accustomed to disruption and transgression than to transformative renewal. (What is more normative in art nowadays than transgression?) It is easier to renounce or mock the past than to master and reshape it to new ends. Assimilating the past, however, allows new work to carry powerful formal and cultural resonance, such as Tapia’s adaptations of New Mexican Catholic folk subjects and symbolism into new secular and social contexts. Tapia does not approach the past with the distanced irony and intellectual condescension of artists such as John Currin or Jeff Koons. Tapia remains invested in the forms, themes, and techniques of the New Mexican Latino Catholic tradition.

(Related post: “Religious art highlights from New Mexico”)

Pieta by Luis Tapia
Luis Tapia (American, 1950–), Pietà, 1999. Carved and painted wood, 20¼ × 14½ × 9½ in. Collection of John Robertshaw. Photo: Dan Morse, courtesy The Owings Gallery, Santa Fe.

Renaissance-era cutlery engraved with musical notations: The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has in its collection a rare “notation knife” from sixteenth-century Italy, whose blade contains on each side a line of music expressing gratitude for a meal. The inscription on one side reads, “The blessing of the table. May the three-in-one bless that which we are about to eat,” while the other reads, “The saying of grace. We give thanks to you God for your generosity.” The knife, which contains only a tenor voice part, belongs to a set. Art historian Flora Dennis, whose background is in musicology, tracked down the other three in the set and, with the help of the Royal College of Music, transcribed the voice parts into modern notation, then had the benediction and grace from the knives sung and recorded (listen below). Click on the link to hear curator Kirstin Kennedy discuss the knife’s possible uses, to view footage from the recording session, and to listen to two alternate recordings.

Notation Knife
Left and right views of an etched, engraved, and gilded steel knife with ivory, brass, and silver handle, by an unknown maker, Italy, 1500–50. Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Benediction, Version 1

Grace, Version 1

“‘About Suffering They Were Never Wrong’” by Kevin Antlitz: This essay about human indifference to others’ suffering centers on W. H. Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” which is itself a response to two paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Census at Bethlehem and The Fall of Icarus. Insights from Mark Twain, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Elie Wiesel, Nuremberg prosecutor Benjamin Ferencz, novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and St. Theophan the Recluse add to the commentary, which is personalized by the author’s reflections on his visit to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. The indictment is sobering: we are all of us guilty of evil—the enabler just as much as the perpetrator.

The Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegel
Nobody notices the need of the pregnant couple—the Holy Family—making their way into town. Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Dutch, 1525/30–1569), The Census at Bethlehem, 1566. Oil on panel, 116 × 164.5 cm (46 × 64.8 in.). Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel
The plowman, shepherd, and angler continue with their work, indifferent to the upside-down, flailing legs in the sea beside them, and “the expensive delicate ship” at the crash site “had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.” 1560s copy of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Dutch, 1525/30–1569), Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, ca. 1558. Oil on canvas, 73.5 × 112 cm (28.9 × 44.1 in.). Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.

Offa Rex records spiritual folk standard “The Old Churchyard”: Olivia Chaney has teamed up with the Decemberists under the name Offa Rex to record an album that pays homage to British folk music. Released this month, The Queen of Hearts features a beautiful rendition of “The Old Churchyard,” a song about the pain of death and the hope of resurrection. It invites you, first, to come pay respect to loved ones who have passed out of this world over the years, then entreats you not to feel sorrow for them, “for sweet is their sleep, though cold and hard their pillows may be.” The song acknowledges that words are insufficient to comfort those left behind but nonetheless offers the reassurance of peace and rest for the deceased, and a glorious rising on the last day. (Thanks to Paul Neeley for this find!)

Come, come with me out to the old churchyard,
I so well know those paths ’neath the soft green sward.
Friends slumber in there that we want to regard;
We will trace out their names in the old churchyard.

Mourn not for them, their trials are o’er,
And why weep for those who will weep no more?
For sweet is their sleep, though cold and hard
Their pillows may be in the old churchyard.

I know that it’s vain when our friends depart
To breathe kind words to a broken heart;
And I know that the joy of life is marred
When we follow lost friends to the old churchyard.

But were I at rest ’neath yonder tree,
Oh, why would you weep, my friends, for me?
I’m so weary, so wayworn, why would you retard
The peace I seek in the old churchyard?

Why weep for me, for I’m anxious to go
To that haven of rest where no tears ever flow;
And I fear not to enter that dark lonely tomb
Where our saviour has lain and conquered the gloom.

I rest in the hope that one bright day
Sunshine will burst to these prisons of clay,
And old Gabriel’s trumpet and voice of the Lord
Will wake up the dead in the old churchyard.

Sky Ladder documentary (2016): This Netflix original directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) profiles the world-renowned contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang (pronounced Tsai gwo chi-ONG), who is best known for reinventing the possibilities of the firework, opening its purpose up beyond mere entertainment. Through interviews with the artist and his family, friends, and critics, the film tracks Cai’s rise from childhood in Mao’s China to global fame, addressing the cultural influences on his work, his desire to effect social change, and his struggles to maintain integrity and artistic freedom (his acceptance to design the fireworks display for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics was controversial).

The documentary shares its title with Cai’s decades-long obsession and most ambitious work to date: a pyrotechnic ladder that rises up over a quarter mile into the sky, as successive explosions etch each new rung and rail segment into place. “I want to connect the earth to the universe,” Cai said. It was fascinating to be let in on his process for this, his working through all the technical details and other hurdles. Three previous attempts to realize Sky Ladder were canceled—in 1994, due to bad weather; in 2001, due to the 9/11 attacks; and in 2012, due to a revoked permit. It wasn’t until 2015 that the project finally succeeded, in a small Chinese fishing village before an audience of a few hundred. It lasted approximately two and a half minutes. Cai’s Sky Ladder reminds me of “Jacob’s ladder” from Genesis 28:10–19, burning bright, connecting two worlds.

Sky Ladder by Cai Guo-Qiang
Sky Ladder rising. Photo: Lin Yi & Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio.
Sky Ladder by Cai Guo-Qiang
Cai Guo-Qiang (Chinese, 1957–), Sky Ladder. Realized at Huiyu Island Harbour, Quanzhou, Fujian, June 15, 2015, at 4:49 a.m., approximately 2 minutes and 30 seconds. Photo: Lin Yi & Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio.

Shine Like a Star (Artful Devotion)

Saints by Olya Kravchenko
Icon by Olya Kravchenko (Ukrainian, 1985–)

“And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”
—Daniel 12:3

“On that day the Lord their God will save them,
as the flock of his people;
for like the jewels of a crown
they shall shine on his land.”
—Zechariah 9:16

“Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”
—Matthew 13:43

Matthew 13:43 belongs to the Gospel lection for July 23, 2017 (Proper 11, cycle A). To read the passage in full, along with the week’s three other RCL scripture passages, click here.

“Shine Like a Star in the Morning” is an American folk song adapted by Elizabeth Mitchell from a string trio arrangement by Ruth Crawford Seeger. It appears on the 2013 Smithsonian Folkways album The Sounding Joy. Though passed off as a Christmas song, it seems to me especially fitting for All Saints’ Day (November 1), as it draws on those biblical passages that equate righteousness with resplendence.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his poem “The Starlight Night,” makes the same connection:

Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in the dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes!
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

 


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your e-mail or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

Roundup: Hebrews album; flags in church; God the Plowman; digitized prayer book; lively praise hymns

Psallos: The Hebrews Album (Kickstarter): You have the opportunity to help finance a musical adaptation of the book of Hebrews for folk rock band and chamber orchestra. Cody Curtis, the composer behind Psallos, has already written the music; now he needs your help to pay for the recording and production. Curtis has already proven his skill at capturing the varied tones and trajectory of an epistle with his setting of Romans, released in 2012 (read my review here), and Thomas Griffith and Kelsie Edgren are returning to lend their beautiful vocal interpretations. I have full confidence that Psallos’s second epistle-based album will be nothing short of amazing! Besides a copy of the CD when it’s released, tiered reward options include the chance to sing on the CD as a choir member, the choice of any passage of scripture for Curtis to set to music, and a Psallos concert at your church. Also, the team is looking for a videographer and donated instruments, so get in touch with them if you’re able to help out in either of those areas.

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Should Patriotism Have a Place in Church? I really appreciate John Piper’s response to this question in last week’s Ask Pastor John podcast episodes. (Listen to part 2 here.) “I have been in several churches,” he says, “where on the Fourth of July the focus”—on each of the military branches and patriotic songs and flags and marches and decorations in red, white, and blue—“seemed to me uninformed, unshaped by the radical nature of the gospel, and out of proportion to the relationship between America and the kingdom of Christ.” He advises that American flags not be displayed in the sanctuary, and pledges of allegiance to the USA not be recited in a worship service, because church is where we acknowledge the absolute authority of Christ and no other.

As Christians, Piper says, we have “no unqualified allegiance to any political party, any nationality, any ethnicity, any tribal identity, or any branch of the armed service. It is all qualified. It is all secondary. It is all relative to the will of Christ. We should not say anything or do anything that looks as if that were not true. . . . The recitation of a pledge to a human authority”—and/or the display of a symbol of national identity—“in the setting of the worship of divine authority does not provide for the kind of Christian qualifications and nuances that are so necessary precisely in our day.”

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“Process” by Charles L. O’Donnell: I selected and wrote commentary on a short poem over at Literary Life on the theme of God as plowman of the heart. It begins,

The seed, Lord, falls on stony ground
Which sun and rain can never bless—
Until the soil is broken found—
With harvest fruitfulness.

Spring Ploughing by John Constable
John Constable (British, 1776–1837), Spring Ploughing, 1821. Oil on panel, 19 × 36.2 cm.

Run by Rick Wilcox, “Literary Life is a celebration of the Word. Leading with a discussion of modern and classic literature, we seek to tease out eternal truths which may be illumined by fiction, poetry, art and music.” The blog recently finished walking through Karen Swallow Prior’s memoir Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me; before that, it was Malcolm Guite’s The Word in the Wilderness: A Poem a Day for Lent and Easter. Each post is a treat!

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Mary of Guelders prayer book now online: In the early fifteenth century, while the Limbourg Brothers were hard at work on the Très Riches Heures de Duc de Berry, Duchess Mary of Guelders (John of Berry’s niece) commissioned an extraordinary 900-plus-page book that would become the high point of the late medieval book industry in the Northern Low Countries. Due to its condition, it has been stored away for the last few decades at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, inaccessible even to most scholars. But a crowdfunded project led by Johan Oosterman is bringing the hidden treasure to light, allowing for extensive research, restoration, and (next October) public exhibition.

To keep the public informed of progress, a new website has been launched, with blog posts, videos, and tabs on “Mary’s World,” “The Prayers,” “The Decoration,” and more. And best of all, just last month a full digitization of the book was added to the site so that anyone with an Internet connection can browse through its hundreds of prayers and 106 miniatures. The miniature that stood out most to me is the one on verso page 132, illustrating the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. It shows Dives on his golden throne being swallowed by a hell-mouth, while from heaven Abraham denies his request for a drink of water.

Lazarus and the Rich Man (Mary of Guelders)
“Lazarus and the rich man from the mouth of hell,” from the prayer book of Mary of Guelders, ca. 1415. Fol. 132v. Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin-Preußischer Kulturbesitz.

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New arrangement of “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” and “Come, Thou Almighty King”: The music at last month’s General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, convened in Greensboro, North Carolina, was fantastic. With permission, I’m posting a video excerpt from the evening worship service held on June 14, 2017. The first hymn, “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” was written by Henry Van Dyke in 1907 to a tune from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; this version was arranged by Joel Littlepage (the musical director and keyboardist with the bowtie; assistant pastor of worship at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Winston Salem) and Michael Anderson (the pianist; composer-in-residence at Redeemer) and was orchestrated by Joel Littlepage. The first verse is sung very traditionally—in strict time to a chorded piano accompaniment—but then at 1:05, it gets real lively! The orchestra kicks into full gear, expressing the brightness of the hymn text.

Then just when you think it couldn’t get any more joyful, the praise team launches into a second hymn at 3:36 to ululation (celebratory cheer sounds), this one Caribbean-flavored. Composed by Felice de Giardini in the eighteenth century, “Come, Thou Almighty King” is a Trinitarian invocation: “Come, Thou Almighty King” (verse 1), “Come, Thou Incarnate Word” (verse 2), “Come, Holy Comforter” (verse 3). This particular arrangement is by Joel Littlepage, with orchestration by Michael Anderson. The musicians are as follows.

Vocal section (left to right): Kyle Dickerson; David Gill; Mary Higgins; Melissa Littlepage; Nikki Ellis, choir director
Rhythm section: Joel Littlepage, keyboard; Michael Anderson, piano; Daniel Faust, drums; Larry Carman, hand percussion; Kevin Beck, electric guitar
Horn section: Christian Orr, trumpet; Tim Plemmons, saxophone; Ben Nelson, trombone
String section: Heather Conine, violin; Violet Huang, viola; Adi Muralidharan, cello; Julie Money, harp
Wind section: Suzanne Kline and Lydia Wu, flute