The arts don’t just fill our time with uplifting stories and pretty pictures. They don’t just distract us with things to look at; they teach us how to look. They train our vision, down to the level of our souls.
Art can teach us to see the tiny gradations in a field of green—or how to see a suffering world in the context of grace. How to recognize the humanity of a character who seems like an irredeemable villain. How to slow down. How to pay attention not just to the notes but the silences between the notes. How to hear the echo of divine music in human speech. How to look at our own failures and successes with perspective, even laughter. The arts ask us to use the full range of our senses. And they can restore us to our full, God-given humanity.
—Greg Pennoyer, executive director of Image journal [source]
“An Advent Visio Divina” by John Skillen, CIVA blog: John Skillen, author of Putting Art (Back) in Its Place, discusses four works of Advent-themed art from Italy, where he lives for part of each year leading retreats and seminars through the Studio for Art, Faith & History. He starts in Florence with The Adoration of the Shepherds altarpiece by Renaissance artist Domenico Ghirlandaio, which invites worshippers to follow the shepherds’ (and patrons’) example of adoring the Christ child. Then he moves to Orvieto, spotlighting Karin Coonrod’s directing a medieval mystery play in the city’s streets and churches. (For more on this, read Skillen’s excellent essay in Image no. 96, “Fierce Mercy: The Theater Art of Karin Coonrod.”) Advent is also about the second coming, so Luca Signorelli’s apocalyptic frescoes in the Chapel of San Brizio in Orvieto Cathedral are appropriate. Continuous, in some ways, with these late fifteenth-century paintings are the bronze reliefs on the central doors by Emilio Greco from 1962; they depict the seven works of mercy, the criteria, according to Matthew 25, by which humanity will be judged.
“Passion for the Light” by Alexandra Jean Davison, ArtWay: For last Sunday, the first day of Advent, Culture Care RDU Director Alexandra Jean Davison wrote this wonderful meditation on a set of contemporary sculptures by Jaume Plensa at the North Carolina Museum of Art, connecting them to the season we’re in. She begins, “We see three identical nudes filled with light, the face and arms covered with names and Scripture. Each figure sits at rest horizontally on one of the three walls which form a triangle. The closed eyes and mouth are covered with embossed text of the names of the eight gates of the ancient city walls of Jerusalem: New, Herod, Damascus, Golden (two doors: Gate of Repentance and Gate of Mercy), Lions, Jaffa, Zion, and Dung. Tattoo-like passages from the Song of Songs emerge from the heart upon the arms.” Read more at ArtWay.eu.
VIDEO: “Matthew 1:18-23” by SALT Project: The Emmy Award–winning production company SALT Project released a short video this week setting a reading from Matthew’s Gospel (“This is how the birth of Jesus came about . . .”) against evocative time lapses of blooming flowers. They’re generously offering it for free download and use in worship services, online or in-person. It could be used as an opener, as one of the morning’s scripture readings, or in a number of other ways.
SONGS (the latter two released this week!):
“Christ Child’s Coming”: This simple Advent song is based on the African American spiritual “The Train Is a-Coming” (where “train” is a multivalent metaphor having to do with salvation). While a musician at Christ Church East Bay in Berkeley, California, Keith Watts adapted the lyrics to relate more explicitly to Advent: “Christ child’s coming, oh yeah!,” “Light is coming, oh yeah!,” and “Our king’s coming, oh yeah!” The song is sung here by Trinity Majorins, accompanied by her mom, Sarah [previously], on the piano and her dad, Philip [previously], on guitar.
“Weight/Wait” by Mike McMonagle: “Hope . . . flicker[s] underneath the weight of the wait.” Introducing this new demo, Mike McMonagle, a roots rock musician from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, wrote on Facebook about how the pandemic has created an extended season of waiting in the darkness this year, which has helped him to feel both pain and longing more keenly: “For the past couple of months, I’ve found myself processing all the ups & downs of the current life experience in step with what I’d label the deepest dive into the Advent season that I’ve ever done. All my life, Advent was just a church-y word for rat race otherwise known as The Holidays. There were happy hours, shopping trips, family outings – things that made it hard to focus on the Advent season for more than an hour each Sunday. This year has been different.”
“In Distress” by the Pharaoh Sisters: Written by Austin Pfeiffer and Jared Meyer and based on Psalms 120 and 121, this song blends Latin and Appalachian folk music influences and has lyrics in both English and Spanish. “The song’s creation began in the spiritual angst after the 2016 [US presidential] election,” Pfeiffer writes. “Calling on believers to put their hope in Christ as King, the song has broad themes of Kingdom orientation, raises questions about social divisions, but also leans into Advent ideas, specifically Isaiah 9.” It premiered at the 2017 Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) General Assembly but didn’t end up fitting on the Pharaoh Sisters’ 2020 debut album, Civil Dawn. “Now as our nation plunges deeper into distress and unrest, be it political and/or social, the band is eager to release the song for Advent 2020.”
ONLINE PANEL: “Religious Art,” December 9, 6:00–7:15 p.m. London time (1:00–2:15 p.m. ET): “The relationship between religion and art is ancient and complex, varying across religious traditions and cultures. In this event, Mehreen Chida-Razvi, Ben Quash, and Lieke Wijnia consider how these traditions of religious art differ and what role art plays in religion today. How should we display religious art? Might art be a way of opening interfaith dialogue? And has art itself become a kind of religion?” This free Zoom event is organized by the Forum for Philosophy and the Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method at the London School of Economics. I’ll be attending! (Note: The promotional image below is David LaChapelle’s Last Supper.) Update, 12/10/20: The panel discussion has been archived and can be viewed here.
For those readers who are new, welcome! I want to alert you to (and remind others of) the Art & Theology Advent Music Playlist. I released it last year on Spotify and have made some additions since then, including all six songs from Lo Sy Lo’s excellent album St Fleming of Advent, selections from recent releases by the Porter’s Gate’s, Andrew Bird, and Caroline Cobb, some Nina Simone and Jackson 5, a musical setting of an Emily Dickinson poem by Julie Lee and a Count of Monte Cristo quote by the Duke of Norfolk, the shape-note hymn “Bozrah,” and more. I’ve structured the list as a journey from the early promise of a Savior in God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen. 22:18), through Isaiah’s prophecies about a great light dawning and a shoot springing up out of a stump and valleys being lifted and swords being beaten into plowshares, to the angel’s announcement to Mary and her subsequent Magnificat and pregnant waiting, which I transition into the church’s waiting for Christ’s second coming, with warnings to keep our lamps trimmed and burning, to stay awake, to watch and pray. Sprinkled throughout are groanings from God’s people as well as expressions of joyful expectancy.
A Christmas playlist will be forthcoming in just two weeks.
Bard and Ceilidh Advent Calendar: This Advent, multi-instrumentalist and melodist Mary Vanhoozer (aka Bard and Ceilidh) is offering a digital “Advent calendar” with twenty-four traditional, Celtic-infused Christmas carols played on various folk instruments. For $20, you will receive a code that unlocks a new song daily for download. Here are two of Vanhoozer’s previous releases, to give you a sense of the style she plays in. The first is her own arrangement of “I Saw Three Ships” with “Branle des Chevaux” (The Horse’s Brawl). The second, “When Icicles Hang by the Wall,” is an original setting of the winter hymn from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost, which celebrates the season of biting cold and red, runny noses and sloshy roads and singing owls and simmering crabapples and interior warmth.
“Veni Emmanuel: A brief meditation on the meaning of Advent” by John B. Graeber: This short piece published last year in Curator is a great introduction to the liturgical season we’re entering into on November 29. It begins, “Advent is the hope of redemption, sung in minor key. It is the promise of resurrection, and the sorrow of that hope not yet fulfilled. In this the midnight of the liturgical year, these few weeks before we celebrate the birth of Christ, we confront a world not yet reborn and embody what Saint Paul calls the ‘hope against hope,’ a hope that endures when the world says it should not. A hope that looks back to the birth of our savior, and forward to His coming again, when all will be made new.”
VIRTUAL DANCE PERFORMANCES: On December 2, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is launching its first-ever virtual winter season—and, in the spirit of making dance accessible to all, it’s free! The season will feature the world premiere of the dance films A Jam Session for Troubling Times (choreographed by Jamar Roberts) and Testament (Matthew Rushing, Clifton Brown, and Yusha-Marie Sorzano), plus sixtieth anniversary tributes to Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, a classic that “explores the places of deepest grief and holiest joy in the soul . . . using African American spirituals, song-sermons, gospel songs, and holy blues.” The season will run through December 31. Learn more here.
DRAMATIC READING AND DISCUSSION: The Book of Job: On Sunday, December 6, 4–6 p.m. ET, Theater of War Productions will be hosting a free online event where actors, including Bill Murray, will be performing Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the book of Job, adapted and directed by Bryan Doerries. “The Book of Job is an ancient Hebrew poem that timelessly explores how humans behave when faced with disaster, pestilence and injustice,” Doerries writes, and this dramatic reading aims to serve “as a catalyst for powerful, guided conversations about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic upon individuals, families, and communities.” After the reading, four community panelists will kick off the discussion with their gut responses to what resonated with them, and then discussion will open up to the audience. RSVP here.
“Theater of War Productions works with leading film, theater, and television actors to present dramatic readings of seminal plays—from classical Greek tragedies to modern and contemporary works—followed by town hall-style discussions designed to confront social issues by drawing out raw and personal reactions to themes highlighted in the plays. The guided discussions underscore how the plays resonate with contemporary audiences and invite audience members to share their perspectives and experiences, and, helping to break down stigmas, foster empathy, compassion, and a deeper understanding of complex issues.” Their many past projects include A Streetcar Named Desire (followed by a discussion on domestic violence), scenes from King Lear (the challenges of aging and dementia), and Sophocles’s Ajax (the invisible wounds of war).
Beginning in May, the company started presenting their projects online. Because they want to cultivate “a dynamic space to participate in an ephemeral experience, in which risks can be taken, interpretations shared, and truths told,” the projects are not available afterward for on-demand views. To get an idea of the format they follow and some of the work they’ve done, see the Theater of War trailer below.
INTERVIEW: “Grief Is Hard to Look At: An Interview with Wayne Brezinka” by Brooke West, The Rabbit Room: Wayne Brezinka, a Nashville-based mixed media artist specializing in multidimensional portraits, recently launched a Kickstarter to crowdfund 2020 Disrupted: A Re-Assembled Life. (I just missed the deadline, but it turns out the project was successfully funded!)
As we sit in the year 2020 and struggle to remember what normal even feels like, I’ve been wondering about people’s emotions and how I might capture the painful realities of human existence we all seem to be feeling this year. In this new work, I will explore the pain and anxiety of massive disruption and how we are changed by it. I’ve been thinking about the biblical character Job from the land of Uz. What might he look like, plucked out of the ancient text, and plopped into modern-day? This is my attempt to bring a re-imagined 21st century Job to life in a way that encapsulates not only his experience, but also our own. I’ll be using a combination of found and repurposed objects, multi-media visuals, and incorporating input from the public on multiple panels that measure 8 feet by 5 feet—my biggest project to date.
Next year Brezinka will be taking the completed art on tour across the country in a glass box truck. “The plan is to park at notable cathedrals or churches and community centers in each city. I want to give those who funded this project and the general public an opportunity to pause, interact with the art, and reflect on the last year—the disruptions, the beauty, and the changes it all brings.” He says the art is an invitation for people to feel their sorrow and their grief. Read the interview to find out more about his process and his hopes for the project.
NEW SONG RELEASE: “O Love That Casts Out Fear”: This is my favorite track from the new sacred chamber pop EP by Bobby Krier, Jon Green, and friends, Cast Out All Our Fears. The hymn text was written by Horatius Bonar in 1861, and the music is by Bobby Krier and Justin Ruddy [previously], who collaborated often as musicians at Citylife Presbyterian Church in Boston. (Their retuned version premiered on the 2013 album Castle Island Hymns; they have since moved on from Citylife.) This rendition is sung by Molly Parden.
Several readers have asked if there’s a way to donate to the work of this blog. After much thought I’ve decided to go ahead and add a Donation page, where those who wish to send a small financial gift to support the blog’s upkeep and development can do so through PayPal if they feel so inclined. Thank you!
CIVA ART AUCTION, November 13–15, 2020: In a few weeks CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts) is hosting an online auction of art created and/or donated by CIVA members. The lots comprise a range of media, sizes, and styles—a little something for everyone. It’s a great way to support artists of faith (by supporting CIVA), and to acquire beautiful art for your home!
The first artwork I ever purchased was through a CIVA auction: a linocut by Steve Prince, who has three new works up for bid this year. Sandra Bowden has donated several works from her extensive and esteemed collection of religious art, including an Adoration of the Magi lithograph by the major modern artist Otto Dix and a mola (handmade textile) from Panama, which I’m eyeing. I also noticed 40 Days, Forty Sacraments, a set of gouaches painted by Kari Dunham over the course of Lent one year as a way to rediscover beauty in the ordinary. And a mixed-media piece by Joseph di Bella, whose theme of redemption is underscored by the making of the substrate, which consists of “failed and unfinished works on paper” that “are destroyed, then reformed into new, yet still imperfect sheets.”
If you plan on bidding, be sure to register; you will be able to see all the other bids and can set up notifications. And if you don’t win, don’t be discouraged: you can always go to the artist’s website, and there will likely be other works available for purchase there.
ALBUM: Daughter Zion’s Woe: Produced by Rachel Wilhelm and released last month by Cardiphonia, this new album features thirteen lament songs written, arranged, and performed by women. It will be available on Spotify after Christmas, but until then, all Bandcamp sales benefit Hagar’s Sisters, an organization that serves victims of domestic violence. My favorite song on the album is “The Glory Shall Be Thine” by Christy Danner, a retuning of the late nineteenth-century “Transformed” by F. G. Burroughs (pseudonym for Ophelia Burroughs, later Adams, née Browning); this hymn text is completely new to me, and what a gem! Danner’s music really draws out its poignancy. Other highlights include Eden Wilhelm’s “Lord, Draw Near” (Psalm 88), Sister Sinjin’s “Silence,” and Lo Sy Lo’s “Let It Be So” (Psalm 12).
EXHIBITION: The Evidence of Things Unseen by Titus Kaphar, October 16–November 28, 2020, former Église du Gesù, Brussels: Titus Kaphar’s [previously] art, which reinterprets traditional Anglo-centric imagery through a Black lens, has grown out of his “spending time in European museums and longing for pictures that looked like they actually made space for individuals that look like me.” In this new exhibition, staged by the Maruani Mercier gallery in a deconsecrated church in Belgium, Kaphar revises Christian paintings by silhouetting, covering in tar, or duct-taping over likenesses of white Jesus, drawing attention to unseen people and narratives. The exhibition’s title is taken from Hebrews 11:1.
The press release reads: “It is virtually impossible to tell the story of Renaissance art without an exploration of Christianity. While the personal faith of the individual artist varied from devotee to atheist opportunist, the largest patron of the arts was the Church, and Catholic iconography the artist’s lingua franca. . . .
“In The Evidence of Things Unseen, Kaphar utilizes Catholic iconography as a ground on which to explore ideas beyond simple proselytization. Kaphar utilizes his whole vocabulary of formal innovation in this exhibition: canvases aggressively fold, crumple, undulate, and project from the wall, forcing themselves into the space of the viewer. Through Kaphar’s physical interventions, works like Susan and the Elders and Eve exist as bodies transformed into landscape and typography rather than polite easel paintings. In Jesus Noir Kaphar duct-tapes a portrait of a young black man over the face of Christ. Christ’s outstretched right hand, originally pointing to the heavens, now appears as a plea for help. The application of duct tape – a utilitarian material known to be used in all kinds of industrial and household repairs – suggest urgency and impermanence.
“Even though many biblical stories take place in the Middle East and Africa, representations of Christ and his followers are almost always depicted as European. It is not surprising that the devoted attempt to see themselves in the stories of the Bible, and to envision a Christ they can recognize: Christian tradition teaches that mankind was created in God’s own ‘image and likeness.’ And yet, religious paintings from the Renaissance unwittingly oversimplify an understanding of God by excluding a part of his creation. There are no black angels of the Renaissance. The Evidence of Things Unseen is Kaphar’s latest attempt at revision.”
ANIMATED SHORT: “Brené Brown on Empathy”: In this 2013 video from the RSA (Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), Katy Davis animates an excerpt from a talk by Professor Brené Brown, “The Power of Vulnerability.” “The Webby Award-winning RSA Shorts animation series provides a snapshot of a big idea, blending voices from the RSA Public Events Programme and the creative talents of illustrators and animators from around the world. It responds to the ever-increasing need for new ideas and inspiration in our busy lives and acts as a jolt of ‘mental espresso’ that will awaken the curiosity in all of us. If you’re interested in the opportunity of animating one of our Shorts, please email your bio and links to your portfolio to firstname.lastname@example.org.” Other RSA shorts include Jonathan Haidt on Why We’re Convinced We’re Right, David Brooks on Character in a Selfie Age, and David Graeber on the Value of Work.
PANEL DISCUSSION: “Perspectives on Empathy and the Arts”: In 2017 Roots of Empathy brought together a panel of three—Cameron Bailey, artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF); Martha Durdin, chair of the board of trustees of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM); and Raymond Mar, professor of psychology at York University—to discuss the connection between art and empathy and why it’s so important. The conversation is moderated by Mary Ito. I especially appreciated from 42:32 onward.
4:10: Children who take acting lessons are more prosocial and empathetic
5:48: Films and empathy
9:34: Fiction and empathy
12:42: Moonlight (2016)
21:54: Learning from mistakes: Into the Heart of Africa (1989) and point of view
28:38: Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano (2015)
30:37: Forced assimilation of Native people in church-run residential schools
31:18: Can art museums institutionalize empathy?
34:48: How does me empathizing with a character in a book or a painted figure translate to me being empathetic to actual people?
39:05: Superhero comics and movies
41:22: Are we suffering from an empathy deficit?
44:37: Empathy for ideological opponents
46:10: Where does empathy run up against morality/ethics? Are we to empathize with abusers?
46:56: How do we do better through the arts?
Early this week I was searching the Hymnary database for hymns based on or referent to Sunday’s lectionary reading from Ezekiel 18, where God calls on his people to “repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin” (v. 30b), and the very similar passage later in the book: “As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek. 33:11).
One of the search results was “Turn Back, O Man” by the English poet and playwright Clifford Bax. Written in 1916, it doesn’t explicitly reference World War I, but it’s likely that that was the intended subtext.
Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways.
Old now is earth, and none may count her days,
Yet thou, its child, whose head is crowned with flame,
Still wilt not hear thine inner God proclaim,
“Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways.”
Earth might be fair, and people glad and wise.
Age after age their tragic empires rise,
Built while they dream, and in that dreaming weep.
Would they but wake from out their haunted sleep,
Earth shall be fair, and people glad and wise.
Earth shall be fair, and all its people one,
Nor till that hour shall God’s whole will be done!
Now, even now, once more from earth to sky
Peals forth in joy the old, undaunted cry,
“Earth shall be fair, and all its people one.”
The tune it’s set to in hymnals, OLD 124TH, is by Louis Bourgeois and is from the 1551 edition of the Genevan Psalter. Gustav Holst arranged the tune as a motet (a polyphonic, unaccompanied choral composition) in 1916 and in fact is the one who approached Bax with the request for a new text.
Here is a performance by the University of Texas Chamber Singers, from their 2008 album Great Hymns of Faith:
When I read the first line, it sounded familiar, and I was reminded that the song (with a much different tune and style!) opens the second act of Godspell. This 1971 musical created by John-Michael Tebelak and composed by Stephen Schwartz is based on Jesus’s teaching ministry as told in the Gospels, especially Matthew’s. (The show’s title is the archaic English spelling for “gospel.”) In addition to Jesus and John the Baptist/Judas, the cast consists of eight nonbiblical, “holy fool” characters who use their own names and sing and act out the parables and other sayings.
Tebelak, who wrote the play as his master’s thesis at Carnegie Mellon, was studying Greek and Roman mythology when, in his last year at school, he started reading the Christian Gospels in earnest and was enraptured by the joy they exuded and compelled by their emphasis on community. He tells the story of how on March 29, 1970, in pursuit of knowing more, he attended an Easter Vigil service at a church in Pittsburgh, wearing his usual overalls and a T-shirt—and he was frisked for drugs. “I left with the feeling that, rather than rolling the rock away from the Tomb, they were piling more on,” he said. That experience motivated him to write Godspell.
Tebelak’s Godspell was produced at Carnegie Mellon in late fall 1970, featuring an original song by cast member Jay Hamburger (“By My Side”) and a handful of old Episcopal hymns played by a rock band.
After leaving university, Tebelak took the show to New York City, where prospective producers suggested a new score and brought in Stephen Schwartz for the job. The rescored show, which retained Hamburger’s single song contribution, opened May 17, 1971, at the off-Broadway Cherry Lane Theatre and became a hit.
Six of Godspell‘s eighteen song texts, including the chart-topping “Day by Day,” are actually taken straight from the Episcopal Hymnal. Schwartz liked the idea of dusting the cobwebs off some of these stodgy hymns and giving them new melodies with a catchy seventies pop vibe that would leave audiences singing them as they exited the theater.
“Turn Back, O Man” is one of those. It’s sung by Sonia, the sassy character with a put-on sensuality, a role originated by Sonia Manzano (of Sesame Street fame). Here’s the scene from the 1973 film adaptation directed by David Greene, with “Sonia” played by Joanne Jonas:
Isolated from the rest of the musical, this song seems completely irreverent and unbefitting the serious nature of God’s call to repentance. Its zaniness and sense of play, punctuated by Jesus’s pensive delivery of the third verse, is on a par with the tone of the whole—and that unique approach to telling the gospel works, I think, really well overall in Godspell, bringing to mind how “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:25). The characters embody the countercultural aspect of Jesus’s teachings, which appear ridiculous, clownish, to the rest of the world.
“The characters in Godspell were never supposed to be hippies,” Stephen Schwartz clarifies.
They were supposed to be putting on “clown” garb to follow the example of the Jesus character as was conceived by Godspell’s originator, John-Michael Tebelak, according to the “Christ as clown” theory propounded by Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School (among others). . . . Because the show was originally produced in the hippie era, and because the director of the Godspell movie somewhat misinterpreted the characters as hippie-esque, that misunderstanding has come to haunt the show a bit.
In this particular song, performed by a hammy character in a feather boa, the lyrics entreat hearers to give up their “foolish ways,” going on to suggest that what is truly foolish is living as if asleep—building “tragic empires,” chasing empty dreams. Though endowed with the flame of reason and conscience, humanity at large, generation after generation, keeps rejecting God’s will, hence the lack of global unity and gladness.
In a recent conversation, poet and novelist Joy Kogawa said, “We need to see each other’s eyes, and see each other through each other’s eyes.” Art, from all disciplines, can help us do that. Art can awaken our social conscience and breed empathy and understanding. It can serve as a vehicle for lament, a practice of voicing suffering before God. It can also widen our imaginations—that is, in part, our ability to think up creative solutions to problems both big and small. Here are just a few recent justice-oriented art projects that inspire me.
CLASSIC SONG REVISED: Earlier this month Liz Vice, Paul Zach, and Orlando Palmer took Woody Guthrie’s folk classic “This Land Is Your Land” and, gathering at Trinity Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, revised the lyrics and tone to project lament over some of America’s more troubling legacies. The lyrical turn happens in the fourth line: where we would expect “To the New York islands,” we get “To the Texas border,” turning our mind from the country’s beauty to its broken systems that prevent us from sharing abundance with our southern neighbors fleeing violence. The song continues to plot a path through various places of historical and present-day suffering in the US, the three stanzas compactly addressing immigration; slavery, the “New Jim Crow,” and police brutality against black people; and the forcible expulsion of Native Americans from their ancestral territories, as well as massacres and other forms of colonialist violence.
This land is your land
This land is my land
To the Texas border
Through the Juarez mountains
With the migrant caravans
This land was made for you and me
This land is your land
This land is my land
From the piers of Charleston
To the fields of cotton
From the crowded prisons
To the streets of Ferguson
This land was made for you and me
This land is your land
This land is my land
From the Jamestown landing
To Lakota Badlands
From the Trail of Tears to
This land was made for you and me
Most people don’t know it, but Guthrie actually wrote “This Land Is Your Land” as a protest against the vast income inequalities in the US. Two of its original verses, the radical ones, were nixed when it came time to record (it was the McCarthy era, after all); these referenced breadlines and tall walls with “No Trespassing” signs. In its original form, the song celebrated America as a place of natural abundance—forests and streams and wheat fields under “endless skyways”—while lamenting the scarcity that many Americans experience. The refrain, therefore, was more loaded. Learn more about the song’s history at https://www.npr.org/2000/07/03/1076186/this-land-is-your-land.
SEESAWS AT THE BORDER: On July 27, Oakland-based creative duo Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello installed three bright pink teeter-totters through the slats of a section of the US-Mexico border wall that separates the neighboring communities of Sunland Park, New Mexico and Colonia Anapra, Mexico. Citizens on both sides were invited to ride this playground essential with a cross-border partner—a whimsical way to engage the other. As the creators said, it enabled people to literally feel the weight of humanity on the other side, using the wall as a fulcrum. The installation lasted forty minutes before it was dismantled (without incident).
I love this idea of play as protest—teeter-tottering as an act of creative defiance. What was enacted July 27 at the wall was a theater of the absurd, something that Rael, an architect, is especially drawn to in his practice. He actually conceived of Teeter-Totter Wall ten years ago, publishing a conceptual drawing in the book Borderwall as Architecture (University of California Press, 2009), along with other outlandish design possibilities for turning the wall into something that brings together rather than divides—these include its use as a massive xylophone played with weapons of mass percussion, a bookshelf feature inside a binational library, and more. Through these humorous proposals, Rael “reimagin[es] design as both an undermining and reparative measure,” as Dr. Marilyn Gates put it.
In his 2018 TED Talk, Rael discusses how the wall, meant to separate, has actually served to unite people in some instances. He mentions, for example, games of Wall y Ball, a variation on volleyball that was established at the wall in 1979, and binational yoga classes. I’ve heard of the Eucharist being celebrated jointly through the slats, and picnics hosted—such as the one organized in Tecate by the French artist JR on October 8, 2017: families passed plates of food between the bars, and musicians on both sides played the same songs.
This picnic was the capstone of a month-long installation by JR featuring a monumental photograph of a Mexican toddler named Kikito, peering over the border wall into California from Tecate. (The photograph was held up with scaffolding.)
Shared play, shared food, shared music, shared sacrament—these are such breathtakingly beautiful countermeasures to separatism. The world needs more imaginative acts like these.
POEM: Timothy E.G. Bartel has just published a new poem, “Status Check,” over at Curator. It’s only five lines, seven questions. A must-read. It’s not about immigration policy per se (it’s open-ended), but it took me back to another poem by Bartel that I featured back in 2017 as part of a blog post entitled “One sonnet vs. shouted prose: Lady Liberty, Emma Lazarus, and Trump.” Bartel has since published a freely downloadable chapbook (a compilation of Sapphic stanzas he wrote this year during National Poetry Month) and a traditionally published collection with Kelsay Books, Aflame but Unconsumed, which I just ordered and am excited about.
VIRTUAL REALITY INSTALLATION: This was in DC last year and I missed it! A VR experience directed by the multi-Academy-Award-winning Alejandro G. Iñárritu, known for the films Birdman, The Revenant, Biutiful, and Babel, and shot by (also multiple-award-winning) cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. “Carne y Arena is a six-and-a-half-minute solo experience that employs state-of-the-art technology to create a multi-narrative space with human characters. . . . Based on true accounts from Central American and Mexican refugees, [it] blurs and binds together the superficial lines between subject and bystander, allowing individuals to walk in a vast space and live a fragment of a refugee’s personal journey.”
In terms of lectures, I highly recommend the three-part series “A Light unto Our Feet: How Does the Bible Orient Us Toward Immigration?” by Dr. M. Daniel Carroll R. (Rodas), delivered November 1–3, 2018, for the Diocese of Christ Our Hope. Dr. Carroll is the author of Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible (Brazos Press, 2014).
Readers often ask me what podcasts I listen to, so today I want to share one of them with you, which comes out of my home state of North Carolina: Makers & Mystics.
Hosted by Stephen Roach, Makers & Mystics is a biweekly podcast that aims to “develop a greater cultural understanding of why creativity abides at the core of our spirituality and why artists are called to be ‘architects of hope’ for our cities.” It is run by The Breath & the Clay, an organization based in Winston-Salem, which, in addition to producing regular online audio content, also hosts an annual conference and artist retreats. (Their 2019 conference already passed—you can purchase audio of all the presentations here—but two retreats are still being offered this year, in June and October; I just added them to my recent roundup, but you can also just go directly here for all the info.)
Now in its fifth season, Makers & Mystics features interviews with a broad swath of culture creators, many of whom are professional artists and Christians. Guests include an iconographer, an assemblage artist, an illusionist, a contemporary dancer, a classical pianist, an experimental opera singer, an antiquarian horologist, a filmmaker, an actress, a food writer and photographer, a spoken word artist, a children’s book illustrator and YA novelist, abstract painters, poets, a performance artist, a woven sculpture artist, several well-known singer-songwriters of faith (Liz Vice, Latifah Alattas, Audrey Assad, Josh Garrels, John Mark McMillan), and more, as well as pastors, theologians, and spiritual directors. These are people who pursue goodness, truth, and beauty in their work and in their lives. They are “makers”—people who make things, be they clocks or found-object sculptures or baskets or magic or “visual haiku”—and “mystics,” people who seek an intimate connection with God. Art, they recognize, can help strengthen that connection—not only to God but to self and to others and to the world at large.
Besides interviewing people from our own time, Roach and friends also highlight historical figures who have contributed to the practice or discourse of art, faith, and spirituality. These short (ten- to fifteen-minute) scripted episodes make up the Artist Profile Series. Spotlighted individuals include Hans Rookmaaker, Dorothy Sayers, Hildegard von Bingen, Wassily Kandinsky, and Sadhu Sundar Singh, among others.
I love to find out about the various creative endeavors that the people of God are engaged in, and Makers & Mystics is one of my primary avenues for doing that. I’m impressed by the wide variety of disciplines and styles that Roach has curated in his selection of interview subjects, and I appreciate the mix of fine and folk art (some people reject this distinction, but you know what I mean). Though there are recurring themes in some of the interviews—things like the importance of honesty and integrity, and how to live a life awake to wonder—I find each episode so unique. It’s fun to hear different people’s stories and creative processes.
If this is the first time you’re encountering Makers & Mystics, you might want to start with one of the foundational episodes, which do not follow an interview format:
- “The Metaphysics of Dirt and Breath” with Stephen Roach (you’ll find ideas from this talk recur in later addresses by Roach, such as “Naming the Animals” and “On the Relationship between Art and Faith”)
- “Limitless Creativity” with Ray Hughes
- “The Art of Everyday Living” with Emily Freeman
- “Living as Custodians of Fascination” with Stephen Roach
The very first things we learn about God in Genesis, Roach says, is that he’s a creative being, and that he takes immense joy in the creative process. So when we’re told in Genesis 1:26 that humans are created in God’s image, Roach continues, our only concept of God up to this point is that he’s a creator who delights in creating. That’s why creativity is not ornamental but, rather, is in our blood; it’s our birthright as human beings.
“Lawgivers don’t shape culture,” says Ray Hughes. “Artists do. They’re the ones that tell us who we are. That’s why I say, songwriters: hey, you’re not writing next year’s most popular chorus; you’re writing the next generation’s language for accessing God.”
To sample some interview highlights from Makers & Mystics, check out the 2017 year-in-review episode. I’ve enjoyed all the episodes, but a few that have particularly stood out to me, in addition to the ones I list above, are “On Vocation and Calling” with Josh Garrels (+ part 2), one of my favorite music artists; “Evergreen” with Audrey Assad, where Audrey discusses overcoming religious trauma, dealing healthily with emotions, and her love of Celtic spirituality and music; and “Ring of Fire” with Moda Spira, which I linked to last fall, on the grief that accompanies divorce.
To explore the Makers & Mystics archives, hop on over to their website, http://www.makersandmystics.com/, and check them out on Patreon if you’re interested in giving financial support. You can also download episodes from iTunes, Spotify, or your favorite podcast-listening app.
NEW MUSICAL ARRANGEMENTS FOR ADVENT/CHRISTMAS
For cello and piano: “In the Bleak Midwinter,” arr. Sheku Kanneh-Mason: Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a multi-award-winning cellist from England who, since being named 2016 BBC Young Musician of the Year, has gone on to release, this January with Decca, his first full-length album (a chart topper), to perform as a soloist at the marriage ceremony of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and to serve, for the 2018–19 season, as a Young Artist in Residence at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Time magazine recently listed him as one of 25 Most Influential Teens of 2018. He’s nineteen years old.
In a recent recording session at Abbey Road Studios, Sheku performed one of his own arrangements with his sister Isata Kanneh-Mason, a pianist who, like him, is on scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music. Sheku is the third of seven siblings, and all of them are musical. They competed together in 2015 on Britain’s Got Talent and regularly perform together. See the CBS Sunday Morning featurette “The family that plays together.”
This piece is, in the truest sense of the word, awesome. Gustav Holst’s melody, which the duo plays straightforwardly for the first verse, is already beautiful; Sheku’s creative coloring of each subsequent verse, utilizing different playing techniques, elevates the song’s beauty even more. I could listen to this on repeat all day long. Oh wait. I have.
For jazz trio and voice: “Love Came Down” and “Comfort Ye,” arr. Deanna Witkowski: This fall, jazz pianist and composer Deanna Witkowski released recordings of two of her arrangements of Advent/Christmas classics: Christina Rosetti’s “Love Came Down at Christmas” and, just last month, “Comfort Ye,” whose seventeenth-century text (based on Isaiah 40:1–8) is by Johann Olearius, with a later English translation by Catherine Winkworth. Witkowski is on piano, Daniel Foose is on bass, and Scott Latzky is on drums, making up the Deanna Witkowski Trio. Sarah Kervin is the vocalist.
ART EXHIBITION: “Accumulations: Hanukkah Lamps,” Jewish Museum, New York City, October 12, 2018–February 9, 2020: This year’s Hanukkah celebrations have just passed (December 2–10), but the Jewish Museum in New York is still running, for quite a while, its exhibition of eighty-one Hanukkah lamps from its collection of nearly 1,050—the largest collection of Hanukkah lamps in the world. The lamps in the current show represent four continents, six centuries, and a range of materials. I’m most drawn to the modern ones, which rethink traditional ideas about the ritual object.
ART ACQUISITION: Christ as the Man of Sorrows by Quentin Metsys: On November 27 the J. Paul Getty Museum announced its acquisition of Christ as the Man of Sorrows by Quentin Metsys (alternatively spelled Massys), one of the leading painters in sixteenth-century Antwerp, known for his delicate modeling and crisp details. For centuries, the painting has been in a private collection, previously unknown to art historians; the Getty purchased it in a private sale. Its discovery and attribution expands Metsys’s oeuvre and is already attracting much attention from scholars. After a short period of conservation and technical study, it will go on view in spring 2019, exhibited to the public for the first time in modern history. It is the first work by Metsys in the Getty’s collection.
SONG: “Why We Build the Wall” by Anaïs Mitchell: Hadestown is a 2016 stage-musical adaptation of a 2010 folk-opera concept album of the same name, both by singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell. It invites audiences on an epic journey to the underworld and back, following two intertwining love stories—that of Orpheus and Eurydice and of Hades and Persephone. I was struck by the current US political resonances of the song “Why We Build the Wall,” which Mitchell says she wrote in 2006. In this A Prairie Home Companion broadcast, Mitchell sings as Hades, king of the underworld, leading her minions in an anthem that celebrates the importance of a nonporous border. She is joined by Chris Thile on mandolin and vocals and by the First-Call Radio Players. The song starts at 1:07.
VISUAL MEDITATION: Mother and Child by Gilly Szego: In a recent contribution to ArtWay, Anglican vicar Jonathan Evens reflects on a work by UK artist Gilly Szego, the wife of a Hungarian refugee. Szego painted Mother and Child in response to the expulsion of South Asians from Uganda in 1972 following a wave of Indophobia. St.-Martin-in-the-Fields, one of London’s most prominent churches, displayed the painting that year, helping to raise awareness of these refugees’ plight and that of others around the world. The figures could easily be read as the Virgin Mary and Jesus, who were themselves displaced from their homeland.
Evens shares some words from Rev. Dr. Sam Wells, St. Martin’s current vicar:
Jesus is a displaced person in three senses. Fundamentally, he is the heavenly one who sojourned on earth. And it didn’t go well: as John’s Gospel puts it, ‘He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him’ (John 1:11). Then he finds himself a refugee in Egypt, his parents fleeing Herod’s persecution. Third, he spends his ministry as an itinerant preacher and healer, with nowhere to lay his head.
Meanwhile the story of Israel is one of migration from beginning to end. Adam and Eve leave the Garden; Noah and family sail away from destruction; Abraham follows God’s call; Joseph and family head down to Egypt; Moses leads the people back; Judah is taken into exile in Babylon; Ezra and Nehemiah tell of the return. None of these people were going on a package holiday: they were refugees, asylum seekers or trafficked persons. There is precisely one verse commanding the children of Israel, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’; there are no less than 36 verses saying ‘love the stranger.’ Care of the alien is how Israel remembers its history with gratitude.
Then he returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him. And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. And Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
Deaf people represent one of the largest groups worldwide that is unreached and unengaged with the gospel, with an estimated 2 percent of the world’s seventy million being followers of Christ. Thankfully, in Kenya, Deaf Christian leaders are bucking this statistic, translating scripture into Kenyan Sign Language and accessible art forms, like drama, dance, and drumming.
In the video below, Pastor Benard Mburu Mwangi Thuku presents four works he commissioned from Deaf friends, all rooted in Sunday’s Gospel lectionary reading. (Thanks to Paul Neeley at Global Christian Worship for bringing this video to my attention!) Created by and for the Kenyan Deaf community, the song at 5:41 consists of loud drum beats—whose vibrations can be felt by Deaf people—that accentuate three men’s rhythmic signings of the story of Jesus’s healing of the deaf man of Decapolis; you can hear the emotional responses of the offscreen audience. This performance is followed by a brief lesson in dialogue format.
This video, posted on Facebook by Michelle Petersen, is excerpted from a class on scripture engagement that was held July 25, 2016, at the Canada Institute of Linguistics, originally a department of Wycliffe Bible Translators. To adjust the volume, click the megaphone icon on the far right.
This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.
To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 18, cycle B, click here.
UPCOMING CONFERENCE / CALL FOR PAPERS: “Visual Theology I: Transformative Looking Between the Visual Arts and Christian Doctrine (1850–Now),” October 19–20, 2018, The Palace, Chichester, Sussex, England: The inaugural conference of the Visual Theology Symposium will take place this fall, and paper proposals are now being accepted (deadline June 15). “The divide between confessional and critical positions has long impoverished and polarised the academic analysis of the arts,” and this conference seeks to help bridge that divide. Click on the link to learn more, including eight possible paper approaches. Not only are scholars of art history, visual culture, and theology encouraged to submit but also clergy and artists. Jonathan A. Anderson and Ayla Lepine are among the several confirmed speakers so far.
ALBUM: the rain is a handsome animal by Tin Hat (2012): I’ve really been enjoying these seventeen “classical gypsy jazz” settings of the poetry of E. E. Cummings. They’re so dreamsome. Tin Hat consists of violinist and vocalist Carla Kihlstedt, guitarist Mark Orton, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, and accordionist and pianist Rob Reich, and all four are involved in composing. Below is Kihlstedt’s “sweet spring.” For a PDF of the album lyrics, click here. To further engage with Cummings, check out my analysis of his poem “i thank You God for most this amazing,” which also features a musical setting and happens to be the most visited post on this blog.
PLAY: Babette’s Feast, Theatre at St. Clement’s, New York City: I’ve heard Babette’s Feast cited many times in Christian literature and addresses, and now it’s been adapted into a stage play, currently running off-Broadway and starring Michelle Hurst (Orange Is the New Black) in the titular role. “Based on Isak Dinesen’s short story made famous by the 1987 Academy Award-winning [Danish] film, this new stage adaptation of Babette’s Feast premiered in January 2018 in Portland, Maine to rave reviews. The play tells the story of Babette, a French refugee, who finds asylum in a pious Norwegian village. With boundless generosity, she throws a lavish feast that becomes an agent of transformative grace, healing a fractured community.” (Update 5/1: Just after I published this post, Image journal published a great interview with director Karin Coonrod.)
ARTICLE: “Can Art Lending Libraries Empower a New Generation of Collectors?” by Kealey Boyd: “For centuries, those who lacked the space or resources to collect artworks really only had one option—experiencing whatever fine art they could find in public spaces like museums. But in many cities, it’s now possible to borrow art for free. All you need is a local ‘art lending library’—an innovation in art sharing that could, just maybe, help democratize an activity that was once considered inaccessible.”
INSTALLATION: “Nobodaddy” by Mark Leckey, Tramway, Glasgow, Scotland, April 20–July 1, 2018: The wounds of Job speak in this solo exhibition by Turner Prize-winning artist Mark Leckey, part of the Glasgow International contemporary art festival. “Nobodaddy”—the title a reference to a William Blake poem about God’s seeming absence—features a spotlit, oversize Job figure that’s based on an eighteenth-century wooden statuette from Germany; he is covered in boils and excrescences and sitting in melancholy contemplation. The open wounds of the figure are embedded with speakers, and they broadcast a monologue of grief, voiced by Leckey and accompanied by horrible gurglings and rumblings. A video screen opposite Job projects a CGI apparition of the same figure and images of his hollowed-out insides. [HT: Jonathan Evens]
PERFORMANCE ART: An Occupation of Loss by Taryn Simon, Corner of Islington Green, Essex Road, London, April 17–28, 2018, co-commissioned by Park Avenue Armory and Artangel: I’m late on this one, unfortunately. For this work, reprised from its 2016 premiere in New York City, artist Taryn Simon brought together professional mourners from around the world (Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bhutan, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China, Ecuador, Ghana, Greece, India, Kyrgyzstan, Romania, Russia, and Venezuela) to simultaneously enact their rituals of grief over the course of a half hour. The result is a cacophony of culturally diverse lamentations that reach a sustained climax and then fall away to a single voice and, eventually, a deep silence. Performed inside an underground concrete auditorium in Central London, balconied and three levels deep, the work is concerned not with the mourning of any one event or person in particular but with the phenomenon of loss itself.
In a New York Times review, William L. Hamilton explains that
traditionally, professional mourners are hired by families of the deceased to mark the occasion and to guide the dead to the place where they will lead their afterlife. Mourners are [also] called upon to mark larger losses within their communities, like displacement or exile, in a cultural role that is part witness, part historian and part poet. . . . Their laments, wails and cries are also testament to their own bereavements. They can be political testimony, too.
Simon describes the purpose of professional mourners this way: “The bereaved solicit the authority of professional mourners to occupy, negotiate, and shape their loss. The mourners control a psychological experience by directing and embodying the emotion of others.” An Occupation of Loss is the culmination of her seven years of research into professional mourning, which relied heavily on interviews with anthropologists, historians, linguists, musicologists, and other experts. Finding these performers, and then securing visas for them, was itself a herculean task. Listen to the artist discuss the project at more length in this Channel 4 news segment. [HT: Jonathan Evens]