When Eric and I were in Amalfi on the southern coast of Italy this August, we chanced upon a charming little fountain just off the town’s main street in Piazza dello Spirito Santo. Built during the eighteenth century in stone, with two marble faces that spout water, it is known, in local dialect, as the Fontana de Cape ’e Ciucci (Donkey’s Head Fountain), since the donkeys arriving from the nearby mountain village of Pogerola with heavy loads would stop here for water.
What makes the fountain unique, though, is the elaborate presepe (nativity scene) sited inside, an addition made in 1974 by Giuseppe Buonocore, Vincenzo Livano, and Nicola Pepe, who placed various small figurines on and around the rocky outcrop. Over the years, several of these figurines have become submerged by the flowing water. But a local family, the Infantes, takes care of maintaining the presepe, keeping it in decent condition.
Handmade presepi are a living tradition in and around Naples, and they are notable for their blending of the sacred and profane: biblical figures like the Holy Family, the shepherds, and the magi are set alongside vignettes of Neapolitan life in the eighteenth century (when the making of presepi was at its peak). Shoemakers and innkeepers, bakers and pizzaioli (pizza makers), fishmongers and butchers, carpenters and blacksmiths, bricklayers and fruit vendors and tailors—just ordinary people going about their everyday lives, with Jesus right in their midst (though in this case, it appears that he is missing from the manger!). And in addition to the traditional ox and ass, there are geese, rabbits, ducks, chickens, and other native animal life present.
Photos by Victoria Emily Jones/ArtandTheology.org.
Christmas isn’t over yet, so I hope you’re still celebrating! As has been the case for centuries, many Christians spread their holiday festivities over twelve days, from December 25 to January 5, followed by the culminating feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Epiphany commemorates the visit of the magi to the Christ child and thus God’s physical manifestation to the Gentiles. In Spanish-speaking countries and communities, it’s commonly known as Three Kings Day. This year it just so happens to fall on a Sunday.
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” . . .
After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.
Los Jíbaros, also known as the Cuarteto Flores, were a popular and influential Puerto Rican group founded in New York in 1930 by Pedro Flores. Their name refers to the peasant farmers of Puerto Rico, who developed a style of mountain music, jibaro music, that’s rooted in music brought to the island by early settlers from Andalusia and Extremadura in southern and western Spain during the seventeenth century.
The jibaro song “Décimas De Nacimiento” is an aguinaldo (Christmas carol; literally “gift”) that comprises four décimas (ten-line stanzas) performed in dialogue. In this traditional poetic form, each line contains eight syllables and follows a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBAAB—but here the poet has adapted the scheme to ABBAACCDDC. The two singers perform to an accompaniment of three guitars and a guiro (scratch gourd).
En un pesebre nacio A eso de la medianoche Un niño que sin reproche Clamaron hijo de Dios Una estrella iluminó El sitio donde María Tenía en brazos al Mesías Que acaba de nacer Al que empezaban a ver Al amanecer del día
Los tres magos soberanos De los reinos del Oriente Vinieron muy diligentes A ofrendar su Dios cristiano Y todo el mundo pagano Recuerda las profecías Pues sabian que nacería Pronto el hijo de Israel Y que lo iban a ver Al amanecer del día
Todas las aves cantaban Olian todas las flores Bonita luz y colores Las astros del cielo daban Los buenos sabios oraban Los réprobos se escondian En las pajas ya había Nacido el niño sonriente Se postró un mundo creyente Al amanecer del día
Y a través de las edades Recordando al soberano El universo cristiano Celebra las navidades Dice así, felicidades El humano se extasía Y aún pedimos al Mesías Hijo de María y José Que algo de su gracia nos dé Al amenecer del día
He was born in a manger
An innocent child
Proclaimed the Son of God
A star shone upon
The place where Mary
Held our Savior in her arms
Who had just been born
They beheld him
The three wise men
From the Orient
To offer gifts to the Son of God
And all the pagan world
Remembered the prophecies
That foretold the birth
Of the Son of Israel
And they came to see Him
All the birds were singing
All the flowers were perfumed
Stars in the sky were shedding
Beautiful light and colors
The wise men were praying
The scoundrels were hiding
Already, in the straw
The smiling child had been born
Everyone fell to their knees
Throughout the ages
In memory of our Sovereign
The Christian universe
Celebrates His birth
With good wishes
Humanity is ecstatic
And we still pray for the Messiah
Son of Mary and Joseph
To shed His grace upon us
This is one of many songs that might be heard at a parranda, a Puerto Rican caroling party that moves from house to house, lasting from around 10 p.m. to dawn on any given night of Christmas. The repertoire is a mix of sacred and secular songs, but unlike in the continental US, they are all festive and upbeat. As the carolers progress to each new stop, the head of that house invites them in for food and beverages. Parrandas are one of the leading social activities of the Christmas season on the island.
“Décimas De Nacimiento” was originally released by Columbia Records on vinyl in the 1930s. In 2004 it was reissued by Dust-to-Digital on a compilation Christmas album produced by folk music preservationist Lance Ledbetter and musicologist Dick Spottswood; there it appears alongside other rare recordings of American gospel, blues, and hillbilly music from the twenties and thirties.
Celebrated annually on January 6, El Día de Los Tres Reyes Magos, or simply Three Kings Day, is one of the most important holidays on the Puerto Rican calendar—so much so that Puerto Ricans invented a verb, reyar, that means “to celebrate Three Kings Day.” On the eve of the holiday, children put a shoebox filled with straw under their beds for the animal transports, be they camels or horses, of the Three Kings, who visit their homes with presents between midnight and dawn. Children awake not only to gifts but also to a day of parades and feasting with family and friends. Old San Juan throws an annual festival at the Luis Muñoz Marín Park with live music, food and drink, and free gifts, but the highlight of the day occurs when the Three Kings come walking into town. They start from their unofficial hometown of Juana Díaz in the south and travel around the island, stopping to celebrate in various localities—but no celebration is larger than that in Old San Juan.
Not surprisingly, the Three Kings are among the most popular santos (handmade images of saints and other religious figures) in Puerto Rico. Since camels were unknown to earlier local santeros (makers of religious images), the Three Kings are typically shown riding Paso Fino horses. The gifts they bear may be the three traditional ones—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—or typical Puerto Rican gifts, such as musical instruments. In Puerto Rico, Melchior is shown with dark skin, and he is often given special prominence, especially by santeros of African descent.
The two bultos (small religious carvings) pictured above were gifted to the Smithsonian, along with 3,200-plus other objects, by Puerto Rican folk art collector Teodoro Vidal. Learn more about the Vidal Collection at https://amhistory.si.edu/vidal/. (You may remember me speaking about another bulto donated by Vidal, Señor de la Humildad y la Paciencia, in my Stations of the Cross audio guide.)
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 Epiphany, cycle C, click here.
This article was originally published on the centenary of the truce at theJesusQuestion.org. Because 2018 marks a hundred years since the end of World War I and two hundred years since the composition of the carol “Silent Night,” I thought it appropriate to bring it out of the vault.
On Christmas Eve 1914, along the four-hundred-mile Western Front of World War I, a famous ceasefire took place, as enemy soldiers spontaneously emerged from their trenches, arms laid aside, to celebrate Christ’s birth together. They sang carols, exchanged gifts (jams and candies, cigarettes, newspapers), kicked around a soccer ball, and shared photos of loved ones. They also buried each other’s dead and prayed communally over the bodies, led by chaplains. Some even exchanged home addresses and promised to visit after the war.
One soldier described it in a letter home as “the Wonderful Day.” Another soldier, Pvt. Karl Muhlegg, wrote, “Never was I as keenly aware of the insanity of war.”
Though temporary truces are not unique in military history (they have been recorded since as far back as the Trojan War), never have they been carried out on such a large scale, and accompanied by such fraternization, as that of the Christmas Truce of 1914. Remarkably, this truce grew out of no single initiative but sprang up independently in many of the camps, against the orders of higher-ups. In most places it lasted from Christmas Eve through Boxing Day (December 26), though in some it lasted into January. It is estimated that some 100,000 men took part.
Inspired by this event, French filmmaker Christian Carion wrote and directed a dramatized film version of it, called Joyeux Nöel, which was nominated in 2006 for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. The film focuses on three different regiments—one Scottish, one French, and one German—and their interactions with one another during that first Christmas on the front.
The pivotal scene, in which the truce is initiated, shows a conscripted German opera singer singing “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night) in his trench. The Scottish, stationed downfield, hear the distant song and start playing an accompaniment on bagpipes, which piques the attention of the French. Throughout the song, the German becomes more and more engaged: aware now of a listening audience across the void, he turns around, performing toward them. After the song, all three sides applaud, giving the opera singer the courage to step out of his trench and into No Man’s Land, singing “Adeste Fideles” (O Come, All Ye Faithful)—in Latin, the universal language of the church—and holding up a mini lit Christmas tree as a sign of peace. Continue reading “The Christmas Truce of 1914”→
Salvation is created in the midst of the earth, O God, O our God. Alleluia!
A Russian composer, choral conductor, and teacher, Pavel Tchesnokov (1877–1944) wrote over four hundred sacred choral works up until 1912, when he was forced by the Soviets to focus exclusively on secular compositions; “Salvation Is Created” was his last one. It’s a communion hymn based on a synodal Kievan chant melody and Psalm 74:12: “For God is my King of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth.”
This week Christianity Today published an article by theology and culture professor W. David O. Taylor, titled “Why Putting Christ Back in Christmas Is Not Enough.” I highly recommend it. In it Taylor discusses four fundamental influences on the way Christmas is celebrated in America, beginning with its illegalization by Puritans in the seventeenth century. One public notice warned citizens:
The observation of Christmas having been deemed a Sacrilege, the exchanging of Gifts and Greetings, dressing in Fine Clothing, Feasting and similar Satanical Practices are hereby FORBIDDEN, with the Offender liable to a Fine of Five Shillings.
“So what happens,” muses Taylor,
when the Protestant church in the 17th century evacuates its worship of the celebration of Christ’s birth? A liturgical vacuum is created that non-ecclesial entities willingly fill. The government determines the legal shape of Christmas, the market shapes a society’s emotional desires and financial expectations about the holy day, the ideal family replaces the holy family, and the work of visual artists shape its imagination, while musicians and writers fill the empty space with their own stories about the “magic” of Christmas.
Taylor is not saying we can’t enjoy any of the secular trappings of Christmas (“the grace and goodness of God are not absent from these things”), only that we should recognize that the Christmas story told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke is far more fantastical, more difficult and dangerous, more multicultural and multigenerational, and more relevant than the Christmas story America tells—including American civil religion.
This article was adapted from a lecture Taylor gave, as part of the Fuller Texas Lecture Series, to a gathering of scholars and artists at Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Houston on October 20, which can be streamed via Facebook. (Starts at about 22:40.) The focus is on the critical role songwriters can play in reorienting our imaginations back toward the scriptural accounts of Christ’s birth, going beyond the sentimental and nostalgic into a more thorough habitation of the story in all its shades.
What if the narrative of Matthew and Luke were more determinative of our Christmas holidays than the narrative of Wall Street and primetime television? What if our Christmas songs gave our congregations a chance to sing to God from the depths of their hearts—of their heart’s longings and wonderings, hopes and fears, certainties and doubtings, joys and melancholy yearnings? What if our Christmas songs gave our congregations a chance to encounter the good news afresh—in a way that exceeded their sense of how deeply good, richly mysterious, and wonderfully paradoxical that news could in fact be? What if our Christmas songs offered an opportunity for our congregations to be attuned to each other—across the aisle as well as across denominational and cultural and geographic and linguistic lines—in a way that we never imagined possible?
This lecture was the capstone of the second workshop of the Christmas Songwriters Project, a new initiative sponsored by the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts, the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW), and Duke Divinity School. Co-directing the project along with Taylor are Noel Snyder, a program manager at the CICW with a background in musicology, and Lester Ruth, a historian of Christian worship at Duke. The first workshop, held in March in Grand Rapids, Michigan, brought together twenty-four Christian songwriters from across the US who were specially invited to participate. Following its success, a second one took place October 18–19 in Houston with a new set of eighteen select songwriters, all local. The hope is to conduct future workshops, as soon as next fall, in Nashville, and later in New York City and Los Angeles. A website for the Christmas Songwriters Project is under development and is likely to launch this coming spring.
Over the course of two days, the Houston songwriters performed a close reading of the infancy narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke; studied Charles Wesley’s Hymns for the Nativity of Our Lord, a collection of eighteen of his hymns, published in 1745; and sought to get a sense of the musical aesthetics of today’s top fifteen Christmas carols. They asked themselves a double question: What does Christmas sound like? And what should Christmas sound like? (What new sounds are needed to re-sound the stories in Matthew and Luke?)
During these workshops, there was a heavy emphasis on collaboration. Several fine songs have resulted, which are in various phases of production. Six premiered in their earliest forms in the above video, interspersed with Taylor’s lecture.
One of the highlights is a reprise of the saccharine “Away in a Manger” that takes into account the Massacre of the Innocents and the resultant flight to Egypt of the Holy Family, thereby giving a broader view of the Christmas story, one that coheres better with the Matthean narrative, which ends with Rachel weeping. The clever twists on the original lyrics and the grayer tonality give a sense of the darkness into which Jesus came and also resonate with the experiences, hopes, and fears of many contemporary refugees.
[Update, November 8, 2019: Liz Vice has just released “Refugee King” as a single!]
Away from the manger they ran for their lives
The tiny boy Jesus a son they must hide
A dream came to Joseph, they fled in the night
And they ran and they ran and they ran
No stars in the sky but the Spirit of God
Led down into Egypt from Herod to hide
No place for his parents, no country or tribe
And they ran and they ran and they ran
Stay near me, Lord Jesus, when danger is nigh
And keep us from Herods and all of their lies
I love thee, Lord Jesus, the Refugee King
And we sing and we sing and we sing
And we sing and we sing and we sing
Another highlight is the song “Savior of Mankind,” an original setting of a hymn text by Charles Wesley, performed at around 51:00 in the lecture video. It captures a sense of the cosmic import of the Nativity, and of the overlap of heaven and earth that is the Christ. The line “’Tis all your heav’n on him to gaze”—wow.
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has given birth;
then the rest of his brothers shall return
to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth.
And he shall be their peace.
The backbone of this Folk Angel song is the Advent classic “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” but into this the band has integrated lines from “Joy to the World,” traditionally sung at Christmastime. While the verses plead, “Come!,” the chorus declares, “He has come,” holding together the cries of both seasons. He whom the nations desire is here, “born to reign in us forever.” May earth receive him.
Come, thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.
Joy to the world! The Lord has come; Let earth receive her king. Let earth receive her king.
Born thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a king,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By thine all-sufficient merit,
Raise us to thy glorious throne.
Joy to the world!
The Lord has come;
Let earth receive her king.
Let earth receive her king.
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing!
Come, thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set thy people free.
We are free.
We are free.
We are free.
We are free.
The verse melody is, of course, that well-loved Welsh tune HYFRYDOL, composed by Rowland Hugh Prichard. The chorus and bridge, however, employ an original tune by Folk Angel, resetting key excerpts from Isaac Watts’s carol that emphasize the kingly nature of the infant Christ. This crescendos into a triumphant repeat of the song’s first two lines, and a grateful acknowledgment of God’s fulfilled purposes: a people set free from their fears and sins, granted eternal rest under the loving rule of Christ. Even so, Lord, thy kingdom come.
The Infant Savior by the great Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna brings me such delight—that little rosy, chubby-cheeked baby blessing me, blessing the world, this Christmas. You might call the painting a Christ Pantocrator, but it doesn’t fit the standard iconography, because instead of a half-length adult it shows a full-length child of about one year. Still, this is Jesus, “born a child and yet a king”: he wears a velvet robe with a golden clasp and lining, but underneath, his humble swaddling cloths are revealed, and he’s barefoot. His right hand is raised in a gesture of blessing, and in his left hand he holds, instead of a book (as is traditional in Pantocrator images), a cross-shaped scepter. A cross shape also comprises his “crown”—the three streams of light emitted from his bald little head.
Mantegna’s painting suggests that Christ’s kingship was established at his birth, and that it would be furthered by way of the cross.
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 the Fourth Sunday of Advent, cycle C, click here.
For cello and piano: “In the Bleak Midwinter,” arr. Sheku Kanneh-Mason: Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a multi-award-winning cellist from England who, since being named 2016 BBC Young Musician of the Year, has gone on to release, this January with Decca, his first full-length album (a chart topper), to perform as a soloist at the marriage ceremony of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and to serve, for the 2018–19 season, as a Young Artist in Residence at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Time magazine recently listed him as one of 25 Most Influential Teens of 2018. He’s nineteen years old.
In a recent recording session at Abbey Road Studios, Sheku performed one of his own arrangements with his sister Isata Kanneh-Mason, a pianist who, like him, is on scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music. Sheku is the third of seven siblings, and all of them are musical. They competed together in 2015 on Britain’s Got Talent and regularly perform together. See the CBS Sunday Morning featurette “The family that plays together.”
This piece is, in the truest sense of the word, awesome. Gustav Holst’s melody, which the duo plays straightforwardly for the first verse, is already beautiful; Sheku’s creative coloring of each subsequent verse, utilizing different playing techniques, elevates the song’s beauty even more. I could listen to this on repeat all day long. Oh wait. I have.
For jazz trio and voice: “Love Came Down” and “Comfort Ye,” arr. Deanna Witkowski: This fall, jazz pianist and composer Deanna Witkowski released recordings of two of her arrangements of Advent/Christmas classics: Christina Rosetti’s “Love Came Down at Christmas” and, just last month, “Comfort Ye,” whose seventeenth-century text (based on Isaiah 40:1–8) is by Johann Olearius, with a later English translation by Catherine Winkworth. Witkowski is on piano, Daniel Foose is on bass, and Scott Latzky is on drums, making up the Deanna Witkowski Trio. Sarah Kervin is the vocalist.
ART EXHIBITION: “Accumulations: Hanukkah Lamps,” Jewish Museum, New York City, October 12, 2018–February 9, 2020: This year’s Hanukkah celebrations have just passed (December 2–10), but the Jewish Museum in New York is still running, for quite a while, its exhibition of eighty-one Hanukkah lamps from its collection of nearly 1,050—the largest collection of Hanukkah lamps in the world. The lamps in the current show represent four continents, six centuries, and a range of materials. I’m most drawn to the modern ones, which rethink traditional ideas about the ritual object.
ART ACQUISITION: Christ as the Man of Sorrows by Quentin Metsys: On November 27 the J. Paul Getty Museum announced its acquisition of Christ as the Man of Sorrows by Quentin Metsys (alternatively spelled Massys), one of the leading painters in sixteenth-century Antwerp, known for his delicate modeling and crisp details. For centuries, the painting has been in a private collection, previously unknown to art historians; the Getty purchased it in a private sale. Its discovery and attribution expands Metsys’s oeuvre and is already attracting much attention from scholars. After a short period of conservation and technical study, it will go on view in spring 2019, exhibited to the public for the first time in modern history. It is the first work by Metsys in the Getty’s collection.
SONG: “Why We Build the Wall” by Anaïs Mitchell:Hadestown is a 2016 stage-musical adaptation of a 2010 folk-opera concept album of the same name, both by singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell. It invites audiences on an epic journey to the underworld and back, following two intertwining love stories—that of Orpheus and Eurydice and of Hades and Persephone. I was struck by the current US political resonances of the song “Why We Build the Wall,” which Mitchell says she wrote in 2006. In this A Prairie Home Companion broadcast, Mitchell sings as Hades, king of the underworld, leading her minions in an anthem that celebrates the importance of a nonporous border. She is joined by Chris Thile on mandolin and vocals and by the First-Call Radio Players. The song starts at 1:07.
VISUAL MEDITATION: Mother and Child by Gilly Szego: In a recent contribution to ArtWay, Anglican vicar Jonathan Evens reflects on a work by UK artist Gilly Szego, the wife of a Hungarian refugee. Szego painted Mother and Child in response to the expulsion of South Asians from Uganda in 1972 following a wave of Indophobia. St.-Martin-in-the-Fields, one of London’s most prominent churches, displayed the painting that year, helping to raise awareness of these refugees’ plight and that of others around the world. The figures could easily be read as the Virgin Mary and Jesus, who were themselves displaced from their homeland.
Evens shares some words from Rev. Dr. Sam Wells, St. Martin’s current vicar:
Jesus is a displaced person in three senses. Fundamentally, he is the heavenly one who sojourned on earth. And it didn’t go well: as John’s Gospel puts it, ‘He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him’ (John 1:11). Then he finds himself a refugee in Egypt, his parents fleeing Herod’s persecution. Third, he spends his ministry as an itinerant preacher and healer, with nowhere to lay his head.
Meanwhile the story of Israel is one of migration from beginning to end. Adam and Eve leave the Garden; Noah and family sail away from destruction; Abraham follows God’s call; Joseph and family head down to Egypt; Moses leads the people back; Judah is taken into exile in Babylon; Ezra and Nehemiah tell of the return. None of these people were going on a package holiday: they were refugees, asylum seekers or trafficked persons. There is precisely one verse commanding the children of Israel, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’; there are no less than 36 verses saying ‘love the stranger.’ Care of the alien is how Israel remembers its history with gratitude.
Congrats to the three winners of the Wounded in Spirit book giveaway. Thank you all for entering. I will be giving away another free book, from Eerdmans, sometime in the next month or two, so stay tuned!
ADVENT ART VIDEO:The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks: This year I was invited to make a guest contribution to art historian James Romaine’s annual Art for Advent video series on YouTube. For 2018, he is spotlighting paintings from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, my neck of the woods. I chose to write about The Peaceable Kingdomby the nineteenth-century Quaker preacher-artist Edward Hicks, which visualizes the prophecy of Isaiah 11 about predators and prey lying down together in friendship, and a little child leading them. But Hicks’s image of “peace on earth” is not as simplistic as it may seem at first; there is tension. See the video below, and be sure to check back on the Seeing Art History YouTube channel next week for subsequent videos. For more on Hicks and this favorite subject of his, see this post of mine from 2016. Thank you to Rain for Roots for letting me use their wonderfully playful musical rendition of Isaiah 11 from their family Advent album Waiting Songs.
PODCAST EPISODE: “Mary Poppins,”Technicolor Jesus, episode 49: “If you want a movie that really shows the foolishness of the gospel next to what the world thinks is wise and is turned on its head . . . if you want a movie about the great reversals that are present in the kingdom of God, you don’t need to look any further than MaryPoppins,” says Pastor Becca Messman. The oppressive orderliness booming over people’s lives “is contrasted with something unpredictable and joyful—the wind, dancing chimney sweeps, and this beautiful bird woman giving her crumbs away.” The movie is about what happens when both adults and kids relax into joy.
It’s also about charity. Last year Niles Reddick wrote an article about Mary Poppins as the first female Christ figure in American film, and “Feed the Birds” as a “song-parable” that serves as the linchpin of the movie. While the world would have us pile up our coins in a bank vault, Jesus calls us, against the world’s wisdom, to give them away.
I love this movie. My mom says that from a young age she would play it for me, and I would sit mesmerized for the entire 139 minutes. I remember trying to soothe my baby brother many a time by singing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” Once we were elementary school–age, we would eagerly await the “Step in Time” scene, at which point we would rush to grab brooms from the garage, using them as props as we danced along with Dick Van Dyke—which sometimes ended in injury . . . Now as an adult, I can appreciate some of the movie’s deeper themes, and pick up on its resonances with the upside-down nature of Christ’s kingdom. Can’t wait to see the new Mary Poppins Returns next month!
WRITING CONTEST FOR UK TEENS:“Write on Art”: In an effort to get teenagers learning and writing about art, Art UK and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art are co-sponsoring “Write on Art” for the second year in a row. Any kid between the ages of 15 and 18 who is enrolled in a UK school (Years 10–13) is eligible to enter to win up to £500 by submitting a short personal write-up (400–600 words) on any artwork in the UK’s national collection. “With a disturbing decline in the teaching of art and art history in schools, our Write on Art competition . . . is designed to highlight the importance of art as an academic discipline.” The website includes tips on how to write about art, including where to find relevant vocabulary and other resources. All entries must be submitted by January 31, 2019.
BOOK REVIEW:On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books by Karen Swallow Prior, reviewed by Nick Roark: In September, Brazos Press released Prior’s latest book on reading widely and well, which received a starred review and a Best Book of 2018 in Religion from Publishers Weekly. I’m a big fan of her previous Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, so I’m really looking forward to this one. “Covering authors from Henry Fielding to Cormac McCarthy, Jane Austen to George Saunders, and Flannery O’Connor to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Prior explores some of the most compelling universal themes found in the pages of classic books, helping readers learn to love life, literature, and God through their encounters with great writing. In examining works by these authors and more, Prior shows why virtues such as prudence, temperance, humility, and patience are still necessary for human flourishing and civil society.”
Purchase the book between now and Christmas, and receive a piece of free downloadable art by Ned Bustard. Instructions are on her website, https://karenswallowprior.com/.
NEW ADVENT/CHRISTMAS ALBUMS
Watches of the Night by Matt Searles: “Christian believers are like watchmen, longing to see the first rays of dawn. We long for the darkness of this world to be finally taken away, and the light of Christ to rise in all its splendour. This album is intended to help us as we wait; to lament the brokenness of this world, but to look to the riches of that which is to come. It is an album of longing, but also of profound hope. Light has dawned. Christ has been raised. But we await the full revelation of him in glory. We are still watchmen. Still waiting.
“This is not a loud album. It is one I hope you might be able to listen to if you lie awake unable to sleep, as I so often find the case. I pray it is an album that might help you – like David in Ps 63:6 – to meditate on God in the watches of the night. An album that will orient you to the future, and help you increasingly be someone whose mind is set on the city that is to come. Songs to help you fix your eyes on Christ, and long above all else for his return when we see him face to face.”
After the Longest Night: Songs for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphanyby Steve Thorngate: These fourteen songs are a mix of originals, including settings of the Lukan Canticles (the songs of Zechariah, Mary, and Simeon), and traditionals: “Creator of the Stars of Night,” “What Child Is This,” “Bright Morning Stars,” and “Let the Light of Your Lighthouse Shine on Me.” Best $7 I’ve spent in a while! (Purchase even includes lead sheets.)
ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY: “Art and theology” books published in 2017: I had fun compiling this book list for ArtWay, which spans the disciplines of art history, theological aesthetics, visual theology, philosophy, museum studies, liturgical studies, and Christian ministry. Let me know if I’m missing any titles. (For books published on art and theology between 2014 and 2016, click here.)
But there are also books that focus on the contemporary art world, encouraging Christians to engage works beyond just those with explicitly Christian content or just those made by Christians.
Several books published this year engage with the ideas of leading early Protestant theologians, like Luther, Calvin, and (later) Kuyper, as they relate to visual art, and one even examines Reformational influences on Michelangelo’s late work. A smorgasbord indeed!
Today is the seventh day of Christmas—the celebration continues! Here are two fun songs for your listening pleasure.
^^ “Angels We Have Heard on High,” arranged and performed by the Piano Guys: In this unique piano arrangement for eight hands, Jon Schmidt, Al van der Beek, Steven Sharp Nelson, and Paul Anderson strike, pluck, bow, and percuss the instrument, creating a more complex texture than you would expect. All the sounds you hear (except for the voices) are produced by the piano.
CALL FOR PAPERS: “Art as a Voice for the Church,”Princeton Theological Review: I regret not finding out about this opportunity earlier, as the due date is just a week away, but I’m posting it so that you can be sure to look out for this art and theology–themed issue in the spring!
Graduate students and early-career scholars are invited to submit papers to the spring 2018 edition of the Princeton Theological Review. We welcome papers from various disciplinary perspectives (theology, philosophy, church history, biblical studies, social sciences, etc.) as they relate to the theme of art and the church. How does theology manifest in all different forms of art (painting, poetry, photography, sculpture, music, theater, film, literature, dance, or any other creative endeavors)? How does artistic expression give voice to piety, critique, worship, or spiritual struggle? How has art influenced and been influenced by biblical interpretations, theological movements, historical context, or cultural conditions? Why is art such a powerful medium for Christian expression? All submissions are due January 8, 2018.
The current issue of PTR, released this fall, is on the same topic and is available for free download. Subtitled “A Festschrift for Gordon Graham,” it includes reflections by three leading thinkers on Professor Graham’s latest book, Philosophy, Art, and Religion: Understanding Faith and Creativity, as well as three essays: “Visual Images and Reformed Anxieties: Some Scottish Reflections” by David Ferguson; “The Scandal of the Evangelical Eye” by Matthew J. Milliner; and “God, One and Three—Artistic Struggles with the Trinity” by Gesa E. Thiessen. [HT: millinerd.com]
COMPANION EXHIBITIONS October 10, 2017–January 14, 2018 J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
“Sacred Landscapes: Nature in Renaissance Manuscripts”: “In Renaissance Europe, many people looked to nature for spiritual inspiration and to guide their contemplation of the divine. In manuscripts created for personal or communal devotion, elements of nature—such as rocks, trees, flowers, waterways, mountains, and even the atmosphere—add layers of meaning to the illuminations, which were painted with careful observation of every minute detail. These landscapes remind readers to appreciate, and respect, the wonder of creation.” Read more at The Iris, the blog maintained by Getty curators, educators, conservators, and other staff.
“Giovanni Bellini: Landscapes of Faith in Renaissance Venice”: “Giovanni Bellini’s evocative landscapes are as much the protagonists of his paintings as are the religious subjects that dominated 15th-century Italian art. One of the most influential painters of the Renaissance, he worked in and around Venice, and while his landscapes are highly metaphorical, they also accurately reflect the region’s topography and natural light. Created for sophisticated patrons, Bellini’s works present characters and symbols from familiar sacred stories, set in a dimension of reality and lived experience to a degree unprecedented in the history of Italian painting.”
TEMPORARY INSTALLATION: Yesterday was the last day to see “Nativity Scenes of the World” by Ejti Štih, an installation of thirty culturally diverse, life-size cut-out figures inside the concert hall of Slovenia’s famous Postojna Cave. What a location! Click here for a quick video tour of all the figures.
I’m excited to dig into the new books I got for Christmas! Thanks, family—you’re the best. (And no, Mom, the book-length bibliography of ekphrastic poetry was not a mistake on my wishlist. Yes, really.)
Messenger: Don’t be afraid! Listen! I bring good news, news of great joy, news that will affect all people everywhere. Today, in the city of David, a Liberator has been born for you! He is the promised Anointed One, the Supreme Authority! You will know you have found Him when you see a baby, wrapped in a blanket, lying in a feeding trough. . . .
Heavenly Choir: To the highest heights of the universe, glory to God! And on earth, peace among all people who bring pleasure to God! . . .
Shepherds: Let’s rush down to Bethlehem right now! Let’s see what’s happening! Let’s experience what the Lord has told us about!
Ding dong! merrily on high,
In heav’n the bells are ringing:
Ding dong! verily the sky
Is riv’n with angel singing.
Hosanna in excelsis!
E’en so here below, below,
Let steeple bells be swungen,
And “Io, io, io!”
By priest and people sungen.
Hosanna in excelsis!
Ding dong! merrily on high,
The curse of sin is broken:
Ding dong! open up your eyes,
The celebration’s starting.
Hosanna in excelsis!
[The third verse above, by Rend Collective, replaces the original:
Pray you, dutifully prime
Your matin chime, ye ringers;
May you beautifully rhyme
Your evetime song, ye singers.]
At the birth of God’s Son, heaven and earth danced. For heaven and earth embrace. All things are filled with divine music, and we too are invited to move our lives with grace, in harmony with divine love.
Do you blame me that I sit hours before this picture?
But if I walked all over the world in the time
I should hardly see anything worth seeing that is not in this picture.
—G. K. Chesterton on Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity, from his notebooks (mid-1890s)
The dance of the Mystery of Christ is always going on: the band playing the music of forgiveness never takes a break. . . . The real job of Christians as far as the world is concerned is simply to dance to the hidden music—and to try, by the joy of their dancing, to wake the world up to the party it is already at.