The year is going, let him go

What Alfred Lord Tennyson instructs the church bells in canto CVI of “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” I am begging the Holy Spirit to do in my own heart and mind, my communities, and across the world for the new year:

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

This passage, from one of the greatest (and longest!) poems of the nineteenth century, is the source of the popular expression “ring out the old, ring in the new.” Ringing church bells at midnight on New Year’s Eve was already a deep-set tradition in England, and people understood the ringing as ushering in both life (the new year ahead) and death (saying good-bye to the past). But Tennyson’s poeticization of this symbolic practice has made its symbolism all the more enduring, and his list of specific qualities to let go of and others to welcome in provides a helpful template for new-year prayer and resolution making.

Roof, Winter by Arkhip Kuindzhi
Arkhip Kuindzhi (Russian, ca. 1842–1910), Roof. Winter, 1876. Oil on canvas on cardboard, 40 × 25 cm.

Tennyson apostrophizes his city’s church bells, telling them to ring out all of last year’s sins and griefs, falsehoods, feuds, strife, greed, bad-mouthing, economic disparities, political posturing, spite, war, and disease—all the year’s coldness and darkness, be gone. And ring in, sweet bells, truth, redress, purity, peace, joy, righteousness, love of the good, large hearts and kind hands, courage, freedom. And most important, “ring in the Christ that is to be.” Extending the cry of Advent, this final line acknowledges that although Christ was born into our world at Christmas, he is still yet to come in all his power and glory. That’s why we pray, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven”—or, “ring in the Christ that is to be.” Savior, come, uprooting all wrongs, setting all to right.

In 1948 Mormon composer Crawford Gates set Tennyson’s text to music; the hymn sheet can be downloaded for free from the LDS website, and authorization is given for live church performances, no license required.

Then in 2014 singer-songwriter Callie Crofts wrote an absolutely beautiful three-part a cappella arrangement of Gates’s hymn, which she performed with her sisters, Colette Butler and Devri Esplin, on their family Christmas album, Sparrow in the Birch. (The entire album is a treasure; the title track—wow!)

Crofts’s version, which omits Tennyson’s fourth and sixth stanzas, captures a dual sense of lament (this is what we’ve done to each other; this is the darkness we’ve created) and expectation (God’s light will shine into this; this is what we want him to do). A modulation from the minor mode to the major occurs on the word “peace” in the penultimate verse, a sudden flash of hopefulness. The rich voice blending continues, the key melting gently back into A minor, until that final chord sounds—a Picardy third—surprising, again, with its brightness.

A form of resolution, a Picardy third is a major chord of the tonic that occurs at the end of a minor-key musical section or piece, achieved by raising the third of the expected minor triad by one half-step. So while we would expect the middle note of the final A chord to be C, Crofts raises it up by one semitone to C♯, creating a “happier triad.” Originating during the Renaissance, this harmonic device was especially used during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to end solemn organ preludes and toccatas.

In The Language of Music, Deryck Cooke writes,

Western composers, expressing the “rightness” of happiness by means of a major third, expressed the “wrongness” of grief by means of the minor third, and for centuries, pieces in a minor key had to have a “happy ending”—a final major chord.

There was so much wrong committed this past year, so much closing down of possibilities, it would be easy to dwell in that minor mode. But we need to lean into the major. We need to confidently claim the promise of a bright and happy future, through the Christ who was and is and is to be, to whom belong all power, honor, and glory.

Below is a list of other musical settings of “Ring Out, Wild Bells.” It’s fun to hear the various interpretations, but of all of them, I still prefer Gates/Crofts:

  • Charles Gounod, 1880 [Listen]
  • Percy Fletcher, 1914 [Listen]
  • George Harrison, excerpted in “Ding Dong, Ding Dong,” 1974 [Listen]
  • Ron Nelson, 1990 [Listen]
  • Andrew Downes, from Ballads for Christmas song cycle (No. 8, “New Year Bells”), 1992 [Listen]
  • Karl Jenkins, from the finale (“Better Is Peace”) to The Armed Man (A Mass for Peace), 1999 [Listen]
  • Jonathan Dove, from The Passing of the Year song cycle (No. 7), 2000 [Listen]
  • Godfrey Birtill, 2010 [Listen]
  • James Q. Mulholland, 2011 [Listen]
  • Stuart Brown, from Idylls song cycle (No. 1), 2015 [Listen]
  • [Update, 12/29/17—This song was just released today!] Alana Levandoski, 2017 [Listen]

Roundup: Animated Nativity short; Bethlehem speaks; “Glory in the Darkest Place”; Norwegian jazz; gilding goldfinch

SHORT FILMS:

Rozhdestvo (The Nativity) (1996), written and directed by Mikhail Aldashin: I am blown away by this wordless animated short from Russia. Using a naive art style washed in sepia tones and set to a soundtrack of Bach and Beethoven, it tells the story of how angels, humans, and animals came together on the first Christmas to worship the newborn Christ. It opens with Gabriel peeking out from behind a tree at Mary hanging laundry, then chasing her down a footpath to tell her what God is up to. For every person and critter he encounters, Gabriel flashes open the book of God’s word, pointing them to the shalom it prophesies and inviting them to enter in. By the end, shepherds, fishermen, kings, rabbits, lambs, and lion are participating in a round dance outside the stable, while an angel orchestra (which includes violins and timpani!) plays from the rooftop.

An emphasis on the sweet humanity of the holy couple—scared, tired, joyful, loving—makes this film especially endearing, and the roles given to animals reminds us that under Christ, all creation will be redeemed. I’m adding this to my annual Christmas watchlist! [HT: ArtWay]

Note: For a more pleasurable viewing experience, click on “vimeo” in the bottom right corner, then click the fullscreen icon on the new video page that pops up.

O Little Town of Bethlehem (2012), directed and edited by Tim Parsons: Commissioned by St. Paul’s Arts and Media (SPAM) in Auckland, New Zealand, this film tells the story of Christ’s Nativity through the voices of those who currently live in and around his birthplace of Bethlehem. A Palestinian shepherd, taxi driver, street vendor, midwife, peace activist, and antiquities dealer are among those interviewed, each reflecting on the significance of Christ’s story and providing a window into Middle Eastern culture. Some are Christian, others are Muslim (the Koran has its own account of the virginal conception and birth of Jesus—or Isa, as he is known in that tradition).

Though filmed five years ago, the living conditions captured in this video still exist. The West Bank’s 440-mile wall, built by Israel on seized land, plows through front yards, farms, and university campuses and restricts the movement of Palestinians—to water, work, prayer, and hospitals. Since the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948, many Palestinians have been displaced from their homes and live in refugee camps. The director said he didn’t want to make the film political but that he couldn’t avoid filming these realities. The hopes and prayers expressed by the film’s subjects we should adopt as our own this Christmas as we reflect on the birth of Hope, Peace, Love, and Joy two thousand years ago in this little Palestinian town.

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SONGS:

“Glory in the Darkest Place” by Brittany Hope: Last December Brittany Hope Kauflin (whose professional name drops the “Kauflin”) wrote “a song for those in darkness this Christmas season,” video-recording it at home with her sister McKenzie and her dad Bob. The outpouring of appreciation she received made her recognize the demand for soft and somber Christmas songs that probe for the light—as for many people, the holidays are characterized more by sadness than by celebration. Now the song is available, along with seven others in the same vein, on the album Glory in the Darkest Place. To read an introduction to the song by Bob Kauflin and/or to download the chord chart, piano score, and lyrics, click here. [HT: Bruce Benedict]

“Hellige Natt” (O Holy Night), arr. Eirik Hegdal, feat. Kirsti Huke: This innovative Norwegian jazz arrangement of the Christmas classic “O Holy Night” is performed inside the medieval Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) Jazz Ensemble and the NTNU Chamber Orchestra. An impressive space whose grandeur is matched by this rich, expressive performance. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

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ILLUMINATED POEM:

“Goldfinch” by Robert Macfarlane, illuminated by Jackie Morris: Nature writer Robert Macfarlane’s critically acclaimed book The Lost Words: A Spell Book, illustrated by Jackie Morris and published this October, is a joyful celebration of the nature words that were dropped from the 2008 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Aiming to “enchant nearby nature again” for both kids and adults, it comprises a series of acrostic poems whose main letters are gilded in gold leaf.

Goldfinch poem
Poem by Robert Macfarlane. Art by Jackie Morris.

I’m pleased to see that Macfarlane’s collaboration with Morris has continued with his latest “Goldfinch”—a “‘charm’ about hope, harm, gift & darkness.” Handwritten over a painting by Morris, the poem begins

God knows the world needs all the good it can get right now—and
out in the gardens, the woods, goldfinches are gilding the land for free,
leaving little gifts of light . . .

The piece is reproduced in the latest issue of Elementum Journal, and the original has sold. Hear Morris read the poem in the SoundCloud player above.

Click here to read an interview with Macfarlane and Morris on the making of The Lost Words, and here to read Macfarlane’s response to a 2002 study that found that four- to eleven-year-old Brits are better at identifying Pokémon characters than native species of plants and animals, like oak tree and badger. Also, check out his other books, like Landscape, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, The Wild Places, and Mountains of the Mind.

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James Romaine’s final “Art for Advent 2017” video is live, and it’s on Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6GMl63pNudM. I wrote about this painting for Mother’s Day, but Romaine’s reading emphasizes an aspect I hadn’t considered before, and stems in part from his examination of Tanner’s compositional studies.

Also, the Bible Project’s third Advent word study video, “Joy (Chara),” has been released: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvOhQTuD2e0.

For an introduction to these two series, see my earlier roundup post.


Many of the artworks and resources I share on these roundup posts I discover through the individuals, organizations, or publications I follow on social media or via RSS. If I’m not introduced to the content directly by its maker, I will try to indicate an “HT” credit, shorthand for “hat tip,” meaning thank you, X, for bringing this to my attention! All descriptions and commentary, however, are my own, unless set in quote marks.

Roundup: Cracked lanterns; Incarnation songs; Christmas gallery talks; pregnancy poem

COMMUNITY ART PROJECT + INSTALLATION: Light the Well by Anna Sikorska: Last month artist Anna Sikorska led the congregation of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in creating a constellation of cracked, translucent porcelain globes, lit from within like lanterns and linked together—a visualization of Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:6–12, about our hearts being clay jars whose fragility and brokenness enable the light of Christ to shine through all the more. Light the Well was installed at St. Martin’s on November 11, and since November 19 the individual lanterns have been selling for £10 a piece to benefit New Art Studio and Art Refuge UK, charities working with art therapy in the context of migration and displacement. Associate vicar Jonathan Evens delivered a beautiful reflection on this artwork and the scripture that inspired it, as well as a prayer and benediction, which you can read in full here.

Light the Well installation

I love it when churches use art not merely to decorate or prettify the building but to further the congregation’s engagement with scripture and to foster shared doing and seeing.

SONGS:

“City of David” by the Gray Havens: The Gray Havens, a “narrative pop folk duo” from Nashville made up of married couple David and Licia Radford, released a new Christmas single on November 17—recorded on an iPhone! Listen to the song and watch some of their “making of” process in the video below. God the Father often gets overlooked during this season, so I like that the refrain reminds us that “the Father sent him [the Son] down.” [Purchase here]

“Human for Me” by Katy Kinard: Released last year on the album God of Fireflies, this song praises God for assuming full humanity—for not circumventing any frustrating or painful aspect of it. [Purchase here]

GALLERY TALKS:

“The Christmas Story in Art” at the National Gallery, Washington, DC: Gallery lecturer David Gariff will lead a 75-minute discussion about paintings in the collection that depict the birth of Jesus, including one of my favorites, Duccio’s Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel. (Click on the link to see a full list of works.) The event is free and geared to an adult audience. To participate, meet in the West Building Rotunda at 1 p.m. on December 9 or 10, or 2 p.m. on December 14, 18, 20, 21, or 22.

Nativity with Isaiah and Ezekiel by Duccio
Duccio (Italian, ca. 1255–60–ca. 1318/19), The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, 1308/1311. Tempera on single poplar panel, 48 × 86.8 × 7.9 cm (18 7/8 × 34 3/16 × 3 1/8 in.). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

“Adoration of the Kings” Facebook Live tour at the National Gallery, London: Friday, December 15 at 9 a.m. GMT, director Gabriele Finaldi will be exploring Jan Gossaert and Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s paintings of the Adoration of the Magi. This “tour,” offered exclusively online, will be broadcast live on the Gallery’s Facebook page, and a replay version will be available on the channel afterward.

Adoration of the Kings by Jan Gossaert
Jan Gossaert (Flemish, d. 1532), The Adoration of the Kings, 1510–15. Oil on oak, 179.8 × 163.2 cm. National Gallery, London.
Adoration of the Kings by Pieter Bruegel
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Flemish, d. 1569), The Adoration of the Kings, 1564. Oil on oak, 112.1 × 83.9 cm. National Gallery, London.

POEM: “Scale” by Chelsea Wagenaar: Chelsea and I went to the same small North Carolina church as kids, back when she was a Henderson and I a Hartz, so we share a heritage of learning Bible lessons from Butch the Dragon and competing annually in the Bean Bag Relay at the AWANA Olympics. Now she is an award-winning poet, a Lilly Fellow, a lecturer in Valparaiso University’s English department, and a mom!

Inspired by her pregnancy, the poem “Scale” is full of metaphors that revel in the wonders of prenatal life—the womb is a “winterplum sky,” the cluster of baby cells “untufted cotton,” the belly a “Lenten moon.” The central theme, which Chelsea cleverly plays around, is Psalm 139:16, a praise verse by King David: “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.”

Chelsea’s poem is especially appropriate for Advent, a season of pregnancy in which we position ourselves retrospectively with Mary, letting our hearts expand as we wait expectantly for that marvelous deliverance, the coming of the Christ child.

Advent 2017 online arts devotional by Biola University

The Advent Project published yearly by Biola University’s Center for Christianity, Culture, and the Arts (CCCA) is an online devotional that brings together daily scripture readings, visual art, music, poetry, and written reflections for the seasons of Advent and Christmas (which this year is December 3–January 6). Introduced in 2013, it is the only recurrently published art-forward Advent/Christmas devotional I know of, and I recommend it highly. It is in large part what inspired my year-round “Artful Devotion” series and the Advent art booklet I e-published last year.

Click here to view and/or subscribe to Biola’s Advent Project 2017.

With so many different elements, design matters a lot, and I’m super-impressed by what Biola has come up with. The homepage is laid out as a gridded calendar with thumbnail images; click on a date, and you’re brought to a new viewing mode in which a large image and a music player are set in a fixed position on the left while the right sidebar contains scrollable text, separated into two tabs—the main content, and biographical information about the artists. This design enables the image to remain before your eyes so that you can continue to reference it as you read on (something that, frustratingly, I cannot achieve with Art & Theology’s long-scrolling format), and it also relegates the bios to “back matter.” It’s all very organized and easily navigable.

This initiative is an outworking of the CCCA’s mission to explore the rich interrelationships between contemporary art making, theology, and religious tradition. Be sure to check out the other sections of their website; they offer plenty of free resources, including an archive of past Advent (and Lent!) devotionals, and a calendar of events, such as lectures, workshops, symposia, art exhibitions, concerts, film screenings, and more.

Below is one of my favorite Advent Project entries from last year, reproduced by kind permission of the CCCA. Centered on Mary’s Magnificat, it brings together the work of an Italian Renaissance painter, a contemporary British video artist (who I’ve written about before), a modern Bohemian Austrian poet, and a minimalist composer working with Spanish, Latin, and English texts. Adjunct professor of philosophy Evan Rosa (who is a superb writer!) reflects on how scandalous Mary’s humility is for power-hungry Western Christians—just as it would have been for the Greco-Roman world in which she lived. He concludes with a prayer that invites us to move from self-magnification to the magnification of God.

Due to this blog’s design limitations, I had to adapt the following content from its original format. To view the devotion on the Biola website, click here. I have excluded biographical information for the song performers and poet.

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ARTWORKS: The Visitation by Pontormo; The Greeting by Bill Viola

The Greeting by Bill Viola
LEFT: Jacopo da Pontormo, The Visitation, 1528. Oil on canvas. Church of San Francesco de Michele, Carmignano, Italy. RIGHT: Bill Viola, The Greeting, 1995. Still image from a large-screen video installation.

About the Artist and Artwork #1:

Jacopo Carucci (1494–1557), usually known as Pontormo, was an Italian Mannerist painter and portraitist from the Florentine School. His work represents a profound stylistic shift from the calm perspectival regularity that characterized the art of the Florentine Renaissance. He is famous for his use of twining poses, coupled with ambiguous perspective; his figures often seem to float in an uncertain environment, unhampered by the forces of gravity. Pontormo’s painting The Visitation, completed in 1528, now adorns the altar of a side chapel in a small church called the Pieve di San Michele in Carmignano, a town west of Florence, Italy. The setting for this painting is the visitation of the Virgin Mary on her older pregnant cousin Elizabeth, the wife of Zacharias. Elizabeth and Mary, who are painted in profile, gracefully embrace each other as they exchange glances of mutual affection and share in the news of Mary’s pregnancy. They dominate the canvas as they stand on the threshold of Zacharias’s house.

About the Artist and Artwork #2:

Bill Viola (b. 1951) is internationally recognized as one of today’s leading artists. He has been instrumental in the establishment of video as a vital form of contemporary art, and in so doing has helped to greatly expand its scope in terms of technology, content, and historical reach. His works focus on universal human experiences—birth, death, the unfolding of consciousness—and have roots in both Eastern and Western art as well as spiritual traditions.

Bill Viola’s large-screen video installation The Greeting was inspired by The Visitation, painted by Italian Mannerist artist Jacopo Pontormo. Viola’s video sequence echoes the drama of Pontormo’s Visitation, but transforms the moment into an enigmatic contemporary narrative. In this still frame, three women are dressed in long, flowing garments and stand in an Italianate architectural setting similar to that in Pontormo’s painting. The woman in the orange dress, her stomach visibly swollen, has just entered the scene from the left, interrupting a conversation and perhaps whispering to the older woman the news of her pregnancy. This encounter was filmed in less than a minute, but Viola has slowed the video down to ten minutes. The use of extreme slow motion draws attention to the nuances of the women’s gestures and glances, and intensifies the psychological dynamic of the exchange.   Continue reading “Advent 2017 online arts devotional by Biola University”

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”