Roundup: Choral setting of Luke 5, portraits of the unhoused, a theology of negative spaces, animated shorts

SONG: “Put out into the deep” by David Bednall (2008), performed by The Gesualdo Six (2020): A verbatim setting of Luke 5:1–11 (RSV), the calling of the disciples, which is the Revised Common Lectionary reading for February 6.

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ESSAYS:

>> “Ghosts in Los Angeles” by Arthur Aghajanian, Ekstasis: The author of this essay reflects on Andres Serrano’s Nomads (1990), a humanizing series of portrait photographs of men and women experiencing homelessness in New York City. “Serrano titled each photograph with its subject’s first name, suggesting a familiarity with those portrayed while retaining their anonymity. . . . The images mimic the visual style of fashion and advertising, while also referencing historical portraits of the wealthy and powerful. The work restores the visibility along with the dignity of its subjects. . . . His diverse group reflects the vulnerabilities we all share, and the grace that sustains us in adversity.”

Serrano, Andres_Bertha (Nomads)
Andres Serrano (American, 1950–), Bertha, from the Nomads series, 1990. Cibachrome, 152 × 125 cm.

>> “The Cleft in the Rock: A Theology of Negative Spaces” by Daniel Drage, Image: This Image journal essay explores profound negative spaces in scripture—the first Sabbath, exile, the passage opened up by the parting of the Red Sea, empty wombs, tombs, nail wounds, the cleft of a rock, the space between the gold cherubim’s wings above the mercy seat—bringing them into conversation with works by contemporary British sculptors David Nash, Rachel Whiteread, and Andy Goldsworthy. Emptinesses that are full and presence via absence are key ideas.

Goldsworthy, Andy_Passage
Andy Goldsworthy (British, 1956–), Passage, 2015. Granite. Private collection, New Hampshire. Copyright of the artist.

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ANIMATED SHORT FILMS:

>> Migrants, dir. Hugo Caby, Antoine Dupriez, Aubin Kubiak, Lucas Lermytte, and Zoé Devise: The graduation project of five film students from the Pôle 3D school in France, this short follows a mother polar bear and her cub who are displaced from their Arctic home. When their ice float runs aground a new habitat and they’re forced to learn a new way of life, the native brown bears treat them with hostility. The filmmakers said the project was initially inspired by the story of the Aquarius, a watercraft filled with refugees that grabbed global headlines when it was refused entry at Italian ports in 2018. [HT: Colossal]

>> Tokri (The Basket), dir. Suresh Eriyat: A father-daughter story set in Mumbai, this stop-motion animated short from Studio Eeksaurus is about mistakes and forgiveness, and how meaningful a kind extended hand from a stranger can be . . . or not. [HT: Colossal]

Album Review: Full Moon in June by Ears to the Ground Family

Ears to the Ground Family is a group of friends in their early thirties, making music together in and around their hometown of Harrisonburg, Virginia. Minimalist and totally acoustic, they sing songs of hope, sustaining faith, and resistance to oppression and empire. Their stylistic influences include the spirituals, soul, hip-hop, R&B, folk/Americana, chant, Taizé, and Anabaptist hymns, especially from the Mennonite tradition, to which they belong.

Ears to the Ground Family
The core members of Ears to the Ground Family are, from left to right, Jake Cochran, percussionist; Matt Dog, trumpeter; Nichole Barrows, lead vocalist; Hannah Win, vocalist; and Dimitris Campos, lead vocalist, classical guitarist, and multi-instrumentalist.

The band formed in 2010 and has “always preferred the outdated and peculiar model of the elusive traveling troubadour,” sharing their music in small settings, unplugged, locally or regionally. Its members first met during the Petrol-Free Jubilee, an annual two-week bicycle-powered music and art tour of the mid-Atlantic, which they went on to participate in as a group for seven years. Its purpose was “to promote peace, social justice, and a healthy planet.”

“We biked two hundred to three hundred miles with ten to twenty people on average, often several bands or musicians with us at a time, and our regular stops and show locations included a lot of farms, community centers, and Catholic Worker houses,” band member Nichole Barrows told me. “Just imagine twenty people rolling down Main Street in your city in the middle of a hot summer afternoon on their bikes, with drums and guitars in tow, ringing their bike bells and singing at the top of their voices! I mean, it was like summer camp on wheels; we brought the show with us!”

This small-scale approach and casual touring schedule, Barrows said, “enables us to root ourselves deeply within our home community and invest in the valuable work that inspires our music.” That valuable work includes church ministry, community organizing, farming, and outdoor education.

In June 2017 Ears to the Ground Family recorded eight original songs (written between 2007 and 2013) plus a traditional African American spiritual, but jobs, family, and other projects prevented them from being able to mix, master, and self-release until recently. Finally, on December 18, 2020, their debut album, Full Moon in June, came into the world, making their music available to a much wider audience for the first time.

“It’s funny,” Barrows said, “some people talk about ‘slow music’ (you know, slow food, etc.) to describe homegrown, independently released local music. But we’re so ‘slow’ that it takes us about ten years to release our first album!”

Infused with prophetic imagination, Full Moon in June denounces the forces of evil at work in the world on a grand scale—things like war, environmental exploitation, predatory lending practices, and the prison industrial complex—and casts a beautiful vision of all things new under Christ. Stop participating in that which is destructive, the album invites, and join instead with the creative work of the Spirit, which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22–23). These songs awaken my enthusiasm for the promised future of all that is and for our journey toward it, sowing seeds of Christ’s kingdom all along the way.

An exploration of “Almond Blossom”

My favorite song on Full Moon in June is the first one, “Almond Blossom” by Dimitris Campos, which uses the image of a tree to signal abundance and renewal. “There’s an almond blossoming in Jerusalem,” it opens. Almond blossoms are a harbinger of springtime, and in fact Israel’s almond trees are the first to bloom each year. The song’s second line, “The buds on a fig tree becoming tender again,” evoke the recurring comparison of God’s people to a fig tree in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Hosea 9:10; Jer. 8:13; Jer. 24) as well as the story of Jesus cursing a fig tree for failing to bear fruit, a symbolic act of judgment against those who reject his ways. The image here, though, is of a withered fig tree becoming healthy and vibrant once again.

The lyrics go on to note how the trees and other parts of the natural world appear to worship God; the “mountains are clapping their hands” (cf. Psa. 98:8; Isa. 55:12), and the trees reach toward the heavens. Humanity, by contrast, turns in on itself, and rather than living into the flourishing it was created for, invents new means of destruction—bombs dropped from drones, for example, leaving orphans in their wake.

(Related posts: “Songs of Lament and Justice by The Porter’s Gate”; 1798 essay, “A Plan of a Peace-Office for the United States” by Benjamin Rush)

In the song, Campos recalls a visit to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, the horror of families posing happily for photos in front of bombers, fighter jets, missiles, military avionics, and other tools of combat, celebrating national might. Campos contrasts the heaviness of those metal death-traps with the light feeling of floating on the “river of life” (cf. Rev. 22:1), and their sterility with a fructifying olive vine, delicately tended (cf. Rom. 11:11–24).

Empires fall—Egypt, Rome; America one day will too, and another will rise in its place. “I proclaim that Jesus, he will decide / If it is that Rome is on I-95”—the highway that the US capital is located off of. Earthly kingdoms that put their trust in arsenals and that deal in death rather than life may be in for a divine toppling. The same goes for corrupt systems.

Jesus himself said as much. For example, in Mark 13:2, he says regarding the Jewish temple complex, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” It’s because the religious establishment at the time had become oppressive and was rejecting Jesus as the Christ. They were trusting in all their rules and learned interpretations of scripture while failing to see the plain revelation of God right in front of them.  

The penultimate stanza of “Almond Blossom” is excerpted from “Canticle of the Turning” by Rory Cooney, a paraphrase of Mary’s Magnificat, which is one of the Bible’s most radical songs:

From the halls of the power to the fortress tower
Not a stone will be left upon a stone
Let the king beware, for your justice tears
Every tyrant from his throne

The song concludes with a reprise of the first two lines, circling back to the image of trees and their eschatological (end times) resonances. In Matthew 24:32–33, Jesus tells his disciples, “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that [the Son of Man] is near, at the very gates.”

“Almond Blossom” is a clever interweaving of biblical text allusions, spanning Genesis to Revelation, that calls America to account for its warmongering while inviting her citizens into the beautiful, lasting, life-giving way of Christ.  

The following poem from the book of Isaiah, about the messianic age, was resounding in my mind as I listened to this song:

For you shall go out in joy
    and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
    shall burst into song,
    and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
    instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
    for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

—Isaiah 55:12–13

Other songs

All but two of the songs on Full Moon in June were written (or cowritten) by Dimitris Campos. Half Greek and half Peruvian, he was raised in a Latino culture in the United States, which itself has mixed Spanish, Indigenous, and African influences. His musical compositions are informed by this background.

“Recession Don’t Bother Me,” subtitled “No te compliques la vida” (Don’t complicate your life), reflects on a mother’s words of advice regarding not staking your identity on material things, and not climbing over others to get ahead. It was released with this statement:

We are releasing this album in the midst of the historic COVID-19 pandemic. The virus has left record numbers of people without work and we realize that in this moment, working-class people are suffering. With that in mind, we want to note that our song “Recession Don’t Bother Me” (which was written during the Great Recession of 2007 and 2008) is not saying “the recession don’t affect me,” because as the current pandemic has shown us, the circumstances and effects of the current situation do indeed have profound consequences for us all. Nor is this song saying that we are insulated from the economic effects of recession because of our wealth or privilege—although we acknowledge that in this current context, many people have had it much harder than we have. What this song is saying is that our current destructive and dehumanizing economy must, one day, collapse. And that we hope to be among those who welcome and rejoice at an exodus from an Egypt to a promised land, even if it means a journey through the desert to get there. We are praying for providence for all those suffering during these deeply trying times.

In downtown Harrisonburg, amidst hip college-town cafés, sits the Rockingham County Jail, right across the street from the courthouse. At certain times of day, men in jumpsuits and chains are very visibly marched to and from these locations. Disgusted by this flagrancy and following the arrest of one of his undocumented friends, Campos wrote “Prison Cells.” It’s a condemnation of America’s for-profit prison system and retributive (as opposed to restorative) model of justice. How does our lust for punishment cohere with Jesus’s blessing on the merciful (Matt. 5:7) and the apostle Paul’s insistence that “love keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Cor. 13:5)? We teach our kids to forgive offenses and to let go of grudges, and yet our criminal law teaches the opposite. Lord, have mercy.

Fourth up on the album is a new interpretation of the spiritual “Sheep, Sheep, Don’t You Know the Road?” from the Georgia Sea Islands, popularized in the 1960s by folk singer and African American music preservationist Bessie Jones, who learned it from her formerly enslaved grandfather. Ears to the Ground Family has expressed the indebtedness of their work to “centuries of creative Black resistance against slavery and oppression,” of which this song is just one example. Its lyrics describe the road of faith as one of pain but also bridges, a road where “there’s no price tag” (cf. Isa. 55:1) and “the sword’s beat down” (cf. Isa. 2:3–4).

On this track the djembe and shekere are played by Jay Beck and Tevyn East, two of the lead organizers of the Carnival de Resistance. “A traveling carnival, village, and school for social change bridging the worlds of art, activism and faith,” this organization seeks to throw off sanitized pieties and “provide a raucous expression of grief and longing and hope for Creation.”

“Painter” is a parable that shows how indulging in sin cuts us off from ourselves and can inhibit us from showcasing God’s glory.

“Moneditas” (Coins), which Campos wrote with Ana Maria Febres, is a Spanish-language song about the emptiness of riches. It echoes Matthew 6:19–20: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

The whimsical “Time, Time, Time,” with its coffee-mug and glass-bottle percussion, seems to me to be a celebration of the unfolding of time just as it is. May we not wish for time to move any faster or slower, but instead appreciate the now and live with an openness to whatever’s next.

“Walnut Textures,” by Campos and Lightning Lucas, encourages a closer relationship with the natural world. It remarks with regret how we have such a strong desire to explore the far reaches of the universe, and yet many of us hardly know the beauty and wonders of our own planet, or even our immediate environs—or if we do, we don’t care enough to protect them. Instead of stewarding nature we squander and abuse it, building highways (dirty paved “rivers”) through forests and then packing cars onto them, increasing air pollution and contributing to global warming. This dominating stance over God’s creation is vanity, and God urges us toward a better way—one of friendship with creation, in which we recognize our mutual groaning for redemption (Rom. 8:22–23) and take up our responsibility as caretakers, which includes adopting sustainable environmental practices.

Spending time in nature is refreshing and even liberating, a chance to experience the givenness of life. Living in right relationship with her now is great practice for the age to come, when all will be reconciled.

The last song, “Shade of the Most High,” was written by Nichole Barrows amid her grief following the death of her mother. It was inspired by the promise in Psalm 91 that we will find rest in the “shadow” of the Almighty God. She says,

I found great comfort in this image of grief as a dark place where God can still find us and bring us rest, because although we feel that we don’t deserve the bad things that are happening to us, we can trust that we are still in his “shade.” And this gift of trust in God’s faithfulness helps us not to fear disease or darkness or even death. I sang these words over myself that year [of my mother’s decline] and I sing them over you now: “With a hope like this, we are fearless, and with a love like this, I will not despair.”

Loss is wrenching and often unexplainable, but it can also be an occasion “to find new life, to find new eyes,” and to lean all the more firmly on the One who bears our sorrows in love.

Already and not yet

When I was talking to Barrows, she expressed emphatically one of the great paradoxes in Christian teaching: “that the kingdom of God is not yet here and that we are together longing for Christ to come make all things new, and also that He is already here, now, on this earth, in this place.” She mentioned how Ears to the Ground Family wishes to affirm not just the spiritual elements of faith (which, I will add, are the central preoccupation of the vast majority of faith-based music) but the physical elements as well, “such as care for the earth and the peace witness and the works of mercy.” This commitment is certainly reflected on their album, which is centered on holistic liberation. I love how it so joyously embraces the broadness of the good news of Jesus Christ, which is not just for individual souls but also for bodies and communities and for the whole created world—presently as well as futurely!

Full Moon in June is available for digital download or as a CD in a cardboard sleeve with handprinted letters (produced by Campos’s vintage, treadle-powered letterpress) and stamped with handmade rubber stamp art. The latter option is a limited edition of 200.

Walking the Via Dolorosa through Amsterdam (Part 3)

This is the final part of my commentary on Art Stations of the Cross: Troubled Waters, a multisite exhibition in Amsterdam running from March 6 to April 22. (Read parts one and two.) Unless otherwise noted, all photos are by Eric James Jones/ArtandTheology.org.

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STATION 10. This is the one station I did not get a chance to see, due to its more limited opening hours. Anywhere, Anytime by Masha Trebukova is a temporary installation in the Mozes en Aäronkerk (Church of Moses and Aaron) in Amsterdam’s Waterlooplein neighborhood. It consists of a nine-foot-tall octagonal structure (a “columbarium”) covered with paintings on newspaper, as well as six large-format “books” of paintings on glossy magazine pages.

Columbarium by Masha Trebukova
Masha Trebukova (Russian, 1962–), Anywhere, Anytime, 2019. Temporary installation at the Moses and Aaron Church, Amsterdam, consisting of an eight-paneled “columbarium” with paintings on newsprint, each panel 60 × 290 cm, and “How to spend it,” six painted-over magazines. Photo courtesy of Sant’Egidio Nederland.

A columbarium is a room, building, or freestanding structure with niches for the public storage of funerary urns (which hold the ashes of the deceased). Ancient Romans decorated theirs with frescoes, often of peaceful scenes of the hereafter. Trebukova, on the other hand, has painted this columbarium with images of war and violence, exposing the savagery that causes death. This is not a celebration of paradise gained; it’s a lament for paradise lost.

Hear the artist briefly introduce the piece:

Columbarium (detail) by Masha Trebukova
Masha Trebukova, Anywhere, Anytime (detail). Photo courtesy of Sant’Egidio Nederland.

Trebukova used as her painting surface pages from newspapers and magazines, the headlines often creating consonance with the images while the ads create dissonance. The sleek photos selling vacations and luxury goods, enticing you to treat yourself, contrast starkly with Trebukova’s slashes and smears of color that depict masked gunmen terrorizing families, mass executions, refugees on the run, and individuals huddled over the corpses of loved ones. This contrast urges viewers to consider how our own self-absorption might be restricting our view of what’s going on in the larger world. What incinerations are being carried out as we casually engage in our leisure reading and other entertainments? The vaults in Anywhere, Anytime are fictive, but they prompt us to imagine the many bodies and places being turned to ash as armed conflict and acts of terrorism persist globally. [Images below sourced from the artist’s website]

 

The books are too fragile to be handled by visitors, so they are displayed open in glass cases, laid flat on a black-clothed table, and a video screen nearby loops through all the images in succession. Here is an excerpt from the video, a showcase of book five:

The book appears to have originally been a dance magazine, but Trebukova subverts the elegance associated with controlled bodily movement by recontextualizing these found images of dancers. A woman walking down a rustic road in pointe shoes is given a heavy burden on her back—a child—and a head scarf, recasting her as one of the many mothers fleeing violence in the Middle East. On the following page spread, another dancer’s graceful backbend is re-envisioned as an involuntary response to his having been shot; unlike on stage, this movement will end with a fall.

The Moses and Aaron Church is home to the Amsterdam chapter of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic lay association committed to prayer, the poor, and peace. Existing in over seventy countries, Sant’Egidio seeks especially to serve the sick, the homeless (including displaced persons), the elderly, and the imprisoned. “War is the mother of every poverty,” they say, and they have been key players in peace initiatives in Mozambique, Algeria, the Balkans, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other areas.

Trebukova, Masha_Columbarium (detail3)
Masha Trebukova, page spread from “How to spend it.” Photo courtesy of Sant’Egidio Nederland.

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STATION 11. Erica Grimm’s Salt Water Skin Boats, a collaboration with artist and arborist Tracie Stewart and soundscape specialist Sheinagh Anderson, is an installation of five sculptural coracles made of interwoven willow, dogwood, fig, and cedar branches; animal skin and gut; cheesecloth; and bathymetric ocean maps imprinted with scientific measurements of things like glacial melt, sea-level rise, and ocean acidification. These are suspended from the ceiling along the nave of the Waalse Kerk and are lit from inside, and they are accompanied by an ambient soundscape that viewers activate by scanning a QR code.

Salt Water Skin Boats by Erica Grimm
Erica L. Grimm (Canadian, 1959–), Salt Water Skin Boats, 2018. Willow, dogwood, fig, and cedar branches; cheesecloth; animal skin and gut; bathymetric ocean maps; layers of wax; earbuds; LED lights. Installation view at Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam, in March 2019, part of Art Stations of the Cross.

Small lightweight boats without rudder, anchor, or keel, coracles are unstable watercraft, easily carried by currents and wind. Back in the day, Celtic Christian pilgrims would set sail in them, not having any destination in mind but rather trusting that God would steer their little boats to wherever he saw fit. In a sense, we are all “skin boats” afloat on a vast ocean, not knowing where we’ll end up. But Grimm’s incorporation of numerical data that highlight the dangerous warming, acidifying, and expanding of the world’s oceans pushes this metaphor in a new direction; the work “proposes an analogy,” writes curator Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker, “between our bodies and the vast ecology of the global ocean: between the life-sustaining, precariously balanced ocean chemistry and the chemistry of our own salt-water-filled bodies.”  Continue reading “Walking the Via Dolorosa through Amsterdam (Part 3)”