Roundup: Visual Theology CFP; E. E. Cummings song cycle; Babette’s Feast; art-lending libraries; exhibitions of lament

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.

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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.

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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.)

Babette's Feast (play)
Photo: Carol Rosegg/National Review

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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.”

MIT art lending library
An MIT student peruses some of the 600 works available for free borrowing through the school’s Student Loan Art Program, established in 1969 and including pieces by Louise Bourgeois, Cindy Sherman, and others. Photo: John Kennard, courtesy MIT List Visual Arts Center.

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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]

Nobodaddy by Mark Leckey
Mark Leckey (British, 1964–), Nobodaddy, 2018. Installation view at Tramway in Glasgow. Photo: Keith Hunter.

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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 the phenomenon of loss itself.

An Occupation of Loss (Azerbaistan)
Haji Rahila Jafarova and Lala Ismayilova are professional Yezidi mourners from Azerbaijan. Photo: Hugo Glendinning, courtesy Artangel and Taryn Simon Projects.

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]

An Occupation of Loss (Ecuador)
Hugo Aníbal González Jiménez is an Ecuadorian mourner who sings accordion-accompanied laments known as yaravíes and who is blind.

Roundup: Record-smashing painting; Sutherland Springs memorial; jazz Thanksgiving; Advent candle liturgy; Every Moment Holy

Leonardo da Vinci painting breaks all-time sales record: A painting of Christ by the Renaissance master sold for $450.3 million at Christie’s on Wednesday to an anonymous bidder, making it the most expensive painting ever acquired, either at auction or (it’s believed) through private sales. (It displaced by a long shot Picasso’s Women of Algiers, which sold for $179.4 million at auction in 2015, and the reported $300 million paid privately for Gauguin’s Nafea Faa Ipoipo?, also in 2015.) A common iconographic subject in the sixteenth century, “Salvator Mundi” translates as “Savior of the World”; Leonardo’s shows Christ in Renaissance dress, holding a crystal orb in his left hand (representative of Earth) and raising his right hand in benediction. He painted it around 1500 for King Louis XII of France, but it was presumed lost until 2005—“the biggest [artistic?] discovery of the 21st century,” said Christie’s. It’s one of only twenty known paintings attributed to Leonardo.

Salvator Mundi attributed to Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452–1519), Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World), ca. 1500. Oil on walnut, 45.4 × 65.6 cm (25.8 × 19.2 in.).

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White-chair memorial inside Sutherland Springs church opens to public before demolition: First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, reopened to the public on Sunday evening for the first time since a mass shooting on November 5 killed twenty-six people attending worship. In the week between, volunteers came in and repaired all the bullet holes, ripped up the carpet and tore out the pews, and applied fresh coats of white paint to the walls and concrete floor. A temporary memorial has been erected, consisting of white folding chairs that bear the names of the victims in gold paint as well as roses with chiffon ribbons. The one pink rose among twenty-five red ones is for the unborn child who died with his or her eight-months-pregnant mother.

First Baptist Church, Sutherland Springs
Temporary memorial, November 12, 2017, First Baptist Church, Sutherland Springs, Texas. Photo: Drew Anthony Smith for the New York Times
First Baptist Church, Sutherland Springs
Baby Holcombe’s pink rose sits between roses for his or her mom Crystal and brother Greg. Nine of the twenty-six shooting victims were from the Holcombe family.

Although the congregation has not yet officially voted on it, it’s likely that the church will be demolished and a new one built in its place; the pastor said many congregants do not want to go back in there because of the trauma. (The Sunday after the shooting, they worshipped in a large outdoor tent nearby.) Preemptively, a San Antonio contractor teamed up with other local business owners to form a nonprofit, Rebuilding Sutherland Springs Inc., to raise money for a new church building and park. Through GoFundMe, they have already raised $1.1 million of their $2.5 million goal. Click here to donate.

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Thanksgiving-themed black gospel jazz service: This video recording is from a Jazz Vespers service held on November 10, 2015, in Goodson Chapel at Duke. Chapel Dean Luke Powery and others offer prayers and readings, while the John Brown Big Band, a professional jazz ensemble, leads music. The songs are as follows: “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah” (opening); Walter Hawkins’s “Thank You (Lord, for All You’ve Done for Me)” (5:15); “Thank You, Lord” (11:44, reprised 52:26); “Every Day Is a Day of Thanksgiving” (25:05); “Perfect Love Song” (56:25); “Amazing Grace” (1:03:24); and “When the Saints Go Marching In” (1:09:04).

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Advent candle-lighting liturgy: Advent season is just around the corner. Here are five dramatic readings for the lighting of the Advent candles, based on traditional liturgies. They were written by Kathy Larson, director of Christian education and creative arts at Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. They sound very compelling!

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NEW BOOK: Every Moment Holy by Douglas Kaine McKelvey: On November 3 Rabbit Room Press released a collection of one hundred-plus new liturgies for daily life bound together in a beautiful hardcover volume with linocut illustrations by Ned Bustard. Some of the prayers are intended for routine acts, while others are for special, memorable, difficult, or even tragic occasions. Included are liturgies for laundering, for home repair, for the watching of storms, for the first hearthfire of the season, before beginning a book, for setting up a Christmas tree, for the welcoming of a new pet, for the morning of a medical procedure, for the death of a dream, upon tasting pleasurable food, and for the sound of sirens. The aim is to encourage mindfulness of the constant presence of God. Five free liturgies are available for download at https://www.everymomentholy.com/liturgies. The book is for sale exclusively at the online Rabbit Room Store. Read an interview with the illustrator here.


Communing with the Lord during one’s daily tasks is what the seventeenth-century monk Brother Lawrence calls “practicing the presence of God”; poet George Herbert calls it “drudgery made divine.” The Anglican priest Jonathan Evens led a short meditation a few months ago at St. Stephen Walbrook that draws on the wisdom of these two near contemporaries, titled “Doing Our Common Business for the Love of God”—very much in the same spirit as McKelvey’s book.

Every Moment Holy
Every Moment Holy by Douglas Kaine McKelvey (Rabbit Room Press, 2017). Right: Part opener illustration by Ned Bustard for “Liturgies of Labor and Vocation.”

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QUOTE OF THE WEEK: The following church-sign photo from the Canadian Memorial United Church and Centre for Peace in Vancouver has been making the rounds on Twitter via Banksy:

Build a longer table

“If you are more fortunate than others, build a longer table, not a taller fence.”

New folk musical: The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby

This December hundreds of churches around the world will no doubt bring to life onstage the unusual tale of Mary and Joseph’s baby. Most of the characters will be played by little kids dressed up in robes and star-tinsel garlands, and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is sure to make the song list. A beloved tradition—but one that has perhaps made Jesus’s birth too familiar to us, rendered it not unusual or shocking at all.

The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph's Baby poster

Into this milieu comes Don Chaffer and Chris Cragin-Day’s new musical, The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby, to shake things up. Running December 8–18 at River and Rail Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee, the play retells Matthew and Luke’s nativity accounts with a modern imagination, focusing on the hopes and fears of the young couple chosen to bear God into the world. My husband and I attended its world premiere this August at the New York International Fringe Festival, produced by Firebone Theatre, and loved it. (We’re still singing “Hel-looo! Hel-looo!” to each other—the catchy angelic greeting.) Far from the tired, pious storytelling of many a Christian-penned pageant, The Unusual Tale bursts with energy and even surprises, inviting believers and nonbelievers alike to consider anew the meaning of the Incarnation.

The show has a cast of four: Mary, Joseph, and two multirole characters (one male, one female). Mary and Joseph are humanized and given dimension. They are at times angry, scared, hurt, frustrated, confused, happy, tired, skeptical, or insistent. Their personalities sometimes clash—Mary is plucky and passionate and refuses to accept the way things are, whereas Joseph is mostly content and prefers to play it safe. When they are confronted with the outrageous news that Mary is to give birth to the son of God, they are forced to exercise a degree of trust in God and in each other that they had not been required to previously, and it doesn’t come easy. But they grow together into God’s plan in their own different ways as they learn more and more how to do the work they’ve been called to.

One of the most enthralling possibilities that the play opens up is that the Incarnation was triggered not just by God’s feeling that “now’s the time” or by some generic devoutness on the part of Mary but by a spoken vow of hers. Fed up with how the Roman authorities have been roughing up her fiancé at work, Chaffer and Cragin-Day’s Mary starts sermonizing about how God raised up stuttering Moses to deliver their people from slavery in Egypt, and little ole David to conquer a Philistine giant, and why couldn’t he do the same today?

“You know what I think? I think God is just waiting for someone to step up and say, ‘I’ll do it. Choose me.’ Like David did. So you know what I’m gonna do?” Mary says, stepping onto a crate, despite Joseph’s objections.

“I’ll do it, God. I’ll slay Goliath. I am available and willing.”

“One of these days, God’s gonna call your bluff,” Joseph says.

“I’m not bluffing.”   Continue reading “New folk musical: The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby