Roundup: Philippians set to music, poetry of joy, what Jesus looked like, and more

ALBUM REVIEW: “Let’s Go Down: Joy and Humility in Psallos’s Philippians Album” by Victoria Emily Jones: Psallos’s latest album, a musical adaptation of Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, released on Thursday, and, as I’ve come to expect from the collective, it’s a brilliant work of art, with much to discover! In this review I wrote for the Gospel Coalition, I of course couldn’t address all the album’s intricacies, but I trace a few main themes and motifs. This is the New Testament epistle that gives us such memorable lines, phrases, and passages as “Rejoice in the Lord always!,” “Be anxious for nothing,” “the peace of God that passes all understanding,” “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” and the glorious Christ Hymn (“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God . . .”). It’s delightful to hear what Psallos does with these oft-quoted verses and, even more, to be guided in understanding the larger context in which they appear.

It’s near impossible to choose favorite tracks, as they gain impact from being heard all together and in order, but if I had to choose, I’d say “Complete My Joy,” “Hymnos Christou,” “I Am Better Than You” (feat. Shai Linne), and “Will You Go Down?” (feat. Taylor Leonhardt).

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POETS’ PANEL: “Surprised by Joy: Poetry about Happiness,” recorded at the Festival of Faith and Writing, April 2018: In Rewrite Radio Episode 29 (a production of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing), poets Anya Silver, Tania Runyan, Barbara Crooker, and Julie Moore “discuss the landscape of joy amidst suffering in their personal and public lives. Joy, distinct from happiness, can be a form of religious practice. They explore questions regarding what cheapens joy, how Christians view joy, and how to ‘balance the scale’ of joy and pain in writing.” Zora Neale Hurston, Ælfric of Eynsham, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Christian Wiman, Jane Kenyon, John Milton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thornton Wilder, and the apostle Paul are just some of the additional voices they draw into their conversation. They each read three to four of their own poems, and there is an audience Q&A starting at 57:54. A transcript is provided.

Silver and Runyan are two of my favorite poets, and this is such a rich hour spent with them and two of their colleagues.

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INTERVIEW: “It’s Not a Poem Until You Discover Something: An Interview with Scott Cairns” by Andy Patton: In this conversation, poet Scott Cairns talks about writing as a discipline, the writer as reader (“The writing life is primarily the reading life”), staying conversant with tradition, the fallacy of originality, the one quality shared most between prayer and poetry, and writing not as giving, serving, but as getting, receiving.

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LECTURE: “What Did Jesus Look Like?” by Joan E. Taylor, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, June 2, 2019: Historian Joan E. Taylor, a professor of Christian origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College London, discusses the influences on early depictions of Jesus in art and what they tell us about what he did, or definitely didn’t, look like. This talk is a great intro to her research on the topic, but if you want to learn more, I recommend her full-color book What Did Jesus Look Like? (T&T Clark, 2018), which goes into much more detail, examining artistic, literary, and archaeological evidence, including first- and second-century coins, textiles, skulls, and Egyptian mummy portraits. She also dedicates two chapters to the three most famous acheropitae (images “made without [human] hands”): the Veil of Veronica, the Mandylion, and the Shroud of Turin.

In her talk, Taylor shows how most of the visual representations of Jesus in the Early Christian era were based on Greco-Roman imagery of Zeus Olympus or Zeus Serapis (strong, powerful, seated on a throne; this image came after Constantine), Dionysus (young, curly-haired, beardless), or philosophers. These images aim to show us the meaning of Jesus but not necessarily his physical reality.

Interestingly, Taylor points out that while it’s common to picture Jesus in a long robe (stolē, plural stolai) with baggy sleeves, such clothing indicated social privilege in Jesus’s time, and in Mark 12:38, Jesus explicitly denounces those who parade around in such dress! Jesus would have worn a short, simple tunic, probably undyed—which is how he is depicted in the frescoes from the ancient Dura-Europos house church in present-day Syria.

She also identifies a common strain in early Christian and non-Christian writings that describe Jesus as “little and ugly and undistinguished” (Celsus), probably owing largely to the messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53:2: “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” However, there were some claims to the contrary—for example, from Origen—that stated that Jesus was the epitome of physical beauty; after all, divinity must be beautiful, right? We often find throughout art history an attempt to backfill the earthly life of Jesus with his resurrected, ascended, glorified form.

Taylor is not suggesting, as far as I can tell, that all artistic representations of Jesus must be historically authentic to have validity. Rather, she says that if we are going to imagine Jesus humanly doing things—healing the paralytic, for example, or preaching the Sermon on the Mount—we will inevitably have to picture him in our mind, and we might as well have as accurate a picture as possible. She reminds us that if we imagine Jesus as supremely beautiful and well kept and richly arrayed instead of as the poor, bedraggled itinerant that he was, there’s a dissonance with his message; he becomes no longer one of the people but apart from them.

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ARTICLE: “Are Images of Jesus a Violation of the Commandments?” by Chad Bird: “Different groups within Christianity disagree as to whether Jesus should be depicted in icons, crucifixes, paintings, or other visual media. In this article, Chad Bird [scholar in residence at 1517] approaches the question from the angle of both the commandments and the incarnation.”

The most pushback I receive on my blogging ministry comes from those who believe it is inherently wrong, even “idolatrous,” to represent Jesus visually. Bird addresses this concern in much the same way I do when asked, and in such a succinct way!

Album Review: Jude by Psallos

Jude is one of the least-studied books of the Bible, certainly among the epistles, probably owing in part to its shortness (only one chapter) and to its overall harsh, judgmental tone. A polemic against heretics, it lacks the robust soteriology of Romans and Christology of Hebrews—and yet purity of doctrine is precisely what this book aims to protect, as Jude warns against the danger of false teachers, libertines, who would enter the church surreptitiously and corrupt the Way.

Jude by Psallos (front cover)

After bringing us Romans and Hebrews (read my reviews here and here), Psallos has now released Jude, a half-hour musical journey through all twenty-five verses. The lyrics, music, and orchestration are by Cody Curtis, a doctor of musical composition who founded Psallos to proclaim scripture through artful song and who endeavors to adapt all twenty-one New Testament epistles. The vocalists are Thomas Griffith and Kelsie Edgren.

As in Psallos’s previous two albums, there is so much musical interest here, from a video-game-esque adventure theme (“fight”) and a sea shanty to a wispy waltz and a mournful lullaby to jazz and blues and even a portion reminiscent of traditional East Asian music. Curtis’s sense of play comes out in this variety of genres, which move us along the arc of the book. The music captures all the drama and shade of Jude’s rhetoric—denunciations (including allusions to historical rebellions and an angelic dispute), exhortations, and promise and blessing. The lyrical content is likewise skillful and rich. Importantly, all the words are intelligible throughout, sometimes even colored with vocal inflections and/or instrumentation, such as with wind, creeping, woe, and gloomy and utter darkness.

The track titles are all wonderfully poetic, many of them taken straight out of Jude 12 and 13 (ESV), where they serve as metaphors for false teachers: “hidden reefs,” “waterless clouds,” “fruitless trees,” “wild waves,” “wandering stars.” These evocative images form the basis of the first trailer for Jude (video text by Cody Curtis):

Deceivers lurk beneath a veneer of Christianity, threatening to run aground our “most holy faith” (v. 20) without our even noticing; their promises are empty (cf. Prov. 25:14); fruitless, rootless trees they are, lacking stability, bearing nothing of substance; they are like the restless waters of the sea that cast up dirt (cf. Isa. 57:20); they are, as Eugene Peterson translates, “lost stars in outer space on their way to the black hole” (v. 13, MSG).  Continue reading “Album Review: Jude by Psallos”

Book of Romans album by Psallos

Paul’s epistle to the Romans is, I’d say, the most theologically foundational book of the Bible. As a young Christian I was taught the “Romans Road” method of sharing the gospel, using verses like Romans 3:23 (“For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God”), Romans 6:23 (“For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”), and so on to teach the doctrines of sin and salvation. The book is definitely Paul’s magnum opus.

Countless commentaries on Romans have been produced, but none takes the unique approach of Cody Curtis: exegeting the entire text with music.

The project began, loosely, in 2011, when Curtis’s pastor asked him if he could set to music Paul’s benediction in Romans 11:33–36 to supplement a sermon series. The result, “O the Depth!,” was well received, which gave Curtis the confidence to experiment with lyrical adaptations and musical settings of other Romans passages. In 2014 he decided to pursue a full-out album in collaboration with other musical students, alumni, and friends of his alma mater Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. They call themselves Psallos, from the Greek verb psallō, translated in Ephesians 5 as “making melody”: “Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (vv. 18b–19).

Released in March 2015, Romans mines the theological depths of its eponymous book, bringing to life Paul’s teachings on sin, grace, sanctification, and divine promise with music. The predominant style could be described as orchestral folk pop, but elements of rock, soul, and jazz are also present on the album. (Read more about the eclectic style choices in Trevin Wax’s interview with Curtis from last year.) Besides your standard piano, guitar, and drums, other instruments include the violin, viola, cello, flute, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, and harmonium. Curtis’s compositions bring to bear his extensive music education—he’s a newly minted doctor of musical arts—as well as his experience leading music for church congregations. He presently serves as music minister at Pleasant Plains Baptist Church in Jackson, Tennessee.   Continue reading “Book of Romans album by Psallos”