Roundup: Visio divina with He Qi, MacDonald book club, and more

VISIO DIVINA SERIES: “During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, C4SO [Diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others] celebrates artist He Qi, who reinterprets sacred art within an ancient Chinese art idiom. His work is a blend of Chinese folk art and traditional painting technique with the iconography of the Western Middle Ages and Modern Art. On each Sunday during May, we have licensed one of He’s paintings to illuminate one of the lectionary readings. We will provide prompts for you to do Visio Divina, or ‘sacred seeing,’ an ancient form of Christian prayer in which we allow our hearts and imaginations to enter into a sacred image to see what God might have to show us.” [HT: Global Christian Worship]

He Qi, "Calling the Disciples"
He Qi (Chinese, 1950–), Calling the Disciples, 1999. Oil on canvas.

May 2: “Jesus Calls His Disciples”: https://c4so.org/visio-divina-jesus-calls-his-disciples/
May 9: “Mary and Martha”: https://c4so.org/visio-divina-perfect-love/
May 16: “Look Toward Heaven”: https://c4so.org/visio-divina-after-the-ascension/
May 23: “Pentecost”: https://c4so.org/visio-divina-pentecost/
May 30: “Abraham and the Angels” (Trinity Sunday): https://c4so.org/visio-divina-trinity-sunday/

For this past Lent the C4SO brought us the Stations of the Cross by Laura James, a self-taught painter of Antiguan heritage, combined with a liturgy by their scholar in residence, the Rev. Dr. W. David O. Taylor. I appreciate their recognition of the value of visual art to the individual and corporate lives of their people.

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NEW DPP EDITION: Pentecost 2021: Pentecost is May 23, kicking off a new season of the church year—which means a new periodical from The Daily Prayer Project is hot off the presses! This is one of the publications I work for. “We celebrate and join in prayer with a vastly diverse church in this edition of the DPP. The Indian artist Jyoti Sahi’s dynamic painting Receive the Holy Spirit adorns the cover and leads us to a powerful remembrance of and meditation on that great outpouring of Pentecost. The church of the Caribbean gifts us with their song of Pentecost: ‘Fire, fire, fire! Fire fall on me!’ The Christian Council of Nigeria leads us in prayer and asks God to ‘grant us a vision of our land that is as beautiful as it could be . . . [and the] grace to put this vision into practice.’ The Korean songwriter Geon-yong Lee offers up a lament for the fractures of the church and invites us to truly long and work for unity: ‘Come, hope of unity; make us one body. Come, O Lord Jesus; reconcile all nations.’ . . .”

The two other featured artworks in this edition, which will be added to our online gallery May 23, are an abstract ink drawing by Takahiko Hayashi, evocative of the Spirit’s vitality, and a piece by Yuanming Cao that celebrates the steadfastness of the church in China using as its medium the everyday devotional materials of rural Christians in the Suzhou region.

[electronic (PDF) copy] [physical copy]

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VIDEO: “What happens to humans when we can’t touch?”: “Touch is how we first communicate as babies. And it’s fundamental to human wellbeing. So what happens when we can’t touch?” This recent BBC Radio 4 video by Daniel Nils Roberts discusses the importance of touch to human development, connection, and health. Roberts talks to scientists—and a cuddle therapist!—about why touch makes us feel good, and the skyrocketing of “touch hunger” since the onset of COVID-19. While I have been deprived of physical contact with friends for the past year and I sorely miss it (I hadn’t realized how much hugs, shoulder pats, etc., mean to me), I live with my husband and have been able to receive touch from him; I can’t imagine what it would be like for those who have been completely without touch during this time of restrictiveness. [HT: Joy Clarkson]

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NEW BOOK: Enjoying the Bible: Literary Approaches to Loving the Scriptures by Matthew Mullins: Released in January by Baker Academic. “Many Christians view the Bible as an instruction manual. While the Bible does provide instruction, it can also captivate, comfort, delight, shock, and inspire. In short, it elicits emotion—just like poetry. By learning to read and love poetry, says literature professor Matthew Mullins, readers can increase their understanding of the biblical text and learn to love God’s Word more.”

I found out about this book through the interview by Jessica Hooten Wilson in the current issue of Christianity Today, “Reading God’s Word like a Poem, Not an Instruction Manual” [HT: ImageUpdate]. In the interview Mullins says he hopes the book reaches those Christians who tend to privilege information and instruction in their scripture reading above enjoyment—people who go to the Bible only for facts about God or practical guidance, not an encounter. Mullins shows how the Bible wants to shape not only our intellectual understanding but also our desires and emotions, and that many scripture passages are not reducible to a simple message or takeaway. Those who read and enjoy poetry inherently grasp this about the Bible. Here’s a short lecture Mullins gave on the topic in 2018, “You Can’t Understand the Bible If You Don’t Love Poetry”:

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ONLINE POETRY RETREAT: Send My Roots Rain, Saturday May 15, 10 a.m.–3 p.m. UK time: Brought to you by the Church Times and Sarum College, this event will feature readings and/or presentations by Pádraig Ó Tuama, Malcolm Guite, Helen Wilcox, Mark Oakley, and others. The cost is £15 (about USD$20). [HT: Arts and the Sacred at King’s (ASK) weekly e-bulletin; email Chloë Reddaway to subscribe]

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SUMMER READING GROUP: Phantastes by George MacDonald, led by Kirstin Jeffery Johnson: The Rabbit Room is sponsoring an online book club this summer centered on Phantastes by George MacDonald, a fantasy novel whose young hero Anodos wakes up in Fairy Land one day and is forced to reassess his assumptions about himself and others. Fantasy is not a genre I naturally gravitate to, but I keep hearing about this novel from different sources—how perplexing yet alluring it is—so I’m going to give it a try! I’m especially thrilled that the discussions will be led by MacDonald scholar Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson. Oh, and fun fact: this is the book that C. S. Lewis said most shaped his vocational attitude and philosophy of life.

“The ‘live’ version of this book group, including the online forum, opens May 25 [with chapters 1–4] and will include Zoom chats every Tuesday night at 7:00 p.m. CST for five weeks. However, you are welcome to join at any time, even after the live chats have ended. The discussions will be archived, and the forum will be open indefinitely for new registrants to continue reading and discussing the book.” You can purchase a copy of the book through the Rabbit Room Store, or there’s this annotated edition I bought, edited by John Pennington and Roderick McGillis. (It has a beautiful cover, but the annotations seem geared more toward middle-grade readers.)

Hughes, Arthur_Phantastes illustration
Illustration by Arthur Hughes, from chapter 23 of the third edition of Phantastes by George MacDonald, published by Arthur C. Fifield in 1905

As a bonus, listen to “Giving as the Angels Give,” a two-part session from Hutchmoot 2019 that explores “some of the ways in which, as an author, teacher, and community-builder, MacDonald intentionally manifested hospitality.” Part 1 is a personal on-ramp to the topic by Jennifer Trafton (“I can’t think of any other writer who makes me feel the intimacy of God’s welcome more than MacDonald does,” she says), and part 2, which focuses more on MacDonald’s biography, is by Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson.


Note to reader: “HT” stands for “hat tip”; it’s an acknowledgment of where or from whom I first found mention of the content I link to—that is, if I did not discover it directly from the source itself. I include these tags, along with strategic hyperlinks on the names of people and institutions, because, other than simply being courteous, I want to aid you in building your own “Christianity and the arts” network. One of the primary questions I get from people is “Who should I follow?” or “Where did you find about . . . ?” Soon I will compile a list, on its own tab, of like-minded content curators/providers that inspire me, but regular readers of the blog will, I’m sure, have already picked up on who a lot of those are. And I’m learning of new ones all the time!

“May is Mary’s month”: Hopkins poem meets Glasgow Style

“The May Magnificat” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

May is Mary’s month, and I
Muse at that and wonder why:
    Her feasts follow reason,
    Dated due to season—
 
Candlemas, Lady Day;
But the Lady Month, May,
    Why fasten that upon her,
    With a feasting in her honour?
 
Is it only its being brighter	
Than the most are must delight her?
    Is it opportunest
    And flowers finds soonest?	

Ask of her, the mighty mother:
Her reply puts this other
    Question: What is Spring?—
    Growth in every thing—
 
Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,
Grass and greenworld all together;
    Star-eyed strawberry-breasted
    Throstle above her nested
 
Cluster of bugle* blue eggs thin
Forms and warms the life within;
    And bird and blossom swell
    In sod or sheath or shell.
 
All things rising, all things sizing
Mary sees, sympathising
    With that world of good,
    Nature’s motherhood.
 
Their magnifying of each its kind
With delight calls to mind
    How she did in her stored
    Magnify the Lord.

Well but there was more than this:
Spring’s universal bliss
    Much, had much to say
    To offering Mary May.
 
When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple
Bloom lights the orchard-apple
    And thicket and thorp† are merry
    With silver-surfèd cherry
 
And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes‡ wash wet like lakes
    And magic cuckoocall
    Caps, clears, and clinches all—
 
This ecstasy all through mothering earth
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ’s birth
    To remember and exultation
    In God who was her salvation.

* Bugle, or bugleherb, is a blue-flowering plant in the mint family.
† A group of houses standing together in the country; a hamlet; a village.
‡ Bracken ferns.

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In the Roman Catholic Church, May is dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and daily devotions to her are encouraged throughout the month. In many parishes, statues of Mary are crowned with flower garlands at this time.   

Though I myself do not practice Marian devotion, I have an immense appreciation for her example of faith and for the role she played in salvation history, and I feel a kinship to her as a spiritual foremother. I also find myself drawn to poems and visual art that reflect on her pregnancy, on the Life growing inside her.

Written in 1878 by the Jesuit poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The May Magnificat” muses on the fittingness of May as a designated period of celebration of Mary. In the yearly cycle of the Christian liturgical calendar, Candlemas, which celebrates the presentation of Jesus in the temple as an infant (and Mary’s postpartum purification), is logically dated to February 2, forty days after Christmas, per Leviticus 12:1–4. Lady Day, the feast of the Annunciation (the day on which Jesus was conceived), is celebrated March 25, nine months before Christmas. But why, Hopkins wonders, has the church set apart May in particular for Christians to honor Mary?

He determines it’s because in May, the natural world—at least in the northern hemisphere, where he, an Englishman, lived—is bursting into full bloom, reflecting Mary’s own fecundity, her body a superabundant source of life. In late spring there is a certain joyousness in the air, a “universal bliss,” an “ecstasy.” Mammals are gestating and/or giving birth, birds are incubating and hatching, groves and gardens are flowering, and earth seems to be swelling to a fullness. There is “[g]rowth in every thing.”

Hopkins delights in the wealth of spring, all its flora and fauna. He marvels how the azure of heaven is reflected on earth in the tangled nest of a song thrush, and how sunlight dapples the apple and cherry trees. Perhaps Mary learned gladness from such gladsome surroundings, he suggests. And not only that, but as mother, she shared an affinity with Nature, also a mother.

The month of May culminates, on the 31st, with the feast of the Visitation, which marks the pregnant Mary’s visit to her pregnant cousin Elizabeth. Upon their meeting Mary sang a praise song known as the Magnificat, Latin for “[My Soul] Magnifies [the Lord]” (see Luke 1:46–56). She makes large God’s name, celebrating his mercy, strength, and provision and the impending birth of her son, Israel’s Savior and the world’s.

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In October 2019 I had the privilege of seeing the internationally touring exhibition Designing the New: Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow Style at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, whose highlight was a large-scale gesso frieze by Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, Charles’s artistic collaborator and wife. It was displayed in a narrow hallway behind a plastic screen, so I couldn’t get a shot of the full piece, but here’s a photo provided by the CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection:

Macdonald, Margaret_The May Queen
Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh (Scottish, 1864–1933), The May Queen, 1900. Gesso on burlap over wood frame, scrim, twine, glass beads, thread, tin leaf, papier-mâché, steel pins, 158.8 × 457 cm. Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow.

All other photos in this post are my own.

Emerging in the 1890s in the industrial heartland of Scotland, the “Glasgow Style” was the only Art Nouveau movement in Great Britain. “When applied to two-dimensional objects, such as book covers, textiles, posters, and stained glass, the Glasgow Style blended elongated and organic lines, personal symbolic languages, and favored motifs to create otherworldly stylized plant and human forms,” writes Alison Brown, curator of Designing the New. It was developed by a small group of young adult friends known as The Four: Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Margaret Macdonald, Frances Macdonald, and James Herbert McNair. (Charles and Margaret married in 1900, and Margaret’s sister Frances married James in 1899.)

Margaret’s wide-ranging output included watercolors, graphics, metalwork, and textiles, but her specialization was gesso, a plaster-based medium, which she used to make decorative panels for furniture and interiors. The May Queen was commissioned from her at the turn of the century by Miss Catherine Cranston for one of her famous Ingram Street tea rooms in Glasgow, where it hung above a window in the Ladies’ Luncheon Room until 1971. (It is now preserved at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.) Gloriously textured, it consists of rough burlap stretched over a wooden frame and covered in gesso, glass beads, metallic leaf, and molded paper. “Some of the modeled plaster shapes bear fingerprints, pinched and pressed into the panel’s surface. The outlines of the figures, trees, and plant forms are ‘drawn’ with brown painted string held fast with long steel pins,” Brown writes.

The crowning of a “May Queen,” a girl chosen to personify May Day and preside over its festivities, is a traditional springtime ritual in western Europe. (If you need a visual, think Florence Pugh’s character in Midsommar . . .) So the title of this artwork is most likely a reference to that. However, I get some serious Marian vibes from the central female figure, which are only reinforced when I view the work in light of the Catholic tradition of the “May crowning” of Mary.

And what a resonant pairing it makes with Hopkins’s “The May Magnificat”! It shows a woman in a strong frontal stance, dressed with flowers, haloed in green, supported by a throne-like backing, and enlarged, perhaps, with child. She’s attended by four maidservants or companions.

This could very well be read as Mary of Nazareth, crowned with beauty, blessed by God to bear his Son into the world.

Crucifixion, Harrowing, and Transfiguration

Piers Plowman is a fourteenth-century allegorical narrative poem in Middle English by William Langland, considered one of the greatest works of medieval literature. Unfolding as a series of dream-visions, it follows the narrator Will’s quest for the true Christian life.

Lines 491–95 of Passus V (as counted in the Norton Critical Edition, which uses the B-text) are among the poem’s most striking:

The sonne for sorwe therof les syghte for a tyme,
Aboute midday whan moste lighte is and meletyme of seintes;
Feddest with thi fresche blode owre forfadres in derknesse.
  Populus qui ambulabat in tenebris vidit lucem magnum.
The lighte that lepe oute of the, Lucifer [it] blent,
And blewe alle thi blissed into the blisse of Paradise.

The sun for sorrow [at the Crucifixion] lost sight for a time,
About midday, when most light is, and mealtime of saints;
Thou feddest with Thy fresh blood our forefathers in darkness.
  Populus qui ambulabat in tenebris vidit lucem magnum.
The light that leapt out of Thee, Lucifer it blinded,
And blew all Thy blessed into the bliss of Paradise.

All three Synoptic Gospels tell us that from noon to three on Good Friday, “there was darkness over all the land” (Matt. 27:45; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44–45). Medieval writers and artists sometimes imagined this in personified terms, as the sun veiling its face in mourning over the death of Christ. At what should be the brightest hour of day, the speaker remarks, the sky went black. And while people were eating their midday meal, Christ was preparing for his people a feast of his own flesh and blood.

This latter image is multifaceted, referring in context to the idea that Christ’s blood flowed into hell to rescue the patriarchs and prophets who died before his coming, but also to the legend of the pelican who wounded her breast to feed her children with her blood. The Eucharist is an obvious corollary.

Every line of Piers Plowman has three alliterative stresses, which in V.494–95 in particular create such a beautiful musicality: light, leapt, Lucifer, blinded, blew, blessed, bliss.

In the immense darkness of the Crucifixion, there shone, on a spiritual level, a glory so bright it blinded Lucifer and swept the Old Testament saints into God’s presence. Langland quotes, in Latin, the prophecy from Isaiah 9:2: “People that walked in darkness have seen a great light.” With the atonement accomplished, our foremothers and fathers could finally inherit the promise they had clung to in faith for so long. The conflation of light and breath as a propulsive force or a vehicle of transport is so unique and vivid—how the saints, expelled from their prison, ride a strong wind or a ray of light into paradise. I see them joyfully tumbling to their new home!

This passage anticipates the triumph of Passus XVIII, which centers on the harrowing of hell. Reiterating the unusual verb choice of “blew,” the poet says it is Christ’s breath that breaks down the hellgate. Here is Christ (“the light”) on Holy Saturday, addressing the fiends of hell:

Again the light bade them unlock, and Lucifer answered,
  “Who is that?
What lord are you?” said Lucifer. The light at once replied,
  “The King of Glory.
The Lord of might and of main and all manner of powers:
  The Lord of Powers.
Dukes of this dim place, at once undo these gates
That Christ may come in, the Heaven-King’s son.”
And with that breath hell broke along with Belial’s bars;
For any warrior or watchman the gates wide opened.
Patriarchs and prophets, populus in tenebris,
Sang Saint John’s song, Ecce agnus Dei.
Lucifer could not look, the light so blinded him.
And those that our Lord loved his light caught away.

(XVIII.316–26, modern English translation by E. Talbot Donaldson)

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Lesko, Greta_Crucifixion with Transfiguration
Greta Leśko (Polish, 1979–), Crucifixion with Transfiguration, 2019. Tempera on gessoed wood board.

This multitiered icon by Greta Leśko is not a direct response to the Piers Plowman passages, but boy does it resonate! I love how she has rendered the paradoxical nature of the cross as a site of simultaneous darkness and light by integrating a scene of the Transfiguration beneath.

Earlier in his ministry, Jesus went up to Mount Tabor with his disciples Peter, James, and John, where he revealed to them, in dazzling light, his true glory. Pierced by these rays, they are literally knocked off their feet! As is traditional, Leśko shows the transfigured Christ holding a scroll in his left hand (signifying that he is the Word of God) and making a blessing gesture with the other.

The Transfiguration was a prefiguration of the Resurrection, and indeed in Leśko’s minimalist conception, this tableau could be read secondarily as Christ risen from the grave. The dark orb that encircles him is like the mouth of his tomb, and the three splayed men evoke the Roman guards who were sent reeling as their dead charge emerged from it alive and in full health.

The top half of Leśko’s icon portrays the Crucifixion. Christ spreads wide his arms across the orange beam, which seems to have no end but, rather, melds into the all-encompassing border of light. To his right is what appears to be an open window or doorway—a displacement, perhaps, of his side wound, which we are invited to enter and take shelter in. At the base of the cross, in a darkened recess, sits a skull, representing the death of Adam.

Adam also appears, with Eve, in the roundel at the cross’s upper terminal. This is a scene of the Anastasis (Greek for “Resurrection”), which is the primary icon of Pascha (Easter). It shows Christ descending into Hades, breaking down its doors (which lie in a heap at his feet) and liberating all the Old Testament saints. Known in the West as the harrowing of hell, this event is referenced in the ancient Apostles’ Creed, which states that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, and he descended into hell . . .” Medievals loved this part of the story, with all its drama and redeemer-heroism. (It’s the climax of Piers Plowman!) In the Orthodox Church it is a central doctrine.

It’s notable that Leśko has chosen to place the underworld action at the top of the composition and the mountaintop action at the bottom. From the depths of the universe to its heights, God’s radiance is ablaze, yes, but is there a significance to their being transposed? The old world order being overturned, perhaps? Maybe it’s simply to give the Transfiguration more prominence, making it an equal counterweight to the Crucifixion—with the Anastasis, small as it is, merely hinted at. In any case, visually and narratively, it means we read the icon from bottom to top.

By sandwiching the cross between two unambiguous manifestations of Christ’s glory, Leśko helps us see the fuller picture of the Crucifixion, where human evil and God’s goodness met and salvation was born. Or, as William Langland put it: where light leapt out and “blew all [God’s] blessed into the bliss of Paradise.”

Roundup: Black church–inspired art exhibition; new albums; visual Easter Vigil liturgy; and more

EXHIBITION: Otherwise/Revival, Bridge Projects, Los Angeles, April 9–June 26, 2021: Curated by Jasmine McNeal and Cara Megan Lewis, this group exhibition visualizes the impact of the historic Black church—specifically the Black Pentecostal movement—on contemporary artists. Included are several artists I’ve featured on the blog before—Lava Thomas [here], Kehinde Wiley [here], Clementine Hunter [here], Letitia and Sedrick Huckaby [here]—plus twenty-six others.

Phyllis Stephens (American, 1955–), High and Lifted Up, 2020. Cotton fabric, 57 × 33 in. Private collection. Courtesy of the artist and Richard Beavers Gallery, New York.

Davis, Kenturah_Namesake I
Kenturah Davis (American, 1984–), Namesake I, 2014. Incense ink on rice paper, applied with rubber stamp letters, 39 × 36 in. Courtesy of the artist and the Petrucci Family Foundation, New Jersey.

I regret that I won’t be able to see the exhibition in person, but there’s a wealth of relevant content available on the gallery’s website, including photos, artist bios and statements, and commentaries. I haven’t fully delved in yet, but some of the artist names are new to me, and I look forward to jumping over to their websites to learn more. There’s also a series of free events that have been scheduled. The premiere of the virtual music performance yes! lord by Ashton T. Crawley and a symposium on the Azusa Street Revival have already passed (both are archived online for on-demand viewing), but here are some upcoming opportunities you can reserve a spot for:

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ARTICLE: “5 Films About the Beauty of Resurrection” by Brett McCracken: “Resurrection’ tropes are so familiar in certain genres that they can numb us to the jarring beauty and bracing surprise of resurrection. But other films capture the magic and shock of resurrection by situating it within more mundane realities and contexts. Here are five of my favorite examples of this kind—movies that capture resurrection in all of its miraculous, unsettling, hope-giving glory.” One of his selections is Happy as Lazzaro, which I saw last year and enjoyed:

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NEW ALBUMS:

>> Hymns I by Lovkn: Steven Lufkin is a singer-songwriter from Phoenix, Arizona, recording under the name Lovkn. His latest EP, a collection of eight acoustic hymn covers, was released April 2. (Also, he’s currently raising funds to record an album of original songs, to be released later this year: kickstarter.com/projects/lovkn/new-album-2021.)

>> Prayers for the Time of Trial by Joel Clarkson: Released April 7, this EP comprises five original SATB choral compositions by Joel Clarkson, which he recorded with his sister Joy Clarkson. My favorite is the first, “Lighten Our Darkness,” a setting of the Book of Common Prayer’s Collect for Aid Against Perils: “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.”

The other four are “Sub Tuum Praesidium” (Beneath Thy Protection), a third-century hymn to the Virgin Mary as Theotokos; “Hail King,” a poem by Joel’s other sister, Sarah Clarkson, that marvels how rocky cliffs and sea waves and herring gulls sing God’s praises in their own way; “Ubi Caritas,” an ancient hymn centered on the theme of Christian charity; and the simple benediction “May the peace of the Lord be with you now and always.”

In addition to composing music, Joel is also a professional audiobook narrator and the author of Sensing God: Experiencing the Divine in Nature, Food, Music, and Beauty.

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ORTHODOX CHANT: Russian Kontakion of the Departed: At Prince Philip’s funeral service at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle on April 17, a choir of four sang, among other pieces, the Russian Kontakion of the Departed, translated into English by William John Birkbeck and arranged by Sir Walter Parratt. “The Russian Kontakion of the Departed is an ancient Kiev chant with its origins in the Russian Orthodox liturgy. This moving chant expresses the sorrow of grief but reminds us of the Christian hope of everlasting life; in the face of sadness, we sing Hallelujahs.” [HT: Global Christian Worship]

Give rest, O Christ, to thy servant with thy saints:
where sorrow and pain are no more;
neither sighing but life everlasting.
Thou only art immortal, the creator and maker of man:
and we are mortal formed from the dust of the earth,
and unto earth shall we return:
for so thou didst ordain,
when thou created me saying:
Dust thou art und unto dust shalt thou return.
All we go down to the dust;
and weeping o’er the grave we make our song:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

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VISUAL LITURGY: “After Ezekiel” by Madeleine Jubilee Saito: Remember those flip books you probably encountered as a kid—the ones with a series of images that gradually change from one page to the next, giving the illusion of animation when viewed in quick succession? Well, this is a digital version of that. In 2019 cartoonist and illustrator Madeleine Jubilee Saito created an image sequence intended to be swiftly clicked through as part of the Easter Vigil at a church in Boston. It was inspired by the story of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones (Ezek. 37). Very compelling!

My Favorite Films of 2020, Part 2

Here’s the second half of my top-twenty list of 2020 films; view part 1 here.

11. The Forty-Year-Old Version, written and directed Radha Blank: Radha plays a fictionalized version of herself in this feature debut of hers, a thoughtful blend of comedy and drama that’s intricate and fresh. Her character is a New York City playwright who, desperate for a breakthrough before turning forty, decides to reinvent herself as rapper RadhaMUSPrime. The film addresses the arts industry’s sometimes stifling expectations of Black artists, which has in its mind what the Black experience (as if there were only one) needs to look like. Producers, for example, want Radha’s Black characters to talk and act a certain way and to fit into a particular storyline, and they try to convince her to make adjustments to her writing to make her plays more palatable to white audiences, who comprise the bulk of ticket sales.

With humor and insight, Blank explores this struggle along with, more broadly, middle-age Black womanhood, which includes for her, in addition to navigating career roadblocks, the experiences of losing a parent, finding human connection, and learning a new art form.

Stream on Netflix.

12. Promising Young Woman, written and directed by Emerald Fennell: I have mixed feelings about revenge thrillers, which ask viewers to root for vindictive outcomes. But this one, though it takes up certain tropes of the genre, subverts others. “We’re used to the idea of a violent journey, but I wanted to look at how a real woman might take revenge, and I had an idea that it would be kind of tricky and malevolent and existentially threatening, rather than something more run-of-the-mill and AK-47 based,” said first-time writer-director Emerald Fennell (who I know as Patsy from Call the Midwife, and you might know as Camilla from The Crown!).

Having dropped out of medical school following the rape of her best friend Nina, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) has developed a compulsive desire to teach “nice guys” who take advantage of women a lesson. She feigns drunkenness in clubs on a regular basis, and when a man inevitably takes her back to his home and gets handsy, he is in for a harrowing confrontation. A critique of rape culture, in which having nonconsensual sex with drunk women is normalized, trivialized, and excused, the film shows how not all rapists are obvious creeps; a lot of them are “normal,” seemingly caring individuals who are thus almost always given the benefit of the doubt over their accusers.

13. Soul, directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers; written by Pete Docter, Mike Jones, and Kemp Powers: Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is a part-time middle-school band teacher in New York City who does side gigs as a jazz pianist. Music is his passion. At the beginning of the film, though, he dies suddenly and then inadvertently stumbles off the skyway escalator to the Great Beyond, landing in the “Great Before,” where preincarnate souls are waiting to be born. There he’s enlisted to mentor an ornery soul named 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), who doesn’t want to go to Earth, which she imagines is just all dirty and bad. But when she mistakenly ends up in Joe’s body and lives his life for a day, she finds such wonder in it—a fresh haircut, twirling maple seeds, the smell and taste of pizza, the thrill of riding the subway or of putting on a sharp-looking suit, laughter and camaraderie. I’m reminded in some ways of Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire (1987), in which an angel longs to experience life in the physical world.

Soul is a celebration of the inherent goodness of life, despite its challenges and disappointments; it’s about finding joy in the ordinary, and purpose wherever we’re at. It subverts the cultural narrative that every human being has a single defining “purpose in life,” that each one is “born to (fill in the blank).” Instead, it acknowledges that passions can evolve and change (for example, the barber Dez used to want to be a veterinarian), and that several can coexist alongside one another. And while passions can fuel us, they alone are not our reason for living.

Stream on Disney+.

14. Another Round, directed by Thomas Vinterberg; written by Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm: In this dramedy from Denmark, four middle-age men who teach at a high school test the hypothesis that maintaining a constant blood alcohol concentration of 0.05% will improve their quality of life by making them more relaxed, self-confident, open, fun to be around, and better at their jobs. But when their experiment gets out of hand, there are consequences on marriage and career.

Though centered on intoxication and male friendship, this is no slapstick buddy comedy, nor is it a one-note cautionary tale against the perils of excessive drinking. It both celebrates the joys of losing yourself in drink and also shows how punishing regular overindulgence can be. Still, the finale is amazingly exuberant and life-affirming—and gives a chance for Martin’s (Mads Mikkelsen) “jazz ballet” to finally come out!

Stream on Hulu.

15. Driveways, directed by Andrew Ahn; written by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen: I’m a sucker for the “unlikely friendships” genre, and this one is so well done. When single mom Kathy (Hong Chau) and her shy eight-year-old son Cody (Lucas Jaye) move into the house of her recently deceased sister, Cody befriends an elderly white war veteran and widower named Del (Brian Dennehy), who lives next-door. They bring each other out of their shells.

Stream on Showtime.

16. The Invisible Man, written and directed by Leigh Whannell: The Invisible Man is based loosely on the classic H. G. Wells sci-fi horror novel of the same name, in which an optical scientist invents chemicals capable of rendering bodies invisible and then uses this discovery to execute a reign of terror. Whannell brings the story into our present time and centers it on the terror of domestic abuse and its machinations—financial, physical, and emotional control—and especially of not being believed about said abuse. In Whannell’s version, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) finally succeeds, it would seem, in escaping her abusive live-in boyfriend, multimillionaire tech genius Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). She then learns of his suicide and feels immense relief but soon starts to suspect it is a hoax. Her suspicions are confirmed when she is repeatedly stalked and tormented by an “invisible man.” Because the police and even her friends and family think she’s crazy, she’s forced to take matters into her own hands.

Stream on HBO Max.

17. Blow the Man Down, written and directed by Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy: Set in a New England coastal town, this dark comedy crime thriller follows sisters Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor) and Priscilla (Sophie Lowe) Connolly in their attempt to cover up a gruesome run-in with a dangerous man. Along the way they are exposed more and more to the town’s underbelly, which includes, as I heard one reviewer refer to it as, a “beauty parlor mafia”!

Stream on Amazon Prime.

18. Mank, directed by David Fincher; written by Jack Fincher: I’m a huge fan of Citizen Kane, so this drama about the writing of its first draft by the witty Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) was really enjoyable for me, not least because it’s full of visual references to Kane! Orson Welles is officially credited as cowriter of Kane, as he heavily revised Mankiewicz’s script, but Mank argues that Welles’s screenwriting contributions were negligible, and that Mankiewicz deserves more credit for the success of Kane than he has typically been given.

The film gives a glimpse into the 1930s Hollywood studio system in all its glamor and corruption and shows the real-life inspirations for the characters of Charles Foster Kane and Susan Alexander Kane: newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his young mistress, the actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried).

Stream on Netflix.

19. His House, written and directed by Remi Weekes: This haunted-house film uses the supernatural to explore the specters of the refugee experience. Married couple Bol and Rial Majur (played by Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku) have made a harrowing escape from war-torn South Sudan, but they struggle to adjust to their new life in England, as ghosts have followed them there.

Stream on Netflix.

20. Young Ahmed, written and directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne: Under the influence of a radical imam, a Belgian teenager (Idir Ben Addi) embraces an extremist interpretation of the Quran, which spurs him to a heinous act. He is taken to a rehabilitation center, where staff try to loosen the grip of his zealotry and help him develop a truer, healthier practice of Islam.

Stream on Kanopy.

My Favorite Films of 2020, Part 1

I’m a big cinephile, but because I’m not sure how to write about films for an Art & Theology audience, you may not know that about me! Anyway, I wanted to share my top twenty films from last year (all released in the US in 2020). For each I’ll give a brief description and comments, followed by the trailer. If they’re streaming for “free” through a subscription service, I’ve noted which one; otherwise, most are available for online rental, or you might also check to see if your local library has a DVD copy. A few are showing in select theaters.

Because so many big-budget blockbuster films had their releases delayed because of COVID (reliant, as they are, on theatrical releases), it has given the chance for smaller-scale, quieter films to come to the fore—which are usually the type I enjoy most anyway. I like films that are character-driven and/or that make me feel something. As I’ve said before, watching films grows our capacity for empathy, as we encounter characters from different backgrounds and in different situations and are given the opportunity to see things through their eyes.  

In this list, which I will complete in a second post tomorrow, the characters include a new member of the deaf community who’s struggling to come to terms with his disability, a Midwestern farmer of Korean vegetables and a pair of entrepreneurial Pac Northwest settlers (new homes, new ventures), a widow who’s out of work and houseless, a survivor of domestic violence, a daughter walking with her dad through a debilitating illness, a London teenager forced to take on adult responsibilities but bolstered up by a strong sisterhood, a crime victim whose forgiveness of her perpetrator initiates healing in multiple directions, a young employee let down by her company and debating whether to make moral compromises to keep her job, a middle school teacher with other career aspirations, a struggling playwright whose race pigeonholes her in the industry, and a refugee couple settling into a new country with a huge weight of grief. Whether the contexts are near or far from our own, we bear witness to these characters’ journeys, attending to their fears and traumas, their stresses and disappointments, their joys and triumphs.

As you’ll see, it’s been a fantastic year for women filmmakers!

1. Sound of Metal, directed by Darius Marder; written by Darius Marder and Abraham Marder: When Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a thrash-metal drummer, loses his hearing, he’s in danger of relapsing into substance abuse, so with the support of his girlfriend (Olivia Cooke), he checks in to a home for deaf people recovering from addiction. Ruben is a fixer and is obsessed with control, and his immediate and persistent impulse upon experiencing hearing loss is to pursue an expensive corrective surgery so that he can return to life as usual. The film’s sound design, which lets us hear the muffled noises Ruben is hearing, helps us better feel his frustration.

The film is about Ruben learning how to be deaf. It’s about disappointment, acceptance, and self-knowledge, and the crucial role community plays in helping us cope with or achieve those things. Against his wishes, Ruben enters a world completely alien to him. He has to learn sign language and how to make new relationships. It’s beautiful to see Ruben’s perspective slowly shift as he learns to regard deafness not as a handicap but as a way of life, a culture.

Stream on Amazon Prime.

2. Minari, written and directed Lee Isaac Chung: In this semiautobiographical film set in the 1980s, a Korean immigrant family moves from California to Arkansas, where the father, Jacob (Steven Yeun), wants to break out of the chicken sexing industry and start his own produce farm. (He says he wants his children to see him succeed at something.) As the Yis put down roots in the rugged Ozarks and prepare and plant the large plot of land they’ve bought, they encounter typical struggles, on top of which is the heart condition of their young son, David (played by the adorable Alan Kim, whose interviews light me up every time!). They end up flying in grandma Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn) from Korea to help with childcare, and David has difficulties connecting with her because she doesn’t match his idea of an American grandma.

The American Dream, biculturalism, marriage, and family are key themes in Minari.

3. Nomadland, written and directed by Chloé Zhao (based on the nonfiction book by Jessica Bruder): When the gypsum plant in the company town of Empire, Nevada, shuts down during the Great Recession in 2011, the entire town is shuttered, its zip code discontinued, and its residents displaced. Fern (Frances McDormand), a recent widow in her sixties, is one of them. She sells most of her possessions and heads west in her van, searching for work wherever it’s available, and finding connection—with people, with the land—along the way.

The film explores the growing subculture of “workampers,” or, as they more commonly call themselves, nomads—people who, either for a sense of adventure or because of deteriorated economic circumstances, lead itinerant lives, following temporary work. It blurs the line between drama and documentary, as most of the cast, including Linda May and Charlene Swankie, are nonactors playing versions of themselves. Their real-life stories heavily informed the script.

Stream on Hulu.

4. Dick Johnson Is Dead, directed by Kirsten Johnson: A joyous and uplifting documentary in which the filmmaker confronts the impending death of her father, who has dementia. I wrote about it here.

Stream on Netflix.

5. First Cow, directed by Kelly Reichardt; written by Jon Raymond: I’m not typically a fan of westerns, but this one hooked me. Set in the Oregon Territory of the 1820s, it follows Otis, known as Cookie (John Magaro), a lowly cook for a band of trappers, and King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant wanted for murder. The two meet at a trading post, and a friendship develops, which constitutes the core of the film. (Its epigraph is a quote by William Blake: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.”)

The film is also a subtle critique of capitalism. When a local official buys a cow, the first in the territory, the enterprising King-Lu hatches a plan for him and Cookie to steal milk from it each night so that they can make “oily cakes” (fried dough) to sell. It’s either exploit or be exploited, King-Lu reasons.

6. Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always, written and directed by Eliza Hittman: At the beginning of the film, seventeen-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) learns she is pregnant, but she can’t obtain an abortion in Pennsylvania without parental consent. So her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) accompanies her to New York City, where the abortion can be performed without that restriction, to support her through the trauma.

When Autumn is interviewed by a counselor at the Planned Parenthood clinic in New York about an hour into the film, it’s one of the first times we see her, usually so reserved, exhibit emotion—and laudably, Flanigan plays this moment without an ounce of melodrama. “Has a partner ever refused to use protection?” “Has a partner ever been violent?” “Have you ever been forced into a sexual act?” (She is asked to respond to each question with one of the four answers in the film’s title.) Here we learn how little of her sexual history has been in her control.

Though reviews of and promotions for the film have tended to focus on the importance of “a woman’s right to choose,” you don’t have to be an abortion supporter (I’m not) to appreciate this film. It’s not very polemical. It’s simply a portrait of one girl’s experience, and it’s painted with such tenderness and realism.

Stream on HBO Max.

7. The Painter and the Thief, directed by Benjamin Ree: A documentary about the unlikely friendship between a Czech artist and the man who stole two of her paintings and then lost them on the black market. I wrote about it here.

Stream on Hulu.

8. The Assistant, written and directed by Kitty Green: One of several to come out in the wake of the #MeToo movement, this film is uncomfortable from start to finish—intentionally so. It’s a different kind of thriller, the dread building every banal scene after the next as Jane (Julia Garner), a recently hired assistant to a Hollywood studio executive, goes about her daily work routine and starts discovering some serious abuses of power in the company that target young women. The monster boss, who is never seen, is clearly modeled after Harvey Weinstein. Not much “happens” in The Assistant, but it succeeds in conveying a sense of being trapped in a corrupt system of misogyny, and it reveals how easy it is for those who witness particular offenses to keep quiet in order to protect their careers.

Stream on Hulu.

9. Emma, directed by Autumn de Wilde; written by Eleanor Catton, based on the novel by Jane Austen: “In 1800s England, a well-meaning but selfish young woman meddles in the love lives of her friends”—and learns a lesson. I loved the 2009 film adaptation of this classic novel that stars Romola Garai (she is still my favorite Emma), and the 1996 version with Gwyneth Paltrow is also much celebrated, so I didn’t think there was need for another attempt. But I thoroughly enjoyed this, with Anya Taylor-Joy (of The Queen’s Gambit) playing the title role. Austen was a humorist, and her comedic flair comes across with great effect here. A few things that stand out to me when compared to previous adaptations are the excellent soundtrack (which includes English folk hymns) and the likability of Harriet (Mia Goth), who is given a little more dimensionality than usual.

Stream on HBO Max.

10. Rocks, directed by Sarah Gavron; written by Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson: A celebration of young female friendship that’s tested when one in the group, nicknamed Rocks (Bukky Bakray), is abandoned by her mother, her only parent, leaving her to care for her little brother. Rocks struggles to take care of meals, bills, apartment upkeep, and childcare while still attending high school, and she also struggles, initially, with letting anyone in, with accepting help. She eventually confides in her best friend Sumaya (Kosar Ali), and she and others then rally around Rocks to offer support, though they disagree on what is best, and it leads to some fallout. The film shows the resilience of the plucky and determined Rocks and the immense value of having friends to see you through hard times. The relationship between Rocks, a Nigerian Christian, and Sumaya, a Somali Muslim, is especially poignant; the actors’ chemistry is a joy to watch.

Stream on Netflix.

Read part 2 of my top-twenty list.

“Aubade” by Robert Siegel

Bellerose, Jeff_Tranquil
Jeff Bellerose (American, 1973–), Tranquil, 2018. Oil on canvas, 20 × 20 in. (50.8 × 50.8 cm).

1

Then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy
      while each leaf thrusts into the universe of air
and the light green haze of April rises like smoke
      sweet in the nostril. Let the mind fill the hemisphere
of day while the sun beats a million white wings.
      Let each yellow and red bud in the dew
blaze forth with a hundred suns while night
      picks up her gauze and vanishes over the hills.
Let the rabbit’s eye shine while he drums the turf
      summoning his brethren;
the squirrels spiral down, their tails like clouds,
      to clatter among the woodsy rubble;
and the shrew shriek and hide herself under the root.

2

The cat stretches by the window and cries at the door;
      the dog yawns, then yelps at the rising sun
that will run all day till it drops in the west.
      The mattress creaks as the man rises to fix breakfast,
his back telling him he is—ah!—alive
      while the neighbor’s car snorts and gulps air
in an ascending whine.
      Children feel their way through cool porcelain bathrooms,
teenagers dream a world of shimmering electric presences
      and clothes rise from the dresser to glide across the skin,
the belt firmly encircles the waist
      and the tie mounts to prop the chin.

3

Yet, staring back from the bathroom mirror are
      the ghost of the office, the boss’s purposeful smile,
fog of the night’s dream, the nattering conscience,
      the gluttonous mortgage, the skin in love with gravity,
and the razor’s unkind cut—awareness of
      what is done and undone—the thousand engines of destruction
the cerebral cortex draws across its synapses
      toward the fragile sanctum of the present moment.
Let each ghost wither and vanish in sunlight,
      crisp to the nothing it is,
while a joyful procession dances along
      the myriad lightning pathways of the mind.

4

Tree and house are clear in this moment
      when light is given shape and each thing pauses,
itself—before the frame blurs, the attention fails
      and we fall into one or another distraction:
the horrors and banalities of the news, the half-typed letter,
      the mysteries of long division, the tumbled tower of blocks,
regret’s heavy shadow or the usual obsession.
      Lord, in the bright vehicle of this moment,
descend to us and spread your golden tent
      that we might keep sweet breakfast together, your beard dripping
honey as we ascend the dayspring of your eyes
      into an emptiness that is present, solid and real.

“Aubade” by Robert Siegel originally appeared in A Pentecost of Finches (Paraclete, 2006) and is published in the posthumous collection Within This Tree of Bones: New and Selected Poems (Cascade/Wipf & Stock, 2013). Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Christ figure in Justin Dingwall’s Albus series

South African photographer Justin Dingwall (born 1983) seeks to depict beauty in difference. For his Albus series—Latin for “white” or “bright”—he worked with South African models and activists Thando Hopa and Sanele Junior Xaba, who have albinism. Albinism is a hereditary condition that affects melanin production, resulting in little to no pigmentation in the skin, hair, and eyes. It is more prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa than in the rest of the world, and people with the condition often face marginalization, discrimination, and even deadly violence.

In many ways Dingwall’s Albus series, which comprises several dozen photographs, is about metamorphosing perceptions about albinism, subverting the idea that it’s a curse; “by using butterflies my aim was to influence the viewer’s vision to be transformed, allowing them to view albinism in a new light—as something unique and beautiful,” he said. But the theme of transformation, of death and rebirth, as portrayed in some of the photos of Xaba, also connects with the narrative of Jesus’s passion, death, and resurrection, the model’s poses evoking traditional Christian imagery. (Not to mention how some of the photos of Hopa intentionally reference Mother Mary.)

Rhapsody I, II, and III form a passion triptych of sorts, a sequence of three photos that show a male figure, clothed in a loincloth, falling into darkness—and yet, illuminated from above, he looks up toward the light.

Dingwall, Justin_Rhapshody triptych
Justin Dingwall, Rhapsody I, II, III, 2015

I’m reminded of Jesus speaking to his Father in Gethsemane, and at his crucifixion. Of all the art that shows him stumbling on his way to Calvary (“Jesus falls” makes up three of the fourteen stations of the cross). And especially of his slumped body being lowered from the cross. All the supporting characters, however, are absent, intensifying our focus on this lone Christ figure.

Justin Dingwall, Rhapsody I
Justin Dingwall, Rhapsody II
Justin Dingwall, Rhapsody III

Consider some of the compositional similarities between Dingwall’s three Rhapsody photographs and the following explicitly Christological artworks. (To view the full caption, click on the bottom of the image.)

Suggestive of burial, Embrace by Dingwall shows a man wrapped, cocoon-like, in white linen, lying against a black ground. His face, again, catches the light, and he appears to be at peace. He is resting in this silent, in-between time that precedes the emergence of new life.

Justin Dingwall, Embrace
Justin Dingwall, Embrace, 2015

More explicitly inspired by Christian visual traditions is Dingwall’s Liberty triptych, which shows our Christ figure risen from death, glowing, and covered in butterflies, symbol of resurrection.

Justin Dingwall, Liberty (triptych)
Justin Dingwall, Liberty I, II, III, 2015

In Liberty II, the man extends his arms at a roughly forty-five-degree angle from his trunk, palms upward, in a beatific gesture. His eyes are closed as he bathes in light. Christ is often shown in this pose in art of the resurrection, emerging triumphant from his tomb and proudly revealing his transfigured wounds. Dingwall’s image, though, is quieter, more interior.

Justin Dingwall, Liberty II

Liberty I is reminiscent of Jesus inviting Thomas to see and touch his wounds, and especially of Bramantino’s The Risen Christ (see tiled gallery below). People have long marveled at the incredible luminosity of Christ in the latter painting—how the light seems to come from within (the setting is nighttime, as the moon in the background indicates).

Justin Dingwall, Liberty I

So in many ways these photographs by Dingwall are continuous with Christian art history, but they are also open enough to be read in a multitude of other ways or applied to different contexts. Though the nature of Jesus’s resurrection and what it accomplished are, Christians believe, unique in history, stories of death and rebirth are universal, traversing all cultures and religious traditions.

View additional photos from the Albus series at https://www.justindingwall.com/albus.

New Easter Music

As the church continues in this fifty-day season of Eastertide to celebrate the resurrection of Christ, here are some songs I’ve come across for the occasion and really enjoyed. A few are brand-new, while others are new performances.

Good Shepherd New York, a church in Manhattan, has a phenomenal team of in-house musicians and collaborators from coast to coast. They provide music for weekly digital worship services as well as release recordings under the name Good Shepherd Collective. Check out their Easter service from April 4! The songs are listed below.

  • “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” by Charles Wesley / “Celebrate Jesus” by Gary Oliver (1:35)
  • “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles (3:50)
  • “Morning Has Broken” by Eleanor Farjeon (6:59)
  • “Easter Dawn” by David Gungor (11:31)
  • “Because He Lives” by Bill Gaither (15:27)
  • “Waymaker” by Donald Vails (20:45)

The GSC has posted “Here Comes the Sun” as a standalone video on Instagram. It features Brennan Smiley on lead vocals and acoustic guitar; Liz Vice on harmonizing vocals; Charles Jones on Hammond organ; John Arndt on piano; Jesse Chandler on flute, clarinet, and saxophone; Joseph M on electric guitar; Tyler Chester on bass guitar; and McKenzie Smith on drums. The art and stop-motion animation are by Boston-based artist Soyoung L Kim.

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“Hallelujah” (Chorus) from the Messiah by George Frideric Handel, 1742 | Performed by the Orquesta Barroca Catalana (Catalan Baroque Orchestra), the Barcelona Ars Nova choir, and 352 other singers, 2020 [HT: Global Christian Worship]

Last year the Fundación la Caixa in Barcelona launched project #YoCanto Aleluya, soliciting professional and amateur singers alike throughout Spain and Portugal to be part of a “virtual choir,” a phenomenon that has exploded since the pandemic has made live musical concerts a health risk. Participants were asked to submit a video of themselves singing Handel’s famous “Hallelujah” chorus. Igor Cortadellas of Igor Studio then developed a concept for digitally merging all 352 submissions by projecting them on the interior architecture of Barcelona’s Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar (or overlaying them in postproduction?), and he directed a small team to execute this vision. What a feat! The final video was released a few months ago at Christmastime.

“Hallelujah” concludes part 2 of 3 of the oratorio, which covers Christ’s passion and death, resurrection, ascension, and the first spreading of the gospel. The words of the chorus are taken from Revelation 19:6, 11:15, and 19:16. For another blog post featuring an excerpt from Handel’s Messiah, see the Artful Devotion “Worthy Is the Lamb.”

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“Easter Dawn” | Words by Malcolm Guite, 2012 | Music by Zebulon M. Highben, 2021: A conductor, composer, and scholar of sacred music, Dr. Zebulon M. Highben serves as director of chapel music at Duke University. This year he wrote a choral setting of Malcolm Guite’s sonnet “Easter Dawn,” about Mary Magdalene’s encountering the risen Christ on Easter morning. Sung by the Duke Chapel Choir, it premiered last Sunday as part of the chapel’s Easter service and will be part of the online spring concert “Faith & Hope & Love Abide: Meditations on Resurrection,” which goes live tomorrow (April 11) at 4 p.m. EDT (view the program).

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“Keep the Feast (Pascha Nostrum)” by Ryan Flanigan: For this new song, Ryan Flanigan of Liturgical Folk adapted the words of the Pascha Nostrum (“Our Passover”), a traditional Christian hymn for Eastertide that, after the Reformation, was preserved in English in the Book of Common Prayer. It is based on 1 Corinthians 5:7–8, Romans 6:9–11, and 1 Corinthians 15:20–22. Flanigan wrote a fun new melody for it, which he demos here.

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“Zinda Yeshua (Jesus Is Alive)” by Blesson Varghese and James Bovas: This Hindi-language Easter song is from Grace Ahmedabad, an Assemblies of God church in the Indian state of Gujarat. James Bovas sings lead, with Priscilla Mozhumannil on supporting vocals. See the YouTube description for a full list of credits. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

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“Judah’s Lion” | Words by Fulbert of Chartres, ca. 975–1028, and Rick Barnes, 2016 | Music by Rick Barnes, 2016 | Performed by Covenant Presbyterian Virtual Choir and Orchestra, Birmingham, Alabama, 2021

Online events

Organized by Mount Tabor Ecumenical Centre for Art and Spirituality:

>> April 10, 11 a.m.–12:30 p.m. EDT: “The Victory of Life (Easter in Renaissance Art)”: “The most important event of New Testament belief, Christ’s Resurrection, is not described in the Scriptures. That has not prevented artists however from imagining it. As we celebrate Eastertide, we invite you to join Monsignor Timothy Verdon as he reflects on a number of works focused on this theme.”

View more events at https://mounttabor.it/mount-tabor-talks-topics/.

Organized by HeartEdge:

>> April 15, 11:30 a.m.–1 p.m. EDT: “In the Shadow of Your Wings: Musical Bible Study on the Psalms”: Deus Ex Musica presents this interactive event in which participants watch prerecorded live performances of three brand-new vocal settings of Psalm 57, each set to music by a composer representing a different Christian tradition. After viewing the performances, participants will engage in moderated small-group discussions. No musical expertise is required.

Deus Ex Musica is an ecumenical organization of musicians, educators, pastors, and scholars that promotes the use of sacred music as a resource for learning and spiritual growth.

>> April 26, 3–4 p.m. EDT: “Art and the Liturgical Year: Bringing the Church Calendar to Life”: Organized in partnership with the CEEP Network. “This workshop explores ways of engaging artists with churches/congregations using the church calendar. What might inspire artists in engaging with the patterns that underpin the life of many churches, and how might engaging with artists open up understandings of faith in new ways for congregations? Examples of the kind of projects we will explore include initiatives using the visual arts in dialogue with scripture or exhibitions/installations in particular seasons such as Advent or Lent. Fundamentally, though, this workshop seeks explore a range of ideas and approaches and to hear about the benefits both for artists and congregations.”

Panelists:

  • Janet Broderick, Beverly Hills, California: Rector, All Saints Beverly Hills
  • Paul-Gordon Chandler, Casper, Wyoming: Bishop, Diocese of Wyoming; and Founding President of CARAVAN Arts (moderator)
  • Catriona Laing, Brussels: Chaplain, St. Martha & St. Mary’s Anglican Church Leuven; Associate Chaplain, Holy Trinity Brussels
  • Ben Quash, London: Professor, Christianity and the Arts & Director, Center for Arts and the Sacred, King’s College London; Director, Visual Commentary on Scripture Project
  • Aaron Rosen, Washington, DC: Professor, Religion and Visual Culture; Director, Henry Luce III Center for the Arts and Religion, Wesley Theological Seminary; Cofounder, Stations of the Cross Public Art Project

>> June 4, 11, 18, 25, 11:30 a.m.–1 p.m. EDT: “Jesus Is Just Alright: What Pop Songs About Jesus Can Teach Christians Today”: Led by composer, musician, and educator Delvyn Case of Deus Ex Musica. “For over fifty years, pop musicians in all genres have explored the meaning and significance of Jesus in their music. The result is a rich collection of songs that consider important spiritual questions like faith, doubt, and prayer in unique and often provocative ways. Through a combination of listening and discussion, this four-part series invites participants to explore a different spiritual topic each week. Join us to listen to great music that asks tough questions about our faith and our lives as Christians.”

View more events at https://www.heartedge.org/.

Organized by Art + Christianity:

>> April 21, 1–2 p.m. EDT: “Exhibiting Faith in the Museum and Beyond”: World-leading experts Ittai Weinryb, Neil MacGregor, and Jennifer Sliwka will discuss the joys and difficulties of introducing to the general public art that builds on a faith tradition. “They will discuss what has become a major concern for teachers, lecturers and museum curators in many countries. How do you encourage a largely secular audience to step inside a work of art, in such a way that its religious meaning is felt and understood, and the artistic experience can become immersive? . . . Among the topics to be explored are:

  • The opening up of museums and galleries to enhanced audiences during the pandemic.
  • How certain objects are altered by their move from a sacred space into a museum, yet how they also ‘live on’ beyond the museum plinth or computer screen.
  • The need to understand secular inhibitions and the loss of interest in Christianity and to find ways in which works of art can readdress this situation.”

>> April 29, 2–3:30 p.m. EDT: “Coventry Cathedral: Icon and Inspiration”: “Join Alexandra Epps [an Accredited Lecturer for The Arts Society and Guide and Lecturer at Tate Modern, Tate Britain and the Guildhall Art Gallery] for the extraordinary story of the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral as a symbol of peace and reconciliation and its inspiring commitment to the modern. Experience the artistic journey that is the Cathedral discovering the work of many of the world-class artists associated with its many treasures including Jacob Epstein, Elisabeth Frink, John Piper, Graham Sutherland and more.”

View more events at https://www.artandchristianity.org/upcoming-events.

Organized by Image journal:

>> May 5, 56 p.m. EDT: “The Art of Criticism: The People’s Madonna”: “Filmmaker Lucia Senesi grew up in Arezzo, Italy, within walking distance of several Old Master Madonnas. But it wasn’t until she was older—and viewing films by Andrei Tarkovsky and Valerio Zurlini, who were both captivated by the Madonna del Parto in Monterchi—that she saw these paintings with fresh eyes. Her essay in the spring issue of Image describes the fascinating history of a Madonna commissioned by peasants, executed by a Renaissance master, condemned by popes, and preserved through wars and social upheaval. She’ll talk with culture editor Nick Ripatrazone about film, the populism of sacred art, and the scandal of a woman pregnant with God.”

>> May 26, 56 p.m. EDT: “The Art of Imagery: You Are What You Contemplate”: “Artist Scott Erickson wanted to design a series of Stations of the Cross that people in his Portland neighborhood could encounter without the barrier of having to enter a church building—and he wanted to make them accessible to all. The result is a series of downloadable, printable images that have appeared all over the globe. His most recent book is Honest Advent: Awakening to the Wonder of God-with-Us Then, Here, and Now. He’ll speak with Image editor in chief James K.A. Smith about church, art, and ‘spiritual formation through image contemplation.’”