Roundup: Advent calendar of songs, free Alvin Ailey season, Bill Murray plays Job, and more

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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

Brezinka, Wayne_Job
Early working prototype for 2020 Disrupted: A Re-Assembled Life by Wayne Brezinka

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.

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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.

Roundup: The Crucifixion in modern art, “Lift Every Voice” ballet solo, and more

VISUAL MEDITATION: “Waking Up from Apathy,” on Philip Evergood’s The New Lazarus: My latest visual meditation for ArtWay has just been published. It’s on a crowded, noisy, garish painting that, honestly, is distressing to look at. And it’s supposed to be. Because it exposes what Martin Luther King Jr. called the triple evils of society: racism, militarism (war), and economic exploitation (aka extreme materialism, a systematic cause of poverty). Though Philip Evergood was not a Christian, he draws on Christian narrative and iconography, with the figures of Lazarus and Christ, to protest the cycles of violence that we need to rise out of before we self-destruct.

Evergood, Philip_The New Lazarus
Philip Evergood (American, 1901–1973), The New Lazarus, 1927–54. Oil and enamel on canvas mounted on wood, 148 × 237.2 cm. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

The see-nothing, hear-nothing, say-nothing figures in the background remind me of people today who insist that racism does not exist and therefore tune out the cries of Black Lives Matter, for instance. I’m implicated too by these symbols of willful ignorance, because I admit that I do not often care to question where my food, clothes, coffee, chocolate, and other conveniences come from, or how the businesses I regularly support with my dollars treat their employees.

Evergood was politically engaged in both his art and his life, espousing egalitarian ideals. He participated in strikes and demonstrations for workers’ rights and was jailed more than once and beaten by police. He was greatly influenced by Mexican muralism, and he embraced the label of “propaganda” for his art, acknowledging that he was trying persuade the public to join the cause of social justice. “He was a figurative painter when much of the art world placed greater value on abstraction,” writes the University of Kentucky Art Museum, “and he was a moralist when moralizing was not considered an option for serious painters.” Nevertheless, he had a successful career, and his work is in many major museum collections, including the Tate Gallery, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Hirshhorn Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

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PODCAST EPISODE: “How a ‘biblically illiterate’ generation can discover Christian art,” Holy Smoke, July 28, 2020: I love hearing Ben Quash [previously] discuss specific artworks in detail! He brings such reverence, inquiry, wonder, curiosity, and openness to his looking and interpreting. For this interview with Carmel Thompson he has selected six Christ images spanning the early Renaissance through contemporary eras: the side-by-side Byzantine-inspired Healing of the Man Born Blind and Transfiguration panels of the Maestà Altarpiece by Duccio, the classically beautiful Descent from the Cross by Rogier van der Weyden at the Prado (“probably the painting that put realistic tears on the map of Western art”), Albrecht Dürer’s daring self-portrait as Christ, a homely Christ in the Wilderness: Consider the Lilies by Stanley Spencer, a grotesque Crucifixion by F. N. Souza (with reference to crucifixions by Grünewald, Picasso, Sutherland, and Bacon), and Michael Landy’s kinetic sculpture Doubting Thomas.

In addition to providing individual commentaries, Quash also talks about reading art theologically instead of just aesthetically, art as developing physical sight toward spiritual insight (external and internal seeing), the persistence of Christian iconography in the art of today, and the ways in which art can implicate the viewer.

Weyden, Rogier van der_Descent from the Cross
Rogier van der Weyden (Netherlandish, 1399–1464), Descent from the Cross, before 1443. Oil on panel, 204.5 × 261.5 cm. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.

Crucifixion by F. N. Souza
F. N. Souza (Indian, 1924–2002), Crucifixion, 1959. Oil on board, 183.1 × 122 cm. Tate Modern, London.

There’s so much that’s quotable in the conversation, but because it applies to the ArtWay meditation I linked to above, I’ll just highlight part of his discussion of nonreligious artists’ attraction to Crucifixion imagery in the twentieth century. The Isenheim Altarpiece (1515), he says, a visual reference point for many modern artists,

shows an agonized Christ whose tongue is swollen and protruding from his mouth, whose body is covered in sores, whose skin is tinged green, whose fingers are curled up in agony. There’s no idealization here of what a death like that might have been. Instead there’s a strong assertion that the extremes of human pain and suffering are not alien to the Christian message. And yet it’s a religious image—this is a Christian image painted for a Christian context.

When that work comes into contact with the new traumas of the twentieth century—we talked about [Stanley] Spencer and the Second World War, here [Francis Newton] Souza experiencing colonialism in India—when that painting comes into contact with those sorts of extremes of human experience, it activates, it speaks to them, and calls forth new artistic responses, because it feels as though Christianity can still speak, even in those extremes. And I think Souza, like [Graham] Sutherland and [Francis] Bacon, while they may not have felt comfortable with traditional Christianity, saw the power of that Christian tradition to in some way help them articulate the traumas and the horrors of their own time.

So that’s a very interesting work, and typical of several examples of the extraordinary way in which we might think we’re in a secular age, but Christian iconography is probably as lively as ever—although it’s doing new things—in the work of modern and contemporary artists.

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SONGS . . .

from the GOOD SHEPHERD COLLECTIVE: Spearheaded by David Gungor and Tyler Chester, the Good Shepherd Collective [previously] “creates liturgical art to inspire the Christian imagination, that we may embody the love of Christ for the good of our neighbors.” They’ve just released an album of ten hymns. One of them is “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” queued up in the liturgical service video below, and though it didn’t make the final album cut, I also really like their version of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”

from Family Company: Charles Jones, the lead singer on both of the above videos, is also a part of Family Company, an LA-based music collective celebrating the traditions of soul, blues, and R&B. You might enjoy these seventies covers of theirs: “Heaven Help Us All” (popularized by Stevie Wonder), featuring Charles Jones, and “Let Us Love” by Bill Withers, featuring Teddy Grossman. See more on their YouTube channel.

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BALLET SOLO: “Lift Every Voice and Sing”: Premiering at the Lincoln Center in 2019, Ounce of Faith is a contemporary ballet choreographed by Darrell Grand Moultrie, the score a mix of jazz standards, original music, and spoken word. This excerpt is performed by Khalia Campbell of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, with movements suggestive of both struggle and pride.

Known as the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was written in 1899 by writer and activist James Weldon Johnson and set to music by his brother, John Rosamond Johnson. The hymn is sung here, just the first of its three verses, by Aisha Jackson, with Dante Hawkins on piano. It’s a song of historical remembrance and lament but also of hope, a rallying cry to move forward together, in unity, out of our “dark past,” into the truth of God, continuing to fight injustice wherever we find it so that everyone can live free. It acknowledges that God is the one who leads his people in love and who wills liberty, and it supplicates: “Keep us forever in the path [of Your light], we pray.” Learn more about the hymn in this NPR feature. See also this UMC Discipleship article, especially the part where Dr. James Abbington, a choir director and a scholar of African American sacred music, answers the question, “Is this a hymn just for African Americans or is it for all people?”

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LITERARY ESSAY: “To Sit with an Onion” by Elizabeth Harwell: God “is tethered to this world in delight” and does not weary of it as we do, writes Elizabeth Harwell after having sat with a mussel shell for one hour, upon the advice of Robert Farrar Capon. (An exercise in wonder! Any inanimate object will do.) Harwell marvels at how the shell—blueberry-blue and milk-white, cold, curvaceous, smooth—was “an entire world to the mussel who called [it] home,” and now, since she picked it up off a Maine beach, it sits in a silver dish in her dining room, a reminder of the Creator’s quiet mirth. And there’s much more where that came from. “That shell represented one of thousands (millions?) of pearly homes that will never lay bare in front of human eyes—miles of ocean floor, covered in secret delights, that began as thoughts in my Father’s mind. We humans can be so self-important that we’ve never considered that God is enjoying parts of creation that none of us will ever see.” Read the whole essay at The Rabbit Room.

(Quash’s discussion of Stanley Spencer’s Wilderness series in the abovementioned podcast, in which Christ gets down on the ground like a curious child to observe wildflowers, scorpion, hen, dovetails nicely with this essay!)