Lent Playlist

Wednesday, February 17, is the start of Lent, a forty-day season of penitence and renewal. It’s not so much about making resolutions as it is about drawing near to God and encountering his grace afresh—at the foot of the cross.

That closeness entails confronting, confessing, and repenting of sin—sins of commission and omission. (The Book of Common Prayer reminds us that we sin “by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”) It’s an uncomfortable process, but one that grows us, makes us healthy. It makes our relationships and communities healthier too. Jesus’s grace is not just warm fuzzies in the hearts of private individuals but, rather, works itself out in the world.

As a companion for the Lenten journey, I’ve curated a Spotify playlist of songs for the season, a mix of prayers and praises to the Triune God whose strength avails to meet us in our weakness and our need. Some are invitational, others are penitential, and others are celebratory. Along with images of dust, blood, wilderness, and death, there are themes of victory and rising, healing and wholeness, rivers that cleanse, rivers that quench thirst, agricultural metaphors of planting and growth, calls to lay down one’s burden and to rest in the Savior’s love. There are songs of pursuing and of being pursued (us calling out to God, God calling out to us), for as we deepen our desire for God, we come to realize how deep God’s desire is for us.

The playlist opens with “That We Might See” by Indianapolis folk duo Sister Sinjin, a setting (with slight modifications) of this Christina Rossetti poem:

Lord, purge our eyes to see
Within the seed a tree,
Within the glowing egg a bird,
Within the shroud a butterfly:

Till taught by such, we see
Beyond all creatures Thee;
And hearken for Thy tender word,
And hear it, “Fear not: it is I.”

I chose this as the introductory song because, first, it expresses how out of “death” or dormancy can come great life and beauty—as with the buried seed that, once germinated, brings forth lushness. This is one of the prime metaphors of Lent, and this song is a supplication that we would have eyes to see it and, what’s more, participate in it (see Rom. 6). Second, I like how it reminds us of the tenderness and approachability of Jesus. Some people enter Lent with a sense of dread, fearing that their sins are too great, or that they will never measure up to some set standard of piety. But Jesus tells us not to be afraid. His love and mercy know no bounds. He wants to set us free from our illusions of self-sufficiency and for us to rely on his Spirit to work good things in and through us.

Let me share just a handful of other song highlights.

“Simple Gifts” is a one-verse Shaker hymn from 1848, performed here by the amazing female trio Mountain Man (Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, Amelia Randall Meath, and Molly Erin Sarle). The Shakers, a Christian sect, were known for their use of dance during worship, and “bowing,” “bending,” and “turning” are dance instructions as much as they are instructions for life. Simplicity is another hallmark of the Shakers, a virtue and a discipline that Lent summons us to.

Another Lenten virtue is silence. In 2018 Paul Zach released the EP God Is the Friend of Silence, whose title track is inspired by a Mother Teresa quote: “We need to find God, and God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence.”

There are many originals from the past decade on the playlist, but there are also a lot of classic hymns: “Amazing Grace” (to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun”), “Softly and Tenderly” (intriguingly reharmonized by the Wilderness of Manitoba), “I Am Thine, O Lord,” “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” “I Need Thee Every Hour,” “Grace That Is Greater,” “Nothing but the Blood,” “Near the Cross,” “Just as I Am,” “Jesus Paid It All,” “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus,” “Where He Leads Me.” And a beautiful adaptation of “I Surrender All” by Chanda Rule, who revised the first verse to this:

O Beloved, I surrender
All my heart I freely give
Ever open, ever trusting
Breathing with my Source, I live

Also included are several settings of the ancient liturgical prayer Kyrie (“Lord, have mercy”)—by Hildegard of Bingen, Josquin des Prez, Isaac Wardell, and the monks of Keur Moussa Abbey in Senegal (sung in Wolof). Plus the fourteenth-century prayer known as the Anima Christi, with music composed by jazz master Mary Lou Williams using a 6/8 rhythm pattern and a bass clarinet.

Soul of Christ, be my sanctification
Body of Christ, be my salvation
Blood of Christ, fill my veins
Water of Christ’s side, wash out my stains

Passion of Christ, my comfort be
O good Jesus, listen to me
Lord, have mercy on me

. . .

The entire Lent album by Liturgical Folk is inspired by specific Lenten readings from the Book of Common Prayer. My favorite song is “Willing Minds,” based loosely on the collect (succinct prayer) for the Fifth Sunday in Lent:

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The melismatic phrases (in which one syllable is stretched out across multiple successive notes) underscore the flightiness of the human will, our inconstancy, our lack of rootedness.

“Create in Me” by Terry Talbot, covered by The Acappella Company in the video below, is a prayer that’s pieced together from various verses of scripture, starting with Psalm 51:10:

Other favorites, which I’ve featured on the blog before, are Leon Bridges’s “River” [previously] and “Hallelujah” by MaMuse [previously]. “I’m gonna let myself be lifted,” the latter asserts.

As much as Lent is about dying to sin, it’s also about rising with Christ, so resurrection is present throughout—in biblical narrative songs about Jonah, Lazarus, Jairus’s daughter, and Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones, for example (foretastes of Easter), but also in songs of personal testimony and aspiration. The theme is especially punctuated in the final few selections. “Where All New Life Begins” by John Lucas seeks to define faith, landing on “Faith is laying your body down / And believing new life will come up from the ground.” Carrie Newcomer’s “Lean in Toward the Light” opens with a similar image of buried seeds, which stretch out underneath the cold winter earth as they prepare to sprout (that is, resurrect), their growth enabled by the light; “keep practicing resurrection!” exclaims the second stanza.

The last two songs are centered on Romans 8. “The Spirit of Life” by Psallos is a contemporary setting of verses 1–17 and part of a larger project. For the final, “sending forth” song I’ve chosen “Conquerors” by Hiram Ring, which is quieter, less anthemic, than the previous one, but its chorus rings of Romans 8:37 and makes for a powerful closing:

We are more than conquerors
Heading out into this world
Freed from chains and strengthened now
’Cause his love is all around

Lent playlist cover (Van Gogh)

This is just a sampling of the 150 songs on Art & Theology’s Lent playlist, which I will probably build on indefinitely. Later in the season I plan to publish a different list specifically for Holy Week.

To add the playlist to your account, open the link, then click on the More (…) icon and select “Save to Library.”

Playlist cover art: Vincent van Gogh, Rain (detail), Saint-Rémy, 1889, Philadelphia Museum of Art

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God Who Saves (Artful Devotion)

Bearden, Romare_New Orleans, Ragging Home
Romare Bearden (American, 1912–1988), New Orleans: Ragging Home (from the Of the Blues series), 1974. Collage of plain, painted, and printed papers, with acrylic, lacquer, graphite, and marker, mounted on Masonite panel, 36 1/8 × 48 in. (91.8 × 121.9 cm). North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

You will say in that day:

“I will give thanks to you, O LORD,
for though you were angry with me,
your anger turned away,
that you might comfort me.

“Behold, God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid;
for the LORD GOD is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation.”

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day:

“Give thanks to the LORD,
call upon his name,
make known his deeds among the peoples,
proclaim that his name is exalted.

“Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously;
let this be made known in all the earth.
Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”

—Isaiah 12:1–6

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SONG: “Surely, It Is God Who Saves” | Text: Adapted from Canticle 9, “The First Song of Isaiah,” in the Book of Common Prayer (based on Isaiah 12:2–6) | Music by Uptown Worship Band, performed on Songs from Earth, Our Island Home (2014)

For another Artful Devotion featuring the Uptown Worship Band, see “Exalted Trinity.”


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 28, cycle C, click here.

Roundup: Too much religion; the single story; fore-edge paintings; choral evensong; and more

EXHIBITION REVIEW: “Overstating the religious?” by Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times: Michael Wright brought to my attention an old review of the 2003 LACMA exhibition “The Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art,” in which art critic Christopher Knight harshly faults the curators for using religion as the organizing principle . . . of an exhibition of religious art. He says it’s “bizarre” and “inappropriate” that

traditional artistic concerns of art museum exhibitions – style, historical context, connoisseurship, artist biography, etc. – play no part in [the objects’] presentation. Instead, LACMA’s galleries unfold as the articulation and embodiment of a religious philosophy. . . . You will leave this exhibition having not a clue who these artists were . . . and how (or if) their imagery evolved. Instead, the reason for the art’s inclusion is to instruct us in various aspects of the embodiment of perfect compassion – that is, to provide experience with critical theological nuances of “the Middle Way.”

Mandala of the Buddhist Deity Chakrasamvara
Mandala of the Buddhist deity Chakrasamvara, Nepal, 1490. Mineral pigments on cotton cloth, 46 × 34 5/8 in. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California.

The review itself struck me as bizarre—that Knight decries the exhibition’s focus on the religious meaning of these Tantric paintings, which he considers secondary to their aesthetic qualities and altogether outside the purview of an art institution to comment on. I was glad to see that several readers responded in letters, such as Andy Serrano, who wrote that “up until recent centuries, people did not make art for art’s sake. People who made religious art made it in order to enhance the religious experience in one way or another. Separating religious art without the context of religion is like trying to swim without getting wet.” Phil Cooke chimed in, “The fact that Knight sees no legitimate connection between art and the religious faith that inspired it is at once outrageous and yet sadly typical of current critical assumptions.” [HT: Still Life]

A decade and a half after this exhibition closed, I’ve observed that curators, critics, and art historians oftentimes still struggle to discern or articulate (or else they simply neglect) the theological content and/or devotional purposes of religious art, as they preoccupy themselves instead with the “traditional artistic concerns” Knight mentions. But I do feel that the situation is improving overall, with wider-spread recognition that evaluating certain works of art through the primary lens of religion—if that’s the context in and for which they were created—is not only permissible but essential.

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TED TALK: “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The single story, says Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is when one story (about a person, place, or ethnicity) becomes the only story, creating stereotypes, or a flattened perspective. Adichie admits to having had a single story of her household servant growing up (“poverty”), and later on, of Mexicans (“the abject immigrant”). Many Americans have a single story of Africa. But the problem is, we are all formed by many stories, no single one more definitive than another—and we need to talk about them all. [HT: Sarah Quezada]

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ESSAY: “And God Said to Pastors: Use More Sermon Puns and Plan More Parties” by W. David O. Taylor, Christianity Today: Taylor gives three reasons to practice levity and humor in public worship, quoting Augustine, Chesterton, Lewis, Barth, Capon, Buechner, Ratzinger, and Eugene Peterson along the way. I especially like his first point about grace and hyper-abundance.

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ESSAY: “In Defense of Owning Too Many Books” by Daniel Melvill Jones, The Curator: I relate to this author’s tottering stacks of books throughout his house—having exhausted my shelf space, I also have them in closets, hutches, and chests. I’m a bibliophile, what can I say. Probably about a third of the books in my personal library I haven’t read yet, which, I affirm with Daniel M. Jones, is both humbling and tantalizing, a “promise of ideas to explore.”

Potential is not in the books you’ve read but in those that remain unread. Therefore, you ought to expand the rows of what you do not know as much as your resources allow, and expect them to keep growing as you get older and accumulate more knowledge.

The books you surround yourself with “will feed [your] life and output in unseen ways.” So stock up!

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FORE-EDGE PAINTINGS: The Boston Public Library has one of the world’s finest collections of fore-edge paintings, an art form originating around the tenth century but popularized in the eighteenth, utilizing as a surface the edge of a book opposite its spine. Over time, the content of these paintings evolved from decorative or heraldic designs to landscapes and narrative scenes, like these two from volumes 1 and 2 of a Bible printed in Edinburgh in 1803. [HT: Public Domain Review]

Annunciation (fore-edge painting)
The Annunciation after Fra Lippo Lippi, painted on the fore-edge of a Bible (vol. 1 of 2) printed in Edinburgh in 1803. Collection of Boston Public Library.

Last Supper (fore-edge painting)
The Last Supper after Leonardo da Vinci, painted on the fore-edge of a Bible (vol. 2 of 2) printed in Edinburgh in 1803. Collection of Boston Public Library.

Great Big Story recently featured contemporary fore-edge painter Martin Frost, who specializes in the vanishing variety. Cool!

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MUSIC DOCUMENTARY: “Elizabeth I’s Battle for God’s Music,” presented by Lucy Worsley: Aired in October 2017 on BBC Four, this hourlong program presents a history of choral evensong, the Protestant church service of music and prayer born out of the English Reformation and still performed today. Worsley moves through the Tudor monarchs, discussing their relationship to sacred music—from Henry VIII, who broke away from the Catholic Church but didn’t want to abandon the Latin mass, and who thus hired Thomas Tallis to compose in a more austere style in which the words of the liturgy could be more easily understood; to his son Edward VI, who, in his dislike of elaborate music, ordered the disbanding of choirs and the destruction of organs, but also supported the creation of the first complete English prayer-book (Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer) and John Marbeck’s musical guide to it; to Mary I, who returned England to Catholicism, with its high-church music, all in Latin; and finally Elizabeth I, a moderate Protestant whose compromising spirit led to the reinstatement of English evensong but with much leeway given as to how it is set, whether in monophony, homophony, or polyphony. Elizabeth’s patronage and legal protections of church music made possible the glorious compositions of, among others, William Byrd, and ensured the survival of choral evensong. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

Choral evensong is a continuing tradition, and Worsley concludes by highlighting its new possibilities, such as the Oxford Blues Service by Roderick Williams. Listen to an excerpt on the SoundCloud player below.

Roundup: Norman Rockwell updated; snow-crystal photography; Good Samaritan icon; and more

Freedom of Worship by Hank Willis Thomas and Emily Shur
Hank Willis Thomas (American, 1976–) and Emily Shur (American), Freedom of Worship, 2018. While Norman Rockwell’s illustration of the same name contains specific representations of Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism, this reinterpretation goes even further to include Islam, Native American spirituality, and Sikhism.

NEW PHOTOGRAPH SERIES: “The Four Freedoms” by Hank Willis Thomas and Emily Shur: In his 1941 State of the Union address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt insisted that people in all nations share Americans’ entitlement to four basic freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. This famous speech became the basis for Norman Rockwell’s set of four illustrations, originally published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1943, that have become some of history’s most iconic representations of the American idea.

Artist Hank Willis Thomas and photographer Emily Shur decided to reimagine these scenes with a cast that’s more representative of American diversity. One of the eighty-two final images they created is published on the cover of the current issue of Time magazine. It and others will form the backbone of a national billboard campaign by the nonpartisan organization For Freedoms to encourage civic engagement. “We believe that if artists’ voices replace advertising across the country, public discourse will become more nuanced,” their website says.

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IN CONCERT: Eric and I went to see brother-sister folk duo The Oh Hellos (Tyler Heath and Maggie Heath Chance) in Baltimore earlier this month and had a great time. My favorite song from their set list was “Soldier, Poet, King,” which describes Jesus’s coming in all three roles—perfectly appropriate for the upcoming Advent season! Jesus, the Word of God, comes to tear down Satan’s kingdom and establish his just rule in our lives and world (1 John 3:8bRev. 19:11–16). The final verse affirms Jesus’s status as Messiah, the waited-for “Anointed One,” and celebrates his power marked by humility, even unto death. The blood he wears into battle is his own.

There will come a soldier
Who carries a mighty sword
He will tear your city down
O lei o lai o lord

There will come a poet
Whose weapon is his word
He will slay you with his tongue
O lei o lai o lord

There will come a ruler
Whose brow is laid in thorn
Smeared with oil like David’s boy
O lei o lai o lord

The Oh Hellos’ nationwide tour continues through the end of the year, so visit their website to see if they’ll be stopping near you.

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NEW ALBUM: Crumbs by Liturgical Folk: Liturgical Folk (previously here and here) released its third album this month, which “build[s] on the themes of eucharist and the mission of the church to bring peace and reconciliation to the world.” The title comes from the track “Prayer of Humble Access,” a verbatim setting from the “Holy Eucharist Rite I” in the Book of Common Prayer that alludes to the story of the Syrophoenician woman.


Most of the song texts on the album come from that traditional Anglican prayer-book and were set to music by Ryan Flanigan, though a few texts are contemporary. “Lord, Lord, Lord,” for example, was written in the wake of the August 9, 2014, shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and amid the subsequent escalation of racial tensions in the country. “As a privileged, white, middle class, American man,” Flanigan wrote,

I felt for the first time in my life the systemic injustice against black males in our country. What I found most troubling, besides death itself, was the response of some white, privileged people to the shooting, particularly the response of some Christians on social media and the News. When we should have been mourning with those who mourn, confessing our fears and sins, and seeking reconciliation, many of us turned a blind eye or, worse, assumed a posture of defensiveness and denial. I wrote this song as a corporate confession of sin to God and our fellow men, a plea for God to forgive us and restore our broken trust with him and with those we’ve failed to love.

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WORLD’S FIRST SNOWFLAKE PHOTOS: “The Man Who Revealed the Hidden Structure of Falling Snowflakes”: Maryland saw its first snow of the season this week, as did most of the East Coast, which means Twitter saw a flurry of snowflake images! The Smithsonian posted about Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley (1865–1931), whose perfection of innovative photomicrographic equipment and techniques (which included chilled velvet and a turkey feather) enabled him to photograph thousands of individual snowflakes without their melting, providing valuable scientific records of snow crystals and their many types.

The first person to photograph a single snowflake, . . . Wilson A. Bentley used a microscope with his bellows camera—plus years of trial and error—to get a photo of one flake in 1885. But he didn’t stop there. Bentley went on to take thousands more, . . . which helped support the belief that no two snowflakes are alike. In 1903, he sent 500 prints of his snowflakes to the Smithsonian, hoping they might be of interest to our Secretary. The images are now part of the Smithsonian Archives.

Snowflake photo by Wilson Bentley

Snowflake photo by Wilson Bentley

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BALKAN ICON: “Transforming a Parable: The Good Samaritan”: Run by David Coomler, a museum researcher, Icons and Their Interpretations discusses aspects of traditional Russian, Greek, and Balkan iconography, inviting people to submit photos of icons for identification of subject or meaning, and translation of inscriptions. Recently he wrote about a fourteenth-century Serbian Orthodox fresco that, like many of the church fathers, promotes an allegorical reading of the parable of the good Samaritan. In this interpretation, the man en route to Jerusalem is Adam, or Everyman, who is beaten by demons; the priest and the Levite represent the law of Moses and the priesthood of Aaron, which cannot help the wounded man. But the “good Samaritan,” Jesus, stoops down to save, carrying the man not on a beast of burden but on his own back, to an “inn,” the church. He hands two “coins,” the Bible and tradition, to the innkeeper, and promises to return. See further image details and commentary at the web link above.

Good Samaritan fresco (Balkans)
Parable of the Good Samaritan (see bottom register), 14th century. Fresco in the narthex of the Patriarchal of Pech, a Serbian Orthodox monastery in Kosovo.

Good Samaritan fresco (Balkans) (detail)

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OBITUARY: Christian composer Kurt Kaiser dies at 83: On November 12, Kaiser passed away at his home in Waco, Texas, after a six-decade-long career in composing, playing, arranging, and producing Christian music. A Gospel Music Hall of Famer and a progenitor of CCM, he’s best known for his song “Pass It On,” but I know him for “Oh How He Loves You and Me,” two renditions of which are posted below; the first is a solo performance by Vanessa Williams with gospel piano accompaniment by Richard Smallwood, and the second is performed a capella in four-part harmony by Kaoma Chende with the use of overdubbing.